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History and fiction in John Lucarotti’s first season Doctor Who narratives

Andrew O’Day

Back in 1986, Gary Russell wrote two articles for the Doctor Who Magazine Summer Special, ‘Observing history’ (1986a) and ‘Making history!’ (1986b) (cited by Daniel O’Mahony 2007: 57). What Russell had to say has since become part of fan-lore. In the first of these articles, ‘Observing history’, Russell describes what have become known as ‘pure historicals’ as being where ‘the Doctor, his companions and the TARDIS are the only science-fictional intrusion into a narrative that otherwise features only historical elements (or fictional elements that can be plausibly passed off…)’ (O’Mahony 2007: 57). In these narratives, writes O’Mahony, ‘History itself is a topic for debate within the story but typically it can’t be changed or potential change is at least undesirable’ (2007: 57). In the second of these articles ‘Making history!’, meanwhile, Russell describes narratives where ‘the historical period has either been invaded by a science-fictional presence before the Doctor shows up (as in ‘The Time Meddler’) or turns out to be a fabrication mocked up by the villains for their own dubious purposes (as in ‘The War Games’…)’ (O’Mahony 2007: 57). Such were the strength of Russell’s observations, that these later type of narratives have been commonly dubbed ‘pseudo-historicals’, meaning ‘not genuine histories’ (Howe and Walker 1998: 62), and his arguments now seem common-place. But it is the first type of narrative, the so-called ‘pure-historical’, which this article will concern. O’Mahony holds up two examples of what he calls the ‘classical historicals’, both from the programme’s first season in 1964, ‘Marco Polo’ and ‘The Aztecs’, and both written by John Lucarotti.

      O’  Mahony states that ‘‘The Aztecs’ can easily be read as a science fiction story about a time traveller’s failure to change the course of history’ (2007: 62). Furthermore, O’Mahony writes of the programme’s very first serial ‘An Unearthly Child’ (1963) that it ‘is set in prehistory’ where ‘Its setting and characters are based on anthropological and archaeological speculation’ and that ‘The very idea of “prehistory” removes the layers of historical familiarity that allowed fans to read ‘The Aztecs’ as “pure historical”’ (2007: 62). O’Mahony concludes that this suggests that ‘history is not simply what is past but the way knowledge about that past is arranged’ and that ‘History is a construct of the present’ (2007: 62). O’Mahony remarks that this is a ‘problem…that Doctor Who on television was never really equipped to deal with’ (2007: 62). However, this article will show how Russell’s definition of the so-called ‘pure historical’, which includes the notion that ‘the Doctor, his companions and the TARDIS are the only science-fictional intrusion into a narrative that otherwise features only historical elements’ (O’Mahony 2007: 57), is important in dealing with the issue that history is a construct of the present and is read from a present perspective. For the presence of the Doctor and his companions in narratives like ‘Marco Polo’ and ‘The Aztecs’ highlights how past periods are read through the eyes of the present. Furthermore, this article will explore the way in which these narratives are ‘historical fictions’, both because they are constructs of the present and in order to engage viewers.


It is worth looking at what has been written about ‘historiographical metafiction’ which is another way of exposing history as a construct. Linda Hutcheon (1980) differentiates between ‘metafiction’ and ‘historiographical metafiction’. For Hutcheon, historiographical metafiction is a specific type of metafiction which, through the self-reflexivity associated with traditional metafiction, calls attention to the subjective writing of history. As Hutcheon later notes, such metafictions are ‘novels that are intensely self-reflective but that also re-introduce historical context into metafiction and problematize the entire question of historical knowledge’ (1988: 285-86). Such metafictions, for Hutcheon, employ ‘a questioning stance’ to history ‘through their common use of conventions of narrative’ and ‘of the inscribing of subjectivity’ revealing their identity as literary texts (1988: 286). As Hutcheon puts it, ‘Historiographical metafiction shows fiction to be historically conditioned and history to be discursively structured’ (1988: 120). She further notes that literary ‘texts…stress both the discursive nature of…representations of the past and the narrativized form in which we read them’ (1988: 87). Therefore, ‘historiographical metafiction’ is not simply narcissistic.

