The Time Meddler is one of my all-time favourite serials, not just from Hartnell’s tenure, but from the entire history of the show. The first ever pseudo-historical, merging sci-fi and history together, it is also one of the funniest. It could well be my most frequently-watched serial, alongside City of Death and Genesis of the Daleks. It really is that good.
Uniting Douglas Camfield, one of the most sublime directors of the show, with Dennis Spooner, whose flair for comedy is outstanding, is a touch of genius in-and-of itself. But adding to this the phenomenal Peter Butterworth guarantees class. What is strange, then, is that in the first episode, The Watcher, Butterworth does very little but watch. He eavesdrops from the cliff top, after watching the TARDIS materialise, muttering absent-mindedly to himself. He is rather underused, but in such a way that it enthrals the viewer. Just who is this man? Bearing in mind that whenever the TARDIS has materialised, or dematerialised, in front of others before, they have commented on how they cannot believe their eyes, and yet here is the Monk, simply watching. It is eerie. He knows more than he should, which makes us want to know more. It’s a wonderful method of engaging the audience.
The opening scene is beautifully underplayed by Hartnell and O’Brien – their discussion about missing Ian and Barbara really hits a nerve for the viewers; I know I still miss them too. Hartnell resumes his grandfatherly role, leading Vicki to the armchair and offering kindly words to her, before the pair is suddenly interrupted by the sounds of an intruder within the ship. Peter Purves’ return is welcome to the series, yet he comes across as brash, uncouth and rude – his disbelief pours from him (“IDBI!”) as Vicki attempts to explain the secrets of the ship to him. The dialogue is witty, yet we are not being asked to warm to Steven straight away. Indeed, throughout this serial, we see him mellow, becoming a more appropriate character to be travelling in the TARDIS. Purves does a wonderful job here of underplaying Steven’s appeal, gradually cooling off and becoming less abrasive. Hartnell’s approach to this interloper is also brilliant, as he reels through his environ whilst ushering Steven out of the way – “A chair with a panda on it! Sheer poetry, my dear boy!”
The scenes on the beach also include some fantastically witty lines – “a space helmet for a cow?!” – and Hartnell is on top form, no doubt because he was aware that he had a holiday coming up very soon (during part 2 of this story, in fact!) The educational remit of the show is once again approached in a sensible manner, as Hartnell deducts their time and place based on the answers given to him by Alethea Charlton’s character, Edith. Discussing past monarchs, as well as using clues such as the leaves on the trees, the Doctor deduces that they are in 1066, an infamous time in English history, and one still studied in school today.
What Spooner does with his script, and which Camfield monopolises in his direction, is the subtle use of anachronisms throughout. In an earlier scene with the Monk, we see him purposefully glance down at his watch. We’d be forgiven for thinking this was an unintentional accident, much like Billy’s brilliant fluffs in this first episode, but then it emerges that he really was looking at his watch. The Doctor’s exploration of the monastery reveals that the chanting is actually emanating from a gramophone. Rather than attempting to justify these inconsistencies, the show revels in them, throwing a curveball at the audience and then forcing them to wait again. What is interesting is that whilst this serial is held in high regard by many Whovians nowadays, the audience appreciation index showed that, as the story progressed, most viewers disliked these anachronisms. Many didn’t like historicals at all, and ignored the presence of a potential sci-fi twist. In addition, those that did like historicals found the addition of sci-fi made the plot silly and frivolous.
The cliffhanger at the end of part 1 plays perfectly into Hartnell’s absence (fortunately no need for Edmund Warwick to double as the Doctor again!) and it is in Hartnell’s absence that two key things happen. Firstly, Butterworth’s Meddling Monk is given more to do – he becomes a focal point, and milks comedy out of every movement and line of dialogue given; the scene in which he prepares breakfast, before having a drink thrown into his face from off-screen is great. Secondly, it allows Vicki and Steven to take centre stage. O’Brien is brilliant in this serial as, having travelled with the Doctor longer, she becomes the leader of the pair, much to Steven’s chagrin. The scene in which the two are captured and taken to the Saxon village is smashing, as it allows Vicki to dominate, whilst giving Steven the chance to gradually defrost a little. The low-key way in which, after shouting at the villagers, he gladly accepts their food and awkwardly mutters “thanks... thank you.” is lovely – he realises what a pig-headed fool he was being. Likewise, as they then leave the camp, his repetition of “god be with you” is touchingly delivered, showing this awkwardness again.
