Saturday 25 July 2020


“We have no faith, we have no brothers
”Hang no picture on the wall
”Burn no lantern light to guide you through
”The failures and the falls”

Blyth Power get dubbed punk folk or sometimes anarcho-folk, but neither tag come close to covering it. Their mission statement gets closer - “a cross between The Clash, Steeleye Span and The Rubettes.” But the best bands all sound just like themselves, operating in a peer group of one. The Fall just sound like the Fall. Current 93 just sound like Current 93. The Magic Band just sound like the Magic Band. And Blyth Power just sound like Blyth Power. That’s it.

Except you’ve got to measure them against someone or this isn’t going to work. So let’s set up a compare and contrast…

Like the Waterboys, Blyth Power have revolved around one constant member - Joseph Porter - and exist as an outlet for his songwriting. Both came out of punk, retaining the self-reliant ethic but swapping its quick-fire sound and spraycan immediacy for the expansive. They come self-described as “epic… colourful… crashing…. impassioned”. Like the Waterboys they matched evocative lyrics to mighty-sounding music, song verging on a form of landscape painting.

Just compare…

”There's a black wind blowing
”A typhoon on the rise
”Pummelin' rain
”Murderous skies!”


”I'm gone to the moss now
”Packed my saddle bag as hard as I was able
”I turned in to the wind and slipped my cable”

(And they could both wax lyrical on the curative properties of trains, but that’s a tale for another time.)

But really, the comparison is there just to set up the contrast. First, the Waterboys were expansive through and through. Blyth Power sounded epic but at the same time extemporised, cottage industry, indie in the positive sense. (They very nearly called an album ‘Make Do And Mend’.)

Bill Drummond once said he saw the Teardrop Explodes “as a battered Second World War bomber heading back home across the Channel… [they] keep going, chugging away. And they’ll always make it back”. But the comment’s perhaps truer still of Blyth Power.

Waterboys songs were full of exploits, noble-jawed heroes throwing scarves around their throats as they set off on richly symbolic journeys. Despite - or more likely because of - Porter’s previous with the anarcho-punk scene, Blyth Power songs were characterised by misadventures. And populated by headstrong fools, black-hearted rogues, worm-tongued turncoats and malevolent tricksters. Normally in that order. The persistence of human folly was a prevalent theme of Porter’s.

So if both took a chess move from punk, Blyth Power’s was the greater turn. The Waterboys’ was a Rook’s move, taking themselves off to quite another section of the board. Blyth Power’s was a Knight’s move, a tangent from where they’d been before.

The Waterboys impassioned-self, first-person vocals retained a stretched kind of connection to the source. “I will put my soul and will to the test” isn’t so far from “for once in my life I’ve got something to say”. Porter’s vocals were more like the sardonic, omnipotent narrator of a farce.

So this time let’s contrast…

“Well I will not sleep
“And I will not rest
“I will put my soul
“And my will to the test”


“When I withheld from the rich what I stole from the poor
”I soon the inside of the citadel saw”

And as those lines might suggest Porter was possessed of wry humour, and much of the band’s appeal was hearing such a pumping, anthemic form being given such acerbic content. It’s like hearing a heckle delivered as if it’s a speech. Many a track sought to expose the tawdry truth beneath those grand and much-retold legends of yore. (For example ’After the Horse Has Bolted’.)

His lyrics also delighted in jarring anachronisms, where marching Crimean armies would segue into unanswered answerphone messages. Characters recurred across songs and down the ages - Jack, Shift, McArthur. Or the same situation is shown to repeat down the line, surely the worldview of a cynic in distilled form. To misquote Marx history just keeps repeating, and every time it’s a farce. Time is the parade of one damned fool after another, slipping up on the same banana skin until the stars go out.

Though he never seemed sure whether the greatest act of folly in Blyth Power’s world wasn’t Blyth Power themselves. Porter described the track ‘God’s Orders’ as “not about Templars at all, [but] about being in Blyth Power. What do you mean you're impervious to metaphor?”

But this metaphor-as-metafiction was at it’s height with the numerous numbers which dealt with the protracted siege of Troy and the legendary wooden horse. (Frequently described by Porter as “a really, really stupid plan.”) To the point where the title of the live video, ‘Do the One About the Horse’, could be an in-joke.

That silly shaped, splinter-inducing wooden box came to represent a group packed together on a transit van slowly traversing the M4, pressed up against one another’s bad jokes and armpits, keen to spring the doors and do the gig just to escape this torment.

And just as characters are always reappearing and time keeps getting tangled, the Blyth Power chronology is itself jumbled. Songs appear only to get re-recorded years later, on one occasion a whole album. This was largely by necessity, as fly-by-night labels came and went. (Much to Porter’s open dissatisfaction.) But even though it’s made much of the music hard to track down, it also feels fitting. Nothing Blyth Power-related takes place in linear time. 

Was everything grand on the good ship? Well the band’s Achilles heel, to use an appropriately Classical metaphor, was their penchant for pastiche songs. About one song per album of Porter putting on a funny voice was sufficient. He once said himself that an early number “sounds more like a school production of Gilbert and Sullivan.” And too often the magic blend of the Clash, Steeleye Span and the Rubettes was replaced by… well, I suppose I’ve given it away now.

Their third album (depending how you count it), 1989’s ‘Alynwick and Tyne’, marks the point where Blyth Power shook off punk and truly became Blyth Power. The importance of incorporating female backing vocals could not be overstated, they really weren’t kidding about that Rubettes influence. And so it makes for a good jumping-on point.

Though listen to it on-line but don’t expect to be able to buy a copy.  Porter has said “This won't be re-released until the suit holding the copyright decides it's profitable. Some claim home taping is killing music, but it's not the only thing.” Still, the later album ‘Out From Under the King’ is almost as good. Actually, that’s hard to get hold of too… look, just start where you can, okay? It’s hard to go wrong.

But if you want a taster before you take a dip, ’Inside The Horse’ is not atypically an anti-anthem, an avowal of unbelonging delivered as a rousing singalong….

”If we lose face we will still have others left
”To rescue and restore
”All the wits we left behind us…
”…inside the horse!”

Saturday 18 July 2020


Tate Modern, London

“Now I shake the dust from my feet and leave the West, considering its vulgarising significance trivial and unimportant – my path is toward the source of all arts, the East. The art of my country is incomparably more profound and important than anything that I know in the West.”
- Goncharova, 1913

Barbarism Begins At Home

Several shows on Russian Modernism had featured Natalia Goncharova (including the Royal Academy’s ‘Amazons of the Avant-Garde’ in 2000, and the Tate’s own ‘Futurism’ in 2009), all of which had left me primed for this solo retrospective.

The folk traditions of her homeland often inspired her art, with ’Washing the Canvases’ (1910, above) demonstrating a stage in textile production. Inserting this task into an idealised landscape creates a somewhat bucolic scene, suggesting that peasants remain ‘natural artists’. As Mureil Zagha of Apollo magazine puts it: “A vein of nostalgic pastoral – the dream of the Russian countryside as a lost Eden in the face of industrialisation – informed her work throughout.”

It’s idealised in both senses, not just utopian but also abstracted from the reality it’s based in. The dog for example is virtually a silhouette. And though the picture conveys the sense of an abundant nature stretching to a distant horizon, in a nod to folk art conventions it’s actually organised into distinct segments.

