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.