Feels Different This Time (The Time Meddler)

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No matter how much she points at the naked lady
with the Dalek, Steven's attention will not be swayed
from the burly Vikings.
It's July 3, 1965. The number one single is going to trade back and forth between Elvis and the Hollies before The Byrds storm in and take #1 with their cover of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." Although the Byrds are American, this still seems like the completion of a deal that started back in The Reign of Terror, when Bob Dylan introduced the Beatles to drugs. In turn, the Beatles, indirectly through The Byrds, introduce Bob Dylan's sort of music to rock, creating folk rock. The day after the last episode of The Time Meddler, Bob Dylan plays his infamous electric concert at the Newport Folk Festival.

The comparisons to The Reign of Terror are apt, as this is the second time Dennis Spooner has been tapped to write a season finale. I was none too fond of his first story, and his second did not particularly endear itself to me either. The flip side of that, however, is that he's been the script editor since The Rescue, which means he's presided over an era that has, on the whole, been of more consistent quality than David Whitaker's run of the first season. (Here we get the first script edited by Donald Tosh, who has no solo scripts on Doctor Who and is thus hard to judge in comparison with Whitaker and Spooner. But more on Tosh's reign when we get to the end of it.)

With very few exceptions, it's hard to draw clear lines of "eras" in Doctor Who. Doctor changes provide some sense of it, but, ignoring the 8th and 9th Doctors for obvious reasons, with only two exceptions these changes do not correspond with companion changes (The 3rd and 11th Doctors both started off with brand new companions), and only twice has the creative team shifted at the same time (The 4th and 11th, although the 4th was technically completed over two stories. To be fair, the 3rd and 7th Doctors had partial creative shifts as well, but only the 4th and 11th did full overhauls of the creative team). In many ways producers work better, but that's not a perfect measure either. Seasons might work, except in the early days of the program stories were routinely produced at the end of one season to carry over into the next, requiring a distinction between production seasons and transmission seasons.

I say all of this because, muddy as it is, there's a clear era shift going on here that is worth remarking on. The first season of Doctor Who was largely defined by its inconsistency. Significant chunks of it were not very good - The Keys of Marinus being the most uncontroversial example, though as I've said, I was no fan of The Reign of Terror (though I'm in the minority on that) or Marco Polo (I seem to be the only person to think that was a horrifically overlong mess of a story). Nobody involved had a clear sense of what Doctor Who was good at yet, which led both to stories that were brilliant but not the direction the show would go (The Aztecs) and stories that were just out in left field (Marco Polo, frankly, and The Edge of Destruction).

Somewhere in the transition to Season 2 - I'd put it at The Dalek Invasion of Earth, personally, but there's a case to be made for putting it one story earlier or later - the show found its footing, and we got a chain of six or seven stories of which, frankly, the worst that can be said is that The Romans is a bit fluffy. (I recognize that this involves readings of several stories that place them significantly above fan consensus - I am much more fond of The Rescue, The Web Planet, The Space Museum, and to a lesser extent The Chase than is normal. We'll talk about the changing nature of fan consensus and what it means for evaluating the program in a few entries when we get to what, for about 20 years, was universally recognized as the worst ever Doctor Who story, mostly by people who had never seen it.)

Crucial to this change was that the show embraced a youthful and mildly anarchic view of the world, and took a real joy in it. I say this era is better than Season 1 largely because it is at least possible to find a set of criteria that the show appears to be judging itself by. In Season 1, it was a real challenge to figure out why The Sensorites and The Reign of Terror were part of the same show. In Season 2, it was possible to make sense out of why The Web Planet led into The Crusade led into The Space Museum, and to use a fairly consistent yardstick of what the show is to evaluate all of them. Even if that yardstick seems at times to strain credulity, you can, for the first time, look at a chunk of Doctor Who and say "This is what they were doing here."

Starting with the last episode of The Chase, however, we enter a fourteen episode stretch of Doctor Who in which we get three companion departures, two companion arrivals, a change of script editors, and a change of producers. More broadly, the run from The Chase in the summer of 1965 to the beginning of The Ark in the spring of 1966 forms the closest thing to a distinct multi-story arc that Doctor Who will do for some time.

