While we may not all have all-purpose sonic screwdrivers yet—let alone a TARDIS in every driveway—some of Doctor Who’s narrative is rooted in honest-to-goodness world history (and could even make for good Doctor Who gift ideas). In fact, the concept for the original series—which premiered on November 23, 1963—was to alternate science fiction stories (which could be used to introduce science concepts) with period pieces (which could be used to teach history). Here’s just a small sampling of the real-life stories that have been used to plot the adventures of everyone’s favorite Time Lord in the 55 years since the iconic series made its debut.
1. JACK THE RIPPER’S RAMPAGE
London, 1888. A maniac is stalking the streets of Whitechapel, targeting prostitutes, killing them, and sending gruesome trophies and taunting letters to the police and press. The crimes were never solved and the murderer was never identified (though there have been plenty of suspects), but he became known as Jack the Ripper. The general public quickly became frustrated with the inability of the police to find a murderer, and newspapers took to hiring private detectives, a la Sherlock Holmes, whose first adventure had been printed just the year before.
On Doctor Who: In 1977's "The Talons of Weng-Chiang," the TARDIS materializes in London around 1890; the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) wants to show his companion Leela (Louise Jameson) some of the customs of her Earth ancestors, and they see a poster advertising a magician named Li H'sen Chang. En route to the Palace Theatre, where he is performing, they happen upon a murder in progress. The Doctor decides to investigate.
The victim is a cab driver who had gone to the Palace Theatre to confront Chang, claiming that he must have abducted his wife. The man's wife had attended a performance and been selected as a volunteer for a mesmerism demonstration, and had subsequently walked away. The police had been disinclined to investigate, but one of the theater's staff believes it's the work of the Ripper or a copycat, because this isn't the first woman to disappear in the vicinity of the theater recently. This turns out to be nothing more than cover for the real culprit: a deformed man hiding under the theater and claiming to be the Chinese god Weng-Chiang, who needs the young women for a nefarious purpose.
The story is heavily informed by the media treatment of the Ripper murders, the public media frenzy about him, and the growing popularity of Sherlock Holmes (whom the Doctor deliberately imitates, complete with deerstalker hat).
2. THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS
The Cuban Missile Crisis was still very much on people's minds in 1963, when Doctor Who first launched. The crisis had reached a fever pitch when the Soviet Union announced that it would respond to the placing of intermediate range ballistic missiles in Italy and Turkey by placing its own missiles within reach of the United States, on the Soviet-aligned island of Cuba. This would give both nations, for the first time, the ability to rain death upon one another at will. The two nations eventually agreed to pull their missiles back.
On Doctor Who: The second serial presented on Doctor Who, a six-part story called "The Daleks," was set on a distant world where the nightmare of 1962 actually came to pass; two nations, the Thals and the Dals, had been locked in an arms race for some indeterminate period of time, finally developing nuclear weapons, resulting in a full nuclear exchange between the two and irradiating the planet Skaro. The radiation was so severe that by the time our heroes arrive, the forests are petrified and full of mummified animals. Those who survived the exchange are now drastically mutated. The Thals have mutated full-circle, becoming a handsome race devoted to peaceful coexistence. They believe the Dals are either extinct or so horribly mutated that they cannot emerge from their frozen city. Neither is completely true; the Dals have mutated horribly, to the point where they have no skeletons and are no longer capable of independent life, but they have developed tank-like travel machines, equipped with life support and a formidable weapons system. They have become the Daleks.
As testimony to the uncomfortable reality of nuclear war, the Daleks quickly became the most popular and enduring villains on the program.
3. THE DEVELOPMENT OF INTERCONTINENTAL BALLISTIC MISSILES
The missile threat only got worse. By the late 1960s, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were a reality, allowing missiles stored anywhere to strike anywhere else on the planet. By the 1970s, storable propellants brought a new element: Missiles could be kept armed, fueled, programmed, and ready to fire at a moment's notice, in sufficient numbers to ensure that if anyone attacked you, you could make sure it was the last thing they ever did. This was an awesome power, and one with an obvious potential for abuse: You need only fear people who have no interest in the survival of their own nation. And as more nations acquired both nuclear weapons and the technology needed to deliver them, this worry became ever more clear.
On Doctor Who: In 1974, Tom Baker became the Fourth Doctor, and his first story, "Robot," incorporated this fear. It began with the Asimovian concept of a robot that was programmed to help people being turned against them by altering its programming, but shifted to the massive potential abuse that could be made of ICBMs. The robot's handlers used it to steal the launch codes for nuclear missiles all over the world, and were preparing to launch them all, with the objective of wiping out the human race so that their chosen few could repopulate the world.
