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...

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