      Two further important critics have written about ‘historiographical metafiction’ with reference to particular novels. Frederick M. Holmes (1981), for example, analyses John Fowles’ British novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969). For him, historiographical metafiction is present through the narrator’s self-reflexive references, and through the imitation of the Victorian novel. This, writes Holmes, ‘persuades us…that the versions of history…present are fictional’ (1981: 186). Not only that, but the novel reveals ‘that all conceptions of objective reality are in some sense human fabrications’ (1981: 186). Raymond A. Mazurek (1982), meanwhile, analyses Robert Coover’s 1977 American novel The Public Burning, a fictionalised account of the Rosenberg case told largely from President Richard Nixon’s subjective point of view. For Mazurek, also, ‘historiographical metafiction’ challenges the empirical concept of history. It does this through the type of self-reflexivity noted by Hutcheon, where the narrator makes comments on historical representation and characters use metaphors of history as a narrative composed of words and as a stage play with actors. For Mazurek, such novels differ from the traditional historical novel defined by Georg Lukacs, which aims to present a total model of a society. They imply that not only is the ‘realistic novel…a series of conventional signs masking as reality, but that history itself depends on conventions of narrative, language and ideology in order to present an account of “what really happened”’ (1982: 29). Mazurek quotes Frederic Jameson who wrote that history is not what we would traditionally call a text but that history is inaccessible to us except by traditional texts such as books (1982: 30). Unlike historiographical metafiction, however, early Lucarotti Doctor Who does not contain explicit references within the narrative to the construction of history, although, in Lucarotti’s later Doctor Who narrative ‘The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve’ (1966), for instance, the Doctor refers to their being at ‘a terrible page of the past’.

      It is also worth beginning with some comments by leading historians about the nature of history. The historian (who either writes about history or reads history books) belongs not to the past but to the present and views and understands the past only through the eyes of the present. As E. H. Carr notes, history involves ‘an unending dialogue between the present and the past’ (2001: 62). Arthur Marwick, meanwhile, states that history ‘gives insights…into the preoccupations of the age in which it was actually written’ (1989: 20). Marwick, however, stresses that the past is not a literary creation but does exist as an objective reality (1989: 23). John Tosh, too, observes that history rests on principles such as ‘difference…a recognition of the gulf which separates our own age from all previous ages’ (2002: 9). Simon Schama writes that ‘All history is a negotiation between familiarity and strangeness’ (1998: 40).

      Media critics, like Pierre Sorlin and Patricia-Ann Lee, write about the audio-visual media’s presenting not the past but rather an interpretation of the past from the eyes of the present. This can display the present viewpoint of the film or television maker (Sorlin 1990: 27). As Sorlin states, ‘It should immediately occur to viewers…that the historical scene had to be interpreted by someone in order to be represented before the cameras’ (1990: 32). Commenting on the documentary, Sorlin notes that ‘The presence of a narrator’s voice…would certainly remind viewers that somebody is telling this story, and telling it in a certain way’ and this is so even where there is not an explicit narrator (1990: 32).

History as construct in science fiction and Doctor Who

Science fiction, through the novum of time-travel, involves reading the past with the eyes of the present. There is a permeability of generic boundaries between science fiction time travel and history. Combined, the genres present the binaries of present and past, of one space and another space, and of certain customs and other customs. In science fiction, time travel characters are often readers from the present of the narrative’s production who participate, but do not belong, in the past. Science fiction is therefore suitably mixed with history. Indeed, Simon Schama’s  comment that ‘All history is a negotiation between familiarity and strangeness’ (1998: 40) is also appropriate since science fiction largely concerns the ‘other’, whether in its present and futuristic narratives, on Earth or another planet, or in its narratives set in Earth’s past.

      For example, as a science fiction series about time-travel, Doctor Who’s presentation of history in its very first season, involves the way in which the past, the ‘other’, is seen through the eyes of the present (or future). Doctor Who started in a specific place (London) and time (1963, the year of the first episode’s transmission), but the Doctor’s science fiction time and space machine, the TARDIS, quickly led to different spaces and times. Therefore, the programme was ripe for introducing generic multiplicity participating in the science fiction travel narrative and what Doctor Who fans have termed ‘the pure historical’.