Later on in the same season, the six-part story "Genesis of the Daleks" also explored the notion of a madman initiating a nuclear exchange: in this case, the nuclear exchange that ended the ancient war between the Thals and the Dals (inexplicably renamed "Kaleds" in this story) and completed the irradiation of Skaro. It was the brainchild of one man, Davros, a Kaled who betrayed his own people to provoke the final exchange and eliminate the politicians who were preventing his Dalek creations from becoming an independent reality.
4. THE DISAPPEARANCE OF AGATHA CHRISTIE
In 1926, Agatha Christie's husband Archie revealed that he was having an affair and asked for a divorce. On December 8, 1926, they had a fight of some kind and her husband left. So did Agatha, leaving only a note stating that she was going to Yorkshire. No further trace of her was found until she turned up at a hotel eleven days later in Harrogate, Yorkshire. She would give no explanation of her disappearance; though many believe it was a stunt staged to embarrass or otherwise inconvenience her husband, a more recent theory posits that she was considering suicide.
On Doctor Who: On May 17, 2008, the BBC aired "The Unicorn and the Wasp." The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) arrive at a manor house in 1926 England and are promptly mistaken for guests at a party thrown by Lady Eddison, who as a fan of Agatha Christie, has invited her for dinner. But in a pattern that seems lifted right out of Agatha's fiction, the guests start dying mysteriously. It's obvious the killer is one of them—but which one? In the end, Christie must save the day, but in so doing suffers temporary amnesia. The Doctor drops her off at a hotel in Harrogate, 10 days later. (The episode is also notable for featuring an early performance by Felicity Jones, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for 2014's Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything.)
5. THE ABANDONMENT OF THE MARY CELESTE
On December 4, 1872, the crew of the Dei Gratia sighted another vessel sailing in the Atlantic Ocean. Something didn't look right about her, as if she was not being properly helmed, and the Dei Gratia moved in closer and identified it as the Mary Celeste. They could see no one on board, and after a while, although she flew no distress signal, they decided to board her. They found the ship deserted. The cargo and personal effects of the crew were all intact, along with ample provisions for the voyage, but most of the ship's papers were missing, along with a lifeboat. The ship appeared to have been abandoned in a hurry, but since the crew and passengers were never seen again, to this day no one knows exactly what happened.
On Doctor Who: Beginning in May 1965, the BBC began transmission of "The Chase," a six-part adventure featuring the Daleks and providing for the departure of long-running companions Ian and Barbara. The Daleks have developed time travel and are pursuing the TARDIS through time and space, with the intention of eliminating the pesky Doctor. The Doctor discovers the plot and flees through history, with the Daleks in pursuit. In part three, after a brief stop on the Empire State Building, they find themselves on a sailing ship that's becalmed off of the Azores. Barbara goes out to investigate, because she loves sailing vessels, and the companions are mistaken for stowaways. They manage to escape, and the Doctor dematerializes the TARDIS, leaving the ship's crew very confused. Then the Daleks' time vessel arrives. As the Daleks emerge, the crew and passengers flee the ship. The Daleks then leave to resume their pursuit, leaving the abandoned ship adrift.
6. VINCENT VAN GOGH'S FINAL YEARS
Born in the Netherlands on March 30, 1853, Vincent van Gogh lived a life which is, for many, the epitome of the tormented artist. Though wildly famous today, in his lifetime he toiled in obscurity, unable to sell his paintings and frustrated at his inability to work during bouts of mental illness. His most productive period was the last two years of life. He moved to the city of Arles in 1888 with visions of starting an artists' colony; this dream went unrealized and he began to feel increasingly abandoned. The townsfolk called him mad and wanted him removed; fellow artist Paul Gaugin visited, but ultimately rejected the idea of continued artistic collaboration; and his bouts of madness grew progressively worse, longer, and more frequent. In 1890, he is believed to have shot himself, although some believe it was an accident and not a suicide.
