When Doctor Who first came on TV in the 1960s, it was designed in large part as an educational show, and alternated between stories set in the past (teaching children about history) and stories set in the future (teaching children about science).

But these days, the showrunners seem to feel a need to include aliens or futuristic technology in every episode. Gone are the days of The Aztecs and The Romans, when the Doctor and his companions would wander into purely historical settings and have adventures in which the only anachronism was the TARDIS. In New Who, even episodes set in the time of Charles Dickens or William Shakespeare also feature some kind of aliens, who are usually trying to take over the Earth.

When did this change occur? When did purely historical episodes stop being a thing, and when was the last one?

Bonus question: have any of the people involved in the making of the show ever commented on why this change was made, why there are no purely historical stories any more?

  • 3
    Time And Relative Dimensions In Space. Having them screw around with events which otherwise were going as they were supposed to also goes counter to the Doctor's philosophy for at least the last 40 years.
    – user40790
    Jan 13, 2016 at 16:05
  • 1
    Besides Shakespeare and Dickens, New Who had stories featuring Agatha Christie and Vincent Van Gogh very recently, with the 10th and 11th Doctors. They also threw in a few fantasy elements, so I'm not sure if they would qualify as accurate history.
    – tilley31
    Jan 13, 2016 at 23:32
  • 1
    @tilley31 I haven't come to those episodes yet, but I bet they have aliens in!
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jan 14, 2016 at 0:23
  • 1
    You're damn right they do :-)
    – Dagelf
    Jan 14, 2016 at 6:57
  • 2
    Do Fires of Pompeii and Girl in the Fireplace not count?
    – SeanR
    Jan 14, 2016 at 9:17

2 Answers 2


What was the last?

Unclear; as with many things Doctor Who, it depends on how you define a "pure historical."

  • "Black Orchid", a Fifth Doctor story broadcast in 1982 and set in 1925, was the last story set in Earth's past (relative to broadcast date), that contained no science fiction elements (aside from the Doctor himself, obviously). However, "Black Orchid" doesn't depict actual events (not famous ones, anyway).

  • "The Highlanders", a Second Doctor story broadcast in 1966/7 and set in the late 1740s, was the last story to depict actual events (the Battle of Culloden) in Earth's past, with no science fiction elements

  • My personal favourite source for Doctor Who criticism, Philip Sandifer, argues in his analysis of "The Highlanders" that in a certain sense you should really consider "The Smugglers" to be the last true historical (link preserved from the original, but updated to point to the right page):

    [T]his isn't the last historical, due largely to the fact that other than having no overt science fiction elements, nothing about it even faintly resembles historicals we've seen before. In terms of televised Doctor Who, The Smugglers was the last historical, and this is just a parody of the genre to reiterate after last time that the entire rulebook has been chucked out the window.

    His reasoning is for complicated lit-crit reasons that I won't do justice to here, but one of his more accessible reasons is that "The Smugglers" is the last pure historical that takes its history seriously; "The Highlanders" is more of a romp, with the historical setting really just being a backdrop for Patrick Troughton to be hilarious1 for two hours.

So you can draw the line in any of a number of places, depending on what you consider to be a "true" historical

Why did they end?

Although reports from the time are hard to find on the Internet (and were a bit before my time anyway), most of the criticism I can find lays the blame on Innes Lloyd, the producer from 1966 to 1968, who had a noted distaste for the genre. In a (purported) 1980s interview with Lloyd, he argues that they simply weren't as popular:

We found that the historical stories weren't popular! 'The Highlanders' was the last one we did, and previous to that we'd run the very badly received cowboy one, 'The Gunfighters'. The problem, I thought, was that we had too many very good costume dramas on the BBC, especially at that family viewing slot. So we were really stepping into somebody else's territory. I wanted the kind of adventure stories you could relate to in everyday life, and I was looking for something as an alternative to the Daleks – which is why the Cybermen came about, and later the Yeti.

Slightly more substantial as a source, the BBC episode guide for "The Smugglers" quotes Doctor Who, the Television Companion, who argue against the scrapping of the pure historical but echo Lloyd's opinion of them:

To write [pure historicals] off simply on the basis that one or two were below par would be to make the same mistake that Innes Lloyd did when, in the light of critical comments such as those contained in the Audience Research Report on The Gunfighters, he assumed - rather conveniently, given that he himself disliked this type of story - that the historicals were generally unpopular.