      The first season narrative ‘Marco Polo’ sees the TARDIS landing in the past and the Doctor (William Hartnell) and his assistants accompanying Marco Polo to Kublai Khan’s palace amidst political intrigue. ‘Marco Polo’ is a science fiction historical travel narrative. A spatial travel log is authored and narrated by the title character. Traditional written travel narratives indeed included Marco Polo’s, dictated to a cellmate Rustigielo while imprisoned in 1295, and published as The Travels of Marco Polo, as well as later Renaissance texts like Sir Walter Raleigh’s The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empire of Guiana (1596), and Christopher Columbus’s The Four Voyages (1542). Marco Polo is a traveller through the Far East and his narration is a description of the journey, provided at various intervals over a shot of his route marked out on a parchment map. As producer Verity Lambert notes, the main aim was for this narration to be a storytelling device conveying on a low budget the sense of a long journey (Lambert 2001), and the presence of the narration indeed serves as a recap of events near the start of many of the episodes. But the science fiction Doctor and his assistants arrive, illustrating how the text differs from the traditional travel log.

      The travel narrative is a genre of which the main concern is setting. The introduction of science fiction disrupts the borders placed around generic setting. The fluidity of the notion of generic setting is presented thematically. The spatial travel log which Marco Polo narrates is a record of a journey, and therefore involves movement rather than stasis. But the spatial travel log takes place over a particular space and is fixed in a particular time period. Each new episode’s set piece develops naturally on the previous space. The television viewer follows the journey from episode to episode. But in fact, the introduction of the science fiction travellers disrupts this fixed notion of genre. The time travellers fluidly introduce values of their own space and time into the history genre. Therefore, the narrative does not only progress with Marco Polo voyaging from space to space in a fixed time period as episode follows episode. It additionally occurs from the Doctor and his companions’ perspective.

      In ‘Marco Polo’ there are structural binaries of us and them and our customs and their customs. Both the Doctor and Marco Polo are voyagers away from home. On the one hand, like Marco Polo, the Doctor and his companions read situations from a spatial Western perspective with the traditional travel log having been structured according to the binaries of home and foreign; a particular culture and another culture; and certain customs and other customs. These include the Eastern teenager Ping-Cho’s arranged marriage to an important wealthy older gentleman. On the other hand, the Doctor and his companions, unlike Marco Polo, read details from a future perspective. For example, the Doctor and his companions are aware that Cathay has since been renamed China. They also know that China was once ruled by Kublai Khans, a bloodline of kings. But they realise that such a system has long been abolished and replaced by people’s republics, bureaucrats who are self-elected. This gap between the Doctor and Marco Polo, then, captures the generic mixing of early Doctor Who as a science fiction travel narrative and teaches about the past along with other educational moments noted by Fiona Moore (undated a) such as how condensation forms, the fact that Kublai Khan was Genghis Khan's grandson, and the derivation of ‘checkmate’.

      In ‘Marco Polo’ there is a layering of authorship. We see Marco Polo as an author of the spatial travel log but within that log he describes the Doctor and his companions as ‘strangers’ and their way of life as ‘unusual’. Therefore, the narrative is not an ordinary travel narrative. We may realise through the presence of the fictional Doctor and his companions, who see things differently, that above Marco Polo lies the author of the Doctor Who narrative whose use of the science fiction genre comments on history. This author is on a par with the Doctor and his assistants reading the past from the present in addition to perceiving Eastern from Western culture.

      In addition to the point that there is a layering of narrators, there is a metaphoric battle. On the one hand, Marco Polo, character and author of the travel log set in the past, can be seen as acting to divide genres. On the other hand, the overall Doctor Who narrating agency is in charge of the blending of the science fiction travel narrative and the past spatial travel log. It is this agency that brings the fictional characters of the Doctor and his companions into the past which is to be read in relation to the present, making the narrative a history. Marco Polo’s narration involves his attempt to keep the Doctor and his companions in the past and therefore in the spatial travel log genre. Hence, we can see how Marco Polo’s actions impose a generic limit upon the narrative. Marco Polo’s actions divide the science fiction and past travel log genres by rooting the travellers firmly in one but not the other. Marco Polo exercises narrative authority over the Doctor and his companions by decreeing that they remain away from home and travel through the Far East with the caravan in both a foreign time and space, thereby dividing them from their sphere. Marco Polo emphasises in his journal that he has taken the keys to the Doctor’s TARDIS and he has the machine pulled across land with the caravan as a piece of ‘baggage’. Therefore, Marco Polo ensures that the TARDIS does not serve as a vehicle in which the regular characters can break free from the boundaries of the past travel log and enter new times and spaces and keeps them within the log. Marco Polo imposes a limit even though he does not understand the full significance of the TARDIS. Marco Polo aims to be allowed to return to his Venetian home by giving the TARDIS to the Khan and therefore we can see how his plans to obtain freedom involve the Doctor’s generic imprisonment. Had Marco Polo been triumphant, he would have rooted the Doctor within a specific period and place. Rather than passing through thresholds in the TARDIS, the Doctor would have been confined within borders. However, this division of genres can never be fully successful. The narrating agency of the Doctor Who narrative reveals how the fictional Doctor and his companions are constantly at odds with the time in which they find themselves meaning that they know the other genre. The narrative further reflects on how such narrative generic confinement is unsuccessful when at the end of the narrative, as dictated by the format, the Doctor and his companions leave the thirteenth century Far East in the TARDIS. Therefore, the progamme Doctor Who can continue.

