I’ve never heard so much gobbledygook in my life, but I suspect you know what you’re talking about.
To usher in Season Eleven of Doctor Who, series regular Robert Holmes introduces another of his larger-than-life characters, in this case Linx, the titular character from “The Time Warrior” (Series Production Code UUU). But the title proves rather incongruous, for though Commander Linx, the squat Sontaran commander, has managed to transport scientists from the twentieth century back to medieval times, he does so for no reason other than to repair his damaged spaceship, so that he can return to the eternal war between the Sontarans and the Rutans.
However, this time-shifting ability of the Sontarans serves merely as an excuse for the show to play historical dress-up once more, with everyone getting in on the medieval act, from Jon Pertwee clomping around in a suit of armor to new companion Elisabeth Sladen showing off both a Maid Marian outfit and a Robin Hood outfit. Assuming one discounts the jaunt to ancient Atlantis in “The Time Monster” and the limited 1920s ship scenes in “Carnival of Monsters,” “The Time Warrior” marks the first visit to an historical Earth setting since the Second Doctor’s swan song in “The War Games” some four years prior—and even that wasn’t really on Earth.
It’s a comfortable setting for the series, despite the long absence of pseudo-historical stories from the screen, and it shows. The BBC knows how to costume for that time period like no other production team, and they can dress a castle set with far more believable detail than they can, it must be said, outfit a spaceship. Too, there’s more than a bit of the feeling from “The Time Meddler” about this story, with an interloper from beyond the stars interfering with the natural progression of human history through the introduction of modern weaponry. It just feels like home.
But where the Meddling Monk wanted to alter history for his own, somewhat fuzzily rationalized ends, Commander Linx simply wants to get home, so he can get back to all the killing. And if he needs to arm a local bandit from the Middle Ages with long rifles and a killer robot, well, so be it…
For all the Doctor’s proclamations that his people, from the newly named planet of Gallifrey, serve as “galactic ticket-inspectors” when it comes to unauthorized (which is to say, non-Time Lord) time travel, there’s a curious lack of, well, curiosity about the Sontarans themselves in this, their debut story. If a crash-landed Sontaran can casually pluck people and equipment from several hundred years in the future, they would doubtless be well known to the Time Lords, and yet the Doctor though the Doctor knows of them, he doesn’t seem to recognize a Sontaran when one is plunked down in front of him—and frankly, they’re hard to mistake for anyone or anything else.
As in the Third Doctor’s inaugural story, “Spearhead from Space,” there’s a sense here of the Doctor being almost perfunctory to the proceedings, focus going more to the interplay between Linx (Kevin Lindsay) and the bandit, Irongron (David Daker), whose castle the Sontaran is using as a base of operations. Their banter, as well as that between Irongron and his second, Bloodaxe (John J. Carney), drives much of the story’s four episodes. Where one would expect the medieval, mead-soaked malcontents to recoil in horror from this armored “toad,” as they call the Sontaran, they focus more on how they can use his magics to take over a neighboring castle. And it must be said that making these three the center of the story sustains it, for there’s precious little actually going on here.
Similarly nonchalant about the whole time-travel/visitor-from-space thing, new companion Sarah Jane Smith winds up stowing away in the TARDIS as the Doctor chases “delta particles” through time in search of the scientists purloined by Linx. A reporter by trade, Sarah Jane at first shakes off the notion that she could have travelled through time, insisting that Irongron’s castle is just “some sort of pageant” for tourists, but when it becomes obvious that she has indeed gone into the past (in a police box, no less), there’s no sense of disbelief or dismay; she just gets about the job. And that job is capturing the Doctor, whom she trusts not one bit and suspects of being behind the kidnappings.
Not, indeed, that one can blame her. This story sees the Doctor with particularly retrograde attitudes towards women; while the Third Doctor certainly patronized Jo Grant at the beginning, he lacked the kind of utterly dismissive attitude with which he first encounters Sarah Jane Smith. Rather than expressing any bemusement, let alone admiration, that she has snuck into a top secret, UNIT-guarded research laboratory whence scientists are vanishing, he instead asks her for coffee. For the Doctor, of all people, to complain that she’s asking too many questions just feels wrong.
The fault here seems to be that Holmes, laudably, desires to have Elisabeth Sladen play Sarah Jane as a companion who refuses traditional gender roles—indeed, she escapes Irongron and Linx on her own, and even rescues the Doctor from certain death twice. But to emphasize her stance, Holmes paints the Doctor into a more chauvinistic mindset than we’ve really seen before.
It’s not, as one might say, a good look, made even more interesting by Linx providing a non-gendered viewpoint, initially taking Sarah Jane, the first human female “he” has encountered, for another species entirely. Sontarans are bred in huge numbers, ostensibly genetically engineered and sterile, with “hatchings of a million cadets” at a time; reproductive cycles are, to the Sontaran mind, inefficient, given their need for a constant flow of bodies for the war they have been fighting for millennia.
Still, even as Sarah Jane takes up more screen time on her debut than arguably any companion since Ian, Susan, and Barbara back at the show’s genesis, it’s only with hindsight that it’s obvious she’s even a companion at all, despite Linx’s use of the now-standard phrase:
Linx: To return to the question of your demise, I think it would be better if you witnessed first the destruction of your female companion.
Her transition from someone who actively distrusts the Doctor to someone who is fully on his side happens with remarkable alacrity, and at the end of the story, she pops on the TARDIS with the Doctor without preamble. It’s as though it is taken as given that once a companion leaves, another will arrive to fill her or his place at the next available opportunity. For a series that has dangled characters as companions only to leave them behind at the end—Samantha Briggs in “The Faceless Ones,” for instance—we’ve lost a bit of mystery.
And, indeed, there’s a sense of knowingness about the series at this point—its norms have been established, silently and without fanfare, but established all the same. When one character, a scientist no less, remarks that the Doctor’s explanations are “gobbledygook,” it’s a bit on the nose, as he’s saying what we’ve all been thinking for years; now the writers are in on the joke and making it explicit. We get much more direct (and reverent) call-backs to prior stories, not to mention more meticulous world-building, as in the references to Metebilis 3 and the introduction of Gallifrey, but there’s also a sense of rote setting in. It’s been a long time since the Doctor last failed.
But rote though “The Time Warrior” may be, with a skimpy plot and dodgy logic, it’s still a romping good time. Jon Pertwee gets his gurning in, there are big fights with lots of smoke, and the castle walls (almost) get scaled. The admixture of futuristic aliens and familiar historical settings works a treat, as it did in “The Time Meddler,” and above all, it’s pleasant, comfortable, and cozy. Throw in someone who will become perhaps the most beloved companion of all time in Elisabeth Sladen, and it’s easy to think that the series is on good footing as it enters its second decade.
Which makes the next story that much harder to explain…
(Previous Story: The Green Death)
Post 72 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project