Advertisements
    Advertisements
  • Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives









  • Awards & Nominations

  • Advertisements

Doctor Who: Time-Flight (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Time-Flight originally aired in 1982.

I’ve never heard such an extravagant explanation.

– Hayter’s gonna hate

Time-Flight is a much maligned piece of Doctor Who, and hardly the best way to round out a season that has, generally speaking, done a reasonable job introducing a new lead actor following the departure of the most iconic actor ever to play the role. The show’s nineteenth season holds together reasonably well, with Earthshock generally highly regarded and only Time-Flight considered to be a complete failure.

And yet, despite that, I can’t hate Time-Flight. That’s not to suggest that the traditional criticisms of the serial are off-base. They are entirely spot-on. The production is shoddy, the plot is nonsense and the dialogue is terrible. It seems like everybody was trying to push one last story out the door before breaking for holidays, and nobody cared too much about the final product. And yet, despite that, I find myself able to forgive quite a lot of the show’s problems.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not good Doctor Who. It’s not even passable Doctor Who. However, I’d argue that it is nowhere near the worst that the Davison era would produce.

Keeping the nose clean...

Keeping the nose clean…

I should begin with a confession. I was not too fond of Earthshock. I can admire that the serial mostly succeeded in what it set out to do, but I’m not particularly charmed by the idea that a reasonably solid base-under-siege thriller featuring a familiar alien would set the template for the show’s next couple of years. I think a lot of the later Davison stories suffer for being “Earthshock… but not as good”, which I accept is hardly a fair criticism of Earthshock as a story.

However, Saward’s Earthshock felt like a conscious regurgitation of a kind of story that the show hadn’t done in a while. Much like his enjoyable first script, The Visitation, harked back to The Time Warrior, Earthshock felt like a conscious return to the Patrick Troughton era. (Arguably right down to the use of the Cybermen, who had their heyday in that period of the show’s run.) Earthshock was executed with a lot of zest and skill, but it felt a little too recycled.

Sticking the landing...

Sticking the landing…

So, that’s context. I think Time-Flight has a lot more ambition than its direct predecessor. There are actually a wealth of half-decent ideas here that play with the concept of the show, and which provide something a bit novel. “The Doctor’s theory is that this is a hijack in time rather than space,” Stapley explains, which is the synopsis of a Doctor Who show I’d like to see. Indeed, the notion of stealing a Concorde back to ancient Earth is a delightfully pulpy and cheesy premise, and one not without a hint of potential.

Of course, this brings us to the script’s stumbling block. It’s a big one, one that arguably encompasses all the countless flaws with Time-Flight, which make it almost painful to watch. There is no way that this script could be filmed on the budget afforded to Doctor Who. In fact, the show would struggle to produce a convincing version of the set-up now, at the point where the show is one of the BBC’s flagship exports with an impressive budget and top-of-the-line special effects.

Talk about skeletons in Davison's closet...

Talk about skeletons in Davison’s closet…

The fact that the script comes from director Peter Grimwade makes this especially perplexing. It’s weird that Grimwade didn’t end up directing his own script, which would at least ensure a degree of unity to his creative vision. However, Grimwade had experience working on the show. More than any other member of the show’s writing team at the time, Grimwade had practical experience trying to visualise the fantastic. He knew how much to cost and how much compromise would be involved.

If anybody except Eric Saward or John Nathan-Turner should have realised the adventure was unfilmable, Grimwade should have been that person. The show somehow managed to wrangle filming on a Concorde, which seems like a typical gimmick from Nathan-Turner. Gimmicks aren’t inherently bad, but they need to be used cleverly and in a way that makes sense from a standpoint other than marketing. There’s something very frustrating when the opening scene on board a real Concorde suddenly cuts to an unconvincing studio air traffic control.

He's got some ball, pulling this off...

He’s got some ball, pulling this off…

However, that doesn’t mean the ideas aren’t good. They are just very difficult to appreciate when the end product looks like this. Grimwade’s writing would look a lot better when stylishly produced in Mawdryn Undead, one of Davison’s underrated stories. It doesn’t help that Grimwade’s writing feels rather clumsy and unpolished here, felling like a very awkward first attempt to write for a show that could often challenge even the more experienced writers.

Consider the episode’s central menace, a species somehow merged into collective entity at war with itself. The collection unconscious turned into one single state of being, all minds coexisting at once as part of an indivisible entity. “The whole race physically amalgamated into one organism with one immense personality.” That’s a great hook, and it’s an idea that has been used quite often (and quite well) in science fiction. Doctor Who has never really grappled with it, although there are elements of it to be found in the characterisation of the Cybermen. Still, it’s rife for exploration.

Wheel see how it does...

