The Time Meddler

Written by:
Dennis Spooner
Directed by: Douglas Camfield
Starring: William Hartnell
Year: 1965
Video Availability: Try

The Time Meddler seems to be a story that fans make excuses for, with many being almost embarrassed at its perceived slow pace when it was repeated in 1992. Selected for the 40th Anniversary celebrations of UK Gold by viewers, admittedly with many stories incomplete and the Daleks legally vetoed then it only had thirteen competitors, but it still suggests the wider public still hold it in higher regard than the fanbase.

All of which is as it should be, because I seriously love this story to pieces. I've yet to see the VIDFired version*, though I suspect the filthy black and white stock that make up its repeat screenings add to the charm. While the story might be both slight and light, it's one that's produced to perfection, not least the astonishing direction from Douglas Camfield.
* Maybe this has something to do with the fact that it hasn't actually been VIDFired. Cor blimey, do I shirk on the research at times or what?

I suppose it's possible to take this story as a comedy, but I never really do. There's plenty of amusing lines ("What do you think it is, a space helmet for a cow?") but they seem to arise naturally out of the situation rather than being enforced gags. Even Peter Butterworth, a fine comic actor, has his performance tapped in to good drama as well as striking humorous sparks off Billy. The helpful blending of stock footage - for once not intrusive as the whole picture is so muddy - aids the illusion of outdoors, and even if this episode is perhaps as slow as they say, it's still great storytelling. Oh - and the cliffhanger is absolutely superb.
* * * * ½

The only episode of the story not quite first rate, it's really all down to Hartnell taking a week's holiday during filming. There's a recorded overdub played, but after being captured by the Monk at the end of the first episode any narrative progression is put on hold while Billy gets a sun tan down Clacton. It's a disappointing turn of events, and essentially the story is frozen for twenty-five minutes until he gets back.

Some clever trousers like to flag up the fact that the Monk has an old gramophone record and not a CD player (or a Midi Player if they say it now). That may be true, but we know the Doctor has a love of antiques, and why doesn't he have a light-propelled arcton player from the year 2345 if we're going to say that? On another note of pointless trivia, then it's curious how the Monk is only a Monk here because it's his contemporary disguise - yet he inexplicably retains it when he loses his depth and makes a lesser-judged cameo in the same years' The Daleks' Masterplan. Finally, Steven's statement of the time as "twenty past five" is a possible attempt at post-modernism, suggesting that they occupy almost the same time frame as the viewers. Or I could be talking crap.

Butterworth is called upon to virtually carry this one single-handed, and it must be said that the majority of his scenes are stretched and padded. But it doesn't really matter, because he's eminently watchable, and the unusual setting he largely inhabits (a cliff top) makes him strangely iconographic.

You know, I must be either thick, naïve or both, but I swear to God I never picked up on Edith being raped offscreen in this episode. I picked up on the attempted rape of Barbara in The Keys of Marinus and The Romans, and even, with prompting, that she'd shagged in The Daleks. But it's spelt out blatantly here, and I never for one moment realised it. Maybe it's just that the secondary characters just aren't that interesting, or maybe it's just that your mind doesn't acknowledge what you're not expecting to see. Either way, it's unsettling for the series - not because of the family audience, the children of which wouldn't get what had happened anyway - but because it's such a jarring contrast with the rest of the production. Full marks for historical realism, but having violation of women in an essentially comedic tale doesn't feel quite right at all. On this note, then the "U" certificate the video was granted is almost as surprising as the cover not having a picture of the Monk on it.
* * * *

Note the fairly prominent use of wipes in this story, with one scene often fading into another. Even the opening console room scene was shot from unique angles, thanks to the inventive talents of Camfield. However, the opening ten minutes of this one are the lowest peak of this story, while later shots of a truly appalling forest backdrop and a pair of man breasts put it on shaky ground. Yet the potential so blunted by the second instalment is back on track, with the Monk's Progress Chart a particular stand-out, and his verbal sparring with Billy Big-Up a genuine joy. Add to this the sensational cliffhanger and it regains much lost ground…
* * * *

What I love about Peter Butterworth and Billy together is that they both notably raise their game, Billy particularly. It's a healthy competition between them both that only works as a bonus for the audience.

The incomplete episode of the story, some shots of Saxons stabbing Vikings still missing from the archives. Fortunately it distracts not at all, and even though it's disappointing from a purist level, you still get the story to enjoy. This is a much cleverer story than its given credit for, with postmodernism ("Yes of course, I do know the medium" says the Doctor about television) and a villain who not only inspired the Master, but has far, far more motivation.

For such a low-key story, then it's groundbreaking, not least in the way that we're introduced to the idea of a changing timeline. And one thing I haven't bigged up yet - as well as the indefinable "magic" of Who present throughout - is the music. The percussion is a little staid, but just listen to the eerie theme that plays when the Monk finds his Tardis has been sabotaged. One of my favourite moments in the series ever, I love the way the camera pulls back as we hear his plaintive cries: "Doctor! Doc-torrrrrrrrrrrr!" Exceptional.

Okay, the Billy Fluffs. There's a stumble over "You think they're old" in the first episode, as well as this minor gem: "But I'm not a mountain goat and I prefer walking to any day. And I hate climbing." In fact, it's a top ten fluff favourite, not unlike the final episode, where the Doctor's remark about "personal and private correspondence" makes my number two slot. This is not just because Bill makes a meal of it, but because Maureen O'Brien can be seen clearly pissing herself when he does so. Also worth keeping a look out for is his first scene with Edith, which is full of hesitations and throws up "I do hope they won't worry me… worry about me too much."
* * * * ½

A much undervalued and underrated story, while the Saxons and Vikings do little to appeal, and the rape scene fits uneasily, the four stars, writing and direction are all razor sharp. This is Doctor Who operating on many levels, exploiting the outer possibilities of its format and speaking to all members of the audience simultaneously. Classic.
* * * * *