Doctor Who complete reviews: Time-Flight
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Does this much-reviled Who adventure deserve the rotten tomatoes thrown at it? Yes. Yes it does.
A director's CV needs to prove a lot to a prospective employer. An eye for imaginative camera shots. A bulging contacts book with lots of good actors and crewmembers who can help make the project a resounding success. And then there's the all-important talent for judging budgetary requirements.
It's a talent that's especially important in a show like Doctor Who, especially in the days before the budget got bigger. Back in the day, the budget never seemed to amount to much, given the various DVD commentary anecdotes, during which directors spend aeons discussing every scrap of budget on their allocated story – anecdotes that are only really of any value to accountants and insomniacs.
But any director worth his or her salt needs to have a good grasp of finance, especially if they're called upon to write a story for Doctor Who. Peter Grimwade – he of the rather creepy, intense stare – was one such example, penning three stories during the Davison years. Grimwade had previously directed four highly acclaimed stories, so surely he'd had a good idea of what he could and couldn't include in his debut story.
And then you get Time-Flight, which apparently proves that the man had little idea at all. What we're looking at here is a story that concerns Concorde crash-landing in the Prehistoric age. Maybe just about do-able in 2010, but this is 1982 we're talking about here. Back in those days, end-of-season stories normally meant cheap-as-chips runarounds – this one and The Twin Dilemma are good examples. By the end of the season, the kitty could probably hold enough for a slap-up meal for the TARDIS crew at the local greasy cafe, but that's about it. So quite how anyone thought that they could successfully pull off the central concept of Time-Flight is a huge poser.
Maybe this was one of JNT's early examples of eccentric shopping list demands for stories. Or maybe Grimwade actually believed that the idea of Time-Flight was a feasible one. Whoever it was, the end result just doesn't work, and what's worse is that the whole plot of Time-Flight is largely incomprehensible nonsense.
The basic premise is that of The Master hijacking Concorde and dragging it through a time corridor to Prehistoric times so as to take control of a gestalt thing called the Xeraphin, which he can then use as a dynamorphic generator in his TARDIS. He does all this while inexplicably disguising himself as a magician called Kalid – Kalid resembles a melted Vincent Price in a mouldy kimono and sounds like Ting Tong from Little Britain. As far as disguises go, The Master's just about hit rock bottom, in that he's gone through the bottom of the barrel and made his way to the molten core of the planet.
If that sounds like rubbish, that's because it is. Furthermore, there's a distinct lack of tension to Time-Flight, a fact that's made even more risible by a gaggle of extras dressed as overgrown cat turds called Plasmatons. Really, they have to be seen to be believed.
"Oddly, the TARDIS crew don't seem that bothered by Adric's death – it takes them about a minute and a half to mourn the annoying little turd, and that's it"
In its defence, Time-Flight does start off quite well, with some nice filming at Heathrow Airport as well as in and around Concorde itself. The Doctor and co have gone off course, of course – after trying to catch some vintage cricket game in a bid to cheer themselves up after Adric's been reduced to little tiny pieces orbiting the Earth. Oddly, the TARDIS crew don't seem that bothered by Adric's death – it takes them about a minute and a half to mourn the annoying little turd, and that's it, they're moving on to looking forward to a nice game of cricket and then doing their usual bickering routine when dragged off course. Maybe today's Doctor Who may seem too schmaltzy and over-emotional for some, but the early scenes of Time-Flight take stiff-upper-lip stoicism to the limit.
No wonder the ghost of Adric's none too happy (more on this later). Heck, even The Doctor's immersing himself in the mystery of the disappearing Concordes and making buddies with the new crew who will be making another test run. But jolly what, Stapley, Bilton and Scobie just don't belong in the cynical old 80s do they? They belong in some quaint 1930s Biggles-style adventure in which they detect some foul deed at the local vicarage or manor house, wrapping up the mystery and then congratulating themselves over tea and crumpets at the local tea rooms. And you couldn't imagine a greater contrast after the machismo of Scott and his troopers. If Stapley and co were to capture you at gunpoint, they'd probably ask you first and then apologise profusely while doing so. Still, they're quite amusing in a dated sort of way, and Stapley's clearly trying to audition for the new TARDIS crewmember now that Adric's left a vacancy open.
However, after the initially promising scenes on contemporary Earth, events take a bigger dive than Concorde landing in the Prehistoric age. Unfortunately, the budget's well has run dry, which means lots of studio scenes with unrealistic plastic grassy knolls and polystyrene boulders. Even Peter Davison has lamented the realisation of Time-Flight, which in short, just doesn't convince at all. Take the cliffhanger of part one, in which Davison is surrounded by the walking cat turds, and then compare it with the cliffhanger to Earthshock part one – that's one hell of a comedown.
