Should Doctor Who actually become more educational?

Rumour has it that the BBC sci-fi series will have more historical episodes under Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor – but could turning the Tardis into a classroom backfire?

Peter Capaldi and Jodie Whittaker in character in Doctor Who (BBC, HF)

If you thought the casting of a female Time Lord would bring Doctor Who bang up to date, then think again – because according to reports, the BBC sci-fi series is going to spend a lot more time living in the past instead.

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You see, rumours have been swirling for the past few months that Jodie Whittaker’s new Thirteenth Doctor will be spending quite a few of her adventures in humanity’s history, including a trip to Rosa Parks-era Alabama and possibly India.

The idea, apparently, is to make Doctor Who more educational for its younger audience, as was the plan when it launched back in 1963, and according to new reports in the Mirror the series may have as many as three episodes set in the past, with another three in the future and four on present-day planet Earth.

The BBC declined to comment when contacted for this article, but assuming the stories are true this would mark an interesting sea-change for the series. The question is, would it actually be a good thing? Or would it just be an opportunity for a great TV show to become a lecturing, overly-expositional classroom video, the sci-fi equivalent of Come Outside with Auntie Mabel?

Well, it would certainly be an interesting thing for new showrunner Chris Chibnall to attempt. Given that the Doctor’s whole modus operandi is “time-travelling hero,” it might seem odd to express such surprise that she’ll, you know, actually do some time travelling in the new series – a greater question might be why, with all of time and space to explore, the Doctor spends so much of his/her time hanging out in 20th-21st century England – but a greater emphasis on EDUCATIONAL historical stories would be a big change for the series.

Yes, Doctor Who has always done historical, slightly educational adventures, but it’s become far less central to the series in recent years. When co-creating the show in the 1960s, Sydney Newman intended it to be informative for the young audience watching, and historical episodes were a big part of that. Kids could learn about the Romans, or the Aztecs, but not realise they were doing so because it was also a thrilling adventure.

However, as the years went on the sheer expense and limited story options for historical tales led to more and more Doctor Who episodes being set in the present day or the future instead. For a futuristic story, you only need to wrap some people in tinfoil and make their shirt collars a bit different (maybe that’s what we’ll do in 2030! You don’t know!) whereas travelling to the past required a bit more verisimilitude.

Let’s face it: it’s no coincidence that the era Doctor Who seems to visit most frequently is Georgian or Victorian England, a period of time that offers plenty of surviving architectural options for filming as well as existing costumes and sets accessible to the BBC.

Not that Doctor Who has left behind historical stories altogether, of course. The modern series has had a fairly high proportion of bygone adventures (2007 saw a high of five episodes out of 13 set in the past), and while that number has shrunk somewhat in recent years – the 2015 series had two out of 12 stories episodes set historically, while last year had three – it’s never been forgotten entirely.

But for a lot of the time, those settings have become more incidental. Take Peter Capaldi’s 2014 debut episode Deep Breath, for example – in a storyline involving an enormous dinosaur and an advanced robot harvesting people to keep himself alive, there’s little room for incisive comment about Victorian living standards.

There are exceptions, of course – Sarah Dollard’s excellent 2017 episode Thin Ice was deeply rooted in its Great Frost Fair setting and Georgian racial politics – but for the most part, a lot of historical episodes have become mere window dressing.

By contrast, reports over the last few months suggest that Chris Chibnall plans the Rosa Parks and India-themed episodes of his new series to explore the racial background of new companions Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yasmin (Mandip Gill), in theory allowing a new generation of kids to explore cultures and heritages that they may be less familiar with (or, if they’re from these cultures, finally seeing them represented on screen in a mainstream way).

Clearly, this is a commendable effort, and a real attempt to bring change to a series that’s needed a bit of a shake-up for a while. But is it necessarily the right change?

Longtime fans always rankle at the idea that Doctor Who is a show for kids (it is, alright, we just all need to get over that, it’s OK to still like it), and turning the series into an intergalactic classroom could only exacerbate their feelings. Plus, there’s an argument that Newman’s original concept for the series has necessarily evolved over the decades, and that in service of good drama we can leave behind some of his more restrictive ideas.

After all, one of his more famous pronouncements was that Doctor Who avoided including “bug-eyed monsters”, a prohibition that would have prevented the creation of classic villains the Daleks had it been followed to the letter.

Doctor Who’s origins as depicted in 2013 drama An Adventure in Space and Time

On the other hand, some of modern Who’s very best episodes have been deeply rooted in intriguing, educational historical settings – just look at Steven Moffat’s The Girl in the Fireplace, which introduced a whole generation of children to French courtier Madame du Pompadour, or fun adventure The Shakespeare Code, which actually filmed at the Globe Theatre – proving that just because something informs, it doesn’t mean it can’t also entertain.

And this applies to futuristic episodes too, which Newman saw as a chance to explore cutting-edge science. One of 2017’s best storylines came in two-part finale World Enough and Time/ The Doctor Falls, which gave us all a crash course in black holes and time dilation (and according to scientists, it was actually pretty accurate).

In short, then, Chibnall’s instincts to take Doctor Who back to the past in more ways than one may yet prove fruitful – just as long as the balance between fun and information remains as perfectly positioned as it ever was in the best of episodes past.

But with that said, I hope they do keep one or two instalments where the Doctor just fights a big slime monster and runs down some corridors. School was always better with a few break times.

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Doctor Who returns to BBC1 this autumn