Apparently, the historical setting for The Time Warrior was suggested by Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, and Robert Holmes was less than enthusiastic about the idea. The only tell is how irreverent this is: Holmes has resurrected the comedy historicals last seen in The Gunfighters, where modern sensibilities and humour make the past seem a less distant and unknowable place, and even the sexism of the Middle Ages is played for laughs. In many ways this story is the model for the bulk of 21st Century history episodes, which focus heavily on the sci-fi elements and assume that, funny accents and clothes aside, not much separates us from our ancestors. Compared to The Time Meddler, which largely kept the Monk’s plot separate from the grim reality of Vikings vs Anglo-Saxons, this plays much faster and looser with the concept of the (grits teeth) pseudo-historical.
This is the funniest Doctor Who episode for years, with its theme very much the battle of the sexes. ‘Come here, girl,’ Irongron snarls at Sarah Jane, and is told to, ‘Get lost!’ before he’s criticised for ‘overdoing the sordid realism’. An unimpressed Linx declares, ‘[Having two sexes] is an inefficient system, you should change it.’ After Sarah Jane escapes, Irongron cracks a Shakespearean joke about one of his men ‘grabbing her tail.’ Later, when the Doctor tells the captive Professor Rubeish he needs to ‘find a young girl’, Rubeish reflects’ I should have thought he was a bit old for that sort of thing.’ Meanwhile, Sarah Jane has thrown in her lot with Sir Edward and ‘that narrow-hipped vixen’ Lady Eleanor, and proves herself more lion-hearted than any of Sir Edward’s men, much to Lady Eleanor and Hal the archer’s evident approval.
Behind the comedy, there’s some surprisingly weighty material. Cementing their status as instantly classic monsters, the Sontarans are given an interesting backstory – locked in a perpetual war against the Rutans, cloned in their millions, and obsessed by war to the extent that Linx is easily diverted from his mission to play war games with Irongron, and enabling the conquest of Earth and changing of history just for kicks. They’re the first monsters that know of the Time Lords, their home planet Gallifrey (casually named by the Doctor) and their military capability. In future, it seems like everyone in the entire universe knows this information, but here it just adds credibility to the Sontarans.
If there’s a criticism of the story it’s that so far the Doctor has flitted round the edges. However, this means that Elisabeth Sladen has more opportunity to establish her performance as a character capable of operating independently of him. Whereas Jo always believed the Doctor was good and right, it’s a nice contrast to hear Sarah suspect him of being the villain behind the kidnapped scientists, and to actively plot to defeat him. We haven’t seen regulars at such cross purposes before. This is great.
Next episode: The Time Warrior – Part Three