Sunday, February 20, 2011

Gone to the dogs

Review I wrote for Vector last April:

Blonde Bombshell by Tom Holt

George Stetchkin is a brilliant programmer and a not so brilliant drunk. He's on the trail of some bank robbers who've used teleport technology – which, of course, hasn't been invented. Lucy Pavlov is the mega-rich inventor of world-changing technology but she keeps having dreams about unicorns. And Mark Twain is the impenetrable alias of a very smart bomb. He's been ordered to destroy the Earth by a planet of dogs.

Blonde Bombshell is a rich, dizzy adventure chock-full of big ideas, all fighting for the readers' attention. That desperate effort to dazzle and amaze makes it pretty hard going. There are plenty of jokes but few that make the reader really laugh. Instead, you can hear the arched eyebrow all the way through, a comedy more droll than funny.

There are the painful puns and word plays: the neolithic period on the planet of the dogs is called the Bone Age and they've got a 'T'erier class' of space ship. There's lazy stuff about George being drunk or hungover at the wrong moments. Characters wilfully misunderstand simple statements and events.

Then there are the tortuous analogies, such as 'harder to swallow than a nail-studded olive', 'like trying to build a sandcastle out of semolina pudding' and, 'memories limped home like the survivors of a decimated army.' I quite liked, 'weird as two dozen ferrets in a blender', but the 'two dozen' blunts its simple, vivid effect.

The writing is often too fussy, the jokes too awkward and contrived. Though Mark Twain is as nicely inconspicuous a name as Ford Prefect, the arched style is more Robert Rankin than Douglas Adams. (I've never got Rankin's appeal, either.)

The characters are all rather generic – the drunk and rude but brilliant programmer, the icy, super-rich heroine, the machine that wants to live. There's some nice stuff between Mark and Lucy as they realise they fancy one another, but their own autistic behaviour and the arched tone of the writing makes it difficult to empathise with either of them. The book is big on ideas but leaves the reader rather cold.

Which is a shame because the story itself is often rich and surprising, and Holt keeps the plot moving quickly. There are some great ideas – the dog catching a stick that then lifts it off into space, the fresh, dead octopus that's so much more powerful than the aliens' computers. There are plenty of fine set-ups and revelations.

I didn't like the book at all to begin with, but having persevered for the first 100 pages, the plot then engaged my attention. The disparate strands and concepts are all neatly brought together by the end. But it could be – it ought to be – so much better, and would have been with a firmer editorial hand. As it is, too many bad and overworked gags stop the story from really blowing our brains.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A new chapter

It seems no time at all since I was blogging that we'd bought a flat. Ah, the happy, bouncy fellow that I was back then...

Tomorrow, the Dr, the dim cat and I move out after a little over five years. It's the longest I've lived anywhere since moving out of my parents' place roughly half my life ago. It's the first place I've owned, and the first place that's really felt like my own home. There's a lot of good memories bound up in the place. We've had some very good parties, done all sorts of repairs and renovations to make it our own, and it's all a bit sad to be going.

But a sadness also hangs over the place where we thought we might have children and then spent months hiding when that didn't work. So this move also means drawing a line under the fact that we can't have children of our own.

We're moving to a house - though it's not much bigger than the flat - where I'll have a sundial and shed. The plan is to get the place in order while we press on with our efforts to get approved for adoption. (I'm probably not going to go into all of that here.)

So. Five and a bit years ago we got our keys, and then the Dr and I and Mr and Mrs Brown sat on the floor in our new, unfurnished living room and ate fish and chips from the place round the corner. Tonight I'll trudge home from work to pack the rest of the boxes and dismantle the computer and desk.

Then first thing tomorrow the van arrives to spirit our lives off to whatever happens next...

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Doctor Who: Portraits in time and space

On Thursday next week, 10 February, I'll be speaking at the National Portrait Gallery on five people who have married Kings and Queens of England and will discuss how much power and influence they had on society. "Mrs King" starts at 13:15 in the Ondaatje Wing Theatre.

