October 22, 2018
Sunday’s Doctor Who episode featured the civil rights hero, and she’s far from the first historical character to get the TV treatment
From Rosa Parks to Van Gogh: when TV takes on real-life figures
In many ways, Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is exactly the same as every other – eccentric, optimistic, weirdly out of breath a lot of the time – but in other ways she’s completely different. Every previous Doctor would have been able to sail in and out of 1950s Alabama with minimal fuss, because every single previous Doctor has been a white man. But now? Not so much, especially since two thirds of her companions are people of colour. That was the premise of Sunday’s Doctor Who episode Rosa, at least, its themes underlined by a starring turn from Rosa Parks. Was Parks anything like her Doctor Who depiction? It doesn’t really matter; it’s always a gamble when a TV show tries to slot a real-life historical figure into an episode. Here are five notorious examples.

Vincent Van Gogh
– Doctor Who
Prior to Rosa, Doctor Who was already well-versed in the art of historical cameos. Winston Churchill has popped up. So has Dickens. And Shakespeare, and Hitler and Anne Robinson. But perhaps the best of all was Vincent Van Gogh in the Richard Curtis-penned 2010 episode Vincent and the Doctor. A beautiful, sensitive meditation of mental illness that pushed all the sci-fi gubbins to the background, Vincent and the Doctor climaxed with a forward-leaping moment of wish-fulfilment that still takes the breath away. Absolutely perfect.

Queen Elizabeth I – Blackadder II
Sometimes shows don’t just limit their historical figures to cameos. Sometimes, as with the second series of Blackadder (another Curtis creation), they promote them to regulars. Miranda Richardson’s Queenie is many things – she’s spoilt and spiteful, a posh girl raised with no fear of consequence – but she’s also vitally important to the story. Most episodes begin with her issuing tasks for Blackadder, paving the way for all the ensuing hilarity. She’s the best ever screen Elizabeth, too, so that helps.

Queen Victoria – Bewitched
The same cannot be said for Jane Connell, who played Queen Victoria on a 1967 episode of Bewitched. Although a veteran of playing single-episode historical figures – she was also Martha Washington and Hepzibah, wife of the King of Judah – her Queen Victoria is a muddle. Zapped forward in time to the 1960s, she obsesses over protocol, smashes up a television because it has bikinis on it and that’s about it. The episode ends with Victoria returning to the 1800s and being replaced by her own dead husband. It’s weird.

Abraham Lincoln – Star Trek
In the 1969 episode The Savage Curtain, the crew of the USS Enterprise conduct a geological survey on the planet Excalbia, and are surprised to be met by Abraham Lincoln. It quickly transpires that Kirk, Spock and Lincoln (joined by famed Vulcan philosopher Surak) have been summoned by a multi-eyed rock monster named Yarnek to fight to the death against famous historical villains (including Genghis Khan), in order to determine whether good or evil is the predominant human urge and… oh, you stopped reading this ages ago, didn’t you? That’s fair.

Donald Trump – Quantum Leap
The show: Quantum Leap. The episode: one where Sam is thrown into the body of a 1950s New York taxi driver. The scene: Sam is driving a wealthy family around the city. The father is stern and distant. The son is impudent and bored. Sam tries to cheer them up by hinting at how New York will change over the coming years. “I’ll bet there’ll be a lot of tall buildings all around here,” he tells the boy. “There might even be some big glass tower right over there, next to Tiffanys.” The father pays the fare. He calls to the boy: “Come on, Donald.” An employee greets him: “Hello, Mr Trump.” That’s right, Sam from Quantum Leap invented Donald Trump, and presumably spent the rest of eternity wishing that he’d crashed the taxi into the nearest lamppost while he still had the chance.
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