Monday, August 16, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Time Meddler"

"The Time Meddler" was something of a watershed story for Doctor Who and it came at a time when there were many changes and upheavals.

Earlier in the season Carole Ann Ford had departed the show. Now, at the end, William Russell and Jacqueline Hill had opted not to renew their contracts and their last story was "The Chase". The production team decided not to replace Hill so Maureen O'Brien became the sole female character on the show and relative newcomer Peter Purves was hired to replace Russell in the male action lead position. Purves' character of Steven Taylor had been introduced at the end of "The Chase" but "The Time Meddler" marked his first full story. Now only William Hartnell was left of the original cast, it was, more or less, a changing of the guard.

In addition to the cast leaving, Verity Lambert, who had produced the show since it's beginning, had decided to move on as well. "The Time Meddler" would be the last story she produced.

The story was not only about farewells, however, it also marked several firsts. Up to this point Doctor Who had largely been broken into two types of stories -- science fiction and historicals. "The Time Meddler", however, would mark the first of a new genre for the show -- a blending of both the sci-fi and the historical into something which was termed "pseudohistorical". These stories would have most of the trappings of a traditional historical but throw in an element or two of sci-fi. In time this style would prove more popular than the traditional historical and would supplant the historical.

The other first "The Time Meddler" can boast is that it was the first story to introduce another of the Doctor's people. The name "Time Lord" would not be added until much later, but this is the first instance of the audience seeing another time traveler.

And so the second season ended with a new cast member, a new style of story, and new possibilities....

The Plot: After the whirlwind of their last adventure, the Doctor and Vicki take stock of their new situation. Ian and Barbara have returned home safely but they will be missed. Before they can be missed too much, however, the Doctor and Vicki discover a stowaway -- Steven Taylor, the fighter pilot they found stranded on the planet Mechanus! Steven is skeptical of the claims that the TARDIS can travel in time and space but when they land in England in 1066 he slowly becomes convinced.

Of course the TARDIS crew cannot stay out of trouble -- even here in the past -- There is a Viking scouting party in the woods, preparing for Harold Hardrada's invasion,and there is a mysterious monk who has the ability to alter the course of history... an ability he intends to use! 1066 was a turning point in England's history but it may all turn about wrong unless the Doctor and his young friends can stop the meddling monk!

My Take: I love this story, I really do. In addition to being the first pseudohistorical it is also one of those rare things in the early days of the show -- a comedy episode. Although I suppose it's more fair to call it an action-comedy; either way Doctor Who had only recently being playing around with doing stories which were more comedic in nature and this one is one of the best as Hartnell is at the top of his game here. Of course, it helps that he is given a brilliant foil -- comedy actor Peter Butterworth. Not well known here in the United States in the modern era, Butterworth was actually quite well known back in the day and in his native England. Audiences most certainly would have recognized him. Even without the recognition factor, Butterworth has timing, excellent physical comedy touches, and the ability to play off of Hartnell wonderfully in the scenes they have together.

Butterworth's meddling monk also makes for an interesting departure for a villain in the series. The monk isn't really that bad of a bad guy. He may threaten the path of history but he does it in order to make what he sees as 'improvements'... as well as to get money for himself. He's greedy and opportunistic but he isn't out to enslave the world or destroy a planet or an entire population unlike many the Doctor has crossed swords with.

There is a nice little mystery here as well. Viewers see early on that there is something not normal about the monk. He has a gramophone, a toaster, an electric skillet, and knowledge of the future. It is obvious that he is someone who is out of step with this time period but the writers spin out the mystery, keeping the truth a secret until the final episode when Vicki says the five words which would change the show's history: "The monk has a TARDIS!"

The third episode in this story is titled 'A Battle of Wits' and that's another thing you get here that you don't always get in Doctor Who -- a sense that this is a true battle of wits. Unlike with many other villains, the monk is largely alone here. There is no army backing him, no henchmen, lackeys, or toadies -- there is only the monk and the Doctor going mano-a-mano and that makes the story refreshing. The Doctor is pitting his own knowledge and low cunning against the monk's -- each one trying to get the upper hand, even if that means pulling dirty tricks. It really makes the viewer notice just how seldom the Doctor gets a true foil.

