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Classic Who: The Time Meddler

*Ahem* - another epic Doctor Who entry here, I'm afraid. Sorry - this is just a really fantastic story, with absolutely loads of clever details that I couldn't resist commenting on, particularly in connection with the way that the programme dealt with the concept of history at this time. Do breeze on by if you're not interested...


First Doctor: The Time Meddler
This is one of the few First Doctor stories which I discovered on re-watching that I had actually seen before - I believe back in 1992, when the BBC did a bit of a Doctor Who repeats season. Not that I remembered very much of it apart from the general setting of Saxon villagers and Viking raiders, though.

Re-watching in sequence, I am of course now properly aware that this is Steven's introductory story. I'm basically never going to like Steven very much, simply because he is Not Barbara (or even Ian) - and it didn't help that he violently and impulsively attacked a perfectly innocent Saxon villager right in the first episode, and against Vicki's explicit protestations. Maybe his trajectory will turn out to be like the New Girl at Mallory Towers - he begins with character flaws, but gradually becomes a better person through the experience of travelling in the TARDIS. But it wasn't the greatest start from my point of view.

Still, I'm quite ready to admit that for this particular plot-line, having a character on hand who is strongly sceptical of the very idea of time travel is extremely useful, since it provides plenty of scope for drawing attention to the anachronisms perpetrated by the Monk. It means that an audience who have got quite used to the idea of time travel by this point in the series can be more easily alerted to the fact that something (albeit not what Steven thinks) is awry. His general scepticism also comes in handy when he and Vicki are dealing with the Monk, since Steven is less inclined than Vicki to believe that the Monk is everything he appears. He tricks the Monk into revealing that he has seen the Doctor (though Vicki goes one step further and realises that the Monk has revealed this deliberately), and demonstrates a neat little line in lock-picking, which are certainly useful skills. But the overall package of which they form a part lacks the clear moral foundation which was always so obvious with Barbara (and indeed Ian).

Meanwhile, Vicki remains pro-active and resourceful in a way that Susan never managed, and of course shines rather more brightly as she does so now that Barbara has gone. It's nice to see her bringing Steven into line, especially over his unprovoked attack on the Saxon villager, defusing (with guest-character Edith's help) a macho stand-off between Steven and the other villagers, and being the one to work out how the Doctor could have escaped from his cell. She doesn't quite have the confident maturity or the direct potential for audience relation which I always liked so much in Barbara, but it's great that a positively portrayed female character is still on board all the same.

Of course, what we don't have on board now for the first time are any human characters from contemporary Earth. This has been comparatively rare in the history of the programme so it seems strange in retrospect, but actually it isn't at all surprising given the character of the First Doctor era. The stories in this period were so keen to steer clear of contemporary Earth that they only took the TARDIS crew there under circumstances so strange that it appeared alien (Planet of Giants), and kept the Doctor and Vicki away even when Barbara and Ian returned. This isn't to say that the series has no link with Earth - of course it does, through the historical stories. But it means that the First Doctor has no opportunity to pick up a contemporary Earthling - hence Steven from the future, and soon afterwards Katarina from the past. It's all part of the experimental nature of the programme in this period, working out what sort of figures do and don't work as effective companions.

The really big experiment in this story, though, is obviously the introduction of another Time Lord (not that he is yet known as such). The cliff-hanger to the third episode, when Vicki and Steven suddenly discover that the Monk possesses a ship exactly like the Doctor's, must have been absolutely amazing on first broadcast. One major effect of this is that it affords us some of the most explicit hints we have yet had about the origins and identity of the Doctor and his TARDIS.

It's noticeable that neither the Doctor nor the Monk refer to the latter's ship as a 'TARDIS' (though Vicki does) - only a 'time-ship' or 'time-machine'. This would suggest that 'TARDIS' really is an affectionate nick-name made up by Susan, and not a generally-accepted term for this type of vessel. The Chase had already strongly implied that the Doctor built the TARDIS himself, since he says of the time-path detector, "it’s been in the ship ever since I constructed it"; and The Time Meddler seems to confirm this impression as the Monk and the Doctor compare their machines. My reading of the Doctor's comment, "That’s a Mark 4" is that he is talking about the console of the Monk's ship (which he is looking at at the time), rather than the whole thing, in which case he would have said 'this', not 'that', since he is standing inside it. This would imply that components for time-machines are mass-produced and given version numbers, but that the machines themselves are then assembled by their owners. Quite a lot of emphasis is also placed on the superior capacities of the Monk's ship, which can allegedly be piloted with complete precision and suspended safely in space; and the Monk doesn't seek to contradict the Doctor's guess that he (and his ship) came from a period fifty years earlier than the Monk.