I gave a talk last year on 10 famous historical figures in the Portrait Gallery's collection who've also met Doctor Who on screen. Never got round to posting that, so here it is now:

Portraits in Time and Space

What an image! The Daleks and Winston Churchill – two such icons!

The Daleks are the number one bad guy in Doctor Who, the first monster the Doctor met on screen, back in 1963. It was their success that made the TV show a hit, and the Doctor's been battling them ever since.

Meanwhile, Winston Churchill was voted "Greatest Briton of all time" in a national poll conducted by the BBC in 2002. Yet Churchill is a complex and controversial figure. Mark Gatiss, who wrote the episode Victory of the Daleks, admitted on Doctor Who Confidential that,
"Churchill is a mass of contradictions, which is partly the reason we're still so fascinated by him ... He's an extraordinary figure: brave, tenacious, a brilliant speaker ... He was simultaneously illiberal and curiously liberal in some ways ... He's not a universally loved figure at all."
A modern Doctor Who episode is only 42 minutes long. With a plot and Daleks and explosions and jokes to cram in, there's hardly time to present a detailed critique of a contentious historical figure. Instead, we are presented with a sketch, an impression – a portrait.

I'm going to discuss ten people to be found in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery that the Doctor has also met on screen. I want to know how – and why – these people are presented to us on canvas and in the TV show. What can these portraits tell us about the people themselves and the times they lived in – and what do they tell us about ourselves?

Here's a classic pose of Churchill in 1940, soon after becoming Prime Minister during the Second World War. There he is working, serious, ready to offer his blood, toil, tears and sweat to the country. A portrait of the war leader.

Note also the cigar in his hand and the spotty bow-tie. They're important props in the image of Churchill. He was relaxed about being caricatured by cartoonists, writing in 1932 that,
"One of the most necessary features in a public man's equipment is some distinctive mark which everyone learns to look for and recognise. Disraeli's forelock, Mr Gladstone's collars, Lord Randolph Churchill's moustache, Mr Chamberlain's eyeglass, Mr Baldwin's pipe – these properties are of the greatest value ... I have never indulged in any of them."
As John Cooper explains in his book Great Britons, which accompanied the BBC series, Churchill went on in that article to say that,
"without thinking, he had once donned a minuscule hat and been photographed, giving the cartoonists their 'distinctive mark'. From them on, hats became his signifier for cartoonists ... By 1940 the material was all there: cigars, bow-ties, hats and sticks and his 'pouting cherub' expression; the addition of wartime details such as gas masks, siren suits and the V sign completed the repertoire, producing a popular image of vigorous defiance, laced with humour and sufficient eccentricity to be noticeable, but not dysfunctional."
John Cooper, Great Britons - The Great Debate (2002), p. 136.

It's this popular archetype of Churchill that we see in Doctor Who. He chain-smokes, he jokes, he charms the ladies and demands the best from everyone.

There's no time to get into the less savoury side of Churchill's character. For example, Mo Mowlam, who championed Churchill in the BBC's Great Britons series, had to concede that, even in his finest hours during the Second World War.
"Churchill was an instinctive, daring, often infuriating war leader. He was rude and unpleasant to his staff, who struggled to keep up with his limitless capacity for hard work and hard liquor."
Mo Mowlam, 'Winston Churchill', in Ibid., p. 127.
His listing in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is a whopping 33,000 words long. As that says, in the biographies after his death, Churchill was accused of,
"racism, militarism, and sympathy with fascism. Hitherto acclaimed as the saviour of his country, he was now accused of leading Britain into a war that fatally undermined its power."
Paul Addison, ‘Churchill, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer (1874–1965)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2010, accessed 28 June 2010
And Churchill was acutely aware of how he was seen – and how he'd be remembered.