In a 2001 interview with Michael Troughton (son of the late Patrick Troughton), published in Doctor Who Magazine, he reiterates that it was primarily a decision made by Lloyd and Sydney Newman, one of the show's creators:

Although The Highlanders was a catalyst for a new style of Doctor Who, it was, itself, the last of a dying breed - the historical story. Innes Lloyd and Sydney Newman had discussed with Dad that they thought a more science fiction-styled series would prove a greater success with audience and writers alike. My father had enthusiastically encouraged this direction, not only because it divorced him further from the William Harntell era, but because he was genuinely interested in exploring "real science in drama".

Doctor Who Magazine (306) "Michael Troughton's Memories Part One: Top of the Pops" 25 July 2001

However, Philip Sandifer makes two slightly different cases in a TARDIS Eruditorium post, essentially arguing that they died out of narrative necessity:

  • One style of historical, the package tour of genre tropes, had basically played itself out; "The Time Meddler" proved that these are vastly more fun when you can include some subtle scifi elements

  • The other style of historical, the more dramatic one about cultural differences, becomes really icky when you put the Doctor into a heroic role; I'll let Sandifer speak for himself here (link added by me):

    If the Doctor is a sympathetic and likable character in part because of his commitment to fighting evil then we run into a huge problem when we put him in a historical setting. The Massacre is, for all its genius, the story where we can see this problem actually killing the genre before our eyes. The heart of the problem is one I said in that entry - Steven is right and the Doctor is wrong. It is clearly and unambiguously the case that slaughtering the Huguenots is wrong. Having the Doctor simply walk away from it saying that it happened so there's nothing he can do about it is only possible in that story because the Doctor has been so spectacularly diminished by the stories immediately preceding it. Under normal circumstances, watching the Doctor shrug his shoulders and walk away from vicious wrongdoing is... well... wrong.


    The problem, in other words, is that there's something desperately unsatisfying about a crusader for good who will stop any travesty unless it happened on Earth prior to the year 1967.

1 For certain definitions of "hilarious", anyway


Even though it is primarily intended to be educational, travel to past to teach history and to the future to teach science, the adventure kicked in early on. So the show, even though it still has named elements, got the shape we all love in its infancy.

     Early on, the show stepped away from its educational nature and started  
     playing with more fantastic ideas, and also genres.

There is a really great article about it, and all other questions you posed, as well as some other fun facts on How Doctor Who Survived 50 Years , by NICHOLAS SLAYTON for the Atlantic magazine.

  • 1
    While this link may answer the question, it is better to include the essential parts of the answer here and provide the link for reference. Link-only answers can become invalid if the linked page changes. - From Review
    – Rand al'Thor
    Feb 1, 2016 at 20:15
  • It's hardly "link-only-answer". I gave short, direct answer to the question of when did the change occur, there is not an exact date but all sources agree that it was within first few episodes. I did not answer the bonus question but have provided a link where that and many more details can be discovered. Is this wrong? I am new around here so if longer answers are preferable I'll make sure to provide them in future
    – LunnaZ
    Feb 1, 2016 at 20:21
  • It's OK to base your answer on a link, but usually encouraged to give a summary of what it says in the link or a quote from it, rather than just giving the link. As for the question of when, all you've said is "early on", which is really vague. It's an interesting read, but does it say anything that's not already in Jason Baker's answer?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Feb 1, 2016 at 20:25
  • To be perfectly honest I found that answer too broad. It is perfectly detailed but for people like me (AD(H)D peeps) it is kind of hard to keep the focus throughout so I wanted to provide a more direct response for anyone who wonders the same but wants a direct answer. I also provided the link for the others-because I found the article really insightful and it is my go-to source. I do admit that 'early on' is vague but it perfectly sums up the point. However, as you can see by these, I do like to get into detailed long answers myself, so I will make sure to relay on your advices from now on.
    – LunnaZ
    Feb 1, 2016 at 20:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.