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Doctor Who: Timelash (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 (and not-so-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.

Timelash originally aired in 1985.

I don’t trust you. You’re being too reasonable.

– Peri’s on to him

Timelash is on the short list of serials broadly agreed to be “the worst Doctor Who stories ever.” Given how prone science-fiction fans are to bickering about absolutely everything, and how impossible it is to find consensus, that’s really saying something. More than that, it ranks with quite a few Colin Baker stories among that list. I can’t help but wonder if part of the problem with Baker’s tenure isn’t a lack of classic episodes (Revelation of the Daleks and Vengeance on Varos surely count), but the batting average skewed by so many truly terrible stories.

Any season containing Timelash would be ridiculed, but it’s hard to imagine that any year of television containing Attack of the Cybermen, Timelash and The Mark of the Rani couldn’t help but raise questions about the show’s future at the BBC.

The face of evil...

The face of evil…

What’s really weird about Baker’s terrible episodes is the fact that they all seem to suffer from the same problems. There’s no attempt to learn from past mistakes or to rectify those problems. Okay, the show does try to temper the toxic relationship between Peri and the Doctor in The Mysterious Planet, but it never should reached that point. The show had an entire season break to learn lessons from The Twin Dilemma… and it simply refused to. It took the perceived threat of cancellation during a perceived hiatus to help the production team realise that things had gone horribly wrong.

Timelash is pretty much a case in point. It’s not that there aren’t half-decent ideas here. Okay, there are a lot of stupid ideas in the story, but none are inherently irredeemable. The notion of using the “timelash” device as a type of punishment is reasonably clever. Dumping your unwanted criminals half the galaxy away in a primitive society is quite a clever way of doing things, if you happen to be a psychotic dictator. Of course, the fact that these aliens are all arriving in twelfth-century Scotland raises questions about how out history hasn’t been radically altered, and it’s something the show can’t dismiss with a trite “Nessie” joke.

Talk about lashing out...

Talk about lashing out…

Similarly, it’s nice to see Doctor Who use time as a weapon. A device that ages its victim to death isn’t a bad idea. Okay, it’s probably a little bit extravagant when lasers and bullets will also do the job, but the notion of a wacky mad scientist weaponising time seems like something that could easily have been lifted from an atmospheric Hinchcliffe and Holmes (or even a Douglas Adams) story. Similarly, although the execution leaves a bit to be desired, the Doctor’s “time-delay” crystal thingie isn’t a bad idea. It’s reasonably thoughtful pseudo-science babble about how light works. Or, at least, it could be, with a bit more clarity.

And, despite it all, I kinda like the make-up job on the Borad. It’s not the show’s finest moment, but it looks fairly efficient in an adventure that looks like it was cobbled together to save a few bob. That said, it’s not hard to look impressive when the rest of the episode features gnaff video-bending effects and soft-voiced sock puppets along with various other staples of cost-effective Doctor Who shot on sets that are lit far too brightly to support them.

Keeping the rebels on a short leash...

Keeping the rebels on a short leash…

Much is made of how incredibly crap Timelash looks, but that’s not really the problem. After all, classic Doctor Who was seldom a show which looked especially brilliant. We all remember the dodgy obligatory monster from The Caves of Androzani or the giant mouse from The Talons of Weng-Chiang. However, when the classic show was really good, we could look past the fact that it’s blatantly a piece of tinsel in that scene with the styrofoam crystal thingies.

Timelash has other problems though. These permeate almost every level of the production. However, these are practically part of the show’s DNA at this point in its run. Let’s start with the Doctor himself. Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor is still thoroughly unlikeable. We’re not talking about a manipulative schemer like the Seventh Doctor or a selfish jackass like the First Doctor in his early stories. The Sixth Doctor is just a jerk. He’s the kind of person we’d hate to have to bump into on the street, so asking us to root for him as part of a family-friendly science-fiction television show which is a British institution feels like a mistake.

Talk about a puppet state...

Talk about a puppet state…

At one point, the residents of Karfel ask the Doctor to retrieve a woman who fell into the Timelash, the tunnel through which they vanquish criminals and dissidents. Given he has a time machine, it seems a pretty fair request to make. However, the Sixth Doctor is having none of it. “Retrieve it? You seriously expect me to go through space and time looking for a lost girl and her trinket? Give me one good reason why I should.” There’s a woman lost in time and space, and the Doctor can help. That should be reason enough.

