Doctor Who Project: The Time Meddler

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What do you think it is, a space helmet for a cow?

To end Doctor Who‘s first season, the producers pulled out all the stops in a historical tour de force with a large cast and elaborate costumes aplenty. The second season finale proves equally remarkable, but not for any creatures or effects or epic tales. Rather, Dennis Spooner’s “The Time Meddler” (Story Production Code S) marks the first story where none of the original three companions are present, and we also finally begin to understand something of the Doctor’s backstory. For he is not alone. There’s another time traveller out there, from the same place as the Doctor, with his own TARDIS, a Mark IV, no less. He’s only known in the story as the Monk, but the Doctor knows him as . . . a Time Meddler.

Of these two remarkable aspects, perhaps the former is the more important, because the show has the confidence to move forward with the Doctor as the central character. Previously, Ian and Barbara played, if not equal roles to the Doctor’s, at least counterbalancing roles, serving as wise and careful adults who keep events from getting out of hand (mostly). They were the literal and figurative teachers supporting the show’s nominal educational mission. The success of “The Time Meddler” is to present a Doctor Who story that is fundamentally about the Doctor and the mythology surrounding him, and it succeeds quite well, arguably the best story of the second season.

“The Time Meddler” could not have been produced earlier in the show’s run, for it relies heavily on the notions of time travel that prior episodes, particularly the historicals, have established. Both the Doctor’s strong reluctance to alter history (“The Aztecs“) and his inadvertent and significant participation in its creation (“100,000 BC“, “The Romans“) inform “The Time Meddler,” as the Doctor must confront one of his own kind who revels in changing history, “disgusting” behavior according to the Doctor. The faults of the Doctor’s TARDIS, elaborated over the course of two seasons, play a role in the story, for the Monk has a far better one that actually works. Even the intentional anachronisms—the Monk makes breakfast with a toaster and electric frying pan in an 11th Century monastery, for instance—play against the established structure of the historical stories, where every last feathered headdress and torn jerkin is properly reproduced by the BBC’s prop department. This is, at last, a time travel story in historical clothing.

While the story does feature the far-too-typical splitting of the party (the Doctor is separated from Vicki and Steven for three of the four episodes) and the inevitable inaccessibility of the TARDIS (underwater thanks to the tides), the Doctor finally has a reason to intervene in events in a historical story beyond the mere desire to escape: he must preserve the timeline. This imperative gives the story a narrative weight that prior historical stories lacked.

Not your typical to-do list.

And indeed, how could anyone not be mesmerized by a story that hinges on preventing the Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066 by sinking a Viking fleet using an atomic cannon mounted on a Northumbrian cliff . . .

After some initial moping over Ian and Barbara’s departure, we are quickly introduced to new companion Steven Taylor, who stowed away on the TARDIS at the end of “The Chase” and fills Ian’s demographic role as the male companion. On the evidence thus far, though, he has none of Ian’s headstrong willfulness and does not challenge the Doctor like Ian often did. Though certainly possessed of a mind of his own—he does drag Vicki off to explore against the Doctor’s instructions—he mostly bends to the wishes of the Doctor and, notably, Vicki, following their leads. About as close as he gets to sedition is a tendency to call the Doctor, “Doc,” much to the Doctor’s displeasure. He is also far more willing to mix it up than Ian, leading with his fists in an interaction with locals where Ian would have tried to talk (and then, probably, gotten thumped for his troubles).

Steven learns his place.

Steven’s wonder at the TARDIS and the notion of time travel allows for some needed exposition (conveniently in earshot of the Monk, after our time travellers land on a beach) about the TARDIS’ “technical hitches” that prevent the Doctor from quite knowing where they will wind up and causing the TARDIS to always appear as a police box, and given the Monk’s facial expression of recognition rather than wonder or horror, we get our first clue that the Monk is more than he appears.

Vicki, throughout the second season, has grown from being a Susan-replacement to the first of the archetypal Companions, people who travel with the Doctor not because they are unable to return to their time and place of origin but because they simply want to. Granted, Vicki has nothing and no one waiting for her, but she takes pains to reassure the Doctor that she is exactly where she wants to be. Narrative demands often force her into the role of the lost, captured, or endangered waif, but she exhibits a strongly curious streak. Over the course of the second season, the writers (at least those with some connection to the show) seemed to realize that the narrative became stronger with Vicki as a driver of the story rather than a victim of it.

Soon to be a lost, captured, or endangered waif.

