Doctor Who Reviews: The Time Meddler

July 1965. Technological innovations yet to be discovered. It can only mean one thing. Tomorrow’s World.

Unleashed to an unsuspecting public, the much-loved gathering of weird and wonderful gizmos was to prove highly popular for the next few decades: well, until that creepy floating baby got too much. In the process, it produced my all-time favourite TV theme tune in the form of Johnny Dankworth’s brilliant, jazzy “Fried Egg” theme that was the signature tune throughout the 1970s.

Sorry, I’m supposed to be writing about The Time Meddler, which, by coincidence, went out in July 1965 too - and what do you know - revolved around futuristic devices cropping up in an age which would have reacted with head-scratching bafflement. What would the Saxons and Vikings have made of toasters, gramophones and wall charts? Presumably, Dragon’s Den wasn’t around in 1066, since any local yokel who’d stumbled upon one of these innovations could have made a killing.

The Time Meddler’s an important Hartnell story because it introduces two new concepts. The first of these is what’s known as the “Pseudo Historical” (a phrase that I always think should be accompanied by pretentious finger quote marks). Up until now, historical adventures had stuck strictly to the rules, and depicted past events in both serious and humorous fashion. Now, however, Dennis Spooner came up with the idea of mixing past and future to form the “Pseudo Historical”. This idea is quite successful and adds enough intrigue in the first couple of episodes when The Doctor and co come across various artefacts that are out of their time. The genre would be repeated in future stories with even greater success, but The Time Meddler adequately ushers in the “Pseudo Historical”.

The biggest sci-fi element of this outing is the second important innovation. We find out that The Doctor Is Not Alone because there’s a whole load of Monk-y business afoot. It’s the Meddling Monk, another disgruntled Time Lord rebel who’s programmed his TARDIS to land in 1066 Northumbria. Unlike The Doctor, the Monk has fallen on bad habits to gleefully meddle with time. I bet the Monk was the class clown, the joker who put stink bombs in Borusa’s office.

A lot of fans have pointed out that the Monk kind of acts as a dummy run for the fun-loving Second Doctor, a claim that reasonably rings true. It’s helped that he’s played by that Carry On legend Peter Butterworth (or as I’ve always called him, Bidet - see Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head). Butterworth brings much to the part of the Monk and nicely underplays the humour rather than go OTT. Butterworth also has several great scenes with William Hartnell, the latter playing straight man to the former’s naughty schoolboy. It’s a great double-act, and could have formed a successful spin-off comedy show. The Monk was, at least, popular enough to warrant a return to the mammoth Daleks’ Master Plan later in the year. And isn’t that a great cliffhanger for Episode 3 when a shocked Vicki and Steven discover that the Monk’s got a TARDIS? Nothing like that had been attempted before, so you can imagine thousands of young jaws dropping in 1965.

These two concepts tend to overshadow the other elements of The Time Meddler, which aren’t quite as strong in dramatic terms. The invading Vikings are nasty pieces of work, swilling mead and also getting involved in a rather unpleasant subplot in which it’s implied that cheery Saxon native Edith is raped. It’s probably a good thing that this isn’t dwelt on too heavily afterwards, since this is family tea-time viewing, not Cracker-style drama.

However, the Vikings don’t really get to do much else apart from running around and going “Grrrrr….” One of them looks like a cross between Big Daddy and Father Christmas. The leader looks like Eric Idle. They do get a great death scene though - if only we could see it. Apparently, they’re rammed through the chest with swords, but this scene was deemed too grisly and was subsequently cut from the available prints. The pained screams convey the scene perfectly adequately though on the audio soundtrack.

The Time Meddler establishes the new line-up well. William Hartnell combines his “lovable grandfather” persona with amusing irascibility, especially when dealing with newcomer Steven Taylor. Peter Purves’ proper début is excellent: Steven forms a great double act with Vicki, and actually brings out the best in the orphan girl. It’s a totally different dynamic to Ian and Barbara. Steven is the polar opposite of Ian - cynical, mistrustful and less prone to heroics. It’s a refreshing change, and Purves’ consistently strong performances mark Steven out as one of the best male companions.

Douglas Camfield’s direction is competent with some cool innovations such as the moving sky backdrops and eerie cross-fades while The Doctor’s walking about alone in the monastery. Unusually though, his action scenes lack sparkle, with lots of unconvincing fighting and rather static camerawork. Odd, given that this is normally where Camfield excels, but otherwise, the direction’s fine.

You can understand why The Time Meddler was chosen as the first story to be repeated on BBC 2 in 1992. It’s essentially a welcome reboot of the series, with a different TARDIS team to 1963, and a new adult style of storytelling waiting in the wings. Quite what the casual viewer (probably floppy haired, greasy Kurt Cobain wannabes) would have made of this at the time I don’t know. Not cool enough for them, I guess.

Maybe The Time Meddler’s more of a story for dedicated Doctor Who fans rather than casual viewers, but there’s still enough here to reward the faithful viewer. A good end to this season, and a story that’s about to herald a new direction for the show.

* My 1970s era Doctor Who ebooks are on sale at Amazon now. Sheer poetry, my dear boys and girls.