Via Memoriae Classicae IIb – Classics and Doctor Who (The 1970s Onwards)

Last time we explored Doctor Who’s two gleeful, rambunctious 1960s forays into Classical antiquity. Now we re-enter the time vortex and complete our journey, in a great, colourful, careening sweep from the 70s to the present day. And if that looks like a lot to cram into a single blog-post, don’t worry. It’s bigger on the inside…

All together now:

Dum de-dum, dum de-dum, dum-de-dum wooo-eeee-ooooo……

The Time Monster (1972)


Jo and the Doctor

It’s the early 1970s, and the Doctor, now played by the ruffle-shirted and bouffant-haired Jon Pertwee, has been exiled to contemporary Earth, where he’s shacked up with UNIT – an endearingly homespun alien-fighting paramilitary organisation nominally attached to the UN but in practice as British as red double-decker buses and Home Counties quarries. There he’s got an assistant, in the shape of Ditziest Secret Agent Ever™ Jo Grant and a foil: Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, the man whose picture is under ‘Unflappable’ in the dictionary, and who has a stick and a moustache. It’s all a bit camp, and half the fun of this period of the show is trying to figure out exactly which members of the cast are in on the joke.


The inestimable Brigadier. Wearing the kind of long-suffering expression you’d expect from a man who’s somehow ended up as the Doctor’s boss.

Even so, when the main selling point of your TV series is that it features a mercurial cosmic anarchist who can go anywhere in time and space, stranding him on Earth and making him join the army and boast every so often about his club and how many world leaders he’s mates with (including everyone’s favourite dictators, Mao Tse Tung and Napoleon, though Hitler is apparently a ‘bounder’) is not the most obviously sensible decision. The Third Doctor’s era is a succession of military research establishments, reckless scientists and interfering civil servants, interspersed with occasional trips to the future or alien worlds whenever the budget will stretch and the writers can think of an excuse why the TARDIS happens to be working that week. What there wasn’t, for a long time, was a visit to the past.

The Time Monster, by Robert Sloman and the series’ then-producer Barry Letts fixes that. Well, I say fixes. It ticks the (pseudo-)historical box, certainly. But how successfully is a matter of taste. The story is widely regarded as one of the worst of the entire series and, while there’s much for the Classicist and especially Aegean Prehistorians to like here, there’s no denying it’s a bloated, poorly-written, shoddily acted, cheap-looking and dull runaround. We’ve left the wit and verve of Spooner and Cotton far behind.

So why am I wasting everyone’s time writing about it?

Because Minoans, that’s why. Glam 1970s Minoans! Cambridge PhD students! David ‘Vader’ Prowse before he was famous! In a Minotaur costume! Ingrid ‘Hammer Horror’ Pitt bursting out of the closest thing to a Minoan bodice the Beeb thought they could get away with in a children’s programme! Wigs! So many glorious, bonkers wigs!


The Crystal of Kronos


PhD student fashion, 1970s-style. Jumper, wide-collared shirt. Cravat. Long hair. Enormous moustache. Spanner optional.

The story of the Time Monster revolves around an attempt by the Doctor’s black-wearing, goateed nemesis the Master (note the relative seniority of their degrees) to summon Kronos, a being from beyond time, and use it to – well to be honest, it’s not entirely clear what he wants it for. Conquer the universe, probably. Dominate the lesser races. Unlimited rice pudding. Et cetera, et cetera. The first half of this 6-part story largely revolves around events in present day Cambridge. In our very own Newton Institute, in fact (though the real one didn’t open until 1992). Being a Master of disguise, the dastardly villain’s donned a white lab coat and a comedy foreign accent to set himself up as Professor Thaskalos (can you see what they did there?), a physicist working on a time-travel machine called TOMTIT. No, really. Also working on the device are two innocent scientists: women’s lib-advocating researcher Dr Ruth Ingram and her PhD student, Stuart. They have banter. Sometimes it’s fun, but too often it descends into let’s-all-laugh-at-the-silly-feminist. These sections are made even more unfortunate because you get the distinct impression the production team thought they were being progressive. More entertaining is watching the Master’s approach to getting a research position – basically just turn up and start doing the work and when people question his lack of any academic credentials whatsoever, just hypnotise them. As someone on the postdoc application treadmill, the technique does have a certain appeal, I have to admit. And you’ve also got to admire the chutzpah of someone who picks the middle of an inspection by a government funding body to try to use his research to summon a deity from beyond time, shouting and cackling like a loon.

