Friday, 2 September 2016

The Time Meddler written by Dennis Spooner and directed by Douglas Camfield

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor battles with one of his own people...a man who is trying to meddle in history...

Hmmm: Anybody who thought that Hartnell might have lost those gnashing teeth in season two might be in for a surprise at the sheer viciousness of his dealings with the Monk. He's appalled at his behaviour, it is the antithesis of his approach to time travelling. There's still a twinkle in Hartnell's eye though, even when he is condemning the Monk for his outrageous behaviour and certainly when he is devising a scheme to nip it in the bud. But not before one the first Doctor's gentlest scenes, his wonderfully warm scene moment with Vicki that takes place after Ian and Barbara have left the TARDIS. If anybody ever thought that Hartnell was always distant and unlikable, take a look this two hander. It's as open and vulnerable and cuddly as the Doctor has ever been. It's probably a good thing that Steven tripped into the TARDIS when he did because things might have gotten a little too Little House on the Prairie. He instantly bumps heads with the young astronaut over his disbelief that the TARDIS is a time machine and spends much of the story chastising him for his lack of faith. Season three would be a turbulent time for the show, a time when the show changed hands twice and the female assistants join the show with nooses around their necks. The relationship between the Doctor and Steven is the one constant and it's a very muscular friendship, brought to life by two actors who clearly respect each other a great deal. And that all starts here. You can see everything that works between them, their attempts to outdo each other, their grudging fondness and how they support each other whilst still having an opinion of their own, often ones that clash. It's one of my favourite pairings in the entire classic run.

Alien Orphan: Excuse me? Can somebody tell me who this resourceful, responsible young lady is? The previous story was The Chase where Vicki got in everybody's way, screamed, grabbed her head like she was scared it was going to fall off and fell for some pretty obvious traps. She was useless. Who ever knew it was Ian and Barbara that were holding her back? Suddenly Vicki is the seasoned traveller and teaching Steven the rules and in the space of about five minutes from one story to the next Vicki seems to have matured about ten years. I much prefer her this way and her chemistry with Steven is instantaneous. I really with the misunderstanding with O'Brien's desire to leave the show had never occurred because this was a very promising line up. The regulars in The Time Meddler raise the story from a good one to an occasionally great one. I love Vicki poking around inside the Monk's TARDIS and her horrified reactions to his morally ambiguous behaviour (mind you she was pushing some pretty serious reforms in The Romans earlier in the season). For the most part she spends the story going from one setting to another looking for the absent Doctor but it's comforting to know in the Hartnell free episode that O'Brien and Purves are more than up to keeping us entertained until he's back from his holiday.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Met Leonardo Da Vinci and discussed the possibility of powered flight.'
'Put 200 pounds in a bank in 1966, nipped forward 200 years and earned a fortune in compound interest.'
'So how exactly does one enter this contraption of yours? Hammer and chisel?'

The Good: Aside from the crisp and quotable dialogue, the thing that stands out the most in The Time Meddler is the direction. Douglas Camfield has been handed one of his earliest Doctor Who assignments and gives this story a very stylish look. The difference between Camfield and the other omnipresent director this season (Richard Martin) is that he keeps things simple, That's not meant as an insult, as a result of Camfield's careful direction most of the story feels as though it was shot on location when it is entirely studio bound. He works like a magician, using clever tricks like adding inserts of the sea crashing and gulls circling in the air to some terrific sets and atmospheric sound effects to complete his illusion. The camera pans through the shadowy monastery sets, which adds some tension and intruige to what is going on in the deserted cloisters. Camfield tries to capture the story in unusual ways, low and high angles, which makes a refreshing change from the stuffy point and shoot approach of some directors. Dennis Spooner has written an interesting spin on the usual educational historical, already trying to stretch the show in interesting ways. He does this increments so as to stagger his surprises, so the story feels at first like it is going to be another story that educates about a well know period of history but slowly evolves into the first pseudo-historical. The gramophone reveal is when the historicals all change for Doctor Who, where science fiction first makes his presence in history. The Monk is looking to pervert history just for fun to change the lives of millions of people just for a bit of a laugh. To make things better for his design. It might presented in an amusing way (especially the moment Vicki realises how he makes all of his money) but it's still an awe-inspiring concept, and pretty terrifying. Lovely moments abound; the aforementioned gramophone, the discovery of the watch, the canon on the beach, the Doctor knocking out the Viking and then being taken hostage. However the highlights are the end of episode three where the series landscape shifts for the first time (although we didn't know at the time it would lead to a whole list of renegades to come) and the devious trap the Doctor springs on the Monk at the climax. You feel sorry for him, despite everything. He's one of those villains that deserves a 'I'll get you next time!' moment. He's simply too good to write out for good.

