4 More 'Doctor Who' Stories Ripped From the History Books

We barely scratched the surface of historical Doctor Who in our previous post. Today, we'll look at a few of the historical adventures transmitted in the 1960s.

1. The Aztec Empire

In History: The Aztecs were a group of Mesoamericans who dominated much of what is now Mexico when the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the 16th century. Although the Conquistadors emphasized the brutality of their customs (particularly human sacrifice) in order to justify their conquest, they weren't mere butchers and had a complex society, advanced architecture, and a rich mythological structure. But the human sacrifice thing was very real. Unlike most ancient cultures, they didn't perform sacrifice to appease their gods; they felt the gods could not be controlled, but that sacrifice at the appropriate times would nourish the right gods at the right times to achieve particular effects, such as bringing the rain. The empire reached its zenith in 1519 -- shortly before Cortes arrived and ended it all.

On Doctor Who: The four-part serial "The Aztecs" aired in season one. The TARDIS materializes in the tomb of a legendary high priest named Yetaxa. Intrigued by the grave goods, Barbara puts on a bracelet -- and is promptly mistaken for a reincarnation of Yetaxa when some of the locals catch her in the tomb. She is immediately lavished with praise and honor, which she enjoys up until she discovers that the priests are planning a sacrifice to restore the rains. In accordance with Aztec custom, a Perfect Sacrifice has been groomed and will be killed in front of her. Although the young man in question is content with his fate, and even considers it a high honor, Barbara is horrified and resolves to use her new position to ban human sacrifice, believing that ending the practice might enable the Aztecs to survive the arrival of the Spaniards. The Doctor tries to warn her that she cannot be successful, but she has to try anyway.

2. The Emperor Nero

In History: Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus was born December 15, 37 AD. Though related to the Emperor, he was not considered a major contender for the throne until Claudius adopted him and made him his heir. At this time, he changed his name to Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus, and in 54 AD, he became the Emperor Nero. He quickly worked to consolidate his power, using poison and other means to eliminate rivals, ultimately including even his mother. He was a very busy emperor, but of mixed popularity; on one hand, he was responsible for considerable tax reform, but he scandalized conservative Romans by bringing in Greek-inspired theater and even performing the lyre himself, which the more tradition-minded felt was an invitation to immorality.

But the event for which he is best known occurred on July 18, 64: the Great Fire of Rome. Though the cause of the fire is unknown, many ancient historians blamed Nero, saying that he had the city burned to clear the way for massive public works projects. This may not be true, since Nero contributed enormous personal time and money and even the use of his palaces to care for the survivors. As rumor started to paint Nero the villain, he used the ever-popular strategy of blaming an unpopular minority -- he blamed it on Christians, having them tortured and burned publicly to appease the public. His reign continued another four years, and then, facing a revolt, he committed suicide. His death ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

On Doctor Who: "The Romans" aired in January of 1965. The TARDIS delivers the Doctor, Barbara, Ian, and new companion Vicki to ancient Rome, 64 AD. It gets stuck at the bottom of a cliff, so the travelers move into an empty villa for the duration. Barbara and Ian are captured by slave traders, while the Doctor and Vicki find themselves mistaken for an accomplished lyre player and his companion. The Doctor accepts the mistaken identity, and is brought to the court of Emperor Nero. The serial favors the incompetent, vain, and arrogant depiction of Nero, and while the Doctor tries to deflect Nero's requests for a concert, Barbara and Ian have their own adventures in slavery, with Ian going the full "Ben Hur" route, from galley slave to gladiator. Nero eventually works out that the Doctor can't play the lyre to save his life, and becomes furious. He's about to order the Doctor thrown to the lions when the Doctor's glasses accidentally set a map of the city on fire. This gives Nero the inspiration to have the city burned deliberately so that he can rebuild it to his liking. Our heroes still have to escape their various perils, which they do with the help of a friendly Roman who turns out to be an early Christian, leaving one to wonder how things will go for him after our heroes have departed.

(Skip ahead about 30 seconds, where "The Romans" starts.)

3. The Third Crusade

In History: Lasting just three years, from 1189 to 1192, the Third Crusade attempted to retake the Holy Land from Saladin, who had conquered them in 1187 as part of an effort to reduce Christian influence in the region. In western Europe, King Henry II of England and King Philip II of France made a pact to end their long war and join together against Saladin, and obtained the full support of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa (and then his successor, Leopold V). Henry II died before he could go far, but Richard I "the Lionheart" enthusiastically took up the task. A combined English, French, and German/Austrian force drove the Saracens out of Acre, and both Philip II and the Emperor returned to Europe.