The 1970s plot strand is mixed up with a secondary one centred around Bronze Age Thera – which, the first episode delights in telling us, historians now believe to have been the origin of the Atlantis myth. Thera’s called Atlantis for the remainder of the story, and the word ‘Minoan’ is never even used. There’s no doubt that the Minoans are what we’re dealing with, though. I’ve never been to a D1 lecture in Room 104 while on drugs, but I imagine the experience would be much like The Time Monster’s opening dream sequence: full of paranoid crash-zooms on bull’s-head rhyta, snake-goddess statues and double axes: as Jo herself puts it, all that Cretan jazz.

The Bronze Age never seems to survive contact with TV or film particularly well. On this occasion there’s a real dichotomy in how well Minoan Thera is depicted between the script – which is mostly hopeless – and the art direction, which is actually pretty damn good given the budget and time-constraints they were working with. Despite the adventure’s apparent mission-statement to show the Minoan truth between the Atlantis legend, the writers have evidently made very little attempt to find out anything at all about Bronze Age Cretan (or Theran) society. The Atlanteans have not-Greek but nearly-Greek names; they worship the Olympian gods. They have a standard, built temple rather than peak and cave sanctuaries. Even the kind of popular misconceptions which we might have expected, such as the existence of a matriarchy and priest-kings, don’t seem to have made any impression on the script-writers, who deliver a rote ‘ancient’ society where old men have the power and women are either serving girls or sexy schemers. There’s a token Minotaur who’s so rubbish and superfluous that pretty much the only entertainment to be had from it is in the knowledge that this was only five years before that actor would become probably the most iconic cinematic villains of the twentieth century. So if you want to see Darth Vader accidentally kill himself by running head-first into a wall, I encourage you to watch the opening minutes of Episode 6. Apart from that, the writing makes pretty much no concession to the supposed Minoan setting whatsoever.

galleia 2

Galleia, Queen of Atlantis

The sets and costumes are a different matter. Like the ‘Cretan jazz’ of the dream sequence, the Atlantis sequences proper (comprising most of episodes 5 and 6) absolutely revel in the iconography. Making the most of colour TV (still a novelty, especially for Doctor Who), the set and costume designers have evidently found themselves a nice big, full-colour book of Minoan goodies and really gone to town. There’s Knossos-style columns, horns of consecration on the rooftops, quadruple-axes (double on both er… axes), entire walls of frescoes (all right, blown-up reproductions of scenes from the Aghia Triadha Sarcophagus, which is neither a fresco nor the right period for this, but it looks the part reasonably well) alongside more imaginative extrapolations of ‘Minoan’ material culture, such as caryatids modelled on the famous snake-goddess figurines and some rather natty snake-shaped light-fittings. It’s not perfect, by any means. When filling in space between ‘feature’ set elements, the designers still seem to default to a basically Romanesque style. And there’s the usual confusion between Minoan and Mycenaean – look out for the motif from the Lion Gate at Mycenae prominently displayed atop the temple façade, while the Master enjoys wine from the Shaft Graves’ ‘Cup of Nestor’. theraI can’t decide whether the guards’ costumes are based on the Dendra armour or whether they just went for generic ‘ancient warrior’ and got vaguely lucky. Other background characters’ costumes tend towards generic ancient robes, but most of the main bunch have reasonably faithful attempts at recreating what we see in contemporary images. Bodices and flounced skirts for the ladies; kilts for the chaps. Hairdoes are gloriously ridiculous, and Ingrid Pitt as Queen Galleia does look like she might have plausibly stepped out of an Akrotiri fresco. To quote Jo again, ‘Groovy!’