Those involved in the production – from Colin Baker to Eric Saward – have tried to argue that the Sixth Doctor was meant to be unlikeable. The logic is that the audience was meant to start out reasonably hostile towards him, and mellow out over time. After all, the First Doctor began life as a lying coward who almost got his companions killed. However, the First Doctor was still – even in his early cantankerous stage – still more charming than the Sixth Doctor.

Wibbly-wobbly...

Wibbly-wobbly…

However, if we give Baker and the other the benefit of the doubt, and accept that Sixth Doctor’s personality problems were – on some level – intentional “rough edges” meant to be smoothed off at some time in the future, things still don’t add up. Exactly when was that “smoothing” supposed to begin? When was the Sixth Doctor intended to start his mellowing process? Timelash is the penultimate episode of the season. The second part of Timelash was broadcast one year to the day from Baker’s first appearance in the role at the end of The Caves of Androzani.

And he’s still unlikeable. A lot of this is down to the way he treats Peri. More than any other Doctor and companion combination, I cringe when I watch the Sixth Doctor and Peri together, because it seems – entirely unintentionally – to evoke an abusive relationship. And if there’s last thing the dynamic in Doctor Who needs to be, it is abusive. “Does nothing please you?” the Doctor yells at one point, and he repeatedly resorts to bullying Peri to get his way.

So happy together...

So happy together…

The relationships between the Doctor and his companions aren’t always the healthiest. Look at the way the Eleventh Doctor tries to break Amy’s faith in him in The God Complex, mirroring a similar scene between the Seventh Doctor and Ace in The Curse of Fenric. The Fourth Doctor left Sarah Jane in a field, and the First Doctor refused to talk to his granddaughter face-to-face when he left her in The Dalek Invasion of Earth.

However, the problem with Baker’s Doctor is that the dynamic is explicitly aggressive, and bullying seems to be his default technique. There are several times in Timelash when Peri flinches as the Doctor yells. If it’s meant to be funny, the episode misjudges the dynamic entirely. And it’s not as if Bryant is making a bad choice here – there’s no other way to play the scenes. Even when the Doctor tries to save Peri’s life, he’s still aggressive. “Get out! Why will you never cooperate?”

Second star on the right, and straight on 'til morning...

Second star on the right, and straight on ’til morning…

Maybe that outburst can be excused, but there’s also the way that the Sixth Doctor dangles the threat of booting her out of the TARDIS over her head. When she suggests their wandering is “aimless”, he takes issue. “I should hope not,” he responds. “Or perhaps you’re trying to tell me you’ve had enough. In that case I can easily set the coordinates for Earth, 1985.” She falls immediately back in line once the threat is made. “No, no, that won’t be necessary.” Bryant’s performance makes it clear that this is causing real (and understandable) distress to Peri.

It is worth noting that Russell T. Davies had the Tenth Doctor act this way towards Martha at the start of the third season, although not quite as overtly. He kept Martha around on what seemed to be a perpetual “temporary” role. However, he was never as aggressive as the Sixth Doctor, and Davies suggested that his attitude was a result of personal trauma. However, Davies handled that behaviour directly within the first half of the season. The Sixth Doctor never got called out for his conduct.

Come quietly, or there will be mid-eighties special effects...

Come quietly, or there will be mid-eighties special effects…

Perhaps the Sixth Doctor would have worked better with another companion. Peri’s vulnerability was hardly ideally suited to his personality. The Doctor could never offer her the reassurance and protection she needed, so it seemed a poorly-considered match. One imagines a stronger-willed companion would whip him into shape a bit, and that Peri would have been better served by a longer association with Peter Davison’s gentler Fifth Doctor.

Perhaps Peri is just ill-suited to the Doctor’s travelling lifestyle. After all, she seems to long for “purposeful travel, not aimless wanderings.” That seems like the very opposite of what journeying in the TARDIS is meant to be about. It seems like the Peter Davison and Colin Baker eras of the show actually featured relatively companions who wanted what the Doctor offered. This is part of the reason I actually like Mel more than most – she’s the most generic companion imaginable, but at least she seems to want to be there.