"Teabag and Nyssa just walk with detached boredom through phantoms of Melkur and a Terileptil with all the dramatic urgency of a supermarket cashier passing a carton of milk through the conveyor belt"
Matters aren't helped by the quasi-mystical intrigue that's scattered throughout the story. In order to make Nyssa a bit more interesting, she's oddly taken over by some outside force – which requires her to scream at four skeletons (The Rolling Stones in a cameo appearance) and then speak in a slowed-down voice, and lie in a cloud of mild green washing-up liquid. Later on, we also get the semi-profound division of good and evil in the Xeraphin, seen in the two sides of Anithon and Zarak. Or two men in leotards and silver face paint, None of which actually means a damn.
One saving grace is the appearance of curmudgeonly old goat Professor Hayter, thanks to a scene-stealing portrayal from Nigel Stock. In contrast to the jolly old Concorde crew, Hayter is not backwards in coming forwards in being a miserable, unlikeable git. He argues with Stapley and the others on a frequent basis, and is more than willing to pass the buck when trying to explain matters to a horde of confused passengers. He's also a greedy so-and-so, and this ultimately proves to be his downfall in his over-quenching thirst for knowledge. But as we all know, too great a thirst can drown you.
Unfortunately for Hayter, this falls on deaf ears as he ill-advisedly attempts to communicate with the Xeraphin in one of the very few vaguely Who-ish moments of the story. His 'death' is actually quite well done, thanks to the disorientating TOTP video effects of doom and some top-class piercing screaming from Nigel Stock. The less said about the skeleton in a tweed jacket the better, but even more inexplicably, he's back in the next part, mooching about in the TARDIS for a nanosecond with the expression of a man who's just eaten a raw egg sandwich. Nyssa tries to explain this anomaly with some half-arsed idiocy about Hayter being part of the Xeraphin, but it's an unsatisfying end to about the only half-decent character in Time-Flight.
So what other vaguely Who-ish moments are there? Well, the scene in which Teabag and Nyssa encounter the ghost of Adric is quite a cool moment. It's a potent reminder of their loss, and what's worse, they have to 'kill' him all over again. In this case, we actually see Adric's agony – we only saw him clutch his brother's reed-belt seconds before colliding with the Earth, but his last piercing scream in Time-Flight fills in that one final missing link.
At least it's about the only half-convincing threat that Kalid conjures up to deter the girls from entering the inner sanctum. Otherwise, the sequence is so mundane, that it makes a two-hour lecture by Kevin McCloud from Grand Designs seem like a rollercoaster ride of excitement by comparison. Teabag and Nyssa just walk with detached boredom through phantoms of Melkur and a Terileptil with all the dramatic urgency of a supermarket cashier passing a carton of milk through the conveyor belt.
Kalid himself is ridiculous though, chanting and babbling away like Billy-O – look out for the scene in which Davison is visibly trying not to laugh at Ainley's manic burbles. There's no reason for The Master to dress up as Kalid in the first place, apart from to provide the cliffhanger in which he reveals his true identity (although for some reason, he's got a very nasty cold at the end of part two). Following this, The Master doesn't really do much apart from running around and going “Heh heh heh” as usual while trying to steal The Doctor's TARDIS. It's a rather run-of-the-mill appearance by The Master, and seems a waste of a character that they dramatically brought back at the end of the last season. Ainley too, seems to be going through the motions, although let's face it, the script gives him zero to do in the first place. The last part doesn't even feature a proper showdown between The Doctor and The Master – it all takes place off screen. Sloppy writing at its finest.
And all this after The Doctor has proclaimed that his nemesis has finally defeated him in one of the now-customary Fifth Doctor gormless blank cliffhanger expressions. That's right, zoom-in fast to Davison's wide-eyed mug, as he stammers some wimpy declaration that's meant to pass for a jaw-dropping end of episode revelation. The trick would be repeated a few more times in the next couple of years. Quite why is anybody's guess, since it's not exactly cutting-edge temptation to lure you back for the next instalment, and Davison's clearly not comfortable with this unconvincing attempt at drama.
Having said that, the production team did decide to try the trick of ending the season on a cliffhanger note, although Teabag getting left behind at Heathrow is surely a cause for celebration. See, even The Doctor and Nyssa can't stand the whining air hostess, as they quickly dematerialise without her. Happy landings, Doctor? Well, happier without the one-woman moaning machine.
Happy isn't a word I'd use to describe Time-Flight though. 'Tired' might be a good word. Or 'baffling'. Or 'threadbare'. Altogether, it's not the brilliant climax that this rather mixed season desperately needed – it would have been better to end the run of stories with Earthshock, which would have made for a much more memorable conclusion. As it is, Time-Flight ends the season with a barely audible cough.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.
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