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Lucinda Matthews-Jones, ‘Doctor Who-ing the Victorians’

2013 January 3
by lucinda matthews-jones

Half way through this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special, I exclaimed, ‘Ooooh the new assistant is going to be a Victorian!’ Little did I release that Victorian Clara was going to die just as Dalek Clara had before her. However, Doctor Who fans needn’t fear. The trailer at the end this episode suggests that the next season will be built around the deaths and resurrections of Clara Oswin.

I should probably state now that I’m not a big Doctor Who fan, but I usually watch it along with my Whovian husband. However, this Christmas I was more than a little intrigued by the Victorian setting of the show. This was partly because I have a general interest in contemporary representations of the Victorians, but it was also because of the recently published report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on History and Archives on the state of history teaching in British schools. Their report contended that school children of all ages needed a stronger grasp of British History and a more chronological orientated history that did not bounce from one period to another. Chris Skidmore, MP and vice chairman of the committee, in an interview with BBC News, went further and suggested that a lack of linear chronology led to “what I would call Doctor Who-style history”.[1] Although Skidmore’s use of ‘Doctor Who-style history’ is intend to support the claim that history lessons, like the TV show, jump between periods from one week to the next, I would like to consider how the Victorian period was represented in Doctor Who’s 2012 Christmas special because, since its first outing in 1963, the show has played a role in bringing history into the British popular imagination.

Of course, Doctor Who is not intended to be a history programme or a costume drama. Rather, it is a television drama aimed at families. As such, the historical authenticity of the programme is probably not at the forefront of current Executive Producer Steven Moffatt’s mind, and neither do I suggest that it should be. Nevertheless, the depiction of the nineteenth century does raise interesting questions about the consumption of the Victorian era in popular culture. Doctor Who makes the past into a cultural product for its viewers. Yet historians have tended to overlook the ways in which history is presented on television and in other media forms. Much of this probably rests on the relationship between education and entertainment that has at times meant that historians have an uncomfortable relationship with popular history viewing it is seen as a process of dumbing down or light hearted entertainment. Similarly, an attempt to uncover the past through popular culture might reinforce current nostalgic sentiments or, worse still, not provide us with the layers needed to fully discuss the historical subjects that have taken our fancy. Indeed, as I watched Doctor Who I felt that if I scratched at the surface I wasn’t going to uncover the ‘past’, but rather the heart of Doctor Who mythology itself.

Victorian snow

This year’s Christmas drama covered much of the Victorian period. It opened in 1842 with a young boy building a snowman. While his parents encourage him to play with the other children, he shuns them and brings life to the snowman with the phrase ‘I don’t want to talk to them, they’re silly’. The show then fast-forwards fifty years to show that the little boy has grown up to become Dr. Walter Simeon (played by Richard E. Grant), a rather sinister and scrooge like man working for the Great Intelligence Institute. We see him collecting samples of snow. The use of snow is significant here. It fits with a cultural imaginary in which snow and Christmas are deeply intertwined. As Jenna-Louise Coleman (the actress who plays Clara) states, ‘It wouldn’t be Christmas without snow and snowmen’. Similarly, it wouldn’t be a Victorian Christmas without snow. Yet, most programmes set in a Victorian Christmas show snow to be crisp and clean. The pollution, dirt and fog of the Victorian city are not depicted. Snow never turns to mush. Yet this episode of Doctor Who questions our romanticising of snow by making it threatening, turning it into an alien entity that will have a chilling affect beyond the coldness. This defamiliarisation technique, in which everyday objects are given sinister new associations, is an oft-used technique in Doctor Who, but here it is also used to defamiliarise our dominant imaginary of the Victorian city at Christmas.

