19.7 – “Time-Flight”

CW Series 19 - Time-Flight

To celebrate finally getting that dweeb Adric out of their hair, The Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan plan a massive drunken knees-up at the opening of the Great Exhibition in 1951. So, of course, they land in contemporary Heathrow, where a Concorde flight has gone off course. 140 million years off course and the Doctor is the only hope of tracking it down. Sounds quite promising, right? WRONG.

Let’s not pretend we don’t know about the elephant in the room. “Time-Flight” is terrible. Davison’s worst story. Part of the shows 1980’s unholy trinity, along with “The Twin Dilemma” and “Time and The Rani”. Very probably the story that planted the seeds of Davison’s hasty departure from the show two years later. Some people might not hate it particularly, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone actually liking ‘Time-Flight”.

So what’s the problem with it? Well, let’s tackle the conventional wisdom on that bit first. According to Wikipedia, Peter Davison described it as a “very good story, but we had run out of money…the monsters were bits of foam.” And there’s a certain popular approach to Doctor Who appreciation that would agree with this assessment. After a “promising” first episode swanning around the glitz and glamour (by Doctor Who standards) of Heathrow’s Terminal One and aspirational supersonic aircraft, we end up in a dingy studio with a prehistoric landscape painted on the wall behind the actors, with The Doctor and friends being menaced by what I think are meant to be Lovecraftian “shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles” but in practice look like giant grey turds on legs. And that’s before we even get to this season’s SECOND unconvincing alien snake and some aliens that resemble ugly men in leotards spray-painted silver and then decorated by a four-year-old. The First Commandment of Fandom: thou shalt not look cheap!

Essentially, this looks disturbingly like Doctor Who as parodied by Victoria Wood in her classic “Terror of the Ming-Mongs” sketch and for some people that’s enough by itself to consign “Time-Flight’ to the dustbin of history. But I’m not having any of that superficial bollocks in my review. There are much worse problems with “Time-Flight’; if one of your family members walked into the room while you were watching it, they would instantly collapse into gales of derisive mirth. Peter Davison is a lovely guy, but he’s completely wrong on this one. This is not a good story and cannot be made to look like one no matter how hard you squint at it. The story is truly, madly, deeply terrible. What is it about? To a large extent, and to use a handy quote from the Ming-Mongs, “Search me, dear.”

For some reason it had seemed a good idea to allow Peter Grimwade – a talented director, you’ll get no arguments from me about that – to try his hand at writing a few adventures too. He is absolutely terrible at this, but presumably got his awful scripts in on time, so was evidently enthusiastically recommissioned. Let’s talk about what passes laughingly within the four episodes of “Time-Flight” for a “plot”.

As I’ve suggested, the one line pitch is rather good; Concordes were sexy back then, and a Concorde taking off in the present day and landing millions of years in the past is an intriguing premise. Unfortunately, beyond that point it feels rather as if Grimwade is just making it up as he goes along. Characters spend an awful lot of time arguing with each other about what might be happening, much as if the writer was still trying to work this out for himself. “Kalid” is only the worst example of this. Now, ostensibly, I sort of like Kalid. Having established ourselves to be on prehistoric Earth, we cut to an oriental sorcerer chanting weirdly to himself in his underground lair, his unearthly pallor and snaggle teeth retroactively strangely reminiscent of something from a Rob Zombie video. This really is the stuff that children’s nightmares are made of, and if the villain had been anything close to what he appeared to be, some kind of science-horror re-imagining of the Arabian Nights in other words, it might have turned out to be a classic adventure yet.

But as we all know from the cliffhanger to Episode 2, it’s just The Master in disguise again. I’m not the first person and I won’t be the last to bring up the question of why The Master was dressed up as a fat Asian magician while he was trying to recharge his TARDIS in the Stone Age – as far as I can tell from the script, he wasn’t even expecting The Doctor to turn up! The only logical explanation is that he was engaged in some kind of twisted sex game with one of his biddable Plasmatons, then heard someone coming in the front door and reckoned he might be able to style it out.

