By the time The Time Meddler was broadcast, Doctor Who was already being regarded as a hit, and the scale of the programme was ramping up. Starring William Hartnell in the title role, and immediately following the Dalek adventure The Chase, The Time Meddler introduces Peter Purves as a regular traveller in the TARDIS, and attracts Carry On-regular Peter Butterworth to the cast list.
The story takes the Doctor, Vicki and Purves’ Steven back to England in 1066, just in advance of the Viking invasion. As usual, it doesn’t take time for things to not be as they seem, and in this case it’s the local monastery that soon attracts attention. In spite of the singing that comes from it, the Doctor’s suspicions quickly arise that something’s up, and it turns out that there’s only one monk around, played by the aforementioned Butterworth.
He’s the Time Meddler of the story’s title, given the fact that he owns a gramophone, cooking utensils and assorted modern luxuries. The Doctor thus has to unravel the mystery of the monk, and also be aware of the incoming invasion by the Vikings. In the mix too is Purves’ Steven struggling to comprehend that he’s travelled in time.
In truth, The Time Meddler isn’t a classic Doctor Who story, although it does have merits. Butterworth is always good value, and Hartnell is an underappreciated Doctor, as he proves again here. That said, he doesn’t appear in the second episode, and as the commentary track discusses, it’s because he had the week off on holiday! But when Hartnell and Butterworth are sparring, it’s when The Time Meddler really hits its stride.
The problem here though is that the story of The Time Meddler doesn’t effectively cover four episodes, and while it’s got some nice ideas, and shows just how well the show – even then – punched above its budgetary weight, it’s not a vital purchase off the back of the story itself. It does, for the first time, dig into the Doctor’s wider story and heritage, through the introduction of the Meddling Monk, and that makes it an important adventure in the Doctor Who stable.
And the commentary track that accompanies it does lift it enormously. It’s a group track, featuring Peter Purves, the late Verity Lambert, designer Barry Newbury and story editor Donald Tosh. It’s a chaired, and polite discussion, but doesn’t hold back on its punches when necessary.
The panel talk through the budgetary issues on the show, the occasional grumpiness of William Hartnell (who also struggled to learn his lines – some of his minor fluffs make the final cut of the episode) and a general unhappiness with the Jon Pertwee era, when the show became Earth-based and the Doctor became part of the establishment. Verity Lambert also talks about being a female producer at the BBC in the 1960s, how the TARDIS came to be a permanent police box for reasons of cost, and her frustration with the creative team asking for large sets, and then insisting on close up shots!
There’s interesting talk too of the extra pressure on designers in the HD age, and Barry Newbury offers interesting insights into the way he went about spending his budget (and how this contrasted with a Torchwood set visit).
It’s a really good commentary track, made all the more poignant by Verity Lambert’s death last year (a dedication card to her is shown at the end of the story proper). Further DVD extras include a textual obituary to her, and a photo gallery of behind the scenes snaps. But it’s her infectious enthusiasm for talking about Doctor Who that’s the most fitting tribute you’ll find on this Time Meddler DVD. She adds similar enthusiasm to other discs from the Hartnell era, and it’s well worth digging them out.
The rest of the extras aren’t as strong in comparison, although the Info Text track is as interesting as always. There’s also a 16 minute Stripped For Action documentary, which looks at the comic strip adventures of William Hartnell’s Doctor. This is one of the joys of the BBC’s Doctor Who DVDs, in that they throw up nuggets you don’t expect. Count this interesting, short documentary as one of them, not least the Dalek ‘Inebriate, Inebrate’ cover that Terry Nation quickly vetoed one Christmas!
There’s then a very brief, minute long featurette, on the lost twelve seconds of the episode, that features two Vikings being stabbed to death. There’s a small restoration feature that covers the cleaning up of the picture for DVD release, with before and after comparisons. A photo gallery slideshow plays for just over two and a half minutes, with assorted behind the scenes and publicity shots for The Time Meddler (set to suitably dramatic music!).
Finally, the disc is rounded out with Radio Times listings (in PDF format), and a preview of the next Doctor Who classic release, the 25th anniversary special edition of The Five Doctors. Here’s looking forward to that.
Not for the first time on a Doctor Who disc, The Time Meddler is an example of a reasonable story lifted by interesting extra features. In this case, it’s the commentary track that really merits attention, and the joy of seeing an actor such as Peter Butterworth let loose in a role he clearly very much enjoyed.
Check out our previous review of Doctor Who: Beneath The Surface