‘Peasant Woman From Tula Province’ (also 1910, above) relocates indoors, not even giving us much of a window view. Which throws focus on the patterns of those textiles, not just on the woman’s clothing but the curtain behind her. Though her face is modelled, this is very much a painting which knows its job is to arrange elements on a flat surface. And Goncharova not only took inspiration from fabric patterns, she designed them herself.

Like Malevich’s early work, from a similar time and place, the title asks us to see the woman not so much an individual as a type, as an example of peasantry. Which he came to use as “the emblem of Russia.” It may even be Goncharova gave him this motif.

In its use of vivid colours ‘Orchard in Autumn’ (1909, above) is quite Fauvist. Was the earth actually that strong a ruddy brown? Would a workman’s shirt really stay pure white long enough to get painted? But that’s not really the point. The colours aren’t beholden to accuracy so much as on the canvas to convey something to us. There’s only seven colours to the whole thing. But what originally looks like solid blocks, almost spot colours, turns out to be made up of painterly strokes. (Check out the tree trunks, for example.) Which gives the work a shimmering, enticing effect.

Like that nameless peasant woman Goncharova’s family came from Tula province, and had originally made their money from textiles. (Though much of it had dissipated by her day, the show describing her generation with the somewhat Checkovian term “impoverished aristocrats”.) But they had moved to Moscow when she was eleven. And while she made summer visits back there, these were really little more than holidays. As Jane A Sharp says “photographs show her playing peasant, dressed in local clothing but wearing city shoes.”

Some while ago I speculated that Moscow’s distance from Paris, the epicentre of Modernism, gave the movement a lustre and mystique. It seemed convincing at the time. As I was to find out, Muscovite merchants were such keen collectors they actually made the town a handy place to get up to date. Goncharova’s quote up top is a good polemic, reviews of this show often quoting it. But as was common with her it worked better as a sound-bite than it did statement of reality.

This style, which came to be called Neo-Primitivism, is best considered not as ‘the new primitivism’ so much as ‘the new combined with the primitive’. And this had a special piquancy, not just for Goncharova but for Russian art in general. As I said over the Academy’s ‘From Russia’ show:

“Modernism’s access to the primitive mostly came from the treasures of colonialism, the tribal masks of Picasso coming from France’s African colonies. Russia’s treasures, conversely, were domestic… This was perhaps a consequence of Russia’s unique status in Europe, its vast size and still-near-feudal relations in the countryside.”

Similarly, a review of the Russian section of the 1909 Vienna exhibition commented “a very short while ago it was a saying that if one scratched a Russian, one discovered a barbarian. Now… in the barbarian we find a great artistic advantage… the barbarian embraces us with the most elegant of modernists, and each completes the other.”

Neo-primitivism ensured that ‘Russian-ness’ was no longer something provincial but now exotic and alluring. You just needed some Moscow mixed in with that Tula.

…all of which fed precisely into Goncharova’s great talent, to blend ‘barbarism’ and Modernism so seamlessly you’d swear you were mistaken ever to see them as separate things. She could be country girl and Muscovite sophisticate, both at once. To quote Jane A Sharp again: “she initiated an interchange between fine and popular arts that became the focus of post-Revolutionary avant-garde projects.”

And so, in her writings, she was ever-insistent that Modernism needed to be ever-moving and polygamously assimilationist of styles, not tied to the mast of some restrictive manifesto. Artists should first create, and theorise later. She once wrote a stroppy letter to Marinetti, essentially accusing him of making rules under the guise of breaking them. This attitude allowed her to swallow up and digest influences like the Cyclops of Greek myth.

Yet the fact it was a good polemic is significant too, for she was someone who saw the value of a good blag. Her 1913 solo show was launched with a lecture on her by Ilia Zdanevich, sketching in her biography - elaborate, adventurous and almost entirely fictitious. She quite literally made an exhibition of herself, seeking out notoriety with zeal. John C Bowlt says she “turned her very life into a work of art”, while the show describes her “parading in the streets of Moscow with her face painted and wearing extravagant outfits” (see photo above). Wikipedia claims, in a pre-echo of Femen, she’d sometimes appear topless painted with symbols. 

More than once her pictures were seized from exhibitions and her put on trial for pornography. (Though she was never convicted.) Sergei Diaghilev commented “The young crowd […] don’t just emulate her as an artist; they imitate her appearance, too.” So she started a fashion house. She had a penchant for planning and designing extravagant parties.

Bohemian in spirit, she didn’t marry Larionov, her lifelong companion, until 1955 - when inheritance laws essentially bounced them into it. Once, mis-addressed as his wife, she angrily slapped the transgressor. But it’s perhaps more than that. Dedicating yourself to antagonising a bourgeoisie you feed from and belong to… the claim Modernists were the first rock stars would find much material in Goncharova. Her own personal image cannot be seen as something separate from her work. And as such, grand claims and fake biographies should be seen as creative statement.

Into Icons

All the previous illos have used some form of pictorial space, even if just enough to keep the viewer happy. Whereas ’Hay Cutting’ (1907/8, above) more foregrounds its compositional devices - with bold outlines and more defined colours. There’s little attempt to differentiate the two most foreground figures. Not just in their dress and poses but their impassively depersonalised faces, they’re more a symbol of a peasant than an example of one. And most of all, as if in emulation of folk art, they’re allowed to vary considerably in size from the left-hand figure with the scythe. Though an earlier work than the others, this condensed-down style would be her direction.

It shouldn’t be denied that her idealised views of peasant life were more easily indulged in by those who didn’t have to do the hard labour which came with it. And it was Moscow which allowed a woman to pursue this life of a free-spirited artist, she needed those city shoes to stand in. She and Larionov became set designers for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, who (in he show’s words) “manufactured an exotic version of the East for captivated audiences in the West”. So a shift away from seemingly literal depictions, to something more easily seen as the countryside of the mind, made sense. Contrast two works…

‘Winter; Gathering Firewood’ (1911, above) is a broadly similar composition to ‘Hay Cutting’, one working figure faced against two carriers, with a tree backdrop. But the notoriously harsh Russian winter is seen through a sentimentalised lens, as if gathering firewood is a fun way of getting out the house rather than labour necessary to keep you alive. Frankly, it wouldn’t look out of place on a Christmas card. (Is there a Russian tree which blossoms white in mid-winter, as seen at the top here? I feel mildly sceptical.)

Whereas in ’Frost’ (1910/11, above) the figures are reduced to trudging silhouettes, dwarfed by the expanse of icy white which occupies most of the picture. Winter here is an all-pervasive force. While ’Gathering Firewood’ bustles with activity, ’Winter’ is solemnly dominated by an overpowering silence, as if human society’s been muted by nature and is likely to stay that way all season long. ’Gathering Firewood’ seems intended to make us feel all warm inside, ’Winter’ the very opposite.

And this more iconic style came, at least in part, from Icons. Traditional religious painting either went alongside peasant art or was one form of it, it scarcely matters which. Here works are only concerned with their symbolic meaning, with what they represent. See for example ’The Evangelists’ (1911, below). These gained great attention almost straight away, and continue to be among the more widely known of her works. Not to mention controversial….

Some have seen a link between the relatively high number of women artists in Russian Modernism and its basis in folk arts and crafts. But as soon as we get to the Icons this reverses. Russian Orthodoxy was patriarchal, its head literally called the Patriarch. And it saw the creation of Icons as explicitly man’s work, so her versions became (in Wikipedia’s words) “transgressive and problematic”. More than once they were removed from shows by censors, ’The Evangelists’ among them.

Which does suggest this interest comes from the controversy rather than the art itself. In fact, the ‘pure’ Icons are not among my favourite of her works. The essence of Goncharova comes in her ability to mix and blend, where these can look merely imitative.

It ’s hard to reconstruct how much she intended this furore. It became common for Russian Modernists to take an interest in Icons, but only for their formal qualities. They were after all an avowedly atheist bunch, with Rodchenko dismissing painting as being “as useless as a Church”. But Goncharova, like the peasant art which inspired her, saw this the other way up - making no distinctions to be drawn between religion, art and daily life. Of the controversy she said “I believe in the Lord firmly enough. Who knows who believes and how?” Elsewhere she asserted “everybody, including women, has an intellect in the form and image of God.”

We should also remember that Russian Orthodoxy had repressed but not expunged paganism, leaving fertility symbolism latent for an artist to pick up on. So for example ’Christ the Saviour’ (1910) depicts Jesus in a traditional pose but garlanded with grapevines. Just as she absorbed art styles which came her way, she incorporated mythological systems into her own.

And for someone so attuned to art’s connections to performance, if not showbiz, she also had a strongly mystic side. Her lithographic services, ’Mystical Images of War’ reflected the outbreak of the First World War by “blending contemporary warfare and ancient prophecy.”

Malevich’s mysticism was ascetic, art’s value lay in pointing us away from this transient world to the ineffable. Whereas Goncharova’s is more like Blake’s, something which runs through our reality. Yet for all the drama there’s a fatalism, rather than any sense of taking sides the feeling persists that events must run their course. The ‘mystic’ can occupy the top third of the image, like heralds with messages in the sky. As in ’Angels Throwing Stones on the City’ (below), which seems to refer to the Biblical destruction of Sodom, even as the city under bombardment looks modern. Yet at other points the two vie with one another, as in ‘Angels and Aeroplanes’ (below below).

So ‘Peasants Picking Apples’ (1911, above) pushes the iconic path further, making only the vaguest gestures to a background. There’s some shifts between deep blue and black to suggest that’s not just a painted flat, but that’s all. Even the picked apple appears from outside the frame, rather than from a branch which would necessarily connect the tree to the figures. But there’s still just enough hand-holds for us to see the apple pickers as inside, and interacting with, an environment.

Whereas by the compositionally similar ’Peasants Gathering Grapes’ (1913/14, above) the hulking geometric figures monstrously dominate their surroundings, enhanced by a composition which makes them resemble a single central block. And unlike, say Bomberg’s ‘Mud Bath’, the picture doesn’t seem to be about individualism succumbing to a collectivised abstraction. Instead they look primordial giants.

If the influence of Cubism is clear here, ever the nativist Goncharova countered that Cubism was nothing new for Russia due to their heritage of Scythian art. However the Scythians were a historic group dating no more recently than the second century. It was akin to Picasso being influenced by Greek art, something at more of a remove than peasant art.

And if ’Peasants Gathering Grapes’ seems the figurative equivalent of stem cells ’Bathers’ (1922, above) suggests a primordial scene, where the figures seem to be emerging from the water and into human form simultaneously. The colour scheme, from black to brown to orange, does much to enhance this. But the figures themselves are pitched almost perfectly between abstraction and recognisable form. The triptych format, common in religious art, may also lead you to so cosmogenic areading.

The Charged City

Despite all these rural scenes, Goncharova neither neglected urban life nor necessarily saw it negatively. In Italy the deep contrasts between country and city spurred Futurism. So it did with Goncharova, but without the antipathy. She saw the country with the enthralled eye of a city dweller, but also vice versa. So she could recognise, and celebrate in art, what was unique to both - timelessness and time running at full speed.

Contemporary audiences seem to have trouble with this. Google-image her name and it’s predominantly rural scenes you find, while with Larionov it’s the reverse. Yet the truth is both painted both. And this was not unusual for Modernism. It was there from Impressionism, arguably the first of its many movements.

’The City’ (1911, above) is an exercise in packing level atop level, like a pictorial Jenga tower. The fence is taller than the figures, the houses taller than the fence, the tree than the houses, the tower blocks than the tree, the spire and chimney than the tower blocks, then the planes soar above all. Yet unlike, say ’Washing the Canvases’ there’s not even a simulation of perspective, just a stacking of objects behind one another. The urban world goes up, not back.

The composition is almost like ’Frost’ in placing a dwarfed line of human silhouettes at the base of the frame. While the comparison of the spire to the chimney seems almost emblematic of Russian Modernism at this time. Yet she is still painting in the same way she painted the country. Which was soon to change…

Russia took up Cubo-Futurism, a compound term used for the simultaneous adaptation of two Western styles. Goncharova and Larionov launched a particular strand they called Rayonism (or Rayism, depending on your translator) in 1913. (With accompanying manifesto, antipathy to all of that presumably temporarily suspended.) Her rural works, even when they portrayed an activity, seem fixed, suggesting what we’re seeing is reiterations of a timeless activity. Even active figures look solid and immutable. With the Rayonist works, even solid things no longer seem solid things.

Take for example ’Cyclist’ (1913, above). Perhaps not un-coincidentally for Cubo-Futurism it’s based on a kind of double vision. Reiterations of the rider’s outline create a blur effect, as if we see him speeding past us. The attempt to capture motion in art, you might want to call that Futurist.

Yet the window displays behind him are shown in a fragmentary fashion, a jumble of impressions passing too fast to fix on, so creating a kind of collage effect. The backwards pointing hand is a particularly nice touch. As the Rayonist manifesto put it, “the painting is revelaed as a skimmed impression”. The background, in other words, is Cubist. Which creates a rather literal version of Cubo-Futurism, where the two styles aren’t combined but kind of hitched together. It’s as if we see what he sees even as he see him,

But perhaps the significant this is how it doesn’t look like that, how effectively the two blend. We see the cyclist in the same frame as we see what he sees, but we just go with it.

This is possibly her best-known urban work. But it’s not the most radical. Their manifesto said:

“The objects that we see in life play no role here, but that which is the essence of painting itself can be shown here best of all – the combination of colour, it’s saturation, the relation of coloured masses, depth, texture. We do not sense the object with our eye, as it is depicted conventionally in pictures… in fact, we do not sense the object as such. We perceive a sum of rays proceeding from a source of light; these are reflected from the object and enter our field of vision.”

This takes something literally true, we ‘see’ via light entering the eye. We sometimes dismiss optical effects as ‘a trick of the light’, when vision is nothing but that. And like much of Futurism this builds directly from Impressionism. In art we should paint what we see – not just take what we assume to be there. But it then takes a poetic turn, by associating light with other forms of energy.

We should remember such things are electric street lighting were then still relatively novel. And if we cannot see electricity, we can still depict it artistically. Imagine if the sights in ‘The City’ had been shown not as solid objects, but via the electricity passing through those buildings. We would still get a sense of them, just as we would a living creature seen only through its veins and arteries. In this way the city is not an assemblage of things but pulses with energy.

