The Time Meddler

timemeddlerThe classic series has been enjoyed as individual stories on VHS or DVD for so many years now that it is easy to forget that there were actually season finales right from the start.  Just like a modern series of Doctor Who, here is the big exciting ending where everything changes.  It is also the point we have been building up to for two years with the historical stories, as writers struggled with what to do with them.  Dennis Spooner in particular, who is at this point clocking up more Doctor Who stories set in history than any other writer, has explored different approaches.  First he kept the Doctor on the edges of historical events (The Reign of Terror), then he went for the comedy approach and made the Doctor responsible for a big moment in history (The Romans), he script edited Doctor Who merging with a Shakespeare play (The Crusade), and now he blends history with sci-fi, setting a pattern that would eventually define almost every Doctor Who story set in history.  It will take a while, but then the Hartnell era is characterised by the writers coming up with brilliant ideas and not realising it for a while, such as the way Planet of Giants made everyday objects scary.

The early historicals, although generally well produced, left the viewer with a feeling that there was something missing: history would take its course, so the only excitement came from any danger to the Doctor and his companions. Here that missing element is found – somebody is trying to change history and he has to be stopped.

Imagine the excitement this story generated when it was originally broadcast; there had so far been 77 episodes of Doctor Who, and nothing to suggest that the TARDIS was not unique, and no sign of any other of the Doctor’s own race, except of course for Susan. The cliffhanger to the first episode is superb, with the Doctor discovering the gramophone and then being imprisoned by the Monk. The Doctor is in the past, it is a historical story, but all the rules have changed.

Peter Butterworth is perfect as the Monk, giving a subtle, understated performance. His rivalry with the Doctor is great entertainment, and all their scenes together are fun, particularly when the Doctor bluffs the Monk into believing that a stick is actually a gun.  It is important to remember that all this happens long before any wider examination of the Doctor’s race, so we see the Monk very much as an alternative version of the Doctor.  He is defined in terms of having already done Doctorish things: helped the ancient Britons to build Stonehenge (I wondered why it was so unimpressive) and given Leonardo da Vinci the idea of flying machines (which never got off the page into the sky).  Not so long ago we saw the Doctor cause the Great Fire of Rome, so if we are paying attention we should be asking ourselves at this point who is actually the worst meddler of the two?

The Monk is actually miles away from being a villain as we understand one at this point in the series.  He is trying to do what the Doctor refuses to do with history, and make things better.  Yes, he has selfish motives as well, and there is some attempt to make him fit the baddie role: like a comic book villain, the Monk has a big list of dastardly deeds to commit.  But he is actually trying to get a better result to the Battle of Hastings, which could give the country a better king than the one it got.  We are supposed to come down on the side of the Doctor, because the Monk in being reckless, but that puts us on the side of a fatalistic universe where what is established must remain established.  This stamps all over the youth revolution theme the series has been building (mainly with the phenomenally brilliant Vicki) and shows us that the old order must prevail, despite the Monk seeming at times a lot more fun than the Doctor.  Note that his TARDIS is a newer, better model (a shame the budget wouldn’t stretch to doing anything other than raising up the console in the usual set).  The Monk represents youth and the future, and is shown categorically to be entertaining but ultimately misguided.

This is all highly subjective, but a much more obvious problem is the character of Steven, who is used to do that boring old thing of disbelieving the evidence of his own eyes, which fits horribly with everything that was established about him in the previous story.  His approach to problems (e.g. attacking somebody when he could have just asked for information) flows much more naturally from what we know about his imprisonment, but has a knock-on effect of turning Vicki into the voice of reason, which pushes her into a corner that is much less interesting than everything else she has been doing this series: teaching the Doctor how to beat the monsters by being an anarchist, and having a ball together while he is doing that.  Vicki taming Steven takes us right back to Barbara taming the Doctor, and is a much less appealing prospect than the Doctor with his best mate Vicki.