Sherlock Holmes: ‘Shut Up! I’m making dedications and it’s very exciting’

There were also several references to Sherlock Holmes to bolster the Victorian atmosphere. This is not surprising given that the cultural currency of Sherlock Holmes has skyrocketed in recent years with the Guy Ritchie films. Steven Moffatt also writes the hugely popular BBC drama Sherlock and the theme tune from this show was used in the Doctor Who soundtrack as a nod and wink to a knowing BBC audience. But references to Sherlock Holmes were about more than amusement here, I would argue. Another common Doctor Who technique is to write the Doctor into the lives of famous characters from the past, embedding the show’s mythology into a new version of history. For example, Tom Baker’s Doctor was said to be present at the painting of the Mona Lisa in City of Death (1979). This technique was used in the 2012 Christmas special to provide a new angle on the Sherlock Holmes story. When Simeon meets Madame Vastra and Jenny in an alley, he suggests that the male detective currently appearing in the Strand Magazine (Sherlock Holmes) is actually Vastra, ‘the veiled detective’, whose gender and sexual misdemeanours make it impossible for her ‘real’ identity to be revealed to the general public. Yet Simeon never mentions Sherlock Holmes by name in this exchange which means that far from viewing Doctor Who as a show that re-writes or dumbs down the nineteenth century, Moffatt places authority on to his audience and requires them to use their cultural knowledge about Victorian England. For the reference to work immediately the audience has to be a knowing one. For those not aware of the Dr Doyle or Strand reference then we see the Doctor don a deer stalker hat and pipe to solve the mystery of the snow. The Doctor and his companions thus come to play a role in the birth of the Sherlock Holmes mythology. This serves to draw the audience into the past by making them a knowing agent in the hidden happenings of the past. While these happenings are of course fictional, there is a more complicated relationship with the past here than a simple term ‘historical drama’ would imply. The past is not only costumes and old buildings, but the unfolding of stories in which the audience is very much involved.

‘What’s wrong with Victorian values?’

This episode also used the term ‘Victorian values’ more than once. Again, it did so in a way which required the knowingness of an audience that has come to be very familiar with its political uses since Thatcherism. Rather than present Victorian values as a positive force, this episode cast them in a more or less entirely negative light. This was confirmed when I discussed the episode with my fifteen year old brother. I asked him what he made of the term ‘Victorian values’ in the show and how he understood it. He felt that the term was tainted by the drive for greed and profit at the expense of others. This just about sums it up. Towards the end of the episode the Doctor argues that Simeon represents Victorian values because the snow is feeding off his ‘dark dreams’ and ‘sickness’ (loneliness, lack of humanity and compassion towards other). If it wasn’t for Victorian values then the snowmen would not have been created.

Neo-Victorian Values: Gender and sexuality

Though I thought that Clara was going to be a ‘Victorian’ assistant, I did not think that she was going to be a ‘perfect lady’. Her working-class background gives her the freedom to be more adventurous and less constrained then a Ruskin doll. We see her running, climbing onto carriages, independent and inquisitive. Her movement from barmaid to governess highlights cross-class aspirations (a great fear amongst the middle classes of Victorian England). Clara’s character mirrors those in recent neo-Victorian novels which depict fictional women transcending and challenging dominant discursive codes of gender and class. As such I found her to be more Faber’s Sugar then a Bronte heroine. The neo-Victorian dimensions of Doctor Who are also reinforced by the subversion of sexual codes by Vastra and her companion Jenny, who are also married.

The male characters are nevertheless bound to Victorian stereotyping. For instance, Simeon is evil and sinister because of his loneliness. Unlike Dickens’s Scrooge, we don’t know what has turned him into this cold person. At the same time, the only other Victorian male character is Captain Latimer, father of the children Clara is governess of. He comes across as a distant father, not necessarily closed off from love but unable to show affection or engage fully with his children. Holding them ‘is not really my area’, he says.

It appears that the Doctor will be returning to the nineteenth century if the trailer at the end of the episode is anything to go by even if Matt Smith is reluctant to tell us if he will be donning a Victorian top hat:

Boyd Hilton: Did you like the top hat?

Matt Smith: It’s nice innit

Boyd Hilton: Are you going to carry on wearing the top hat?

Matt Smith: Um…maybe…maybe not… [2]


[1] Quoted in Judith Burns, ‘Overhaul school history, urges report by MPs and Peer’, BBC News http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-20646622 (27 /12/2012).

[2] See Matt Smith and Boyd Hilton interview here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01325d5

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Edward James permalink
    January 3, 2013

    It is worth remembering that in its earliest incarnation, from 1963, the BBC intended “Doctor Who” to be an educational _historical_ programme: hence the time-travelling trips to the Aztecs, to Revolutionary France and to meet Marco Polo. The popularity of the Daleks seems to have been largely responsible for de-railing that idea.

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