‘Dynamo Machine’ (1913, above) is almost as diagrammatic as a blueprint, but at the same time gloriously irresolvable. If the lightbulb above the head signifies an idea, this suggests a near-cacophony of notions, all exploding at once. The title cheerily suggests the machine has no practical purpose other than to act dynamically. All those bolts fastened at the base lead you to believe that without them the painting itself might fly off.

The Ukrainian poet Shevchenko said at this time: “the world has been transformed into a single, monstrous, fantastic, perpetually-moving machine, into a single huge non-animal automatic organism… [this] cannot help but be reflected in our thinking and in our spiritual life: in Art”

Yet, rooted in a way of seeing, Rayonism didn’t solely restrict itself to urban themes. ‘Rayonist Lillies’ (1913), for example… well, it does what it says on the lid.

Art In Exile

In 1914, “at the peak of her Russian career” (to quote Jane a Sharp), Goncharova and Larionov went with Diaghilev to Paris. She never lived in her homeland again. A succession of events, from the First World War to the turmoil surrounding the Revolution to later artistic repression, kept her back.

It’s temptingly romantic to assume her work withered in exile, cut off from her muse. But, at least initially, that’s not how it was. The already-seen ’Bathers’ was produced in this time. And ’Orange Seller’ (1916, above) reflects a new-found fascination with the culture of Spain. As heads and hands jut out from a collage of flat fabrics, it’s almost a playing card image. It’s the step from ’Peasant Woman’ that ’Peasants Gathering Grapes’ was from ’Peasants Picking Apples’. (Why Spain should grab her, I couldn’t say. Provincial parts of France would have been just as rustic at this time. Perhaps it had a similar economic basis to Russia, islands of industry in a sea of agriculture.)

However, her era was soon over. After being the belle of the avant-garde ball, it wasn’t so long before she was sidelined. By the Forties, it’s generally agreed, the creative spirit finally left her. Jane A Sharp describes her later years as “unrecognised and impoverished”.

Perhaps there’s a problem of her not fitting our standard narrative, where the Revolution fired the starting gun for radical art, allowing it to climb out of that confining picture frame to directly engage with real life, and all the rest of it.

Just as her aristocratic origins were unusual for a Modernist artist, she was a feature of the tentatively liberal period between the revolutions of 1905 and ’17, when Russia looked both out to the West and into its own culture. In many ways Russia had its Roaring Twenties a decade early, and by the time everyone else had got to the party it had got down to more serious business. Though originally supportive of the revolution, Goncharova was more bohemian than Bolshevik. And soon replaced by the ‘cultural worker’, striving not to shock but remake society.

It can often take death to rekindle an artist’s reputation. Unfortunately here, even that didn’t really work. Laura Cummings states that she left the majority of her paintings to her homeland, doubtless a heartfelt gesture but one that left them languishing out of public view until glasnost. And even from there her climb back was slow. This is only the second solo show mounted since her death. (After Moscow in 2013.)

Sometimes you need to rediscover the artists who, through no lack of talent, languished in obscurity. But at others you need to take the once-famous and make them famous again.

NB Otherwise unattributed quotes are from ’Amazons of the Avant Garde’, the book accompanying the Royal Academy exhibition.


Saturday 11 July 2020


(...with a few PLOT SPOILERS, albeit old ones, along the way - for ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Star Trek’ and the ‘X-Men’ films...)

Time Was Hard Then...

Time isn’t what it used to be.

But don’t take my word for it. Look to the first season 'Doctor Who' episode 'The Aztecs' (1964), where Barbara sets about cleaning up the past. Leading to the Doctor's well-known imploring response: "But you can't rewrite history! Not one line! What you are trying to do is utterly impossible.” He doesn't say “not one moment” but “not one line” - as if history is inscribed, an immutable book of law not written by human hands.

True, this firm rule would be subject to erosion even before the end of the Hartnell era. And yet not broken. When time stops being immutable, it's assailability just becomes a problem. Time needs Lords in the form of Lord Protectors, or someone will run off with the course of it. In the second season episode 'The Time Meddler' (1965) the now absent Barbara has her interventionist role given to an adversary.

As every fan knows, the Monk is the first Time Lord after the Doctor to appear on the show. (Though their species is not yet named.) And as he attempts to alter the outcome of the Battle of Hastings, every Britisher's idea of a pivotal date, the Doctor struggles to stop him. In short, a new character has to be introduced to suggest a new conception of time, like a new chess piece with an extra manoeuvre attached to it.

To show that time worked in similar ways in the Sixties, whether you were on GMT or Pacific Coast Time, let's turn to the 1967 'Star Trek' episode 'The City On the Edge of Forever'. Coming across the Guardian, a portal to time, McCoy (driven briefly mad by a plot device) leaps headlong into Earth's past. The episode follows Kirk and Spock trying to catch and stop him. It ups the ante considerably on 'Who' by taking them to a past within living memory. (Something too easily forgotten when we watch that episode now.) Its Ten Sixty Six is World War Two. And arguably we have both a Time Meddler in McCoy and a more unwitting Barbara in Edith. Whose pacifist inclinations, though as noble as Barbara's, will impede the defeat of the Nazis. Literally too good for this world, she has to go.

And in this case the sanctions for failure are worse. Worse even than the Nazis winning the War. Spock suggests “there could be some logic to the belief that time is fluid, like a river, with currents, eddies, backwash.” Yet the all-clear is sounded by the Guardian announcing “Time has resumed its shape.” Yep, shape. Time turns out not to be like water, capable of running down different paths, but a solid object like a tram on a line. And when you come off a tram line you crash.

As the M0vie Blog points out: “We discover that the non-existence of the 'right' reality is equivalent complete non-existence. McCoy’s trip back in time doesn’t create an alternate universe, it creates a dead and empty universe... there is 'no stardate'. Kirk’s log suggests that there is no reality because this reality has ceased to exist. 'For us, time does not exist.' … There is nothing. 'Earth’s not there,' Kirk tells Uhura. 'At least, not the Earth we know. We’re totally alone.'

“It’s telling that those two statements ('Earth’s not there' and 'not the Earth we know') are treated as equivalent. As far as Kirk is concerned, there is no possibility of Earth beyond the Earth that they know.” (Okay, as any fan knows Harlan Ellison's original script followed more the river metaphor of time meandering off course. We're going with the broadcast version here.)

Both stories add a fillip by adding costs to the restoration of time. Time is hard in the twin senses of the word. The Doctor's defeating of the Monk will lead to the slaughter and subjugation of the Saxons he meets, goodly folk all. In Edith Kirk is given a love interest he then has to let die. Both are essentially sacrifices to the correct passage of time.

And just as time is fixed, there's a sense that stories about it need be too. The implication is that there’s more space in space than in time. While the universe is broad and so contains scope for adventure, time travel is too narrow a form for much boldly going. There really is only one time travel story, because that story has already been written and we’re living in it.

Though there had already been another Star Trek time travel story, 'Tomorrow Is Yesterday' (1967) (with a similar emphasis on restoring time's path), 'City' seems to explicitly reject the notion of time travel as a motor for adventure stories. It ends with the Guardian intoning invitingly “Many such journeys are possible. Let me be your gateway.” To which Kirk's response is, and I quote, “Let's get the hell out of here.” While 'The Aztecs' ends with Barbara in impotent fury - “What is the point of travelling in time and space? You can't change anything – nothing!”

