1066 and all that!
Having started a vague Dalek marathon the other week and then watched Destiny and Death in the past fortnight, I was all set to start on Planet this week. Then the DVD of The Time Meddler arrived in the post.
The Time Meddler - even the name's great, a proper science fictiony sounding title. It was also the very last Target paperbacks I bought for about ten years. Admittedly, I was 18 by then and I no longer went into a frenzy of excitement at adding a Hartnell story to my book collection (had I been 12 when it came out then it would have been a far different matter, possibly involving joyous hand-clapping), but it does remain a bit of personal landmark.
Interestingly, the novelisation adds a prologue in which Steven makes his way through the jungles of Mechanus and into the TARDIS, which otherwise unseen incident allows me to segue neatly into...
...Vicki and the Doctor in the TARDIS, as yet unaware of their stowaway, discussing whether they will ever return to see Ian and Barbara ('Perhaps', says the Doctor).
Writer Dennis Spooner does this type of character-based vignette very well and this brief scene is no exception. Both the Doctor expressing his surprise and disappointment that the two Earthlings have left the TARDIS to go home and the plaintive fishing for compliments inherent in his asking Vicki whether she is staying merely 'for the sake of an old man' flesh out his character unobtrusively while also suggesting that at this point (the end of season 2), the powers that be were willing to leave the door open for a return of the popular duo of Hill and Russell if they were needed.
Also evident from this first scene is the fact that Maureen O'Brien is a much better actress than either Carole Ann Ford before her or Jackie Lane after. Peter Purves is excellent as Steven Taylor, space pilot, as well and almost immediately hits it off with O'Brien. Blow though it must have been to lose William Russell and Jacqueline Hill, for a short period of time at least their two replacements were more than adequate.
Once Steven officially arrives, the story starts moving along apace and it's soon made plain that this is a historical with a twist - the first pseudo-historical, to use fandom's clunky phrase. It's hard at this remove to get a real feel for the unexpectedness of the discovery of the Monk's wrist-watch in 11th century Northumbria. Even if you're one of the twelve genre tv fans who haven't seen Star Trek's 'City of the Edge of Forever', there's barely a series which hasn't done a variation of the theme (the most recent being the season one finale of Primeval). But in 1965 it was all new and the revelation that the monk on the hill was not all he seemed must have been wholly unexpected. The later reveal at the end of episode 3 that 'The Monk's got a TARDIS!' would have topped even that and must be in the running for best cliffhanger in the history of the show.
But even allowing for the fact that we can't really comprehend the novelty of the concepts on display to the contemporary viewer, we can at least admire the tidiness of the plotting and the logical nature of the puzzle at its core. It's not wilfully experimental in the manner of The Web Planet or played largely for laughs like Spooner's other scripts, for The Gunfighters or The Romans. It does share an interest in character building, but the humour is altogether more subtle and the plot more intelligent and less reliant on famous names from history.
For once in Who, in fact, the plot actually makes reasonable sense, so long as you accept that the Monk wants to help Britain achieve fourteenth century airplanes for some reason. He claims altruism but a simple desire to meddle seems more likely. Either way, everything follows on logically from that point with the Monk and his comedy checklist setting up an atomic cannon, attempting to lure the Vikings to their deaths and then preparing the ground for a victory for King Harold at Hastings. It's not overly complicated but the history is accurate so far as it goes, and the movement of the Doctor on the one hand and Steven and Vicki on the other, as they make their way from the monastery to the Saxon settlement and back again, is sufficiently involved to hold the interest without difficulty. In passing, Peter Butterworth as the Monk is excellent and makes the most of even those scenes in which he has no lines. It's no surprise they had him back in the following year, although it's more surprising that he never appeared again after that.
No review of The Time Meddler would be complete, naturally, without a lengthy section on time lords, TARDISes and the plethora of brand new information in the story about the Doctor's until then wholly mysterious past. So let's quickly skim through what we learn here.
1. Although Vicki exclaims that the Monk has 'a TARDIS', he never refers to it as such, but calls it his 'time machine'. The Doctor does admit that they come from the same place, however.
2. The Monk's time machine looks exactly the same as the Doctor's except that the central console is on a kind of dais. The Monk's TARDIS is a Mark 4 apparently* and, although the Doctor never answers Vicki's question, is seemingly more modern than the Doctor's TARDIS (which we later find out is a Type 40).
3. The Doctor is from 50 years earlier than the Monk - the Discontinuity Guide tries to claim that this merely means that the Doctor left Gallifrey 50 years before the Monk, but a far more reasonable reading of the line is that the Doctor is 50 years older than the Monk.
Not a lot really, but enough to shoot down Gary Russell's utterly dreadful Deca (from Divided Loyalties) which claims the Doctor and the Monk were contemporaries, and to establish that the Doctor was not the only wanderer in the fourth dimension in the Whoniverse.
One incredibly minor and nitpicky complaint to end with. The bedding at the end of episode 2 is different to that seen in the recap section at the start of episode 3. Not a problem when watched weekly, it's a little bit jarring when the scenes are viewed straight after one another.
Oh, and I'd pay good money to own the minituarised version of the Monk's TARDIS which he peers into Michael Bentine style after the Doctor removes a vital circuit.
* Which makes the Monk's ship a Mark 4 Travel Machine, and hence one better than a Dalek :)