Doctor Who complete reviews: Timelash
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
John goes searching for the quality that few can find in this little-loved Doctor Who adventure...
One of the great things about Doctor Who is that it always champions the underdog. The evil tyrants are never allowed to win the day (except on rare occasions) and so it's left to the Cordos, Vishinskys and Jagos to stroll off into the sunset with their heads held high.
Doctor Who even has its very own group of underdog stories – some of these fall into the underrated but brilliant strand like The Ambassadors Of Death, Image Of The Fendahl or Frontios. Then there are the tales that used to be slated but are getting reappraised by fans like The Horns Of Nimon or The Gunfighters. And then there are the tales that are seemingly beyond redemption like The Twin Dilemma, Time And The Rani and Timelash.
Ah, Timelash. Nobody seems to like it. Some clever soul found that if you rearrange the letters, they make up Lame Shit, which is how the vast majority of fans regard the adventure. The DVD documentary takes the approach of examining it with gritted teeth and fixed grins, a bit like a TV presenter who's hosting a show with Oliver Reid, Keith Allen and Rod Hull as guests.
So ripping the piss out of Timelash should be like shooting fish in a barrel. You can level a million and one accusations at the story, and they'd all be true. The direction is largely undistinguished. Some of the guest cast give horrible performances. Another ending is tacked onto the original one. And so on. But since I'm in a good mood today, how about trying to find some positives? Now that's a task that separates the men from the boys.
One good thing about Timelash is that, compared to other season 22 stories, it's less complicated. There's no over-reliance on Doctor Who continuity. Characters (apart from one significant – more on him later) don't change their motivations more times than Prince changes his name. Neither do characters walk around spluttering indecipherable gibberish that only a dedicated swot could work out. Normally, I'd bemoan the fact that Timelash is a simple tale, but in the context of season 22, it's a blessed relief. The story basically concerns a shadowy tyrant called the Borad who's ruling by terror on the planet Karfel. The Doctor lands on Karfel to meet the Borad's new second-in-command Tekker, who tricks him into going back in time to get a valuable amulet (where he meets a young HG Wells along the way). The Doctor lands back on Karfel where he helps to bring down the evil regime of the Borad, in reality, a half-man, half-horse thing, and then goes off for tea and cake with Peri and Herbert.
So all in all, Timelash is about as challenging as a kid's colouring book. But in its own way, there's something rather appealing about the return to those B-movie-style homages. It's very much in the vein of those old Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers episodes – the ones in black and white where very obvious spaceships on strings wobble around in the air or where men wear cardboard dustbins on their heads to supposedly represent amnesia helmets.
"The Timelash itself is a gaudy nightmare – it's a shame we actually get to see inside it, since it looks like some horrible Santa's Grotto, full of sparkly blue lights, tinsel and other assorted bits of festive bling"
Maybe that's what director Pennant Roberts was aiming for when he took on the story – a homage to the good old days of ropey effects and iffy acting. After the sunny sights of Seville and the evocative olde worlde Killingworth, Timelash is a comedown. The planet Karfel is basically made up of stock flat walls and fragile computer banks. There's one hilarious moment when the original Maylin Renis is in the middle of some melodramatic whispering to Mykros while fiddling with a computer bank – at which point he pulls off one of the controls and then hastily puts it back again! Hmmm, the Borad obviously doesn't allow regular maintenance checks on his instruments and computers.
The Timelash itself is a gaudy nightmare – it's a shame we actually get to see inside it, since it looks like some horrible Santa's Grotto, full of sparkly blue lights, tinsel and other assorted bits of festive bling. No wonder people are terrified of being thrown into the Timelash – they'll probably get to spend eternity listening to Jona Lewie's 'Stop The Cavalry', all of Cliff's festive horrors and Boney M's 'Mary's Boy Child', a song that apparently produces the immortal lines, “Oh my lord, I should have gone to Specsavers/My baby eats cement”.
