“Well, at least that’s what the history books said happened!” – The Doctor
A stone cold classic—a groundbreaking story for the series and my favorite of the Hartnell era. This is the story that creates the so-called ‘pseudo-historical’, a story set in a historical period in which we discover that there is some outside alien interference or danger, that would become the standard of what makes Doctor Who the show that it is. More than just the concept, however, this script also fires perfectly on all other fronts: likeable characters and guest cast, believable dialogue with just enough humor, a mystery plot that unravels slowly with surprising reveals. The fight scenes are still a bit weak but even they are better than any others to this point.
Our main characters are great here: The Doctor and Vicki’s relationship grows in the absence of Ian and Barbara. Steven and Vicki complement each other perfectly from the start, teasing and one-upping each other in an adorable brother and sister fashion in every scene. It takes no time for us to feel like the three travelers really do make a tight unit. The Doctor’s tone is perfect here too—his characteristic archness remains but is not overbearing (it even has a bit of a wink and a nod as he tells Steven not to call him “Doc”) and in fact is a perfect stance in his battle of wits with the Monk. His talk with the Saxon woman Edith shows us his finesse at figuring out things in time travel while his immediate realization of what is going on from one clue shows he is not at all as doddering as he seems.
There is a good deal of humor thanks to it being a Dennis Spooner script but it does not descend into silliness. My favorite from childhood on has always been the Doctor as he pouts at Steven’s doubts that the TARDIS has taken them to a different time despite discovering a horned Viking helmet: “What do you think it is? A space helmet for a cow?” Also the line: “Up there is the scanner, those are the doors, that is a chair with a panda on it – sheer poetry, dear boy!” Most of the humor doesn’t come from the writing at all, however, but instead comes more from the facial expressions and comic timing of the Monk (noted actor Peter Butterworth), especially in his repartee with the Doctor.
There are a lot of other nice little bits in the story—some impressively well-done Viking costumes, Edith and Eldrad as a couple, the way the story unfolds over time. There is a great scene where Steven and Vicki ponder the very valid question of what happens to their memories if time does get changed. (They don’t quite get to the next step of wondering if they would even exist as the Doctor turns their attention back towards defeating the meddling Monk.) The Monk and the Doctor also have a bit of back and forth about their role in preserving versus perverting history. All this lends an air of big stakes to what is actually a very simple story line.
Best unsettling moments:
The deathly look of trauma and horror upon Edith’s face when Eldred discovers her after she is dragged into her hut by the Vikings speaks of horrible things that a children’s show should not deal with. (I am so glad she doesn’t die though; you can’t help but love her and her husband on watching this story.)
- The first ‘pseudo-historical’
- First encounter with someone from the Doctor’s planet (excepting Susan of course)
- First discussion of the effects of changing history
I love this story all round so I have few regrets about it. It supposed it would have been nice if the arrival of the Viking ship hadn’t have been such obvious stock footage (but then again we may have ended up with even less believable models).