Alethea Charlton is wonderful in this serial – from her welcoming of the travellers, through to her assistance of the Monk, offering him food, she is fantastic; but her best scenes are following the attack from the Viking invaders. There is no question what has happened to her, yet it is never explicitly stated. It is not often that a performance as convincing as this would make it into children’s TV, and the look of shock in her eyes and her inability to speak utterly sells that she has been subjected to rape. It is awful, unnerving.
When Steven and Vicki make it to the monastery and trick the Monk into admitting that he knows of the Doctor is brilliantly played by all three – Steven tricks him into confessing he has seen the Doctor by gaining a description of the Doctor, but what adds to the sense of danger is Vicki’s suggestion that perhaps they are not being as clever as they think they are, and the Monk has pulled a double-bluff.
Eventually, Steven and Vicki make it into the monastery to discover that the Doctor has escaped – “He’s gone!” Vicki exclaims – and leads us nicely into Hartnell’s return for episode 3, where he really comes into his own. It is clear that he’s been waiting for a performer of Butterworth’s calibre to verbally spar with since the show began. As with Nero in The Romans, he parries and defends with a razor sharp tongue, the “Battle of Wits” of the title. What this episode does so effectively is that, once again, the conventions of the series are being altered, parameters are being moved. Since The Aztecs, it was made clear that history could not be changed, “not one line!” Yet here, Hartnell mumbles away to himself about the battle of Hastings and 1066, before finishing off with “that’s what the history books say happened”. It’s troubling, because it suggests that time can be altered, if one is so inclined. It means that things can always be undone, rewritten.
Following the reveal that the Monk has his own TARDIS, we are faced with this dilemma – he suggests that by destroying the Viking ships, all of history will improve thanks to his intervention. Hartnell instantly dismisses this, claiming it is against the rules of time travel, but the Monk doesn’t care one jot about the rules. He is a man with a plan – indeed, he even has a chart plotting his plan step-by-step! The conversation between Vicki and Steven is therefore rather troubling – if history were changed, then all of the future is instantly rewritten. History books haven’t been written yet, so they’ll just have a different account of events in them when they are published. What is nice is that they have no concerns for themselves – if history changes, and in the future rockets are invented hundreds of years earlier, then surely their own timelines will become null and void – Steven would never have been on his spaceship, and Vicki would never have crash-landed on Dido either.
The fourth episode is entitled “Checkmate”, rather fittingly – this battle of wits has come to its natural conclusion, and it is played out for the most part via the Monk’s TARDIS, a gleaming black floor directly juxtaposed by the safe, known confines of the Doctor’s white, sterile control room. The jealousy that Hartnell’s Doctor clearly feels for this superior craft is palpable – he snaps “mind your own business!” when asked which model he has.
One of the most brutal scenes in Doctor Who history is, allegedly, the killing of the two Vikings, Ulf and Sven. Sadly, these scenes were cut and discarded, with only audio to tell by, but based on the special feature on the DVD “The Missing 12 Seconds” it all sounds rather gruesome. It is fitting, though that this is missing – this last episode loses nothing in us not seeing the fate of the invaders. Instead, it focuses on the lightweight matter of the Doctor and the Monk finishing their business. The Doctor’s clear excitement at his plot, vandalising the Monk’s TARDIS, is wonderful, and he hams it up, giggling like a naughty schoolboy. Upon the Monk’s return, Butterworth has a wonderful scene, alone in the vault, reading his note, scoffing at the possibility that the Doctor could possibly defeat him. Of course, by removing the dimensional stabiliser and therefore shrinking the interior, the Monk is inexorably marooned in 1066.
But this is rather troubling. It is made clear that the Monk likes to meddle in the history of Earth. Following the end of Hartnell’s tenure, it is made clear that the Doctor, as a Time Lord, can regenerate into a new body, and it has since been set down that he can do this 12 times. So sticking a fellow Time Lord (although that term isn’t used for quite a few years yet) in the past, with all of his knowledge and technical abilities, is surely a dangerous outcome?
Still, that’s all by-the-by. The Doctor wins (of course) and continues in his travels amongst the stars, as the faces of Hartnell, O’Brien and Purves are superimposed over a star-screen brings us to the end of the second season.