Prove To Me That I am Not Mistaken (The Time Monster)

(9 comments)

Honestly, I was browsing Google Image results for
"Time Monster," and this was the best thing I found. And
hey, who wouldn't rather look at Cookie Monster than
Kronos? I mean, seriously.
It's May 20, 1972. T. Rex is back on top with "Metal Guru," which, continuing our rule that glam songs should be seen as well as heard, is linked. It holds number one for four weeks before finally yielding to Don McLean's "Vincent," Elton John, Johnny Cash, David Cassidy, The Rolling Stones, and Wings also chart. But perhaps the most remarkable moment, chart-wise, is the final week of this story, where T. Rex, Slade, The Move, Sweet, and Gary Glitter are all in the top ten. This period, with David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars entering the charts (with its lead single, "Starman," entering the singles chart at 49 the same week that five glam acts are in the top ten). In fact, if you want an experience that is aesthetically indistinguishable from The Time Monster, has far better acting, and is completable in less than 1/6 the time, I recommend just marathoning all five of those videos linked above.

While in the news, Nixon becomes the first US President since World War II to visit Russia in a meeting in which the Apollo/Soyuz mission is agreed upon. While he's out, the first Watergate break-ins happen, and the first Ford Pinto explosion happens, beginning one of the most horrifying episodes in the history of corporate capitalism as it eventually becomes clear that Ford knew full well that the car was dangerous, but determined that the cost of settling lawsuits from exploded drivers and their families was lower than the cost of performing a recall. Then, in the tail end of the story, comes the big Watergate break-in, as Nixon campaign operatives are arrested following a botched attempt to bug the offices of the DNC. Nixon quickly moves to squash the FBI investigation of the break-in, a move that will bring down his Presidency when it's uncovered.  In Europe, Andreas Baader of the Red Army Faction is arrested (and I was just talking about them with a friend before I sat down to write this), with Ulrike Meinhoff following two weeks later. British European Airways Flight 548 crashes into Staines shortly after takeoff in the worst airplane crash in british history until Lockerbie.

While on television, we have something we haven't seen in a while. I mean, we've had bad stories before, but the last few times we've had an unmitigated disaster of a story it's been because the entire thing was misconceived - it was a story that should never have been attempted done badly. That's harder to say of The Time Monster, where the basic ideas seem remarkably solid but the actual execution is an absurd train wreck. The last time we've really seen something like this, where a solid idea on paper just goes terribly wrong, is probably actually The Chase.

I'd list the problems in The Time Monster, but the easiest thing to do is frankly just pull up the end credits, which list them effectively. The acting is some of the worst in Doctor Who's history. The guest stars are nearly universally disasters, and even the regulars at times seemingly decide to phone it in with party piece-laden showboating. Add in absurd padding and the questionable decision to make Kronos obviously be a man in a sheet wearing a glorified lampshade on his head and you have a story that is genuinely hard to enjoy.

But again, the problems here are firmly with the execution. I referred to the Sloman/Letts scripts as among the great Curate's eggs of Doctor Who, and it's thoroughly true. Parts of this abomination are excellent. The basic idea of this story seems rock solid, with an interesting and successful escalation from what looks like a routine scheme of the Master meddling with a scientific project to a universe-threatening danger and a looping back to ancient Greece, all with lots of cool set pieces and ideas, plus a conclusion in which the Doctor's triumph is as much a moral one as a practical one. So since this is The Chase of the Pertwee era, let's dust off the approach of The Chase article and stitch together the sympathetic reading of this story where it's a brilliant tour de force decades ahead of its time, and ignore the fact that nobody involved in this preposterous exercise demonstrates anything remotely resembling the skill needed to be intending that reading. Those wanting a thorough denunciation of this story's myriad of excruciating flaws can easily find one. Consider this my penance for slagging off Inferno. I will try to say only (OK, mostly) good things about The Time Monster.

There's a broader issue at play here, which is the quartet of Sloman/Letts scripts in general. Given their firm position as season finales, the heavy involvement of the producer, and the fact that they get both the regeneration scene and what is, empirically speaking, the most memorable image of the Pertwee years with The Green Death's giant maggots, they have to be taken seriously. But the fact of the matter is, all four of their stories are Curate's eggs (save perhaps The Green Death). All the same, they also stand out for having a completely different tone and ethos from almost everything else in the Pertwee era, if not from almost everything else in Doctor Who period. It's not that they're the only overtly Buddhist pieces in Doctor Who - that trend starts back in The Abominable Snowmen, and continues through to at least 1983. Rather, it's the degree to which the Doctor is an overtly Buddhist hero in these scripts. And more broadly, it's the degree to which it's clear that Letts and Sloman have thought very hard about the philosophical and spiritual foundations of the show. (Indeed, they've clearly thought harder about that than they have about the actual storytelling foundations of the show) There's a reason it took us an entire entry to sort out what the heck was going on with The Daemons, and it wasn't that it was incoherent - it's that there was actually a lot going on there.

In this regard, any discussion of The Time Monster has to begin in episode six, where the Doctor reassures Jo by relating a story from his childhood. The story, about looking at a daisy on the "blackest day" of his life and seeing that "it was simply glowing with life, like a perfectly cut jewel, and the colours! Well, the colours were deeper and richer than you could possibly imagine. Yes, it was the daisiest daisy I'd ever seen." The basic form of this, of course, is the Zen parable of the Flower Sermon, in which the Buddha holds up a flower for his disciple Mahakasyapa and in doing so selects him as his successor. There's a strange ambiguity to the story, however. The Doctor tells it in the first person, as something that happened to him, but at one point admits that he laughed the first time he heard the story, as if he's simply recounting someone else's anecdote.

But regardless of the story's literal accuracy (and it is hard to square away with most other revelations about the Doctor's past: this apparently major figure in his life, who is presumably K'anpo from Planet of the Spiders, is never mentioned again after that story), this is a major theme through the story, with an earlier sequence allowing Jo to hear the Doctor's thoughts, including faint incoherent echoes of his subconscious thoughts, which he admits he's not proud of. This is an overt effort to recast the Doctor as an actively flawed hero, and it's like nothing we've seen before. (And Pertwee, as he usually does when the Doctor gets wrongfooted somehow, shines with it.)

But where this story gets strange (OK, actually where this story gets strange is as soon as Stuart and Ruth start bickering, but where it gets strange in a good way as opposed to a "how did anyone involved in this get work again" sort of way [And let me also note that I am largely skipping the wealth of feminist issues that come up in this story, since Tat Wood covers them very well in About Time and since saving feminism and the Pertwee era for later gives me a remote chance of writing something about The Monster of Peladon other than a vivid description of my gouging my own eyes out {Though let me also note that there's going to be an impassioned defense of Jo Grant one of these entries as well <I love nested parentheses>}]) is when this Buddhism is juxtaposed with overtly Platonic philosophy.

Right, the ancient Greece thing. Tat Wood explains the degree to which Greece was going through a trendy patch in Britain at this point due to a large number of expats unfond of the military coup that took place in Greece. But regardless of why this story goes Greece-happy, it does, and it does in a peculiar way. King Dalios, the most enlightened figure in Atlantis (and played by the same actor who will play K'anpo in Planet of the Spiders, despite the fact that the actor, George Cormack, is unwatchable in several scenes here, creating an interesting thematic link between the two characters) refers to the Doctor as a "true philosopher," viewing this seemingly as the reason why the Doctor has some chance of stopping the Master. There are of course any number of Greek philosophers, but in practical terms most references to "philosophers" coming from enlightened Greek kings are likely to be either Plato or Aristotle.

In this case, the strong sense is Plato. I base this mostly on the Crystal of Kronos, which is said to exist in a pure and absolute form outside of time, with the shards existing in the present day and Atlantis both being fundamentally connected parts of the true extra-temporal object. By far the easiest way to translate this into Greek philosophical terms - as it seems we have to given the setting and King Dalios's admonitions - are that the crystal is a Platonic form that is manifesting imperfect echoes into reality, but that these echoes are still genuinely and directly linked to the supposed whole.

The place this has the most obvious implications are for the TARDIS, or, in this story, TARDISes. This story is not the first time we've played extended games with the workings of the TARDIS (that would be The Edge of Destruction, with a side of The Mind Robber). But it is the first time in which we see the interactions of two TARDISes in this manner. And the strong implication from how they work, particularly when the Doctor's TARDIS and the Master's become nested inside one another, is that they fundamentally resemble the Crystal of Kronos. (Indeed, the Doctor equates the two directly when talking to Dalios) Specifically, the interiors of both ships appear to exist outside of time, but are said to have their appearances in the world, thus making the outer Police Box form of the TARDIS a version of the smaller Crystal of Kronos - a shard of the ideal form.

But it's striking how far this is from anything we've seen before. The TARDIS, in this model, is an unbreachable, essential thing, existing outside of reality. It is, in other words, truly immutable and eternal. But this is the antithesis of the chaotic alchemical mercury that was the dominant metaphor for how the TARDIS worked. Instead of being the formless, protean, raw energy of creation that can be morphed into anything, the TARDIS is the exact opposite - absolute, fixed Newtonian certainty.

But, of course, the story has another major concept - interstitial time. Kronos, we are told, exists within this concept, which Sergeant Benton of all people (both he and Jo get a surprisingly verbose amount of exposition in this story) ends up explaining as the space between two instants. The implications of this are significant - in particular when, in the sixth episode, we are told that Kronos, apparently because she is within interstitial time, is "beyond good and evil" and capable of embodying any form. So we have three simultaneous philosophical concepts existing - Buddhist enlightenment, Platonic form, and the existence of this gap outside of time in which almost Lovecraftian beings seem to reside.