What the well-dressed Atlantean chap is wearing this season: kilt, eyeliner, massive unrealistic wig.

All this is important because it gets to the heart of what Doctor Who was trying to do at this time. Despite the token ‘this is what historians now think’ line, the days when it had even vague educational aspirations are more or less behind it. But it’s not positioning itself as a straightforward science fiction show either. As has often been remarked, probably the other thing on TV it was closest to was Top of the Pops. It was a thoroughly mainstream pop-culture touchstone where you went to see bright colours and strange imagery, exciting and unusual sounds and experimental video effects. Early 70s Doctor Who is shot through with the aesthetic of glam rock. Connected with this is another trend – an increasing interest in what can loosely be termed ‘New Age’ themes. Many of those working on the show at the time were deeply interested in alternative lifestyles of various stripes, from radical socialists like Malcolm Hulke – a former card-carrying member of the British Communist Party – to Letts himself, a Buddhist convert and sympathiser to the environmental movement. Even that most mainstream of characters, the Brigadier, was partly created by Henry Lincoln – a man who could never be accused of having left-wing leanings but who went on to become a faith healer and a very influential figure in pseudohistory and conspiracy theories, and who shares some of the blame for The Da Vinci Code.

These interests came through again and again in Doctor Who adventures of this period, from Hulke’s wonderful (if plodding) anti-xenophobia parable The Silurians, to Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s anti-imperialist, anti-apartheid allegory The Mutants (the only Doctor Who story ever to have indirectly contributed towards inspiring a fatwah, thanks to its being discussed in garbled form by Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses – even if he did manage to spectacularly miss its main point), to Letts’ and Sloman’s eco-thriller classic The Green Death (or The One With the Giant Maggots, as huge swathes of the British public still fondly remember it). Charged with making a series about aliens and their effects on Earth’s history, it’s no surprise at all that this production team embraced the fashion for seeking aliens behind historical mysteries which had blossomed within popular culture following Erich von Däniken’s publication of Chariots of the Gods? in 1968. The most obvious early example is Letts’ and Sloman’s own von Däniken-meets-The Wicker Man spooktacular of 1971, The Dæmons (nice use of the ligature in mainstream TV titling), which concerns an archaeological dig disturbing a Devil-like alien in a barrow near a quaint Wiltshire village (and incidentally provides one of the series’ two other explanations for what happened to Atlantis), but this is only scratching the surface of von Däniken’s influence on 1970s Doctor Who. To chart it in detail would be a much longer blog post, and this probably wouldn’t be the right venue for it.

The Time Monster falls within this New Age/von Däniken-esque tradition in that we have glowing magical crystals, robed priests, and an alien (or extra-temporal being) being revealed to be behind a great historical enigma. Not to mention Atlantis itself is probably the most New Age-y setting imaginable. The Thera-as-Atlantis angle comes from another book from a few years earlier which shares von Däniken’s concern with tying myth into history, even if it’s nowhere near so obviously barmy: Angelos Galanopoulos and Edward Bacon’s Atlantis: the Truth Behind the Legend (1969). This in turn drew inspiration from earlier suggestions of a link between Atlantis and the Minoans by Spyridon Marinatos.

master seduction

The Master turns on the charm. Two-tone beard; Nehru jacket; supercilious sneer. Textbook villainy.