      Similarly, ‘The Aztecs’, which features the Lucarotti ‘signature’ of the Doctor and his companions trapped in a past time period, underlines the point that history is seen through the eyes of the present, where there are again a series of binaries such as us and them and our cultural practices and their cultural practices. The Doctor’s companion Barbara finds the Aztec practice of human sacrifice barbaric, but is told by the Doctor that she ‘cannot rewrite history, not one line!’. While it is common to see early Doctor Who narratives as divided into two distinct categories (futuristic science fiction narratives and historicals), science fiction actually plays a vital role in understanding the historical, and the historical fits in with the other narratives of the programme in that it also involves encounters between the Doctor and his assistants and the ‘other’, which, as in ‘The Aztecs’, with its practice of human sacrifice, might appear monstrous (and the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan indeed explicitly calls the Aztecs ‘monsters’). Moore (undated b) points out that this is ‘cultural relativism’ and that Barbara, for instance, gravitates towards one, Autloc, the High Priest of Knowledge, whose views are closest to her own, but that it is not stated that either she or the Aztecs, led by Tlotoxl, the High Priest of Sacrifice, are right. As Moore points out, Barbara uses her knowledge of the destruction that will ultimately befall the Aztecs, when Cortez, apparently appalled at the practice of human sacrifice, invaded, to justify her moral standards.

      The High Priest of Knowledge, Autloc may believe Barbara to be a manifestation of the Aztec god Yetexa, but in this case Autloc’s knowledge is actually flawed and ironically it is Tlotoxl, who proclaims Barbara to be ‘a false goddess’, who is right. Though neither of them would even consider that the protagonists may be of a different time, Barbara only participates in Aztec life, in costume, but belongs to present day London. Knowledge is a key theme in the narrative since Autloc’s views are founded on his knowledge of his culture, Tlotoxl uses the Aztec belief in human sacrifice to maintain social cohesion (see Moore undated b), while Barbara’s opposing beliefs are based on the different culture from which she comes.

      This notion of ‘history as present construct’ is also present in the programme through its use of ‘historical fiction’. Gary Gillatt (1998: 30-1) and David J. Howe and Stephen James Walker (1998: 25) note that in the Doctor Who narrative ‘Marco Polo’ (1964) events are fictionalised such as that the narrative concerns a fictionalised voyage of Marco Polo’s for the Khan in 1289 rather than the real Marco Polo’s first 1271 journey, even though it is impossible to ascertain the full accuracy of the original travel log accounts. Additionally, Lucarotti’s narrative involves a fleshed out story involving the villainous Mongol warlord Tegana, which includes dramatic scenes such as a lengthy swordfight, but this does reflect on political strife of the period. Moore (undated a) explains:

