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Doctor Who: The Time Warrior (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Time Warrior originally aired in 1974.

Look, will you excuse me? I’ve got to go and find a young girl. I’ll see you later, I hope.

Young girl? I should have thought he was a bit old for that sort of thing. Oh well.

– the Doctor and Rubeish discover that Jo’s departure isn’t affecting him too much

The end of an era is fast approaching. Jon Pertwee departed Doctor Who after spending five years in the title role. The end of his fourth year saw the departure of his longest-serving companion, Jo Grant. The start of his final year would see the introduction of Sarah Jane Smith, perhaps the most iconic companion of all time. However, watching the first serial of his last year – The Time Warrior – there is a sense of pending change in the air, a sense that show in the cusp of a very significant shift. The Time Warrior isn’t necessarily explicit about this, but you can almost feel it.

Time is running out...

Time is running out…

Put quite frankly, the core of The Time Warrior doesn’t really feel like a Jon Pertwee story, despite the fact that it stars Jon Pertwee. Most of the other stories in this final year feel like a gigantic year-long victory lap, an attempt to say a fond farewell to various Pertwee-era concepts, even if Pertwee wouldn’t formally decide to leave until Death to the Daleks.It is one of those weird instances where you can almost see where the show was inevitably going before the show knew for sure. (For example, I’d argue the Ninth Doctor’s fate felt certain in episodes produced before Eccleston decided to leave.)

Invasion of the Dinosaurs feels like the last hurrah of the U.N.I.T. family, with betrayal serving to undermine one of the show’s fundamental concepts. Death to the Daleks was a typical Terry Nation Dalek story, only a year after another typical Terry Nation Dalek story. Monster of Peladon was a sequel to an earlier adventure that actually managed to be longer than its predecessor. Appropriately enough, Pertwee’s final story, Planet of the Spiders, was an affectionate celebration of the era – right down to gratuitous car chases used to pad out episodes.

Making hay...

Making hay…

So The Time Warrior feels a bit different, then, because it doesn’t really hark to any of the familiar concepts of the Pertwee era. Due to the paradigm established in Spearhead from Space, the Pertwee era relies less on the TARDIS than most periods of the show. However, despite that, Pertwee still managed to make trips into space and into the future from time to time. However, he generally avoided trips into Earth’s history. Even when the show did venture into the past, in The Time Monster, it was more a trip into myth than a trip into history.

Now, the historical had been in decline since the end of the Hartnell era. Troughton’s Doctor didn’t spend too much time in Earth’s history either. However, while The Time Warrior feels distinctly strange in the context of the Pertwee era, it feels like a bit of foreshadowing for the rapidly approaching time when Tom Baker would assume the lead role. To be entirely fair, The Time Warrior is – in many ways – the spiritual successor to The Time Meddler, the second season story about a time traveller messing with history. You can’t really argue that The Time Warrior is necessarily exceptionally original.

The initial pitch for "Arrow" was quite different from what made it to the screen...

The initial pitch for “Arrow” was quite different from what made it to the screen…

However, it did update a story told almost a decade earlier and reestablish it as a viable template for Doctor Who. Indeed, The Time Warrior points towards a future for the show where the Doctor would match wits with alien threats in a historical context. It can be read as the predecessor to stories like Pyramids of Mars or The Masque of Mandragora or The Talons of Weng-Chiang. It’s a template that the new series has readily adopted, with its third episode – The Unquiet Dead – following the pattern.

The reasons for this influence on the show’s immediate future is quite obvious. The story is written by Robert Holmes. Holmes would serve as script editor for producer Philip Hinchcliffe, producing one of the most respected eras of the show. It would begin in about a year’s time, and The Time Warrior seems like something of a very basic trial run. For one thing, it is more of an action adventure than a horror story, and it still seems – loosely – to be something in the style of Pertwee, even if the concept seems a little weird.

"This is awkward. I was meant to be gone by the time you got here."

“This is awkward. I was meant to be gone by the time you got here.”