Of course in the Hartnell era the premise was for 'Who' to alternate historical stories with science fiction. But what did historical really mean? ’Star Trek’ essentially turned time into space, with eras manifesting as planets. So we get episodes set on the Roman planet, the Nazi planet and so on. And ’Who’ is not really that far from this.

'The Aztecs' was a tragic drama which foregrounded time travel to rub our noses in inevitability. But successors are more likely to be adventure stories, merely bookended by set-up bits of time travel, thereby sidestepping any serious consideration of it's consequences. Or be played as comedies which are virtually genre parodies. ’The Romans’ (1965) probably does both.

And when the historicals ended, even that tangential connection went. For most of it's history, Old Who was largely uninterested in time travel as a source of stories, merely as a magic door to set the next adventure up. (I have previously described the Tardis as a Narnian wardrobe, but it's possible Lewis showed more interest in the ramifications of time porting than the Doctor.)

With all the differences between 'Who' and 'Star Trek', why should their conceptions of time be so similar? The answer is – their time. The Doctor's inviolable rule of time now seems to stem from another time. A world where you never stopped wearing school ties even when exiled to outer space, where square jaws did their duty, where planning committee meetings were brought to order - a world of jobs for life, of clear-cut career paths, of children growing up to replace their parents.

‘Planning’ became a keystone word for the post-war era, as a positive alternative to what was sometimes called “the anarchy of the market”. Le Corbusier had said “the plan is the generator. Without a plan there is disorder, arbitrariness.” And though he’d said it in the Twenties, this was the period the notion came to fruition. Twin examples would be the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, which effectively switched on planning permission as a requirement before development, and the New Towns movement, which sought to develop integrated and holistic communities from scratch.

The point isn't that we planned, people have always planned. The point is that we lived within plans made by Planners. And our lives became circumscribed by those plans, our thoughts channelled by blueprints. We passed through an ordered world, and knew our place within it. You leave school and start work. You work from nine to five. You retire at sixty-five. Of course you do. Perhaps it's summed up by the sample Chumbawamba used on their song 'Timebomb'. Allegedly from Disney, and hence aimed as a guide to children, it intones cheerily “you don't tell time, time tells you”.

...Then Time Started To Wime... (History Is Rewrites)

Things would reach the opposite extreme... well, with New Who. Compare the Doctor's quote above to this one from 'Blink' (2007): “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint - it's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly... time-y wimey... stuff.”

And the “timey wimey” perhaps reached it's crescendo with 'The Big Bang', (2010) where the lines of time are rewritten and re-rewritten so frequently you think it must have been scripted on an etch-a-sketch. As Amy so rightly says “okay kid, this is where it gets complicated.” (So complicated, in fact, that kid she's talking to is her younger self.)

As of course it would. If Lucarotti's script to 'The Aztecs' reflects the rigid world of jobs for life, Moffat's mirrors our contemporary 'flexitime' era – of abstract labour, zero hours contracts and perpetually shifting goalposts. Even those of us in permanent work sit under ceaseless reorganisation; fall too deeply under its shadow and 'permanent' may well turn out to not have been permanent after all. We have come to coin the term 'always on', ostensibly about the devices our parents would patrol the house and diligently unplug at the end of every evening, now kept on perpetual standby. And yet of course under advanced capitalism it's us who are always on - we are the accoutrements of those devices and not the other way round.

Once-rigid boundaries between work and home life have been eroded by a combination of globalisation and technical innovations such as laptops and tele-conferencing. An increasing number of workers on ‘flexible’ contracts now wait for the next text calling them in for a shift, or cancelling at the last second. Those in salaried work find themselves checking their Blackberries in their supposed 'leisure' time, knowing an instant response is expected any time of day or night.

As Mark Fisher put it in 'Capitalist Realism', “[Capitalism] is a system no longer governed by any transcendent Law; on the contrary, it dismantles all such codes, only to reinstall them on an ad hoc basis. The limit of capitalism are not fixed by fiat, but defined (and re-defined) pragmatically and improvisationally… To function effectively as a component of just-in-time production you must develop a capacity to respond to unforeseen events, you must learn to live in conditions of total instability.” Or alternately read the tweet below. The only certainty which is left us is uncertainty.

Perhaps what's most interesting about this comparison is that it’s the old certainties which are shown most negatively. Suggesting perhaps that popular culture of the past was more willing to critique its society, perhaps surer of the hand that fed it. Lucarotti emphasises how his 'hard time' represents a hard life, a fatalistic world in which history is a given fact, something which simply happens to us. We have no agency, the measure of us lies in the degree of stoicism by which we accept this. Whereas with Moffat's 'soft time' we are encouraged to see our post-Fordist times through it's own eyes.

Ostensibly, ’Big Bang’ is about the collapse of time, which is at least formally presented as a threat. (In a strange way it’s conceptually, if not tonally, similar to the David Lynch film ’Inland Empire’, 2006, where reality has become so hole-ridden that it’s effectively falling to bits.) But it’s more an adventure park, a setting for a rollicking ride. It’s not scary so much as invigorating. The sense that the Doctor’s doing what he’s always done, just in a more concentrated dose, is underlined by the way old adversaries like the Daleks can guest star.

Ultimately, his adventurous leaps through time-streams represent the follow-your bliss era, where life appears as a bubbling series of glittery baubles ready for the daring to grab. Amy can settle down and get married yet still travel the universe, while previous companions such as Jo Grant or Leela were forced to choose.

This rests upon the masquerade that this brave new world somehow offers us flexibility, when that's precisely the thing we're giving up. We neither settle down nor travel. We learn to live with precarity. Yet when we discover this we assume we have no other option than to blame ourselves. We must have somehow been insufficiently modern, unable to grasp the opportunities offered, too retrograde for this brave and dazzling new world.

The concept of there being paradoxical “fixed points in time” may seem a get-out for plot cheats... well it is a get-out for plot cheats. But it also adds to this picture. Time flexes whenever we are told it is, then fixes again as soon as we are told that. Particularly for your next shift which, by the way, is now starting in twenty minutes.

But for a closer peep under the hood than allowed by the flamboyant, frenetic 'Big Bang', let's turn back to the earlier 'Blink' - the episode in which Moffat first introduced us to the “timey wimey”. This is but one of many storylines which at first resemble puzzle adventures. We're presented with a bizarre, seemingly incomprehensible string of events and try to find out what led to them.

But, as we discover, they have no cause – they simply happened. Moffat is fixated with predestination paradoxes. Let's be clear, these are not inherently Post-Fordist and in fact precede time travel stories themselves. But their use here is their causal loops. Events do not lead to other events but turn out to begat themselves. Like subatomic particles in quantum physics, causal loops handwave away the seemingly counter-intuitive. Things are the way they are because that is they way they are.

For example, in 'Blink' by making the video the Doctor changes nothing – he simply fulfils his role. Ultimately, time here is not mutable, it's still something that happens to us. Time still tells you. It just tells you any damn thing any damn time it feels like. And therefore the basic premise of the heroic individual, that through smarts or muscle he changes things, is implicitly undermined.

And the causal loop even precedes time wiming, like the acausal mulch from which it grew. In The Parting of the Ways' (2005), at the end of the first series, the transformed Rose states “I am the Bad Wolf. I create myself.” (Equally significantly, Moffat has kept up Davies' similar penchant for prophecies and predictions. Which might otherwise seem the preserve of hard time.)

