(Reboot) Doctor Who Historical Costumes, Part III


So you’ve traveled through time and space with Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant. What does Matt Smith have for us as the Doctor? Well, he may not be my favorite of the New Who era, but he does seem to flit around through Earth’s history a fair bit. Let’s take a look at #11’s trips back in time and what interesting historical costumes we might see, in part three of our guide to the reboot Who history eps.

Matt Smith, the Eleventh Doctor Who Historical Episodes

The Doctor postpones his typical new companion tour through Earth’s timestream until the third ep (instead of second), and he and Amy visit Winston Churchill in “Victory of the Daleks.” Set early during World War II, much of the action takes place in the London Cabinet War Rooms, and the production crew studied the actual war rooms museum to reproduce the setting (as far as I can tell, the episode was not filmed in the museum, but it’s an uncanny resemblance). The costumes are run-of-the-mill WWII uniforms, plus Churchill, so while they’re accurate, they aren’t exciting.

Three episodes later, however, the costumes are very exciting, to me anyway. “The Vampires of Venice” is set in 1580 Venice, and this one of my favorite of the new Doctor Who historical episodes! It’s an all-around entertaining story, even with Matt Smith (not my Doctor) and Amy and Rory (companions I never warmed up to). The setting is evocative of my beloved Venice, even thought it was filmed in Croatia, and the costumes look very pretty, even though they aren’t especially Venetian nor terribly historically accurate. And the vampires aren’t really vampires, they’re alien fish creatures. Nothing about this episode is as it seems. But I still love it, whatevs!

The main alien, Rosanna, wears a gorgeous gown that I’ve wanted to recreate since the episode first aired. It has a historically accurate shape for the era but is intended to mimic her alien-fish silhouette with a giant standing ruff (which may have been recycled from Shakespeare in Love). Also, in closeups, you can see that the fabric used on her gown’s stomacher has a reptilian print/texture. In her final scene she undresses, and while it’s obvious the gown is not constructed in a historically accurate fashion, it’s not totally modern either: she unhooks one side of the stomacher and unlaces a placket underneath, and you can see what may be hand-worked eyelets for the lacing (at least they’re not metal grommets, aka the visible pantylines of historical costuming). Watch also for the gorgeous jewelry she wears; there’s some good closeups of the earrings, in particular, which are nicely period-appropriate.

The rest of the costumes in the episode are pretty good historically, including lots of decent 16th-century outfits on the extras. The two main Calvierri servants have particularly lovely outfits. The costume department appears to have rounded up every white and off-white late-16th-century gown available for rental to put on the female “students” at the “school.”  The biggest glaring inaccuracy in the costuming is that all the women carry battenburg lace parasols. OMG. That’s a total reenactorism. Battenburg lace wasn’t used until the early 20th century, and those kind of parasols weren’t popular until the 1920s. Solid fabric or folding paper parasols would have been better.

The next historical episode is “Vincent and the Doctor,” where the Doctor and Amy visit  Vincent van Gogh in 1890 Arles, France. However, there isn’t much in the way of historical costume or even setting. The visual design purposefully evokes the look and feel of being inside of van Gogh’s paintings as if brought to life. And the artist himself is depicted in simple, vaguely Victorian garb. I find the episode a little too in love with itself.

Smith’s first season as the Doctor ends with a two-parter that has a few historical elements. “The Pandorica Opens” begins with scenes recapping the season’s other historical eps. There’s Vincent van Gogh in 1890 and then Winston Churchill in 1941, and finally the Doctor and Amy travel to Roman Britain in 102 CE. There, River Song pretends to be Cleopatra. Not really much in the way of a true Doctor Who historical episode, as the settings are either recycled or Stonehenge or underground, and the costumes are also recycled other than Cleo (which is just silly).

The next season’s opener “The Impossible Astronaut” has a great little historical bit: King Charles II gets all huffy at the Doctor for making out with (presumably) one of the king’s mistresses who’s painting a rather cherubic nude portrait of the Doctor. The lady (named in the credits as Matilda) wears a rather nice looking 1660s gown and hair. The king and and his men are wearing musketeer-type costumes. There’s another scene where the Doctor breaks out of a World War II POW camp, and he also shows up in a Laurel and Hardy movie, but no especially interesting costumes there.

After all this messing around, Amy and Rory meet up with the Doctor in 1969 America to visit with President Richard M. Nixon. The rest of this ep and it’s second part, “Day of the Moon,” set up the story arc for the whole season, but the rest of the costumes are boring old suits, astronaut space-suits, and River Song gets a couple of vintage outfits. Nixon/Frost it ain’t. And reminder: Years when I was alive don’t count as period pieces, and this is totally borderline.

