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THE TIME MEDDLER

"If I know the Doctor, it's not going to be as simple as that."

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Some Doctor Who adventures are famous because of what they add to canon. The Deadly Assassin, say. Let's call them turning-point stories. And The Time Meddler, one of the last Hartnell adventures to get a video release, is right up there with 'em.

Overall, The Time Meddler's story isn't the most enthralling. Not very much happens, there aren't very many interesting people and it moves along about as fast as cold treacle.

On the other hand, though, there's what we find out about the Doctor. And that's a very big deal indeed. Comedy wigs and interchangeable Saxons be damned: the first time we saw this, you couldn't have prised us away from the screen with a crowbar.

Up till this point, about all we know is that the Doctor's a traveller in time and space, he has a granddaughter and he can't control where his time machine lands. Oh, yeah, and the orange sky and silver leaf bit. That's it. And now, suddenly there's another one. And he has a TARDIS too.

Now, the mundane kinda people who think of Doctor Who as mildly pleasant teatime entertainment for children would probably shrug at this news and stifle a yawn. We, on the other hand, know it's explosive stuff. Another one? How unbelievably cool is that? And The Time Meddler makes the absolute most of it, too. Steven's scoffing at the idea of a time machine is par for the course with a new companion, but the anachronistic objects littering the story work with this brilliantly to undermine our expectations. It looks like yer basic historical Saxon village, but if it is, who's that guy prancing about with a pop-up toaster? Historical theme park? Drug hallucination? In short, what the hell's going on?

And that's where The Time Meddler succeeds so brilliantly. Writer Dennis Spooner drops in tantalising little clues, but we don't know of anyone watching for the first time who managed to guess that we have another Time Lord on our hands. The third episode cliffhanger when we see the Monk's TARDIS is like being struck by lightning.

So all of that's superlative stuff. But it's not the only area in which The Time Meddler shines. It's a totally brilliant story for the Doctor, with some stunning dialogue - the panda speech brings tears of laughter to our eyes - and some great Doctorly set pieces. We love the way the Doctor makes use of low cunning, cackling with glee as he tricks the Viking and bops him over the head and holding up the Monk with a tree branch. Priceless!

We also get to see the Doctor's stern "not one line" side, offsetting the mead-guzzling flirt. We're not saying he doesn't deserve it, but the Monk's punishment at the hands of the Doctor is, for a time traveller, about as cruel as it gets. The Doctor is definitely not a man to be trifled with.

Peter Butterworth puts in a brilliant performance as the Monk. Since for much of the story he's operating on his own, he gets a lot of nonverbal stuff to do, and he does it superbly. And his two-handers with the Doctor are probably the story's highlights: they play off each other wonderfully, wringing as much comedy as possible out of the script while never letting us forget that something deeply serious is afoot. The character of the Monk's very intriguing: unlike the evil (ahahahaha) of the Master, it's very clear the Monk's not your standard bad guy. He goes out of his way to help Eldred, instead of being mean to the Doctor after capturing him he brings him a slap-up full English, and it's clear that in trying to meddle with history he's not acting maliciously: he just thinks he can do it better. It's nice to see a "villain" who actually has some light and shade.

It's also a pretty good story for Steven and Vicki. Although Steven doesn't listen to Vicki at the beginning, somewhere amongst the bickering they manage to develop a reasonably equal relationship (we love the part where they both say "Follow me" and Steven, though grumbling, caves in and follows Vicki). After the insufferably smug Ian bossing Barbara around, this is quite a relief. In fact, Steven's one of our favourite companions. He's resourceful, he's sensible, he doesn't treat women like a lesser species and, last but definitely not least, he's well cute. Looking at comfy grey-haired dog-commentating Peter Purves today, it's hard to believe that in his youth he was quite the hunk, but yea verily, it was so. As far as we're concerned, he brightens the screen up no end.

There's a good performance from Alethea Charlton, back in her back-combed wig after 100,000 BC, and there's a startlingly adult and effective allusion to her fate at the hands of the Vikings. The rest of The Time Meddler is, sadly, forgettable. The other characters, such as they are, are boringly cardboardy, the plot meanders along and all in all, we can't really bring ourselves to care too much about the imminent arrival of the Viking scorched earth management style. It doesn't matter, though. The good bits make it all worthwhile and then some.

MORAL: Mind your own business.

OUTTAKES

SAXON DRUGS AND ROCK AND ROLL

Did he say... no, he didn't. It's Eldred.

AT LEAST LET ME MAKE YOU A BAMBI SANDWICH

Why does Edith ask the Doctor to "stay for venison" just after he's explained that he's got something urgent to do?

IT'S NOT RARE AND IT'S NOT WELL DONE

"Oh yes, of course - I know the medium." They just couldn't stop themselves from doing those television jokes, could they?

THAT SHRINKING FEELING

When the Doctor yanks that gadget thingy out of the Monk's TARDIS, the easy option would have been for it to turn out to be some kind of immobiliser. But oh, no. Far too dull for this bunch. Instead, it's the dimensional stabiliser, and without it the TARDIS is all cute and miniature. Original, unexpected and visually impressive.

COSMIC

Check out those flashy end-of-season credits.

Buy this Dr Who DVD: UK Buy Doctor Who DVD at Amazon.co.uk  US Buy Doctor Who DVD at Amazon.com

Buy this Dr Who DVD: UK Buy Doctor Who video at Amazon.co.uk   US Buy Doctor Who video at Amazon.com

Download Doctor Who episodes at Amazon.com