I actually only noticed today that many of the stories I’m choosing for A Doctor A Day fall close to important anniversaries for the show – The Invasion was shown over the fifth anniversary, the Five Doctors was shown for the twentieth anniversary, Remembrance Of The Daleks was the start of the twenty-fifth year of the show (and also started broadcasting on the even more important date of my tenth birthday), and today’s story, The Time Warrior, was broadcast just a couple of weeks after the tenth anniversary (which came halfway through The Green Death, another really good story). An odd, and unintended, coincidence – especially when you consider that the two stories I’m looking at that don’t fit this pattern – Destiny Of The Daleks and Timelash – are the ones that are generally considered ‘a bit crap’. Possibly the quality of Doctor Who stories goes in regular cycles, or possibly I’m inferring too much from a tiny and biased sample. You decide…
The Time Warrior was the last story of Jon Pertwee’s penultimate series as the Doctor, and is one of his very best. Pertwee was the second longest-serving Doctor, after his successor Tom Baker, but his five years with the show are not generally regarded as a highpoint (and I must admit that while I try not to defer to popular opinion, he ties with Sylvester McCoy for last place in my personal rankings of the seven original Doctors). In part this was because of the format, imposed by the outgoing production team at the end of Patrick Troughton’s tenure, with which Pertwee’s Doctor was lumbered – stuck on Earth without the ability to operate the TARDIS for most of the first few years of his stint as the Doctor, as Terrance Dicks, the script editor of the time, noted, this only left two stories – the alien invasion and the mad scientist – open for the show.
But also, Pertwee’s Doctor was too much the man of action, and the show in this period owed far more to the contemporary ITC adventure series like Jason King and Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) (and also to The Avengers, a wonderful non-ITC show of the same ilk, co-created by Sydney Newman before he worked on Doctor Who – Pertwee’s character may have dressed like Peter Wyngarde, but his lines could easily have been spoken by Patrick McNee). Doctor Who at its best was always an innovative show – and it always had the potential to do literally anything – and so to see it following the lead of other, less interesting shows is somewhat depressing.
To make matters worse, most of Pertwee’s scripts were extremely average, and while script editor Terrance Dicks (we will talk more about the importance of script editors to Who tomorrow) was probably the strongest script editor the show ever had as far as plot went, he was not so hot on punching up dialogue, and was infuriatingly sexist, so when given a dull runaround by, say, Terry Nation (of whom more also tomorrow) it would turn into a dull sexist runaround but with a beautifully crafted plot.
There were exceptions to this, though, especially in Pertwee’s later series. The Green Death, the story directly before this one, is one of the best of any era, and everything written by Robert Holmes, who wrote this story, is golden – Holmes was as good a writer as people seem to think Stephen Moffatt is, writing chilling horror and music-hall patter with equal facility.
We’re very lucky that Holmes was chosen to write this story, which introduced several new elements to the Doctor Who ‘mythos’ (if you’ll pardon the term), one of which was the new companion, Sarah Jane Smith.
Something that has been noted many times about Doctor Who is that almost every new female companion for the Doctor was introduced with “this one won’t be just a typical screamer to get rescued by the Doctor”, but almost every one of them was reduced to shrieking and being captured by villains within two stories. There were exceptions (Tom Baker’s companions mostly got away with having actual characters, and Ace never got turned into a damsel in distress) but normally their personalities got watered down horribly.
On the commentary track for The Time Warrior, Dicks claims that the format demanded the companions be ‘tied to railway tracks’, and that making the characters stronger when they were first introduced allowed this to be done without cheapening the characters – you knew they were strong, so they were then allowed to be weak. There is, no doubt, an element of truth to this. However, Dicks is also the man who replaced Doctor Liz Shaw after one series with Jo Grant, whose function was described *on screen* as ‘someone to wash the Doctor’s test tubes and tell him how brilliant he is’, and who says in the documentary on the Time Warrior DVD “Much to my disgust, feminism was coming along, you see…”, so I’m not *entirely* convinced by his arguments.
But with the character of Sarah Jane Smith, viewers were lucky enough to get a Robert Holmes script, and to get Elisabeth Sladen in the role. Sladen is an absolutely superb actress – easily the best actress ever to take a companion role in Who – and she managed to get enough of a sense of the character from the script that she managed to actually build a coherent character up for Sarah Jane, often in spite of later scripts, and became one of the best-remembered companions of the entire series.
The Time Warrior itself is a great romp, involving a Sontaran (their first appearance) crash-landing on Earth in the medieval period and having to kidnap scientists from the twentieth century using a time-displacement macguffin in order to repair his ship, and getting involved in a local conflict between knights, with the Doctor travelling back in time to sort it out along with a stowaway Sarah Jane. While the feel of the story is Ivanhoe-esque Boys’ Own adventure, the actual plot is closer to farce, being based around cases of mistaken identity, comic-relief absent-minded professors, and the Doctor dressing up as a robot and a monk. It also features one of writer Robert Holmes’ classic ‘double acts’, Irongron and Bloodaxe, who operate in classic Pete’n’Dud intelligent idiot/stupid idiot mode, and some of the overall best acting in the series.
The performances are helped by Alan Bromly’s direction. Bromly was, even at the time, considered an ‘old-school’ director, and in his work, even more than in Waris Hussein’s on An Unearthly Child, you can see the theatrical origin of much of the style of British TV drama. A much less visually imaginative director than Hussein, he just plonks the camera in one spot and sets up the shot, but he frames the shots so well – and more importantly casts actors so perfectly in their roles – that the effect is like watching an extraordinarily good stage performance.
But a Doctor Who story would be nothing without the central performance, and it’s here that The Time Warrior really shines, with Pertwee given one of his rare opportunities to get his teeth into the role. While Pertwee is generally a rather hammy performer (not that there’s anything wrong with that in Who) there are some great little moments here, like when he leans back and considers whether to report Sarah Jane to UNIT, where it’s no longer funny old Jon Pertwee out of Wurzel Gummidge up there, but it’s the Doctor. Pertwee shows here just what he could do with a good script, and it’s a shame that, like Colin Baker later, he was so rarely given the chance to do that.
The Time Warrior is available either as a single DVD or as part of the Bred For War box set (containing all the Sontaran stories at a reduced price, and well worth it even though none of those other stories match up to this first one). It’s also apparently available on iTunes, though why on earth anyone would want to pay Apple for a DRM’d video file that they can’t watch without running the risk of breaking their computer I’m unsure. However you get it, though, it’s a good, solid story at the upper end of the norm for Doctor Who – nothing earth-shattering, but thoroughly enjoyable, and it stands up surprisingly to repeated watching.