But wait, what exactly is the difference between the eternal Platonic forms and something like Kronos? If, in fact, there is one - and it's wholly unclear whether there's a difference. Kronos and the TARDISes both exist outside of time. So the implication is that these eternal, fixed objects are wholly beyond comprehension and understanding, containing within them concepts that are contradictory and unintelligible.

Where this really becomes interesting, though, is in the fact that the TARDISes are also demonstrably linked to their pilots, with this story playing off the old sentient TARDIS/telepathic circuits ideas from The Edge of Destruction. Which suggests strongly that the Doctor and the Master themselves possess at least some measure of eternal nature.

The story actually supports this in another way - via the fact that King Dalios and Queen Galleia each side with one of the Doctor and the Master. Galleia notably declares that the Master "has the bearing of the Gods." What, exactly, does this mean? Here it is perhaps useful to acknowledge the fact that Robert Sloman had in mind at this point a climactic battle between the Doctor and the Master in which it is revealed that they are different parts of one psyche, with the Master being the Id and the Doctor the Ego (notably not the Superego).

What if this story, then, is picking up on this? Plato, after all, declares that the appropriate rulers of society are Philosopher Kings. And in this story, the Doctor is declared a philosopher while the Master is viewed by Queen Galleia as the ideal king. In other words, they are here split parts of the same concept. The Master is a pure will to power without understanding, whereas the Doctor (too scared here to stop the Master, leaving it for Jo to take the crucial step of time ramming his TARDIS) has understanding without the will to use it decisively.

All of this also raises the question of what, exactly, the Master is doing here. And more broadly, what exactly the Time Lords expect the Doctor to be doing about him. They did, after all, just casually point out to the Doctor that the Master was around on Earth. Whereas when the Doctor's location was known they arrested him, here, despite knowing exactly where the Master was, they just tipped the Doctor off to him. The most obvious explanation in terms of Sloman at this point is probably that the Master, being a part of the Doctor as opposed to an individual in his own right, isn't the Time Lords' to deal with. This will not, of course, remain a satisfying explanation through the end of the Pertwee era, since Sloman's plans never came to fruition - a result that, given the uneven quality of his scripts, would have to be considered a win were it not for the fact that what derailed them was not an outbreak of good sense but rather the tragic death of Roger Delgado.

But more broadly, the bulk of season nine has been stuck in an odd limbo between the earthbound format of seasons seven and eight and the restoration of the traditional format that is going to come in seasons ten and eleven. The easiest way to conceptualize this, as I've argued throughout the season, is that these stories form the evolving case for ending the Doctor's exile. The easiest way to understand the Master (who has, after all, appeared in seven of the fourteen stories of the Pertwee era to date, forming a fundamental part of his exile) is as one of the tests the Doctor must pass in order to be deemed worthy of traveling again.

In which case the most significant moment of this story comes when the two TARDISes are suspended in the void between Kronos's world and reality, and the Doctor, against all reason, insists that Kronos set the Master free instead of tormenting him for all eternity. In effect, then, the Doctor - after spending all story trying to reason with the Master and get him to stop trying to destroy the universe - still opts to save the Master from hell for the simple reason that he wouldn't condemn anyone to it. This is actually a landmark moment in Doctor Who - the first moment where the Doctor has insisted on a greater level of mercy than makes sense. (The next best example, The War Games, is rather spoiled by the Doctor trying to escape the consequences of his actions)

This is also where the Buddhism seems to come back to the story. The Doctor, being more enlightened, is able to overcome the desire for revenge in favor of a greater mercy, and is able to forgive his greatest foe. He is, in other words, capable of acknowledging his subconscious darkness without, as the Master does, giving into them. The Master, after all, is aware of his failings, but declares that he is honest about it. The Doctor is also aware of his failings, but is able to use his awareness to overcome them, which is the essential reason why he is a hero and the Master is a villain.

Looking at this, it is increasingly difficult to argue for the Doctor's exile. He has, this season, showed the ability to forgive, to overlook his own prejudices, and to recognize when he needs to step aside. This is exactly what was demanded at the end of The War Games - that he find a deeper level on which to engage situations than "ooh, let's fight some monsters." But before the Doctor's exile can be lifted and he can reclaim his past, perhaps he needs first to actually recognize and acknowledge that past...

Comments

Wm Keith 5 years, 8 months ago

I hadn't realised that Dennis Potter's wonderfully poignant final interview http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2007/sep/12/greatinterviews
referenced "The Time Monster"'s "daisiest daisy" in a memorable passage about how his imminent death removes all relevance from past and future.

