The Time Warrior
Tony Fyler invites you back to the past.
There are Doctor Who stories you watch for all sorts of different reasons – to be scared, to be thrilled, to be challenged, or for fun.
The Time Warrior is a hand-crafted Belgian chocolate of a story – you slip it in and luxuriate in the sheer pleasure of science fiction escapism for a couple of hours, and for the most part, its medieval setting allows it to avoid the dated look of many Pertwee stories. It’s a great jumping on point for new fans for a few reasons – the first appearance of Sarah-Jane Smith, the first Sontaran story, one of the best life lessons in Who history (we’ll come to that), and it’s a great example of all the things that Doctor Who does best – missing scientists, time travel, history, weird-looking aggressive aliens, satire on an aspect of real life, and the Doctor being clever and funny and right. It’s pretty much got everything you want in a Doctor Who story, in one gorgeous four-part morsel.
When Jo Grant left the Doctor at the end of The Green Death, it was the end of an era in terms of the tone of Doctor Who. The show had been on screen for ten years, and tiny, squeaky, plucky Jo had been the very ACME of traditional companions alongside Jon Pertwee’s Doctor for the last three of them. Season 11 would be Jon Pertwee’s last in the role, and when it came to finding a replacement for Jo who could potentially continue after Pertwee’s time, bridging the gap between the Third Doctor (then thought of as definitive) and whatever was coming next, the Production Team wanted a character who was a bit more outspokenly feminist, a career woman, but someone whose expertise was different to the Doctor’s (in other words, not a re-try of the Liz Shaw formula). Script Editor Terrance Dicks gave the job of opening the season and bringing in the new companion to friend and almost ever-reliable writer Robert Holmes, with the instruction to make it something historical, ideally medieval.
Holmes knew nothing about the medieval period and didn’t want to write that kind of story. He was given a junior book of history and told to deliver.
The Time Warrior is proof that genius can deliver, even against its own creative will. It begins with business as almost-usual for UNIT and the Doctor – scientists are going missing, and the Brigadier confines them all to barracks. ‘Putting all my eggs in one basket, you see?’ he explains, leading the Doctor to make sense of something for kids everywhere. Everybody always tells kids not to put all their eggs in one basket, but it’s left to the Doctor to explain that ‘That’s fine – so long as nobody steals the basket.’ #TheDoctorIsMyLifeCoach
There’s a young female scientist among the mob – unusual still in 1973. Not so unusual though that anyone has thought to question her about her contention that she’s Lavinia Smith. The Doctor though has read Lavinia Smith’s work, and realises this young thing can’t be her. Busted, journalist Sarah-Jane Smith enters our lives, using charm to try and persuade the Doctor not to give her away, but immediately forgetting her soft soap when the Doctor, perhaps thinking he still has Jo Grant around, tells her to make him a cup of coffee. Sarah-Jane is nobody’s maid, and tells him precisely where to go. He goes into the Tardis. ‘And what are you going to do in there?’ she demands. ‘I’m going to make myself a cup of coffee,’ he tells her. And with that simple exchange, we’re off to a whole new generation of tone, and it’s wonderful.
When a ghost warrior turns up to steal another scientist, the Doctor gets a good look at it, and follows it back to the past in the Tardis – unaware that Sarah-Jane the ineffably nosey has nipped on board the Tardis too.
Enter the medieval plotline – and what a plotline. A ‘star’ falls to earth, and a robber baron named Irongron rouses his mongrel killers to secure it for him. Except it’s not a star, it’s the cutest spaceship in the galaxy (seriously, 42 years and no-one’s thought of Sontaran scout ship Christmas baubles?), with a shortassed, big-helmeted war lord inside (Can we say “inspiration for death stars and certain tallassed, big-helmeted war lords,” maybe?), with an adorable little pop-up flag, with which he claims the whole planet, its moons and satellites. Sontaran Commander Lynx is instantly brilliant – a reflection not only of Irongron’s venal acquisitive militarism intensified a thousandfold, but also of our own 20th century imperialism (we’d fought at least one world war on the basis of empires, and, lest we forget, the Vietnam War was still ongoing when The Time Warrior was broadcast). He’s immediately that weird combination of things at which Robert Holmes almost always excelled – both funny, meaningful and intensely threatening. That’s the essence of the Sontarans, purely distilled in their first ever scene – funny as hell if looked at from far enough away because they take themselves so seriously. Dangerous as hell if you’re close enough that you have to take them seriously too.
The story unfolds pretty rapidly, with solidly paced beats. Lynx needs a place to repair his ship, and scientific expertise he can’t get locally. Irongron needs weapons to help him rise above his robber baron status and set himself up as king – perhaps of the whole world. The deal is done and Lynx begins stealing scientists from as far in the future as he can reach, setting them to work repairing his Christmas bauble.
Sarah is captured by the local ‘legitimate’ lord, Edward of Wessex, and assumes it’s the Doctor who’s helping Irongron, so naturally she stages a raid to capture him (showing the kind of solid companion mettle we love in the process). After which, with the Doctor agreeing to help restore historical normality, it’s a straightforward battle – Lynx the Sontaran helping Irongron the aggressor, the Doctor and Sarah helping Edward of Wessex to defeat both threats, and get the scientists home to the 20th century.
What is it then that makes The Time Warrior so special, over 40 years on?
Actually, almost everything. The script, from Holmes, delivers the historical setting he was required to deliver, and actually sets much of the threat in the business of upsetting history, without paying more than a surface attention to the deep and meaningfuls, the politics or the bigger picture. That means it has all the trappings of a historical story (which, as we said, isolates it from dating and which, as a dramatic form, the BBC had a reputation of delivering very well), while delivering the pacing of a thrilling contemporary adventure.
The Sontarans themselves as an idea are a moment of pure joy – they’re a satire on both short man syndrome, militarism and petty bureaucracy. The Sontaran as it was realised on screen is superb too, taking the idea of a bullet-headed soldier to its logical, disturbing, comical conclusion (so much so, the reveal of the Sontaran head was used as an episode ending not only here but on their re-appearance in The Sontaran Experiment).
The story has stand-out performances from…well, almost everyone, to be fair – Elizabeth Sladen delivering that mixture of independent spirit, organisational brilliance, gumption and yet vulnerability that make her not only a great companion but also a believable human being with a life outside being a companion. Kevin Lindsay dominates proceedings with the swagger that has become synonymous with the Sontarans, and he has never been bettered, only perhaps in recent years equalled by Dan Starkey (annnd cue the wails of protest). We also owe the way the Sontarans pronounce their species to Lindsay – they were supposed to be pronounced “Sont’rans” but Lindsay put his foot down, telling Director Alan Bromly, “Listen, mate, I come from the bloody place, so I should know!”
It’s important not to underestimate the supporting roles in The Time Warrior either – David Daker embodying Irongron like it’s meat and drink, Jeremy ‘Just call me Boba Fett’ Bulloch giving period realism to Hal the archer, and John J Carney delivering the classic ‘loyal, but none too bright’ henchman Bloodaxe with a kind of swayability that makes us ponder on how he got his name, how many he’s killed because he was told to.
It all combines into that Belgian chocolate treat – wherever you look, there are things to love – great new companion, great new monster, solid historical performances, satire, pacing, you name it, it’s there in The Time Warrior. If you’ve never seen it, or if you haven’t seen it recently, you owe yourself a treat – feet up, beverage of choice, appropriate snack options, and go get lost in the middle ages for two hours, with the Third Doctor, Sarah-Jane and the first of our encounters with the glorious Sontaran Empire. Go on, do it now – you can thank me later.