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Is “The Time Meddler” the first “real” Doctor Who adventure?

November 7, 2014

meddling monk

I decided, when I plotted my grand re-viewing of classic Doctor Who stories, that a show about time travel demanded a non-linear approach to consumption.  Accordingly, I have been watching several doctors simultaneously until they run out, depending on how many adventures they had to begin with.  It’s going to be a long road to Logopolis.  Accordingly, I am currently watching Time Meddler, Seeds of Death, Claws of Axos, Brain of Morbius and Snakedance all at the same time.

What’s so special about Time Meddler?  Well, in some ways it’s a medium to low budget effort with limited special effects and a rather jokey antagonist.  And yet Time Meddler establishes certain things that enable it to be regarded as the first adventure to inhabit the Whoniverse as we know it.  A friend of mine, who has chosen a rather more consecutive approach to rewatching Who flagged this adventure a few months ago and advised me to pay careful attention to it.  So I have.

The previous adventure, The Chase, is the story that said goodbye to Ian and Barbara – the original “stars” of the show.  The “Swinging London” photo-montage of Ian and Barbara blinking in the daylight of workaday reality has a very touching quality.  In many of the earliest stories, William Russell (Ian) has rather more dialogue and screen time than William Hartnell and is rather more responsible for winning the day than the crotchety old man.  In just over a week’s time, William Russell will be ninety – and a huge fuss should be made of him.

The Time Meddler shows The Doctor cutting free of Ian and Barbara and, perhaps for the first time, becoming unambiguously the main character in the show.  It is the Doctor who outwits the Monk – certainly not Steven Taylor.

The Meddling Monk is played by Peter Butterworth – of Carry On fame.  You remember him?  He’s the fella in Carry on Camping who owns the field that Sid James and Bernard Bresslaw think is home to a nudist camp (it isn’t).  Yeah – that guy.

The Meddling Monk is another Time Lord.  The term “Time Lord” will not be used for another four years, but The Monk is clearly of the same kind as the Doctor.  Like the Doctor, the Monk is a wanderer with a taste for adventure.  He’s not “evil” – he just wants to give history a bit of a nudge.  When he explains why he wants to prevent the Norman Conquest, the unprejudiced viewer must concede that he makes a good case.  In many ways, the Monk (in this adventure at least – he’s nastier subsequently) is very much an extension of the Doctor’s own most rebellious energies.  Clearly, he has rebelled against the lofty disengagement of Time Lord society, but he is prepared to get his hands rather dirtier than the Doctor is.  The whole “non interference” spiel always falls apart under pressure of course.  If you or I were zapped back to the tenth of September 2001, could any power on earth prevent us from making some urgent telephone calls?

Because Time Meddler, by Dennis Spooner, also marks the beginning of the end for the oscillating pattern of Sci Fi and Historical adventures.  Ian and Barbara were key to this original patterns.  The Tardis contained a science teacher and a history teacher and each of them had to put their knowledge to the test in life threatening situations.  In a history adventure, like The Aztecs – the only anomalous element is the Tardis crew themselves.  They arrive at a point in time, are separated from the Tardis, and have to save their own skins using nothing but what that time period has to offer.   Barbara suggests that maybe they could try to wean the Aztecs off human sacrifice and the Doctor counters rather snootily that it is absolutely wrong to interfere with the natural course of history.  Well, the Monk does nothing but interfere – and indeed, we’re led to believe that much of human history is the story of his interference.

The Time Meddler is the pattern for nearly all “historical” stories subsequently.  Following the passing of the First Doctor, with the exception of The Highlanders and (much later)  Black Orchid, there are no more “pure” historical adventures – no more adventures in which our heroes are merely the victims of historical situation rather than being instrumental in shaping it.  The Time Meddler is, therefore a pivotal story about temporal anomalies and the re-writing of history.  It’s about the paradoxes of time travel.  Inappropriate and alien technology impacts upon what we thought waws fixed and printed in history books.  It is Vicki’s task to explain as much to teh slow-witted Steven.  Now Spooner had offered a few hints of this development before Time Meddler, in his capacity as script editor.  In the Romans (a fairly comical outing in all honesty) it suggested that the Doctor started the Great Fire of Rome.  In The Space Museum, the travellers see themselves frozen as museum specimens and spend much of their time worrying about predestination versus free will and whether their “free” actions will subvert or reinforce this destiny.  And in The Chase, it’s Daleks who depopulate the Mary Celeste.

Spooner was the first script editor to be properly interested in the implications of Time Travel.  He was the first to insist that The Doctor is the one irreplaceable element of the show – and The Time Meddler is the first adventure to explore the sheer scale of responsibility and irresponsibility involved in being a freelance time traveller.  The Doctor that we know – is born here, off the North East coast of England – in 1066.

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