Things get even more suspicious when Tekker starts talking to a Bandril representative on a monitor screen – which is basically a glove puppet. It's like discussing the threat of war with Sooty and Sweep. The whole thing looks ridiculous and kudos to Paul Darrow for actually keeping a straight face while declaring war on a shrunken Muppet. We also have the crazy idea of wearing seat belts in the TARDIS while navigating time corridors – I know that Sir James Of Savile had recently featured in A Fix With Sontarans, but you can take the Clunk Click Every Trick idea too far. And howzaboutboyzandgirlzuhuhuhuhuh, the blue-faced, squeaky-voiced android? Put it this way, it's more dated than one of Savile's tracksuits. The android speaks in one of those Radiophonic-affected monotones and moves with all the agility of a man in a strait-jacket. Show these sorts of visuals to kids today, and you probably won't hear your spluttering protests for deafening laughter.
Having said that, there are some interesting visuals. The Borad's chamber is how the rest of Karfel should look. It's very well lit, an atmospheric mix of dark blues and greens, with the impression that he's lurking deep underwater (make the link with the Loch Ness Monster). The Borad himself is easily the best thing about Timelash. He's not the most original baddie by any means – another case of a mad scientist whose dangerous experiments have caused himself permanent damage. Oh, and he's also another weirdo who wants Peri to be his bride. What is it with Peri and all these freaks lusting after her? It's not as if she can go on a first date with the Borad in the first place, unless they go out for a day at the races. And even then, the Borad would probably want to compete in one of the heats anyway, reducing all his competitors to bones in the process.
"Robert Ashby's deep, threatening baritone is perfect for the part, and he also has the evil laughter thing down to a tee"
But in terms of scaring kids, the Borad's yer man. The make-up is very impressive, and even better is Robert Ashby's brilliant performance. His deep, threatening baritone is perfect for the part, and he also has the evil laughter thing down to a tee. I also like the Borad's super-cool chair – it makes Jimmy Savile's chair look rubbish by comparison. Not only can it move around the room like greased lightning, it also boasts a funky time acceleration ray that can age people that you don't like to skeletons in a matter of seconds. I've always liked those deaths, and sure enough they come thick and fast in Timelash, as Renis, Kendron, Tekker and the clone Borad all suffer this gruesome fate (as does Aram, but we never see her age). Again, these sequences are very well achieved with convincing ageing make-up. Shame about the skeletons on strings though, but at least they're an unintentionally hilarious hoot.
Apart from Ashby, the acting's varied, but at least it's not as uniformly bad as has been made out by some fans. Eric Deacon is actually very good as Mykros, Neil Hallett isn't bad as Renis and Dicken Ashworth does a good job as the bluff Sezom. There's also Denis Carey, fresh from Shada and The Keeper Of Traken , who puts in a nicely creepy performance as the public figurehead Borad – of course, he turns out to be an android, but Carey does the eerie benevolence very well. I also quite like David Ashton's uselessly bumbling Kendron, a bloke so weedy he makes Mr Bean look like Mr T. In fact, there's something rather Bean-ish about Kendron – just look at the way he babbles ineffectually after Tekker's framed him for the fiasco with The Doctor escaping from the dreaded Timelash.
And in his own way, David Chandler makes for quite a good sub-companion. Admittedly, the writers missed a trick by not making Herbert an older man – he could have been an amusingly crotchety companion along the lines of Hayter in Time-Flight. Still, Chandler does the goonish bumbling very well, even if he looks a bit like David Walliams doing a Little Britain sketch.
Elsewhere in the cast, opinions get more divided. Jeananne Crowley's odd performance as Vena is one of them. Crowley glides her way through the story with the expression of a woman who's just been thwacked on the head with a frying pan. Worse still, she reads her lines with all the emotion of an ironing board. “He's dangling on the edge of oblivion!” is a bad enough line, but in Crowley's hands, it's made doubly worse in that she shows no concern whatsoever. Same goes for Tracy-Louise Ward, who sounds like a woman wishing she was anywhere but the BBC studios, while Martin Gower and a young Steven McIntosh (apparently played by Ian Beale) fail to convince as the two young rebels – having said that, McIntosh would go on to become a highly acclaimed actor and his minor role in Timelash offers him little opportunity to demonstrate his acting talents.
