Classic Doctor Who on BritBox: The best celebrity historical episodes
Mark Harrison | On 09, Feb 2020Reading time: 6 mins
If you’ve only watched Doctor Who since 2005, BritBox’s selection of 626 classic adventures featuring the first eight Doctors might look a bit daunting. Don’t know your Aggedor from your elbow? Turn on the TARDIS randomiser with us and follow our monthly guide to Classic Doctor Who, from 1963 to 1996.
Education was a big part of Doctor Who’s original remit, with the time-travelling aspect of the series covering more historical ground than sci-fi frontiers; The Doctor used to meet more characters who lived during Earth’s history than bug-eyed monsters.
One of the longest enduring sub-genres of Who is the “celebrity historical” episode, escapades involving erstwhile world leaders, writers, and artists. In the main, The Doctors from the new seasons are happier to rub elbows with history’s most famous faces than their predecessors. Following on from socio-historical tales centred on Rosa Parks and King James I, the latest run has already seen the Doctor encounter computing pioneer Ada Lovelace, intelligence operative Noor Inayat Khan, and scientists Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison.
Interested in seeing how such meetings went before 2005? Here’s our spoiler-lite look at a selection of classic serials where The Doctor and friends encountered some of history’s major movers and shakers:
Sticking strictly to the show’s educational remit, the earliest historical outings have the time-travelling main characters as the only science fiction element. That doesn’t mean The Romans can’t be entertaining with it. Indeed, Derek Francis isn’t afraid to have some fun playing the daft and dastardly Emperor Nero in a First Doctor caper that leads up to the Great Fire of Rome. Writer Dennis Spooner’s funny, irreverent scripts feel massively influential on the tone of the modern incarnation of celebrity historicals, especially during the Russell T Davies era.
What to watch: The Romans (Season 2, 1965)
Richard the Lionheart
BritBox offers several instalments from serials that are incomplete in the BBC’s archives, including two of the four episodes of the First Doctor’s The Crusade. As the title suggests, the story is set in 12th century Palestine, during the Third Crusade, and sees the First Doctor, Ian, and Vicki trying to rescue Barbara from the Saracens who have captured her. In a far more straight-faced historical tale than The Romans, King Richard (Julian Glover) knights Ian and makes him an English emissary so that he can perform a daring rescue attempt.
What to watch: The Crusade (Extra Episodes, The Lion and The Wheel Of Fortune)
Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday
New Who fans have seen the series take on the Western in A Town Called Mercy, but the First Doctor got there first. After complaining of toothache during a visit to Tombstone, Arizona, the Doctor is mistaken for his emergency dentist, Doc Holliday (Anthony Jacobs), meets Wyatt Earp (John Alderson), and then becomes embroiled in the events leading up to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It’s not the series’ finest hour, but it’s notable as the first celebrity historical story where genre takes precedence over education.
What to watch: The Gunfighters (Season 3, 1966)
Leonardo da Vinci
It’s a running joke that the Fourth Doctor enjoys talking about famous historical figures behind their backs, but Leonardo’s absence provides an almighty switcheroo at the midpoint of City Of Death. After discovering an audacious plot to steal the Mona Lisa in 1979, the name-dropping Doctor pops back to the year 1505, only to find the Renaissance artist isn’t at home. If you’ve never seen it, it’s best to discover the story’s surprises for yourself, but without ever actually having to turn up, da Vinci proves to be a key character.
What to watch: City Of Death (Season 17, 1979)
King John I
Towards the end of the show’s 20th anniversary season, the two-part serial The King’s Demons features some surprise appearances from existing characters, but also throws back to the earliest celebrity historicals with its story about a pre-Magna Carta King John (Gerald Flood). However, the Fifth Doctor deduces that the King should be in London at this time in history, so who’s really holding court and what’s it got to do with his mysterious champion, Sir Gilles Estram? Have a go on that one, anagram fans!
What to watch: The King’s Demons (Season 20, 1983)
If you’re going to do a story about derailing history, you might as well get the father of railways involved. Played by Gawn Grainger, George Stephenson turns up around the halfway point of The Mark Of The Rani to get the Sixth Doctor out of a particularly sticky situation. In cahoots with the Master, the titular renegade Time Lady has dangerous designs on Stephenson and the other great minds behind the Industrial Revolution as she bids to keep her own mad experiments ticking over.
What to watch: The Mark Of The Rani (Season 22, 1984)
You wait for ages for one of these and then Timelash comes along in the same season. During a battle with the Borad on the planet Karfel, the Sixth Doctor and Peri briefly escape to Scotland in the year 1855, where they pick up an inquisitive young man called Herbert (David Chandler). Returning to the fray, they bedazzle their temporary companion with an adventure involving time travel and the lizard-like Morlox, and you’ll have to wait until the very last scene of this story to find out who he is…
What to watch: Timelash (Season 22, 1984)
Morgan le Fey
Stretching the definition of historical figures here, Battlefield pits the Seventh Doctor, Ace, and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart against the evil witch of English folklore in contemporary Cornwall. As played by Jean Marsh, Morgaine came from another dimension and laid part of the groundwork for the so-called “Cartmel masterplan” arc, in which script editor Andrew Cartmel intended to answer the show’s titular question by revealing more of the Doctor’s backstory and hinting he was the historical inspiration for Merlin. The series went on a 16-year hiatus at the end of Season 26, so we haven’t seen the implications of that play out on TV. Well, not yet, anyway…
What to watch: Battlefield (Season 26, 1989)
Bonus Challenge: Spot the Fourth Doctor namedrop
It’s not just Leonardo. If you fancy a bonus round, go through the following stories and find out which famous historical figures the Fourth Doctor claims to have met in the following circumstances…
The Ark In Space (Season 12, 1974)
Which “witty little knitter” created his scarf?
The Pirate Planet (Season 16, 1978)
Who did the Doctor take for dinner to explain why he’d been dropping apples on his head?
The Power Of Kroll (Season 16, 1978)
Which opera singer taught him to sing at such a glass-shatteringly high pitch?
City Of Death (Season 17, 1979)
To which young boy did he impart the advice “There’s no point in talking if you’ve got nothing to say”, later taking credit for him growing up into a very successful Dean Lennox Kelly?
Classic Doctor Who is available on BritBox as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.