Doctor Who: The Time Meddler at the BFI

❉ Rob Fairclough reports back from the BFI Southbank launch of the first William Hartnell season to get the Blu-ray Collection treatment.

Peter Purves and BFI’s Justin Johnson. (Photo: Robert Fairclough)

The by now established unveiling of Doctor Who seasons due on Blu-ray at the BFI Southbank, hosted as always by Dick Fiddy and Justin Johnson, hit a bit of a milestone on Saturday 29 October. The screening of 1965’s The Time Meddler, with the customary special guests, marks the first release of a black and white season from the show’s formative years, and you couldn’t get more formative than Season 2 which, bar two episodes, is all complete (unlike its contemporaries). It was the obvious candidate from Doctor Who’s six black and white seasons to first get The Collection treatment.

The Time Meddler was chosen to represent Season 2 on the big screen. It’s a pivotal story; it’s author, Dennis Spooner, had taken over from original story editor David Whitaker for the second season, and had introduced a more playful, pop cultural side to Doctor Who. The Time Meddler, transmitted at the tail end of Season 2, is the culmination of Spooner’s agenda of change and you can literally see the series changing before your eyes.

For a start, it’s the first full adventure to show an alien tampering with established history, an idea that was so powerful that it became part of Doctor Who’s creative DNA. After decades of similarly themed stories, it’s hard to imagine the impact The Time Meddler must have had, although there are moments that still pull you up. In the Doctor hearing a record of monks chanting run down and being wound up again, plus new TARDIS recruit Steven’s discovery of a wristwatch in the 11th century, you can see how the expectations of the audience would have been completely thrown.

Not only that, the alien in question is a member of the Doctor’s own race, and every inch the Doctor’s match in guile and cunning. Played by the putty-faced Peter Butterworth, the ‘Meddling Monk’ appears avuncular, good-humoured and slightly forgetful, but is often several steps ahead of his opponents. He describes the Doctor to Steven – when the Doctor’s companion hadn’t described what he looked like – so Steven will think he’s holding the Doctor prisoner, intending to lure Vicki and Steven into a trap. It takes the pragmatic Vicki to point out that “Maybe we aren’t as clever as we think we are.” It’s interesting to note that, a year later, the Monk’s wily characteristics would resurface in the new Doctor introduced in The Power of the Daleks. Even more interestingly, that story was rewritten by Dennis Spooner…

As well as all that, The Time Meddler re-writes the rule that established Earth history is immutable, getting round the rather awkward fact in Season 1 that the Doctor could freely interfere on other worlds but couldn’t on Earth before the 20th century. And as well as that, with William Russell’s young leading man Ian Chesterton gone, Spooner firmly repositions the Doctor as the hero of the series; he does all the investigating and confronting, while Steven and Vicki do proto second-string companion stuff like being captured and following in the Doctor’s footsteps. As Vicki presciently says, “He’s the crew – we’re just the passengers.” That all this was done in a studio that, Spooner noted, was “just about big enough to get a desk and Richard Baker in,” is quite remarkable.

Rightfully, these BFI events always showcase the dedicated fan community that’s built up around the production of these Blu-ray box sets. Toby Hadoke was welcomed on stage and given the opportunity to spotlight his work in assiduously cataloguing which Doctor Who actors have passed on (like some “anorak-clad harbinger of doom,” as he put it). Toby was pleased to see that his ideas for documentaries, Looking for… and …Revisited, had become regular features, and joked that he was “shockingly always available” to present them.

BFI’s Dick Fiddy and Toby Hadoke. (Photo: Robert Fairclough)

The copies of The Time Meddler recovered from New Zealand and used as the basis for this restoration had 12 seconds of a violent fight between some Saxon villagers and Viking warriors cut. Showing just how committed Doctor Who’s Restoration Team are, producer Paul Vanezis decided to recreate the missing action using stand ins, together with weapons and costumes borrowed from Bristol Costume Services and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Mind-bogglingly, the scenes were “shot in 4K widescreen interlaced, then had to be dropped down to 405 resolution, filmized, then dirtied it up and noised. At that stage it was starting to look close to the original film recording. So then, Peter Crocker – who did the restoration – had to restore it.” Cue gales of laughter from the audience and presenter Justin Johnson’s comment, “That is bonkers. Completely insane… But what a fantastic thing and a treat for everybody.”

Paul Vanezis. (Photo: Robert Fairclough)

One of the other treats on the box sets has been trailers for the box sets featuring companions such as Tegan and Ace in later life. Content advisor and writer/director Pete McTighe explained that, from Season 26 onwards, they “should be taken a bit more seriously, as they were a really great opportunity for us to check in with these beloved characters and beloved actors that we’ve all grown up with and want to see more of.” The latest, Vicki actor Maureen O’Brien starring in The Storyteller, enchantingly showed her post-TARDIS life entertaining her Trojan granddaughter with exotic stories of time travel.

Doctor Who fan Lily May Sherratt dressed as Dodo! (Photo: Robert Fairclough)

It’s a cliché, but the best was saved until last as Steven actor Peter Purves took the stage to a prolonged, appreciative reception, with one fan even cosplaying as Dodo in his honour. And it was the best – Purves has remarkably detailed recall of his time on the show, nearly sixty years ago, offering insights that are always enthralling to listen to. He praised Peter Butterworth with a tribute that no doubt pleased his son Tyler, who also attended the screening: “[Peter] was a lovely, lovely, gentle man, no side to him at all. Extremely funny, very calm, very quiet, came out with some beautiful [comments] every now and then… It was a pleasure to meet him.”

Tyler Butterworth. (Photo: Robert Fairclough)

Peter is always disarmingly honest. This time he cited the main fight between the Saxons and Vikings as “the worst fight I’ve ever seen on television” but went on to praise the quality of Douglas Camfield’s direction elsewhere: “It was superb. Really excellent. First class. Dougie was a wonderful guy to work with. He was very kind. Very accurate – he just did it. There was no fuss, there was no mess. He just got on with it.”

Peter Purves. (Photo: Robert Fairclough)

Reflecting on a chaotic time of regular cast changes and confessing that he didn’t feel safe in his job, Peter nevertheless had unequivocal praise for the material he was given to work with: “It was story led, I felt; it was content led. Very, very, very good scripts… at a time when making television was difficult. I thought creating it ‘live’ was a stunning skill and I was glad to be part of that era.” He also admitted that when watching his acting on the big screen he thought “my toes might curl, but they never did.”

Once again, the BFI did Doctor Who proud. It’ll be fascinating to see what they’ve got in store next year for the 60th anniversary.


❉ Doctor Who: The Time Meddler + Q&A with Peter Purves took place at BFI Southbank, Saturday 29 October 2022. DOCTOR WHO: THE COLLECTION – SEASON 2  will be released by BBC Studios on Blu-ray soon. Click here to pre-order Doctor Who: The Collection – Season 2 from Amazon UK DISCLAIMER: This is an Amazon Affiliate link, which means we will receive a commission if you make a purchase through our affiliate link at no extra cost to you. Any revenue raised from affiliate links are directly pooled into the maintenance of the site (CMS and domain hosting fees, plugins and industry standard software subscriptions.). Click here for more information.

 Robert Fairclough writes on a variety of subjects, including mental health and popular culture (sometimes both at once). He has written six books, contributes to magazines and websites, and writes regular blogs about projects he’s involved in for The Restoration Trust. He can be contacted on robmay1964@outlook.com, and his website can be viewed at www.robfairclough.co.uk

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