This is a sketch of a portrait of Churchill by Graham Sutherland, commissioned by the Houses of Parliament to mark his 80th birthday. Churchill hated it – claiming that "it makes me look half-witted which I ain't". We've only got the sketch because his wife had the painting destroyed. As John Cooper says,
"The problem was, presumably, that [Churchill] came up against an image of himself as an old, worn man, battered by time and circumstances, no longer a political force but a spent one, the bulldog of the 1940s now a frail geriatric."
Ibid., p. 134
Portraits, like Doctor Who, present an impression of their subject. The artist or photographer show us a particular pose or angle or idea. The "problem", if it is one, with Sutherland's portrait is that it showed the old man, warts and all, rather than the myth. Writer Mark Gatiss said that for his Doctor Who episode he wanted to "get the Churchill from the posters" from the war:
"in the end it came down to printing the Churchill of legend."
That's not to say that portraits are in some way deceitful if they show the legend rather than the real man. A portrait doesn't just tell us what someone looked like. They give us an impression of the subject as a living being. What it felt like to be in their presence. And what they wanted us to feel.

Look at those two photos of Churchill again: two very different portraits of the same man in his prime. He smiles in one, he stares in the other. Both give us a tantalising sense of the man. We can see the light in his eyes, the mischief, the intelligence. Look at the women and children so delighted to see him in the picture on the left – his smile reflecting theirs. The picture on the right is more imposing – he stares directly at us, as if asking what we want, why we've interrupted his important work. Perhaps there's a place for us that big empty table. He offers hope, but he expects us to muck in.

Is this tantalising impression enough, though? Surely the huge entry in the Dictionary of National Biography can tell us more about the man than a couple of photos.

That very point was raised just over 150 years ago when the House of Lords discussed the creation of a National Portrait Gallery. On 4 March 1856, Lord Stanhope cited a letter from the historian Thomas Carlyle:
"Often I have found a portrait superior in real instruction to half-a-dozen written biographies ... I have found that the portrait was as a small lighted candle by which the biographies could for the first time be read, and some human interpretation be made of them."
Cited in Brian Harrison, 'Why biography matters to us', Ibid., p. 23.
Portraits give us a fleeting impression of the real, historical person. The best portraits make it a vivid impression, an insight, bringing the subject alive. It might even inspire us to investigate the subject further.

That's something the producers of Doctor Who have clearly considered. Mark Gatiss was interviewed by Doctor Who Confidential at the Churchill War Rooms, where much of his story was set. "I would be very, very, very happy," he said,
"if people who watched it and enjoyed the episode then come here to find more about it ... Our fictionalised version, I'd like to think in the best possible way, sort of opens a door to finding out the history."
The BBC's official Doctor Who website links from the episode to an archive collection of tributes and biographies by people who knew the real Churchill. I've spoken to teachers who've used the episode as a spring-board for school lessons – in some cases the children demanded it.

And it's not just the children who find it a spring-board. I find myself puzzling over the fact that in this episode the Doctor and Churchill are already old friends – Churchill even has the TARDIS' phone number. For my own sad amusement – and because I write spin-off Doctor Who books for a living – I've spent far too much time wondering when they first met and what adventures they might have had together. [Since I gave this talk, Gatiss has revealed these adventures in The Brilliant Book of Doctor Who 2011.]

He had an adventurous life in his youth, but there's also a sense of destiny about Churchill, as if someone had tipped him off early on about the role he'd play as leader of the nation in its time of need. In the early 1930s, he was one of the first to speak out against the Nazis and appeasement. But even before that, there's this picture:

This is Guthrie's huge, iconic portrait of the statesmen of World War One, dramatically lit under the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and painted between 1924 and 1930. Churchill is at the centre, caught in a shaft of light, looking directly out at us – the only one of the statesmen who does. Perhaps Guthrie chose Churchill as a focus because he had been the youngest member of the War Cabinet in 1914-15 – with a career still before him, the young Churchill represented the future. But the eerie light and and the strong contrasts between light and dark make this an even more eerie foreshadowing of the future. It's almost as if the painter or the subject knew.

Let's return to what I said earlier about these historical figures being a spring-board for school lessons. When Doctor Who began in 1963, it had something of an educational remit. Stories would alternate between the past and the future. In the first story, the Doctor meets cavemen, in the fourth story he meets Marco Polo and Kublai Kahn. We visit the Aztecs and France in the Reign of Terror – where the Doctor meets Robespierre and his companions glimpse the young Napoleon Bonaparte – and then they're in Ancient Rome and meet Nero.