    Tegana…is a Mongol War Lord, whose ostensible intention is to represent his leader, Noghai, to Kublai Khan during peace negotiations, but in fact he is plotting to delay Marco Polo from arriving in Peking before Noghai can get in a position to attack the city, and then to assassinate the Khan…Tegana's mission, and his dialectical relationship with Marco Polo, are both symbolised in the scene in which Polo and Ian play chess. Both Polo and Tegana speak of how much they enjoy chess, symbolising that both are clever political animals. Tegana, however, also gets in a prophetic allusion to his own intentions, when he remarks that the aim of the game is to be the first to cry “shah mat- the king (or khan) is dead”; he then asks, “Marco, can you save your king?” and Polo innocently replies “I think so, Tegana.”…Whatever Tegana's plans were for delaying Polo before the travellers arrive, he promptly abandons them the moment he learns about the potential of the Doctor's “flying caravan.” He resolves instead to kill off his fellow-travellers and seize the Tardis for Noghai…His initial attempt goes awry…he plans to poison all but one of the expedition's water gourds when they enter the Gobi Desert, then, after three days, to walk off into the desert, meet an accomplice and rid[e] away, returning when the poison has done its work. However, he is prevented from leaving by the sandstorm, and so instead resorts to cutting the gourds open, intending that Polo will agree to his suggestion that he ride back to Lop for water. Unfortunately for him, Polo listens to Ian instead, and agrees to press on to a nearby oasis. This fact also plays upon the suspicion which Tegana appears to hold: that Polo will be more sympathetic to the travellers than to him, because they are Europeans (and, however much he likes Cathay, after 18 years he must be happy to meet people of his own cultural background). He consequently sets out from the very beginning to sow the seeds of suspicion between Marco Polo and the travellers, intensifying his efforts whenever he suspects Polo of warming to the strangers…Later, he plays a similar game with the Khan, suggesting that Polo would ally himself with strangers of “his own kind” against his employer, and cleverly uses Polo's own sense of honour against him, getting him to admit in the Khan's presence that he intends to use the Tardis as a bargaining chip to negotiate with the Khan to allow him to return to Venice. In the end, it takes the combined mental and physical efforts of Polo, the travellers, Ping-Cho and the Khan to bring him down…At the climax of the final episode, Tegana commits suicide, not only to avoid a painful death at the hands of the Khan's soldiers, but also to retain his honour by dying at a time and place of his own choosing rather than surrender…

      Furthermore, ‘The Aztecs’ is a firm example of ‘historical fiction’. This differs from the so-called ‘pseudo-historical’, since the Doctor and his companions and the TARDIS, are the only science-fictional elements in the narrative. Rather in ‘The Aztecs’ all the characters and events are fictionalised, even though the purpose of this is to create a picture of what life in that society would have been like. Probably the best examples of this being a ‘historical fiction’ that have been made to date are Brian J. Robb’s comments, who reveals how the ‘seemingly contradictory aspects of the Aztec culture’ – combining ‘great beauty with great savagery’ – are ‘personified in the characters of the two High Priests’ (Howe and Walker 1998: 25) noted above. Robb states:

    Tlotoxl and Autloc are not so much characters as signifiers. Tlotoxl represents the savagery of the Aztec way of life – he has a guarantee of power through the fear generated by sacrifice. In the classic mould, the signifier of savagery is imperfect. Tlotoxl has a limp…Autloc, the signifier of civilisation, has no…prominent deformities…[He] realises within himself that [human] sacrifice is not necessary but is simply a tool to rule (quoted in Howe and Walker 1998: 25)

Not only are Tlotoxl and Autloc not so much characters as signifiers, but they are also not real historical figures but signifiers. Robb’s choice of the word ‘signifiers’ is highly appropriate since in this ‘historical fiction’ these characters represent aspects of Aztec culture, as opposed to having been real-life people. Indeed, it is made clear to Barbara that Tlotoxl is not an exception in Aztec society but that the other Aztecs believe in human sacrifice (though Tlotoxl sees it as a means to rule). Ian Chesterton and the Doctor refer to Tlotoxl as ‘the local butcher’ which is a derogatory term and emphasises the gap between the time travellers and the Aztecs. Robb further comments upon the opening scene and its artistry:

    The tomb into which the TARDIS crew emerge contains a human skeleton surrounded by various implements of torture…The Doctor and his companions…are set the task (no matter what they say) of ending [human sacrifice] (quoted in Howe and Walker 1998: 26)

