Doctor Who: Timelash Review
Howls of disbelief could be heard echoing around the internet earlier this year when it was announced that Timelash was coming to DVD. Together with The Twin Dilemma and Time and the Rani it forms an unholy trinity in the eyes of fandom, the epitome of all that went wrong with Doctor Who in the 1980s. Combining a silly plot, overlit, under-designed sets, mediocre acting and one of the least convincing monsters of all time, the story's very name has become shorthand for the excesses of the JNT era with its overblown theatrics and sloppy script. Unusually, there is an almost universal consensus that it really is the lowest of the low (bar the odd maverick of course), an agreement echoed by the many scathing reviews which have been written about it down the years that all seem to use the same stock phrases to condemn its failings. But, as many producers and actors have discovered, fans can be a fickle lot at times, and it’s perhaps unsurprising that since this disc hit the shelves a couple of weeks ago, there have been many postings in forums such as Outpost Gallifrey along the lines of “Actually, it’s not nearly as bad as I’d remembered,” or, “I really enjoyed that, far more than such-and-such a serial!” Could it be that, after over twenty years of unrestrained hostility, Timelash is about to undergo something of a critical renaissance?
The story sees the Sixth Doctor and companion Peri (Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant) getting embroiled in the machinations of the evil Borad (Robert Ashby), dictator of the planet Karfel. Originally the Borad was a scientist who became horribly mutated during an experiment with one of the indigenous reptilian species on the planet in which, Fly-like, he become melded with the creature, creating a hideous hybrid. Driven insane by the result, he plans, with the help of his underling Tekker (Paul Darrow), to engineer a war between the Karfellions and their neighbours in the cosmos the Bandrils which, he hopes, will wipe out both species, so that he can then repopulate the planet with his own deformed offspring. The Doctor teams up with a group of rebels to try and defeat this fiendish scheme, while Peri spends her time being dragged around the planet by various baddies, looking understandably irritated.
Poor Glen McCoy. Since the debut of his one and only contribution to the series commentators have taken a rather patronising tone when talking about him - no review is seemingly complete without sneeringly mentioning the fact that he was “a former ambulance driver” before becoming a script writer, as though that explains everything. Although admittedly a rookie when he wrote Timelash, he had already penned a couple of episodes of Angels and Emmerdale Farm, and came to Doctor Who with some genuinely interesting ideas for the show. Admittedly it might not be apparent from the above synopsis, but originally he envisioned a story based on the writings of HG Wells. For reasons too complex to explain, early on in episode one the Doctor accidentally transports a young Wells to Karfel, with the consequence that the writer spends the rest of the time watching everything goggle-eyed, before, the premise goes, returning to Earth sufficiently inspired to write his books. As premises go, this isn’t at all a bad one (McCoy gets in references to nearly all of Wells's classic sci-fi works) and could have made for a promising story. However, a mixture of inexperience and bad luck meant that McCoy was not able to sufficiently develop the idea to produce anything like a half-decent script.
It’s an irony that in the end Wells, played with a mixture of enthusiasm and incompetence by David Chandler, is utterly superfluous to the plot, and ends up becoming one of the most useless characters in the entire run of the series, as well as one of the most tiresome. He reminds one of a less sulky Adric, all wide-eyed innocence and constant pestering, and it’s little surprise the Doctor is continually exasperated by his presence. This handling of the character is a good example of one of the many problems with McCoy’s script: the poor characterisation. The population of Karfel are such a uniform, bland bunch that, even though I’ve now watched it twice for this review, I’m struggling to recall exactly who they all were. Actually, there’s really very little need: they were just a collection of Rent-a-Rebel background fillers. Indeed, the only member of the population of any note is Tekker, played with infamous relish by Darrow. Now Darrow is not a performer I’ve ever been charmed by, but his over-the-top playing of the Borad’s lack-key (it’s obligatory at this point to describe his performance as “hammy”), while undeniably irritating in its smugness, actually helps to enliven an otherwise pretty lethargic production. Whenever he’s on the screen at least there’s someone mildly interesting to watch, especially when he is sparring with Baker, who as ever gives the story his all (was there ever an actor who was more passionate all the time when playing the Doctor?) In a story of decent quality Darrow's theatrics would be terrible, ruining the whole thing, but the very fact he’s in a subpar piece means one can forgive, and even welcome, his Richard III-lite portrayal as a welcome distraction. (That said, it could be construed as rather selfish to the rest of the cast: look, he seems to be saying, this is rubbish, but I’m going to have as much fun with it as I can, and stuff the rest of you.)
