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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Doctor Who: The Time Meddler

Serial Title: The Time Meddler
Series: 2
Episodes: 4
The Watcher
The Meddling Monk
A Battle of Wits
Doctor: William Hartnell
Companions: Steven Taylor (Peter Purves), Vicki Pallister (Maureen O'Brien)

Following up on the events of 'The Chase,' the Doctor and Vicki discover Steven, the 23rd century astronaut, who has managed to stagger into the open TARDIS and subsequently collapsed into unconsciousness while the Doctor was showing Ian and Barbara, now-departed, how to work the Dalek Time Machine. The now-stirring Steven, the source of the strange noise from before, is an unintentional stowaway.

The TARDIS lands on a rocky beach (NFS: NO WAY!!?!? A rocky beach!?! They've never used THAT location before in the history of Doctor Who so far!!!) in 1066 England, and the Doctor goes to explore a nearby village while Vicki tries in vain to convince Steven that the TARDIS has traveled through time as well as space. The Doctor is given food by a farmer's wife, and gleans enough information to gather the time and place- Harold Godwinson is on the throne, the Vikings threaten England, and the battles of Stamford Bridge (with Harold Hardrada) and Hastings (with William the Conqueror) have not yet occurred.

The Doctor also hears the chanting of monks in the background- which becomes strangely distorted for a moment. In making inquiries, he discovers that a group of monks have recently moved into an abandoned monastery. They are often thusly heard, but seldom seen. Going to investigate, the Doctor discovers the the chants are being broadcast by loudspeaker, and played over gramophone- the skipping record responsible for the distortion he'd heard. However, in the process of discovering this, he is captured in a prison cell.

Meanwhile, Steven's skepticism is further heightened when, while hiding from the villagers, they discover a wristwatch in the dirt. The duo are captured by villagers but manage to convince them that they are harmless travelers, receiving news of the Doctor. They determine that the Doctor must be a prisoner in the monastery, and determine to break in after dark.

The Doctor encounters the gloating Monk, the only true inhabitant of the monastery, who fixes his prisoner breakfast- with a toaster and griddle. (NFS: Oh out for those scientifically advanced lone monks....)

A trio of vikings land, traumatizing the farmer's wife- and after a battle with the villagers, they hole up in the monastery, hiding.

Vicki and Steven break in but find that the Doctor has gone, discovering a secret passage out of the cell. As Steven and Vicki set off to find him, the Doctor surprises the Monk at the front door, tricking him into believing he's being held at gunpoint. The Monk slips away when the Vikings attack, and orders the villagers to light signal fires- claiming ships are coming with supplies for the monastery. In reality, he plans to lure the incoming Viking invasion fleet... and them blast the to pieces with his atomic bazooka, which he has hidden on the clifftop. (NFS: wait wait...he has an ATOMIC bazooka?! Does this not sound like something only the Joker should be in possession of???)

Meanwhile, Vicki and Steven are re-united with the Doctor at the monastery, and together follow a power cable that seems to lead into the base of a large, waist-high stone altar. Opening a pair of doors on the back, they are shocked to discover that it it in fact a disguised TARDIS!

The Monk is in fact another Time Lord (though the episode does not identify him as such, merely "From the same place that I am," per the Doctor) from about 50 years farther in the future than the Doctor. He has a TARDIS Mark IV... and a penchant for interfering in history for his own amusement. He shows up to gloat, noting that he is responsible for Da Vinci's attempts at powered flight, the construction of Stonehenge (which he helped along with his anti-gravity lifts), and has made a fortune simply by compound interest at a bank, collected several hundred years after the initial deposit. The Monk now plans to destroy the vikings and all other challengers, to let history proceed as it would have had Harold never been defeated, bringing England into what he believes will be an early golden age.

The Vikings return and, convinced that the Monk is on their side, tie up the Doctor, Vicki, and Steven, helping the Monk to transport crates to the cliff... the very mortars intended to sink their fleet. However, the villagers arrive in force, overwhelming the vikings and killing them- the unseen Monk flees the scene.

Vicki has freed herself and the crew, having departed for their own TARDIS and left the scene. A letter left for the Monk indicates that the Doctor has thwarted him, a notion he smirks it... until he tries to enter his TARDIS. The Doctor has stolen its Dimensional Stabilizer, a part of the bigger-on-the-inside system... locked into our own dimension, the Mark IV TARDIS is now as small on the inside as it is on the outside, actually fitting inside the small stone altar shape, and the Monk is far too large to even fit into it's miniaturized door. He is now stranded, without his high technology, in 1066 A.D. (NFS: Which seriously has to be the best "get-back-at-someone"....thing in Doctor Who so far.)

Meanwhile, the Doctor and his companions sail off into the stars for the unknown...

This is a landmark episode in that it is the first deviation from the at-the-time Doctor Who historical format and the first template for what Doctor Who became and remains to this day; a story set in a true historical time period, featuring educational or historical content- but only as a setting in which a fictional sci-fi story can take place. This was the first...

