Doctor Who: The Time Meddler

Exploring complex themes, this classic Doctor proves to be heady and entertaining in equal measure.

Doctor Who

Distributor: BBC Video
Cast: William Hartnell, Peter Purves, Maureen O'Brien, Peter Butterworth
Network: BBC
First date: 1975
US Release Date: 2008-08-05

When William Hartnell's Doctor lands in 11th Century England, he at first seems excited by the idea. After all, he's with his darling companion Vicki (Maureen O'Brien, playing the surrogate grandchild role well) and the surprisingly strong-headed stow-away Steven Taylor (Peter Purves in his first "official" Who episode), and they're all fairly anxious to explore this new era.

Yet as the Doctor goes one way and Vicky & Steven go another, their paths have a hard time running into another, especially as the Doctor discovers a somewhat primal village that seems to be under the control of a mysterious array of monks. Upon entering the nearby monastery and discovering that the sound of chanting monks is actually a vinyl recording being played on an early-20th century phonograph, it's obvious that there are far more devious things afoot.

Written by Dennis Spooner, the four-part Time Meddler remains one of the stronger "historical" episodes for the First Doctor, largely due to its brisk pacing and interweaving storylines. The day in which the Doctor lands is actually very shortly before the Battle of Hastings is to take place, with the Vikings arriving and King Harold taking power shortly afterwards.

As the title of the second episode ("The Meddling Monk") indicates, there's one somewhat foppish monk (never named, but played somewhat clumsily by Peter Butterworth) who has plans of his own for the Doctor and the village. The additional mystery of where all these modern decorations are arriving from (Steven finds a modern-day wrist-watch after a brief tussle with a wild native) only drives the story forward, leading to a series of episode-ending cliffhangers that solidly carry the momentum forward from segment to segment, culminating in an excellent reveal at the end of the third episode ("A Battle of Wits") that's best left unspoiled.

From the get-go, this episode was significant for a lot of reasons. For one, the Steven/Vicki dynamic works quite well, both showing a bit of "time traveler's naivety" but -- most critically -- they both actually make plans of action instead of merely standing by and existing as mere plot fodder (hello, Adric). There's a slight romantic chemistry that exists between them that isn't fully acted on in this episode, but, regardless, they make for a pleasantly compelling duo.

As revealed in this disc's commentary track (with Purves, designer Barry Newbery, producer Verity Lambert, and story editor Donald Tosh), this was also the very last episode that Lambert herself would work on, which is a shame considering how absolutely influential she was as the first-ever Who producer. Though she proves quite lively during the commentary (second only to Purves, that is), it's somewhat sad hearing her voice, as Lambert passed away in November of 2007. On this DVD, an obituary and Lambert photo gallery are included, making a fine, fitting tribute to one of the most influential figures in the creation of the Doctor Who universe.

Though the other bonus features are certainly welcome (including a missing 12 seconds that were never fully recovered from the initial broadcast and the ever-informative Stripped for Action documentary detailing the comic-book history of the First Doctor), it's still the episode itself that poses the most interesting questions, particularly with the concept of religious fanaticism.

The monk in question at one point tells the Doctor that the people in the village will do anything he says, which, of course, is soon cross-cut with shots of the villagers gathering around and figuring out that if a Viking fleet is coming, then perhaps building fires atop their sea cliffs would be a bad idea, even if it was the monk's. Throughout it, the "Meddling Monk" is continually pulling off clever rouses to get what he wants (like convincing the Doctor to don a monk's robe so that their guests aren't startled by his presence -- even if the guests turn out to be Vikings), but the Doctor -- as always -- is fully aware that history must take its proper course, and disrupting it would have disastrous consequences that would ripple throughout space and time.

As the town's faith in the monk gradually recedes (his tending of a wounded soldier with a mere pill proves most unusual), the villagers instead decide to take matters into their own hands, leading them into battle but also into ownership of their own town -- each person owning a part of its future. The stakes escalate with each passing episode (particularly when the Vikings show up), and, as such, we're drawn in all the way to its satisfying (if somewhat dark) conclusion.

In the end, however, The Time Meddler is fitting in a lot of ways: it's a fitting send-off for Lambert, a fitting introduction for Purves, and a fitting "historical" episode altogether. When it comes to the First Doctor, this truly does rank as one of Who's finer moments.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.