If, as legendary writer Arthur C. Clarke once said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” then it’s reasonable to assume the opposite is also true. After all, “magical” practices like astrology and alchemy weren’t always fodder New Age seekers and the Barnes and Noble remainder table. These were once learned disciplines which brought people face to face, or so they believed, with the secrets of the universe.
Things aren’t much different today. As someone who only recently got his first cell phone and witnessed the birth of his first child, I can say that that those two things are distinguishable to me only by the fact I actually wanted to be a father. I know where my child came from, of course, and the phone only magically appeared after money magically disappeared from my bank account. All the rest, from data plans and dilation to ringtones and placenta, leaves me puzzled. Both device and delivery are charged with an energy and power I will never truly understand.
Confronting powers the average person doesn’t understand is the Doctor’s specialty. In The Time Monster, the Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and Jo (Katy Manning) must help UNIT (UNified Intelligence Taskforce) stop the Master (Roger Delgado) from summoning the Atlantean god Kronos, a “chronovore” which inhabits the void outside of time.
The six-part story begins with an earthbound Doctor rushing to a scientific institute where the Master, under the assumed name Dr. Thascalos (which means “master” in Greek), is about to conduct an experiment codenamed TOMTIT (Transmission of Matter Through Interstitial Time) which will transport objects “between now and now”, or the moments between moments. All this is accomplished through the power of a trident-shaped crystal with a legendary pedigree that sends the Doctor back through time to the doomed kingdom of Atlantis.
When the Master’s experiment goes awry, lab assistant Stuart Hyde (Ian Collier) is turned into an old man. “Stewart’s own personal time speeded up so enormously his whole physiological life passed by in a moment,” the Doctor says. Science fiction shows are filled with these impossible moments peppered with quasi-scientific dialogue, and often a whole story can hinge upon an actor’s ability to deliver the line. Pertwee is very good at this sort of thing, from detailing how a glowing crystal turned a young man into an old one to explaining to Jo how all the little gadgets he makes work. He believes what he’s saying, and so the audience does, too.
As the Master, Roger Delgado is sufficiently evil, his pointed goatee and swept back hair evoking a gentleman Satan. Delgado has all the appropriate mannerisms and flaws of a classic villain, right down to his revelation as a sniveling coward. The Master chews just enough scenery to leave room for the monster Kronos, a glowing, all white bird-like creature that looks like an extra from a Japanese monster movie. It screeches and flaps its wings and darts around the room as one expects a creature from a timeless void might.
The Doctor says Kronos can erase all of existence, essentially creating another void like the one in which it originated, yet the Master still continues with his plans. It’s classic villain vanity, the thought that one person can tame something so powerful. It’s cartoony and done to death, too, but when it’s done like this it’s loads of fun.
To follow the Master back in time, the Doctor matches the coordinates of the Master’s TARDIS and soon the two time machines are inside one another. The Doctor and Jo walk from their TARDIS to the Master’s and from the Master’s to theirs, in and in and in. This scene alone makes the series worth watching, but The Time Monster is solid throughout. When the story shifts back in time to Atlantis for the final episodes, it injects new life into an already excellent story, and it remains just as strong despite losing the entire supporting cast and introducing an entirely new one. It’s all tightly constructed, each beat a propulsive move forward.
The Time Monster is full of action and gadgets and strange mythical beasts, but the ideas embedded in the story make it all the more engaging. In the bonus featurette “Between Now…and Now!”, producer Barry Letts, who worked closely with writer Robert Sloman on the story, describes the influence of Buddhism on the story. The idea of “interstitial time”, the little gaps between clumps of time, is tied to the Buddhist idea of matter being perpetually created and destoryed.
Also, when the Doctor and Jo face certain death in an Atlantean dungeon, the Doctor tells her the story of his “blackest day”, which Letts conceived of as a retelling of a Buddhist story. Other features include audio commentary with Letts as well as a look at the restoration process required for the DVD after the original tapes were erased by the BBC.
With a name like “the Doctor” one expects a man of science, and that’s often what we get. He faces enemies from an infinite number of worlds and planes of existence. In his arsenal are any number of high tech gadgets which he happens to have or can make from whatever’s handy, but if you’re watching the gadget and not the Doctor then you’ve missed the trick.