The episode was, sadly, a bit slow. The story was dull when it wasn't focusing on the Monk and the Doctor's conflict with him. This is a shame, as the battle of wits is fascinating, funny, and kinda cool in what little moments it receives to shine through.

The Monk is a classic mustache-twirling villain, and the end reflects that, with an empty-room, ranting-to-the-heavens "Curse you, Doctor!!!!" ending- that, coupled with the revelation of TARDIS sabotage (ingenious, hilarious, a brilliant visual image and a finely-crafted, exquisite miniature or blue-screen), makes his storyline truly entertaining, and the generous use of humor for his character works very well. He is an excellent foil.

The remainder of the story about the Viking invasion, while educational and a necessary backdrop for the Monk's plan, is simply... well, boring. (NFS: Uncultured SWIIIINE!!! :-D I was actually talking about myself just then actually.) Unfortunate, as it's almost hard to put into words the incredible contrast with the hugely entertaining Monk segments. Even his reveal- with a record skip heard from far away- is both intriguing and funny.

Steven's skepticism for this episode, while a little stretched, perhaps, is interesting, contrasting well with so many other companions' instant acceptance of the bizarre (Minus Barbara's mega-denial in An Unearthly Child, of course...). Steven's sarcastic humor and sharp wit make for a very interesting foil for the Doctor and a very new Doctor-companion relationship; one that I feel has yet to reach it's full potential until the Myth Makers; he is a very different, and enjoyable, addition to the TARDIS crew.

Overall, I find myself surprised that I don't have more to say about this serial- everything about it, the good points and the bad, can simply be described with very broad strokes and doesn't require many words to do so. The Monk is my favorite villain thus far, and I look forward to his eventual return (though people's suggestion that he return in the new series played by Patrick Stewart baffles me- Patrick has shown he can do humor ("But by then it's too late- I've already seen everything..."),( doesn't baffle me. Patrick Stewart= Heck yes. Even if they were casting him for like...a live action Jem in Jem and the Holograms or would still be...HECK.YES.) but for such a broadly comedic character? It seems a strange match.) He's a delight to watch, and his conflicts with the Doctor, and their two conflicting philosophies, were quite entertaining to watch. Plus, he is the first non-Doctor/Susan Time Lord we've encountered in the series- even if not yet named as such- and that counts for a lot. And the ending, flying off into the stars with solarized images of the actors, was way fun.

Great moments:
The ending, as we see, in a beautiful visual moment, exactly how the Doctor has outwitted the Monk.

2.5 out of 5 Shrunken TARDISes, sadly, as the excellence of the Monk's scenes and the dullness of the others average out to a perfectly mediocre middle-ground. I'd love to have rated it higher.

General Series 2 thoughts:

Series 2 could do no wrong-

Aside from the Web Planet, Series 2 could do no wrong. The production values were stellar, head-and-shoulders above Series 1. The writing was much improved. The stories were interesting. Pacing was better, FAR better; no long-slogs in this one. Everything kept moving. Atmospheric scenes. The beginning twinkles of so many familiar Who elements began to emerge. And the humor...

Oh, the humor. They hit their stride and found what took Doctor Who from an interesting, mildly entertaining sci-fi show to a powerhouse that's over 30 Series in and still going. The use of humor and the improved writing combine to really make this show fly, and easily compensate even where the show's production values are still failings instead of assets. The laughs, well-done, numerous, and fitting within the story, cover over a multitude of flaws. (Come to think of it, the Web Planet had very little humor- except of the unintentional so-bad-it's-good kind- one wonders if it's flaws might have been less evident if it had.)

Series 2 hardly had a misstep- Web Planet aside, of course- and even the dull stories, or those with dull elements (Like Space Museum and Time Meddler) always had something excellent contained in them to keep them memorable, interesting, or engaging. With Web Planet even being funny because of it's shlock factor, I see this Series with extremely fond sentiments. (That was, perhaps, the most confused sentence ever written; talk about your mixed metaphors!!!) There's really nothing in it I didn't like in at least some aspect. This was a golden age for the Hartnell era... and a last bastion of fantastical before the stormy tumultuous-ness of the gap-ridden Series 3 to come, whose writing was far less even, and for whom 2/3 of the series exists only as snapshots. Brace yourself, and gird your heart with fond memories of Series 2 as we take the plunge into this extremely trying period...


  1. The villainous Monk was played by Peter Butterworth, a stalwart of the long running British comedy series, the "Carry On" movies.

    The miniature Tardis is most likely a model as the technology and budget at the time were not up to anything more sophisticated.

    I have not seen The Time Meddler since it was first broadcast and was surprised how much I remembered. Nice page, thanks

  2. Ross - Wow! You saw the original broadcast? I envy you! Does that mean that you have also seen a number of the 'lost episodes' in their original broadcasts as well?

    Thank you very much for the wonderful comments, and for letting us know that someone is reading! :-)