January 7, 2013

Who50: "The Time Meddler"

Who50 counts down to the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who by reviewing my favourite episodes and serials over the history of the programme, counting down from #50 to #1. Today, #43: "The Time Meddler", a 1965 four-part serial written by Dennis Spooner and directed by Douglas Camfield.

The Doctor, Steven and Vicki have arrived in England in AD 1066. After meeting the villagers of a Saxon village they investigate a strange monastery on the coast. The chanting heard from outside turns out to be playing from an old-fashioned gramaphone record. The one monk Steven and Vicki do see accidentally drops a wristwatch. He's a time traveller: he's planning to change the course of history at the Battle of Hastings and he's already kidnapped and locked up the Doctor.

Investigating the monastery's crypt, Steven and Vicki notice an electrical cable hanging out of an open sarcophagus. They check inside and discover a console room, just like in the Doctor's TARDIS. This "meddling monk" has a TARDIS of his own...
Looking back from 2013 and it's maybe difficult to appreciate the genius of that cliffhanger. After all we've encountered the Master and the Rani, been to Gallifrey multiple times, seen the Time Lords put the Doctor on trial twice and get utterly destroyed in the Time War with the Daleks.

None of that had happened in 1965. Audiences had mostly assumed the TARDIS was one of a kind - something the Doctor had perhaps invented himself. The idea that there could be another time-travelling alien surfing the universe in a TARDIS? Unimaginable. It's not only one of the best cliffhangers in Doctor Who history, it's also a phenomenal game changer in how the series was written and perceived. Big, attention-grabbing season finales are very much an American invention, but it's interesting how all the way back in 1965 Doctor Who managed to make one all the same.

The preceding serial, "The Chase", had seen companions Ian and Barbara leave the Doctor and return to 1960s London. For the first two years of the series they were effectively our protagonists - we identified with them, and they acted as our viewpoint for the series. William Hartnell's Doctor was in many respects a supporting player in his own series. That changes from here: Susan is long gone, Ian and Barbara have just departed, and their likeable replacements Steven and Vicki prove that the Doctor's travelling companions are easily changed without mucking up the appeal of the show. (Of course a year later a canny producer will demonstrate the same is true of the Doctor himself.)

It's almost certainly by coincidence, but the serial in which the series begins to transition to allow the Doctor himself to be the star he also gets the first building block of his past. He's no longer a total enigma; we know he's not just a sole time traveller but one of an entire civilization of such travellers. We've got a hook now. The Doctor's stopped being a total mystery, and the series has shrunk slightly around him as a result. There's less mystery to him, but we're strangely comforted as well.

1 comment:

  1. Ooh! We've just said goodbye to Ian and Barbara!:-)


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