So, what’s the bottom line on The Time Monster? As a piece of entertainment it’s hard to recommend it today. It’s far too long and padded and not well enough written to hold even the attention. The main cast are mostly very endearing, from Pertwee’s ludicrous, pompous action hero (not in on the joke) to plucky Jo and the stalwart Brig (very much in on it). Roger Delgado as the Master provides a brand of moustache-twirling villainy that’s never less than supremely watchable. Their common affection and sense of fun almost carries it along, as it does in some of the other slightly ropey adventures of this time. But the characters are too thinly drawn and the cute bits are overwhelmed by the turgid and drawn-out stodge. If you’re an Aegean Prehistorian, you’ll probably get a few giggles out of episodes 5 and 6 and the beginning of episode 1, but this isn’t in the same league as the 60s episodes we talked about last time. It’s neither smart nor witty. Where it is interesting, though, is as an artefact of the intersection between early 70s New Age ideas, the glam aesthetic and the ancient Aegean. Even then, there’s plenty of other stories from around the same time which do similar things much, much better.

The Rest of the Old Series (1973-1989)

The Doctor regained his liberty to wander time and space in the show’s anniversary celebration the following year. Not long afterwards he regenerated again, this time into ex-monk, part-time bricklayer and full-time grade A, prime National Treasure, Tom Baker. Now, nobody would accuse Baker of being the finest actor ever to take the title role. He might be lucky to make the top ten. Fortunately that didn’t matter because Tom Baker is the Doctor. He inhabited the role so perfectly that pretty much everything since has been tribute acts or reactions against him. He played the role for seven years, and the first three of those, overseen by new producer Philip Hinchcliffe and Who’s finest ever writer and script-editor, the irreplaceable Robert Holmes, are widely regarded as the series’ golden age. If, by any chance, you’re reading this blog and you’ve never seen a quality slice of Baker-era Who, you owe it to yourself to drop everything and do so now.

The Holmes/Hinchcliffe era was heavily influenced by Gothic horror, especially the Hammer variety, and many stories of this period are transparent pastiches of famous movies or genres. They’re no less sublime for it, though. Slumbering ancient horrors that turned out to be aliens became the series’ stock-in-trade. This template produced some of what are still regarded as the finest serials the show ever did, including Pyramids of Mars (in which an alien posing as an Egyptian deity unleashes havoc in Edwardian England) and The Talons of Weng-Chiang (a Sherlock Holmes/Fu Manchu/Phantom of the Opera pastiche where a time-traveller posing as a Chinese deity unleashes havoc in Victorian England). Both these adventures have their problems with racist stereotypes, but the wit and depth of Robert Holmes’ scripts, the BBC’s undoubted magnificence at period drama, and Baker at the height of his powers mean that they transcend their issues to achieve genuine excellence. A Classical story at this time would almost certainly have been wonderful. Sadly, this was one genre Hinchcliffe didn’t plunder before Mary Whitehouse effectively got him sacked.


The fearsome Nimon!

The later 70s saw the series drift into increasingly silly waters. Holmes departed; Baker’s ego and eccentricity ran away with him; budgets were slashed. The series also featured far fewer Earth-set stories and almost no historical adventures. Instead, for our Classics fix we have to look to sci-fi retellings of Greek myths. 1978 brought Underworld, in which the Doctor and his companion Leela join a Minyan spaceship on a quest blatantly pilfered from the Golden Fleece. The story’s not well regarded, particularly because budget shortcomings meant that later episodes relied heavily on a primitive version of what we now call greenscreen to superimpose the actors on photographic slides rather than real sets. The results were not good. At the end of 1979 Doctor Who took its final foray into Greek myth with the Horns of Nimon. This story revolves around a group of youths from the planet Aneth being shipped to Skonnos to be sacrificed to the fearsome bull-headed Nimon. So you can kind of see what they did there. This too is considered by many to be one of the worst Doctor Who stories in the series’ entire run. This is a little unfair. There’s no denying that the sets are pathetic, the acting terrible, the script ludicrous. Graham Crowden as baddie Soldeed is without question the hammiest, campest villain in the whole of Doctor Who. And believe me, that’s saying something. He’s so far over the top he’s described a perfect ballistic trajectory far over the top’s head, orbited the planet it’s on once and is well on his way to interstellar space. He’s not so much chewing the scenery as scoffing it down in enormous Obelix-portion chunks. He’s transcendently terrible. He is, quite simply, a joy to watch.