And it’s not as if The Master is interesting after the dastardly reveal of his true identity. Essentially he’s just trying to recharge a flat battery in the Pleistocene, at which point he’ll be on his way. How did he escape from being trapped in Castrovalva before this adventure? How will he escape from being trapped in Xeraphas with a lot of angry Xeraphins at the end of this adventure? These slightly interesting questions are never answered, in favour of the Doctor Who equivalent of breaking down by the side of the motorway and having to wait an hour for the AA to show up.

The Xeraphins themselves are fucking tedious, even given their short screen time, presented as being caught up in some internal power struggle between their good and evil side that we just don’t care about because they’re ugly men painted silver with stupid names like Anithon and Zarak. Why should be care that the bad Xeraphin who want to help The Master are gaining the upper hand over the good ones? It’s just the tired will-Adric-help-The-Doctor-or-do-something-stupid-instead question with a little bit less Adric in it. The answer is the same every time and, amazingly, the Xeraphin have even less interesting personalities than everyone’s favourite Alzarian.

Ah yes, “personalities”. For an adventure that boasts so many characters, it’s a shame that so few of them have one. For some reason it’s important that there are not one but three handsome Concorde pilots in uniform traipsing around with The Doctor, of whom only Captain Stapley is in any way memorable, mostly for his constant brown-nosing of The Doctor which is an obvious attempt to be invited back to fill Adric’s berth in the TARDIS for Season 20. Not on my watch, Stapley! Of the other half dozen or so named characters the only one I can remember anything about is Professor Hayter of the University of Darlington, whose brusque northern scepticism is I expect meant to be the comic relief, but in practice just means he wastes a lot of our time denying the possibility of things the audience knows for sure to be true. (It’s a well known fact that Hayter’s gonna hate.) Oh, there is one interesting thing about him with hindsight, which is that he has *exactly* the same dress sense as the Eleventh Doctor. What with the recent televised discussion about whether The Doctor based his appearance on people he’s bumped into in his travels, you’ve got to wonder…

With so many boring characters milling around there isn’t really any time for the regulars: Nyssa in a non-startling non-reversal of the entire season’s treatment of her, spends a whole episode having an asthma attack, and apart from not looking like an idiot for choosing to dress as an air hostess for a change, Tegan doesn’t have much to do either. In fact the companion who comes off best in “Time-Flight” is probably Adric…his ghost begging his friends to turn back or else they’ll kill him is a haunting moment and the thing I remember most about watching this story the first time round, as a 7 year old in 1982. Of course those “friends” decide within about five seconds to march resolutely through his screaming form. Fuck you, Adric.

As for The Doctor, poor old Peter Davison gets to spout truly industrial quantities of meaningless technobabble and look aghast at “plot developments” that don’t make a lick of sense. Following in the footsteps of “Earthshock”, he doesn’t actually do very much; it’s Stapley & co’s random thoughtless meddling with the TARDIS, not any agency of The Doctor’s, that saves the day mid-adventure. So all The Doctor really gets to do, in 4 episodes, is beat The Master’s TARDIS back to Heathrow and “bounce” him handily off to Xeraphas. Whoop-de-fucking-doo.

There are two really damning indictments to make of “Time-Flight”. One, it was obvious that Pip & Jane Baker watched this, thought “Hmm, technobabble plus random events…we could do this, let’s give JN-T a call!” The other is that it undoes the excellent work of “Castrovalva” in establishing The Doctor as an alien fugitive for whom Earth is just another hostile planet. If all it takes for him to take charge in 1982 is a swift name-drop of UNIT? Yawn. The best thing about the entire story is the cliffhanger at the end of episode 4 but, as we all know now, Tegan getting left behind was just a lie, almost as big and pointless as “Kalid”. So all we’re really left with is an adventure that’s just one dull, idiotic thing after another until the time runs out. No one in their right mind would ever choose to rewatch this. Not even as good as “Time and The Rani”. A worthless 3/10.

Written and edited by Matthew Marcus


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