The third episode, “The Curse of the Black Spot,” takes the trio onto a 17th-century pirate ship. Not bad costuming — it does have a good historical vibe — but not fabulous. Amy throws on a coat and tricorn at one point. Crossover alert: The pirate captain is played by Hugh “Lord Grantham” Bonneville from Downton Abbey.

In “A Good Man Goes to War,” there’s a brief visit to 1880s London. This is important because it introduces Madame Vastra and her girlfriend Jenny Flint. Later they meet Strax, a Sontaran, who joined them from a battle in 4073 where everyone else dresses in English Regency clothes (huh?). Oh, and Rory reprises his Roman centurion costume (they recycle a lot of their own kits in the Matt Smith era, don’t they?), and River Song shows up in a spiffy bustle gown. However, she says this is because it’s her birthday and the Doctor took her ice skating on the River Thames in 1814 (also, Stevie Wonder played, “but you mustn’t tell him”). Um, why is River wearing a 1870s bustle dress for a visit to 1814? She should have been wearing a Regency gown, not the people in 4073. headdesk

In the next ep, we return to WWII (the new-Who writers clearly have a thing for that time period), specifically 1938 Berlin for “Let’s Kill Hitler.” Like so many other eps in this season, it’s not strictly a Doctor Who historical episode; it’s part of the overall story arc and is more about River Song’s background than about World War II or Hitler. The costumes show a few military uniforms, and then River takes over a fancy supper club where the crowd is attired in decently accurate late ’30s costumes. Both the Doctor and River dress for dinner, as it were.

“The Wedding of River Song” has a few historical costume elements, what with time happening all at once and the Holy Roman Empire mushing up with World War II figures. But as I’ve noted, this is just more inter-Matt-Smith-era recycling. There’s no point in examining the costumes again. If you find a fascinating screenshot, post in the comments, and we’ll chat!

The season’s Christmas special is a retelling of the Chronicles of Narnia in “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” so it’s set in World War II, England. Civilian clothes, but once again, nothing terribly exciting. A sweet story.

The seventh reboot season includes “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” (much like Snakes on a Plane) that kinda sorta has historical elements. It starts with the Doctor alluding to having an affair with Queen Nefertiti in 1334 BCE Egypt, which seems to be a running theme. He had a gal in the English Restoration, one here, and we’ll see soon that he hooked up with Queen Elizabeth I. Ok. Anyway, Nefertiti tags along with him to 1902 to get a big-game hunter, and they all truck off to the future with Amy, Rory, and Rory’s dad. It’s not at all awkward.

The next ep is more genuinely a historical episode, since “A Town Called Mercy” spends all its time in the Wild West, specifically Mercy, Nevada, in 1870.  The costuming is classic Hollywood Western (aka, not historically accurate), though the exterior filming location was Spain (unlike “Impossible Astronaut,” which was partly filmed in Utah). There’s a sassy saloon girl and plenty of fellas in 10-gallon hats and dusty jeans.

The farewell episode for Amy and Rory, “The Angels Take Manhattan,” is set in 1938 and begins with an enjoyably creepy film noir look. But it doesn’t carry through with much in the way of period details. A few guys in suits, that’s it. River Song shows up wearing a trenchcoat and fedora, underneath which she has a black sparkly corset over a black chiffon gown. Nice, but very modern. Meh.

Next we get some really good stuff. Who wants to see a spinoff series of the Paternoster Gang? Give us more of Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint, and Strax in Victorian England, please!!! “The Snowmen” brings back these characters first introduced in “A Good Man Goes to War” and shows how they’ve been getting along in 1890s London. Vastra helps out Scotland Yard, Jenny pretends to be the maid, and Strax tries to not kill anyone. It’s awesome. The ep opens in 1842, then jumps forward 50 years. We also meet Clara, though she’s not Clara-the-next-companion yet. Blah blah blah, go back to Paternoster Row, please!

I do have to quibble about the jumbled-up costumes though. Are we in the 1880s or the 1890s? This may seem like a subtle distinction, but consider the fashion differences between the 1970s and the 1980s. Yeah. Vastra is wearing a gown with a pigeon-breast front circa the 1890s, while Clara and Jenny are wearing the more closely fitted 1880s natural-form bodice shapes. It’s a distinctive change in silhouette. Now, I can imagine the costume designer thinking “this pigeon-front thing looks matronly, let’s put it on Vastra because she’s older (‘from the dawn of time’), and this sleek stuff looks younger, so let’s dress the girls like Clara and Jenny in it.” Except the pigeon-front style is more up-to-date, and the natural-form style would be more old-fashioned at the date this episode is occurring, thus making the older woman look trendy and the younger women look out of step with current fashion. So not thinking this through historically in the wardrobe department.