Holmes decided to create the Sontarans for this story because he actively disliked the historical episodes from the early years of the show:

They wanted to do a historical, which they hadn’t attempted for some time. Now, I hate Doctor Who in the history mode, because I think it’s too whimsy and twee. So I compromised and offered them a story mixing science fiction with a kind of pseudo-history. The Sontarans came after I’d been reading some heavy tome on war – it was terribly Teutonic and all about the Fatherland and so on. I saw the cloned Sontarans gaining sustenance from their shops wherein they are monitored to make sure they don’t spend too much time on the recharging. If they do, I saw a kind of umbilical regression surging down to kill them.

Holmes’ approach would be so influential that show’s last “truly” historical piece (that is, one without aliens or time travellers) would air in 1982.

Linx's method of torture involved making the Doctor watch The Time Monster without bathroom breaks...

Linx’s method of torture involved making the Doctor watch The Time Monster without bathroom breaks…

It is worth noting that Holmes goes out of his way not to glorify history here, refusing to offer a simplified or stylish version of English history and to play into noble stereotypes or archetypes about honour and valour. When Sarah Jane arrives, she takes a moment to try to figure out what is going on. She doesn’t understand that she has travelled in time, and so attempts to piece together what has happened:

I’ve got it! It’s one of those tourist places. A medieval castle all restored to its original condition, with jolly banquets and buxom serving wenches. That’s it, isn’t it? Mind you, I think you’ve overdoing the sordid realism a bit. I mean, I know things were a bit grotty in the Middle Ages, but, really, you might leave the tourists a bit of glamorous illusion. I’ve never seen such a scurvy, smelly–

It’s a nice moment, and one that acknowledges that sometimes attempts to play up the past tend to ignore “sordid realism” of history in favour of the “glamorous illusion” that tourists probably prefer.

Not a man you want to cross...

Not a man you want to cross…

Doctor Who tends to go backwards and forwards on this point. Sometimes the version of history presented is little more than a collection of familiar clichés rapidly stuck together (as in The Shakespeare Code, to pick an example.) At other points, the show can be surprisingly nuanced in its portrayal of particular attitudes (as in Human Nature and Family of Blood, to pick an example from the same season). The Time Warrior, in the style of Robert Holmes, is an especially cynical depiction of Britain’s Middle Ages, dirty and filthy and packed with idiots waving swords around.

Indeed, Holmes rather brilliantly refuses to take any of the natives especially seriously. It’s quite clear that one of the reasons that nobody else in the country seems to respect Irongron is because he isn’t very smart. Even the Doctor seems to refuse to take him seriously as a threat, to the point where he marches into Irongron’s study in disguise, just for the hell of it. It takes a squadron of Irongron’s men armed with rifles shooting at the Doctor in a confined space to turn them into a threat and – even then – they aren’t an especially serious one.

Something's not quite right here...

Something’s not quite right here…

It’s Linx who represents the real threat, with the Doctor articulating Irongron’s place in the grand scheme of things by explaining, “He’s just like a little boy, stirring up the red ants and the black ants. This is something to keep him amused, to stop him from getting bored.” However, there’s no real evidence that Linx is any more credible a military leader than Irongron. He just seems a great deal more threatening because of the resources at his disposal. Which, come to thing of it, is a typical cynical Robert Holmes position. Warmongering people are idiots, but an idiot with that sort of firepower is terrifying.

Linx and Irongron are presented as borderline sociopaths with a hunger for violence. “Oh, so you like a war, eh?” Irongron asks, at one point. Linx responds, “Who does not?” Linx seems almost in love with the idea, cementing the characterisation of the Sontaran race for decades to come. Linx proudly boasts, “I am an expert at war, Irongron.” As such, his military expertise should be invaluable to these Middle Age idiots.

Potato man!

Potato man!

And yet, watching The Time Warrior, there’s a sense that Linx a bit of a moron. You could make a convincing case that he is as much of an idiot as Irongron, but with better technology behind him. For one thing, he’s apparently not really a high-ranking official. He confesses to the Doctor that most of his insight hasn’t been earned through years of experience, but instead learned by rote. “I’m only a lowly Commander, Doctor. I merely quote from the appreciation circulated by our military intelligence.”