But it doesn’t seem fair to criticise Dennis Spooner too much, a man who might just be the most important writer Doctor Who ever had.  As script editor he shaped Doctor Who as we know it today, mainly through the Doctor’s relationship with Vicki, he was instrumental in getting the characterisation of the Second Doctor right in The Power of the Daleks, and here he finally invents the one and only approach to historical stories that puts past stories on as much of a successful footing as the present and future ones.

So this is a highly significant story, but also a really enjoyable end to the second season of Doctor Who and, as the theme music plays over the images of the Doctor and his companions’ faces, superimposed over a star scape, we know that we have just seen something special.  RP

The view from across the pond:

William Hartnell was supposedly best known for his tough guy roles prior to being offered the role of the Doctor.   I have never seen that “tough-guy” Hartnell but would concede that he must have been impressive.  I base that on how good he is at comedy, for which I would classify him as a master.  I have to drop some quotes early to illustrate my point.  When Steven is suggesting climbing a hill in the interest of speed instead of a long walk, the Hartnell delivers this classic: “Yes, so possibly it might, but I’m not a mountain goat and I prefer walking to it any day, and I hate climbing!”  What is the “it” that he hates if not climbing?  But it’s the debate with Steven that really drives the point home:

Doctor: Well, there you are, young man. What do you think of that now, eh? A Viking helmet.
Steven: Oh, maybe.
Doctor: What do you mean, maybe? What do you think it is, a space helmet for a cow?

Hartnell delivers the lines beautifully.  And the fact is, flubs do happen.  Talk to any parent and you’ll be surprised to see how often that is!  Humor aside, the story is actually a deeply satisfying historical adventure.  Upon learning that Steven stumbled into the TARDIS while leaving the planet Mechanus in the previous adventure, the new TARDIS crew find themselves in 1066 just before the battle of Hastings.  And someone is tampering with history…   This leads to a very effective use of Peter Butterworth in part one.  As a villain, he is not over the top nor is he a buffoon.  He quietly observes and skulks about in the shadows.  His performance is actually rather creepy.  There’s no telling what he’s getting up to or what is going on in the monastery.  His character loses some of that mystique as the story goes on (and by his next appearance, he’s far more the standard caricature villain) but for an introduction, his role in part 1 makes an impressive start.  Of note, he is also the first villain to show up in Doctor Who as a recurring character, but alas, it’s only one time!  It must have been impressive enough to have fans vote for it to represent the Hartnell era for the Doctor Who @40 special.

The question that should be asked throughout this story is “why?”  Why is the Monk trying to change Earth history?  What possible gain could there be wiping out the Vikings?  Could it accelerate development?  Slow it down?  The Monk makes claims of altruism, but it’s clear he doesn’t believe if we simply observe his habits, like his compounding interest in a bank through the use of time travel; there’s nothing altruistic about greed!  And what does it say of the Doctor’s people that we’ve only ever met two and they are both rogues?  Back to the motivation, is this a precursor to something else?  Could this Monk be another character?  Try as I might, I cannot recall the Monk ever identifying himself…

In the same scene we learn about his bank accounts, we also learn that he spoke to Leonardo da Vinci.  This opens up a whole kettle of fish considering the Doctor often spoke about his meetings with Leonardo.  Did Leonardo just have a rotating door for Time Lords?  Or just the clever ones?  Speaking of clever, there’s some thought behind the idea of holding the Monk at gunpoint (using a cane) since there’s no way for the Monk to anticipate what weapons the Doctor has with him.  But then, how clever is the Monk when he can be fooled by the infamous “I’ll ask you to repeat something I said when I never actually said it” ploy.  I don’t think this ploy would work on anyone but clearly the other Gallifreyan isn’t paying attention.