The Bad: Unusually for a historical for this period the characters who aren't the regulars or the villain of the piece are a pretty faceless bunch. The Saxons aren't imbued with much in the way of character, only Edith and that is mostly because of how the Doctor reacts so magically to her. It's sad that the day Doctor Who decides to show the consequences of rape at the hands of a terrifying force, the chosen victim isn't someone that our sympathies are particularly invested in (imagine if it had been Vicki?). Mind, I question whether a story that is quite this frivolous should be pushing something as mucky as rape in the face of it's viewers anyway. It was bad enough in The Keys of Mariuns where it was treated like something out of a Benny Hill sketch. The fight scenes are where Camfield lets the side down, which is odd given that would become his forte in later seasons of the show. They feel like the belong on the stage, as though a television camera is a little too wide to contain the pantomimic conflict.

Result: Let's face it, season two is the difficult second album. There's a feeling of the show trying to outdo its first year by making everything bigger and better and more experimental. It's a reasonable approach to take and the ratings certainly show that the audiences were responding well but there's no denying that there is more apathy in the second year and a feeling that their ambition outreaches their resources. The two big budget spectaculars, The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Web Planet, were handed to a director who would happily blame time and money as a reason for why they mostly look wonky but fails to take into consideration that other directors at the time (Camfield) were delivering much more polished work on less money. Planet of the Giants and The Space Museum are both pretty dull, odd given one features genuinely realistic giant sets and the other has an astonishing first episode. It's not a very inspiring line up and if it wasn't for the three historicals that are peppered throughout the season - The Romans, The Crusade and The Time Meddler it would almost entirely be a write off. I would mention The Rescue but it's a little too inconsequential for it's own good and as for The Chase...well it's marvellous in all the wrong ways. The Time Meddler ends this inconsistent run on a reasonably high note, a fun tale of attempted time perversion that drags a little in places but is extremely well executed on the whole. The joy of this story isn't the plot, although it is quite surprising in places but the sheer delight of having four skillful actors working on a quality dialogue and hogging the screen. William Hartnell was one of the joys of season two, toning down his paternal anger and adopting a more amiable grandfather role and here he gets to veer between mentor to Steven and Vicki and prosecutor of the Monk. Peter Butterworth was quite the steal at the time and there's no denying that he is the charismatic star of the show. Finally Maureen O'Brien and Peter Purves make a terrific duo and it is a crying shame that they denied more stories together, the former taking on a more responsible role now Hill and Russell have left and the latter showing the teeth and grit that would put him in good stead when he is practically driving the show next season. The Monk's scheme is deliciously insane and once we get to the good stuff - the reveal of his TARDIS and the confrontations between the Doctor and his new nemesis - the story really is firing on all cylinders. But that is the main problem with this story, in order to get to the tasty moments there is a lot of padding and hideous Viking/Saxon grunting. It's not the best of Hartnell but it is certainly very admirable and enjoyable. Dennis Spooner knew how to spin a yarn without tortuously complicated plots or unrealistic demands on the budget. The Time Meddler is good old fashioned entertainment and there is nothing wrong with that. It just doesn't aspire to be much more than that, which the top tier Doctor Who's aspire to. Not a classic but in a season of stories reaching for the stars and falling flat on their faces, this is a reliable piece; never terrible and often quite special: 7/10 

1 comment:

Blogger said...

Did you know you can create short links with Shortest and get money for every click on your shortened links.