Steampunk Themes in Doctor Who
Steampunk is a combination of fantastical super-science with anachronistic elements. It could be said that Steampunk is a subcultural equivalent of Doctor Who. The science, the adventure, the historical, the weirdness and the fantastic, all elements of both, the Steampunk genre and Doctor Who. But what exactly is Steampunk? What’s it’s origin? The word “steampunk” was coined by science fiction writer K. W. Jeter in a letter to the science fiction magazine Locus that was printed in April, 1987 (That means Steampunk is 30 years old!), as a general term for the works of several authors and himself that happened to have many elements in common, such as taking place in a 19th-century (usually Victorian) setting and imitated conventions of such actual Victorian speculative fiction as H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine.
Steampunk is easily recognizable by it’s anachronistic and retro-futuristic aesthetics, usually, but not limited, to how people in the 19th century would had envisioned the future. Time-displaced visions of the future such as Steam-powered rocketships, robot butlers, and tesla coil ray guns. Since it’s introduction in science-fiction literature, Steampunk has evolved into a subculture with a large following that permeates different media such movies, music, TV shows, videogames and others.
As mentioned before, the science-fiction and anachronisms of Steampunk are elements that bring a link between Steampunk and Doctor Who. That link has been emphasized in several episodes, and with one Doctor in particular (Something we’ll discuss a bit later).
Some of the best Steampunk episodes of Doctor Who are the following:
WARNING – SPOILERS
The Next Doctor – Christmas Special 2008
This one is not exactly an episode, but it’s my personal favorite. It’s the first of the Christmas specials of the revived series and it features the 10th Doctor (David Tennant) fighting Cybermen in 19th century England. Let me repeat that, The Doctor is fighting Cybermen in 19th century England! And that’s not all! There’s a giant steampunk Cyberman (The Cyberking) and the doctor fights it aboard a balloon airship! What’s more steampunk than that?!
A Town Called Mercy – third episode of the seventh series – April 15, 2012
The 11th Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companions end up in a little town in the Old West that happens to have electricity 10 years too soon and they encounter a cybernetic cowboy called The Gunslinger! A cyborg wearing a 19th century cowboy hat? Totally steampunk! This is very reminiscent of a sub-genre of Steampunk literature that’s called “Weird West”, which is basically Steampunk set in the Old West instead of the usual English Victorian setting.
Deep Breath – First episode of the eight series – August 23, 2014
This marks the first full appearance fo the 12th Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and it’s full of steampunk goodness! Let’s start with a giant dinosaur in Victorian England, then we have the unusual allies of the Doctor, the Paternoster Gang, consisting of Silurian Madame Vastra, her human maid and wife Jenny, and Sontaran butler Strax, all dressed in Victorian outfits. Strax in particular, looking rather charming in his butler outfit. And then to top it all, the antagonist in this episode is a mechanical clockwork cyborg! Which ties into the next steampunk episode to discuss.
Girl in the Fireplace – Fourth episode of the second series – May 6, 2006
This episode is rather strange as it takes place in a spaceship in the far future, but also in 18th century France, where evil clockwork robots are trying to get the brain of no other than Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of king Louis XV, in order to repair their spaceship in the future and it’s up to the 10th Doctor to save her. Some may say that it’s 18th century France, not 19th century England, but the fact that it blends sci-fi with past historical aesthetics makes it capture the essence of Steampunk. Besides, the clockwork robots are amazing!
The Snowmen – Eight Christmas Special – December 25, 2012
We see the 11th Doctor back in Victorian England, brooding in the company of the the Paternoster Gang – Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, after the loss of his companions Amy and Rory. He is forced out of hiding to investigate strange living cannibal snowmen (weird!) that are up no good! A Victorian mad scientist is creating the living snowmen with the help of an entity called The Great Intelligence. The best part is perhaps when The Doctor introduces himself as Sherlock Holmes in order to investigate the Great Intelligence Institute.
A Christmas Carol – The Sixth Christmas Special – December 25th 2010
So, another Christmas Special! Bear with me, this one is a bit odd since it takes place completely in the far future. Amy and Rory, the companions of the 11th Doctor are in a space vacation cruiser ship celebrating their honeymoon when suddenly the ship, in classical Doctor Who fashion, is about to crash due to some strange atmospheric phenomena over an inhabitable planet. What makes this episode Steampunk is the Victoria-era style setting and the fact that The Doctor uses the plot of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol in order to convince the bitter old man that’s controlling the weather to deactivate his machine and allow the ship to land safely. The visuals and theme of this episode mixes well the retro-futuristic style of Steampunk with the spirit of 19th century English literature.
The 8th Doctor
The 8th Doctor (Paul McGann) can be easily consider The Steampunk Doctor. And I must say, he is a badass. He fought The Master in one of his scariest incarnations, and he also sacrificed himself to become The War Doctor. The 8th Doctor was at his core an optimistic and a romantic, qualities that are inherent to the sense of wonder and passion that can be found in Steampunk narratives. He dresses the part too. His outfit being a very elegant Victorian ensemble, pocket watch included. On top of that, his regeneration is very reminiscent of Frankenstein’s Monster rise from the lab table. Perhaps his most Steampunk feature is not the man himself, but his TARDIS. The 8th Doctor’s TARDIS is a lovely work of Steampunk inspired art. With clockwork gadgets, wooden banisters, and even persian rugs that makes it look like a 19th century Gentlemen’s club. It’s a shame that the 8th Doctor didn’t see as much screen time as other doctors because he is perhaps one of the most distinguished and heroic Doctor Who incarnations.