The BBC series Doctor Who combines fantasy, science fiction, and history; all of which happen to be some of my favourite things. I’m actually kind of surprised that it has taken me so long to address the show on this blog and to look at it from a public history perspective.
Doctor Who was originally conceived as an educational program for children. The idea was that the episodes set in the past were to teach kids about history, while the space episodes would provide bite-sized facts about science. This concept was reinforced by the Doctor’s first two companions being a history teacher and a science teacher.
Today’s version of Doctor Who has an increasing fantasy and includes content that would be downright frightening to children– weeping angles anyone? However, I still think that the program does contain some historical content that is of educational value. The BBC has actually created some lesson plans based on Doctor Who episodes. These lesson plans typically focus on episodes where Doctor Who visits the past (eg. Victorian England, England during WWII, the era of Vincent Van Gogh, etc). The historic setting is then used to spark conversations about the past.
A large number of Doctor Who episodes fall into the category of ‘alternate history.’ They contain a bit of historical context, but the details — eg. Winston Churchill is using Daleks to fight the Germans during the WWII blitz — aren’t completely accurate. In this particular instance the setting of WWII and the actual portrayal of Winston Churchill are fairly accurate. Most episodes where the Doctor visits the past are like this, they contain grains of truth amongst the fantasy. Doctor Who provides an introduction to a historical era which may inspire viewers to dig into the past to learn about what actually happened.
The Doctor Who of today is a far cry from children’s educational television. However, there are gems of historical knowledge and context amongst the aliens, TARDIS, and sonic-screwdrivers. And besides, who doesn’t want a TARDIS that would let them travel through time and space?