Richard I wasn't done, though. He took additional cities, remaining undefeated during his stay in the Holy Land. The Crusade was not fully successful, and Richard I signed a treaty with Saladin in 1192, leaving Jerusalem under Muslim control but allowing pilgrims and merchants access to the city while a Christian presence remained in Cyprus and Syria. Richard returned home in October of 1192.

On Doctor Who: Transmitted in 1965, this four-part serial is set in the middle of the Third Crusade. The TARDIS materializes in the middle of an ambush, and our heroes are thrown promptly into the thick of things. Barbara is captured by Saracens along with a friend of King Richard, and the First Doctor, Vicki, and Ian head for King Richard's court. Saladin's brother, Saphadin, believes Barbara and the Englishman to be King Richard and his sister Joanna, and is about to kill them when he realizes they aren't as valuable as he thought -- and then Saladin emerges and saves them, asking Barbara to become his Scheherazade. Meanwhile, King Richard is persuaded by our heroes to lend some assistance in retrieving Barbara and his friend, and grants Ian a knighthood, telling him to offer his sister's hand in marriage in exchange for the two hostages -- because that's what Saphadin had really been after all along. The real Joanna refuses this plan, and Ian has to go rescue Barbara the old fashioned way. By this time, some of the English nobles have begun to suspect the Doctor as a spy for Saladin; he, Ian, Barbara, and Vicki manage to return to the TARDIS and flee at the last moment.

This serial was destroyed during the archive purge, but episodes 1 and 3 have since been recovered, as has the complete soundtrack. A version of it, with linking narration by William Russell ("Ian") to explain the missing episodes, was released on VHS and DVD.

4. The Battle of Culloden

In History: In 1745, the Jacobites rebelled, seeking to overthrow the House of Hanover and restore the House of Stuart to the British throne. This uprising sought to place James III back on the thrones of England and Scotland, and was led primarily by Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) with heavy support from Highland clans in Scotland, and also the backing of the French king, who probably preferred a Catholic on the English throne and the ending of hostilities between England and France. The process began well, but soon faltered, and in under a year was a disaster. The Jacobites staged their final land battle at Culloden Moor, a valiantly fought effort on bad ground where thousands died. The government troops pursued the Jacobites vigorously, hunting them down and committing many acts which today would be considered war crimes in their ardor. Charles managed to flee, wandering the Highlands for a while before escaping to France, and the English government began a brutal crackdown to retaliate, attempting to wipe Gaelic culture and the clan system off the map and prevent a recurrence. He spent most of the rest of his life in France and Rome (apart from a brief visit to London), in exile.

On Doctor Who: Transmitted between December of 1966 and January of 1967, "The Highlanders" was the last "pure historical" serial until the 1980s; that is, a story set entirely in period with no alien monsters or similarly fantastical problems to contend with. The TARDIS arrives near the field of Culloden, and the Second Doctor, Ben, and Polly are promptly taken prisoner by a group of escaping Jacobites belonging to the clan McLaren: a laird, his two adult children, and a piper named Jamie McCrimmon. Government troops catch up with them, kill one of the Jacobites, and take the rest prisoner, while the two girls manage to escape. The Doctor, Ben, and the Jacobites narrowly escape hanging, and wind up dragged off to Inverness in an illegal transportation scheme being worked for profit by one of the government men, the Royal Commissioner of Prisons, who intends to ship them off to the colonies to be sold into servitude. The Doctor escapes, reunites with Polly, and aids in a mutiny that enables the captured Highlanders to take a ship to head for France. Jamie McCrimmon stays behind to help our heroes find their way back, and ends up joining them in the TARDIS.

This is another one of the destroyed serials, but in this case, only the audio has been recovered, and released on CD with narration by Frazer Hines ("Jamie McCrimmon"). There have been a number of efforts to create reconstructions based on the audio and telesnaps recorded at the time.

Tune in next week for more!

Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Would You Be Able to Pass a World War I Military Literacy Test?
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain

Though reading and writing might not come to mind as the first requirement for trench warfare, during the early 20th century, the U.S. Army became increasingly concerned with whether or not its soldiers were literate. Thousands of World War I soldiers couldn't read printed directions on basic military tasks. The Army didn't implement its first major literacy program until the 1940s, but literacy tests were included in a battery of psychological evaluations World War I recruits went through to determine their mental fitness and intelligence, as the blog Futility Closet recently highlighted.

