Doctor Who: Time-Flight Review
As production on Doctor Who’s nineteenth season neared completion, producer John Nathan-Turner could afford to look back over the year with a certain satisfaction. Although by no means a classic run of episodes, it had nevertheless managed to overcome, in the departure of Tom Baker, perhaps the single biggest challenge to the series’s future since William Hartnell left fifteen years earlier, Peter Davison proving an excellent successor to the TARDIS’s longest-serving occupant. His stories so far had been solid, if not spectacular, while crucially the ratings had held up sufficiently since the move in timeslot from Saturdays to twice weekly to ensure Doctor Who would live on, for another couple of years at least. In addition, new script editor Eric Saward seemed to be working out extremely well, having just pulled off the stylish, if somewhat shallow, return of the Cybermen in the season's penultimate serial Earthshock killing off companion Adric as he did so, two things liable to please even the most demanding of producers. Indeed, as 1981 drew to a close there was just one problem: everyone on the production team was exhausted, and there was still one four-part slot to fill before they could pack up for the between-season break. To finish things off quickly with as little exertion as possible, Saward plucked off the shelf Time-Flight, a script which had been hovering around the Who office for a couple of years penned by one Peter Grimwade. This seemed an eminently sensible idea: not only did it have an attractive central hook, but Grimwade was already a bit of a favourite with the production team, having directed arguably the two best stories of the season so far, namely Kinda and the afore-mentioned Earthshock. Surely he would know exactly what was needed?
Apparently not. There are reasons why scripts are left languishing on shelves gathering dust, reasons which in the Doctor Who office boiled down to one of two things: they were either too ambitious or too rubbish. Sadly, Time-Flight fell into both categories at once, producing a spectacle as unedifying as anything that has ever gone under the by-line Doctor Who. The story, such as it is, sees the Doctor and companions Tegan and Nyssa (Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton) getting involved in the mysterious disappearance of a Concorde from Heathrow. Retracing the vanished aircraft’s final moments in another plane, they find themselves caught in a time eddy which transports them millions of years into Earth’s past. There they discover the first plane’s crew under the hypnotic influence of a particularly desperate Master (Anthony Ainley) who is trying to harness the power of a gestalt entity called the Xeraphin to power his rundown TARDIS. To stop him the Doctor… erm, does something or other, possibly involving the TARDIS’s innards, it’s not entirely clear, and defeats the Master, casting him into the clutches of the Xeraphin itself, no doubt to suffer unspeakable torment. Whatever his fate, it certainly seems to cheer up the Doctor and Nyssa, who in celebration decide to use the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone and fly off without Tegan, no doubt popping the champagne corks the moment the cameras stopped rolling.
Loud alarm bells should have rung out when Saward first looked at the script, if nothing else from the point of view of sheer practicalities. The word “Concorde” springs to mind: how would Doctor Who, a series even then famed for not having the largest budget in the world, manage to transport convincingly the aviation world’s pride and joy into a prehistoric setting? Not only would it have posed a challenge to the production team working at the height of their powers - which, after a long season, they most certainly were not - but the very fact the story comes at the fag-end of the year meant that there was no money to even begin trying to realise the effects needed. Indeed, it would appear that money was so tight that in the end someone resorted to nipping down to the toy shop and buying a dinky toy model, which is then lit in such a way that it cannot look like anything else than a dinky toy model (and not a particular large one at that). Of course, one effect does not necessarily ruin an entire production, something which down the years Who has proven again and again (hello giant rat!) but this time it’s symptomatic of a production that on the whole just looks incredibly shoddy. The Neolithic setting in which the adventurers find themselves is reminiscent of a particularly bad set from the original Star Trek, with a painted backdrop cheerfully reflecting the shadows of the actors, all of whom have to bunch up together to avoid walking off the edge of what appears to be a rather tight space. The interiors are no better. Although we must excuse him for not having an Ikea to visit to spruce the place up a bit, the Master’s lair is a particularly spartan, drab place, all dull browns and greens, while the Xeraphin base is a particularly natty shade of orangey beige. The Xeraphins themselves look like ballet dancers sprayed with grey paint, while the Plasmatons, the Master’s henchmen, are blowing bubbles, literally, and beggar belief. Indeed, fan lore will tell you they are the worst monsters of the Davison era. This isn’t quite true, as Warriors of the Deep’s Myrka is toe-curlingly bad and hilarious to boot, but that’s like saying Mel isn’t quite as bad as Adric: perfectly correct as far as it goes, but you don’t really want to spend time with either of them. One could go on listing the design problems but it would be tedious: suffice to say, the whole reeks of a mixture of indifference and creative exhaustion. Had the team had an inspiring script, then perhaps we would have seen something better. Faced with something the quality of Time-Flight one can almost hear everyone saying “Ahh stuff it, any old rubbish will do.”
