From its start in 1963, Doctor Who has heavily featured the future and the past -- but stories based on current events have also been part of the series. While it isn't quite Law & Order, sometimes we do get to see Doctor Who: Ripped from the Headlines!
1. The Cuban Missile Crisis
In the News: 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 their 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. Although the tools of nuclear war would improve over the next few decades, this was the closest the world ever came to a full nuclear exchange.
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.
Here's the segue from the first serial, "An Unearthly Child" into "The Daleks." Our heroes hastily dematerialize as they flee angry cavemen on prehistoric Earth; they land for the first time on Skaro, a seemingly dead world. It looks safe to go out . . . but then the radiation meter registers the true danger:
2. The Development of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles
In the News: The missile threat only got worse. By the late 1960s, 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 (such as France and China) 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 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.
3. Oil Rigs: Terror at Sea
In the News: 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 shapeshifting aliens who plan to destabilize global politics and then seize power.
4. The Energy Crisis
In the News: The reason North Sea oil was so big, 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 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.
5. The Discovery of Martian Pyramids
In the News: In 1971, the Mariner 9 spacecraft became the first man-made 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, it 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 sixty 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*, 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.
* Doctor Who continuity is a bit muddled at times; this particular case is so contentious that fans have given it a name: the UNIT dating problem. Episodes featuring UNIT (a paramilitary organization that employed the stranded Third Doctor) were recorded in the early 1970s but set in the not-too-distant future, with "Terror of the Zygons" likely occurring around 1980. Later writers did not always realize this, leading to an overt and irreconcilable continuity problem.