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Doctor Who: Mangling History

Doctor Who has a long and noble history of attempting to convey history to its young viewers. It has not always been completely successful, however. Here are a few stories where they dipped into history -- but didn't get the history quite right.

The Gunfighters

On Doctor Who:
The TARDIS arrives in Tombstone, Arizona, just as the Clanton brothers arrive, looking to kill Doc Holliday for killing their brother. They promptly mistake the Doctor for him, because they don't know what he looks like. Wyatt Earp's brother Warren is killed, and Wyatt swears vengeance. This leads to a gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The Clantons, aided by Johnny Ringo, face down Wyatt Earp, Virgil Earp, and Doc Holliday; the Clantons and Ringo are shot dead, and our heroes take the opportunity to slip away in the TARDIS.

The depiction of the shoot-out in "The Gunfighters"

In History:
Of all the historical dramas in the first few seasons of Doctor Who, this is probably the least accurate. The Clantons weren't seeking to avenge a slain brother (yet), and there was no chance of them mistaking anyone for Doc Holliday, whom Ike Clanton had been busy trying to frame for some time. Warren Earp wasn't involved, and lived another 20 years. And the actual players at the gunfight were Doc Holliday and Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil Earp facing down Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton (the latter three all died). Ike Clanton, killed in the shoot-out on Doctor Who, fled the fight in real life and continued the feud. Infamous cowboy Johnny Ringo wasn't at the gunfight.

The three dead Cowboys after the real gunfight: Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury, and Billy Clanton

As a side-note, set reports from the BBC's filming in Almeria, Spain (location of classics like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), reveal that there will finally be a second Western on the show, probably the third episode of Series 7.

The Masque of Mandragora

On Doctor Who:
The Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane battle a living energy, the Mandragora Helix, in 15th-century Italy. The Helix intends to take over humanity at this delicate juncture between superstition and science, between religion and reason. There is a power struggle going on in the duchy of San Martino, and the rational, science-minded Prince Guiliano is accused of being a witch. In one scene, he explains to Sarah Jane his theory that the world is actually a sphere, as if he expects her to be shocked.

The conversation between Prince Guiliano and Sarah Jane starts at 2:50

In History:
Or would he have expected her to be shocked? Science was more advanced in the 15th century than usually given credit, even in Western Europe. Astronomy was fairly advanced, and the size and shape of the Earth had been known since antiquity; Eratosthenes even computed the correct circumference to within 2% of the actual value around 200 BC. The work of Dante Alighieri, who wrote his epic work The Divine Comedy over a century before reflecting the mainstream view of both church and secular authorities, clearly references a spherical Earth. So rather than being ahead of his times, Guiliano is behind them.


A diagram of Dante's depiction of the spherical Earth; it's a cutaway view, intended to show the structure of Hell underground

City of Death

On Doctor Who:
Visiting Paris, the Fourth Doctor and Second Romana stumble upon a complicated plot to steal the Mona Lisa -- by an alien who has six copies in his basement that have been bricked up since 1508, right after Leonardo da Vinci painted them. The alien plans on using them to bankroll a time machine that will get him back 400 million years, so he can prevent an explosion in the spacecraft that is carrying his entire species. The Doctor has to intervene, because that spacecraft's explosion is also what jump-started life on Earth.

Conclusion of the serial. As a bonus, watch for John Cleese and Eleanor Bron's uncredited cameo at 7:14; they appeared as a favor to their friend, script editor Douglas Adams

In History:
Perhaps the Doctor didn't need to worry quite so much; 400 million years ago, life on Earth was already well established. Life on Earth started about 3.5 billion years ago. That's just as well; our heroes would have found it very difficult to breathe if they had gone back to stop Scaroth just before the start of life -- it took more than a billion years just to establish an oxygen-based atmosphere. By 400 million years ago, there were already plants on land, and if our heroes had gone for a swim, they might have met one of these.

The King's Demons

On Doctor Who:
The Fifth Doctor, Degan, Nyssa, and Turlough arrive in England in 1215, where they encounter King John, busy harassing a minor lord in an attempt to extort taxes. But it can't be John; the king is in London taking the Crusader's Oath. This imposter king turns out to be a shape-shifting robot controlled by the Master, who intends to disrupt history by triggering a revolt against King John, preventing the Magna Carta from being signed.

The Doctor outlines the Master's plan

In History:
Actually, the Doctor has it pretty much backwards, and so does the Master -- it was the baron's revolt that forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. Only when it became apparent that he could not suppress the revolt with force of arms alone did King John consent to sign the decree, and he promptly renounced it once the barons left, plunging England into the First Baron's War. What's more, King John did end up dying during the war, of dysentery, an event which may actually have helped the Magna Carta; William Marshal, appointed protector of the nine-year-old King Henry III, used it as the basis of the new government in 1217. So rather than a baronial revolt preventing the Magna Carta, a baronial revolt was instrumental to its creation.