Now that we have a rough roadmap to take us through the next few stories, then, let's look at this one. Starting with the new TARDIS crew. The Doctor and Vicki's relationship is re-stressed here, and is work remarking on, as Vicki assures the Doctor, quite touchingly, that she wants to travel with him. In practice, she departs after only two more appearances, both of which are completely missing from the archives, so this is actually the last existent story in which we see Vicki. So let's take a moment and talk about her. I was in a Twitter discussion not long ago in which it was asserted that Steven, about whom we'll say more in a bit, was the first successful new companion, and I have to say, I think that's terribly unfair to Maureen O'Brien.

In point of fact, Vicki was an immaculately acted companion, and O'Brien did a remarkable job of making her repeated scenes of exposition and screaming work. The writing for her was often flat and phoned in, but anyone who thinks she is not a successful companion should fire up The Space Museum and watch her happily tell the computer she's planning revolution. Then consider the fact that the character who loves all that the Doctor represents and loves traveling through space and time with him was invented by Vicki. Susan loved her grandfather, and Ian and Barbara were reluctant passengers. Vicki is the first companion from the mould that will bring us Sarah Jane, Ace, Rose, Donna, and Amy.

We also get Steven here, and get it hammered home how much the Doctor has changed since An Unearthly Child. He accepts Steven quickly, and even seems spurred to be unusually charismatic and charming, explaining the workings of the TARDIS to him with what is possibly his best line to date, "That is the dematerializing control. And that, over yonder, is the horizontal hold. Up there is the scanner, those are the doors, that is a chair with a panda on it. Sheer poetry, dear boy!" Steven is, at this point, unsurprisingly undeveloped. Just as Vicki was very much Susan rejigged to be a mod fantasy of future youth, Steven is, at this point, a youthed up Ian. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that we finally get a detailed explanation of why the TARDIS looks like a Police Box, which, when it occurs, seems like an incidental detail, not like a significant piece of setup for the plot.

Ah, yes. The plot. For a while now, with few exceptions, Doctor Who has been alternating between historicals and science fiction. So following The Chase, the audience was primed for a historical. That, along with the fact that the first episode is called The Watcher and so we don't have the clue of the title that we have in the modern day, is absolutely crucial to understanding how this story works.

Thus far, when we see a historical with Dennis Spooner's name on it, we have a pretty good idea what to expect. Any careful and attentive viewer will remember The Romans and The Reign of Terror, and, when they see the 11th Century Britain setting, assume they know exactly what they're going to get, namely an episode of Doctor Who that will probably, when they get around to having titles for these sorts of things, be called The Saxons. One of the major story beats of the first episode is the Doctor working out the history of 1066 and what's going to happen, which, again, sets us up for a story we know - in which we find out the ways in which the Doctor was secretly responsible for some aspect of history.

Which is the key thing people overlook in this story. That it's not just that we don't expect to see another time traveller in 1066 AD. It's that we don't expect to have a plot involving history other than the Doctor either scrambling to get all of the TARDIS crew unkidnapped or the Doctor secretly being responsible for some major event in history. Most of what is clever about this story, then, is that Spooner plays cleverly with those expectations.

That said, I'm not sure he's quite as clever as the story's reputation would suggest. The first episode of this one is where most of the praise centers, largely for an admittedly brilliant sequence in which the Doctor is wandering around a monastery with sounds of chanting in the background. He turns a corner and finds a record player, which he lifts the arm of, revealing that the chants were just a record. In 1066. And yes, this is a fantastic sequence (as, actually, is the sequence immediately following, in which a trap door slams shut in front of the Doctor and the Monk emerges to give us our first proper insane villainous laugh of Doctor Who).