On Doctor Who: On June 5, 2010, the BBC transmitted "Vincent and the Doctor." Intrigued by a strange monster appearing in one of van Gogh's paintings at the Musee D'Orsay, the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) decide to investigate. They land in Provence, in the city of Arles, and quickly find a cafe that looks exactly like Cafe Terrace at Night, painted by Van Gogh in September of 1888. There they find a redheaded Dutchman trying (and failing) to pay off his bar tab by bartering a self-portrait. They immediately recognize him to be van Gogh and begin making friends with him to try and work out when the monster will appear, but the real star of the episode is van Gogh's art. Many of his paintings are featured at some point in the story—backgrounds in his apartment, the layout of his room, The Church at Auvers where the creature had appeared, why he decided to paint all those sunflowers, and a lovely scene explaining why he painted The Starry Night in that distinctive way.
7. THE THIRD CRUSADE
Lasting just three years, from 1189 to 1192, the Third Crusade attempted to retake the Holy Land from Saladin, who had conquered them in 1187 as part of an effort to reduce Christian influence in the region. In western Europe, King Henry II of England and King Philip II of France made a pact to end their long war and join together against Saladin, and obtained the full support of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa (and then his successor, Leopold V). Henry II died before he could go far, but Richard I "the Lionheart" enthusiastically took up the task. A combined English, French, and German/Austrian force drove the Saracens out of Acre, and both Philip II and the Emperor returned to Europe.
Richard I wasn't done, though. He took additional cities, remaining undefeated during his stay in the Holy Land. The Crusade was not fully successful, and Richard I signed a treaty with Saladin in 1192, leaving Jerusalem under Muslim control but allowing pilgrims and merchants access to the city while a Christian presence remained in Cyprus and Syria. Richard returned home in October of 1192.
On Doctor Who: Transmitted in 1965, "The Crusade" is a four-part serial set in the middle of the Third Crusade. The TARDIS materializes in the middle of an ambush, and our heroes are thrown promptly into the thick of things. Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) is captured by Saracens along with a friend of King Richard, and the First Doctor (William Hartnell), Vicki (Maureen O'Brien), and Ian (William Russell) head for King Richard's court. Saladin's brother, Saphadin, believes Barbara and the Englishman to be King Richard and his sister Joanna, and is about to kill them when he realizes they aren't as valuable as he thought—and then Saladin emerges and saves them, asking Barbara to become his Scheherazade.
Meanwhile, King Richard is persuaded by our heroes to lend some assistance in retrieving Barbara and his friend, and grants Ian a knighthood, telling him to offer his sister's hand in marriage in exchange for the two hostages—because that's what Saphadin had really been after all along. The real Joanna refuses this plan, and Ian has to go rescue Barbara the old-fashioned way. By this time, some of the English nobles have begun to suspect the Doctor is a spy for Saladin; he, Ian, Barbara, and Vicki manage to return to the TARDIS and flee at the last moment.
This serial was destroyed during the BBC's infamous archive purge, but episodes 1 and 3 have since been recovered, as has the complete soundtrack. A version of it, with linking narration by William Russell ("Ian") to explain the missing episodes, was released on VHS and DVD.
8. OIL RIGS: TERROR AT SEA
The Cold War wasn't the only big news during the early years of Doctor Who. The first British North Sea oil well was drilled in 1965. That was also the year of the first accident. The first oil rig on the British continental shelf collapsed under rough seas and sank, killing 13 men. (The remaining 14 crew survived.) By 1970, the fields were ready to be commercially exploited, eliminating Britain's dependence on foreign oil by 1979. But the accident in 1965 wouldn't be the last. In 1968, the Odeco Ocean Prince broke up and sank; all crew were evacuated safely. The Constellation sank under tow in 1969. In 1974, the Transocean 3 collapsed and then capsized; all crew were evacuated safely. Still, drilling remained popular, and had a dramatic effect on the economic situation in Scotland. Its northerly location made it a prime source of labor of the rigs, creating an employment boom.
On Doctor Who: In 1975, "Terror of the Zygons" was transmitted, a four-part story concluding Tom Baker's first season as the Fourth Doctor. The Doctor has been called in to help investigate the peculiar destruction of oil rigs off the Scottish coast. Unlike the real-life loss of the Transocean 3, these rigs aren't destroyed by weather; whatever's been destroying them has teeth. The company is keen to solve the problem, as workers are reluctant to go to the rigs now, and the region is now dependent on the rigs for employment—so much so that the local laird bemoans the loss of staff for his castle, as they've all taken jobs with the oil company. But of course there turns out to be more going on: The rigs are being destroyed in the early stages of a nefarious plan by a race of shape-shifting aliens who plan to destabilize global politics and then seize power.