What all this would appear to me to be implying is that at this stage the Doctor was conceived of as a relatively early time-travel experimenter, who constructed his own ship, but did so at a time when the science of time-travel had not yet been perfected, and thus left his home planet and era (with Susan) in a vessel which was erratic and difficult to control. In that case, the reason why he is condemned to wander in the fourth dimension is not because any higher authority had exiled him from his home planet, but simply because once he had left, he was physically unable to get home. This would match with his statement in An Unearthly Child that he and Susan are 'cut off' from their home planet and one day hope to get back. Then again, by the time of The Chase and The Time Meddler, he doesn't seem so very bothered about getting home, since he has successively been faced with two accurately-pilotable time-ships (the Daleks' and the Monk's), either of which he could have appropriated and used to return home (maybe picking up Susan on the way) - but, unlike Ian and Barbara, he doesn't even seem to register the fact.

That change from reluctant exile to willing time-traveller also goes together with another distinct change in the Doctor's character here - and in the rules by which he is operating. Season 1 worked with the idea that history cannot be changed, no matter how hard you try (cf. The Aztecs), but this has been abandoned over the course of season 2. In both The Romans and The Crusade, the Doctor warned Vicki against interfering with history, in a tone which suggested that this was possible, while The Space Museum saw the TARDIS crew succeed in changing their own futures. Now the potential for known events to be changed is made explicit when the Doctor says to the Monk, "You know as well as I do the golden rule about space and time travelling - never, never interfere with the course of history". And this script addresses the obvious upshot of that: what happens when somebody does? The Monk's response - "And who says so?" - is never answered, implying that the 'golden rule' is as yet merely a generally-agreed principle amongst responsible time-travellers, rather than a rule imposed by any authoritative body. In any case, in the absence of anyone else to do so, the role of defender of the time-line falls to the Doctor - and thus he takes a marked step forward towards becoming the hero-figure we know today.

This was something which obviously appealed to both audiences and producers – hence the later popularity of the pseudo-historical story, of which this can be seen in retrospect as the first full-length example. But I somehow doubt it was seen as something starkly different at the time. Rather, it seems to me part of a general phase of experimentation with the format of the historical story, including comedy in The Romans, outright silliness in The Chase and shortly a literary setting with The Myth Makers and a more filmic one with The Gunfighters. Certainly for the moment there is still quite a didactic feel to the story. The Doctor actively regrets the absence of Barbara when he is trying to work out their historical context – but nevertheless manages to do it for himself (and the audience) all the same. Indeed, once he has done so he goes on to repeat the expected sequence of events to Edith in the village. After all, it is particularly important for viewers to know what should happen in this story, given that history is about to be challenged by the Monk.

Earlier historical stories have perpetuated the idea that history = text (e.g. The Reign of Terror - "The events will happen, just as they are written") while also mounting the occasional challenge to the standard accounts (e.g. An Unearthly Child - Susan's reaction to Barbara's book on the French Revolution). So the (rather paradoxical) implication has been that written history either a) is entirely accurate and must be preserved intact or b) was wrong all along. Now two snippets of dialogue directly address what happens if written history was right, but gets changed by time-travellers retrospectively. First, the Doctor raises the issue in conversation with the village woman, Edith, in a tone of voice which rather suggests that he isn't yet quite sure what the consequences of the Monk's meddlings might be:
DOCTOR (to Edith): Yes, in a few weeks time, [Harold] loses the battle of Hastings to William the Conqueror. (Laughs.) Well, at least that’s what the history books said happened. Hmm.
Then later, once the Monk's plans have been unveiled, Vicki and Steven try to work out for themselves what the consequences might be:
VICKI: It looks as though that Monk’s going to get away with it after all.
STEVEN: Yes, but he can’t, can he? Well, I don’t know much about history but I do know that William the Conqueror did win the Battle of Hastings.
VICKI: Up ‘til now he did. If the Monk changes it, I suppose...our memories will change as well.
STEVEN: What about the history books?
VICKI: Mmm, that’s all right. They’re not written yet. They’ll just write and print the new version.
STEVEN: But that means that...the exact minute...the exact second that he does it...every history book, every...well, the whole future of every year and time on Earth will change, just like that and nobody’ll know that it has?
VICKI: I suppose that’s...what I’m trying to say.
STEVEN: Well, there’s more to this time travelling than meets the eye.
Who knows whether they're right, of course, about their memories or the books. The issue cannot be tested without turning the Whoniverse into an alternate reality – which is why The Space Museum and The Waters of Mars both had to be set in the future. But it's interesting nonetheless that history books are so central to Steven and Vicki's concerns.