When the Doctor mentions that his weakness is the “probic vent” on the back of his neck, Linx tries to make it sound like a distinctly noble attribute. “In our case, Doctor, it is a strength,” he boasts, “because it means we must always face our enemies.” That sounds more than a little bit silly. After all, any military leader will acknowledge that sometimes retreat is necessary. We also learn that the Sontarans apparently aren’t as adept at warfare as it might originally seem.

Put that in your pipe... I mean, er, probic vent...

Put that in your pipe… I mean, er, probic vent…

Sontaran military might, it appears, is not earned through clever tactics or shrewd military skill. Instead, the Sontaran approach to warfare is built upon the concede of sheer overwhelming might. “At the Sontaran Military Academy, we have hatchings of a million cadets at each muster parade. Thus we can sustain enormous casualties on all battle fronts.” It would seem that the Sontaran mode of warfare is quite similar to that employed during the First World War. That’s hardly something to be proud of. It’s telling that his clever techniques to help Irongron still rely on strength in numbers. The robot is a nice idea, but you need at least a few dozen of them for it to be effective.

There’s something to be said that the confrontation between Linx and the Doctor in the final episode is just a slight variation on swords-and-shields. Even with the most advanced technology, Holmes seems to cynically suggest, it’s still the same old thing. The Time Warrior sees Holmes applying his trademark cynicism to the art of warfare. No matter how you might dress it up, it’s still brutal barbarism, and those who thirst for it are exactly the kind of people that you don’t want directing it.

Man he has everything in there...

Man he has everything in there…

While Holmes’ cynicism is perfectly pitched when it comes to Linx and Irongron, it feels a little awkward when it’s applied to Sarah Jane. Quite simply, Sarah Jane is introduced as a feminist character, and it seems like Holmes’ script devotes considerable energy to mocking Sarah Jane’s distinctively feminist values. A large amount of the comedy of dropping Sarah Jane in the Middle Ages seems to stem from her feminist beliefs. We’re supposed to find the fact that she can’t understand that this is a different time  with different values inherently hilarious.

“You’re still living in the Middle Ages!” she protests in righteous anger at one point, which turns her into the butt of the joke. It feels just a little bit mean-spirited to introduce her in this manner. I’m not suggesting that Robert Holmes was sexist any more than I suggest that some of his later output makes him racist. I’m merely suggesting that Holmes went of a particular angle without necessarily thinking about what it said about the show.

Oh look, Ye Olde Firing Squad...

Oh look, Ye Olde Firing Squad…

Indeed, the Doctor’s interactions with Sarah Jane are the least of it. They seem decidedly in character, with a cantankerous Third Doctor taking sadistic pleasure in winding up somebody who is easily annoyed. He did the same with the Brigadier a great deal. Even with his paternal fondness for Jo, he wasn’t above making a condescending or dismissive remark or two. So when he meets Sarah Jane, it’s quite clear that he has honed in on something that will really annoy her.

Not only will he be his usual condescending and patronising self, he’ll throw in some sexism for good measure. “Well, you can make yourself useful,” he comments. “We need somebody around here to make the coffee.” When Sarah Jane concedes that she might have been wrong, the Doctor makes sure to include some needling in his response, “That’s a generous admission. Especially coming from one of the fair sex.”

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship...

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship…

We know that the Third Doctor isn’t sexist. He is a pompous, arrogant and patronising ass at times, but he’s not sexist. However, it does feel like the script as a whole is having a bit too much of a go at Sarah Jane, and that her feminism is the target of this ridicule. Compare the introduction of Jo in Terror of the Autons, where Holmes acknowledges her lack of technical proficiency, but makes it clear that she’s fundamentally good-natured and sweet. Jo might try to blow up the Doctor, but the script never laughs at her for her weaknesses.

