Aired 3 July – 24 July 1965
‘The Time Meddler’ is arguably one of the most important stories in Doctor Who canon, the story that finally blurs the lines between the historical and science fiction genres that the programme has up until its broadcast kept virtually distinct. While fans of later eras would become quite accustomed to seeing the Doctor and his companions arrive in the past and eventually thwart some sort of alien or technological menace, ‘The Time Meddler’ is the first fully story to put that concept to the test after a brief tease of such a concept in ‘The Chase.’ Whereas up to this point the past has been treated as an inflexible constant, ‘The Time Meddler’ fleshes out some of the discussions about the perils of interfering with time from ‘The Time Museum,’ showing the inherent hazards of reckless time travel in a fascinating and rewarding manner never before attempted.
‘The Time Meddler’ also represents the first story in which the Doctor is truly fully given the spotlight. Until now, Ian and Barbara had often been given the more protagonistic heroic roles in stories, the Doctor more of a mysterious figure who would come and go as needed, his motivations and actions usually shrouded in furtive secrecy. While the addition of Peter Purves’s Steven to the cast undeniably is with the intent of allowing a lead to take part in more action-heavy sequences and Vicki is, of course, filling Susan’s role, the Doctor being the only remainder of the original cast allows him to flesh out the flashes of the much more heroic and, indeed, likeable character seen briefly before.
Being a space traveler himself, Steven is readily accepting that the TARDIS is able to travel in space, and the discussions he and Vicki have about the Doctor and the TARDIS help reintroduce viewers to the core concept of the show and also reaffirm that ‘The Time Meddler’ is a quasi-relaunch with its new cast. With William Hartnell on holiday for the second episode, Steven and Vicki certainly get plenty of screen time throughout this adventure as Steven steadfastly refuses to believe that time travel is possible and as the duo search for the Doctor. Even though this search and rescue portion may not give the actors the most exhilarating work to do, it manages to keep the Doctor central to the story and also demonstrates the instant wonderful chemistry that the two young companions have with each other.
With the shift to adding a science fiction element to the historical genre, the setting and historical characters themselves are unfortunately not as fleshed out as they may otherwise have been. For the most part, both the Vikings and Saxons are fairly one-dimensional, albeit with some strong flashes of individuality from the village leader Wulnoth and his wife Edith. In fact, although the serial carries a rather light tone and does not implicitly state anything, it must be commended for not being afraid to intimate some of the more horrific aspects of the time period such as Edith’s apparent brutal eating and possibly rape at the hands of the Vikings.
Steven’s inability to accept the concept of time travel seems to be warranted when he finds a modern watch on the ground that contradicts the presence of the tenth or eleventh century Viking helmet the Doctor had found earlier. The audience is afforded knowledge that the leads are not, however, being shown a glimpse of a monk watching the TARDIS materialize, and the Doctor eventually finds a gramophone playing a recording of monks’ chanting within the monastery, hiding the fact that the building has otherwise been deserted. Peter Butterworth puts in a masterful performance as the light-hearted monk, and his banter and arguments with the Doctor showcase both William Hartnell’s and his own talents as the Doctor berates him for whimsically interfering with history. His plan to change the outcome of the Battle of Hastings is full of ambition and, as a singular event, it most certainly would have far-reaching implications, but the Monk is still presented as more of a mischievous delinquent rather than as a truly evil foe.
Interestingly, the story does inadvertently call into question the morals and implications of both of these characters. The Monk, it is revealed, has been responsible for the erection of Stonehenge as well as for Leonardo da Vinci’s efforts in flight, both established events. Flipcharts and overkill aside, it is possible that the Monk should be continuing with altering events to cause further establishment. Likewise, while he is centred on helping the English, the Doctor does nothing to help them and in so doing knowingly sentences them to suffering or worse in the ensuing battle and incumbent regime.
Regardless of those thoughts, the Monk by far has the biggest impact of any single character in the programme so far. Until now, the Doctor and Susan were seemingly unique individuals traveling the universe in their TARDIS, but the discovery that the Monk has a TARDIS and is another one of the Doctor’s own race is absolutely one of the strongest cliffhangers the show has ever employed. Suddenly the entire mythology of the character and show has changed, opening up an entirely new avenue for exploration. Although the resolution to regarding the villagers and Vikings is rather straightforward and predictable, the Doctor’s decision to sabotage the Monk’s superior TARDIS and thereby strand a man with knowledge of technology and of the future in the past most certainly is not. This action again can be interpreted in many ways and certainly does seem reckless, perhaps opening up further stories in its own right. Still, ‘The Time Meddler’ is unquestionably a joyous and incredibly important step for a show that continues to experiment with its format.