"The only thing you know for sure is the present tense, and that nowness becomes so vivid that, almost in a perverse sort of way, I'm almost serene. You know, I can celebrate life.

Below my window in Ross, when I'm working in Ross, for example, there at this season, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west early. It's a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it's white, and looking at it, instead of saying "Oh that's nice blossom" ... last week looking at it through the window when I'm writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn't seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There's no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance ... not that I'm interested in reassuring people - bugger that. The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it."

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Jesse Smith 5 years, 8 months ago

There is a lot I enjoy in "The Time Monster", though I agree the execution is... troubled. I particularly like the sequences in the TARDIS - very similar to the scenes in Logopolis some 8 years later. There's also a level to the stakes in this story that was rarely matched in the classic series - the permanent destabilization of time itself.

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Don Zachary 5 years, 8 months ago

…But *this* restores my faith in you. It’s a *lot* better. I can’t stand The Time Monster, and you’ve come up with interesting sides to it, almost like (and even about) that bloody flower story, as you do in many of your best. Even if you criticise the acting here more than for The Mutants, when to me the cast are as bad in both.

“as if he's simply recounting someone else's anecdote.” I love the idea that all of Pertwee’s namedropping, even about his own life, is all just nicked from other people. Suddenly his Doctor makes more sense if he’s Gilderoy Lockhart, who loves himself almost as much as Three.

Though: (this apparently major figure in his life, who is presumably K'anpo from Planet of the Spiders, is never mentioned again after that story. Except in State of Decay)

And the bits on the TARDISES / Crystal as Platonic forms and the division of the Doctor / Master as Philosopher / King are brilliant. They make me warm to The Time Monster, so I’d better not watch it and cure that. You even end on a great “Next Time…” trailer. Even Cookie Monster is brilliant.

Don

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Gavin 5 years, 8 months ago

I recently saw The Time Monster for the first time, and it was one of those cases where my expectations had been lowered so far by its reputation that I ended up quite enjoying it.

Re: Plato. That the story is about Atlantis is a rather obvious connection. As is the divided person stuff - It would be fairly easy to rewrite the above analysis in terms of (aspects of) the Platonic tripartite model of the soul.

Also, that the Atlanteans are Greek philosophers with Greek names has to be a conscious divergence from historical plausibility*, given how carefully the set design and costumes are based on actual Minoan architecture and art. It's hard to believe that Letts and Sloman didn't know that Linear A was not Greek, and that the Minoans were around over a millennium before the classical Athens that the Doctor goes out of his way to associate them with.

*Not reality, since I don't believe that Plato's Atlantis really has anything to do with the Minoans.

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7a1abfde-af0e-11e0-b72c-000bcdcb5194 5 years, 8 months ago

Agree on Platonic Forms. I would add that the Doctor himself is a bit like a Platonic Form, in that he remains timelessly the same while manifesting himself in different incarnations. Though that may have been less obvious in Pertwee's era than in ours. (Still, we do have _The Three Doctors_ coming up.)

But it strikes me that an even better example is Scaroth/Scarlioni/Tancredi in _City of Death_. He's splintered into different manifestations in different eras, but each is conscious of the other's experiences, just as a Platonic Form is supposed to exist as a whole in each of its parts.

P.S. - I still can't see _The Dominators_ as "a story that should never have been attempted" -- but that's because I still can't see a story that defends youthful curiosity and innovation against a stodgy closed-minded traditionalist council of elders as an indictment of the counterculture.

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Spacewarp 5 years, 8 months ago

I find your description of the original intent for the Master as a kind of "part of the Doctor rather than an individual in his own right" very compelling. In particular the way it kind of explains why the Time Lords seem unable/unwilling to apprehend the Master even though it's plainly obvious where he is.

It's certainly more interesting and complex than simply the Master being a Black hatted Moriarty to the Doctor's White hatted Holmes. It would seem that Roger Delgado's death not only robbed us of his charismatic take on the Master, it robbed the character of the Master himself of a far more interesting future than simply the Hooded Claw of 80's Who. Even RTD's reimagining and eventual redemption of the character in Tennant's era could have gone so much further if it had more than just a past pantomime Master to draw on.

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doktorvox 5 years, 8 months ago

It does seem to me that "Vincent" is as apt a Dr. Who song as anything by Bolan.

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danrachelcleasby 5 years, 8 months ago

Funny you should mention Gary Glitter ... have you seen this.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bdTELokKfCk

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Seeing_I 5 years, 7 months ago

Great essay! I am glad you found a lot to like about this story. I always found it tough going but it is indeed full of lots of good ideas.

It's distressing to me to recall that my most vivid and formative memories of "what Doctor Who is like" come from this story, Planet of the Daleks and Destiny of the Daleks. Oh well!

Don't forget that "Beyond Good & Evil" is straight of of Nietzsche.

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