‘A Town Called Mercy’ begins with the Doctor discovering electric lights in a Western town 10 year too early. This immediately intrigues him and shows how anachronisms can be the spark of a new adventure.
In most campaigns PCs will be time travellers. They are in a unique position to identify when something is out of place. Finding out the reason can be an early goal, giving them direction and purpose.
So what are the possible reasons for anachronisms?
‘The Meddling Monk’ is a classic example of this. Someone from another time period has brought technology back to an earlier time. They could do this maliciously, in an attempt to benefit themselves or by accident, as with Rory leaving his phone charger in Henry VIII’s en-suite.
The discovery of anachronistic technology can let the PCs know they are dealing with another time traveller and that always means trouble. Not only are most time travelling cultures powerful they may have knowledge and technology beyond the PCs. It also means the PCs have lost their most defining edge. They are on equal footing with their opponent.
They will need to discover who the time traveller is and what their motives are. Not only will the PCs have to defeat their opponent they will need to prevent the anachronistic technology from contaminating the timeline.
The time traveller could have good motives, believing that they have the right to improve the past, or they could have left the technology by accident. In this case the PCs just have to make the time traveller see the errors of their way and be more careful.
In a similar vein the PCs might discover that they are responsible for the anachronisms. In a previous adventure they might have left some future or alien technology behind, allowing the local culture to exploit it. Can the PCs make amends and put things back on track?
This is the scenario presented in ‘A Town Called Mercy’. A well meaning alien brings technology that the locals are not ready for. In this episode the Doctor doesn’t seem particularly concerned with the effect this will have on history. I would appear that the isolation of the area reduces the impact of the anachronism.
This is a trickier situation since the alien isn’t changing history. As far as he and everyone in the time period is concerned this is natural order of events. If the PCs try to remove the technology are they interfering or just playing their part in a self-fulfilling prophecy (removing it because they know that it must have been removed)?
Aliens interference can create adventures exploring how various cultures throughout history would react to advanced technology. What if the Aztecs had firearms when the Spanish explorers arrived? What if Lewis and Clark had access to a helicopter while exploring America or the Egyptians Empire used rockets to build a Sphinx on the moon?
A big part of this will be whether the alien gives the locals an understanding of the technology, allowing them to duplicate it, or keep the secrets to themselves. In the former scenario simply removing the technology isn’t enough, people will still know how to make it.
We have seen plenty of instances where alien technology has been captured and knowledge suppressed within the Doctor Who universe. PCs can rest assured that UNIT or Torchwood will be on hand to confiscate the discarded weapons and ships of alien invaders.
There is no reason to believe that this wouldn’t happen in other periods of history. Governments and religious orders may suppress alien technology and knowledge as unnatural, removing its influence from history.
This can set up an interesting adventure if the PCs are stranded and need anachronistic technology. They will be forced to track down the secret stockpiles of confiscated material and either call in some favours or steal it.
The False Anachronism
This is something that a time traveller might at first believe to be an anachronism but actually be part of history. The past is littered with technology that was ahead of its time and often forgotten.
One such example is the aeolipile, created by a Greek inventor Hero in the 1st century. The aeolipile was a mounted hollow sphere that could be filled with water. Heated would cause the water to boil and steam to issue from nozzles in the sphere, allowing it to spin.
It was seen as little more than a children’s toy but could have been the start of steam powered technology and even steam engines. A time traveller, with no knowledge of the aeolipile, might think such a device was out of place and worried that this would lead to a steam punk version of ancient Greece.
A more famous example are the sketches created by Leonardo Da Vinci, showing crude helicopters, tanks and gliders. What if someone had given him the money and resources to create this technology?
PCs may encounter other inventors who are ahead of their time. Do the PCs encourage them or try to thwart them? Even if their inventions do work society might fail to see its use or it could fall into obscurity.
The PCs might emulate ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ and take these inventors forward in time to show them that their ideas will eventually be vindicated.
One thing to remember is that anachronisms need not be restricted to Earth. They can equally occur on other worlds, giving you more freedom to explore how history is changed by their presence.
A Time Lord PC might realise that the natives of Taralxia 7 aren’t supposed to possess airship technology in the 23rd century and investigate how this came about or that the Draconians have developed wireless communication a 100 years too early.
PCs could also mistakenly believe that they’ve stumbled upon evidence of an anachronism from a play, book or painting only to find out that the creator just wasn’t historically accurate.
‘Julius Caesar’, by William Shakespeare, contains a striking clock in ancient Rome while Constantin Lecca’s painting ‘Moldavians and Muntenians become brothers’ depicts a 19th century flag in a scene from the 16th century.
Time travellers heading to those time periods won’t find any such anachronism but this is still a good way to get them into an historical adventure. Once they are there they can get caught up in events, taking their minds of their disappointment.
Alternatively perhaps the artists were right and there were anachronisms there. We only believe they are mistakes because the PCs were successful in removing them.