Then the Doctor meets this chap. This is a nineteenth century bronze statue of Richard I – the Lionheart, romantic hero of the Crusades. There's triumph and majesty in that pose. And also, the statue itself has its own mythology. In the Blitz, a bomb lifted the statue up into the air, but it survived with only a little damage to the sword – which you can still see today. The pose of the sculpture and what happened to it in the war both play into national myths of brave, defiant Englishness – the same national myths that embrace Churchill. There's more myth-making going on, too. Richard is stood outside the Palace of Westminster, as if linking his heroism to modern democracy, though he died 15 years before the signing of Magna Carta. It's not a portrait of the real man, but of a legend we want to be true.

But the Richard that the Doctor meets is very different from this image. He's trying to broker peace with the Saracens, by marrying his sister Joanna to the brother of his enemy, Saladin. This is a portrait of Richard playing against the mythology – a man desperate to make peace rather than holy war. The story also shows us a sympathetic Saladin.

This is a very different kind of Doctor Who story from the Churchill one. It's 45 years older, for one thing, and television drama has obviously changed. It's in black and white, noticeably much slower in pace than the show today, and there are no monsters, so there's more time to explore character. This is a complex portrait of Richard and the Crusades, especially for tea-time family viewing. It engages our interest by playing against what we think we know about the man.

The formal way the king speaks is also interesting – that's not accurate twelfth century speech. The TARDIS doesn't just land in the past and future, it lands in particular genres, or types of story. The look and feel of this story, and comparing it to other BBC productions of the time, it's almost as if the Doctor has landed in a previously unknown historical play by Shakespeare. At the very least, while the portrait of Richard the peace-maker might not be immediately familiar to the general public, the feel of the story is. The trappings of Shakespeare and serious BBC drama add authority to the character of the king and the issues in the story.

Shakespeare appeared in Doctor Who just two stories later, in the first episode of The Chase. Like Churchill and Richard I, Shakespeare is a national icon, someone we learn about at school. It's a rather nervous, weedy Shakespeare here, an ordinary man not a superstar, scared of being called to see the boss. It's a comic glimpse of Shakespeare, getting the inspiration for one of his plays from Queen Elizabeth I, but one that makes us feel we know him.

The casting and costume seem to be based on this portrait:

This is the “Chandos Shakespeare”, or NPG1 – the very first portrait in the National Portrait Gallery's collection. Shakespeare was enjoying a renaissance in popularity in the mid-nineteenth century when the Gallery was established, and he's since become an iconic figure of the nation. I could write a whole separate talk on whether and why Shakespeare remains relevant today. Instead, I want to focus on why we see him in this story.

In the story, the Doctor and his companions are watching television, but a special television that lets them see moments in history. They choose iconic moments: this scene, Lincoln giving his address at Gettysburg, and a clip of the Beatles. This was broadcast in May 1965, when the Beatles were working on the film and album Help! They were a big, popular band, but perhaps not yet the icons they would be. So it's a joke, but a prescient one, when the Doctor's companion Vicki, from the future, calls the Beatles “classical music” and has been to the Beatles museum in Liverpool.

And that joke says something about our place in history. It makes a connection between a famous historical figure and ones from the present day. Our own times and contemporaries can be just as worthy and extraordinary as the mythic figures in history. Our own time will be judged by the thing we all do now.

Doctor Who's version of Queen Elizabeth also matches the portraits from her time – severe and icy and a bit frightening. Here she is in 1592 – a few years before that scene in Doctor Who was set. She's a huge, imposing figure, trampling land under her feet.

In the days before paparazzi and the internet, portraits like this one were sent round the country so the Queen's subjects could see what she looked like. Portraits were a way of making a connection with ordinary people – and showing them how important the subject is.