14th century copy of the Magna Carta

The Mark of the Rani

On Doctor Who:
The Sixth Doctor and Peri arrive in 1820s Killingworth, an English mining town, where previously gentle men have been turning into thugs embarking on Luddite riots. They meet the inventor George Stephenson, who is plotting a meeting of engineering geniuses, and who is working on a steam engine that he says could revolutionize transportation. The Doctor slyly tells him that his invention "will take off like a rocket," referencing an actual engine built by Stephenson in 1829.

The Doctor and Peri arrive in Killingworth

In History:
The real Stephenson probably would not have been keen to invite a group of engineering geniuses to a conference in the 1820s; in the 1810s, he'd been embroiled in a bitter intellectual property dispute because the intelligentsia didn't believe an uneducated man like him could have actually invented a safety lamp for miners. He understandably resented the attitude. And Stephenson didn't need to be told that steam power was the future; his first operational steam locomotive had already gone into service in 1814. While Stephenson indeed would go on to build the Rocket in 1829, it was important for a different reason: it won a speed race, and thereby the contract to build engines for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, helping establish Stephenson's railway specifications as standards for the future.


The Rocket

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Did Queen Victoria Really Save Prince Albert From Drowning in an Icy Lake?
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many British queens have also served as daring emergency rescuers. But when the moment arose, Queen Victoria was ready to save the day. In 1841, she saved her husband, Prince Albert, from an icy lake he had fallen into while skating.

The incident didn't need much dramatization when it was included in an episode of the PBS drama Victoria. It really was a life-or-death situation, and 21-year-old Victoria was the hero.

On a cold February day in 1841, Victoria and Albert, who had married almost exactly a year earlier, went for a walk around the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Albert, an avid sportsman who loved to skate and play hockey, strapped on his ice skates and headed out onto the lake. In a diary entry, Victoria wrote that the ice was smooth and hard that day—mostly. As he skated toward her, she noticed that the ice around a bridge looked a little thin.

"I, standing alone on the bank," she wrote in her journal that evening, "said, ‘it is unsafe here,' and no sooner had I said this, than the ice cracked, and Albert was in the water up to his head, even for a moment below." By her own telling, Victoria screamed and reached out her arm to him, holding onto her lady-in-waiting, the only attendant present.

Albert grabbed Victoria's arm and she was able to pull him to safety. He had cut his chin and was dripping wet, but returned home, took a hot bath and a nap, and was up a few hours later to socialize when their uncle Leopold (Victoria and Albert were first cousins) came to visit.

"Her Majesty manifested the greatest courage upon the occasion, and acted with the most intrepid coolness," an account of the event that appeared in The Times a few days later proclaimed. "As soon as the Prince was safe on dry land, the queen gave way to the natural emotions of joy and thankfulness at his providential escape."

Albert recounted his side of the experience in a letter to his step-grandmother, Duchess Caroline of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. "I was making my way to Victoria, who was standing on the bank with one of her ladies," he described, when "I fell plump into the water, and had to swim for two or three minutes in order to get out. Victoria was the only person with the presence of mind to lend me assistance, her lady being more occupied in screaming for help." (Both the queen's diary entry and the newspaper account give the lady-in-waiting a little more credit, suggesting that she at least served as an anchor for the queen as she reached out to the prince.)

According to The Times, the problem was bird-related. That morning, the groundskeepers in charge of the various waterfowl that called the lake home had broken the ice around the edges of the water so that the birds could drink. By the time the queen and the prince arrived, those spots had frozen over with a deceptively thin layer of ice.

Thanks to Victoria, though, Albert emerged from the incident with little more than a bad cold and went on to live for another 20 years.

Had Albert died that day on the ice, it could have completely changed European history. Victoria and Albert had already had a daughter, and the future King Edward VII was conceived around this time. If Albert had died, seven of Victoria’s children wouldn’t have been born—children who were married to nobles and rulers across Europe (during World War I, seven of their direct descendants were on thrones as king or queen). And if the future Edward VII hadn’t been conceived, Albert died, and everything else remained the same, it’s possible Kaiser Wilhelm II may have become the ruler of both Germany and the United Kingdom.

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The Sky Was No Limit: The WASP Women Pilots of WWII
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Shirley Slade sat on the wing of a plane and looked off into an uncertain future. Slade—clad in her flight suit with pigtails guarding against Texas wind—was posing for the July 19, 1943 issue of Life magazine, and the composition between the aircraft and its operator was a juxtaposition spelled out in the cover headline: "Air Force Pilot."

Slade was one of more than 1000 women who had been solicited by the U.S. government to enter an intensive seven-month training course that would make them the first female pilots to enter the Air Force. What had been a boy's club was being forced into a kind of reluctant gender neutrality as a result of World War II and severe pilot shortages. By recruiting women, the Air Force could maintain delivery of aircraft, ferry supplies, and perform other non-combative functions that fueled the war efforts. Collectively, the group would become known as WASPs: Women Airforce Service Pilots.

