Vicki and the Doctor find that Steven Taylor has not only survived the Dalek-Mechanoid War, but has managed to stow away on the TARDIS. The Doctor is willing to accept Steven as a companion, with the one demand that he not call him “Doc.” Steven is completely incredulous about what the TARDIS is and does, in no small part because of what it looks like. Meanwhile the TARDIS lands on the coast of Northumbria in 1066, as a man in a monk’s garb watches, but he is concerned rather than shocked or confused, and proceeds to spy on the TARDIS’ crew as they leave the ship. The Doctor orders Vicki and Steven to stay behind while he goes to find some locals, but Steven goads Vicki into helping him do some exploring of his own. At a nearby village the Doctor meets Edith, whom he wrings some hospitality and information from without exciting her suspicions. From their conversation he deduces that the Anglo-Saxon king Harold Godwinson had recently become king of England and has yet to fight in the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Before going the sleep the Doctor hears the chants from the nearby monastery seems to slow down like a recording. Once the Doctor learns from Edith that the monastery was until recently abandoned and that the villagers have only ever seen one monk, he immediately decides to set out there to investigate.
Back near the beach, Steven and Vicki encounter a man who has picked something up from the ground. Steven wrestles the object from him and discovers that it’s a wristwatch. At the monastery, the Doctor finds a phonograph playing the chants, but unfortunately he also finds himself in the wrong end of a cage trap. The following morning the Monk prepares a breakfast for him, using all sorts of twentieth-century conveniences. Elsewhere Stephen and Vicki are likewise captured and brought before the village council, who debate whether they are travelers or Viking spies. Most of the council become convinced when Vicki reveals that the Doctor, whose description Edith recognizes, is with them. Following Edith’s advice, Steven and Vicki head to the monastery and find the Monk, who claims neither he or the “other monks” saw anyone, but Steven apparently tricks him into giving off a clue that he was lying. Vicki, however, senses a trap.
Back at the shore, a Viking scout sent by King Harald III of Norway arrives to prepare for an invasion to claim the English throne. The scouts come across Edith and rape her (which, by the way, we don’t see, but it’s very strongly implied). The enraged men of the village, led by Edith’s husband Wulnoth, find the scouts and manage to kill one, although one of the Saxons, Eldred, is badly wounded. Wulnoth decides to take Eldred to the monastery, where Steven and Vicki are breaking in. The Monk prepares to set the same trap for them, but is distracted by Wulnoth and Eldred, whom he helps with penicillin, giving Vicki and Steven enough time to find out that the Doctor already escaped using a secret passage. They return to the TARDIS, only to find that it’s been submerged in the tide, and decide to return to the monastery in hopes of at least finding out about the Monk’s intentions. Before they leave they discover a bazooka aimed at the ocean. Later the Monk, who is very interested in Harald’s planned invasion, finds his planning interrupted by the Doctor, who pretends to be holding him at gunpoint. However, the confrontation is interrupted by the surviving Viking scouts, who take the Doctor prisoner. The Monk subdues the scouts and heads to the village to instruct Wulnoth to light beacon fires for what he claims to be a ship carrying materials for the reconstruction of the monastery. When he returns, the Doctor, who has once again escaped, threatens him with a sword, while also in the monastery Vicki and Steven discover another TARDIS, disguised as a sarcophagus.
Under duress the Monk confesses to the Doctor that he’s trying to lure Harald’s fleet to the nearby shore so that he can destroy them using the bazooka. In the meantime Vicki and Steven discover treasures from throughout world history on the Monk’s TARDIS in addition to a log book, where the Monk describes discussing the principles of powered flight with Leonardo da Vinci and using time travel to make a fortune out of compounded interest. Back with the Doctor, the Monk brags about using technology to help build Stonehenge and explains that by eliminating the Norwegian threat he could help Harold Godwinson win the Battle of Hastings, changing European history, the Monk hopes, for the better. The Monk escapes and sets up an alliance with the Viking scouts. At the village, Wulnoth becomes convinced that the Monk is a Viking spy and whips up a mob to besiege the monastery. The villagers kill the Vikings while the Doctor, Vicki, and Stephen depart for the TARDIS, which is now on dry land. The Monk returns to his TARDIS to find that the Doctor sabotaged it, causing the control room to shrink to the point that the console is useless and leaving the Monk stranded in 1066 with a village of angry Anglo-Saxons still hunting for him.