Clara gets two outfits in this ep, one of dubious historical accuracy, the other much better (because it wasn’t made for Doctor Who). For her first job as a tavern barmaid, Clara has a red, bustle-y dress with a slightly off-the-shoulder neckline (ugh) and a terribly modern hairstyle. Then for her second job as a governess, she wears a tailored, dark blue, 1880s natural-form gown with generally period accessories, hair, and makeup. This second outfit was first made for Geraldine Chaplin in Heidi in 2005 (details on RecycledMovieCostumes).

I should also mention the Doctor’s outfit. He doesn’t wear his typical #11 costume here, nor his late-Matt-Smith-era outfit. Instead, he gets a Victorian-ized costume for this Christmas episode. It’s kind of “Doctor Who goes to Dickens Fair,” with plaid pants, a frock coat with a lot of braid, and a battered stovepipe hat. And in one scene, he goes all Sherlock Holmes, as you do when solving mysteries.

In Clara’s first real episode as a companion, “The Bells of Saint John,” the Doctor starts out as a “mad monk” in an 1207 CE abbey in Cumbria. The real gist of the episode has a high-tech theme, so nothing worth mentioning for history or costumes. The episodes “Hide” and “Cold War” are set in 1974 and 1983, respectively, but I’ve already made it clear that I don’t consider years when I was alive and kicking to qualify as period pieces. You youngsters can just deal.

Thankfully, we return to Madame Vastra and friends for “The Crimson Horror.” Back in 1893 London, we see the gang in their usual haunts and semi-usual style of costumes (though this time, it’s straight-up 1880s, done nicely, but why bother to tell us it’s 1893?). They travel to a utopian community in Yorkshire to investigate people turning red and dying, and they discover a nutter trying to launch a rocket and poison the world, as so often happens. Nice that in this case, the nutter is the wonderful Diana Rigg, one-time Emma Peel of The Avengers. For extra fun, her daughter/victim is played by Rachel Stirling, Rigg’s actual daughter, and this is the first (and perhaps only) time they had worked together on screen.

Clara gets two different outfits, both of which are really nice and have great period details. I’m wondering if they’re recycled from other film or TV productions, and I just haven’t found out what yet. I also love how the costume department dressed Clara’s hair in a historical style and gave her correct accessories throughout the ep. The wardrobe really goes up a notch here, with everyone dressed quite good, from the Doctor (another not-quite #11 outfit, more of a period look) to Vastra, Jenny, and the villains too. This might just be the most visually correct historical Doctor Who episode of the Matt Smith era. Pity it took that long.

In “The Name of the Doctor,” the Paternoster Gang is called up to help Clara and River Song and warn the Doctor. However, the costumes don’t appear to be anything new, so I shan’t recap.

The last bit of historical costume action we get is, somewhat appropriately for a time-traveling series, in the 50th-anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor.” The story involves a message sent by Queen Elizabeth I in 1562 to the Doctor in the present day. The War Doctor (played by John Hurt) opens up a time fissure, whereby he, the Eleventh Doctor, and the Tenth Doctor all meet in Elizabethan England.

But what we really care about is the costumes. Surely you’ve seen the gown they put Queen Elizabeth in? That caused quite a hue and cry among us historical costumers when the pix were first leaked. While I don’t think it was as awful as many people did, it wasn’t as good as what could have been used. She’s dressed in a fairly generic Elizabethan gown made of pin-tucked silk (not the most historically accurate, but hey, plenty of us have used it because it’s cool), edged with sari trim (also not the most period-correct, but a lot of us have used that too because, yo, five-foot-rule; yet sadly that doesn’t apply to those who costume for high-definition TV).

The part you just can’t make excuses about is the hair. That’s a really random modern ‘do, just long reddish curls hanging down, no attempt at historical hairstyling. It’s a 12-year-old’s idea of ‘pretty pretty princess’ hair, fer chrissakes. Since Liz got such a great, historically accurate outfit with good hair and a fabulous ruff in “The Shakespeare Code,” it’s surprising the designer went with this rather flaccid look for the all-important anniversary episode that was simulcast around the planet.

Next up, we see what historical costumes Peter Capaldi’s first season has in store!

Don’t miss the Frock Flicks Guide to (Reboot) Doctor Who Historicals, Part I, with Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor and Frock Flicks Guide to (Reboot) Doctor Who Historicals, Part II, with David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor.

One Response

  1. Jean Martin

    Thanks for the rundown of the Matt Smith era historical costumes. Nothing too exciting to me. But wow! How did I not know Rachael Stirling is Diana Rigg’s daughter? I love them both!