Meanwhile, the Monk is busy writing his own history – in both senses of the phrase. He keeps a written diary of his own past, from which we learn that he has already been the 'real' cause of Da Vinci's ideas about powered flight (and in related dialogue with the Doctor moments later he says much the same thing about the construction of Stonehenge). He is also attempting to link past and future via the medium of text: specifically a great big 'progress chart' hung up in the monastery.

But historical artefacts play an important role in this story too. In fact, the Monk's various modern appliances are the major signal used to alert both audience and characters to the potential threat to the time-line. (A clock and a watch are particularly prominent, in keeping with the theme of time). Indeed, as if to prime us to the importance of objects before we see these appliances, one of the very first scenes outside the TARDIS features the Doctor and Steven clashing over variant interpretations of a Viking helmet. Steven, still sceptical about this time-travel business, asserts that it could just as easily be a toy or a costume (that latter being a meta-reference, since of course it is), while the Doctor insists that it is the real thing.

This isn't the first time in Doctor Who that artefacts have been used as a basis for historical interpretation, since The Aztecs saw Barbara work out the date they had arrived in from a funerary deposit. But they are working in a slightly different way here: not just as a straightforward dating tool, but as a way of raising questions in the audience's mind about the authenticity of objects – is all what it seems? In the process of doing this it presents the audience with some very real historical issues: the process by which we extract historical meaning out of inanimate objects, and the fact that our interpretations are often open to debate. If we wanted to push the boat out on this one, we could note that Steven's interpretation is driven by his theoretical perspective (i.e. scepticism); and we could even argue that he has every reason to be sceptical in this particular case, since it is now generally established that Vikings did not go round wearing horned helmets except possibly in ritual contexts.

And meanwhile, just as the Monk was writing his own textual history to signify his rejection of 'real' history and his desire to create his own version of the past, he also turns out to have his own museum of historical artefacts stashed aboard his time-machine – and one which includes a number of Classical-looking statues, to boot. This seems to me to be a further signal of his attitude towards history: a sort of treasure-hunting, antiquarian approach, in which the past is there to be plundered for the Monk's pleasure, rather than carefully observed and recorded. It reminds me of pictures like Charles Townley in his Sculpture Gallery by Johann Zoffany, which is a real-world depiction of the same thing.

I've noted in several of my previous write-ups that the adoption (or not) of period clothing signals the extent to which members of the TARDIS crew are integrated into the society where they find themselves (best previous summary here, in relation to The Crusade). The Doctor's companions have been donning local clothing right from the start, but he was slower to follow suit, in keeping his role as an alien observer rather than a participant. This story begins with the Monk already in disguise, and participating in local events. He isn't entirely integrated - Edith in the first episode says that he has been seen but not spoken to. But over the course of this story he becomes involved enough in the affairs of the Saxon villagers to treat one of them for wounds and ask them to help him prepare beacon fires on the cliff-tops. Indeed, all of his meddling plans involve close intimacy with human society - albeit of a kind rather equivalent to that between a school-boy and his ant farm. It's therefore quite important that this time, the Doctor spends the majority of the story not wearing local costume, and thus making the difference between himself and the Monk visibly clear. It is only reluctantly, and under the Monk's persuasion, that the Doctor puts on a monk's habit, and he also takes it off again at a very significant moment - precisely when he acts decisively against the Monk by removing the dimensional control from his time-machine.

Finally, this story was never going to be quite as meta-referential as The Chase, because it would get tiring to stay on that level forever. But it's still pretty self-aware. In fact, it even includes a nod backwards to The Chase: the Monk's interest in putting Hamlet on TV recalls the Time-Space Visualiser scene where we saw Shakespeare being given the idea for the story in the first place, while also constituting a knowing reference to the medium in which the programme is operating (underscored by the Doctor's huffy response: "Yes of course - I do know the medium.") Rather fantastically, it also acquires yet another level of resonance now that we have actually seen an incumbent Doctor playing Hamlet on TV! And the lovely scene with the Monk's gramophone recording, where we really see for the first time exactly what he is up to, has a meta-referential element to it, too. Like the Saxon villagers, we believe when we first hear the sacred chant that it is 'real', but then discover that it is actually a recording. Not only does this draw attention to the privileged position of the television viewer, but it also owns up to the conventions of the television format - for if the music had, in story terms, been a 'real' performance, the fact is that in production terms it would also still have been a recording.