And that Gallifreyan might actually be what really makes this episode the stand out for Hartnell’s era: we get a hint about the Doctor’s origins and his people.  Let’s face it, Doctor Who has that title for a reason: there’s a mystery to who he is.  Even though it’s only the merest tidbit, learning that these two are from the same planet and using ships that are about 50 years apart in age, ends up being a big thing.  We don’t get a lot of that in the early days because none of it had actually been established yet, so that makes this story unique.  What else makes it unique is the end credits.  We didn’t see many alterations in the classic series, but seeing the starfield with the faces of the cast on it was special.  It’s an image I remember well to this day.

The Doctor says that he will return for the Monk one day, when he’s learned his lesson.  Maybe he will.  Or not.  If we know the Doctor, he probably won’t.  The Monk is now on the list of people to go visit, right up there with his granddaughter, Susan.  He seems to visit Leonardo more than he ever thinks of his own grandchild!  The poor Monk should still be out there somewhere.  Unless he regenerated.  If they ever go back to that, it could be a masterful surprise …   ML

Read next in the Junkyard… Galaxy 4

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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4 Responses to The Time Meddler

  1. Mike Basil says:

    I’ve only seen clips of The Time Meddler to this day. But from what I know about one particular scene from the UK GOLD segments, a woman is raped by brutes even though they don’t show such a thing let alone have the word ‘rape’ in the dialogue. So I can agree that it earns its own place among the exclusive-period-piece adventures of Dr. Who in the 60s like The Aztecs, The Romans and The Crusade. Because these were stories that had to show human history in the most realistic content (at least enough for children fans) per Sydney Newman’s intent involving historical education.

    In reflection of my history classes in high school, I can appreciate that. Even in cases like The King’s Demons, given how it may have clashed with actual events regarding King John (which proved fair enough where the Master’s involvement with Kamelion was concerned), I could be open-minded enough to understand that Dr. Who waited for the most appropriate point where companions like Martha and Bill were concerned (given their period-piece adventure dramas) because of what the fans, children and adults alike could stomach. In Bill’s first adventure for Earth’s past she had to witness a little boy being pulled to his death under the ice. This was a crucial point in Dr. Who when that could be tolerated by the audience. In reflection of how the classic series addressed such youthful deaths like in The Horns Of Nimon (with the Episode 2 scene showing a crumbling husk of an Anethan teenager) or the teen deaths in following story tragedies like Full Circle, Survival and Adric’s death in Earthshock, Dr. Who was a show which proved serious enough with realistic violence, even if responses to examples in the classic Dr. Who’s 70s and 80s were understandably excessive.

    In this regard, The Time Meddler for Dr. Who’s 40th was as significantly chosen as The Aztecs equally was for Dr. Who’s 50th. Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. corvino44 says:

    Years ago, I got to see one of William Hartnell’s tough-guy roles, in a 1946 movie called “Appointment with Crime”. I naturally watched it only to see the Doctor in a different aspect, and his performance was fascinating. I had recorded it, and kept replaying it. (Hey! Have I still got it? Maybe! I really need to catalogue my VHS tapes!) It was such a complete contrast to the Doctor even at his least lovable! His character is a bursting ball of malignant nonstop energy, who dominates every scene he’s in and kicks everyone else into high gear! At the beginning and the end, his hands are injured; the second time, in an ironic replay as he is captured for his crimes stemming partly from his rage at the first time. He was a very effective tough guy, but I’m glad he got to move on to a role that made him beloved by children.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. corvino44 says:

    Hey! I just saw (for the second time) a fine Christmas movie called “The Holly and the Ivy”, made in 1952 about a family that gets together for Christmas at the patriarch’s parsonage in a little village and brings their load of problems with them, and William Hartnell turned up in that one as the severe sergeant-major who almost denied the soldier son his leave to go! I didn’t even recognize him till I saw the credits and the penny dropped! Well, there’s another tough guy, but on the side of law and order this time. I love the fact that I discovered this blog and am reading about the First Doctor episodes as Christmas approaches, so that I was primed to notice Hartnell in this, and don’t need “The Feast of Stephen” to be extant to associate him with Christmas.

    Liked by 2 people

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