Still, even with a new companion in tow, the story remains firmly centered on the Doctor, despite William Hartnell’s absence from the second episode (on holiday, according to Howe and Walker’s Doctor Who: The Television Companion). In the first episode, he charms a villager into providing him with food and, more importantly, information about the era and area. He can scarcely hide his delight at finding himself once again in an historically significant moment, just prior to the Norman Conquest in 1066. A strange distortion in the chanting from a long-abandoned monastery, however, draws his attention, where he discovers a gramophone playing a warped record of Gregorian chants—and is discovered, in turn, by the Monk, who imprisons him just in time for a week’s holiday while Vicki and Steven spend an episode trying to find him and narrowly avoiding Vikings.

That's Sven and Ulf. Or maybe Gunnar.

The plot itself breaks no new ground, with Vicki and Steven sneaking in to the monastery just as the Doctor escapes, then the Doctor returning to the monastery when Vicki and Steven escape, and all the while drunk Vikings are running around terrorizing the Saxon villagers in preparation for a larger invasion. It all serves as a somewhat forgettable backdrop to the brilliant conceit of time meddling and the insights we gain on the Doctor’s personal story.

The Monk, as it turns out, is an inveterate Time Meddler—a term used by the Doctor that suggests a particular breed of time traveller who revels in influencing historical events. He gave da Vinci the idea for human powered flight, created Stonehenge using an anti-gravitational lift, and is working on a Master Plan to prevent the Norman Conquest by destroying the Viking fleet, allowing King Harold to defeat William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings with a stronger army. But the Doctor will have none of that. We’ve seen the Doctor’s strong beliefs as regards temporal integrity, despite his own occasional inadvertent historical interventions, summed up here in what he calls the “golden rule”: “Never, never interfere with the course of history!”

Never, never interfere!

For the viewer, this story provides the first real glimpse into the Doctor’s origins since Susan’s moving description of the burnt orange sky of their homeworld in “The Sensorites.” The Monk hails from the same “place” as the Doctor, though from fifty years later. While they apparently don’t know one another personally, neither of the time travellers seems very surprised at the other’s presence, as though these kinds of chance temporal meetings occur fairly frequently. And they both own a TARDIS, with the Monk’s being a newer Mark IV fitted with Automatic Drift Control and a functioning Camouflage Unit (it looks like a Saxon sarcophagus from the outside).

Just the existence of another TARDIS and another of the Doctor’s species opens the show’s narrative universe significantly, to the point where a much later season (Season Twenty-three) will deal entirely with Time Lord politics (though of course we don’t know our time travellers as such quite yet). This story sets the stage for all future development of the Time Lords, and one of the Doctor’s most formidable foes, the Master, finds a direct analogue in the Monk (played with a wonderful self-confidence by Peter Buttersworth).

And, of course, the Doctor proves more than a bit prickly about his own TARDIS, an earlier vintage than the Monk’s:

Monk: What type’s yours, Doctor?

Doctor: Mind your own business!

In short order, the Doctor disables the Monk’s TARDIS by removing the Dimensional Control (causing the TARDIS’ interior to shrink), trapping the Monk in 1066 Northumbria. He leaves the Monk a note promising to return some day to release him.

It’s a bloodthirsty ending, for the villagers, who believe the Monk to be a Viking spy, have no qualms about killing all the Vikings they found. (And it’s an interesting note that the only extant film print of the story, retrieved from an overseas broadcaster, had the Vikings’ death scene purged.) But then, the Doctor sees it as a sacred duty to prevent time meddling. He’s also rather nonchalant about the impending deaths of the villagers who helped, trusted, and believed in him, particularly Edith, for they shall almost certainly be killed by the Viking invaders. But the timeline is sacred, at least for this story. And we’ll conveniently ignore the fact that the Monk still has an atomic cannon and several rounds of neutron bomb ammunition at his disposal, since he convinced the Vikings to carry a heavy crate of it out of the monastery at the end of the story.

Hmm. It's smaller on the inside.

Sadly, the term “companions” is absent yet again from the script, with Vicki and Steven being referred to mostly as friends by others and Vicki herself describing their role as that of passengers on the TARDIS.

While this episode lacks the epic sweep of “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” it similarly leaves the viewer with a sense of anticipation for future stories. And more than anything, the story is simply fun. Not terribly serious, but not insubstantial, either. Other than a few interminable scenes of intra-village Saxon politics, the story moves with good pace.

The historical aspect, certainly familiar to nearly every British viewer, provides an easy background that doesn’t need excessive exposition, and the whole notion of changing that very specific, very local history gives an immediate hook. Steven brings a fresh take to the male companion role, less stuffily written than Ian; Vicki has an undeniable energy and is played with great effect by Maureen O’Brien, who has brought the character to life; and the William Hartnell’s Doctor likewise seems energized by his new companions. Combined with an enlarged sense of scope and a still-broken early Mark TARDIS that can take us nearly anywhere, the third season of Doctor Who beckons.

(Previous Story: The Chase)

(Next Story: Galaxy 4)

Post 17 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project

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