'THE TIME MEDDLER' DVD (BBCDVD2331) RELEASED IN FEBRUARY 2008.
THE TARDIS LANDS ON THE NORTHUMBERIAN COAST, WHERE NEW COMPANION STEVEN DISCOVERS A VIKING HELMET, LEADING THE DOCTOR TO DEDUCE THEY HAVE ARRIVED IN THE 11TH CENTURY. STEVEN IS SCEPTICAL, ESPECIALLY WHEN HE AND VICKI ENCOUNTER WHAT APPEARS TO BE A SAXON HUNTER WITH A WRISTWATCH.
WHO IS THE MYSTERIOUS MONK OBSERVING THE TIME TRAVELLERS? AND WHY IS HE INTERESTED IN THE OUTCOME OF THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS?
The Time Meddler
3RD JULY 1965 - 24TH JULY 1965
1. THE WATCHER 2. THE MEDDLING MONK
3. A BATTLE OF WITS 4. CHECKMATE
The Time Meddler feels like a very different show to that which began its second season in the autumn of 1964. Susan’s exit in The Dalek Invasion of Earth shook things up a little bit, but Ian and Barbara’s departure really took some getting used to. They were the backbone of the show for nearly two years, and these were the days when two years of telly literally meant two years of telly. Arguably, in the early days of Who it was William Russell’s Ian that was the true ‘hero’ of the series, and without him Who faced its greatest challenge yet.
Cast at the last minute following his brief and amusing appearance in The Chase as Morton Dill, an Alabama yokel, Peter Purves made his debut as companion Steven Taylor in the last episode of that serial, “The Planet of Decision”. However, it wouldn’t be until the opening few moments of this serial that the audience would discover that he had stowed away on board the TARDIS - teddy bear, beard and all.
The opening ten minutes or so of “The Watcher” reworks much of An Unearthly Child, albeit with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek this time around. The Doctor’s merry “sheer poetry” speech to Steven about the TARDIS is beautifully written and delivered, and shows us just how far the Doctor has come since his curmudgeonly ‘junk yard kidnapper’ introduction. It’s just a shame that Steven is so annoyingly pig-headed about time travel not being possible. In An Unearthly Child, Ian and Barbara’s incredulity at the TARDIS was handled brilliantly by the writer and made for some top-notch drama. However, with this story’s much more light-hearted take on things, it does tend to grate a hell of a lot more.
I’m not the biggest fan in the world of Steven, either. Whilst the character becomes a little more engaging as his tenure progresses, and Purves always gives his all to the role, in this story he’s nothing but irritating. The running “Doc…” / “Doc… tor” gag is particularly painful.
Nevertheless, Dennis Spooner’s story itself is something of a gem, introducing my favourite monochrome villain – Peter Butterworth’s Monk (or ‘Mortimus’, if you will). A member of the Doctor’s own (and as yet nameless) race, the Monk wants to “improve things” for humanity. However, he is prepared to cross the one line that the Doctor never will – altering history. Indeed, the Monk is planning to ensure Harold’s victory at Hastings with atomic bazookas! Whether his actions really are for the greater good or not is open to debate, but whatever his motivations, the impish Monk is an absolute joy to watch on screen. He has a checklist, written on a whiteboard in marker, where his plan is broken down step-by-step. They don’t make villains like that anymore.
The DVD release of the serial has been branded a ‘budget’ release by 2|entertain, and as one can quite easily pick up a copy for around nine pounds online, it’s a moniker that’s hard to argue with. However, in the past such releases have contained more in the way of bonus material. Both The Sontaran Experiment and Timelash DVDs featured excellent showcase documentaries, but The Time Meddler’s special features are much thinner on the ground.
The Lost Twelve Seconds is disappointing. At barely a minute long, the ‘reconstruction’ is nothing more than the cleaned-up audio soundtrack of the lost few moments being piped over a shot of a relevant script extract. The Restoration feature is better - right up my street, in fact - but again it’s over all too quickly.