Pah! The Master might think he knows how to dress for villainy, but compared to Soldeed he isn’t even trying.

If that clip doesn’t make you smile even a little bit, then you’re beyond help. The Horns of Nimon’s so far into ‘so bad it’s good’ territory it achieves a sort of strange greatness. Indeed, there’s a case to be made that this is entirely deliberate: it was broadcast over Christmas and the whole thing veers very close to panto, right down to having a Blue Peter presenter in a major role and having the male lead’s role effectively played this week by a woman in boy’s clothes while Tom Baker basically just larks around being silly. Not all fans agree with this reading, but I at least am prepared to own up to The Horns of Nimon as a bit of a guilty pleasure.

The Time Monster, Underworld and The Horns of Nimon were released on DVD as a box-set. Here’s the BBC’s combined trailer for all three.

There’s not much to say about the 1980s. Apart from a robot Presocratic philosopher and a few hoplites on a spaceship in an otherwise unremarkable 1982 adventure, it’s hard to think of anything classics-related from the entire decade. If Vikings are your thing, though, I heartily recommend World War II runes-and-computers vampire spectacular The Curse of Fenric from the very last run of the classic series in 1989.

Doctor Who was finally cancelled in 1989 and entered a wilderness period where adventures continued in books, comics and direct-to-CD audio plays. Many are Classics-related, but I won’t cover them here. In 1996 there was an American-produced TV movie which introduced an eighth Doctor and is widely reviled (though not by me). Not until 2005 did the Doctor make a full, triumphant return to TV in an on-going series.

The Fires of Pompeii (2008)

Nu-Who is a strange beast, about which much has been written these last few years. While undeniably inheriting much of the spirit of its predecessor, it has its own distinctive style and foibles. I’m not going to talk about it in detail, since it’s become such a pop-culture juggernaut that almost everyone reading this blog probably has at least some sort of experience of what it’s like. While I enjoy it, I don’t love it in the same way I do the old series. Frequently it gets on my nerves. This, I suspect, is at the heart of what it is to be a Doctor Who fan: the stuff you grew up with is always better.

Last time I mentioned that Classic Who had two principal flavours of historical: ‘pseudo’ (with sci-fi elements) and ‘pure’ (without). The post-revival series has introduced a third, the ‘celebrity historical’, which revolves around a simplistic portrayal of a famous, canonical Great Historical Personage and generally involves the Doctor gushing on about how fantastic they were. These have included Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill and Agatha Christie. It’s presumably only a matter of time before we get one on Charles Darwin. In practice these have all also been pseudo-historicals, though in almost every case the sci-fi elements have been secondary to the hero-worship. This has been by far the standard format for the modern series. That’s not to say, of course, that the old series never featured famous people – we talked about Nero last time, after all. But it was always more about the setting and the plot; here – as in so much of the series’ modern incarnation – the characters are centre-stage.

As most Classicists will know, The Fires of Pompeii does indeed feature genuine historical characters, who we’ll get to in a moment. But it never flags this up for the casual viewer. They’re nowhere near the point of the story and if you didn’t happen to know, there’s no reason to believe they weren’t the script-writer’s invention. The Fires of Pompeii is far from a celebrity historical – indeed, even less, I suspect, than a First Doctor version of the same story would have been. That at least would have been almost certain to have featured Pliny. So what is it, then? The answer, I think, gets to the heart of why I don’t feel the episode works.

The story revolves around the Doctor and his friend Donna arriving in what they take to be Rome, only to discover that it is in fact Pompeii on the eve of Vesuvius’ eruption. An initial complication where they’re stranded by the loss of the TARDIS is swiftly resolved and much of the rest of the episode is centred around a moral dilemma: should they change history by warning the Pompeiians and trying to evacuate them, or should they leave them all to die. What we have here are a bunch of elements reminiscent of the old tragic style of pure-historical I outlined last time. The impending disaster, the forced separation from the TARDIS, the moral dilemma. This last feature in particular is presented in very similar terms to two of the most celebrated Hartnell historicals: John Lucarotti’s The Aztecs and The Massacre.

