Gallifrey One 2023 TARDIS Talk: Modern Doctor Who As A Period Drama Laboratory
Note: This is the text version of my presentation at Gallifrey One 2023’s TARDIS Talks. The TARDIS Talks are a series of academic articles and research about Doctor Who and the fandom around it. Recordings are not allowed so this is a public record of what I said for those who weren’t at the convention. Please link back to this page if you are citing this post in your own work.
I’m a huge fan of both the historical-set modern Doctor Who episodes and British television period dramas and how each approaches historical fiction on screen. During the lockdown, when I would watch Doctor Who historicals and period dramas back to back, I started to notice patterns and similarities and shared tropes. Some of the same storytelling elements often attributed solely to Hamilton and Bridgerton formed the basis of Doctor Who episodes that aired years earlier. I came to the conclusion that Doctor Who is having both a conscious and subconscious influence in recent period drama storytelling. This talk explores six of the themes I’ve observed that connect Doctor Who and recent UK period dramas.
Throwing Out The Textbooks: The format of Doctor Who episodes provide a solid foundation for innovative period-set storytelling. Both Classic and modern Who episodes teach kids and adults about historical figures and events as well as educate about STEM subjects in the future-set episodes. All of the historical episodes use the plot of alien interference or humans exploiting alien technology to explore:
“What if” scenarios- what if the factors that led to fixed points in time were changed or events occurred in a different order?
Questions existing historical or archeological evidence are unable to answer
Previously overlooked people and events (ex: Mary Seacole)
The legacies of intellectuals and creatives ahead of their own time
In all of these scenarios, Doctor Who’s canon overrides the individual canons of historical works of art featured in these episodes and known facts for the famous figures in these period set episodes. The decision-making process prioritizes creative license for engaging storytelling vs. recreating exact details of the era in set design, speech, costumes, and other other elements. Several recent period dramas have also taken this approach, especially if they are adapting novels that took creative license with history.
Alternate Universes & Timelines: The alternate universe is the end result of exploring the unknowns and “what if” scenarios. The concept of creating an alternate universe in a period drama is technically not a new phenomenon. One can argue many of the classic novel adaptations base their history more on how the author portrayed the era or how other people have interpreted that era than the historical record.
Doctor Who has always featured alternate universes. In some regards, this concept is gaining traction in the period drama conversation because of efforts to redress historical bias against many marginalized groups. Bridgerton and other period dramas are now described as alternate universes because their world does not follow the established facts about slavery and colonialism. A lot of alternate history on Doctor Who is also generated because writers have to fill in characterization and emotional detail that historical records were unable to preserve.
Magical realism is another subgenre of speculative fiction that can be incorporated into period-set storytelling to alter the course of historical events. The Underground Railroad and the TV adaptation of Suzanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are two recent examples.
Racebending Characters: Russell T. Davies during his first tenure as Doctor Who showrunner frequently used actors of color to play background roles or minor characters in episodes. “The Girl In the Fireplace” written by future showrunner Stephen Moffat is the first example of Doctor Who casting an actor of color in a traditionally white period drama role. Katherine, one of Reinette’s companions, played by Angel Coulby later on went to play a racebent Guinevere in Merlin. There’s no explanation as to why Katherine is there or her family background.
Moffat’s tenure as showrunner extended the notion of racebending historically inspired characters to the space travel episodes. “The Beast Below” takes place entirely on a spaceship. It is important to note that Sophie Okonedo plays Queen Elizabeth the 10th. It’s not a stretch to say this episode had an effect on normalizing changing historical representations of the British monarchy.
Spotlighting Hidden BIPOC Histories: My previous TARDIS Talk in 2020 highlighted three episode examples so let’s move on to some others. During Moffat’s final season “The Eaters of Light” introduced Black Romans and “Empress of Mars” featured a British soldier of color from the colonial era battling the Ice Warriors. Chibnall’s era expanded this trend with “Rosa” and “Demons of Punjab,” with a bonus of featuring POC screenwriters writing their own histories. In addition, the Flux arc spotlighted Mary Seacole and Madam Ching.
History Is A Joke: Doctor Who episodes frequently use parody to communicate history and the perception of history to an audience. Whether it’s making fun of Queen Victoria in “Tooth And Claw” for being so rigid, ”A Town Called Mercy” mocking how both movies and novels portray the American West, or the Doctor making an offhand snide comment about a famous figure they met, humor is a crucial method of storytelling and a vector for education about history across New Who historical episodes. The Great, Horrible Histories and Our Flag Means Death have taken historical parody to the next level.
Personnel Crossovers: A quick glance at the IMDB pages for modern Doctor Who provides the key to why the series clearly is a background and/or foreground influence for creatives. I have not calculated the stats yet but I am sure it will be at least 50 instances. Many period dramas past and present have been produced by the BBC so the joke that “Britain only has 12 actors” definitely rings true here.
Guest star actors in the period set episodes are a mix of up-and-coming actors looking for roles to put them in the spotlight, industry veterans who want a guaranteed paycheck between gigs, and longtime fans who want in on the action. There are quite a few examples of guest stars later landing major period drama roles after their Doctor Who appearance and also examples of period drama actors taking a break from that to guest star on Doctor Who.
The reverse is also true. Jenna Coleman and Matt Smith are two great examples of Doctor Who cast members becoming a part of the period drama world. This is even true with Classic Who, just look at Peter Davison in the 1970s All Creatures Great And Small.
Several Directors of Doctor Who episodes also have period drama production credits. Sallie Apramanian, Ed Bazgalette, and Stephen Woofenden all directed at least 1 episode of both Poldark and Doctor Who. Colin Teague, who directed “Fires of Pompeii” in the title slide, also worked on The White Queen and DaVinci’s Demons. Euros Lyn who directed “Tooth And Claw” directed on the 2010 Upstairs, Downstairs miniseries.
Several Doctor Who Screenwriters also have period drama episodes and series credits. More often than not the period-set episodes are written by guest writers who pitched original ideas to the seasons’ showrunner. In many cases, the period-set episodes are standalone episodes that do not feature the main arc of the season. Some examples include Mark Gatiss’ M.R. James Christmas ghost stories adaptations, the most recent being Count Magnus. Sarah Dollard worked on Dickensian before “Thin Ice” and Bridgerton S1 after. 2010 Upstairs, Downstairs has another writing connection. “Curse of the Black Spot” was written by Steve Thompson who also created Vienna Blood.
Other Creatives in the period drama genre are Doctor Who fans or have worked with Doctor Who actors and behind-the-camera talent as well. Depending on the person this is more of a subconscious influence. One well-known period drama producer, Damien Timner, the CEO of Mammoth Screen donned one of the Mothra costumes in An Adventure In Time And Space. You may not know who he is but you likely do know some of the period dramas he was an Executive Producer on: Victoria and Poldark as I already mentioned, BBC and HBO’s Parade’s End starring Benedict Cumberbatch among others.
This talk could be an entire monograph if I had the chance as I really love both Doctor Who’s period set episodes and period dramas as a whole. I want more people to consider Doctor Who as a trendsetter in that regard. The next time you go rewatch Victory of the Daleks and World On Fire back to back together think about this talk and how your favorite period dramas are directly or indirectly influenced by Doctor Who.