Doctor Who: Rating the Victorian Episodes

So what is it with Doctor Who and Victoriana? There are actually many reasons why the show and the era (1837–1901) go well together, and consequently, why the former would return to the latter relatively frequently. First is the inherent Britishness of both. All of Europe had Middle Ages and a Renaissance, but only the Brits were every "Victorians", a setting made popular through the surviving literature of the time - Dickens' London and Sherlock Holmes, for example. As Doctor Who is inherently British, it may seek to revel in that Britishiness (consciously or not) by doing "British things" (cue flying double-decker bus). And note that it's not until Who became a phenomenon abroad (during the 4th Doctor's tenure) that Victorian episodes starting appearing regularly. We should also not dismiss the debt the show owes to H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, about a Victorian gentlemen who travels through time. The look of the 8th Doctor's TARDIS is in fact, VERY Victorian. Another reason, and probably the most convincing, is that the BBC produced loads of Victorian TV through Dickens adaptations and the like. Set dressers knew the era like the backs of their hands, and was probably as easy to set something in the late 1880s than something in contemporary England. The Doctor's costume would usually fit the era anyway (even if better suited to the Edwardian era that followed it). Because of this natural relationship, Victorian Doctor Who episodes have enjoyed a certain measure of success thanks to high production values and the cast and crew's affinity for the material.

But let's look at (and rank) those stories...

11. Timelash (6th Doctor and Peri)
Regarded as one of the very worst Doctor Who stories of all time (if not THE very worst), Timelash mostly takes place on a tatty alien planet, but that planet is somehow linked to H.G. Wells - The Early Years. Yes, Doctor Who inspired The Time Machine and not the other way around. But perhaps you'd prefer to think of Herbert Wells as a distant cousin of the author instead, so as to excuse the silly characterization. I know they didn't have Wikipedia in those days, but still!

10. Attack of the Graske (10th Doctor and You)
Not really a full story, this interactive Christmas tidbit allowed you and your trusty remote control to help the Doctor save Christmas (today and in Victorian times) from the diminutive Graske who has been kidnapping people from their Holiday cheer. The only reason for the Victoriana is because Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, which ties the Victorian era with Christmas for all time. A slim tale indeed.

9. The Ultimate Foe (6th Doctor and Mel)
The tail end of the Trial of a Time Lord story/season features a virtual reality in the Matrix that looks and feels just like the Victorian era. Why? Available locations and sets, that's why. There's a an amusing Victorian bureaucrat, and that's about it.

8. Horror of Fang Rock (4th Doctor and Leela)
Set at the very end of the Victorian era (and arguably a couple years beyond it), this Gothic tale of an alien doppelganger serial killing a group of Victorian characters in a lighthouse has a lot going for it, including our first (and only) look at the Sontarans' blood (slime?) enemies, the Rutans. Ok, maybe not "going for it"... Well, the principals are good and the Doctor gets to be very, very wrong.

7. Tooth and Claw (10th Doctor and Rose)
While T&C has a gorgeous werewolf and Queen Victoria herself, we have to wonder what RTD was thinking when he included martial artist monks doing Matrix moves. What ultimately keeps the episode in the back half, however, is cocky, cocky Rose completely off-tone, making light of dramatic, Gothic events.

6. The Next Doctor (10th Doctor and Jackson Lake)
The Doctor(s) must save Victorian Christmas once again, complete with a Dickensian sweatshop run by Cybermen. The story wins us over with the tragic story of Jackson Lake, and by teasing us with the possibility of his being a future incarnation of the Doctor. Lots of laughs and tears to be had, and an interesting human villain in Mercy Hartigan. It falls apart when the giant Cyberman attacks London, of course.