These unconventional literacy tests largely took the form of a yes or no questions with obvious answers, according to the 1921 report from the U.S. Surgeon General, Psychological Examining in the United States Army. Edited by pioneering intelligence-testing psychologist Robert Yerkes, who developed the military's first psychology exams for new recruits (and was also famous for his support for eugenics), the volume is a lengthy compilation of all of the methods the U.S. Army used to test the intelligence of its future soldiers. Many of these tests are now considered racist and culturally biased—some of the "intelligence" testing questions required recruits to know things like what products Velvet Joe (a figure used in tobacco campaigns) advertised—but some of the literacy questions, in particular, simply come off as weird in the modern era. Some are downright existential, in fact, while others—"Is a guitar a disease?"—come off as almost poetic.

A long questionnaire to test literacy, including questions like 'Is coal white?'
Psychological Examining in the United States Army, Google Books // Public Domain

One test, the Devens Literarcy Test, asked recruits questions like "Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?" and "Does success tend to bring pleasure?" Another section of the test asked "Do boys like to play?" and "Do clerks enjoy a vacation?"

Other questions seem like they're up for debate, like "Are painters ever artless individuals?" and "Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?" Surely the answers to questions like "Should criminals forfeit liberty?" and "Is misuse of money an evil?" depend on the opinions of the reader. The answer to "Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?" might be different depending on how the person feels about their Congressional representative, and could surely be the spark for an hour-long argument at most dinner parties.

Still others are tests of cultural knowledge, not reading skill—a major modern criticism of Yerkes's work. Despite being arguably a pretty literate person, I certainly don't know the answer to the question "Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?" A question like "Are 'diminutive' and 'Lilliputian' nearly identical?" isn't exactly a test of literacy, but a test of whether or not you've read Gulliver's Travels, which doesn't exactly seem like a necessity for military success.

Luckily, some of the questions are pretty obvious, like "Is coal white?" That one I can answer. The full list of questions used in the various versions of the Devens test is below for you to test your own Army-level literacy.