It’s re-establishing the show’s premise time: the Doctor again asserts to Steven that due to a “technical hitch” they never know where and when they land. Vicki also explains to him that the TARDIS doesn’t change its appearance because of another malfunction.
Here’s the most we learn about the Doctor’s backstory since “An Unearthly Child.” The Monk turns out to be another member of the Doctor’s still unnamed species, the first ever seen besides Susan and the Doctor. While he only makes one more appearance in the series, he eventually also qualifies as the Doctor’s first recurring enemy other than the Daleks and has become a fairly popular villain in the spin-off novels. Also the serial demonstrates once and for all that the TARDIS is not unique or the Doctor’s invention; in fact, it implies strongly that such ships are commonplace among the Monk and the Doctor’s people.
In terms of the show’s production history, this serial is a milestone in one more way: it’s the first “pseudohistorical”, an episode that takes place in a historical backdrop but with sci-fi elements other than the Doctor and time travel. Soon enough the pseudohistoricals will dominate the show while the “true” historicals will stop being made entirely, which has so far remained the course for the 2005 series as well.
Unlike in “The Aztecs”, “The Reign of Terror”, and “The Romans”, the Doctor discusses changing history as more of a moral rule, albeit a very important moral rule, than as a scientific impossibility. I don’t think it’s so much a contradiction in the show’s continuity; the companions assumed that history can never be changed and the Doctor just never corrected them.
It’s mentioned that the Monk’s TARDIS is “Mark IV” and the Doctor’s TARDIS is an older model (the Doctor testily refuses to tell the Monk what model his TARDIS is), definitively setting up one of the show’s most beloved ideas: that the Doctor’s incredible-to-us ship is actually by his people’s standards a jalopy. It’s also implied that the Doctor has been away from his homeworld for so long that he doesn’t know what a Mark IV TARDIS is like.
After two lackluster serials, it’s nice to have this well-rounded serial that manages to take up the best ideas we’ve seen so far while also adding new depth to the Doctor’s backstory and exploring new potential for the show’s overall premise. This is the first serial in a while – the first since “The Aztecs”, arguably – to really explore the implications of time travel, and it pays off. Of course, it also helps that we don’t have a stock antagonist here or one that’s as clearly hostile as the Daleks or most of the baddies the Doctor has so far encountered. The Monk means well, even if he is totally unscrupulous and willing to kill, and ultimately comes across as someone who has used time travel for selfish ends most of his life but has on a lark decided to do something he considers a grand selfless gesture for a change. Who’s the Doctor to interfere with that?
Besides the atypical villain, it’s also interesting to note how quickly William Hartnell’s Doctor has truly become the center of the show with the departure of Ian and Barbara. He spins off some great moments, including shifting from his usual gleeful self perpetually impressed with his own cleverness to becoming seriously concerned about the oddness of the monastery and treating the Monk with calculated disdain while the Monk tries to engage the Doctor in a duel of the egos. The new companion Steven also makes a strong showing, having good chemistry with Vicki, who is placed in the unlikely but well-played role of the veteran time traveler, and realistically displays a forceful but still light-hearted personality (for me, of course, it helps that actor Peter Purves ain’t bad to look at). Even the implied rape of Edith, which could have easily been just a dark but still a throwaway moment, comes across as genuinely poignant and an organic part of the story.
What more can I say but that this serial has my vote for the strongest serial in the second season, if not in the show’s run so far, right down to the solid direction and the effective sets representing the Monk’s decrepit monastery. Just as “The Web Planet” was the last serial I’d recommend for introducing someone to the First Doctor, “The Time Meddler” is (so far) the first.