Ranked: the best historical episodes of Doctor Who
Ahead of the 60th anniversary of Doctor Who on 23 November, featuring the return of David Tennant as the Doctor, we round up the best historical episodes of the modern era…
With subjects including Daleks and cybermen, a spaceship that looks like a 1960s police box that that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, and not to mention all of time and space… you’d be forgiven for thinking that Doctor Who is entirely and unabashedly a work of science fiction.
In many ways, you’d be right. But just as the Time Lord from Gallifrey has two beating hearts, so too does the show itself.
When the BBC commissioned Doctor Who, the first episode of which was broadcast on 23 November 1963, it was a science fiction show that sat within the remit of family programming – and that meant it had to be educational.
Sydney Newman, the producer who created Doctor Who, famously decreed that the show should not include any bug-eyed monsters. As he saw it, sci-fi was about more than outer space. “I love [sci-fi novels] because they're a marvellous way—and a safe way, I might add—of saying nasty things about our own society,” Newman said.
- Read more | Doctor Who through the ages
That was something many episodes of classic Doctor Who – those that ran from 1963 until the show was ‘rested’ in 1989 – did spectacularly well. These ‘pure historicals’, as they came to be known, featured no alien interference whatsoever, and instead saw the Doctor navigating more human machinations.
The very first serial took the First Doctor to the Stone Age. Later he would trade barbs with Richard the Lionheart on the Third Crusade, rub shoulders with the Aztecs ,and sup with Roman emperor Nero.
When the show returned in 2005, with a new Doctor and new production values, so too did the historical episodes, though in its latest iteration they tend to be tinged with the supernatural and otherworldly.
Here are six of the best from the modern era, and the real history from which they draw their inspiration…
The best historical episodes of Doctor Who – ranked!
The Fires of Pompeii
Season 4, 2008
Who says: It’s volcano day in Roman city of Pompeii, but the volcano in question shows little sign of erupting. When the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) discovers that Mount Vesuvius is inhabited by magma-loving aliens bent on taking over Earth, he discovers that the historic eruption is no natural disaster at all; he has to be the one to cause the catastrophe that destroys Pompeii.
The real history: Vesuvius erupted and destroyed the nearby towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD 79 – precisely when is a matter of debate, and our best testimony comes from letters written by Pliny the Younger 25 years after the fact.
What we do know is that eruption was cataclysmic, producing a cloud so thick as to blot out the sun. Within 24 hours, Pompeii and those who remained in the city were buried under three metres of ash and debris; on the second day of the eruption, Herculaneum was swallowed by pyroclastic flows.
There’s another very small piece of real history in the form of the sculptor Caecilius (played by future Doctor Peter Capaldi). He is based on a very real Roman who perished in Pompeii – and star of the Cambridge Latin Course, a figure familiar to anyone who learned high school Latin in the UK – the banker Lucius Caecilius Iucundus.
- More for HistoryExtra members | Daisy Dunn considers the history that was preserved at Pompeii and Herculaneum on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast
The Unicorn and the Wasp
Season 4, 2008
Who says: It’s 1926, and the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) invites himself to a dinner party in a country manor, where the guest of honour is none other than Agatha Christie. But when one of the guests turns up dead in classic Cluedofashion – offed with the lead pipe in the library, in case you were wondering – they find themselves investigating a whodunit with the queen of crime herself.
This being Who, the culprit is not of this Earth, but a giant shape-shifting wasp (perish the thought). In the denouement, Christie develops amnesia; the Doctor drops her off in Harrogate some ten days later, as history demands.
The real history: The Unicorn and the Wasp is Doctor’s Who’s answer to the mystery of Agatha Christie’s disappearance in 1926 – though she didn’t vanish from a dinner party. On 3 December, she kissed her child goodnight, got into her car, and drove into the darkness.
What followed was “one of the largest manhunts ever mounted,” writes Giles Milton, and the furore only grew after Christie’s car was discovered abandoned. Thousands of policemen were assigned to the case. The Home Secretary took a special interest. Fellow crime writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even tried to use his self-claimed supernatural powers to try and locate her.
“It was the perfect tabloid story, with all the elements of an Agatha Christie whodunnit,” says Milton, though perhaps it lacks the satisfying conclusion of a Poirot.
There would be no grand reveal: Christie was found in a Harrogate hotel 11 days later, under the name of her husband’s mistress, with no explanation for her whereabouts – she simply didn’t remember.
- More for HistoryExtra members | Lucy Worsley on why Agatha Christie’s disappearance was “the central injustice in her life”
Vincent and the Doctor
Season 5, 2010
Who says: In an emotionally charged episode, the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and Amy (Karen Gillan) head to 19th-century Auvers-sur-Oise in France to free tormented artist Vincent van Gogh from a very literal monster that haunts his life and art. Nonetheless, he remains tortured by his own personal demons, characterised here as depression.
In a bid to change his future – Van Gogh took his own life in 1890 – Amy convinces the Doctor to bring Vincent into the present to an exhibition of his own work, so he can see just how much he is loved. It’s a touching and poignant scene, but one we quickly learn has no influence on the artist’s fate.