But the tone is far from the portentous cod-Shakespearianism of the show’s early days. As ever under Russell T. Davies’ leadership, the comic elements of the script are played up, with ‘I am Spartacus’ gags, a running joke about Celtic, and a line about Roman teenagers hanging around T.K. Maximus. So, we see the legacy of Spooner and Cotton’s comedic take on the past. But this is also a pseudo-historical. There are, we discover, alien rock-monsters living under Vesuvius, who are using the volcano to convert humans into more of their kind. Or something. On top of that, the whole focus of the episode is on the Doctor’s moral choice and what it means for his on-going friendship with Donna.

For a 45-minute episode, there’s a lot going on, and as usual the pace is frenetic with a lot of running about. The problem, I think, is that all these elements end up working against each other. The pace and the focus on the leads means we don’t have time to get to know the world or characters of Pompeii, undercutting the pathos of the looming tragedy facing the city. The poor handling of the Pompeiian characters themselves exacerbates this, as does the constant attempt at comedy (which, as so often in Davies’ work, for my money falls rather flat). But the fact that the main focus is on the volcano also means that the alien plot is underdeveloped and essentially redundant. Apart from a special effects showcase and an obligatory monster-of-the-week, they contribute little. The Doctor’s moral dilemma is nothing long-term viewers haven’t seen before. The story can’t decide what it wants to be, with the result that everything feels underdeveloped. For all its high production values and snappier running-time, I found it distinctly unengaging, less entertaining than even The Time Monster.


The streets of Pompeii. Insert Waily Woman soundtrack here.

So, what about the Classical elements? The outdoor scenes in Pompeii are great, as you’d expect given that they were filmed in Italy on the sets for HBO’s Rome. In keeping with Rome and other modern portrayals, the sequences have a distinctly exotic, eastern feel. Pompeii’s souq-like streets are light-years away from the studio-bound market of The Romans. For those keeping track of such things, the standard-issue ethnic Waily Woman makes herself heard on the soundtrack within the first two minutes. There is, however, some old-fashioned militaristic brass later on, though. Other sets are less successful. The foothills of Vesuvius look like rural Wales on a soggy afternoon (thus continuing a long tradition in the series’ depiction of mountains, from the Himalayas to the Death Zone of Gallifrey). The Pompeiian house is generic Roman, with apparently only the most cursory research having been carried out. It’s hard to tell whether the walls are meant to be marble or meant to be plaster painted as marble. But they certainly don’t resemble any recognisable style of Pompeiian wall-painting. The statues around the house look suspiciously modern. It definitely doesn’t bear much resemblance to the real Caecilius’ house.

atrium 2

Caecilius and family in his atrium. I’ll leave it to Romanists to point out the inaccuracies.

Ah, yes. It’s probably about time we talked about Caecilius. As we all know, Lucius Caecilius Iucundus was a real Pompeiian banker long believed to have been killed in the eruption of 79 AD. More importantly for some of us, his family was also the focus of the Cambridge Latin Course. It was Caecilius, Metella and their son Quintus who gave me my first taste of Classics all those years ago. These are people I care about. Some of the mucking around with them I’m not going to get too worked up over. I don’t really care if plot reasons now mean Caecilius is a marble-dealer and modern art collector rather than a banker, or if he’s suddenly acquired a daughter with the not-terribly-Latin-sounding name of Evelina, or even at the absence of slaves Clemens and Grumio. (In fact, there’s a suspicious lack of slaves anywhere in the city. There might be one, but he gets vaporised early on. Nobody seems to care, including the Doctor).