While all of these women risked their lives—and more than a few lost them—they were not perceived as equals. Because they were designated as civilians, they were denied military honors and compensation. As the war wound down, men returning from combat jockeyed to take the WASPs' places as active-duty pilots. Occasionally, the women would be used in target practice. It would be decades before the women of WASP would finally get their due.

 
 

America's entry into World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor heralded a new policy of rationing. Food, materials, and manpower were doled out carefully, but demand for pilots quickly exceeded the available personnel. By 1942, the Air Force realized they would have to tap into new sources in order to continue their campaign.

Jacqueline Cochran had a solution: A pilot in her own right and a contemporary of Amelia Earhart, Cochran knew there was a strong contingent of female fliers who had licenses and had logged air time who could be recruited for support missions. She petitioned the Air Force, including commanding general Henry Harley "Hap" Arnold, to approve a training program that would ultimately relocate volunteers to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Another pilot, Nancy Harkness Love, submitted a similar proposal.

WASP pilot Elizabeth Remba Gardner looks out from her plane while on a Texas runway
WASP pilot Elizabeth Remba Gardner
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Cochran and Love were up against considerable resistance to involving women in military efforts. General Dwight D. Eisenhower once admitted he was "violently against" the idea (before concluding that none of his concerns came to light and women were an integral part of the effort). Internally, there was concern as to whether women would even be capable of handling a massive aircraft like the B-29 bomber, so superiors hedged their bets by creating two organizations.

Love was put in charge of the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS)—an organization to ferry planes—while Cochran was put in charge of the Women's Flying Training Detachment, which did whatever the Army Air Corps required of it. A little under a year later, these two groups were merged into a single organization: the WASPs. This new group demanded that incoming women logged at least 35 hours of flight time before coming to Sweetwater. More importantly, the women would be considered civilians, not military personnel.

Roughly 25,000 women applied; around 1900 were accepted and 1100 completed training. On their own dimes, these women streamed into Texas to begin the seven-month program that taught them every aspect of military flying except for gunnery duty and formation flying. Every day in the barracks included intensive lessons, physical fitness training, and studying. At night, the women would dance, sing, or play ping-pong. Life described their ambitions as "piloting with an unfeminine purpose" and noted that some of the women needed cushions in order to sit comfortably in planes designed for male bodies. Their mascot, a tiny winged sprite named Miss Fifinella, was designed by Disney, and the patch appeared on many of their jumpsuits and plane noses.

According to Life, the Air Force reported that the women were faster on instruments while the men "had better memory for details." But in virtually every way that counted, the magazine wrote, there was no practical difference in ability.

Graduates were dispatched to bases around the country, though the most pressing job was ferrying new aircraft from factories to places like Newark, New Jersey, where the planes would make the jump overseas. The women shuttled 12,000 of these planes during the war. They also escorted military chaplains from base to base on Sundays for religious services and operated test flights for repaired aircraft to make sure they were safe to fly in combat. Sometimes, they'd be tasked with towing targets behind them so soldiers could use live ammunition for combat practice.

Simulated combat may have been nerve-wracking, but it was no more dangerous than the actual flying and the very real possibility that the WASPs would experience equipment malfunction or fuel issues. In the two years the squad was active, 38 women perished during missions. At the time—and for decades afterward—the families of those women were denied many of the basic privileges afforded to the families of their male counterparts. When a WASP died, her colleagues—not the government—would pitch in to pay for her burial. Their families were prohibited from putting a gold star in their windows, a sign of a military casualty, nor were they "allowed" to drape the American flag over their coffins.

 
 

On December 20, 1944, the WASPs were sent home. The war wasn't yet over, but men returning from the front lines were dismayed that jobs they expected to find waiting for them were being occupied by women. Despite Cochran's petition to have the WASPs permanently incorporated into the Air Force, Congress turned her down.

WASP pilots are photographed circa 1943
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The pride the women had felt serving their country turned to confusion. By being classified as "civilians," the WASPs found little respect for their efforts. When entering the workforce after the war, some even became flight attendants, as no commercial airline would hire a female pilot.

In the 1970s, the Air Force announced they'd be accepting female recruits for the "first time," a proclamation that angered the surviving WASPs. Their efforts had largely gone unheralded, and now it seemed like the government was wiping them from history completely. Petitioning for recognition and receiving aid from fellow war ferry pilot Senator Barry Goldwater, they were finally granted military status on November 23, 1977.

As the WASPs aged, a handful got the chance to enjoy another honor. In 2010, the women were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their efforts. After flying 77 different types of planes over 60 million miles during wartime and being largely ignored for decades, it was recognition that was long overdue.

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