And Peri thought that just once she might land on a planet where she wasn't a sex object...

And Peri thought that just once she might land on a planet where she wasn’t a sex object…

Of course, it’s hard to blame Peri for her lack of enthusiasm. Timelash is somewhat typical of the way the show treated Peri as a character, to the point where even Bryant complained:

I spent most of Timelash tied to a pole. It was so small-minded. I have spoken to some of the other assistants and we all suffered from that problem. I found it incredible that Doctor Who has come so far and all they could find for me to do was tie me to a pole!

However, the difference between the embarrassments heaped upon Peri and hose her predecessors suffered through is the way that Peri’s torments seem so sadistic and yet sexualised. The previous companions were heavily sexualised, but few were so consistently defined as sexual objects by the plot itself.

"I have you now, my pretty!"

“I have you now, my pretty!”

Peri spends a great deal of Timelash being led around in a collar. The Borad plans to mate with her. It’s not even implicit – he’s fairly explicit about what he plans to do with Peri. This isn’t an isolated incident. While other companions got in trouble for meddling or helping the Doctor or doing what’s right, Peri seems to get into trouble because she’s hot. It sends entirely the wrong message, and it is unnerving how deeply fixated Doctor Who was on the fact that Peri Brown was attractive.

After all, the Borad’s evil plan here is to take away Peri’s good looks and render her ugly like he is. This isn’t even the first time this season Peri has been tortured by having her body image distorted. Even the classic Vengeance of Varos fell back on body transformation as a means of sadistically torturing Peri. There’s something very creepy about how maliciously the show went after Peri’s beauty – how it seemed to suggest that the best way to hurt her was to disfigure her.

The problems are crystal clear...

The problems are crystal clear…

Then again, there’s something quite uncomfortable in the way that Timelash equates beauty with goodness, and how it seems to treat appearance as an absolute. It makes sense for the Borad to conceal his affliction from the populace, but it’s another for the Doctor to actively ridicule him for the way he looks. After all the Borad is a genocidal madman. His appearance shouldn’t be anywhere near the top of the list of things about him that offend the Doctor. And yet, the Doctor’s final insult is made about his appearance, “You’re nothing, Borad. Just a self-degenerating mutation.”

In fact, the Borad’s evil plan seems to hinge on the fact that the only reason Peri can’t love him is because she’s too pretty. According to the Doctor, Borad’s scheme is motivated by fear of rejection. It’s specifically rooted in his own ugliness, and the idea that a beautiful woman could never love him because of his outside appearance. “The possibility of perfect companionship shattered because of your grotesque, ugly, excuse for a body,” the Doctor taunts.

Sitting pretty...

Sitting pretty…

It makes sense that the vain and selfish Borad might have those sort of body image issues, but for the Doctor to smugly and casually play to that feels a little weird. Doctor Who has always equated “otherness” with evil. Given the show’s reliance on monsters, it goes with the territory – ugly things often end up being evil, so much so that it creates an expectation. It’s one of the problems the show runs into from time to time, but Timelash embraces it with a disconcerting enthusiasm. The Doctor seems as repulsed by the Borad’s appearance as he is by his conduct, which feels like a very strange message for a family television show to send.

And then there’s the weird continuity. Too much of the Colin Baker era felt weirdly continuity-heavy, as if the people behind the show expected viewers to have an in-depth knowledge of the show’s extended history. For any show, that sort of expectation is toxic, but it’s particular damaging for a family show which is older than its target demographic. While Timelash isn’t anywhere near as inaccessible as Attack of the Cybermen, it still leans heavily on the show’s past.

Flower power...

Flower power…

 

This this isn’t the first time the Doctor has returned to a familiar location. Several wonderful episodes have hinged on the premise (like The Face of Evil or The Rescue). Here, however, there’s a strange specificity about this missing adventure – an adventure so tainted by association with Timelash that I am fairly sure that no enterprising author has even taken it upon themselves to fill in that blank. Like the consensus about the episode’s suckiness, that’s a pretty bold statement about just how much everybody hates Timelash.