Wheel see how it does…

Unfortunately, the episode never really delves too deeply into it. Instead, there’s lots of talking and exposition, as this massive union is represented by two guys in grey leotards bickering in generic terms. “You talked me out of my purpose, brother Anithon,” one protests indignantly, “but other counsels will prevail.” The scene is staged so clumsily that the Doctor has to explain what is going on, breaking the golden “show, don’t tell” rule.

At one point, Nyssa marshals the other characters to fend off these aliens. “With our minds. We must will the dark Xeraphin not to appear.” Click your heals if you believe, evoking the similarly stilted writing in The Last of the Time Lords. It’s hardly a satisfying dramatic beat and it makes it impossible to really establish a sense of tension or of stakes. The script for Time-Flight needed at least a couple more drafts before it was ready to put in front of a camera.

It's all a bit sideways...

It’s all a bit sideways…

And yet, despite that, I think that the problems with Time-Flight are a lot less severe than the problems with Earthshock or Arc of Infinity. The problems here are fairly close to the surface, rather than embedded and threaded through the concept itself. With better production, some cosmetic line tinkering, this might somehow make a forgettable piece of Doctor Who. Instead, it winds up being a complete embarrassment.

Still, and I feel like I’m being boldly controversial here, I think that Time-Flight‘s crappiness is completely divorced from the crappiness that was beginning to seep in around the edges of the show as it approached its twentieth year. There are gaping flaws here, but they aren’t fundamental. At its core, Time-Flight is trying something relatively new. It falls flat on its face, and doesn’t really merit a defence, but it feels like it is at least doing more than simply playing to the home crowd in the way that Earthshock or Arc of Infinity did.

It's not all there...

It’s not all there…

It’s that insular “fan friendly” approach to Doctor Who – serving up stuff that the show could do aimed more at the hardcore fan than the casual viewer – which pushed the show towards disasters like Attack of the Cybermen and Trial of a Time Lord. Michael Grade would find it easy to criticise the shoddy production values of stories like Time-Flight and Warriors of the Deep, but I think the show’s obsession with its own history and continuity did more damage than the poorly-rendered depiction of a Concorde landing on ancient Earth.

And though the story features the Master dressed up as a horribly racist sorcerer (“in the deserts of Arabia I learnt all the magic arts,” he boasts) for no apparent reason, Time-Flight feels like its own story. It should be noted that this is not making excuses for poor plotting. Why does the Master disguise himself? And why as a horrible ethnic stereotype? It looks like he simply covered his skin in mud to approximate blackface. It’s absurd.

Things come to a head...

Things come to a head…

Of course, there is a reason. “He’s insane!” the show seems to remind us every time the Master appears, as if that’s all the excuse we need. It is possible for an insane off-the-wall villain to work, but where their insanity is a characteristic rather than a motivation. The Joker from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is motivated by clear philosophical objectives, even if his methods are beyond our comprehension. Even the resurrected Master in Utopia has a very clear character motivation (resentment of the Doctor), while still being completely around the bend.

In the Nathan-Turner era, it seems like the answer to any question about the Master seems to amount to “he’s insane!”, which is just lazy writing. It is especially frustrating as the character was very clearly on the verge of rehabilitation. Robert Holmes made the character work brilliantly in The Deadly Assassin, and I’d argue that The Keeper of Trakken did an even better job of characterising the foe. He was still very clearly insane, but he had motivation and wit, both qualities sorely missing from any of his subsequent appearances until the last serial of the classic show, Survival.

Master of disguise...?

Master of disguise…?

This isn’t really a problem it is fair to place at Grimwade’s feet. The Master had been broken since his reappearance in Logopolis. I was never convinced that Anthony Ainley could have made a brilliant version of the character, but he never really got a fair chance. It’s pathetic and frustrating to watch the character devolve like that. The Master wasn’t always perfectly used during the Pertwee era, but the show managed to somehow break the character even more substantially after coming so close to repairing him. It’s not satisfying, and the way the show goes on to trot the character out whenever it needs a familiar convenient bad guy feels shallow at best.

It’s also worth discussing how Time-Flight deals with the fall-out from Earthshock. I noted in my discussion of some of the earlier Davison stories that the show was trying to push a little bit towards character-driven drama. There was a conscious attempt in stories like Four to Doomsday and Kinda to foster some friction between the TARDIS crew. It’s not a bad idea, particularly given that the show was switching to a twice-weekly slot and was paving the way for more soap operas on British television. To survive, the show had to adapt. It’s telling that the revived show learnt quite a lot from soap opera character dynamics.

A pilot scheme...

A pilot scheme…

Unfortunately, the classic show seemed unwilling to commit. It didn’t realise that conflicts existed to deepen and extend character, and to add a sense of character continuity. The purpose of characters fighting with one another – particularly on the regular cast – was to throw certain attributes into contrast. By doing this, the audience would get a much stronger sense of a given character, and that built-up image of a character would play into characterisation across a season.