Shakespeare and Elizabeth have both been in Doctor Who more recently. Let's ignore the fact that The Shakespeare Code (2007) is in colour, filmed on location, and is all a bit faster and busier. Because the modern episode is effectively playing the same gag as the old one, showing us where Shakespeare got his inspiration, getting a joke in for those who know their Bard, and bringing the 1590s to life. They even do the same joke about modern celebrity, comparing Shakespeare not to the now-historic Beatles but to JK Rowling – there's a portrait of her at the NPG, too.

But we're presented with very different portraits of Shakespeare and Elizabeth. Shakespeare is bolder, sexier, more instinctive. Elizabeth is still icy and frightening, calling the Doctor her "sworn enemy" and demanding, "off with his head". Yet it's suggested in a later episode that the reason the Doctor is her sworn enemy is that they used to be married, and that she's not really the “Virgin Queen” we think. This is surely playing on recent popular depictions of the historical figures and their sex lives in films like Shakespeare in Love – also filmed at the Globe Theatre – and Elizabeth.

That's also true of Queen Victoria as she appeared in the series in 2006. The grieving widow, on retreat in Scotland, owes something to the film Mrs Brown. She's 60 years old, has been widowed for 18 years and still isn't over the loss of Albert. No one, bar John Brown in the film or the Doctor in the episode, dares to mention it. She's shocked at first, appalled by their rudeness, and then drawn to them by their concern. John Brown and the Doctor both rekindle something in Victoria, which is at the heart of the story and the portrait of her.

Admittedly, the Doctor Who episode Tooth and Claw also sees Victoria fighting ninjas and werewolves – she herself shoots a would-be assassin. That's not quite what we expect from her. The Doctor and his companion Rose bet each other that they can get Victoria to live up to expectation and say the words, “We are not amused.” But even when she does say it, there's a twist: she's so unamused by everything that's happened that the Doctor and Rose are banished from the kingdom. As a result, the portrait of Victoria is not simply made up of "distinctive marks" and catchphrases, she's a woman who thinks and feels and is constantly surprising.

The real Victoria can also be surprising. Working on this feature, I'd built up a mental image of Victoria from various biographies.

There she was, the Widow of Windsor, sulking in all her imperial finery for the last 40 years of her reign, longing to be out of the limelight. Then I found this one, from 1879 – the same year as her meeting with the Doctor:

Princess Beatrice of Battenberg; Queen Victoria
by Arthur James ('A.J.') Melhuish
albumen cabinet card, 1879
National Portrait Gallery x76537

It's very unlike other portraits of her from after the death of her husband. Here, she's simply holding her daughter's hand and smiling. She's suddenly alive – a real person, not a cliché. She clearly didn't spend every moment of those 40 years being miserable. It's not just that I have to reappraise my image of Victoria, it also makes her far more interesting. As Carlyle said,
"one portrait, superior in real instruction to half-a-dozen written biographies..."
That's five of the ten people on my list, so what have we learned so far? Doctor Who is not very consistent. Take his relationship to British rulers. Churchill and Richard the Lionheart value the Doctor's counsel; Queens Elizabeth and Victoria make him an outlaw. Then there's the historical figures themselves. How accurate can they be? Can we really believe that the Shakespeare seen in 1965 and the one in 2007 are the same man?

But perhaps it's more important that they're not consistent. We can see from these episodes how the popular impression of Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare have changed in the last 45 years. They're both national icons, so does that tell us something about how our view of ourselves and our national character has changed, too? The Shakespeare of 2007 is brasher, sexier, more confident and less dignified than the version from 1965. Is that true of the country?

I should also say that for a long period in it's history, Doctor Who didn't meet eminent figures from history? The first Doctor continued to meet them – such as Catherine de' Medici and Wyatt Earp – but when he regenerated in 1966, so did the series. The second Doctor still visited the past, but it was one generally being threatened by monsters rather than real historical figures and events. For the next decade and a half the Doctor would name-drop friends like Lister, Lord Nelson and Marie Antoinette – but we never saw them on screen.

I think there's an important difference between the Doctor mentioning that he's met someone famous and us seeing them on screen. When the Doctor says he took a medical degree under Lister or was a personal friend of Lord Nelson he elevates those figures. He name drops them because they're important. So even if he jokes about the famous people he's met, just mentioning them at all makes them more eminent.