We should also note that the predestination paradox is also referred to as the bootstrap paradox. Which relates to the American expression bootstrapping, a contraction of the saying ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’ or “to better oneself by one's own unaided efforts”. This expression is a favourite of those who like to argue that social outcomes are simultaneously causes. “Why is there poverty? Because of the poor! Surely they bring it on themselves by being so poor in the first place” is itself a form of a predestination paradox.

This would seem to match other contemporary depictions of time travel. But let's do the same as before and focus on one example of cross-Atlantic congruence - 'Hot Tub Time Machine 2' (2015). No, only kidding. Let's pick the X-Men film 'Days Of Future Past' (2014), not least because it references an old 'Star Trek' time travel episode. (Though the one it uses is 'Naked Time, 1966.)

Yet it does the very opposite, raising the concept of locked, determined time only to dispel it with a waft of superstring theory. Victory comes through the future being rewritten before our eyes. Even scenes we've sat and watched throughout the movie become retrospectively undone. The empty room, non-existence, the terrible fate in 'City On The Edge' here demonstrates escape - and thereby success. Virtually the closing line is “the future is never truly set”.

But the main reason to pick this film is that it's not as embracing of modern conditions as 'Big Bang'. It's not the future being presented as “a dark despotic world”, so much as the sense of it as a cul-de-sac which we need to back out of in order to make it never was. And we need to do that not from now but by heading back to the Seventies, the decade before neoliberal 'reforms' first kicked in. There's a branch of history to be sawn off, despite it being the one we're sitting on. The paradox here is that it's the malleability of time which allows the escape from modernity.

Uncertainty is Certain

And there would seem a connection between all this and post-modernism's repeated critique of “meta-narratives”. Nobody, but nobody, now believes history has a plot structure like a Hollywood movie, which makes you wonder what those po-mo-ers are getting so vexed about when they tell us that all the time. But more importantly, too often this 'critique' merely replaces the teleological with its literal opposite - the tautological. We know we are at (to use Fukuyama’s phrase) the end of history, because the past is now all in the past. And we know we were always going to end up here because we have done.

...all of which is quite an accurate description of the paradoxical world of flexitime as we encounter it, a bewildering blizzard of unexpected events floating above an underlying sense that this will never change. Though some of the provisions of the post-war era still formally exist, the world they stemmed from seems remote to us now. We do still have some sense that to plan was in itself a plan, that once there was a social order which people had decided upon, even if precisely how could happen has been wiped from our conscious minds.

But in essence that is the very thing which now seems remote to us. The new world seems to have simply arrived. It's no longer somewhere where the wrong people give the wrong orders, and so can conceivably be opposed. Now shit simply happens, and we must adjust.

When the post-war consensus was first challenged by neoliberalism, the rhetoric was not about opposing one social model with another but unfettering the market from the ‘red tape’ of regulation. In its early days, when it still needed selling, it was sold to us as something which would release us from the nine to five routine. But it was to prove victorious, winning almost every one of its battles. So it increasingly became presented as an inescapable fact.

One of the ostensible benefits of capitalism is choice, that we can choose where we live or work to a degree not previously conceived of. And yet ironically so much is now held to be fixed and immutable. Jobs for life, guaranteed incomes, universal benefits, national health care… all now suddenly ‘impossible’ dreams. Perhaps what's most weird is that its never held to be something weird. In this way neoliberal 'flexi time' becomes just as fixed as old hard time.

Arguably, both of these conceptions (hard or soft) are in their own way reactionary. In neither of them does time travel broaden the mind or create any kind of conceptual breakthrough. Both are just metaphorical routes by which the era's own comprehension of time can be underlined. (Just as fictional journeys to other times or places are so often used to reinforce how universal our way of life is.) Perhaps some of that is inevitable. But there's a broader point...

Marx asserted that we make history. Notably, neither of these options offers us that chance. Shit still happens either way - just in differing forms. First because it's tough shit, shit set in stone, it's always been that way and so it always will. Then the shit hits the fan, flying everywhere in completely unpredictable patterns. Because it simply does. As things sped from one extreme to the other, that short-lived wooshing sound we heard marked our liberty passing us by.

Coming later! Hartnell’s final season will form part of our Autumn schedule...

Saturday 4 July 2020


First broadcast: July 1965
Written by Dennis Spooner
Plot spoilers: High!

“It's 1066 and the TARDIS crew find a watch, a gramophone and a toaster.”
- from the BBC episode guide

Taking to the Game

'The Time Meddler' is of course famous for two things. It’s the first ‘pseudo-historical’, in which past and future become intermingled. Plus, and not entirely by coincidence, it’s also the appearance of the first member of the Doctor’s own race – the meddling Monk. (Discounting Susan, who alas spent little time behaving like a time travelling alien.)

Fortunately, to the story itself, one of these two things is much more important than the other – and not necessarily the one rated by the fans. The Outpost Gallifrey review starts its synopsis with news of the Monk and the Doctor’s shared race. You certainly could see this as the equivalent of comics’ ’Flash of Two Worlds’, the initial chink in the pristine panelling which allowed all the rot to pour in. Afore long, the Whoniverse would be so chock-full of renegade Time Lords that their tailback of Tardises would gridlock the spiral arm.

But to blame either story for the convolutions that follow would be like blaming the Wright Brothers for Ryanair delays. Besides, their shared species isn’t elaborated on, the Time Lords are not yet named, and it seems chiefly there to allow the reveal that the Monk has a hidden Tardis.

However it is significant that the first point at which time travel is intrinsic to the story, it arrives via another member of the Doctor’s race. ('The Chase' doesn’t really count. In Old Who, time travel is normally a plot mechanism to take us to story settings. In ’The Chase’s portmanteau structure, this just happens more often than usual. ‘The Space Museum’ is the nearest predecessor, but there time travel is not only inadvertent but presented more as a kind of weird fiction.)

Which is important. Because, despite all the fannish speculation that the Monk is in some way linked to the Master, he's actually much more like the Doctor. Saving the Earth from alien invasion is a fairly transparent metaphor for protecting England’s shores from foreigners (citation not needed), a Doctorly role which here transfers to the Monk.

Though his motivations are also like Barbara’s in ‘The Aztecs’, partly because they suggest parental steering into playing nicely but mostly because they make no sense at all. (“There wouldn't be all those wars in Europe… With peace the people'd be able to better themselves. With a few hints and tips from me they'd be able to have jet airliners by 1320! Shakespeare'd be able to put Hamlet on television.”)

Yet that obscures a deeper difference. Both the Doctor and Barbara’s motives are at heart noble, the Monk’s mischievous. While the Master was the Doctor’s id, the Monk is his alter ego. He’s not the dark side, but the impetuousness unchecked. Though he at times acts for criminal gain, you sense it’s the meddling itself he most enjoys. “It’s more fun my way,” he tells the Doctor excitably. He is, in the words of great Who sage Andrew Rilstone, “a naughty version of the Doctor.” In a series that repeatedly stands or falls on its evocation of characters, hiring Peter Butterworth for the role was really something of a masterstroke.

The Monk is the reckless Doctor who risks his companions lives for curiosity in ’The Daleks’ or, when told in ’The Romans’ he started the Great Fire, collapses into childlike glee. He seems in some ways almost a forerunner of the more mischievous Troughton Doctor. (Notably, his meddling motivations aren’t all that far from the original model for the Doctor dreamed up by Bunny Webber, but firmly nixed by Sidney Nolan as “nuts!”)

