Doctor Who was originally intended as an education program for families — one that would see the TARDIS crew traveling backward to various eras and imparting a bit of knowledge about history to the viewing audience of the day.
But by the time the series celebrated its first decade on the air, journeys to historical settings had become a thing of the past. That is until producer Berry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks decided to bring back the historical story for the show’s eleventh season debut. Dicks jokingly says that he dragged Robert Holmes “kicking and screaming” into the Middle Ages with the debut story of Jon Pertwee’s final season, “The Time Warrior.”
“The Time Warrior” is a story of a lot of firsts. First appearance of the Sontarans, first appearance of Sarah Jane Smith, the debut of the diamond logo and new opening credits (I can’t tell you how much this surprised on my first viewing of season eleven), and the first time Gallifrey was used as the name for the Time Lord’s home world. Given all these firsts, it feels like a no-brainer that Letts and Dicks would go to Holmes for the story.
But I don’t necessarily think that most of the team involved felt the story would take on such a high place in the canon and lore of Doctor Who as it has. Watching the DVD extras, it feels more like the team wanted a good hook to bring viewers back for the new season of Doctor Who and the hook of a sci-fi historical seemed like just the thing.
For the most part, it works pretty well. A lot of this comes down to Holmes’ uses of double-acts throughout the story. The most obvious is Irongron and Bloodaxe, a robber baron and his chief knave, who exchange a number of great back and forths over the course of four episodes. Irongron is played with near reckless abandon by David Daker. Irongron is full of vigor and confidence, but he’s essentially a bully. He’s taken one castle by force and his ambition is to take more — presuming, of course, that he can easily conquer and pillage to his heart’s content with little or no resistance.
He meets his match in bullying in Lynx, a Sontaran who is stranded on Earth in the middle ages and uses his technology to drag scientists back in time to complete work on his spaceship. Two bullies meet and form an uneasy alliance to help each other out of need. Both want resources of varying types — Irongron wants weapons, Lynx needs a place and supplies. They’re well-suited — at least until the Doctor shows up and starts messing around with things.
At this point in his tenure, you can see Pertwee’s enthusiasm for the role diminishing a bit. He’s not checked out of the role, but there is a warmer, more laid back type of Doctor on the scene. Now that he’s free from his exile, the Doctor’s edge is gone a bit — as we see early on in his give and take with the Brigadier and that he’s not complaining about helping UNIT in guarding a bunch of scientists who are disappearing. The Doctor is keen to resolve the potential issues that threaten the timeline, but he’s also here to have some fun — whether it’s creating smoke bombs to scare away Irongron’s crew or his bemusement at Sarah Jane Smith stowing away in the TARDIS.
Compare this Doctor to the one of “The Silurians” and there is a stark difference.
Of course, it helps that this story introduces one of the most memorable companions in the classic series run with Sarah Jane Smith. While Sarah Jane is usually thought of as travelling with Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a good chemistry with Pertwee’s Doctor. You get the sense the third Doctor is still reeling a bit from Jo’s decision to leave and isn’t quite ready to make a new best friend, just yet. (Or maybe it’s Pertwee weighing the decision to leave the role leaking over into the series itself).
Sarah’s got a bit more edge to her in this season than she does in others — possibly because it’s the one where it feels most like she’s working as a journalist than the others. The Barry Letts written audio play underscore this a bit, with scenes showing Sarah back in the office and separate from UNIT in her attempts to dig up that next big story or scoop. Indeed, Sarah’s investigative skills will come in handy as the season ends with “Planet of the Spiders.”
It’s the one season in which Sarah feels more like an independent player than others — especially underlined by her asking the Brigadier for passes and access to various officials in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.”
As for her debut, it’s solid — probably a great blend of strong work by Elizabeth Sladen and good writing by Robert Holmes.
Once again, it’s the third Doctor era crystalizing the template for future Doctor Who installments. It gave us the model for multi-Doctor stories, post-regeneration stories, and now we get a model for the pseudo-historical. The series started this a bit with “The Time Meddler,” though it took eight years to follow-up on it. While the setting is medieval times, there is little emphasis put on teaching the viewing public much about the period. Indeed, Holmes seems to use the historical setting to foreshadow the “fixed point in time” stuff that will come in new Who.
That said, I find it interesting that the naming of the Doctor’s homeworld is done so seemingly off-handedly. It’s just mentioned in passing and only feels monumental in hindsight. I guess Holmes’ decision to do monumental things with the Doctor’s home world is yet to come…