From the Archives: Early Counterfactual Television -- "Past Imperfect" (1964)

As I enter the home stretch of my research on the history of “what ifs” in western culture, I came across an interesting archival find – the existence of a short-lived television show (aired on National Education Television) in the year 1964, entitled “Past Imperfect.”  

Hosted by the journalist, Eric Larrabee, the show featured historians and other scholars, such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Susan Sontag, commenting on a variety of counterfactual premises.    

There were a total of eight episodes.  

Each episode covered several themes, including:  

1. What if Trotsky gained control of the Russian government instead of Stalin?  

2. What if Luther had decided to become a lawyer and never entered the monastery?  

3. Suppose Secretary Seward had been unsuccessful in purchasing Alaska from Russia?  

4. Suppose the Emperor Constantine had not been tolerant of Christianity?  

5. Suppose Texas had remained an independent republic?  

6. Suppose Napoleon had changed his mind and decided not to sell Louisiana to the US.  

7. Suppose France had won the French and Indian War?  

8. What if Joan of Arc had never been born -- Would France have been ruled by England?   

The episodes can all be found at the American Archive of Public Broadcasting website.  

I’m interested in why the show was so short-lived.  Based on the negative press reviews, which called the show boring, it’s clear that the series did not resonate with viewers.  In light of the dramatic forms of narration that dominate alternate history series today, there’s little doubt that the “talking head” format flopped.  

Alternatively, the series may have simply been ahead of its time.  I’m still seeking to determine when counterfactual history truly broke into the cultural mainstream, but the evidence seems to show that, in the 1960s, Americans were not yet ready to embrace “what ifs?”  (The short-lived existence of the radio series, Stroke of Fate, a decade earlier suggests the same thing).   At the same time, however, the fact that broadcasting companies were willing to invest in such a show suggests that programmers thought there was something to the premise.    

So when did the stars align for counterfactual history to make its definitive breakthrough?  



I think it started in the 1990's that scholary serious counterfactuals got some popularity and started getting acceptance. Hving a lot of book of counterfactuals history and the oldest being in the 1990's like historian Dennis Showlater edited What If sixty alternate scenarios of ww2 and Virtual History eidted by Niall Fergusson. Those book were re edited and in the late 1999 and 2001 Robert Cowley edited the two What ifs series and those book were popular. I got them at Indigo when I whas in college and I started being hooked up on conuterfactual at that time
Yes -- the last generation (1989 to the present) represents the watershed period. But I'm continually surprised to see how much discussion existed on the topic dating back to the 19th century. That's part of what my book will show. (Hoping to finish it within a year or so).