There are three things which do get on my nerves, though. The first two are connected: the entire family are little more than ciphers – one-dimensional sympathy puppets who are supposed to make us care about the fate of Pompeii but who haven’t been invested with nearly enough characterisation to succeed. Secondly, what characterisation they do have is deliberately intended to underline that this family are Just Like Us. The parents are like modern parents; the children are like modern teenagers. No concession is made to the idea that people in the past thought differently to us, had different priorities, different ways of living their lives. The concept of teenagers didn’t even exist until the twentieth century! This is why, I suspect, the slaves had to go. But by making the past just like the present, you’re diminishing its strangeness, making it a less interesting place. You’re also implicitly denying the possibility of genuine social change, which both undermines the magnitude of the struggles that have been won to make the world of today better than the past and also denies the possibility of a future different to today. It’s a static and modern-Euro-centric vision of the world, and as someone who’s made social change the subject of my PhD, it’s one that narks me.


Caecilius est vir. Caecilius in televisio. Quintus puer est. Metella mater est. Sed quis est Evalina?

And the third thing? The third thing is in some ways a trifling matter of personal taste, but it has significance for my Classical career. They changed the family’s fate. In reality, it’s now thought that Caecilius never even made it to the eruption, that he actually may have perished in the earthquake of AD 62. I’m not interested in reality for the time being. I’m interested in the Cambridge Latin Course and my very first year studying Latin. The first year of the course ends with the eruption of Vesuvius and a cliffhanger ending in which most of the family die. I have to admit, the reason I carried on with Latin the next year, the reason I eventually became a Classicist was not because I loved the language or I was good at it, or that I was fascinated by the culture and society of Ancient Rome (though all these things were true). It was because I wanted to know what happened next. I wanted to know who lived and who died. As it turned out, Quintus, the annoying kid was the only survivor. That didn’t matter. By then I was hooked enough to carry on for other reasons. But right then, when I was twelve years old, the fate of the Caecilius family shaped the course of my future career. In The Fires of Pompeii, the Doctor relents from his formerly steadfast position that he can’t change history. He intervenes and saves the family from their fate. As it often does, the modern version of Doctor Who can’t bear the thought of a downbeat, sad ending. But sometimes those endings are the most powerful. Sometimes they change people’s lives.

Okay, enough pontificating. Between these two blog posts I’ve written nearly 10,000 words so I should probably wind it up there. I’ll let the series’ more recent dalliances with the Classical world pass without further comment. Rory the Roman gets away lightly. For my final point I just want to say something about how growing up following Doctor Who fits with what I do now. Because I think there is a connection.

It’s nothing so simplistic or banal as Doctor Who being a show about time travel and showing me glimpses of the ancient world which fascinated me. I was interested in history long before I ever saw the programme, as anyone who had to live through my long knights-and-castles fixation will testify. But I think there’s a connection between what being a Doctor Who fan was like in the 1990s (I don’t use the word fandom because I was in no way part of anything organised) and what being a Classicist is like. The show was off the air; it wasn’t regularly repeated. Videos were available, but they were expensive and hard to find. There were books, but again, they were out-of-print and in those pre-internet days finding them meant trawling second-hand bookshops and a hefty wodge of luck. So there was this long history of the show which I experienced piecemeal, in fragments. Like many fans, I filled in the gap with speculation, imagination elaborated from bare-bones story synopses, and by writing my own stories. All the while I would hope for the next major discovery. Some text or artefact that would let me finally see what a particular story or period of the show was really like. You see where I’m going with this.

Did Doctor Who make me an archaeologist? No, of course not. Did it give me a basic primer in some features of what research is like? Yes, I really think it did. It’s no surprise that Doctor Who has spawned such a mass of fan scholarship. In these days where all mass media is readily accessible with a few clicks of a mouse, it’s this imaginative, almost antiquarian aspect to being a fan which I most miss. If nothing else, it’s highly doubtful I’d enjoy writing quite so much.

