Doctor Who (Classic): “The Time Meddler”
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Doctor Who (Classic): “The Time Meddler”

“The Time Meddler” (season 2, episodes 36-39. Originally aired, 1965)

Season finales were not the kind of big events in 1965 that they are today, but the appearance of another rogue time traveler—and one who was not only from the Doctor’s own planet, but a sort of anti-Doctor in his own right—must have been a huge revelation for viewers back then. Before the War Chief, before the Master, before the Time Lords or Gallifrey had even been named, the Monk was our first glimpse at someone from the Doctor’s home. And it’s it’s important to keep in mind that the Monk does appear before any of that other baggage was attached, because he’s best understood as a mirror-inversion not of the Doctor we know now, but the First Doctor specifically—not a cosmic wizard who can feel the pulse of the universe, but a sly, troublemaking old man who always has a few tricks up his sleeve.

Before that, all we knew about Time Lords was a dyspeptic old man and his spacey-genius granddaughter—and even Susan had left the show earlier in the season, seven stories and 26 half-hour episodes previously in “The Dalek Invasion Of Earth.” Her place in the TARDIS crew had been filled by a character who was, on paper at least, nearly identical: Vicki, a young orphan girl who had survived a spaceship crash and was rescued by the Doctor and Susan’s former teachers Ian and Barbara in the appropriately titled story “The Rescue.” Once on board the TARDIS, she allowed the four-person dynamic set up in “An Unearthly Child” to continue mostly unchanged—she had a grandfather/granddaughter relationship with the Doctor, and a teacher/student one with Ian and Barbara. I haven’t seen much of the Vicki episodes besides “Time Meddler,” but she strikes me as more than just a replacement of Susan but an improvement on her, largely because Maureen O’Brien is a much more engaging and lively actress. Her scene with the Doctor at the start of the first episode here is warmer and more endearing than, say, the similar Doctor-Susan scene in “Dalek Invasion,” and she’s a far more effective conversational foil for Steven than I think Carole Ann Ford would ever have been.

Even beyond the Monk and all he implies, “The Time Meddler” is an important transitional story for Doctor Who for a couple of reasons. One is the introduction of a new companion, Steven—like Vicki, another victim of a spaceship crash from the future, but also a pilot and someone who could fit the action-hero role when the show needed it. Having a new guy on the TARDIS gives the show a chance to re-establish the basic premise of the series via Steven’s skeptical response to the very idea that they’ve traveled through time. (And incidentally, that makes “Time Meddler” a pretty good jumping-on point for new viewers, though “An Unearthly Child” is obviously the first port of call for newbies interested in checking out the early-‘60s era.) This could have been an irritating subplot if he’d been more obnoxious or obtuse about his disbelief, the way that Dr. Pulaski on Star Trek: The Next Generation rankled fans by denying one of the core premises of that show, that Data is more human than even he realizes. Instead, Steven comes across as an intelligent person who merely won’t take an outrageous claim at face value, and thus someone who’s earned a berth on the Doctor’s ship. Indeed, his skepticism winds up coming in handy when he and Vicki get to the monastery and are confronted with a fishy story from the Monk, who has the Doctor locked up inside—Steven tricks the Monk into “repeating” the Doctor's description when he hasn't been given one yet, proving that he’s in danger.

It’s also important to note departures as well as arrivals: Behind the scenes, the show was about to lose original producer Verity Lambert and second major script editor Dennis Spooner, who wrote this particular script as well—their loss was one of the factors leading toward the monster-of-the-week approach that came to a boil during the Second Doctor era and which still typifies Doctor Who. The other departures were much more obvious, and earthshaking in their own right: Original companions Ian and Barbara had just left in the previous serial, “The Chase,” meaning that William Hartnell’s Doctor was now the only character left from the series‘ debut. That meant a subtle, slow-churning shift in focus for the show—increasingly, Doctor Who was less about the travels of a group of people that happened to include the Doctor, but about the travels of the Doctor with whoever he happened to be vagabonding around with at that particular moment. Not that the companions aren’t important, but they come and go; in the long run, it’s his story. Also, the Doctor is no longer competing with Ian and Barbara for the role of leader within the group—Steven’s character is in many ways intended to replace Ian as the young, strong, physically active guy who can do things the aged Hartnell can’t, but he’s also clearly intended as a supporting character first and foremost. He might argue with the Doctor about whether time travel is real, and he might be flippant enough to call him “Doc,” but before the end of his first scene he’s already acknowledged that the Doctor ultimately calls the shots. In any case, it’s always good to have a character who’s on the Doctor’s side but still disagrees with him occasionally—partly because Hartnell’s rejoinders to Steven’s disbelief are wonderfully grouchy: “What do you mean, maybe? What do you think it is, a space helmet for a cow?”

This is also the first example of what would become a classic subgenre within Doctor Who, the “pseudohistorical”: A story set in the past but driven less by real historical events and people than science-fiction adventure. In this case, we arrive shortly before the Norman invasion of England in 1066 by the king with what the greatest pre-coronation nickname of all time, William the Bastard. That pivotal event isn’t front and center, though—instead, it looms off in the distance as the final target of the manipulative plot of the Monk, played with mischievous charm by Peter Butterworth.

