I’ve mentioned before that my pal Jesse and I have been working on a podcast about classic Doctor Who. We’re currently five episodes in to our first season and if you like the classic era I think you will enjoy our show. You can find all the previous episodes here.
One of the things that’s been really interesting about this process is the way in which Doctor Who is a little showcase of the traditions of historical fiction.
And one of those traditions, of course, is being cleverly self-referential. If you look at a lot of early Who episodes, you’ll see that they’re not even so much about going into different historical periods as they are about exploring different genres of historical fiction. So for instance The Gunfighters isn’t about going back to 19th-century Arizona, it’s about being in a Western. The Romans has elements of farce — really weird, murdery farce. Most of the rest of the historical episodes are more or less straight old-fashioned historical adventure fiction.
Fair enough, right? But in our most recent episode, The King’s Demons, the reveal hinges on the fact that the Doctor and his companions turn up in 1215 and find King John acting like … well, like Bad King John. In some episodes, this would just be his characterisation, but in this one it’s a clue that all is not as it seems, since the Doctor “knows” that the historical King John wasn’t like that at all. As it happens, I don’t agree with his assessment of what the historical John was like, but that’s another story.
So which is it? Is this an anthology show of adventure fiction or a witty deconstruction of it? With Doctor Who it’s sometimes both.