Peter Davison’s first year never committed to that. It was almost afraid to let the conflicts illuminate characters. Were Adric and Nyssa romantically attracted to one another? Bah, this show does not deal with such things! Was Nyssa nursing post-traumatic stress from the loss of her entire world? Hey, look, animatronics! When did the Doctor tell Tegan that her aunt had been brutally murdered by a psychopath who the Doctor had allowed to live several times? Oh, it happened off screen!

Hitting a wall...

Hitting a wall…

So Time-Flight gives us character continuity, in the strictest sense, but only briefly. The screw discuss Adric for about two minutes before continuing the adventure as usual. Trying to keep Nyssa and Tegan out, the aliens project a vision of Adric which causes Tegan to freak out, until Nyssa “solves” the problem using logic – as the show completely misses the point that the loss of a friend like Adric should be emotional.

The interaction between the leads is less than convincing. “I’ll miss him,” Tegan observes. “So will I,” Nyssa remarks. “And me,” the Doctor concedes. “But he wouldn’t want us to mourn unnecessarily.” Okay, I’ll give the Doctor “unnecessarily”, but maybe a nice funeral service would be good, or a few kind words. But, hey! At least there’s a reference to Adric’s dead brother, the character who was never really mentioned once Adric joined the TARDIS, despite the massive impact that must have had. See what I mean about fumbling with character development?

Terminal velocity...

Terminal velocity…

Davison does his best with the material, but there’s simply not enough of substance available to help him create a credible emotional response to Adric’s loss. I do like that Davison attempts to pitch the rather swift shift back to business as usual as that Doctor’s attempts to distract his companions from their loss. He seems to want to help Nyssa and Tegan take their mind off the loss of Adric by taking them to the Great Exhibition. “How about opening day? Pass the time of day with the foreign royals. We could even drop in at Lords, see a few overs from Wisden and Pilch. I wonder if the Lion will be bowling?”

The opening of Time-Flight also engages in the occasional practice of dealing with the tropes the show has built up after considerable time on the air. Viewers tend to get a bit more sophisticated after a while, and television shows can’t always make the same unspoken assumptions they used to. This becomes especially obvious with long-running adventure shows like Doctor Who, which essentially débuted in a different world.

I tire of this...

I tire of this…

So the show questions the narrative logic of giving the protagonist a time travel machine. After all, surely he can just travel back whenever anything bad happens and get a do-over, right? Since that would undermine any dramatic tension, of course he can’t. Unfortunately, while acknowledging that problem, Time-Flight doesn’t have a more sophisticated answer than “because the producers say so.”

Not that you need one, but the Doctor’s response to Nyssa and Tegan’s questioning seems especially shallow. “Now listen to me, both of you,” he offers. “There are some rules that cannot be broken even with the TARDIS. Don’t ever ask me to do anything like that again. You must accept that Adric is dead.” At least when the Fourth Doctor spouted nonsense, he had the decency to sound relatively convincing. Here, the show draws attention to a logical plot hole, and then responds to it by mumbling to itself.

Under the hood...

Under the hood…

To be fair, Time-Flight does at least acknowledge the problem. Much like the problems with the character dynamics, the revived show does a much better job actually pasting over the flaws that the Davison era readily concedes. The idea of “fixed points” is nothing more than convenient gobbledy-gook, but Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith all make it sound authoritative and convincing. That’s how you answer “because we say so.”

Similarly, Time-Flight also acknowledges that the TARDIS is hardly as perfect a disguise or as innocuous as it once was. “At least we won’t be noticed,” Nyssa observes after the TARDIS lands. “Well, this is Earth. For once it’s a perfect camouflage.” Tegan quickly points out that the Doctor is almost two decades out of date. “This is the 1980s, Nyssa,” Tegan tells her friend. “Police boxes went out with flower power.”

On the fly...

On the fly…

The TARDIS is mostly ignored wherever it lands because it’s really just a convenient way of dropping the Doctor and his companions into the action. That way the Doctor doesn’t have to spend ten minutes accounting for his appearance or being locked up in a cage. However, with the show approaching its twentieth anniversary, it seems appropriate for Time-Flight to acknowledge that it’s hardly the most subtle form of transport.

However, Time-Flight can’t quite pull it off. The TARDIS is noticed, which makes sense given Tegan’s dialogue. However, that doesn’t explain why the TARDIS isn’t noticed any other time it appears anywhere. The show points out a logical plot hole which it avoids this time, but then applies to lots of other episodes. Again, the revived series would do a much better job explaining it with thematic techno-babble. I think there’s a lot to be said for the way that many of the approaches which worked so well in the Russell T. Davies era are rooted in the early Davison stories, albeit with much improved execution.

Just plane troubled...

Just plane troubled…

Still, I can’t bring myself to hate Time-Flight as much as I probably should, despite the very serious flaws. It’s not a great example of Davison’s work. It’s not even a good example. And yet, despite that, I don’t think it is as fundamentally flawed as either of the two episodes surrounding it.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: