“The Time Warrior” (season 11, episodes 1-4. Originally aired Dec. 15, 1973-Jan. 5, 1974)
Considering that it’s a show about a guy with a time machine, Doctor Who went for a very long time without visiting the past. “The Time Warrior,” which brings the Third Doctor to the Middle Ages, was the first story since Season Four’s “Evil Of The Daleks” to take place in a historical setting. The Doctor and his friends engaged in plenty of time travel, but it was all between contemporary Britain and the future with its dazzling array of spaceships, ray guns, and aliens. The show’s first three seasons, on the other hand, were full of trips to the past—about half the series consisted of stories where the TARDIS crew were entangled in ancient history, and ran into people like Roman emperor Nero and King Richard the Lionhearted. But they were never as popular as the sci-fi thrillers, and dropping them was a conscious choice on the part of the producers. It seems shortsighted to eliminate half the potential story lines. But the historicals had a lingering bad rep among the Who behind-the-scenes crew, apparently because they had a hard time seeing them beyond their educational mandate from Doctor Who’s original mission statement—they felt like school, in other words. “Time Warrior” scriptwriter Robert Holmes certainly felt that way: He’s quoted in the DVD extras as saying “I hate Doctor Who in history mode because I think it’s too whimsy and twee.” Instead, he preferred a compromise first tried in the First Doctor serial “The Time Meddler”—the “pseudohistorical,” in which the story emphasizes science fiction over historical accuracy, and generally doesn’t involve real historical figures. Pseudohistoricals seem like such a natural fit for Doctor Who that it’s surprising they weren’t used more often, but for whatever reason, the show didn’t really come back to them in a strong way until “The Time Warrior.” Ever since, that’s become the default method ever since for the way Doctor Who deals with adventures set in the past, and that's partly because Robert Holmes showed definitively in this episode how a pseudohistorical should work. It helps a lot that Holmes’ story is full of lively humor and a memorably repellent yet strangely compelling villain in Linx the Sontaran. And, of course, there’s the introduction of the Doctor’s new sidekick, feisty journalist Sarah Jane Smith, played with intelligence and charm by Elisabeth Sladen.
We last checked in on the Third Doctor era with his debut in in 1970’s “Spearhead From Space.” “The Time Warrior” kicked off the fifth and final season of Jon Pertwee’s run as the Doctor, and a lot had happened in the interim. Although the stories are still centered around the Doctor’s affiliation with UNIT, the military organization protecting Earth from alien invasion, that aspect had been steadily de-emphasized. The Doctor was no longer in exile, and was sticking by the Brigadier voluntarily—though the Earthbound stories were fading away, as the majority of the previous season had taken place in outer space. Here, UNIT is used as a perfunctory way to help establish the plot, and disappears without another mention the moment the Doctor hops in the TARDIS midway into the first episode. And the setup is a little contrived: It might have been better for the Doctor to have been called in by UNIT to solve the mystery of the disappearing scientists, rather than that he simply happens to be where the kidnappings take place. But it works well enough to give the Doctor (and accidental stowaway Sarah) a reason to join the main action in the 12th century, which is essentially a science-wizardry duel between the Doctor and the Sontaran that plays off of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court.
By this point we’ve already met the show’s two bickering lead baddies, David Daker as the drunken, loutish robber knight Irongron and Kevin Lindsay as the potato-headed alien Linx. The Sontaran’s globe-shaped ship has crashed near Irongron’s castle, and Linx proposes a deal—Linx uses the dungeons as a safe home base to repair his ship, in exchange for advanced technology so Irongron can conquer his ineffectual neighbor Sir Edward. Neither one entirely trusts or understands each other, but their alliance is formed out of genuine respect between warriors as much as mutual self-interest. (At least until Irongron’s basic barbarity and stupidity ruin everything.) Holmes gets a lot of dramatic mileage out of Linx and Irongron’s uneasy partnership—and comic mileage too: One of the chief pleasures of “The Time Warrior” is watching Linx quietly seethe as he tries to deal with the doltish and lazy Irongron, and watching Irongron deal with his even more doltish underling Bloodaxe. Irongron gets a bushelful of great insults to lob at the other characters, undercutting Linx’s self-seriousness by calling him “a broody old hen” and “my good Toad Face,” and puncturing the Doctor’s vanity with the apt description “a long-shanked rascal with a mighty nose.” Daker nicely captures Irongron’s arrogance and brutishness, making him believable as a laughable yet still dangerous buffoon.