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The real history: Now revered as a titan of the art world, Vincent van Goghcould barely sell a painting in his lifetime, and he was all but destitute at the time of his death. In Arles, the city of Provence, France, where he spent his final and most artistically prolific years, he was better known for his ill-health, most famously an incident in which he cut off his own ear.
“Ever since his death in 1890, Van Gogh’s life has become a tragic tale in which fact and fiction have become blurred,” writes art historian Bernadette Murphy. “This ‘Vincent’ – a half-starved, shabby figure, with no money nor friends, pushed his creativity to its limit ‘under the burning heat of the southern sun’ and so went mad. This is the legend, but little of it is true.”
- More for HistoryExtra members | Discover the secrets of the world’s most famous works of art in our What Great Paintings Say video series
Season 11, 2018
Who says: When a time-travelling criminal attempts to prevent the Montgomery Bus Boycott – a turning point in the US Civil Rights Movement, it falls to the Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her companions to make sure that Rosa Parks gets on her bus and refuses to give up her seat as history intended. The game of cat-and-mouse that follows of ensuring the bus runs, and has the right driver, and is full enough, culminates with a horrified Graham (Bradley Walsh) being the white passenger for whom Rosa refuses to stand.
The real history: The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a lynchpin moment in the civil rights movement.
On 1 December 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, after a long day’s work, and took a seat directly behind those reserved for white passengers. When the bus filled up, a white man was left standing in the aisle, and the driver demanded that Rosa give up her seat. She decided to take a stand – by remaining seated.
“It led to a 13-month boycott of city buses in one of the longest mass mobilisations of a black population ever witnessed in the United States,” writes John Kirk. “Moreover, by thrusting 26-year-old Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr into the national spotlight, it provided a new leader for a new era of black activism.”
- More for HistoryExtra members | Delve deep into the Montgomery Bus Boycott and beyond in our podcast miniseries US Civil Rights: Fighting for Freedom
The Eaters of Light
Season 10, 2017
Who says: After an armchair argument about what really happened to the Roman Ninth Legion – the one that vanished without a trace after being stationed in Roman Britain – the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Bill (Pearl Mackie) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) head to second century AD Scotland to find out.
They discover Legio IX Hispana all but massacred and its remnants in hiding; most of the beleaguered centurions have been devoured by an interdimensional creature that snacks on sunlight. To close the portal the fell beast came from – and prevent it from snuffing out all the stars of the universe – the remaining Romans ally with the local Picts, and enter the creature’s dimension to give battle for the rest of time. And so ends the Ninth Legion.
The real history: The Ninth Legion came to the British Isles during the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43, and fought on the front lines of Boudica’s revolt in AD 60. By the AD 80s it was campaigning in what is now Scotland. A sojourn in York followed around AD 107-8, where a stone was found commemorating their work in building a fortress. After that, there is no trace of legion to be found.
“We don’t actually know what happened to the 5,000 men of the Ninth, but the popular modern view is that they were annihilated… somewhere in the remote Highlands,” writes Miles Russell.
Could the legion simply have been transferred elsewhere? “Evidence for the theory of strategic transfer – the Ninth being taken out of Britain, rather than dying here – is rather flimsy,” says Russell.
That evidence, he notes, is in the form of small archaeological finds – shards of tile and pottery, and the like – in the Dutch town of Nijmegen. Here's the catch: “They certainly prove that the Ninth (or at least a part of it) was in the Netherlands,” says Russell, “but critically not when.”
- More for HistoryExtra members | Discover more of the theories surrounding the Ninth Legion in this episode of our History’s Greatest Mysteries podcast series
Demons of the Punjab
Season 11, 2018
Who says: When the Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) takes Yaz (Mandip Gill) back to her grandmother’s past, the group find themselves in the Punjab days before the Partition of India.
The presence of a race of reformed alien assassins is a subplot to the emotional heart of the episode: exploring how the division of British India to birth new countries led to death and heartache for the ordinary people caught in the middle.
The real history: “It was a migration fraught with danger and violence,” writes Kavita Puri of the journey those who found themselves on the ‘wrong’ side of an arbitrary line on a map had to undertake to find safety.
The so-called Radcliffe Line, drawn in 1947, created the modern nations of India and Pakistan, and marked the withdrawal of Britain from the subcontinent.
“Areas in which Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims had lived closely together for generations, speaking the same language with a shared culture, food and traditions. To divide them was a virtually impossible task.”
The result was that millions of people were displaced, and alongside the mass migrations came communal violence, with an estimated one million people killed. And yet, notes Puri, “this painful birth shaped the identities of the two new nations.”
- More for HistoryExtra members | Explore the legacy of Partition with Babita Sharma
The Doctor Who 60th-anniversary specials will begin airing with The Star Beast on Saturday 25 November 2023. The episode will be available on BBC iPlayer and BBC One in the UK, while the rest of the world can find it on Disney+