In short, this is an immensely clever story with loads of resonant little details supporting the main themes, a great structure, lots of meta-references and some very exciting material to feed into my paper on Doctor Who and historiography. What a great end to season 2.

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Comments

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
swisstone
Jan. 21st, 2010 10:14 pm (UTC)
Remind me to come back to this when I don't have urgent marking to finish.
strange_complex
Jan. 21st, 2010 11:31 pm (UTC)
I think I'll have to leave that to you, as I'd feel terribly rude contacting you to say "You're free? Great! Now read my post!"

I would say, "Don't worry, you'll hear it all at the CA anyway", except that I would have a job even conveying all the stuff I've said above in 20 minutes, let alone anything about any of the other stories. So the CA paper will very much have to be a bird's-eye view: major themes illustrated by a few choice examples.

But, as I've said to verlaine below, my doctor who tag will always be there in case you feel you've missed something and want to come back later.
swisstone
Jan. 22nd, 2010 11:28 pm (UTC)
Yeah, it was more a "log this in my own brain".

I think I need toi rethink some details of what I've written about The Romans as well.
verlaine
Jan. 21st, 2010 11:09 pm (UTC)
Man, I love The Time Meddler. Are you doing writeups like this for lots of Doctor Who stories? I want to read them all!
strange_complex
Jan. 21st, 2010 11:27 pm (UTC)
TIEM MEDLER LUV!!! ♥ ♥ ♥

They're not all as detailed as this one, but I am in the process of watching and reviewing them all, yes. I've done 101 so far, all of which can be found via my doctor who tag (or numbers, e.g. one, for specific Doctors), and intend to carry on until I've done the lot.
weepingcross
Jan. 26th, 2010 09:28 pm (UTC)
You're doing a brilliant job with this! Is your paper going to be generally accessible after you deliver it?
strange_complex
Jan. 27th, 2010 09:59 am (UTC)
I'm not sure. You're not the first person to ask this. The problem is that I don't really have time to write it up afterwards in any formal manner (because of all this), but nor do I really want to just stick the script for my talk up here, because the notes I speak from when giving an oral presentation are very much designed for myself, not anyone else, and often don't entirely match what I actually say on the day either.

I guess I'll just see how it goes. If I'm really happy with the final product, and get good feedback on the day, I might see about looking for some avenue of publication for it. If not - well, I'll probably just want to bury it and forget about it. In any case, you are probably getting a more detailed insight into my thinking on this topic already via my LJ posts than I'll really be able to convey in a 20-minute paper delivered to an audience whom I can't assume are familiar with this period of Doctor Who. All the paper is really going to be able to do is sketch out some overall themes and present a few illustrative highlights to demonstrate my points.
swisstone
Feb. 3rd, 2010 06:59 pm (UTC)
Curse you! This is an extremely insightful post, that makes me want to go away and rewrite everything I've said in the past about Doctor Who historicals! Bookmarked for future reference.

I'm basically never going to like Steven very much

Steven seems to be the 'lost' male companion between Ian and Ben/Jamie. I think this is partly to do with the fact that Season 3 suffered a lot worse through the junking process than Seasons 1 and 2, so there is so much less of Steven to watch than of Ian. I think there's a lot of unfairness in that. Purves is a lot better an actor than he's ever given credit for (largely because, as with so many others, Doctor Who effectively killed his acting career). And Steven was the first character to be a solo companion.

This has been comparatively rare in the history of the programme so it seems strange in retrospect

This is one of those things, like having more than two people in the regular TARDIS crew, that seem odd now, because the show has, more-or-less, settled on the one-girl-from-contemporary-England model that is established in the early Pertwee years. But in the 1960s it wasn't odd at all.

it also acquires yet another level of resonance now that we have actually seen an incumbent Doctor playing Hamlet on TV!

I continue to be amused by the person on the Interweb who said the couldn't understand the second part of the Christmas Who - what had happened to Rose, and why didn't the Doctor regenerate at the end, and why was it all set in Denmark?
strange_complex
Feb. 3rd, 2010 08:21 pm (UTC)
Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it. It didn't half take a long time to write, so it's good to know that it was worth it. I'm not sure why it means you need to change anything you've written yourself, though.
swisstone
Feb. 3rd, 2010 11:25 pm (UTC)
You've opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about how Who relates to history, and I want to revise my views in the light of this. Still, if and when I get to do the book, Who will form a major part of that, so I will ge the chance then.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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