Above: Gary Russell in the Stripped for Action featurette
Even the most generous featurette barely limps over the fifteen-minute mark, but I do have to concede that they are certainly fifteen fascinating minutes. Stripped for Action is a colourful, and occasionally rather brutal, overview of the first Doctor’s comic strip adventures in TV Comic alongside two further grandchildren, John and Gillian. As a Doctor Who comic strip virgin, I know very little about the Doctor’s adventures in this medium and so I found myself rather engrossed by this curious little oddity. It’s hilarious to see the likes of Jeremy Bentham and John Ainsworth painstakingly analyse the merits of these tawdry old stories, particularly when juxtaposed with good old Gary Russell dismissing the Doctor’s juvenile companions as “useless!”
The thing that makes The Time Meddler DVD really stand out though is the commentary as Verity Lambert, Doctor Who’s founding producer, sadly passed away just a few weeks after recording it. It’s a pleasure to hear her share her thoughts on the institution that she helped to create for one last time. Of all the serials that she produced, The Time Meddler is perhaps the most fitting one to carry her obituary as it was the last that she ever produced for series. Whilst she may have been credited on the opening serial of the third season, Galaxy 4, as well the one-off Mission to the Unknown teaser episode that followed it, in reality John Wiles had taken over the reins by that point.
The scarcity of bonus material notwithstanding, The Time Meddler DVD can’t be missed, especially at the price. The chemistry between Hartnell and Butterworth is electrifying, and even in spite of Hartnell’s absence from the second episode, the story sustains itself well over the four episodes. The end title sequence is also worth looking out for - instead of the credits rolling across a blank screen as normal, we see the faces of the new TARDIS crew overexposed in space, and for the first time there is no ‘next episode’ caption. Accordingly this serial feels like the launching pad for a new era of Doctor Who; a Doctor Who with a very inconsistent third year ahead of it, mind.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2008
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
Watching Season 2 again has been an educational experience. I’ve always thought that it was the weakest Hartnell season and, for the quality of the episodes, I still think that holds true. Doctor Who’s first year had the element of surprise; the joy of having a fantastic new universe opening up before the viewer, whereas Season 3 saw the series at its most experimental and dramatic. However, looking at it again, Season 2 certainly wasn’t trying to rest on its laurels. Despite rarely succeeding, it consistently tried to find new ways to tell the same sort of stories. The season opened with the brilliantly absurd as our heroes were each reduced to an inch, and concluded with some equally incongruous imagery as a Monk tried to administer penicillin to a Saxon and sell atomic canons to a Viking fleet.
Dennis Spooner’s subtle re-invention of the historical genre in The Time Meddler shows the series starting to move away from its enchanting educational phase. Our two beloved history teachers are gone, and in their places are the archetypal orphan and big brother characters, Vicki and Steven, who lend the show more of a family feel than their more sober predecessors, particularly as the slightly-softened Doctor is always running around after them both like a fussy parent. By this point in the run, Maureen O’Brien has really grown into Vicki, maturing considerably when provided with the equally-talented Peter Purves to perform with. There is something dynamic and a little bit dangerous about Steven, and I love how he doesn’t accept everything at face value. His reluctance to accept the TARDIS as a time machine makes this serial a great stepping-on point for new viewers, offering them a chance to watch an exciting new chemistry borne. Steven and Vicki make for very natural companions and it’s a shame that they didn’t keep O’Brien along for the rollercoaster third season.
“What do you think it is, a space helmet for a cow?”
Of course, the star of the show at this point was William Hartnell, whom some would argue was at the height of his powers here. Watch the second episode of this story, in which he’s noticeably absent, and note the difference in quality with the rest - the plot slows to a crawl. The Time Meddler is a particularly wonderful story for him as clashing heads with the Monk reaffirms the Doctor’s principles in a much more overt way than The Aztecs could – this time he isn’t dealing with a wayward companion, but an enemy, yet still one he feels a degree of responsibility for. Have you ever seen the first Doctor express so much personal horror at a situation? It’s almost as though the Doctor is ashamed that one of his own people could be responsible for such a plot. It’s hilarious to see the Doctor so relentlessly unforgiving.