This wasn’t the first time the show had pitted the Doctor against another time-traveling villain—the previous story, in fact, had given the Daleks their own timeship. But the fact that the Monk was what we’d now call a Time Lord was a big enough deal that Vicki’s discovery of his TARDIS is the final cliffhanger of the story, the one that traditionally shows the bad guys at their strongest. We get hints about this long before that, starting with the Monk’s very first appearance, gazing down from the cliff above the Doctor’s TARDIS with a look that suggests he knows what it is. Then there’s the appearance of technology that doesn’t belong in 1066, like the wristwatch and the atomic cannon—and I love the little detail that Vicki and Steven, who are both from a time when atomic cannons are probably common, have to talk about whether or not there were atomic cannons in medieval times before deciding that there weren’t. Later, of course, the Doctor and the Monk are made equals on a visual level when the Doctor puts on a monastic robe of his own. 

Although his plan does involve a certain amount of murder, it’s interesting that the Monk’s stated motivation is to create a more peaceful and progressive future. He is not a horrifically evil villain, but a comical and slightly bumbling one whose motivation for screwing around in history is much like the Doctor’s: He just loves to travel and see things, only in his case there’s more greed and mischievousness in play. He’s collected a museum’s worth of art treasures and trinkets in his TARDIS, and if the neutron bomb piled in among the valuables is a little disquieting, the Monk doesn’t seem like the sort of villain who’d actually use it. The title of the show itself describes him as just a time meddler, which is pretty minor as crimes go, comparable to being the time jaywalker or the time litterer. He’s not a psychotic killer like the Master, and in fact he’s put in an awkward position when he’s forced to take care of a wounded villager, where a harder-edged or darker villain would have just killed him. And for a schemer, he’s endearingly clumsy about it, down to keeping track of his progress on a handy wall chart. Sure, he tells the Doctor that he wants to build a better Middle Ages, but I think his real motivation is much simpler, and not particularly concerned with whatever chaos he might create: “It's more fun my way.”

I wouldn’t mind seeing the Monk reappear on Doctor Who again sometime, long shot though that probably is. He’s a kind of recurring character that the show could use—the villain who’s not necessarily powerful or vicious, but a persistent annoyance that allows for a certain kind of comic storyline, like Star Trek’s Harcourt Fenton Mudd or superhero comics’ Mr. Mxyzptlk or Bat-Mite. The Monk did return once more as a hapless ally of the main villains in “The Daleks’ Master Plan,” but hasn’t been seen since the Beatles were still a going concern. It’s too bad: He’d be a good change-up from the universe-conquering types, and I think he’d fit into the modern series pretty well. It’s certainly fun to see him arguing with the Doctor about their TARDISes like they’re comparing Fords and Chevys.

Stray observations

• 1960s Doctor Who is undeniably a more leisurely paced show than the modern version, especially the way Steven Moffat’s been valiantly shoving about three episodes’ worth of ideas into any given single one of his scripts. Still, at least in the five First Doctor tales I’ve covered so far here, I’ve been generally impressed by how non-draggy they are, and “Time Meddler” keeps things moving despite its relatively simple plotline, a testament both to Dennis Spooner’s script and Douglas Camfield’s direction. Camfield would remain one of the show’s best action directors throughout the 1970s, well into the Fourth Doctor’s run.

• Remember in “The Aztecs” how the story hinged on the Doctor’s insistence to Barbara that she couldn’t change history and would only get heartbreak for trying to? Here, just a year later, we have a story about a plot to alter history that the Doctor considers a serious problem he has to take action against. It’s a tacit admission on the show’s part that a show about time-travel can’t stick to the idea of a fixed and unchangeable history very long, because without the possibility of change for good or bad, you’ve got no dramatic stakes. If the Doctor still believed the way he did in “The Aztecs,” he would have listened to the Monk talk about defeating the Norman invasion, then nodded politely and gotten back in his TARDIS and left, secure in the knowledge that it couldn’t happen.

• Another great Doctor-to-Steven smackdown: “That is the dematerialising control and that, over yonder, is the horizontal hold. Up there is the scanner, those are the doors, that is a chair with a panda on it. Sheer poetry, dear boy. Now please stop bothering me.” And a sly bit of metafictionality in there too: A horizontal hold is a control you’d usually find on a TV set. Laying the groundwork, in a way, for “The Mind Robber”? Similarly, there’s this exchange between the Monk and the Doctor later:

“Shakespeare'd be able to put Hamlet on television.”
“He'd do what?”
“The play Hamlet on television.”
“Oh, yes, quite so, yes, of course, I do know the medium.”

• Upcoming schedule: The Second Doctor tangles with the Ice Warriors in “The Seeds of Death,” after which the Third meets them again in “The Curse of Peladon.” Then, the Davros-era Dalek tales in order, starting with “Genesis Of The Daleks,” and on through “Destiny,” “Resurrection,” “Revelation,” and “Remembrance”—interspersed with some non-Dalek material as well, including the First Doctor story “The War Machines.”

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