9. THE EMPEROR NERO
Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus was born December 15, 37 AD. Though related to the Emperor, he was not considered a major contender for the throne until Claudius adopted him and made him his heir. At this time, he changed his name to Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus, and in 54 AD, he became the Emperor Nero. He quickly worked to consolidate his power, using poison and other means to eliminate rivals, ultimately including his own mother. He was a very busy emperor, but of mixed popularity; on one hand, he was responsible for considerable tax reform, but he scandalized conservative Romans by bringing in Greek-inspired theater and even performing the lyre himself, which the more tradition-minded felt was an invitation to immorality.
But the event for which he is best known occurred on July 18, 64: the Great Fire of Rome. Though the cause of the fire is unknown, many ancient historians blamed Nero, saying that he had the city burned to clear the way for massive public works projects. This may not be true, since Nero contributed enormous personal time and money and even the use of his palaces to care for the survivors. As rumor started to paint Nero as the villain, he used the ever-popular strategy of blaming an unpopular minority: He blamed it on Christians, having them tortured and burned publicly to appease the public. His reign continued another four years, and then, facing a revolt, he committed suicide. His death ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
On Doctor Who: "The Romans" aired in January of 1965. The TARDIS delivers the Doctor, Barbara, Ian, and new companion Vicki to ancient Rome, 64 AD. It gets stuck at the bottom of a cliff, so the travelers move into an empty villa for the duration. Barbara and Ian are captured by slave traders, while the Doctor and Vicki find themselves mistaken for an accomplished lyre player and his companion. The Doctor accepts the mistaken identity, and is brought to the court of Emperor Nero. The serial favors the incompetent, vain, and arrogant depiction of Nero, and while the Doctor tries to deflect Nero's requests for a concert, Barbara and Ian have their own adventures, with Ian going the full "Ben Hur" gladiator route. Nero eventually works out that the Doctor can't play the lyre to save his life, and becomes furious. He's about to order the Doctor thrown to the lions when the Doctor's glasses accidentally set a map of the city on fire. This gives Nero the inspiration to have the city burned deliberately so that he can rebuild it to his liking. Our heroes still have to escape their various perils, which they do with the help of a friendly Roman who turns out to be an early Christian, leaving one to wonder how things will go for him after our heroes have departed.
10. THE AZTEC EMPIRE
The Aztecs were a group of Mesoamericans who dominated much of what is now Mexico when the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the 16th century. Although the Conquistadors emphasized the brutality of their customs (particularly human sacrifice) in order to justify their conquest, they weren't mere butchers and had a complex society, advanced architecture, and a rich mythological structure. But the human sacrifice thing was very real. Unlike most ancient cultures, they didn't perform sacrifice to appease their gods; they felt the gods could not be controlled, but that sacrifice at the appropriate times would nourish the right gods at the right times to achieve particular effects, such as bringing the rain. The empire reached its zenith in 1519—shortly before Cortes arrived and ended it all.
On Doctor Who: The four-part serial "The Aztecs" aired in season one. The TARDIS materializes in the tomb of a legendary high priest named Yetaxa. Intrigued by the grave goods, Barbara puts on a bracelet—and is promptly mistaken for a reincarnation of Yetaxa when some of the locals catch her in the tomb. She is immediately lavished with praise and honor, which she enjoys up until she discovers that the priests are planning a sacrifice to restore the rains. In accordance with Aztec custom, a Perfect Sacrifice has been groomed and will be killed in front of her. Although the young man in question is content with his fate, and even considers it a high honor, Barbara is horrified and resolves to use her new position to ban human sacrifice, believing that ending the practice might enable the Aztecs to survive the arrival of the Spaniards. The Doctor tries to warn her that she cannot be successful, but she has to try anyway.
11. THE BATTLE OF CULLODEN
In 1745, the Jacobites rebelled, seeking to overthrow the House of Hanover and restore the House of Stuart to the British throne. This uprising sought to place James III back on the thrones of England and Scotland, and was led primarily by Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) with heavy support from Highland clans in Scotland, and also the backing of the French king, who probably preferred a Catholic on the English throne and the ending of hostilities between England and France. The process began well, but soon faltered, and in under a year was a disaster. The Jacobites staged their final land battle at Culloden Moor, a valiantly fought effort on bad ground where thousands died. The government troops pursued the Jacobites vigorously, hunting them down and committing many acts which today would be considered war crimes in their ardor. Charles managed to flee, wandering the Highlands for a while before escaping to France, and the English government began a brutal crackdown to retaliate, attempting to wipe Gaelic culture and the clan system off the map and prevent a recurrence. He spent most of the rest of his life in France and Rome (apart from a brief visit to London), in exile.