But when he meets them on screen, something else happens. We get a glimpse of the real person, more vivid than the biographies. We might see aspects of them that we don't expect, or we might have our sense of the person confirmed. But living and breathing and alive before us, we witness their eminence for ourselves. We see them being great and worthy figures in history, rather than just taking the Doctor's word for it.

At least, that's how it works in principle. Two eminent figures from British history appeared in the series in 1985, and I think they're the exception to the rule.

In The Mark of the Rani, the sixth Doctor meets George Stephenson, railway engineer and inventor of the Rocket. He's the only scientist in my list – which is perhaps surprising for a show like Doctor Who. The Doctor is constantly battling monsters and superstition with “science”. I'll get on to why I think real scientists don't feature that much shortly.

In the story, Stephenson is planning to gather a meeting of various scientists and engineers, but the village keeps being attacked by angry thugs – who are assumed to be Luddites, protesting changes to traditional life wrought by industry and machines. It soon turns out that the thugs are really the victims of a rival Time Lord – one of two causing trouble in the area.

Though The Mark of the Rani is fun, there's not a great deal on insight into Stephenson as a character – he's a rather well-meaning, but dull figure in the story. We see him working on his machines and discussing them with his financier, but there's little in the story about science and invention – other than it generally being a good thing.

This is interesting, because in stories with with other historical figures, much is made of the contribution they've made to history, as we'll see in a moment. That said, we do see Stephenson working on his machines, getting his hands dirty. He also speaks with a northern accent – something we don't get from this rather austere portrait.

He doesn't exactly look like a man who gets his hands dirty.

Also in 1985, the Doctor met HG Wells. The gag of the story is that the Doctor taking Wells about the TARDIS and introducing him to monsters inspires Wells as a writer. This portrayal of Wells is at best disingenuous. Surely his scientific romances – The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and so on – inspired the Doctor's adventures, not the other way round. There's also little sense of the real Wells in this depiction.

Herbert George Wells
by Mayall & Newman Ltd
cabinet card, late 1890s
National Portrait Gallery x13211

This is the real Wells from the same period. He was known as “Bertie” - never Herbert. Before he wrote his novels, Wells worked in a draper's shop – and was sacked for being “too common” - he later used that experience for his novel Kipps. He was, according to one biography,
“dirt poor, shabbily dressed and permanently hungry”.
John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, The QI Book of the Dead (2009), p. 144.
A sporting injury at school had left him with lung problems that the doctors suspected were tubercular. He wasn't given long to live. This gave his life a great sense of urgency – and he threw himself into educating himself, writing novels and womanising. The man Doctor Who shows as a timid, superstitious fool would in reality later state, "I can't bank on religion. God has no thighs and no life." Admittedly, his womanising came after his marriage at the age of 25 – after the events of the Doctor Who story. And watching this episode as an eight year-old, made me look out a copy of The Time Machine. But though the idiot Herbert is quite fun, surely the real man would have made for a more interesting and involving story.

I feel that Doctor Who's Wells and Stephenson are both missed opportunities – they're used because they are eminent men in our history, but there's little sense of why they were eminent. We see Churchill and Richard the Lionheart being great leaders, and Shakespeare is a genius who can stop monsters with his words.

The Doctor briefly met Einstein in a 1987 episode, though again there's no great insight into the man's character. In the 1996 television movie, he name-dropped Puccini and Marie Curie.

But when the series came back in 2005, meeting real people became a key ingredient in the show. Every year, there are cameos from real, living people – such as Patrick Moore, Ann Widdecombe, Richard Dawkins and Andrew Marr – and there are episodes devoted to real, historical characters. I think that's for important reasons, which I'll come to in a moment.

In The Unquiet Dead, the third episode of the new series, the Doctor met Charles Dickens. Uniquely, Dickens appears in the Portrait Gallery collection, as does the actor playing him, Simon Callow. Like Wells, the Dickens in Doctor Who brushes over much of the real biography. The story is set in 1869, the year before Dickens died. There's a line about his unhappy home life, but Dickens is on sparkling form, and even saves the Doctor at the end.

