Writing The Past: They Do Things Differently There

The original version of the article was written for Amazing Stories and published as ‘Doctor Who and the Strange Victorians’. The starting point was the 2012 Doctor Who Christmas Special, ‘The Snowmen’, in which a young woman, the Doctor’s new companion, falls down a metaphorical rabbit hole in Victorian London. As Doctor Who approached its 50th birthday (celebrated in 2013) executive producer and writer Steven Moffat appeared to be transforming the programme into a meta-fictional game played with materials drawn from its own past, as opposed to anything engaging with actual history. Don’t worry if you neither know nor care about Doctor Who. That was the starting point. This post is about how we approach the past, and to a lesser extent, the future, in fiction. 

Fantasy, horror and science fiction can exist in the real world, or create hermetic worlds of their own. Which is to say fiction can follow the rules of the real world, or make its own rules up, ignoring reality completely. Both are fine, so long as the writer understands what they are doing, and most genre fiction falls somewhere in-between. At one extreme is Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a novel so realistic much of the reading world doesn’t consider it science fiction at all. At the other, how about Lewis Carroll’s Victorian fantasy masterpiece Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? In-between one might cite HG Wells’ The Time Machine, which begins in a very real (then contemporary) late Victorian London, before venturing into an imagined future based firmly on what was at the time Wells was writing, state of the art scientific knowledge. Without The Time Machine, of course, there would be no Doctor Who.

Set in London in 1842 and 1892, the 50 year time span covered by ‘The Snowmen’ echoes the 50 year life of Doctor Who itself. The new companion is one Clara Oswin Oswald, who was born on 23 November, the same date the first episode of Doctor Who was originally broadcast. According to her gravestone she died 26 years later, just as the original run of Doctor Who was cancelled after 26 years. Clara has already lived and died twice, just as Doctor Who the programme has lived and expired twice, if one counts the TV movie pilot broadcast in 1996 but never followed-through with a new series. Clara’s full name suspiciously echoes that of Lee Harvey Oswald, whose assassination of US President John F. Kennedy the day before the transmission of the first episode of Doctor Who resulted in the broadcast of that episode being delayed due to extended news coverage. So far, so intriguing. And all deeply self-referential and fantastical. The world of Clara’s Doctor Who is much more Carroll than Orwell, or even Wells.

In the episodes which followed Clara’s debut much highly enjoyable flitting through time and resultant paradox ensued. Unlike new Doctor Who, the original series of Doctor Who didn’t play intricate, rarely resolved, games with time. The Doctor and his companions used the TARDIS, the Doctor’s space/time machine, to arrive somewhere in the past or future and have an adventure. Space /time travel was rarely more than a means of getting to wherever (and whenever) the story was to take place. Time travel hardly ever featured significantly, if at all, in the events which followed. As a child this disappointed me greatly, and I always preferred the stories set in the future or on another world, in which there would be monsters and strangeness. I found the historical tales, well… too historical. The old Doctor Who had a remit to educate as well as entertain, and stories set in the past tended to have as much historical veracity as the production values would allow. There was some attempt to have characters behaving authentically, even if they did all speak perfect English. It was worthy, and for this child at least, rather dull.

Now in Doctor Who’s hermetically sealed universe, late Victorians don’t find it remarkable that an alien (Sontaran) warrior openly walks the streets of London, or that a young woman is openly married to a female Silurian, a race of reptilian humanoids. That in the real London of 1892 (or any other year) there were no Sontarans or Silurians, and that the idea of gay marriage didn’t exist, is considered irrelevant. This is a Steampunk fantasy aimed squarely at a contemporary audience, with tongue firmly in cheek. Realism, other than in costume and production design, is surplus to requirements. It often makes for better entertainment, but that doesn’t mean that narrative coherence has always to be sacrificed to that which is more immediately fun or appealing.

Popular filmed entertainment almost always makes the past more like the present. It does so to make things easier for both writers and audience. So often costume dramas – and science fiction or fantasy set in the past or future is, whatever else it may be, costume drama – make characters in the past or future just like people today but with more more attractive or stranger clothes. The attitudes barely differ from those of whenever the film or TV programme made. This is easier for the writers (less research is required) and the audience (no imagination is required). This is fine as far as it goes, but there is still room – rarely acknowledged by film or television – for something rather more challenging. Which ‘keeps it real’ and makes the audience do some work.

Often producers tell us they have made the characters ‘relevant’. Unfortunately this can be a code best deciphered as, ‘we’ve simplified, distorted, sanitised and lied about the past to make it something you can relate to with minimum effort and zero thought’. They will also have skirted the possibility of causing offence by erasing historically accurate attitudes – racism, sexism, etc. – which wouldn’t be acceptable now in characters intended to be read as sympathetic and heroic. The former panders to laziness, the latter is understandable in the age of the Twitterstorm, in which complex ideas can be instantly taken out of context, repeated around the globe and endlessly misquoted – and sometimes deliberately and maliciously misrepresented by unprincipled bloggers with an agenda – to give a false, lasting and deeply damaging impression of what was actually shown / said, and why and in what context. Such is cultural illiteracy than simply depicting something in a drama can be taken by some as condoning it.

So we find ourselves in a default state of revisionism (the recent Disney film Saving Mr Banks depicted the early 1960s as a world in which almost no one smoked, and certainly never inhaled), it’s easy to forget how different even the fairly recent past was. For instance, in some ways the real Victorian London was so different from London today that alien warriors and lesbian lizard ladies don’t seem that strange or out of place. If you find that hard to believe then let me recommend the most astonishing book, London in the 19th Century, by Jerry White. On the spine is a one word quote from the Financial Times. It simply says ‘brilliant’. Which is a perfect single word encapsulation.

London in the 19th Century packs an mind-boggling amount of information into its 478 pages (plus extensive notes, bibliography and index), all of which shows that on every level, in every class, and in every aspect of life – work, leisure, health, entertainment, transport, housing, but above all, in thought and attitude – the world of our capital city then was entirely different to anything we experience now. It was a place of dirt and chaos and poverty and public drunkenness and birdsong contests and dead horses, riots in theatres and massive mobile advertisements, Crystal Palaces and debtors prisons and musichalls and dog fighting and railway mania. A world in which on the night of 4-5 March 1856 the Covent Garden Theatre house a ‘grand bal masque’ at which the ”masquers and onlookers were said to have indulged in ‘undisguised indecency, drunkenness, and vice, such as the lowest places of resort have rarely witnessed’.” That’s not normally how we think of the Victorians. It is a city in some ways barely more fantasmagorical than the surreal wonderland, again closer to Carroll than Wells, of Stephen Palmer’s newly published Edwardian adventure, Hairy London. And if you know the writing of Stephen Palmer you will know that is strange indeed.

The truth is we usually see the past and the future as being too much like the present, with a costume change. For writers, whether one wants to create an hermetically sealed fantasy true only to itself, or to craft fiction engaged with the real past or a plausibly imagined future, the imaginative task is to organise a level of detailed difference which sets that past or future apart from our present.

With the current vogue for Steampunk and Victorian London (the BBC is going ahead with a third series of Ripper Street) I can’t recommend Jerry White’s book highly enough. (He has also written superb volumes on London in the 18th and 20th centuries). But for writers, whatever period of the past you are addressing research is essential. Even if you then use that knowledge as the basis for the most wildly fantastical of wonderous stories. Equally, for any future, copious hard imaginative work is required. TV and the movies rarely depict the past or future as rich or complex or detailed or strange or different as it was or will be. Our real past was as strange as the strangest futures most of us will ever conceive.