But then, one has to have a certain sympathy with his belief that he’s found himself in a not-terribly-good production. The sets are infamously bland and cheap-looking, with the centrepiece of the Timelash itself being the prime offender. A malevolent vortex which is meant to instil terror in all who approach it comes across more like a piece of furniture from one of those sensory rooms for people with visual or learning difficulties (although the obligatory description also demands I liken it to a Christmas Tree). Look, here’s a picture of it:
Not very frightening, is it? Timelash is one of the first stories I remember watching as a little ‘un (hell of a way to start!) and even I, skittish child as I was, was not impressed. Equally, the Bandrils have become infamous: even though they only appear on a monitor screen, they are quite clearly nothing more than a hand puppet (obligatory description: sock). It’s a bit like being menaced by Sooty’s reptilian brother. That said, there are a couple of factors which, while not redeeming the design ethic totally, ensure things are not a complete washout. The Borad’s mask itself is reasonably effective, while the underground caverns poor Peri finds herself stumbling through are a bit atmospheric (at least in comparison to the sterile environment of most of the sets). And the Borad’s method of killing off those who have failed him, in which the victim turns to a skeleton, is hardly the stuff of ILM but fits comfortably in with the quality of effects the series was employing at the time.
But barren sets and poor production values do not necessarily scupper a good story. What does scupper a good story is being, in fact, a bad story, and that is Timelash’s main problem. While its skeleton is archetypal Who of a certain type, it unfortunately has no flesh on its bones at all to give it individuality, making the whole as bland as its sets. At times it’s really boring (bored with the Borad, you might say) and sadly McCoy is no Robert Holmes, able to conjure up an amusing double act to get us through the duller moments. In addition, its very construction is variable: a lot of it simply doesn’t work. The cliffhanging ending of Episode One is resolved (and look away now if you don’t want to know) by the Doctor waving a hand mirror at the robot who is menacing him. Later on, he constructs a device which makes him invisible for ten seconds out of a couple of crystals and some loose ends. He allows Tekker to trick him far too easily. After hyping up the fact that entering the Timelash is a fate worse than death we discover that actually you just float by some crystals when you’re thrown in (that bit reminds me of that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation when we follow the eye view of someone being transported, only to see a badly thought-through special effect). During the Exciting Climax, he pilots the TARDIS to block an incoming Bandril missile which, we are told repeatedly, will probably destroy the TARDIS, and yet he walks in perfectly fine the very next scene. How did you do that? he’s asked. I’ll explain later, he replies. And on and on. Worst of all, the treatment of Peri is the worst she ever had to endure - not only does yet another disfigured baddy lust after her, but she suffers the indignity of being dragged around by a baddy in a leash and, in one particularly Freudian scene, is tied up and attacked by a long, wobbling snake. Hardly a high point so far as Who’s treatment of its companions go. Even the pacing is off: McCoy overwrote the first episode and underwrote the second, with the result that large chunks of the former had to be chopped out and long-winded, pointless scenes added to the latter, scenes which are very noticeable. It’s not entirely his fault: script writer Eric Saward should have helped his novice writer more, but at the crucial time had disappeared off on holiday for six weeks to write Revelation of the Daleks (which was admittedly very good, but not very helpful to the writer left in the lurch). Some of the blame can be attached to director Pennant Roberts, who fails to find any way to add levity or interest to the moribund material he had to work with, but the words silk purse and sow’s ear spring to mind. Much - most - of the criticism levelled at the serial is entirely justified.
It is general Doctor Who lore that any story with the word “time” in its title is unmitigated rubbish. While not wholly accurate - as the release later this year of The Time Warrior will show - it is certainly true that a vast majority of “time” tales are appalling (and it’s good to see RTD continuing the tradition with the bizarrely abysmal Last of the Time Lords this year). Timelash certainly falls into that category, and yet as I finished watching it I found myself pondering that perhaps its reputation is the tiniest bit unfair after all. It is an unrecognised paradox that, in a season in which far more egregious crimes were committed against the spirit of Doctor Who - the Doctor’s uncaring attitude to Peri at the beginning of Vengeance on Varos, for example, or the gratuitous nastiness of Attack of the Cybermen - that such a straight-forward, essentially well-meaning story has been the one to attract the most opprobrium. Taken in the context of all that bleakness, it’s almost refreshing, with only the mistreatment of Peri really getting one’s goat up (even when the Doctor pushes the Borad into the Timelash, he already knows that he isn't destined for a grisly end). Of course, on its own terms as an individual DVD release the case for the defence is utterly hopeless, and certainly not worth investing in by any casual purchasers, but as the credits rolled I found myself musing not, as those fans have been on the forums, that it wasn’t so bad, but simply that I could forgive its failings far more easily than others of the Colin Baker era. And that, in its own small way, is enough.