However, this moral high-handedness also pulls the Doctor’s hypocrisy into sharp focus – it wasn’t all that long ago that he was giggling uncontrollably when he realised that the fire that razed Rome was his fault – and, indeed, Spooner’s script does a marvellous job of painting the Doctor more vulnerably than many previous writers. His gentle scenes with Vicki in the first episode present an actor who is not taking his co-stars for granted any longer, and a character at his gentlest, and possibly even his most emotional, ebb. It’s lovely to watch the Doctor happily heading off into history, meeting the locals and sipping mead by the fireside, sampling history as if it were a fine wine. This is just the sort of gentle adventure that I could imagine him enjoying before Ian and Barbara came along.
Had Doctor Who been conceived as a children’s series, then we might have been lumbered with a character very much like this story’s villain as the central character. In my view, having the Monk front a show would have been catastrophic – he’s the antithesis of the first Doctor in most ways, which is why as a recurring comedy villain he is absolutely delightful. Old Peter Butterworth is terrific in the part, portraying a charismatic and wily old villain that, despite his plans for mass slaughter, we can’t help but feel sorry for. This is a guy who sets himself up in a Saxon monastery with a gramophone to give the illusion of many monks chanting, uses a toaster and a frying pan to make his medieval breakfast, and can sweet talk anyone - Saxon or Viking - into doing his dirty work for him. Most brilliantly of all, he keeps a progress chart in his ship that he fills in as his plot progresses, and number eight is “Meet King Harold!” What else can you do but admire the cheek of the character and the writer.
And together, Hartnell and Butterworth are gold. The final episode is the best of the four - it almost feels as though the first three episode keep everything in a holding pattern, feeding the viewer clues, until we can get to the juicy stuff in the Monk’s TARDIS; until we can get to the showdown! The cliffhanger to A Battle of Wits is one of the best shocks of the season, and thereafter both the dialogue and the performances sing. There is talk of Shakespeare putting Hamlet on television, and of putting two hundred quid in a bank in the 1960s, nipping forward a coupe of centuries and collecting a fortune in compound interest. There’s also a very nice moment between Vicki and Steven where they discuss the unwritten history book, conveying the danger that they are facing very simply but directly. The Doctor’s solution to the Monk’s time meddling is very inventive too, and whilst you might have been put off by the grunting Saxons and Vikings, it’s well worth sticking around for Hartnell’s joyful boasting and the unforgettable visual of the Monk in the doorway of his shrunken TARDIS. Spooner always was an imaginative writer, but here he truly explores the potential of the series.
Douglas Camfield, in one of his earliest Doctor Who duties, gives this serial a very polished look. Much of the story feels as though it has been shot on location, but it is merely the work of a very skilled technician adding the sounds of the sea crashing and gulls soaring to some already splendid sets. I love the long pans through the monastery – they’re abounding with slow tension and intrigue. And, although some of the choreographed fights are perhaps a little embarrassing by modern standards, Camfield is always trying to capture the story in dynamic ways. Had this story been in the hands of a less able director, it could have been as slothful and dull as The Space Museum, but the way that Camfield tells it demands the viewer’s attention. The lighting is exceptional too, with the day and night scenes extremely distinctive and the monastery sunk in shadow to give it a foreboding look.
The Time Meddler is a serial that starts of with a tremendously atmospheric episode, ends with a deliriously enjoyable one, and has a bit of tedious running about in the middle. It’s not the best of William Hartnell by any means, but it is certainly very admirable and certainly very enjoyable, and the starlit montage at the end looks to a future for Doctor Who that appears every bit as promising as we all now know it turned about to be.
Copyright © Joe Ford 2010
Joe Ford has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
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