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Monkeying Around With Time
on 19 October 2015
Saxons, Vikings, a mysterious Monk, a blue Police Box on the beach and “a space helmet for a cow”. 1066 and all that – just like they *didn’t* teach it in school… 5*
‘The Time Meddler’ is the first of its kind. Dennis Spooner invented the ‘history-meets-the-alien’ genre of ‘Doctor Who’ right here, in a story where wit and comedy are at least as important as the historical background. It’s a style that would later be used many times from ‘The Time Warrior’ onwards, sometimes played for comedy, sometimes for drama and usually producing memorable results.
I enjoyed this story very much; it’s not the most action-packed adventure but then, it was never intended to be. It’s a character piece and an ingenious mystery story, mostly played for laughs and played brilliantly too. And on top of that, this is the story where the Doctor’s own back-story suddenly changed and expanded; the massive episode 3 cliff-hanger is a classic moment, it’s still great now and must have caused a lot of excited comment back in 1965.
On the wild Northumbrian coast in 1066, the Saxon villagers live in constant fear of Viking raids or even full-scale invasion. The Norse marauders have already ransacked the local monastery and driven out its inhabitants, but now the monks seem to have returned. Their chanting can be heard from the village and one Monk is occasionally seen wandering about the cliff-tops, gazing out to sea as if waiting for something he expects…
The adventure looks and sounds great, all studio-based but with superb interiors and ‘exteriors’ by Barry Newbery, well-chosen stock film footage and moving sky backcloths, it looks a much bigger scale. Douglas Camfield’s direction is (as always) excellent, making the very most of the sets and available shots. The only lacklustre part of the whole production is the fight scene between Vikings and Saxons – partly because of the limited studio space and time and what could be shown on the BBC at teatime, but also because (and the script does make this clear later), the Vikings are drunk on stolen mead and can’t fight properly.
This may be mostly a comedy, but there is a final death scene which sounds gruesome (an audio recording is in the Special Features) and must have looked too gruesome for the (Australian?) censors because it was cut from the film version that is the surviving copy of this story. And if we read between the scenes, it’s strongly implied that the Vikings are again behaving with all the appalling brutality that history records.
This restored DVD edition looks very much better than the old version that I saw when it was televised again in (I think) the early 1990s. The quality could not be brought up to the highest restoration standards of ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’ etc. presumably because of the surviving materials, but a lot of work has obviously been done (as explained by a short Special Feature) and the results are very good indeed.
The Doctor and Vicki arrive with an unexpected new companion, Steven Taylor, who sought refuge in the TARDIS at the end of the previous Dalek story, ‘The Chase’, in which original companions Ian and Barbara were finally able to return home to Earth, 1963. The relationship between the Doctor, Vicki and Steven makes a big part of this story and it’s very well written and played perfectly.
William Hartnell is quite simply brilliant; I do wish there wasn’t always so much comment about his ‘fluffed lines’. Yes, there’s one in this story, but so what? He was recording TV almost ‘as live’, when a line is dropped he tries to pick it up and carries on performing. And what a great performance it is. At first he’s a quieter, more vulnerable Doctor than before; in a gentle, contemplative scene with Vicki he’s obviously distressed that Ian and Barbara have gone home (and what a change that is from their first meeting!)
Then Steven unexpectedly appears and the Doctor flips into comedy mode, evidently pleased to have an unexpected extra companion and sparkling with good humour. “Sheer poetry” (as he tells Steven) as he chortles about the space-pilot’s disbelief that he’s hitched a lift on a time machine – surely such things don’t exist? Oh yes they do Steven, and more of them than you (or the viewers) think.
Maureen O’Brien and Peter Purves are excellent as the newly teamed-up companions. They spend a lot of the story together, usually skulking around trying to keep out of trouble or get the Doctor out of it. Steven is the tough, self-assertive space guy and thinks he can handle anything; Vicki has much more time travel experience and knows exactly what she’s doing, thank you! Their friendly, sometimes slightly exasperated relationship works very well as Steven gradually accepts he really *has* travelled in Time – that certainly looks a very convincing Saxon village – but in that case, where did the Saxon villager get his wristwatch…?
The Doctor is of course ahead of them, finding a clue over a drinking-horn of mead in the village before heading off to the monastery to investigate. He knows there’s something very odd going on and it’s obvious from the subtle performance that the Doctor thinks he knows what that is. But he’s expected at the monastery, because while it may be short on monks, The Monk isn’t short on intelligence or cunning - in fact, he’s remarkably similar to the Doctor…
Peter Butterworth was a fantastic choice to guest star as The Monk and he and William Hartnell play off each other brilliantly in a funny, quite gentle but very determined battle of wits and rival moralities. The Monk is up to something the Doctor simply can’t allow, because “you can’t rewrite history”, can you? Says who?! Given that the story is called ‘The Time Meddler’ it’s not a spoiler to say that rewriting our history is exactly the Monk’s intention.
The Monk isn’t a real villain, but nor is he doing it just for fun (as I’ve sometimes heard it said). Like the Doctor, he wants to make things better, but his methods are very different. Listen for the speech here where he tells the Doctor his motives – to prevent wars, save lives, help the development of humanity. They’re noble aims but it’s obvious that though he’s a well-meaning time meddler, you can’t mess with history without probably causing unforeseen disasters along the timelines – so the Doctor must stop him! And the way he stops him (both clever and a great visual moment) shows the First Doctor may seem more genial to his friends, but he still has that old ruthless core. You have to feel a little sorry for the Monk!
I think this story is a great example of the best of the Hartnell era, and definitely worth five stars. 5*
Thanks for reading.
*** SPOILER PARAGRAPH! *** The episode 3 cliff-hanger doesn’t have a Viking in sight and it doesn’t need one, because it’s one of the all-time greats as Vicki says: “The Monk’s got a TARDIS!” Not just a time machine but another TARDIS! In that single moment viewers at last knew for certain that the Doctor wasn’t just some solitary genius who’d built his own time machine. He and the Monk must both be from an advanced alien people with a planet out there somewhere, where they roll TARDISes off an unimaginably sophisticated production line. So, without naming them for several years yet, Gallifrey and the Time Lords were born. It’s quite a moment.
DVD Special Features:
The commentary is really excellent. Original Producer Verity Lambert (this was her final story in charge), Peter Purves, Story Editor Donald Tosh and Designer Barry Newbery share their memories in a lively and fascinating discussion about not only this story, but their experiences of the whole Hartnell era and working at the BBC at that time. It’s a superb commentary, made poignant by the fact that Verity Lambert sadly died a few weeks later. A written obituary and a photo gallery paying tribute to her are on this DVD. And the greatest tribute of all is that the wonderful show she started in 1963 is still going strong and even these earliest stories still appeal today.
‘The Lost Twelve Seconds’ – the Viking raiders get their comeuppance, but not on screen as the scene was cut from the recovered film print. This audio reconstruction sounds suitably dramatic.
‘Stripped For Action – The First Doctor’ (16 min) – the First Doctor’s era in the comic strips, which will be very nostalgic for original fans and is interesting to anyone who likes the show and its history.
‘Restoration’ (5 min) – showing the considerable effort that went into making this DVD release look as good as possible.
There’s also a Photo Gallery (3 min) and Radio Times listings in PDF format.