In contrast, Sarah Jane is presented to us as the butt of a bunch of jokes. To be fair, this will all be quickly forgotten. Sarah Jane is the most iconic companion for a reason. Elisabeth Sladen is, quite frankly, amazing. She is probably the best actress to appear in the classic series, with only Lalla Ward coming close. What’s really remarkable about Sarah Jane is that she had a remarkably rocky first year, and yet her character just immediately connected with Tom Baker’s Doctor. But we’ll talk about that in times to come. In the mean time, The Time Warrior is hardly the best introduction.

Just turning up the irony levels...

Just turning up the irony levels…

I actually quite like The Time Warrior. As with the vast majority of Holmes’ stuff, it is wonderfully clever. That introductory scene, with the Sontaran planting the flag, is one of the best sequences in the Pertwee era – it’s the perfect juxtaposition of two things that really shouldn’t go together. I also like how Holmes acknowledges the budget of the show, and actually writes a script about twelve extras feuding around England in the Middle Ages, rather than trying to present us with a much large conflict.

Holmes gives us a reason why there are so few soldiers around, and it works. Sir Edward handily explains, “Unfortunately, my dear, the King who gave me my authority has taken away my troops to fight in his interminable wars.” It helps that the BBC always had a bit more skill doing period drama than science-fiction, which I guess we’ll see in Invasion of the Dinosaurs. The Time Warrior still looks surprisingly good, even today.

"In the future, I assure you that tinfoil is very fashionable!"

“In the future, I assure you that tinfoil is very fashionable!”

Another interesting aspect of The Time Warrior, and probably part of the reason it still feels like a Pertwee story even as it harks forward to the next few years of the show, is the way that it portrays the Doctor as an inherently conservative force. I don’t necessarily buy into the argument that Barry Letts and Jon Pertwee turned the Doctor into a “Tory”, to quote Paul Cornell, but I do think that his Doctor was definitely an establishment figure. The Time Warrior plays to that quite well.

There’s something delightfully Pertwee about the Doctor’s response to Linx’s plans. “Absolute lunacy,” he remarks, in that wonderfully dismissive and patronising sort of way that only the Third Doctor could manage. Rather than an agent of radical change, like Troughton’s Doctor, Pertwee’s Doctor seems to be more about maintaining the status quo, protecting the system from outside interference. “Why did you follow me to this time?” Linx demands. The Doctor responds, “To prevent your interference with the affairs of Earth.”

Time Traveller's arrow...

Time Traveller’s arrow…

This would seem a bit hypocritical coming from any other Doctor (well, except maybe the Fifth Doctor). The Doctor tends to land his TARDIS on a strange world and then radically interfere with the way that world operates. Indeed, that was the Second Doctor’s default mode of operating. The Time Warrior even concedes that the Third Doctor is actually agreeing with Time Lord doctrine on this point. He tells Sarah Jane, “And my people are very keen to stamp out unlicensed time travel. You can look upon them as galactic ticket inspectors, if you like.”

It’s very hard to portray the Third Doctor as the same renegade and bohemian as his other incarnations when he casts himself as a “galactic ticket inspector.” You could make an argument that the next story, Invasion of the Dinosaurs, is something of a condemnation of the way that the series veered away from its socially conscious roots. While The Time Warrior doesn’t condemn that shift from radicalism, it does acknowledge it.

We don't come in peace...

We don’t come in peace…

Of course, this sort of story is going to become a lot more common, so you could argue that this sort of conservatism is not necessarily confined to the Third Doctor. It’s very telling that the more bohemian Fourth Doctor would very rarely justify his interference with historical villains by virtue of protecting the status quo. He’d more often argue that he was fighting evil, or preventing injustice. The Third Doctor doesn’t seem offended by the idea of the suffering Linx’s advances might cause, he seems more frustrated by the damage that they do to history as a whole.

So The Time Warrior manages the rare feat of being both firmly anchored in the Pertwee era, while standing out from a lot what came before. It’s really the perfect opener for his final season, a story that can’t be told without Pertwee, but which hints at the shape of things to come.

Is this Doctor a long shank rascal with a mighty nose?

– Irongron

You might be interested in our reviews of the eleventh season of the classic television show:

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