  • Do dogs bark?
  • Is coal white?
  • Can you see?
  • Do men eat stones?
  • Do boys like to play?
  • Can a bed run?
  • Do books have hands?
  • Is ice hot?
  • Do winds blow?
  • Have all girls the same name?
  • Is warm clothing good for winter?
  • Is this page of paper white?
  • Are railroad tickets free?
  • Is every young woman a teacher?
  • Is it always perfect weather?
  • Is the heart within the body?
  • Do clerks enjoy a vacation?
  • Is the President a public official?
  • Would you enjoy losing a fortune?
  • Does an auto sometimes need repair?
  • Is it important to remember commands?
  • Are avenues usually paved with oxygen?
  • Do we desire serious trouble?
  • Is practical judgment valuable?
  • Ought a man's career to be ruined by accidents?
  • Do you cordially recommend forgery?
  • Does an emergency require immediate decision?
  • Should honesty bring misfortune to its possessor?
  • Are gradual improvements worth while?
  • Is a punctual person continually tardy?
  • Are instantaneous effects invariably rapid?
  • Should preliminary disappointment discourage you?
  • Is hearsay testimony trustworthy evidence?
  • Is wisdom characteristic of the best authorities?
  • Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?
  • Is incessant discussion usually boresome?
  • Are algebraic symbols ever found in manuals?
  • Are tentative regulations ever advantageous?
  • Are "diminutive" and "Lilliputian" nearly identical?
  • Is an infinitesimal titanic bulk possible?
  • Do all connubial unions eventuate felicitously?
  • Is a "gelatinous exaltation" ridiculous?
  • Are "sedate" and "hilarious" similar in meaning?
  • Is avarice sometimes exhibited by cameos?
  • Can a dog run?
  • Is water dry?
  • Can you read?
  • Do stones talk?
  • Do books eat?
  • Do cats go to school?
  • Are six more than two?
  • Is John a girl's name?
  • Are there letters in a word?
  • Is your nose on your face?
  • Can you carry water in a sieve?
  • Do soldiers wear uniforms?
  • Does it rain every morning?
  • Are newspapers made of iron?
  • Are "forward" and "backward" directions?
  • Do many people attend motion-picture theatres?
  • Do handkerchiefs frequently injure human beings?
  • Do magazines contain advertisements?
  • Are political questions often the subject of debates?
  • Are empires inclosed in envelopes?
  • Are members of the family usually regarded as guests?
  • Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?
  • Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?
  • May chimneys be snipped off with scissors?
  • Is moderation a desirable virtue?
  • Are apish manners desired by a hostess?
  • Do conscientious brunettes exist?
  • Do serpents make oblong echoes?
  • Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?
  • Is hypocrisy approved by honest men?
  • Is virile behavior effeminate?
  • Do alleged facts often require verification?
  • Do pestilences ordinarily bestow great benefit?
  • Are painters ever artless individuals?
  • Do the defenders of citadels sometimes capitulate?
  • Do physicians ameliorate pathological conditions?
  • Is embezzlement a serious misdemeanor?
  • Do vagrants commonly possess immaculate cravats?
  • Are "loquacious" and "voluble" opposite in meaning?
  • May heresies arise among the laity?
  • Are piscatorial activities necessarily lucrative?
  • Do tendrils terminate in cerebral hemorrhages?
  • Does a baby cry?
  • Can a hat speak?
  • Do hens lay eggs?
  • Is a stone soft?
  • Is one more than seven?
  • Do the land and sea look just alike?
  • Are some books black?
  • Does water run up hill?
  • Are stamps used on letters?
  • Do 100 cents make a dollar?
  • Are we sure what events will happen next year?
  • Do ships sail on railroads?
  • Do stones float in the air?
  • May meat be cut with a knife?
  • Are ledges common in mountain districts?
  • Does success tend to bring pleasure?
  • Are diamonds mined in mid-ocean?
  • Is misuse of money an evil?
  • Should criminals forfeit liberty?
  • Is special information usually a disadvantage?
  • Are attempted suicides always fatal?
  • Are exalted positions held by distinguished men?
  • Does confusion favor the establishment of order?
  • Is a civil answer contrary to law?
  • Is a dilapidated garment nevertheless clothing?
  • Are textile manufacturers valueless?
  • Do thieves commit depredations?
  • Does close inspection handicap accurate report?
  • Do transparent goggles transmit light?
  • Do illiterate men read romances?
  • Is irony connected with blast furnaces?
  • Do avalanches ever descend mountains?
  • Are scythes always swung by swarthy men?
  • Do pirates accumulate booty?
  • Are intervals of repose appreciated?
  • Are intermittent sounds discontinuous?
  • Is an avocational activity ordinarily pleasurable?
  • Are pernicious pedestrians translucent?
  • Are amicable relationships disrupted by increased congeniality?
  • Are many nocturnal raids surreptitiously planned
  • Are milksops likely to perpetrate violent offenses?
  • Are "precipitancy" and "procrastination" synonymous?
  • Is snow cold?
  • Can a dog read?
  • Do houses have doors?
  • Has a horse five legs?
  • Are three more than ten?
  • Do mice love cats?
  • Does a hat belong to you?
  • Do animals have glass eyes?
  • Should fathers provide clothing for children?
  • Is it true that lead is heavy
  • Do poor men have much money?
  • Is summer colder than winter?
  • Can a horse tell time by a watch?
  • Is a city larger than a country town?
  • Does Christmas ever fall on Tuesday?
  • Do Christians often overlook faults?
  • Are difficult problems easily solved?
  • Do convicts sometimes escape from prison?
  • Should the courts secure justice for everybody?
  • Are scoundrels always intoxicated?
  • Is a guitar a kind of disease?
  • Do jugglers furnish entertainment?
  • Should we build on insecure foundations?
  • Do annual conventions take place biweekly?
  • Does persistent effort favor ultimate success?
  • Is a shrewd man necessarily admired?
  • Is manual skill advantageous?
  • Are elaborate bonnets inexpensive?
  • Are petty annoyances irritating?
  • Are false arguments valid?
  • Do you approve of ruthless massacres?
  • Do blemishes occur in complexions?
  • Is air found in a complete vacuum?
  • Do robins migrate periodically?
  • Are weird tales sometimes gruesome?
  • Do felines possess locomotor appendages?
  • Do demented individuals frequently have hallucinations?
  • Are laconic messages sometimes verbose?
  • Are perfunctory endeavors usually efficacious?
  • Would a deluge extinguish a smouldering trellis?
  • Are devastated suburbs exhilarating vistas?
  • Are "contingent" and "independent" alike in meaning?