This is, as I’m aware, a double-edged sword. If you’ve made it to the end of this ridiculously over-long two part article, then thank you. I hope you enjoyed reading it. Do take the time to check out some of the stories I’ve mentioned.

I promise I’ll be shorter next time!

17 thoughts on “Via Memoriae Classicae IIb – Classics and Doctor Who (The 1970s Onwards)

  1. Wow… While I knew of the original (<1989) Doctor Who, and rather liked the idea of it, I only actually watched the current ones. I think your comments on the Pompeii episode are all spot on. Especially about the CLC. Actually, Caecilius not being a banker really bothered me, since it was such a big deal in the CLC. He had to go to court to get a loan repayed and everything!

    Clearly, we need to arrange some viewings of these important historical documents.

    Can I suggest a further connection between Doctor Who and Classics (whether for you personally or not)? It's not just about glimpses of the past. It's about the past being not really past. Remember the very first episode of the reboot? After Rose is upset by the destruction of Earth, the Doctor takes her back to her own time, and shows her it's still there. Time travel means that nothing is actually lost–in a sense, it's all still going on, just somewhere else. That's very much my own attitude to history; I can't say that it was formed by Doctor Who, but it certainly does no harm to reinforce it.

    Final point: Teenagers not existing? Certainly, not as a defined class. But some of the behaviours and issues certainly did–take a look at Sulpicia, and tell me these couldn't be a contemporary fifteen year old's blog posts (OK, a highly literate and talented 15 year old). Greco-Roman perceptions of adolescence would probably be a pretty viable field of study (but not by me).


    • On the teenagers thing, I did only say the concept, in the well-defined, recognisable type it appears in Fires of Pompeii didn’t exist. Obviously the same hormones were rushing around so many of the behaviours would have existed. By that point I was aware I’d written far too much, so probably didn’t go into it in as much detail as I might.

      I think I sort of agree with you on the question of the ‘nowness’ of history. Obviously the series has had a lot of different and not particularly compatible visions of how history and time travel work over the years, and I think the new series arrived too late to really influence the way I thought about it – I was in the final months of undergrad by then. But I think some of the ideas have influenced me quite a lot, especially ones from some of the better-written books.


      • One of my favourite things about Doctor Who is the absence of any concern over continuity. They’ve never fallen prey to the over-faithfulness to backstory, or the awkward retconning that hits so many long-running series. If an old idea is in the way, they just chuck it.


  2. The Nimon villain really is one of the best things ever. What he’s doing isn’t really acting anymore–he’s gone beyond that to something… else. I’m not sure what it is.

    But I can’t shake off the feeling, intensified by the way it’s filmed, that he never actually was in the room with the other actors–he just stood there by himself, mugging and flailing, and then was spliced in.


    • Anyone who can make the likes of Shatner and Blessed look like paragons of subtlety and restraint in their acting deserves congratulation (and if you ever see Blessed’s Doctor Who performance you’ll recognise just what an achievement that is). I just love this clip. It wasn’t a section I remembered from last time I watched the episode but now I keep finding myself watching it over and over again.

      The Nimon be praised!!! *Jazz hands*


  3. While I enjoy it, I don’t love it in the same way I do the old series. Frequently it gets on my nerves.
    I actually had to stop watching it–the “celebrity historical” part of the series (which I think is a spot-on way to describe it)–is all-pervasive to me. The Doctor himself seems to be the celebrity in all the historicals–I always thought the story was supposed to be the celebrity, but then I grew up with the first three years of Baker 😉


    • That’s as good a suggestion for where they got the name as any I’ve seen (ie, the only one I’ve every seen) but I regret to say the episode itself is not Classics-related. It is a relatively interesting one, though, for its attempt at an unreliable narrative and for some very early computer effects to make a location look like an alien world. By which I mean green seas and fuchsia skies. Visually, it’s one of the most 80s things ever. It also has a great ending. Shame they chickened out and retconned it in horribly clumsy fashion a few weeks later.


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