The real villainy here is provided by the Viking scouts. Their callous attitude towards taking what they need from the first village they find is chilling enough but the indications that they rape the Saxon villager, Edith, is simply chilling. These are cruel and violent men so their rather violent fate at the hands of the Saxon villagers is fitting. These darker turns, however, feel somewhat strange when compared to the lighter moments with the monk it has to be admitted.

As for the performances, well, I've already talked about Butterworth's fun turn as the monk. Hartnell is very obviously having a ball here and, despite blowing a couple of lines, he delivers some of the First Doctor's most memorably whimsical lines in this story. Such as holding up a Viking helmet to a skeptical Steven and pronouncing: "What do you think this is? A space helmet for a cow?" Or in managing to capture the monk warning him "And no more monkery!" There is also a well scripted sequence in which the Doctor manages to figure out the date by asking Edith a few simple, subtle questions and Hartnell plays the scene perfectly.

Maureen O'Brien takes on the new female lead position with aplomb. She convincingly portrays Vicki as smart, practical, logical, and quite the leader. There are also some nice scenes which help advance Vicki's character as she begins to assert that she has found a home in the TARDIS. O'Brien gives a pitch perfect reading of a line in which Vicki, believing the TARDIS is lost, tells Steven that he doesn't know what the TARDIS meant to her. O'Brien allows the simple line of dialogue to speak volumes about how Vicki feels.

On the opposite side of the scale is Peter Purves' Steven. I have to admit that, when I saw my first stories with Steven I chalked the character up as "Nearly Useless Pretty Boy". You know, one of those good-looking-but-usually-stupid male characters who sometimes show up in TV shows -- usually to make the main male lead look good. The only thing which saves the character from being completely useless is the fact that sometimes they actually do something right and/or are helpful. So yeah, that was my initial impression of Steven. Time, however, has caused me to change my mind and to recognize that Purves did something very interesting with the character of Steven. As many of the early episodes he was in had been written with Ian and Barbara as characters Purves found that his lines of dialogue were often a hastily re-written mish-mash of both characters. What this resulted in was Steven sometimes displaying what was, for the time period, female characteristics -- a heavy dose of compassion and intuition. While these could have emasculated the character, instead they actually lead to a more surprising and nuanced one. When the show began and for several years afterwards there was always one character who represented what I came to think of as "The Heart of the TARDIS" -- the character who embodied the empathy, sympathy, and more tender emotions of the show. Formerly this character had been Barbara; with Hill's departure though, the "Heart of the TARDIS designation did not fall to Vicki as may have been expected but instead fell to Steven. Peter Purves, although he has gone on record as being irritated at the time for getting stuck with Barbara's dialogue, actually decided to play it straight and with honesty instead of irony or sarcasm and it makes the character work and work well!

I will say this, though, Steven's long run of skepticism gets really annoying after the first episode. I understand the writers wanting to play things out but instead it makes the character seem a bit of a dim bulb. It also just feels a bit weird having a new character introduced at the end of a season. This is something that American TV just tends not to do -- if a new character is going to be introduced then it is usually done at the start of the season, not the end as was done here.

The guest cast aside from Butterworth are all solid although their characters are a bit more two-dimensional. They fill plot points in the story rather than being fully realized characters but at the very least they are likable plot points.

In the end viewers were treated to comedy, action, adventure, mystery, drama, and surprises all wrapped up with some cracking good dialogue. There are new characters to know and love, a new villain (who would show up again in "The Daleks Master Plan"), and a new style of story to add to Doctor Who's palette. In short, there's a little something here for everyone all done on some pretty darn good looking sets and with some pretty darn good costumes as well. Overall, this was a top notch story and a fitting close out to the season.

I don't always make mention of the DVD extras but in an odd bit of coincidence "The Time Meddler" was the last story Verity Lambert produced before moving on with her long and celebrated career and the cast and crew commentary track she recorded along with Peter Purves, story editor Donald Tosh and designer Barry Newberry for this DVD would be the last bit of work she did for Doctor Who before she passed away unexpectedly. There are some short but sweet tributes to this trailblazing woman on the DVD as well.

"The Time Meddler" is well worth 'meddling' with -- even for those who may not be fond of William Hartnell's version of the Doctor. There is a healthy dose of humor and a sense of childlike glee which pervades the entire story.

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