And therein lies the main problem. As said, poor effects do not necessarily ruin a good script, but if you don’t have the words on the page there’s little that can be done. Last month saw the release of Timelash which is generally regarded as a low point for the Eighties, but the main problem with that story’s script is that it was merely hackneyed and uninspired. Time-Flight’s, by comparison, is actively terrible. Viewed purely from a point of its narrative, it’s very convoluted, and there’s a lot of technobabble that really isn’t worth following. There’s a story from Patrick Troughton’s era, The Wheel in Space, in which the Cybermen’s evil plan is notoriously complicated, and it’s a similar case here, with the Master seeming to jump through all sorts of hoops to achieve his end. I suspect that he’s probably just bored: stranded in the past with no one to keep him company, he contrives a scheme which involves bringing a whole plane-load of people just to keep him company. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have worked: he must have been still bored, for he then needlessly disguises himself as the rotting corpse of Fu Manchu. (This is a habit of this incarnation of the Master, who often adopts disguises for no readily apparent reason: see also his scarecrow antics in The Mark of the Rani.) Plotholes abound, reflecting the problems which run through Grimwade's script on just about every level. Although structurally the story’s development might appear sound, there’s such a huge amount of downtime and excess padding that one finds oneself quickly losing the will to live, and no longer care enough to try and follow what’s going on. (For example, episode three under ran by something like eight minutes, so that a totally superfluous subplot involving a hostess is crowbarred in, only to be forgotten in the final episode - last seen entering the Master’s TARDIS, one can only presume she came to a sticky end). Such extravagant things as characterisation or interesting dialogue are ignored in lieu of cardboard mannequins who play their part in getting the plot to its next point and laughable expositional technobabble of the kind that would make even Brannon Braga blush.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the cast find nothing to hold onto, and as a result don’t put a huge amount of effort into their performance. The one decent turn comes from Nigel Stock (perhaps most famous for having played Doctor Watson opposite Peter Cushing and Douglas Wilmer in the 1960s) who as Concorde passenger Professor Hayter somehow manages to keep a straight face amongst all the silliness. That said, one suspects at times that he’s doing so purely to make those around him start giggling, and if so it seems to have worked. Although the regular TARDIS team manfully do their best, the guest stars as a whole can’t seem to keep a permanent smirk off their faces, most notably the rather camp-looking pilots. Of the regulars, Davison gives his usual reading of breathless desperation, perhaps ramped up a notch or two (it’s said that it was this serial that persuaded him not to stay beyond the end of a third series), while Ainley hams it up in his disguise, although becomes somewhat more subdued when revealed in all his Mastery glory. Director Ron Jones does his best to keep order, but hemmed in by the claustrophobic sets and weighed down with a cast that obviously can’t be bothered he struggles to inject any life into proceedings at all.
There is, in fact, only one positive thing that can be said for this serial: the first episode isn’t bad. It has a vaguely interesting mystery, the Doctor gets to be suitably (if stereotypically) eccentric, and the location work at Heathrow at least grounds the thing in some kind of reality. However, even that’s a symptom of how bad the rest is: when you wish you could stay at Heathrow a little longer you know you’re in trouble. Once we leave the confines of the airport things go downhill rapidly, even more so the more one thinks about it, as on a first viewing, one feels that one must have missed something, and a subsequent watch will unravel its intricacies. Instead, said subsequent watch reveals that in fact you didn’t miss anything except a load of incomprehensible babble and by the time the poor viewer comes to it a third time, he sees that not only is it a load of incomprehensible babble, but that it has no redeeming features, such as Paul Darrow hamming it up, to distract attention. Only masochists would watch it more than that. Even the laughably clunking dialogue is too reminiscent of clunking dialogue of the past. It’s doubly a shame, because up until that point Season Nineteen had managed to escape an out-and-out clunker. Fortunately for Grimwade, he would have a chance to redeem himself with first the adequate Mawdryn Undead and the underrated Planet of Fire but even those don't entirely make amends for his writing debut. Utterly, irredeemably terrible.