The most notorious performance in Timelash is of course, Paul Darrow as Tekker. The newly appointed Maylin is even more oily than the country's combined collection of petrol stations, a pompous little tyke who uses every dastardly scheme in the book to maintain his own power. Darrow has often said that he wanted to play Tekker like Richard The Third, complete with a hump, but looking at Timelash again, his performance is more in the vein of an exaggerated season Four Avon from Blake's 7. Tekker is Avon To The Max. Or Avon To The Power Of Ten Billion. With his longish mullet and kung-fu jump suit, he looks like Freddie Mercury from Queen's 'Tie Your Mother Down' video, way back in 1977 – but Darrow goes for the hilariously OTT style of delivery that he opted for when playing Avon in 1981.
"At least Paul Darrow tries to make the part interesting, which is a tricky task when you've got cliché after cliché to wrestle with"
Some fans have hated this, commenting that he just makes the character of Tekker a laughing stock. Apparently, JNT was none too impressed with Darrow's OTT reading, and even Colin Baker splutters in bafflement on the DVD commentary. Despite that, I do find Darrow's performance ridiculously enjoyable – at least he tries to make the part interesting, which is a tricky task when you've got cliché after cliché to wrestle with. Tekker is a classic case of sloppy writing – for example, he miraculously has a sudden pang of conscience after the Borad reveals his plans to The Doctor. Totally out of character, and what's worse, he just stands in the middle of the path of the Borad's death ray. Naturally, he becomes background scenery from Waking the Dead faster than you can say “Trevor Eve always puts the boot into Doctor Who”. So while Darrow's performance may not be everyone's cup of tea, at least he tries to make the story a bit more fun, and there's no denying that Tekker is one of the more memorable creations of the 6th Doctor's era – albeit for the wrong reasons.
Glen McCoy's script is routine but reasonably entertaining fare. The problem is, there are some notable deficiencies. The aforementioned clichés don't help – most characters are forced to say hokum like “Save your breath for the Timelash, Doctor - most depart with a scream”, which is one of the better examples. The Doctor and Peri aren't that well catered for. They're bickering for about the millionth time in the first scene of the story already – not a good hook for viewers who want something more than The Doctor bellowing “Does nothing please you!?” at Peri. Admittedly, he does start to show signs of mellowing – he expresses genuine disgust at Tekker's death, and even remorse at the death of the cloned Borad – although that remorse has evidently gone when he shoves the real Borad into the Timelash with more insults than a Frankie Boyle Guide To Dealing With Hecklers. Peri sadly, gets the short straw, and serves no function but to get chained up and scream at the top of her lungs. Equality for women at its best.
A glaringly obvious error in the script is the fact that it's not long enough. Timelash effectively ends after The Doctor reflects the Borad's ageing ray back at the evil tyrant. After this, we get a lot of pointless gibberish about how The Doctor needs to stop a missile from destroying Karfel and how the Borad – Ta Da!! - isn't actually dead. A lot of the slack is taken up with the cringe-inducing scenes in the TARDIS, which are more painful than dropping an anvil on your foot. The bicker-ometer explodes in a heap of fused metal as The Doctor yells at Peri and then at Herbert, who has secretly come along for the ride to prevent the Bandril missile from destroying Karfel. We then get an excruciatingly long scene in which The Doctor and Herbert talk aimlessly without saying anything of substance. You know when you're in a situation where you really don't want to talk to someone, and you're stringing out small talk in the most painful way imaginable? Well that's what this awful sequence feels like. Good script-editing work, Mr Saward.
The reappearance of the Borad is also badly handled, and the revelation that the original Borad was just a clone will make even the most patient B-movie fan groan. A good story needs a good, well-worked out ending to tie up all the loose ends. Sadly, Timelash feels like it was hastily finished, and the scrappy 15 minutes at the end highlight the rush.
A shame really, since all things considered, I really don't mind Timelash. It's got plenty of faults, but for the first 75 minutes at least, it's a faithful salute to the roots of science-fiction melodrama, complete with iffy production values and hammy acting. A guilty guilty pleasure.
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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