[h/t Futility Closet]

10 Not-So-Small Facts About the Volkswagen Beetle

While Volkswagen has announced—for a second time—that it's going to cease production on the Beetle, people are still singing the praises of the quirky little car. Here are 10 not-so-small things you need to know about the German car that was once named one of the top four cars of the century.


Adolf Hitler checks out a VW Beetle
Getty Images

It’s long been said that Adolf Hitler was the man behind the Beetle, and that’s sort of true. The dictator wanted German families to be able to afford a car, so he enlisted automaker Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche) to make “the people’s car.” But the basis for the Beetle had been around since long before Hitler’s demand; the Bug was heavily influenced by Porsche's V series. Rumors that Hitler directly designed the car are probably false; though he was the one who reportedly said that the car should look like a beetle, because “You only have to observe nature to learn how best to achieve streamlining,” it’s likely that he was regurgitating something he had read in an automotive magazine. Still, one thing is for certain: Hitler himself placed the cornerstone for the Porsche factory in Wolfsburg, Germany.


Perhaps still wary of anything imported from Germany, Americans shunned the Beetle when it was introduced in the States in 1949: Only two were sold in the first year. But after that, sales grew quickly. By the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Bugs were sold every year, topping out at 570,000 in 1970.


A pink VW Beetle

We have the public to thank for the car’s distinctive nickname. Originally known as the Volkswagen Type 1, the car’s curves and rounded top led to its later, insect-like moniker. Volkswagen must have realized they had a good thing on their hands, because they started referring to the car as the VW Beetle in the late 1960s.


The UK and the U.S. aren’t the only countries that bestowed a new name on the Volkswagen Type 1. In France, it's called Coccinellewhich means ladybug. It's Maggiolino and Fusca in Italy and Brazil, respectively, both of which mean "beetle." Mexico calls it Vocho; it's Peta (turtle) in Bolivia; and Kodok (frog) in Indonesia. 


In 1999, Advertising Age declared the car's not-so-small ad campaign to be the best campaign of the last 100 years, besting Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Nike, and McDonald’s. The quirky concept and copy—which, according to Advertising Age, “Gave advertising permission to surprise, to defy and to engage the consumer without bludgeoning him about the face and body”—was a game-changer for the entire industry.

The "Think Small" line and accompanying self-deprecating copy was written by Julian Koenig, who was also responsible for naming Earth Day and coming up with Timex’s “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking” tagline. He’s also half-responsible for daughter Sarah Koenig, whom you may know from NPR’s This American Life and Serial.


Herbie the Love Bug

Because of their distinctive aesthetic, VW Bugs have been associated with everything from the Beatles to Transformers. A few highlights:

  • The Beetle with the license plate “LMW 28IF” on the cover of The Beatles' Abbey Road album was sold at an auction for $23,000 in 1986. It is now on display at Volkswagen's AutoMuseum at the company’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany.
  • The Fremont Troll sculpture in Seattle, a huge statue lurking under the Aurora Bridge, clutches an actual VW Beetle. An in-progress picture shows that the car was once red. It also once contained a time capsule of Elvis memorabilia, which was stolen.
  • The Herbie the Love Bug series was a big hit for Disney in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the original Herbies sold for $126,500 at an auction in 2015.
  • In the original Transformers cartoon, Bumblebee transformed from a VW Bug. The car was changed to a Camaro for the live-action movies.


The so-called “blumenvasen,” a small vase that could be clipped to the dashboard, speaker grille, or windshield, was porcelain when it was originally offered. The nod to flower power became such a symbol of the car that it was incorporated into the 1998 redesign. Sadly, it didn’t make the cut for the most recent overhaul: The vase was eliminated in 2011 by marketing execs apparently seeking to make the car more male-friendly.


When the millionth VW Beetle rolled off the line in 1955, the company capped the achievement by plating the car in gold and giving it diamante accents. They also created a Bug with a wicker body in collaboration with master basket-maker Thomas Heinrich.


After WWII, the VW factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, was supposed to be handed over to the British. No British car manufacturer wanted to take responsibility for the company, though, saying that "the vehicle does not meet the fundamental technical requirement of a motor-car," "it is quite unattractive to the average buyer," and that "To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise." Whoops.


The last VW Bug
Getty Images

Beetle #21,529,464—the one celebrated by the mariachi band—is now at Volkswagen's AutoMuseum.


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