Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Time Meddler

Previous viewings - many

It must be difficult for an established series to recover from the loss of two cast members who were an integral part of the lineup. Susan leaving was a turning point, but Vicki was clearly a substitute for her, at least on paper. Steven Taylor is nothing like either of the companions he replaces: he's more physical than Ian and more fallible. We know very little about him except that he comes from the future and seemingly had no loved ones to leave behind. In many ways this lack of backstory is a bad thing; how we perceive a character depends on how they're acted, how they're written and what we know of their background. What distinguishes Steven from the average Joe space pilot of his time? Peter Purves is a skilled actor and is largely responsible for Steven being a successful character, but there are few character traits written for the character except that he is loyal, smart and brave in about equal measure.

As the story begins, it's quiet in the TARDIS as the Doctor and Vicki miss their friends and the Doctor asks Vicki if she wants to leave too. At this point Vicki is really growing as a character and I'm glad she's still around. The conversation is interrupted by a noise, it's Steven stumbling into the control room. There are echoes of An Unearthly Child in Steven's doubts about the TARDIS being a time machine but it's also totally different from that as we are laughing with the Doctor, whereas his dismissal of Ian and Barbara in the first story seemed callous and almost sinister. We also get a re-introduction of the story's basics (what TARDIS stands for, why it looks like a police box), which makes this a good 'in' story for new viewers. Already, I'm loving the dynamic between the new TARDISeers, it's different from what went before, and Vicki now seems like a veteran traveller along with Steven the sceptic and the absentminded Doctor.

However the TARDIS's arrival in a coast in what turns out to be 1066 has not gone unnoticed. A mysterious monk is listening to the travellers from behind a rock, and seems very interested in what he's hearing. With the Doctor's discovery of a Viking helmet and some Saxons discussing the new arrival. Those who think they know Doctor Who will guess that this is a pure historical, and there have only been two this season so far so it makes sense. Although this season has been experimental, most of the ideas were never used again, not true of this story's innovation: the pseudo-historical, a period piece with a sci-fi twist. However The Time Meddler isn't so explicit. The plot concerns one alien, disguised as a Monk, who has the opposite approach to time travel from the Doctor; while the Doctor defends history, the Monk enjoys changing it.

The way the plot unfolds is atypical. The Doctor goes off on his own to explore, leaving his two companions to do what they want, arranging to meet back at the TARDIS later. The Doctor hears some curious sounds coming from a monastery and goes off to investigate, while Vicki continues to try to convince Steven that they have travelled in time, but there are mysteries they find a modern wristwatch a man dropped. The pacing is slow, and very little actually happens, but rather than be boring it seems to build an atmosphere of ambience.

The Doctor is absent from Episode 2. He has been absent before, but it is handled best here. He discovers that the Monk is using a gramophone to broadcast the sound of monks chanting, to disguise the fact that there is only one Monk. The Doctor spends the second episode imprisoned in the monastery after falling into a trap. It's all so quiet - Steven and Vicki get captured then set free by the Saxons, the Monk spies on a Viking fleet which soon arrives and attacks the Saxons, but none of the incidents are treated as spectacle, rather they are treated so they don't ruin the ambient mood of the story.

By the end of Episode 2, Steven and Vicki find the Doctor has escaped from his cell. The Doctor wastes no time in continuing to probe this mysterious Monk who clearly doesn't belong in 1066, and what his interest in the Viking fleet is. As he confronts the Monk, Hartnell and Peter Butterworth spar wonderfully as two opposed, but nonviolent foes. The Doctor unmasks the Monk's plan to destroy the Viking fleet, changing Earth history, and he has already changed history using his TARDIS - he's a Time Lord. This is a surprise, but the lack of incidental music slightly diminishes the impact a revelation like that should have. However, by this point the Monk is less a villan and more of a rogue. He is the least malicious enemy yet, in fact he probably wouldn't hurt a fly. This makes him a wonderful enemy for the First Doctor - there is a lot of comedy in Hartnell's performance but he is more of a talky Doctor than an action Doctor.

There are a few things that make this story so good. The ever-reliable Douglas Camfield directs, and he gets the feel of the period right, despite there being few indigenous characters and most of the story taking place in a forest and a monestary. The show never looks low budget under his direction. Though the Vikings don't make much of an impression, the Saxon characters do - Wulnoth comes across as an Everyman and the way he is quiet and rational despite his leadership role is something I liked. Edith, played by Alethea Charlton, veteran of An Unearthly Child, is likeable, first through being helpful to the Doctor and his companions then correctly suspecting that the Monk isn't who he says he is. I felt bad when she was attacked (and raped?) by a Viking, as despite her limited screentime, I was already invested in the character.

However the standout performances come from William Hartnell as the Doctor and Peter Butterworth as the Monk. As I said, as characters they're diametrically opposed, but I wouldn't go so far as to call them arch enemies. Butterworth plays the Monk with charm and wit, almost enough to make me side with him! Plus Hartnell gives one of his best performance as the Doctor. Free of the darker aspects of the character that were included in the first season, the Doctor integrates comedy with a wonderful sense of deceptive absentmindedness. We know the Doctor is clued up, but he seems to enjoy playing the bumbling grandfather role and Hartnell can do both brilliantly. He has reigned in the comedy excesses of The Romans and has hit a perfect pitch here. I really hate seeing his Doctor low down in favourite Doctor polls, or worse, judged as the "crotchety Doctor" by the first few episodes. Here, the writers have found the perfect villain for this Doctor, and I really don't know why the Monk only returned in a bit part in one future story.

The TARDISeers reunite for their next adventure... and their next season. Despite this being his first proper story, Steven has only really interacted with Vicki, but he will get plenty of chances to interact with the Doctor in future stories. I preferred Ian and Barbara, but this story is so good that I don't miss them anymore, so it's done it's job.

Horror quotient - Some moments that should be shocking or scary but aren't treated as such. Edith's rape, the Viking attack. The story is eerie throughout but not enough to be scary.
Comedy quotient - This is also a funny story. We know the Monk is dangerous, but he is a conceptually funny character, and probably a more welcome return than the Master (later on).
Drama quotient - One of the first times that comedy and drama are blended to perfection.

I used to like The Time Meddler, now I love it. The best story of Season 2.


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