February 10: "Checkmate" / Dr. Who and the Daleks

(The Time Meddler episode 4 & the first Peter Cushing film)

So by the end of "A Battle of Wits" we knew exactly what the Monk was planning, but the Doctor didn't, so consequently there's a recap where the Monk gleefully tells the Doctor of his plan to change history.  The Doctor is of course outraged, but the Monk rejects his arguments: "Doctor, it's more fun my way.  I can make things happen ahead of their time... For instance, do you really believe the ancient Britons could have built Stonehenge without the aid of my anti-gravitational lift?"  This is a great line, suggesting that the Monk has already changed history to what we "know" it to be, and he's clearly having a lot of fun.

The Monk discovers the Doctor has removed his TARDIS's
dimensional control. ("Checkmate") ©BBC
But the discovery of another TARDIS!  The suggestion before this has often been that the Doctor built the TARDIS himself, but this shows that's clearly not the case.  There are other TARDISes, and other members of the Doctor's race.  It's a bit difficult to convey how significant this is, given how blasé we are about such a thing nowadays, but it proves that there are more than just the Doctor and Susan out there in the universe.

Really though, the rest of the episode is just showing the results of the actions put into motion in the previous episodes.  The Saxons know the Vikings are planning an invasion and that the Monk (who previously requested that the villagers light beacon fires) isn't to be trusted.  The Vikings hiding in the monastery are routed and killed13 by the Saxons, and the Monk is chased out as well, foiling his attempt to meddle with history.  Except he still has his atomic cannon and its neutron mortars, but it seems like it's too late for him to carry out his plan.

The Time Meddler is a lovely little story.  It's about history, but really more about history itself: 1066 is little more than a backdrop to the Monk's machinations (albeit an event that really would lead to dramatic differences if it were altered), but they're the actions of someone amusing themselves rather than of a megalomaniac.  It's also a direct challenge to the premise set up in The Aztecs, of the immutability of history.  We've got Donald Tosh editing scripts now, but this is still clearly Dennis Spooner's domain.  It looks great (even if the prints themselves are a bit rough, with "A Battle of Wits" clearly in the worst shape), it's well directed and well acted -- with a superb guest turn from Peter Butterworth -- and it's a great script.  Really, what's not to love?

The Time Meddler is the last story of season 2.  If season 1 saw Doctor Who establishing the guidelines for the show, season 2 saw everyone trying to push the boundaries.  We get more humor, more abstract concepts (such as in The Space Museum), and more ambition.  It doesn't always pay off (stand up, The Web Planet), but there's always a sense of trying to go beyond what they've done before, and when they occasionally try to play it safe (such as with The Chase), the result falls a bit flat.  Season 2 demonstrates that there's still plenty of life left in the show -- it's survived the loss of all three original travelling companions, and it's done so with confidence.  Season 1 ends with a speech about the TARDIS crew finding their destiny in the stars.  Season 2 does one better by ending with the time travellers' faces actually out among the stars.  It's a fitting end.

The Daleks prepare to destroy all other life with a neutron
bomb. (Dr. Who and the Daleks) ©AARU Productions
But we're not quite done yet!  Between the end of season 2 and the start of season 3 came something monumental: that's right, it's time for Dr. Who and the Daleks, the first Peter Cushing film. Which means this is more like two hours of Who today, but never mind.

But Doctor Who, in color and with money thrown at it!  It looks pretty impressive, even if it doesn't always succeed -- full marks for the Daleks, somewhat less for their salmon-colored city.  But you have to admire a production that sticks lava lamps prominently in frame as a symbol of alienness.

This film is a relatively faithful adaption of the first Dalek serial.  Most of the big changes have to do with the main characters: Dr. Who is an eccentric inventor who lives with his granddaughters Barbara and Susie Who (yes, really), and who happens to have invented a time machine, which he keeps in a police box in his garden.  Ian Chesterton is Barbara's bumbling boyfriend.  Everything else is largely in keeping with the original: all the plot beats are there -- almost to the point where it feels mechanical, rather than organic.  Dr. Who wants to investigate the alien city, so he sabotages the fluid link (which is even the same error code on the fault locator).  The Daleks want to ambush the Thals, so they make Susie write a letter inviting them into the city.  Dr. Who needs the fluid link back, so a small party goes around the back of the city while the main force attacks the front.  (This is actually probably the most pointless plot beat to repeat, since Ian's small party doesn't seem to have any real effect on the outcome of events here.)  This is definitively a big color remake of the original story, but it hasn't stopped to consider why events in the original serial were there in the first place, content instead to just forge on ahead regardless.

Dr. and Susie Who are held captive by the Daleks. (Dr.
Who and the Daleks
) ©AARU Productions
That's not to say things aren't entertaining -- they're just not as entertaining as they could be.  Peter Cushing steals the show as Dr. Who, playing a version of William Hartnell's character with all the irascibility removed.  He's a kindly old grandfather, and you can see Peter Cushing put the twinkle in Dr. Who's eye in almost every scene.  And although Ian Chesterton is portrayed as an idiot, Roy Castle puts enough sympathy in the role that you can't help but root for him by the end.  On the other hand, Roberta Tovey's Susie Who is one of those precocious child geniuses that film and television companies seem to think audiences will like for some reason, and although she tries, virtually every line of dialogue Tovey has to deliver makes her seem stuck up and unlikeable.  And Jennie Linden, sadly, is rather wasted, as Barbara's character fades primarily into the background.  Special mention, though, for the moment when she puts mud on the Dalek's eyestalk: "Dalek!" she yells.  "Yes?" the Dalek replies obligingly, whereupon Barbara slaps the mud on its eye: "Aaah!"

It's not perfect, and the attempts to artificially graft humor onto the proceedings typically fall flat (and nowhere worse than in the awful ending scene, showing Ian panic about Roman soldiers and start faffing about in Tardis14 like he's having a seizure), but there's still enough to enjoy here, especially if you can look past the salmon shower curtain walls.  It's not as good as the original, but it is as confident, and that carries things a long way.

Malcolm Lockyer seems to think he's composing music for a Bond film, though.

13 Though not in the episode as it currently exists: "Checkmate" is missing 12 seconds of the Vikings being killed -- the result of overseas censor cuts; the audio of the missing segment, though, still exists and is on the DVD.
14 In an interesting reversal of the custom of the television show, in the entirety of Dr. Who and the Daleks the time machine is always called Tardis, with nary a definite article in sight.