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DVD Review

Doctor Who
The Time Meddler


Starring: William Hartnell
RRP: £12.99
Certificate: U
Available 04 February 2008

The TARDIS arrives on an English coastline in the year 1066. Exploring, the Doctor discovers that one of his own people, the Monk, is conspiring to wipe out the Viking fleet and thus allow King Harold to face the forces of William of Normandy with a fresh army at the Battle of Hastings...

There are so many classic William Hartnell stories that have yet to see the light of day on DVD (The Keys of Marinus, The Chase and The War Machines to name just three of my favourites) that I had to raise an eyebrow at The Time Meddler making such an early arrival onto shiny silver disc.

It’s certainly a pleasant enough story, and fans will find much of interest within these four vintage episodes, but it’s also incredibly slow-paced, and I can imagine more casual viewers might need a vat of coffee to help them stay awake for the entire duration.

The Time Meddler actually marks the start of a fresh new chapter for the series as, for the very first time, the TARDIS is without any of Hartnell’s original companions - Ian and Barbara having finally been returned to their own time at the climax of the previous story.

The arrival of Peter Purves as new companion Steven Taylor creates a whole new dynamic in the TARDIS crew, and it takes a little bit of getting used to. There is now a much more light-hearted ambience in the TARDIS which spills over into the rest of the story. This welcome change of mood is largely due to the vastly under-rated Purves himself, who instils a sense of adventurous fun into his character, the like of which we’d never really seen before in a Doctor Who regular.

Whilst the viewer is possibly still pining for the grim heroism of Ian Chesterton, having joined him on an epic journey for the previous two years, Peter Purves does his best to cheer you up about it, and he is to be commended for fleshing out a whole new style for Steven’s character, rather than just blandly stepping into Ian’s empty shoes.

This new sense of fun seems to rub off on Hartnell too, as we find his notoriously grumpy Doctor in a delightfully playful mood, even if some of the humour is derived from Hartnell’s fluffed lines (such pearls as: “But I’m not a mountain goat, I prefer walking to any day!... (troubled pause) ... and I hate climbing!” or how about his classic retort to Steven: “Now will you please stop buggering me!”).

Carry On star Peter Butterworth turns in a lovely, subtle performance as The Meddling Monk, this being the first time that we see another member of the Doctor’s race, although they haven’t yet been given the name of Time Lords. Unlike the vast majority of the Doctor’s opponents, who always seem to be thoroughly evil and mercenary swines, the Monk comes across as more of a lovable rogue, maybe even well-meaning in his intentions, just a little misguided and mischievous.

Butterworth clearly relishes the role, and whilst The Monk would go on to make a small return appearance the following season in The Daleks' Masterplan, it’s a bit of a shame that we didn’t see more of the character (perhaps Russell T Davies could be persuaded to bring him back with a modern comic actor for the new series? Ricky Gervais, perhaps? Hmm, maybe not...)

The story plods along nicely enough, the main problem being that there’s actually very little going on here to fully engage the viewer. Having said that, there are a few nice touches and surprises here and there.

On its original broadcast, the average viewer would have been wrong-footed into assuming that this was another purely historical tale (The Time Meddler is actually the show’s first ‘pseudo-historical’ story, combining historical and science-fiction elements for the first time) and so would have been intrigued by the occasional tantalising clue that all was not as it seemed to be.

The best moment by far is the jaw-dropping climax to episode three, in which a gobsmacked Steven and Vicki discover the Monk’s TARDIS. This scene has obviously lost much of it’s impact 40 years on, when the universe seems positively infested with renegade Timelords, but back then it was a definite falling-off-the-chair moment (“The Monk’s got a TARDIS!”) which changed the show forever, as we learned that the Doctor wasn’t quite as alone as we first thought. I still find it to be a spine-tingling scene today.

This low-key tale won’t be to everyone’s taste then, and could probably have done with being trimmed down by at least one episode, but it can gently reward patient viewing.

Commentary is provided by Peter Purves, producer Verity Lambert, script editor Donald Tosh and designer Barry Newbery. The commentary is moderated by former Doctor Who Magazine editor Clayton Hickman, and I have to say I’m not too keen on these ‘moderated’ commentaries, preferring the more natural flow of spontaneous discussion. It was particularly redundant here, as Peter Purves would have done a top job himself of keeping the discussion together. It’s still occasionally interesting though, and is especially poignant as this was Verity Lambert’s final commentary to be recorded before her sad death late last year. The DVD also features a brief text obituary to Lambert, as well as a photo gallery and a fitting dedication at the close of the final episode.

Strangely, there’s no “Making Of” featurette here, although we do get a quick insight into the tremendous restoration work that was painstakingly carried out for this release, and an audio recording of twelve missing seconds from the fourth episode (a couple of grisly Viking deaths removed by overseas censors prior to recovery of the print).

My favourite feature on the disc though is not strictly relevant to The Time Meddler itself but is still hugely welcome. Stripped For Action takes a look at the first Doctor’s comic strip adventures in the pages of TV Comic, with the help of historians John Ainsworth and Jeremy Bentham, former Doctor Who Magazine editors Gary Russell and Alan Barnes, and even legendary original comic artist Bill Mevin!

It’s brilliant stuff, the real highlight of the whole DVD, and I dearly hope that this is followed up on future DVD releases to cover the comic strip adventures of the other Doctors.

Not too bad a package then, but definitely not one to show to the kids who have been brought up on the whizz-bang pace of modern Who.


Danny Salter

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