5. The Evil of the Daleks (2nd Doctor, Jaime and Victoria)
The only Victorian story of the black and white era (we can't count The Gunfighters because it takes place in America). Most episodes of Evil have been lost to us, but there's no denying this story was BIG: A new Victorian companion called Victoria joins the cast (soon seen in mini-skirts), a Victorian time machine made from mirrors, Who's very first friendly Daleks, and the "final end" of the Daleks far in the future. The bits we do have (including the whole audio) confirm this BIGness.

4. The Unquiet Dead (9th Doctor and Rose)
How much more Dickensian can you get than to visit Dickens himself? Well, you can make it the Holiday season and have him on tour reading A Christmas Carol, then have the story be about "ghosts". To make it extra Victorian, the Doctor holds a seance. This is Rose's first trip to the past, which is rendered beautifully. It MEANS something to her, and thus, to us. The guest cast is excellent, introducing us to Eve Myles in the process.

3. Ghost Light (7th Doctor and Ace)
Some might take me to task on this one, as Ghost Light is a polarizing story in Who fandom. Yes, it's opaque and mystifying. You're not always sure what the hell's going on, and it only slowly unlocks its secrets to you after multiple viewings (if at all). Some call it complete hogwash. But to me, it's really about the Victorian experience. Repressed emotion and sexuality threatening to violently come out from under a veneer of civilized manners. We've got a Conradian explorer that's gone mad. We've got the new Theory of Evolution as the basis for a dark and moody story. We've got Ace confronting her past and the things she won't talk about. We've even got a plot to assassinate Queen Victoria. Yes, it's bizarre and literate, but I do love it.

2. A Christmas Carol (11th Doctor, Amy and Rory)
The most recent Christmas special is the best such special ever, and arguably one of the best Doctor Who stories ever, but is it Victorian? Sure, it happens on another planet, but it's really Victorian London. As such, it deserves to be on this list, a poignant and clever twist on the ultimate Dickens story.

1. The Talons of Weng-Chiang (4th Doctor and Leela)
Still the gold standard for Doctor Who Victoriana (if not for Classic Doctor Who stories, period), Talons has the Doctor acting as Sherlock Holmes, Leela as Eliza Doolittle, mysterious murders in dark, foggy alleys, a theater featuring mentalists, and the Yellow Menace. It's Robert Holmes' masterpiece. Witty, dark and cinematic, it has also given us the most beloved double act in all of Who. Still wonderful after all these years, and it reeks of the Victorian era.

After this little census, we might be surprised that fewer than a dozen stories have specifically taken place in the Victorian era, but the Victorian aura of Hinchcliffe and Holmes' "Gothic" aesthetic, the near-Victorian look of many Edwardian stories (Pyramids of Mars, Black Orchid, The Unicorn and the Wasp, etc.), and the fact that many extracanonical stories have taken place there (the comics just finished a Jack the Ripper arc) add to the overall feeling that Who and Queen Vic are joined at the hip. It's only a matter of time before Matt Smith's Doctor actually sets foot in those seven key decades.


Lazarus Lupin said...

Yes yes this is a great list and I love the Doctor playing Sherlock Holmes.

Lazarus Lupin
art and review

snell said...

I remain agnostic about Ghost Light (while acknowledging the story is rather ill-served by the ADHD editing of the era which apparently required letting no scene last longer than 30 seconds, and perhaps is due another attmept from me), and I think you're too hard on Tooth And Claw (because what the Victorian era NEEDS is Matrix monks--after all, how many of your Kung Fu Friday movies are set in that era, just a boat ride away from Jolly Olde England?), I pretty much agree with your list.

Siskoid said...

That's a fair cop.

Rose is the real irritant for me, but even if I were to focus on the good, I would still rank it where I did.

Bill D. said...

I only saw Ghost Light for the first time a couple of years ago and it's... weird. I think I mostly liked it, but man there are a lot of weird elements thrown together in the mix for that one. Kinda made me wish McCoy had ditched the hat altogether, though. It's easier to take him seriously hatless.

Siskoid said...

And the great hat controversy continues unabated...


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