All the Whos down in Whoville liked this disc a lot; but Judge Jim Thomas, who lived just north of Whoville, did not.
[New Companion Steven Taylor is skeptical that the Doctor is a time
Doctor Who was created as an educational show—that's why the Doctor's first two Companions were teachers. The history teacher (Barbara) would provide commentary when the Doctor traveled to the past, while the science teacher (Ian) commented when they went into the future. In fact, the initial plan was to alternate future and past shows. But as the show gained in popularity, the producers realized that the audience really wanted the futuristic shows with the monsters. So as the second season drew to a close, Ian and Barbara returned home, and the producers looked forward the future—literally as well as figuratively. The second season finale, The Time Meddler was to close out that period of the series. BBC Video brings before us Doctor Who: The Time Meddler, featuring William Hartnell as the first incarnation of our favorite Gallifreyan gadabout.
Facts of the Case
The Doctor (William Hartnell) and Vicki (Maureen O'Brian) are recovering from the events of the previous episode ("The Chase"), in which companions Ian and Barbara used a Dalek time machine to return to Earth in their proper time. Before they can miss them for too long, they discover that Steven Taylor (Peter Purves), whom they encountered in the last episode, managed to sneak on board the TARDIS during the chaos of their last struggle with the Daleks. The TARDIS lands in what appears to be 11th century England. The Doctor goes off to look around, while Steve and Vicki, against the Doctor's instructions, go off on their own. Everyone keeps encountering oddities. Steve and Vicki find a wristwatch, while the Doctor discovers a gramophone in a monastery, shortly before being captured by a mysterious monk. At the same time, a small group of Vikings have landed in the area on a reconnaissance mission—their leader is planning to invade the island.
At length, the group makes a stunning discovery—the Monk has a TARDIS. In fact, the Monk is a Time Lord from Gallifrey, just like the Doctor. However, as the Monk is from 50 years further in future than the Doctor, the Monk's TARDIS is more advanced. The Monk's TARDIS has a functioning chameleon circuit, and from the outside looks like a small sarcophagus. (The Doctor's TARDIS is stuck as police call box due to a malfunctioning chameleon circuit.) The Monk has been meddling in Earth history for amusement—he loaned an anti-grav device to the people attempting to build Stonehenge, among other things. His master plan is to nurture England into a technologically advanced country. To that end, he intends to destroy the Viking invasion, leaving England at full strength to repel the Norman Conquest. King Harold would defeat William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings, not the other way around. The Doctor is horrified and furious that a fellow Time Lord would break the first law of Time Travel, and takes action. The Monk may have a better TARDIS, but the Doctor has the better mind, not to mention a serious ruthless streak. In a move reminiscent of Scotty's sabotage of the Excelsior in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the Doctor removes the dimensional controller from the Monk's TARDIS, rendering it not only useless, but frozen in size both inside and out—the Monk can't even get inside anymore. In a note left for the Monk, the Doctor assures him that he will one day return to see if the Monk is learned his lesson. If he has, then perhaps the Doctor will repair his ship.
There's a good bit of filler here (see rebuttal witnesses), but once you clear that out, you've got a good story. In fact, it was the first of what were ultimately termed by the producers "ahistoric" or "pseudo-historic" plots—plots set in the past but that are still primarily science fiction. This change reflects the show's decision to move away from its roots as an educational show.
The plot itself is slight, but effective, mainly due to Hartnell's layered performance. Early in the show, still thinking of the departed Ian and Barbara, he's somewhat pensive. But as Steve is discovered and a mystery unfolds, he becomes more of what we're used to—somewhat eccentric, generally genial, yet irascible, as witnessed by his towering rage that the Monk for having the audacity to meddle with history on a large scale. Peter Butterworth's Monk is perfectly matched against the Doctor—the Monk's just having fun popping around history—giving Da Vinci some tips on powered flight here, loaning out high tech things there. Hartnell's anger on discovering these actions is profound—this is not merely theoretical exercise, but the conflict that Doctor has to face every day.
Acting is…let's say acceptable. While Hartnell and Butterworth acquit themselves well, Peter Purves (or the writers, or both) hasn't quite gotten his character figured out, and is inconsistent. Maureen O'Brien is fine as the senior Companion, though she mainly gets to play Miss Exposition. The English and the Vikings, though, are just bad.
BBC Video has not been skimping on extras for these releases. First up is a commentary track with Verity Lambert (producer), Peter Purves (actor, Steve Taylor), Donald Tosh (story editor), Barry Newberry (designer), and Clayton Hickman (moderator). The group bring a wealth of Whovian lore to the table—Lambert is general credited as being one of the main creative forces behind the series during its first two seasons; The Time Meddler was her final show. Lambert died shortly after recording the commentary track; a tribute to her is also included.
There's a brief short about the restoration techniques used, as well as a reconstruction of 12 seconds that is missing from the show.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In a nutshell, this four-part story crams about 45 minutes of fun and drama into a 100 minute container. There is a LOT of wasted time; in fact, Hartnell doesn't even appear in the second episode. Most of the action involves the English and the Viking reconnaissance team; and given that Hartnell is easily the most interesting and charismatic character in the proceedings, things draaaag when he's away.
That wasted space is so noticeable because there is relatively little direct interaction between the Doctor and the Monk. The Monk insists that he is only attempting to stabilize England and benefit Western Civilization—even a little more debate on the issue would have been instructive, and would have generated more tension between the Doctor and the Monk. The Doctor makes changes wherever he visits; what makes him so different from the Monk? That unanswered question is at the heart of the story, and the lack of a clear answer is bothersome.
While it's hardly the strongest episode from the Hartnell years, the disc is an interesting artifact of the transition of the show from an education-oriented show to a more dedicated action adventure one. Still, it will mainly be the die-hard Whovians purchasing this one.
On a side note, it was just announced that Patrick Stewart will assume the role of the Monk in an upcoming episode of the new series. Stewart and the current Doctor, David Tennant, co-starred in a recent West End production of Hamlet.
The defendants are found guilty on one count of plot padding and one count of real question avoidance.
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