But the real Dickens was nowhere near as energetic in his last year. Four years previously, on 9 June 1865, he was involved in a serious train crash at Staplehurst. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,
"Dickens himself was unhurt but very badly shaken, not only by the accident itself but also by the experience of working for hours afterwards among the injured and the dying."
Before the crash he had been prolific, but over the next five years he slowed right down; completing Our Mutual Friend and six segments of his never-finished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The crash continued to haunt him – it's influence can be seen in his short story The Signalman, which the Doctor says is the best short story ever written.

Dickens continued to give highly dramatic readings of his work – as we see him do in the TV episode – but his health was fast deteriorating and he had to cancel a tour in April 1869 after what may have been a mild stroke. He'd have been ill and pallid and crippled with gout when the Doctor met him. Here he is in 1867 – two years before that.

Doctor Who's Dickens and Wells might not adhere to the real biography, but they do so for different reasons. Mark Gatiss, writer of the Dickens episode as well as the Churchill one, is again printing the legend. A Dickens like he really was at the end of his life wouldn't be much good for fighting monsters in an adventure story, and it's not exactly tea-time telly for all the family. Instead, Gatiss takes dramatic liberties to present an impression of Dickens rather than a warts-and-all portrait of his final year. There are nods to Dickens' unhappy home life, his exhaustion and illness, but the main thing is the adventure.

It's not just that the Doctor meets Dickens: he's landed in the midst of a Dickensian story. There are ghosts, it's set at Christmas, and the tired, bitter old man is made to embrace life once again – all echoes of A Christmas Carol.

The same thing is true of Agatha Christie when she appeared in the show. Writer Gareth Roberts based the story on a real incident in Christie's life. As the fact file on the official Doctor Who website tells us,
"Agatha Christie really did disappear for ten whole days in 1926, although her car was found in a chalk pit, not next to a river. Some claim she had suffered a breakdown, while others said it was all a publicity stunt."
But the Doctor Who episode isn't exactly a testament to documentary realism. Here's what Christie looked liked in 1932:

Again, Doctor Who provides an impression of the woman based on her work as much as her life. The story is a fun, summery murder mystery, with celebrity cameos and the Doctor gathering all the suspects to the drawing room to explain whodunnit. It's as if the TARDIS has landed not in a real 1926 but slap in the middle of an adaptation of one her novels, shown on prime-time ITV.

Donna even remarks on it: "Agatha Christie didn't walk around surrounded by murders," she says. "I mean, that's like meeting Charles Dickens and he's surrounded by Christmas."

It's interesting that the new series has concentrated so much on writers – Christie, Dickens and Shakespeare have all appeared, and head writer Russell T Davies even considered a Christmas special with the Doctor teamed up with JK Rowling.

Why writers? Well, Doctor Who has often been described as a writer-led show – each week it creates a whole new world, so it needs lots of imagination and new ideas. I also think it's easier for the Doctor to influence a writer without doing their work for them. See him with George Stephenson, struggling not to let himself take over the inventor's work – Stephenson has to puzzle it out for himself. I'd like to think that the reason we've seen so few real scientists in Doctor Who is not because of some prejudice on the part of the writers about the people in history they think are important, but because brilliant scientists are trickier to work into stories.

I would also recommend a spin-off CD, Bloodtide, by Jonathan Morris, in which the sixth Doctor meets Charles Darwin while he's formulating his theories on evolution. It's a rare example of real scientific history being worked into Doctor Who.

But why has there been this return to eminent historical figures appearing in Doctor Who? I think these real people help ground the Doctor's adventures in reality. In the same way that his companions are from our own time, and have families and jobs and houses we can relate to, the more we see reality, the more we'll buy into the crazier stuff in an episode. Agatha Christie is real, so the episode can get away with the murderer turning out to be a giant wasp. Just about.

Also, real historical figures mean there's more threat in episodes set in the past. In the Dickens episode – the first of the new series to travel back in time – we're told the future can be rewritten, the world we know could be lost. The very idea of Churchill and the Daleks is exciting because we know that didn't happen, so we don't know what's going to happen next.