Linx, in contrast, is a more restrained and subtle villain, despite his outlandish, frog-like appearance. He’s patient, intelligent, and operates by a distinct code of honor, albeit one based entirely on machismo and military pragmatism. The Sontarans proved to be one of the series’ most popular villains, returning three times in the classic era, and again several times in the new series. And even though there’s only one Sontaran in “The Time Warrior,” pretty much everything that makes them appealing bad guys is here in their first appearance, between Lindsay’s performance, Holmes’ script, and the memorable design work on Linx’s globe-shaped ship, black star-knight uniform, and hideously bulbous head. Unlike many Doctor Who villains, Linx’s motivation and behavior are not absurdly melodramatic—his immediate concern is to repair his spaceship, not to rule all of time or blow up a planet. I can understand needing to repair a spaceship; I take my car to the mechanic all the time. I don’t try to destroy the Earth very often. True, by giving Irongron the means to take over the world, Linx is also potentially changing history on a massive scale, but it’s only an “amusing” secondary outcome—Linx, ultimately, doesn’t care about the Earth, only getting back to his war.
It’s a deft bit of characterization, considering that Holmes’ tongue was firmly in cheek regarding the Sontarans. It’s no accident that Linx is introduced in an almost literally cartoony way, planting a ridiculously tiny pop-up flag to claim the Earth for his empire as Irongron’s band watches in bafflement. That’s the first clue to what else, besides Twain, Holmes is homaging here. A short, round-headed warrior from outer space who wears a crested helmet, and who’s the antagonist of a taller, dapper, gray-haired trickster hero? That’s Marvin The Martian. (Which makes the Doctor Bugs Bunny, of course. And if that’s true, that means Roger Delgado’s Master is Daffy Duck. And the Daleks, maybe, are a race of intergalactic Elmer Fudds.)
I don’t have a great deal to say about Jon Pertwee here, except that “Time Warrior” plays well to both major aspects of his version of the Doctor, the elegant quasi-Victorian gentleman scientist and the dashing man of action. Helping technologically backwards humans defend themselves against aliens is essentially the same thing as what he does for UNIT, just eight hundred years earlier, and getting to escape from a rabble of swordsmen by swinging from a chandelier is a bonus. A swashbuckling, Errol Flynn-style take on Connecticut Yankee is perfect for the Third Doctor.
It’s too bad that UNIT didn’t have a larger role here, because Linx and Irongron’s relationship—an alien savant and a stick-in-the-mud soldier who view each other with a mix of mutual respect, contempt and bafflement—is something of a parody of the Doctor’s working partnership with the Brigadier. It would have been great if Nicholas Courtney had also traveled back to the Middle Ages with the Doctor and Sarah, facing off with Pertwee against twisted versions of themselves. (Something like that did happen in season seven’s “Inferno.”) But without the Brig in attendance, the story leaves that avenue sadly unexplored.
Irongron and Linx actually work a little better as thematic opposites of Sarah Jane Smith: The friendly face of feminism for 1973 is matched up against a boorish medieval throwback who sees women as a mere servant class and a squat, hyper-masculine toad-man who sees the XX chromosome as a bizarrely antiquated biological quirk. That juxtaposition leads to one of the best lines in the story, when Sarah tries to raise the consciousness of a kitchen maid who believes placidly in her own second-class status next to the menfolk, but stops in mid-harangue when she realizes that “you’re still living in the Middle Ages” isn’t metaphorical anymore.
Before Sarah can get to the show’s worst chauvinists, though, she has to establish a relationship with the more genial one, namely the title character. It’s a testament to Pertwee, Sladen, and Holmes that their first major scene together works so well. The Third Doctor was an odd combination of rebel and establishment figure, and it makes sense that he immediately sees through Sarah’s attempt to fake her way into the restricted science center using false credentials but also admires her for doing it, especially since she’s motivated by nothing more than curiosity. He then teases her with chauvinistic orders to make his coffee, but makes it clear soon enough that he’s kidding her. It’s a ploy on Holmes’ part to to highlight the Doctor as a man in favor of women’s lib, and thus comfortable enough in his masculinity that he can make his own coffee—the sort of thing that seems a little ridiculous now but in 1973 genuinely placed the Doctor on the side of the guys who treated woman as fellow human beings, even if he isn’t strictly human himself. Thankfully, the show soon drops throwing around such painfully obvious dialogue in favor of showing Sarah in action as a smart, capable woman.
The idea of a strong, proactive female co-star was a long time coming in Doctor Who, with some false starts along the way. The show’s first producer, Verity Lambert, was female, and I can’t help but wonder if a character like Sarah Jane Smith might not have arisen earlier if Lambert had stayed with Doctor Who longer into the women’s-lib era. As things stood, the mostly male creative team in the 1970s was generally sympathetic but not completely in tune with equal rights for women. Terrance Dicks, script editor during the Pertwee era, has a revealing quote on the the “Time Warrior” DVD’s short making-of documentary: “Somewhat to my disgust, there was the onset of feminism, you see. Now, Barry [Letts, then-current showrunner] was okay with this, but I feel that the place for the heroine is strapped to the circular saw and screaming her head off until the Doctor comes and rescues her.” I’m glad that Letts and Holmes, at least, recognized that a character like Sarah deserved a place on the show.