Of course, for most people, the thought of having to watch it again is still enough to make them scream in terror...
Perhaps not surprisingly given its reputation, this is one of the new “budget range” Classic Who releases, with only a handful of extras. However, as far as layout goes, it’s business as usual for the disc. On putting the DVD in, and after getting past the various logos, one arrives at the familiar grey Main Menu, with the usual medley of clips from the story itself. The options are Play All, Episode Selection, Scene Selection, Special Features, Audio Options and Subtitles. The story itself and all appropriate extras are subtitled.
I remember years ago an article in Doctor Who Magazine in which Steve Cole, then in charge of all Who releases, was preparing Timelash for its VHS release and bemoaning the fact there was a huge scratch visible during the second episode. I can’t remember the solution he came up with, given that both the masters and off-air recordings had it, but it’s a good example of what the Restoration Team do these days. Despite the fact it was originally visible for nearly seven minutes of the episode, it has now essentially gone - you can just about spot it if you look very hard for a few seconds in one scene, but other that that it’s been eliminated, and even when it is visible, it’s essentially insignificant. Other than that, this is a decent transfer of the story, which has been encoded well and brings across the vivid colours visible under the studio light, with only an inevitable softness belying the age of the material.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was decided that this release would not benefit from a 5.1 remix, so we get the original, albeit cleaned up, audio. As such there’s absolutely nothing to say about it other than it’s perfectly functional and does its job.
“I wanted a hump as well.” “Why did you want a hump?” “Well, I thought I’d play him like Richard the third.” “... Again, one wonders why?” The highlight of this genial commentary track is the moment when Colin Baker questions Paul Darrow about his “interesting” portrayal of Tekker. It’s not the only time he gently criticises Darrow’s approach to the serial - later on Darrow admits he wasn’t necessarily taking the thing terribly seriously and Baker quite rightly upbraids him for that. That aside, this isn’t the best Sixth Doctor commentary we’ve had: time spent with Baker the raconteur is never boring, but there’s not a huge amount of new stuff to learn from this, making it a pleasant but disposable track.
Or, Everything You’ve Ever Wanted To Know About Timelash But Were Afraid To Ask. Two episodes’ worth of trivia as production subtitles, these enliven the duller moments and always act as a good companion when listening to a Who commentary.
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
A talking heads Making-of far more entertaining than the story they are discussing. Full marks on getting in most of the supporting cast and writer McCoy, the only sour note in this pleasingly candid documentary, in which everyone is fully aware of the story’s failings and dire reputation, is Eric Saward’s constant badmouthing of JNT. While much of what he says might or might not be true, the fact the man is no longer around to defend himself makes his former collaborator sound somewhat bitchy.
Photo Gallery (8:52)
A slideshow of production stills (and a full behind-the-scenes shots) from the story, many of which in truth look very similar to one another.
Radio Times Listings
In .pdf format, these are the usual scans from the country’s favourite listings magazines featuring the first broadcast of the story.
A trailer for the upcoming Peter Davison release Time Flight/Arc of Infinity which manages to make those stories look rather good. Which is something I didn’t think I’d ever write.
In the usual place for Who eggs, this disc’s are the continuity announcements before and after each episode of Timelash on its original broadcast, featuring a surprise appearance from Les Dennis. Listen out for the relish with which the announcer says the name “Davros.”
There’s a rather unfortunate anagram of Timelash (the first word is “Lame”) which for many sums up the story quite nicely. Personally I don’t have the hatred towards it that many feel, but it is by no means an adequate production (TARDIS seatbelts anyone?). As usual, however, its DVD release compensates somewhat for the story’s failings, with the usual enjoyable Making Of. However, unlike some Who discs, if you really abhor the story, there’s not enough extra stuff to justify investing.