So, at the same time the Monk’s the story-defined anti-Doctor, the adversary, he’s the old Doctor, impetuous and driven by whim. The Doctor's transformation, already underway in the later half of the first season, is less completed than underlined and then tied up with a bow. Yet even as the Doctor sides against the Monk, he does it with such relish you could almost believe it was simply for love of the game.

It’s notable that the Monk is a loner, keen to bat away the attentions of the Saxon villagers, while the Doctor befriends them. Yet despite this signifier of evil, more than once the script flirts with the idea the Doctor might go over to his side, or at least entertain a lurking sympathy for him. There’s a quite delicious underlying irony, where such a fun episode has a fun-lover for an adversary!

Though, for all its lighthearted tone, the result is a quite cerebral story. Significantly one episode is entitled ‘A Battle of Wits’ and the finale ‘Checkmate’. There’s only six real locations throughout, even if we count the Tardises – the monastery, a peasant’s hut, a clifftop and a generic bit of forest. And this typically limited (and hence endlessly revisited) number of sets comes to feel like chess squares. The two Tardises become the Kings, the Doctor winning by ‘taking’ the Monks. And the other characters are merely pawns to their game. (Okay, perhaps the invading Vikings could be Knights.)

With this, comes a quiet but distinct shift – at the end of the second season, the title character becomes the protagonist of his own show. Though ’The Web Planet’ had seen him struggle against an adverse intelligence, his companions had simultaneously fought the Zarbi troops on a more physical level. It felt like parallel storylines as the group struggled towards the same end, merely by different means and on different levels – his Professor X to their Wolverine and Cyclops.

Here it’s the Doctor who plays out against the Monk while everybody else tries to catch up with him. He’s so far ahead he doesn’t even appear in the second episode. (True, only because of the then-common practice of writing characters out when their actors went on holiday, but it’s nevertheless appropriate.) If he’s finally become the protagonist of his own show we still don’t follow him, in fact we follow the secondary characters as they try to follow him. In this way his impact upon the story is actually very similar to the Meddling Monk’s – an external force upon human affairs.

There’s also more structural reasons. The series original protagonists were Ian and Barbara – we first saw the Tardis through their eyes. David Whitaker’s novelisation of ’The Daleks’ was even written in Ian’s first-person view. As I've said before, at that stage it could as easily have been called 'Schoolteachers In Space.' And they had lives on Earth, which they were snatched from and always wanted to return to. When they finally achieve this, at the end of the previous episode, it changed the dynamic in a deeper way than leaving Hartnell as the longest serving resident.

He originally introduced himself and Susan as “wanderers in the fourth dimension”, a description which now better fits both his new companions – the orphaned Vicki and the many-years-marooned Steven. Vicki comforts him by promising to keep travelling with him: “I wouldn’t have anything to go back to.”

In this way things are changed more than in ’The Rescue’, which modified the line-up but in a way which promised continuity. It leaves the door open to pass from the original ‘lost in space’ scenario to one in which it’s the Doctor’s mission to combat menaces to the cosmic order. (Though Steven in some ways takes on Ian’s role he also seems more headstrong and impetuous, charging at a Saxon villager despite Vicki’s warnings.)

Notably, previously storylines invented a mechanism to keep the Doctor in the fight – usually trapping him away from the Tardis. Truth to tell, it vanishes here as well (under the incoming tide), but briefly and without the significance of other episodes – the Doctor takes no interest whatsoever and it’s a very transparent excuse for a cliffhanger. This time the Doctor chooses to fight the Monk, displays a great deal of relish at the prospect and even chides Vicki when she suggests escaping. The adversarial nature between the two has become a given.

Whitaker opened his second novelisation, 'The Crusades', with this:

”As swiftly and silently as a shadow, Doctor Who's Space and Time ship, Tardis, appeared on a succession of planets each as different as the pebbles on a beach, stayed awhile and then vanished, as mysteriously as it had come. And whatever alien world it was that received him and his fellow traveller, and however well or badly they were treated, the Doctor always set things to rights, put down injustice, encouraged dignity, fair treatment and respect.”

All of which might sound the Doctor we know. And yet setting things to rights is pretty much what doesn't happen in 'The Crusades'. That sense of cosmic justice doesn't really get cemented until... well, actually its here. Everything of the old Doctor, with even the novelisation confirming he originally kidnapped Ian and Barbara, is taken from the Doctor and transferred to the Monk.

And yet something of the original remains, a chink of the Doctor’s original cold non-humanity stays lodged in the story’s heart. In the quote above, the Doctor and his ship are described as mysterious in the very first sentence. There’s the inscrutable “dials and instruments” he's always scrutinising, as if one can’t be separated from the other.

It’s as central and as inadvertent as the killer app that, in the same era, launched Marvel comics. When Marvel moved from monster stories to superhero adventures they never fully changed over, some of their old mores still slipped through. And with that they countered much of the straight-laced, square-jawed nobility that corralled the genre. The Hulk and the Thing remained fundamentally different to Superman and the Flash, outlaws against polite company.

Similarly, starting the Doctor off as an adversary, then rushing to undo that rash decision, they find an imp unleashed which now cannot quite be put back in its bottle - and so a paradox is created. As the story’s moral centre, the heart to which all other veins and arteries lead, we expect him to be our most-mapped point. And yet he never is. Here and throughout the show’s history he remains remote and inscrutable - a mystery wrapped in an enigma sporting some very retro clothing. His rotating roll-call of companions become our identification figures, interchangeable everymen.

Changing The Course of History For Fun and Profit

But what, I hear you cry, of the pseudo-historical? It’s perhaps significant that to get here Spooner has to directly cross back on himself. In his ’Reign of Terror’, the characters muse on the impossibility of preventing Robespierre’s arrest – no matter how much you try, fate has already decided this matter and would intervene to thwart you. Here Vicki blithely tells Steven the very opposite – should the Monk succeed, not just the history books but even the memories in their heads will be immediately rewritten to fit the new reality. (Of course the Monk is defeated, but the story is predicated on the notion that he could succeed. His plan fails in every particular, but changes everything in general.)

However, Spooner had already toyed with this idea in ’The Romans’, where the Doctor (inadvertently) causes the Great Fire. (Though your brain would itself burn before it decided whether he'd changed or enabled history there.) As argued previously, time in flux was simply a better concept for adventure stories than fatalism. In 'The Aztecs', Barbara had asked ruefully “What is the point of travelling in time and space? You can't change anything!” Spooner seems to have come down on her side, and the Monks' reference to having fun his way is almost a direct riposte. His way, there is a game to play for and the characters get to do things.

Set this story inside the history of 'Who', and a broader shift starts to appear. As mentioned before, earlier episodes such as ’The Keys of Marinus’ and ’Dalek Invasion of Earth’ stem from a world of post-war austerity, where duty and self-sacrifice were the norms. Yet one of the bizarre paradoxes of this era of the show is seeing all this clash head-on with the spirit of the Sixties, the ‘me-generation’ with the individual at the centre of everything.

Whereas this could be the point where the Sixties finally rose to challenge the post-war era. Despite their many differences, ’The Space Museum’, 'The Chase' and 'Time Meddler' still work as a triple whammy which ganged up to jolt quite drastic changes to the show.