The skeleton’s mask is a copy of that in the British Museum and as designer Barry Newbery explains on the DVD feature ‘Designing THE AZTECS’ he was disappointed that an overview shot was not given. Furthermore, the costumes feature feathers and the scenery features the pyramid and pyramids were built higher and higher to reach the gods (see ‘Cortez and Montezuma’ feature on DVD). Examples of the way in which the narrative refers to aspects of Aztec culture include: the point in episode one that the warrior in the tomb must have died at around 1450 since all the things on the tomb belong to the Aztec early period;  that (as noted in the DVD Production Notes) in episode one Susan says to Barbara that Cortez landed in 1520’ which is an allusion to Hernan Cortez’s landing in Mexico in 1519 and amidst his search for gold and territories for Spain discovering the Aztec civilisation which he would conquer by killing its emperor Montezuma (after learning of the practice of human sacrifice) leading to the decline and extinction of the Aztecs (referred to at the end of the narrative); that when Tlotoxl asks Autloc in episode one whether he worships ‘the him who has fallen, not him who has made us strong’, he is alluding to the Aztec Gods Quetzalcoati, the Green-Feathered Serpent, god of wind, and Huitzilopochtli, the sun god; that the mention of Tlaloc is an allusion to the god of rain and mountains who, while not a major god, responded to the irrigation of the Aztec’s crops; and that ‘the perfect victim’ was treated with great honour in the year preceding his sacrifice. Indeed, the Aztec law was that ‘the perfect victim’ be granted his wishes and here the theme of arranged marriages found in ‘Marco Polo’ again surfaces as ‘the perfect victim’ desires to marry Susan who has earlier been told of this practice and who, coming from a different time and space, refuses.

     Like most drama, then, ‘The Aztecs’ is structured around conflict, but, in this instance, the conflict is between the values of the Doctor’s companion Barbara from the present and that of the Aztecs with their practice of human sacrifice. As in many Doctor Who narratives, the protagonists find a (semi) ally, here in the form of Autloc, and are able to change this one man’s life (who never existed), but the equilibrium that is reached at the end of the narrative is of the protagonists managing to get back to the TARDIS and escape this time period, not their being able to stop human sacrifice. As discussed by Barbara and the Doctor, this is a case where the villainous Tlotoxl must win.

      Furthermore, as ‘historical fiction’, ‘The Aztecs’ uses devices throughout found in other Doctor Who narratives to engage the television viewer. ‘The Aztecs’ operates through dialogue, through dramatic scenes, through camera shots, through episode endings, and through techniques such as incidental music. The narrative comes to be one where Tlotoxl is depicted in a villainous way to engage the viewer even though it is made clear that the Aztec customs are being read from a modern perspective. Not only did the process of continuous recording make early Doctor Who‘s production like the liveness of the theatre, but much of the speech of the Aztecs is very grand and theatrical. In the DVD feature ‘Remembering THE AZTECS’, comment is not only made about the way in which John Ringham (Tlotoxl) was told to make all the children in the country hate him, but also about his Lawrence Olivier Richard III-like quality. Therefore, the inter-text of Shakespeare is as important as any historical accounts of the Aztecs. Camera work contributes to the impression of Tlotoxl as villainous plotter: for instance, in episode two Tlotoxl and Ixta occupy the front right of the frame and Ixta is telling Tlotoxl that if he wishes it Ian, who is in the background, will die; again in episode two, as the Doctor walks past to see Barbara, Tlotoxl tells Autloc that they must conceal themselves, which they do; in episode three Tlotoxl is depicted in the foreground while Autloc is in the background talking, and Tlotoxl, who can hear, speaks. This is similar to what Carole Ann Ford refers to in the DVD commentary as ‘behind the bushes acting’ upon seeing Tlotoxl plotting behind the bushes in the Garden of Peace. Furthermore, there are occasions upon which the camera lingers on Tlotoxl such as in episode three after the Doctor tells him that he will find the truth, and later in that same episode when Tlotoxl states that ‘Yetexa’s weakness lies not in herself but in her servants’. Scenes involve misunderstandings such as the Doctor’s advising Ixta about how to overpower his opponent in combat, not realising that this is companion Ian Chesterton, with the scratching of his wrist to drain his strength taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (see DVD feature ‘Remembering THE AZTECS’), to moments of romance between the Doctor and Cameca. Episode endings range from Tlotoxl proclaiming in a villainous manner that Barbara is a false goddess whom he will destroy and looking directly at the camera for dramatic emphasis (episode one), to a dramatic fight between Ian Chesterton and Ixta leading to the point where Tlotoxl cries out for an overpowered Ian to be killed and for Barbara to save him if she is really a goddess (episode two), to Ian being trapped within a tunnel leading to Yetexa’s tomb as it fills with water (episode three). Incidental music is used which punctuates moments in the narrative, given dramatic emphasis (as well as also, when accompanying scenes in the garden, being harmonious, reflecting the Aztec love of beauty). Indeed, John Corner notes that television has ‘often worked at the popularisation of knowledge’ enabling the viewer to cross into ‘dramatic…events of high intensity’ since for many television viewers ‘most writing…would be far from pleasurable’ and would be ‘inaccessible’ (1999: 96-7). Corner may as well have been writing about ‘The Aztecs’.