Though it could have happened a little earlier. The Third Doctor’s first female co-star, Liz Shaw (Caroline John), could easily have been UNIT’s scientific advisor in her own right, if a certain alien with advanced technical know-how hadn’t also applied for the job. But Doctor Who wasn’t really ready to use her character to its potential. I get the sense that the writers never really knew what to do with Liz, and it was a huge missed opportunity when she left after just one season.
Shaw’s replacement was the more traditionally assistant-y Jo Grant (Katy Manning), a big step backwards in terms of pairing the Doctor with someone who could potentially be his equal. That’s not to say Jo’s character was a mistake—in fact, she’s one of my favorites in the entire series. But for all her sweet and daffy charm, Jo was far more of a surrogate daughter figure for the Doctor (or perhaps I should say a granddaughter figure, if the idea is that she reminds him of Susan) than an independent character in her own right. In fact, Jo’s dependence seemed to be part of her purpose; her departure in “The Green Death” was presented as necessary because Jo had fallen in love and was ready to leave the protective umbrella the Doctor provided, like a daughter leaving home.
But if a woman who could be a true lead or co-lead character like The X-Files’ Scully was too advanced for the 1970s, there was a very well-known earlier example of a feisty sidekick for Doctor Who to draw on: As a nosy journalist who’s always getting herself into trouble and advancing the plot by chasing a story, Sarah is a clear descendant of Lois Lane. She fakes her way into a restricted barracks area in search of a good story, then recovers from her temporary confusion at being hurled into the Dark Ages by immediately taking charge of the situation at Sir Edward’s castle, a good thing since her host is such a wet blanket. (I love that she thinks at first that she’s somehow wandered into a Renaissance Festival.) If she jumps to the wrong conclusion about the Doctor being behind the temporal kidnappings, it makes sense that she’d do that—I would have too, if I didn’t know there was a second time traveler around. Sladen makes the most of a great opportunity to show Sarah as a motivating leader. Sarah walks into a power vacuum and provides leadership when it’s needed: Edward is too weak and ineffectual to stand up to Irongron, and his wife Eleanor is too enmeshed in her domestic role to really act (“I must give orders… for dinner”), though she does send Hal the Archer out on his abortive attempt to assassinate Irongron. Sarah’s still vulnerable enough to need rescuing sometimes, but that’s OK—it wouldn’t be much of an adventure serial if someone wasn’t strapped to a circular saw every 20 minutes or so. Like Lois, she can get herself into trouble, and often enough she can get herself out of it without needing to scream for help—and better, she can turn the tables and rescue the Doctor instead, which she does here twice. Her personality combines the best of Liz and Jo in a single package—likable, cheerful, spirited and adventurous, and someone you could easily see the Doctor wanting to travel with because, like him, she’s curious to a fault. It’s no wonder Sarah Jane Smith is, for many fans, the quintessential Doctor Who companion. I’m only surprised it took the show 11 years to come up with her.
- In three short words to a pair of hapless castle guards, the Third Doctor encapsulates his dual status as courtly gentleman and kung-fu master: “Good evening! Hai!”
- “Ah, I understand. You have a primary and secondary reproductive cycle. It is an inefficient system. You should change it.”
- The “Time Warrior” DVD includes an option to watch the show with new computer-generated effects to supplement and enhance the limitations of 1973 special-effects technology. I don’t always think that those “special Edition” kind of updates are a good thing—you lose the ability to experience a show the way it was originally intended to be seen. But on the other hand, the original “Time Warrior” had some pretty lazy effects: the explosion of the castle at the end of episode four is nothing more than stock footage of a quarry explosion, and Letts points out on the making-of doc that the Sontaran ship crash was just “a tennis ball on a string.” So by all means, watch this with the newer effects turned on.
- This episode marks the first time that the Doctor’s home planet Gallifrey is referred to by name. Holmes would also be the first writer to explore it in depth in “The Deadly Assassin.”
- This write-up marks the fourth or fifth time in a row I’ve brought up “The Deadly Assassin.” I’m not doing it on purpose, I swear.
- Jeremy Bulloch, who plays Hal the Archer, is far more famous as Boba Fett in the first Star Wars trilogy. (At least, as famous as you can get when the character never takes off his helmet, and when he’s re-dubbed by a different actor in the special editions.)
Next week: The pulpy horror era of the Fourth Doctor is in full effect as Tom Baker faces off against a mad scientist, a hook-handed ogre, a flame-worshiping cult, and the paranoid, disembodied cerebrum of a Time Lord war criminal in “The Brain Of Morbius.”
• Aug. 28: “Earthshock”
• Sept. 4: “The Aztecs”
• Sept. 11: “The Invasion,” episodes 1-4
• Sept. 18: “The Invasion,” episodes 5-8
• Sept. 25: “Terror Of The Autons”
• Oct. 2: “The Talons Of Weng-Chiang”
• Oct. 9: “Kinda”