But there's also something more specific. Arguing about what era they might be in, they find first a viking helmet then a wristwatch. (While the other markers of modernity are a gramophone and a toaster.) Perhaps viking helmets themselves weren't exactly abundant at time of broadcast, but very much still in existence was the post-war world. Its now almost a cliché to talk of the Sixties in terms of pop culture clashes, of the Stones and Perry Como cohabiting in the charts. Indeed, the play and counter-play of the Doctor and the Monk stand in relief against their setting, like the Beatles running through foggy cobbled streets in one of their music videos.

But perhaps more importantly the very landscape of the Sixties was also in flux, with an urban renewal programme of unprecedented scale. Yet at the same time streets were built in the sky, children played in wartime bomb sites - the period itself was juxapositonal. Viking helmets and wristwatches become images of juxtaposition broadcast to a juxtapositional nation, in a show that often seems to be in juxtaposition with itself. Not just the formalised alternation between science fiction and historical stories (from this point on the way out), but the strange tonal shifts that can take the viewer from 'The Web Planet' to 'The Crusade' in one hop.

Of course Spooner's change of heart over time's mutability might easily be that he simply forgot what he wrote for the previous season! (Perhaps failing to guess the arising of DVDs or the internet, clearly major failings for a science fiction writer.) But it’s notable that he simultaneously fixes another flaw with ’Reign of Terror’ – this time there’s no walking waxworks, we meet no Harold, William or any other historical figure. The story assumes we don't need to see them, for we already know the size of their shadows. And this means events can’t be predicted by triangulating from anyone we run into.

And ironically this decision makes the story similar in form to what might seem it’s most opposite in tone, that pinnacle of the high-minded historical - ’The Aztecs’. After all, this is surely the most historical of all historicals! We’re taken to 1066, the most pivotal date in English history, yet shown no more of this than ’The Aztecs’ showed us the Spanish invasion of Mexico.

The significance of this might pass some of you younger viewers by. But in 1966, 1066 was the prime example of a memorable date, a big fat fact schoolboys were expected to be able to recite early in their education. The parody of popular history by Sellar and Yeatman, first published in 1930 but still widely read, was even titled ’1066 And All That’. Yet there was an earlier notion - the Norman Yoke, the romanticised claim we had all lived under some state of pastoral liberty until William showed up and let his arrows fly.

True, this was at its height in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, long enough after the events not to be bothered by pesky facts yet before people started bothering looking into historical evidence all that much. Yet it lingered, with even Sellar and Yeatman acknowledging it enough to parody it. (“William invented a system according to which everybody had to belong to someone else, and everybody else to the King. This was called the Feutile System.”)

And it persists here. A creation of Sixties culture, the Monk visualises victory in terms of unchecked technological development. Which is going some even by Norman Yoke standards. Yet that self-same culture associated technological developments with political freedom, jet engines with the freedom to travel and so on. And notably no-one questions him on the desirability of his mad scheme, any more than Barbara had been in ’The Aztecs’. Things have shifted from “you just can’t” to “you really shouldn’t”, but not “you simply mustn’t, you fiend”. The Monk’s meddling comes across as well-meaning. While the invading Vikings are quite definitely brutish. To the point where their dialogue could consist of them saying “we’re brutish, us”.

In its way, it’s almost as fatalistic as 'The Aztecs'. The Doctor’s defending the true passage of time means allowing the Norman invasion to succeed. The bizarre paradox of the story is that the Monk dissociates himself from the Saxons he seeks to save, while the Doctor befriends them then leaves them to their fate. The “late summer” setting hangs over everything, suggesting all we see will soon be over.

The Norman invasion may have a paradoxical in British culture which makes it ideally suited to this strange balance. As the last major invasion of Britain it’s framed simultaneously as something that broke us and made us what we are. If the Monk's not necessarily in the wrong that should mean the Doctor's not necessarily in the right. But of course he is right - in the sense of correct. The invasion has to happen. Otherwise we can't be us.

And yet the effect this will have on the Doctor's newfound Saxon friends is not foregrounded in the way things were in 'The Aztecs.' In general the warring Saxons and Vikings make for something of a stock supporting cast. The Vikings are aristocratic in a gang-like way, not what would normally be considered bright. In their studded collars and topknots, they look like minor but inbred nobility crossed with the cast of Spinal Tap.

And of course by way of contrast the Saxons are good smock-wearing peasants – yes, we have yet another not-so-subtle analogy for Nazi invasion! And when they start to use the term “one” in conversation, you are once more reminded of the equally authentic Rada-educated cavemen of ’Tribe of Gum’. Though it should also be noted that, in a nice touch, its the Saxons themselves who rumble the Monk’s meddlings.

Fun, Fun, Fun, Till the Doctor Flies the Tardis Away

As further proof the better episodes were always the smaller, more incidental ones, as Shannon Sullivan reveals, this had much of it’s budget taken from it by ’The Chase’ – and of course is far superior. You don’t feel like you’re cycling through a rota of sets, as you did with ’Reign of Terror’, even though you are. (Some judiciously dropped stock location footage helps.)

Spooner excels in small touches. The pseudo-historical setting gives new companion Steven something to do, seizing upon each modern device as proof they can’t have travelled through time after all. We at first don’t see the watch the Monk loses, we see him go to check the time and find it missing. (Of course the watch is later found on the ground, leaving a pseudy soul like myself to wonder if this all came from William Paley’s Watchmaker Analogy.)

We see the Monk repeatedly take items from the sarcophagus, but even though we know by rote the smaller-on-the-outside rule we’re still surprised to discover that its his Tardis. No less a Who scholar than Andrew Rilstone has described this as his second-favourite Who cliffhanger of all. As El Sandifer has smartly surmised “when [cliffhangers] work… it's not because you fear for the characters, but because you're desperate to see what happens next.” And that's so true that what we see here isn't actually a cliffhanger at all, in the literal sense. It's not a moment of danger but of revelation.

But overall, perhaps it’s the tone of ’Time Meddler’ which makes it such a success. Hartnell-era 'Who' could tend to the stuffy and hammy, but here the Monk infects events with his irresistible sense of fun. The Doctor seems to rise to this challenge, finding an equal sense of adventure in thwarting him. While in ’The Romans’ the Doctor seemed to drop in on the Land of Farce for a passing visit, and 'The Chase' felt like an end-of-term revue it’s here the humour beds in. From now on the Whoniverse would be less a Grand Tour Of Great Historical Moments and more a games club for a strange band of eccentrics – each trying to lure you into a fresh round of Space Chess...

Its this tone which puts 'Time Meddler' a world away from the bleakness of the first two Dalek stories. But it’s chiefly a break from the previous historicals, a genre it unravels from within. In a neater universe it would have been the last of them. As things worked out there were no less than five more. (Though some were perhaps historical only in name, something we’ll come onto later.) However, it set off a fracture line that made the final break inevitable. After it, as far as this show went, the past had its days numbered.

It’s almost the start of 'Doctor Who' as we know it. After all the every-which-way experiments pursued over the second season, sometimes quite fruitlessly, things snap back with not just a return to form but an expert fine-tuning of the concept. Unlike other early stories, there’s little here to befuddle fans of (to coin a clunky phrase) late Old Who. Even New Who buffs might even be able to relate to it, as a cranky grandparent but still discernibly an in-law.

Next time! More on this “can’t change time” business...