On Doctor Who: Transmitted between December of 1966 and January of 1967, "The Highlanders" was the last "pure historical" serial until the 1980s; that is, a story set entirely in period with no alien monsters or similarly fantastical problems with which the characters had to contend. The TARDIS arrives near the field of Culloden, and the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton), Ben (Michael Craze), and Polly (Anneke Wills) are promptly taken prisoner by a group of escaping Jacobites belonging to the clan McLaren: a laird, his two adult children, and a piper named Jamie McCrimmon. Government troops catch up with them, kill one of the Jacobites, and take the rest prisoner, while the two girls manage to escape. The Doctor, Ben, and the Jacobites narrowly escape hanging, and wind up being dragged off to Inverness in an illegal transportation scheme being worked for profit by one of the government men, the Royal Commissioner of Prisons, who intends to ship them off to the colonies to be sold into servitude. The Doctor escapes, reunites with Polly, and aids in a mutiny that enables the captured Highlanders to take a ship to head for France. Jamie McCrimmon stays behind to help our heroes find their way back, and ends up joining them in the TARDIS.
This is another one of the destroyed serials, but in this case, only the audio has been recovered, and released on CD with narration by Frazer Hines ("Jamie McCrimmon"). There have been a number of efforts to create reconstructions based on the audio and telesnaps recorded at the time.
12. THE ENERGY CRISIS
The reason North Sea oil was so important, of course, was the energy crisis. German oil production peaked in 1966; Venezuela and the United States peaked in 1970. Great Britain was already massively dependent on foreign oil, the promises of North Sea oil not yet realized. Although the worst was yet to come, by 1970, headlines talked of a looming energy crisis and the need to find alternate sources.
On Doctor Who: In May and June of 1970, the seven-episode serial "Inferno" involved a project to tap pockets of a mysterious gas below the Earth's crust. Named "Stahlman's Gas" for the obsessive scientist in charge of the project, it promises to provide near-limitless sources of energy and prevent the looming energy crisis. The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) becomes involved because the drilling project competes for energy from a nuclear plant that the Doctor is also using to try to repair his TARDIS. But Stahlman's Gas is not the panacea anyone had hoped for, and the drilling project threatens to turn England into a gigantic volcano that will destroy the Earth.
13. THE DISCOVERY OF MARTIAN PYRAMIDS
In 1971, the Mariner 9 spacecraft became the first manmade object to orbit another planet. Although previous flyby missions had revealed that Mars was pocked with craters and appeared lifeless, this would be the first chance to make a proper survey of the world. The first few months of the mission were disappointing; a global sandstorm was blanketing the planet. But then the sand settled out. Among many amazing discoveries, such as the first discovery of volcanoes on another world, there was a group of mesas with a striking appearance on these early low-res images: They looked like pyramids, and pyramids would mean intelligent life capable of massive public works projects.
Skeptics were cautious, and indeed, later missions have revealed them to be natural formations. But when the "pyramid" photos came back on February 8, 1972, they made headlines all the same.
On Doctor Who: A few years later, Doctor Who mimicked that storyline in "Pyramids of Mars." Attempting to return to UNIT headquarters in 1980, the TARDIS is drawn off-course to a large manor house that stood on the site over 60 years earlier. The house belongs to a renowned Egyptologist and is full of items returned from a recent mission. But the Egyptologist has failed to return along with the artifacts that he'd shipped ahead, and soon the mummies start coming to life. He had stumbled upon the prison of a super-powerful alien named Sutekh, held captive by a beam being transmitted from the pyramids on Mars. On Doctor Who, the pyramids were indeed artificial, built expressly to house the transmitter and keep it out of Sutekh's grasp on Earth.
HONORABLE MENTION: RIPPED FROM A FUTURE HEADLINE
Since Doctor Who involves time travel, is it possible they ripped something from a future headline? In "Terror of the Zygons" produced in 1975 and set ostensibly around 1980 (Doctor Who continuity is a bit muddled at times), Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart contacts an unnamed prime minister—and refers to this person as "ma'am." That wasn't actually in the script; actor Nicholas Courtney ad-libbed it. But four years after this episode was transmitted and a year before it was (probably) set, Margaret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
A version of this article was originally published in 2018 and has been updated for 2022.