Although the first season historicals of John Lucarotti do not fit into Hutcheon’s definition of ‘historiographical metafiction’, they do have a similar effect, blurring fiction with history, through the presence of the science fiction protagonists, in order to show how history is written and read from the present. The protagonists are clearly outsiders to the historical events they witness rather than being part of history. Lucarotti’s first serial ‘Marco Polo’ is of particular interest as it features the idea of Marco Polo writing a particular type of text – the traditional travel log – and we can see the differences between that log and the type of travel narrative which Doctor Who is and which Lucarotti writes. Furthermore, Lucarotti’s work can be described as ‘historical fiction’, fulfilling, what John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado (1983) call, the BBC’s Public Service Remit of teaching and entertaining.

      The ideas explored in this article fit in with the original Doctor Who production context, traced by Matthew Kilburn. As Kilburn explains, ‘Sydney Newman was committed to Doctor Who being a beacon for progress, and emphasised the need for the time travellers to experience social history’ (2007: 71). As Kilburn writes, ‘In the first serial, ‘An Unearthly Child’, the attitude of the travellers to the culture of the Palaeolithic tribe among which they find themselves is as much the concern of the script as the effect of their circumstances upon the regular characters’ (2007: 71), and, as we have seen, this is also true in Lucarotti’s narratives ‘Marco Polo’ and ‘The Aztecs’. Kilburn further writes:

    For most Doctor Who writers their imagination was more valuable than research in libraries. There is enough in John Lucarotti’s depiction of the Aztecs’ social structure to suggest that he may have read George C. Valliant’s The Aztecs of Mexico, published by Penguin in the UK in 1950, but if so he simplified what he learned to serve an audience of children and tired weekending adults (2007: 75)

Additionally, Kilburn notes that

    There were practical constraints on the application of…research. The production of Doctor Who had to negotiate between ‘accuracy’ and what was thought proper for or expected by its audience. It’s stated on the commentary track for the DVD release of ‘The Aztecs’…that the costume designer…had to compromise between authentic Aztec costume, too immodest for a teatime audience, and what was deemed acceptable for the programme (2007: 74-5).

However, as I have indicated, a sense of the past, as with the fictional Aztec characters, is still conveyed. Furthermore, Kilburn reveals that following the prehistoric setting of ‘An Unearthly Child’, story editor David ‘Whitaker’s fall-back position of ‘dramatic license’ was reached swiftly’, that ‘The grind of making Doctor Who would always depend on winning…generosity from the audience’, and that ‘For the historical stories, this confirmed that (at least under Lambert and Whitaker) interpretation would be led by what could be realised in the studio within the confines of an adventure serial’ (2007: 72). Donald Baverstock discouraged Sydney Newman’s view of a series that would dramatise social history in favour of entertaining them (2007: 72). But, as this article has suggested, in the series’ first season Lucarotti narratives, the audience are entertained in the process of a dramatisation of social history.

      This article has looked only at how Lucarotti shaped the early historical, as the approaches by David Whitaker, and especially Dennis Spooner and Donald Cotton, while carrying on some of the ideas raised here, display other authorial signatures (Gillatt 1998: 23-7; O’Mahony 2007: 60) worthy of more detailed study. As the Doctor Who historicals would continue, they would be injected with comedy and be shaped by popular films and books, and so too would the idea of metafiction develop where there would be self-reflexive references to cliches. 



Carr, E.H. (2001), What is History?, Basingstoke, Macmillan.

Columbus, Christopher (1969), Christopher Columbus: The Four Voyages, trans. J. M. Cohen, Middlesex, Penguin.

Corner, John (1999), Critical Ideas in Television Studies, Oxford, Clarendon.

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Text © Andrew O'Day and used with his kind permission. This page was compiled by Tim Harris.

This page was first published to the internet Saturday 19th March 2011.