The Doctor doesn't want to change history – he says there are fixed points in time that need protecting. An episode like The Waters of Mars was a neat twist on the figure from history. Lindsay Duncan played an astronaut from our future – but a woman the Doctor knew as a key figure in history. Could he save her from her famous death or was he duty bound to walk away? Did the same rules apply to a story set – to us – in the future?

I also wonder if meeting figures in history changes how we view the future, too. How much is our response to meeting Elizabeth X shaped by having seen the Doctor with Elizabeth I and Victoria?

The final person in my list of ten is the only one who's still alive. She's appeared, briefly, in two Doctor Who stories.

Here's a portrait of the Royal Family. It's quite a formal composition, everyone in their best clothes and stood up straight. Just as Doctor Who has fondly mocked Shakespeare and Dickens, the Queen has also been used for comic effect. In the 1988 story Silver Nemesis, the gag is that the Doctor doesn't recognise her when he saunters round Windsor Castle as if he owns the place (though he has talked about her earlier in the same episode). The joke is that she's important – the Doctor should know who she is. Look at the portrait: basically, she rules.

In the 2007 episode Voyage of the Damned we learn – from Bernard Cribbens – that whereas everyone else has left London in fear of alien invasion, the Queen has remained at Buckingham Palace. She's defiant and proud, harking back to George VI not leaving London during the war. It also reveals something about Bernard Cribbens' character – he's proud of the Queen for staying put. It's part of her iconic image.

Later in the episode, the Doctor narrowly saves Buckingham Palace from being destroyed by an alien spaceship. We see the queen in pink dressing gown, pink slippers and curlers, waving a thank you. It's not like the portrait, it's a rather affectionate view of her. More so, when we learn what was originally planned for that scene.

Cut to save money was the spaceship destroying Buckingham Palace just after the Queen had got outside. The original version of the script describes a "LOW ANGLE, the old woman standing now framed against the sky. She waves an angry fist in the air". "Damn you, aliens," the Queen would have said, "Damn you!"

How much do we know our Queen? She doesn't give interviews. She's still alive so doesn't yet appear in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. We're left with glimpses of her at public events and in portraits. And it's from these that we build up an image of her – one surely more likely to wave a cheery thank you than shake an angry fist at the sky.

The script of Voyage of the Damned describes "an old woman in a nightie and curlers". It's at odds with the formal, regal portraits of the Queen on our stamps and money. And it gives us a tantalising glimpse of the Queen as a real person.

The Royal Family: A Centenary Portrait
by John Wonnacott
oil on canvas on foamboard, 2000
National Portrait Gallery, 6479

Another portrait of the Royal Family from 2000, but the composition is completely different – they're more relaxed, less formal. They're wearing the same sort of posh clothes as the previous portrait, they're in the same kind of expensive room. But just the way they're standing completely changes the impression. It's more fun, more intimate, we can believe they're a family like ours.

And that's what portraits do – here and in Doctor Who. We're able to relate these eminent people to ourselves by looking them in the eye.

I'll finish with an impression of what the Queen is like. While researching his book On Royalty, Jeremy Paxman attended the State Opening of Parliament and saw the Queen discussing horses with a "splendidly spurred official in charge of her transport". She reminded him of his own elderly mother who was also keen on horses.

Paxman has a reputation as a fearless interviewer. And yet, when the Queen glanced in his direction, he says:
"For an instant we had eye contact and I thought with utter horror, 'Oh no! She's going to talk to me!' I wanted the ground to swallow me, anything to avoid finding something to say to this particular old lady."
Jeremy Paxman, On Royalty, p. 23.
Later in the book, Paxman asked a dozen other people what they'd felt on meeting the Queen:
"The most frequently used word in response was 'thrilled'. 'I'd expected her to be a snob,' said a youth on a catering course, 'but she wasn't.' The commonest observation was the surprised discovery that she was 'human.'"
Ibid., p. 217.
The surprised discovery that the Queen is a human being! Now there's a twist worthy of Doctor Who.