However, there’s something quite strange about the way that Peri’s knowledge of Doctor Who continuity saves her life. Being able to identify a photo of a companion who was a regular on the show a decade ago is what convinces the rebels to spare her. I can’t help but think that this says something about the production staff working on Doctor Who at this point. It’s more than a nice wink or nod, it’s suggesting that the show needs to hang on its own continuity to survive.

The Doctor's at the end of his rope...

The Doctor’s at the end of his rope…

Peri doesn’t live because she is smart or quick-witted. She survives because she knows her Doctor Who companions. This is the same sort of attitude which gave us Attack of the Cybermen to plug a perceived hole in continuity which nobody was really too bothered about. I honestly think that one of the reasons Doctor Who was cancelled was because it actively drove casual viewers away. While this isn’t the most obvious example, it’s an expression of the same attitude – the idea anchored in the intrinsic worth of facts and minutiae about the show’s history, rather than excitement or adventure.

At this point, it seems like Doctor Who had really lost sight of what works when crafting a Doctor Who story. Even the season’s highlights, the two classic stories of 1985, felt fairly unconventional. It wasn’t the classic episodes that the Baker era production team had difficulty with – Peter Davison was lucky if he could average two classic adventures in a season, after all, but his period in the role has a much higher standing with fans.

Not having a Peri good time...

Not having a Peri good time…

Rather, the show had difficulty getting the rest of the episodes to work. It seemed like the writers couldn’t get the basics of Doctor Who to work. You can see that in the back story of Timelash. There’s a lot of exposition and convoluted details peppered throughout, but none of this fictional world feels real or tangible. Even the conflict between the two alien species isn’t compelling – an not because one is a race of glorified sock puppets. There’s just a lot of nonsense about “grain supply” and “the Treaty of Cooperation” – because nothing says exciting like economic debates. This is the Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace school of drama.

None of the guest characters work. The make-up on the Borad is more effective than any of his characterisation, which mainly consists of the character monologuing to himself in the most generic way possible. He uses the word “excellent” with great frequency. Timelash is also notable for being a “celebrity historical”, at a time when the show didn’t do “celebrity historicals.” It features H.G. Wells, who you figure would make a great Doctor Who guest star. He’s British, he’s famous, and he has an imagination. That makes him a prime candidate.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

The show did these sorts of stories quite a bit in the early Hartnell era with The Reign of Terror and The Romans. However, they faded away over the years (along with the generic “historical” stories). Still, they’ve become a vital part of the revived television show, with episodes like The Shakespeare Code, Vincent and the Doctor and The Unquiet Dead helping to tap into the genre. They are some of the most fun and enjoyable (if not quite the best) episodes of the new television series. So you’d imagine that bringing Wells into Doctor Who would be fun.

However, like everything else, Timelash bungles it. It goes out of its way to pick up Wells and to drag him into the plot. There is literally no reason for him to get involved, let alone to remain involved. This might be justified if the episode mined his presence for jokes or made clever references. However, his surname is concealed until the last possible minute, making his presence in the episode all a really long and boring set-up for a fairly mediocre punchline.

Never gets old...

Never gets old…

While there are, of course, some generic references to The Time Machine, they aren’t smart enough to work as subtle shout-outs, but the episode doesn’t acknowledge them enough to make them seem like cheesy self-awareness. Instead, they’re just sort of there, a rough outline of something in need of much more definition. It’s a joke which needs to be pulled off with a certain amount of energy and zeal, but Timelash has none to lend it.

Timelash is a pretty dire episode, but what is particularly disheartening is that none of its failures are spectacular. It isn’t as if the show just suddenly fell over and this happened. All of the major problems here have been seeping into the show since the end of Peter Davison’s tenure. Some of have reached critical mass in early episodes, so there’s no excuse for the production team’s refusal to try to remedy or fix them. Timelash is the most banal of failures, the most easily avoidable and the most predictable.

All's Wells that ends Wells...

All’s Wells that ends Wells…

It’s the net result of an approach to the show which would be responsible for alienating television fans, and for killing the show. Appropriately enough, the wounds evidence in Timelash would not be immediately fatal. Much as all the problems here had been a part of the show for quite some time before this episode made them perfectly apparent, the show would limp on a little further before final keeling over from the damage evidenced here.

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