On the other hand, it might have been a bit more clever if, in the scene immediately before, Steven hadn't  found a modern wristwatch and thus if the discovery of modern technology in 1066 was still as much a surprise as the discovery that the music was fake. Or if, a few minutes earlier, we hadn't heard the record skip. This sort of repeated use of the same revelation has been a problem before. The Mary Celeste sequence of The Chase is wrecked in part by the fact that the story spends a while panning around the empty ship before revealing that it's the Mary Celeste - a perfectly reasonable way to do the reveal - and then immediately jumps to the TARDIS in which Ian tells Barbara the exact same thing. Thus we get the "reveal" that it's the Mary Celeste twice. Which is, no matter how you cut it, one too many. Likewise, the first episode's cliffhanger would be far more shocking if the discovery of the record player were actually a complete surprise as opposed to one we've already seen, basically, twice before in the episode.

And so watching The Time Meddler clearly requires a healthy level of "yes, well, let's give them a break because no one had ever done it before." Which is a skill that, to some extent, the whole Hartnell era requires, but this story requires it more than others. And, I mean, it is fair. Much of what is obviously done wrong about The Time Meddler is only obvious because we've seen 46 years of Doctor Who in which the basic ideas of The Time Meddler were repeatedly dusted off and done better. The Time Meddler has to get some sort of a break for doing it first.

And if Spooner failed to quite realize that the cleverest idea he had in this script was the frisson between the historical and the science fiction, he did at least partially realize it. Notably, look at the use of comedy in it. Spooner's historicals have, as I said, been established as "the funny ones." (And keep in mind, we've only seen six historicals before this - two Spooner, two Lucarotti, a Coburn, and a Whitaker. That the codes of the genre are well-established enough that we can distinguish Spooner-style historicals from Lucarotti-style ones is an astonishing testament to how memorable and distinctive even the relatively rubbish ones are.) And this one is no exception. But the primary comedic figure is the villain - the Monk himself.

This, as much as the subversion of history and science fiction, is where the frisson really comes into this story. We've seen the comedic bumbling figure through history, and the pleasure of it has always been that the Doctor gets the joke when he doesn't. Consider, for instance, Nero in the Romans, where the whole joke is that the Doctor knows where the history is going and so can outwit the comedic fool. Here, the comedy risks outwitting the Doctor. And there's an odd terror to that - one that the story's legacy tends to miss.

Because the story's legacy, of course, is its third episode cliffhanger where Steven and Vicki enter the Monk's secret hideout and discover that it's a TARDIS. This is the story where the Doctor's people become evident and visible. Except, no, it's bloody well not. Other than a repeat appearance by the Monk later this season, the Time Lords, as they are not actually called yet, are still invisible until the end of the sixth season. And once the Time Lords proper appear, the Monk never does again. The Monk was, in other words, designed independently of the Time Lords, and the Time Lords were never designed to accommodate the Monk. To read the Monk, as fans tend to, as a sort of proto-Master is to spectacularly miss the point of this story. The Master comes from taking a Time Lord like the Doctor and making him into a villain. The Monk comes from taking a comedy historical villain from the Spooner tradition - a tradition that no longer even existed in 1971 - and making him like the Doctor.

In fact, one thing that's interesting about the Monk is how poorly he fits with later conceptions of Time Lords. The Doctor suggests, for instance, that the Monk is "about fifty years later," which jars with later concepts when the Time Lords are basically set so that they have a clear "present" at all times, and one that, curiously, seems to coincide with the present of Earth. (That latter fact is in play here - the Monk and the Doctor clearly consider 1965 to be the present. Construct your own fanwank theories about why there's a present day that applies to both Gallifrey and Earth. For my part, I vote for it being related to why the Time Lords and the Humans appear identical to an external observer. But more on this... oh, hm. How about around the UNIT era?)

Which is why the usual fan complaint that the story is dull whenever the Vikings are around misses the point. This may be the first pseudo-historical, but comparing it to something like The Time Warrior or The Unquiet Dead misses the point. This story is "The Meddling Monk Invades The Saxons," not "The Doctor versus the Monk."

Really, this is another example of narrative collapse. A more targeted one than The Chase, because for some reason The Daleks are the ones that really lend themselves to that style of plot, but a narrative collapse story all the same. The story hinges on the fact that a character like the Monk is aberrant to Doctor Who - he doesn't belong.

But crucially, he's not a villain. Honestly, if he were a villain, he'd probably fit better into the tradition that includes the Daleks, Yartek, Leader of the Alien Voord, Lobos, the Animus, etc. But no. What the Monk is is specifically an alternative sort of character to the Doctor. Where the Doctor delights in turning out to be the reason history happened, the Monk likes chaotically rewriting history. And, notably, he's put on the same level as the Doctor. We're told explicitly that Stonehenge only happened because of the Monk, for instance, providing the delightful possibility that our own human history is fundamentally wrong. You can, it seems, rewrite history.

So we are forced to choose between the chaotic, funny Monk's approach to creating our history or the Doctor's. And for the first time, we get something resembling a real challenge to the Doctor's role as anti-establishment figure. This is a theme we are going to see play out over the next few stories - a sense that there might be something darker to the youth rebellion that Season 2 spent so much time advocating for.

Even still, though, one gets the sense that the Doctor is a sort of rebel. The Doctor quickly identifies the Monk as a particular and known type of time traveller. The Monk, on the other hand, seems far more cautious about the Doctor, and not to know what to make of him. The Doctor is still, in other words, clearly a rebel. It's just much less clear, now, exactly what sort of rebel he is.

Which makes this story a nice endpoint of the arc that began with The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Having done its narrative collapse, the show is working towards a new status quo - one that is not entirely clear yet. But one that seems distinctly purposeful. In a fundamental sense, it is only because the Daleks made a concentrated effort to dismantle Doctor Who that it can be rebuilt in this strange new sense, where we can no longer expect with confidence that we know what kind of adventure we are having.

And so the second season of Doctor Who comes to a close, seeming to have, for the first time, told a real set of stories where the show knew what it was. The third season is coming, with, at least for its first half, an equally sure sense of what it is. But between now and then, there's something very big that is going to happen to Doctor Who. Something with as big an impact as anything we've seen before.

Do you own The Time Meddler on DVD yet? If not, consider buying it from Amazon via this link and making me some money.

Comments

Seeing_I 6 years, 4 months ago

Ah, but did the Monk know about the Pandorica? I can see him allowing the Silence (or whomever) to install it underneath, rubbing his hands in glee and muttering "Oh, this won't half annoy that nosy Doctor!"

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Seeing_I 6 years, 4 months ago

As far as the Monk being "fifty years later," I just always took that to mean that the Monk was probably younger than the Doctor and fled the home planet 50 years after he did. They are still more-or-less contemporaries. Doesn't really conflict with the concept of "Gallifreyan Mean Time" that I can see. Though their both treating 1965 as "the present" is, indeed, quite odd. But who knows? Perhaps it IS?

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Wm Keith 6 years, 2 months ago

Having watched "The Watcher" for the first time last night, I don't see it as having a "repeated use of the same revelation". Not in quite the same clunky way as "Flight through Eternity".

The cliffhanger isn't about discovering that there's another time traveller in 1066. Peter Butterworth has been prancing around the TARDIS and clearly knows what it is. From his actions, the wristwatch obviously belongs to him.

The cliffhanger is about making the viewer feel wise and then foolish, while the pattern of the episode is suspicion-revelation-confirmation.

1. The musical chant runs down. "That's surely a gramophone!" says the viewer.
2. Steven finds the wristwatch. "Are we in 1000 or 2000?"
3. The Doctor finds the gramophone. "I'm right, it was a gramophone."

- but then the real cliffhanger comes and both the viewer and the Doctor find that they've walked into a trap. They're not so smart as they thought.

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neroden@gmail 4 years ago

" This sort of repeated use of the same revelation has been a problem before."
Part of it is semiotic redundancy. In theater, and television prior to the age of recording, you *must* show each important plot point more than once, because people may have to get up to use the bathroom, etc. I don't complain about this when it's at reasonable levels, because sometimes *I* have to do the same thing.

In the age of "pause buttons" it seems less necessary, but it's important to understand the function of the redundancy. A plot point which is mentioned only once is bad writing in theater.

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