I’ll Explain Later: Part One – The Time Meddler
‘What do you think it is? A space helmet for a cow?’
A strange wheezing, groaning sound fills the air. In front of you materialises the first article in a series, I’ll Explain Later, functioning as another guide to long-running British sci-fi series Doctor Who. I’ve opted to write about one story per Doctor, not necessarily the most popular or the most definitive, with the odd bonus article for the oddities that fill the history of this weird and wonderful TV show. At times it may seem inconsistent and ill-structured but please, rest assured: I am merely sticking as thematically close to my source material as possible.
The idea behind I’ll Explain Later is to provide a rough guide for new fans to the series, or those curious about British television throughout the 20th (and later 21st) century. It should be a bit of fun, and hopefully will inspire a few of you out there to track down some old Who. I’m also aiming to destroy the notion that Doctor Who must be watched from the start, in order. C’mon, it’s been around for almost sixty years. To enjoy it like that runs the risk of…not enjoying it at all.
Things might get a bit personal, a bit bloggy, a bit ‘this story is important to me because’ – it certainly won’t be a series of cold reviews pointing out the unconvincing sets or monster costumes with clearly visible zips (actually, I might point out some of those). So, without further delay…
For our First Doctor story, we are looking at ‘The Time Meddler’ from 1965. There are a few reasons why I’ve chosen to start off with this one, which should become clearer as we go on. A big one, of course, is the Doctor himself, played here by William Hartnell. In the first of what will be several allusions to academic and writer Dr. Elizabeth Sandifer’s wonderful TARDIS Eruditorum blog (no relation), it’s hard to watch this now without thinking of Hartnell as the ‘First’ Doctor. Of course, as Dr Sandifer points out, Hartnell isn’t playing the First Doctor. The idea of switching out the lead actor wasn’t part of the show’s pitch from the off. Hartnell is the Doctor – the one and only version of the character, at that point in real-world history.
I re-watched ‘The Time Meddler’ in preparation for this with my father, who saw it when it was first transmitted. It opens with the Doctor and his companions Vicki and the newly-joined Steven turning up in 1066, deducing this from a discarded Viking helmet on the beach the TARDIS has landed on. For those of you more au fait with the 21st century version of Doctor Who, there’s no yearomoeter or temporal spatial co-ordinates in the early version of the time machine, meaning a lot of time is spent establishing the story’s location through deduction.
Up until this story, Doctor Who consisted of either science fiction stories (usually set in the future, on other planets or space stations) or historical stories. The TARDIS crew either meet aliens like the Daleks or the Monoids, or they get caught up in historical drama, like the French Revolution or the Crusades. Here, the formula diverges, with the revelation that a mysterious monk watching the TARDIS’ arrival runs an empty monastery, pumping out Gregorian chanting with a gramophone and making himself toast with an electric toaster.
Things would never be the same. Soon after this, Doctor Who almost entirely abandons the practice of ‘pure historical’ stories, with some sort of alien interference in history usually the root of the trouble, the problem that the Doctor and his friends must solve. The alien, the Monk, in ‘The Time Meddler’ is, of course, a particularly interesting one, in that he is a member of the Doctor’s race.
Ah, you say, you mean he’s a Time Lord, George. Well… yes and no. You see, in 1965, along with there being no concept of regeneration, there were also no Time Lords. It was established that the Doctor wasn’t human, and that he was a fugitive from some alien society – but that was it. It was unclear for a while even whether or not he had built the TARDIS (a bit on that in the first bonus article I’m putting together) or stolen it. So the cliffhanger to one part of this story – with Steven and Vicki opening up an altar in the monastery to reveal another TARDIS interior – is a massive leap forward in terms of Doctor Who’s mythology.
Hilariously, considering how we’ve come to know the Doctor as an interferer, he takes exception to the Monk’s plan to introduce technology to Britain early and change the course of European history. The Monk’s reasoning is that it’ll lead to a more prosperous age and a brighter future, with the Doctor arguing about the risks involved in taking such a gigantic leap into the unknown. The Doctor has, by this point, been seen interfering loads in the destinies of other species throughout the universe, but Earth and its history – that, apparently, is off-limits. We’ll see how closely the character sticks to that as time goes on.
The stark differences between modern Doctor Who and Doctor Who in 1965 aren’t the only reasons to watch this, though. There’s also William Hartnell at his best – no longer the grouchy granddad of his early stories (and is often remembered as being), but an excitable, twinkle-eyed explorer that shares a lot in common with Jodie Whittaker’s current take on the character. There’s Maureen O’Brien and Peter Purves (pre-Blue Peter fame) as the companions, having a whale of a time. And, of course, there is the terrific Peter Butterworth as the Monk. Butterworth and Hartnell have some great comedy moments sparring, and watching this it seems odd that they never appeared in a Carry On film together (though both of them were Carry On veterans). Of particular cartoonish note is the Monk carefully putting a tray of breakfast in the Doctor’s cell, saying good morning through the bars, only for the tea and toast to come sloshing right back at him.
I suppose this leads us into the inevitable territory of ‘isn’t that a bit silly – Doctor Who is a serious drama’. To which I suppose the only response is that maybe this isn’t the article series for you. It’s my firm belief that Doctor Who thrives on its ability to have a laugh. The universe isn’t always full of terrors, and when it is looking a bit nasty then you have every right to laugh and throw a cup of tea at it. In any case, we’ll address the merits of Doctor Who as a show unafraid to be silly in the future.
As a sample of the First Doctor’s era, you can’t go wrong with ‘The Time Meddler’. It is full of wit, charming performances and, of course, lots of getting captured, escaping, getting re-captured, escaping… etc. Fair warning to those who aren’t so adjusted to the pace of old-fashioned serialised TV: these stories, told in multiple parts, were not designed to be sat down and watched in one sitting (unless you’re me or my poor partner). If you find yourself enjoying it but flagging, maybe just try watching one or two parts a night, then resting it until the next evening.
So, the journey through time and space begins. And next time, we’re already being shunted off into a different universe with a bonus article. See you there (in colour).