The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, July 23, 2017

"It's More Fun My Way": "The Watcher"/"The Meddling Monk"/"A Battle of Wits"/"Checkmate" [The Time Meddler]

Doctor Who's second series ends with a bang, not with a whimper. The Time Meddler moves briskly (on the whole; I confess I thought that "A Battle of Wits" felt a bit more like a Terry Nation run-around than a Dennis Spooner episode, but that may be because, as the season finale, the production team felt they had to delay the revelation that the Monk hails from the same home world as the Doctor (as demonstrated by his possessing a TARDIS himself) until the end of the penultimate episode.

Still, part of one episode spinning its wheels is hardly a stinging critique of what is otherwise an episode that resets the show in sim subtle but important ways. Equally importantly, the reset is done quite well, through some really good dialogue, well-delivered.

First, where the end of The Chase focused on the Doctor's devastation at the departure of his first friends, now Vicki is allowed to grieve a little for Barbara and Ian. The two remaining members of the TARDIS team share their loss:
VICKI: I shall miss them, Doctor.
VICKI: Ian and Barbara.
DOCTOR: Yes, I shall miss them too. First Susan and now them. Come over here, my dear, I'd like to talk to you.
VICKI: What about the control panel?
DOCTOR: Oh, that's all right, my dear. It's already set. Their decision certainly surprised me, although it shouldn't, I know. But it was quite obvious they intended to take the first opportunity of going back home.
VICKI: Well, they weren't getting any younger, were they?
DOCTOR: It's lucky for you child, they're not here to hear you say that. Good gracious me. You think they're old? What do you think of me?
VICKI: You're different, Doctor. Anyway, we may land in their time one day and be able to talk over old times.
DOCTOR: Well, perhaps Vicki, perhaps.
VICKI: Anyway, it's done now. I wonder where the Tardis'll take us next?
DOCTOR: Yes, it's done now, although I must admit I'm left with a small worry.
DOCTOR: I just wanted to ask you, are you sure you didn't want to go home too? I didn't give you very much time to consider now, did I? I should hate to think that you're just staying for the sake of an old man.
VICKI: Oh, Doctor! I made my decision. I wanted to stay. Anyway, I wouldn't have anything to go back to.
A new unit is born, just in time for Steven Taylor to come blundering out, carrying the stuffed toy panda that was his mascot during his long imprisonment on Mechanus. As the Doctor and Vicki explain the TARDIS's functions, he is incredulous, giving Hartnell a chance to deliver a wonderful line explaining the ship's layout: "That is the dematerialising control and that, over yonder, is the horizontal hold. Up there is the scanner, those are the doors, that is a chair with a panda on it. Sheer poetry, dear boy. Now please stop bothering me." Steven quickly fits in, as they go exploring England of 1066.

The second reset is that the Doctor reveals that, contrary to what Barbara was told in The Aztecs, history can be rewritten--every line. If the Monk succeeds in preventing Harold Godwinson's defeat at Hastings, history will simply--reset, to accommodate the change. That is, in fact, the Monk's plan, and his justification for it:
DOCTOR: Yes, I regret that we do, but I would say that I am fifty years earlier. Now when are you going to answer my questions?
MONK: Which questions?
DOCTOR: The reason for this deliberate destruction.
MONK: I, I want to improve things.
DOCTOR: Improve things? Improve things, yes, that's good. Very good. Improve what, for instance?
MONK: Well, for instance, Harold, King Harold, I know he'd be a good king. There wouldn't be all those wars in Europe, those claims over France went on for years and years. With peace the people'd be able to better themselves. With a few hints and tips from me they'd be able to have jet airliners by 1320! Shakespeare'd be able to put Hamlet on television.
DOCTOR: He'd do what?
MONK: The play Hamlet on television.
DOCTOR: Oh, yes, quite so, yes, of course, I do know the medium.
STEVEN: Were you going to kill the Vikings?
MONK: Yes, yes, I was. You see, if I didn't, then King
DOCTOR: What are we going to do with this fellow? What can we do with this man? He's utterly irresponsible. He wants to destroy the whole pattern of world history.
(The Monk runs out of his Tardis)
Where, last series, Barbara could not change the past, the Doctor is clearly deeply concerned that the Monk will. This raises the stakes immeasurably, of course, and Vicli and Steven fret over whether their own memories will be retconned to fit the new timeline.

[A true continuity geek could try to harmonize these two concepts of time travel by pointing out that the Doctor and the Monk are not human, and could claim that their people, as yet unidentified, can change other worlds's timelines, but that humans can't change their own, without tripping the Grandfather Paradox. Suffice it to say that the show does not do this, and leave it there.]

The third reset is the Monk himself-another member of the Doctor's and Susan's people, mischievous, but with some level of moral justification in his own mind at least--he seems sincere when he says he's helping. But also when he says he's doing it to entertain himself. Peter Butterworth, best known for his many appearances in the "Carry On" series of films, is excellent here, deceptive, manipulative, but not simply evil--he gives a wounded Saxon warrior penicillin rather than let him die, even though it increases the risk of his plan's being foiled. He's humorous at times, and even seems to try to win the Doctor's approval (There are fans who have wondered if the Monk and the Master are one and the same; there is nothing in this story to support it.) Also, the Monk seems to be from 50 years in the Doctor's future. However you view the character, however, just a touch, a little bit of the mystery is stripped away by this member of his own people interacting with him. The Doctor is no longer sui generis.

Finally, this is the first of what are known as "pseudo-historicals"--"which are set in Earth's history but have a dominant science fiction or science fantasy narrative aside from the presence of the Doctor and his TARDIS." Here, the main battle is between the Doctor and his compatriot, not between Harold and William the Conqueror.

All this in a fun, well-acted romp, but one which has with some stakes--we get to care for the Saxons, especially Edith, who is unfailingly kind to the travelers.

A lovely way to close out a stochastic, but very strong, season--from the wild Victorian throwback of The Web Planet, to the sensation of Daleks in London, and to the epic of The Crusades.


Vinnie Bartilucci said...

The other obvious explanation of the dichotomy is to refer to Rule One. The Doctor Lies. He TELLS Barbara that time cannot be rewritten, when what, in fact, he really means it mustn't.

Bringing in another Time Lord, a term we wouldn't hear for the first time in several years, was the first big expansion of the show's mythos. The mention of The Doctor's "people" was in the first episode, but this was an important elaboration. There are more of his people out there, and not all of are good men (or occasionally good women)

Anglocat said...

Yes, Rule 1 does get us out of the problem, Vinnie!

You're also right that this story opens the myths out in what on its own could have been a small way, but it sort of creates a desire for more--it's hard not to go back to that well!