And then, just when you think it can’t get any worse, Adric reappears.
Time-Flight is released as part of a two-disc set also featuring the next Who story Arc of Infinity, although as with all the Classic Who releases, the story gets its own case and cover (and, suitably for this story, a poor one at that). The disc layout is the usual for the Main Menu: grey roundels, running clips of the story on the left, the Menu Options on the right. Along with the usual extras, there’s also the now routine Coming Soon trailer, this one for The Time Warrior.
The episodes themselves and all extras are subtitled.
A decent transfer here which nevertheless can’t hide the age of the material. As ever the image isn’t as sharp as Who circa 2007 but is more than acceptable given its age. Some of the effects have had to be redone but the work is seamless, and in general this looks somewhat better than its companion story Arc of Infinity.
No heroics here, just a clear track which unfortunately allows us to hear every last glorious line of dialogue, for which I should probably deduct marks.
“I don’t remember it being as bad as this.” Once again, an entertaining Davison commentary, the former Doctor joined by Fielding, Sutton (almost mute as always) and Saward, who is quite able to admit that the story is a stinker. As usual, there’s a fair amount of waffle, but also some interesting discussions, as well as a general atmosphere of bonhomie as everyone cheerfully throws custard pies at the screen. Question: has there ever been a commentary on these discs quite so condemnatory? I can’t think of one.
As ever, there’s the option to run a collection of trivia about the serial along the bottom of the episodes, which is always entertaining to do. There have been repeated complaints that these sometimes run too quickly to enable one to read, but I can’t say I noticed any instances on this particular disc. But then I fully admit it’s entirely possible I dozed off while watching them this time, a fact normally inexcusable for a reviewer but I think, in this case, somehow understandable. Did I mention this is a terrible story?
Mouth on Legs (13:38)
Not, as the title suggests, a profile of Tegan, but rather a rare interview with Janet Fielding, her first on camera for the Who discs. Over the years, she’s gained a reputation for being splendidly outspoken about her era on the show, but in recent years seems to have become more reconciled to her place in its history and a little (only a little mind) more diplomatic. This interview is a good example of that, in that while she speaks out about various problems it’s a far more benign piece than one would have expected from her, say, a decade ago. At times one wishes she’d be a bit more forthright like the Janet of old, but this is still an amusing, candid interview if somewhat short: we get snippets rather than full stories, which is a shame. Let’s hope she can be cajoled in front of the camera again at some future point.
Deleted Scenes (3:44)
“All rubbish!” A dull collection of cutting-room leftovers, the majority of these scenes are set in the Heathrow controller’s airport. None add anything to the story, and, aside from a couple of less than complimentary asides from the actors after “Cut!” has been called, aren’t worth bothering with.
Jurassic Larks (19:33)
In early Who DVDs, studio footage would be included completely raw, which was momentarily interesting but quickly grew boring. Here there is a great improvement, in that the on-floor material is now accompanied by explanatory subtitles to show what is going on, which makes watching the stuff far more entertaining and revelatory. As such, it’s is the first compilation of this kind that I haven’t had a desire to fast-forward through.
Not the most exciting series of out-takes you’ll ever see, this collection of fluffed lines has surprisingly little of the usual humour one sees in such compilations (you know the sort of thing, someone messing it up then blowing a raspberry to emphasise their mistake) and as such isn’t one of the more exciting extras on this disc.
Peter Grimwade Interview (4:12)
Sadly Grimwade died in 1990, but fortunately he is still present on the disc in the form of this extract from an old Mythmakers video from 1987. In it, Nick “The Voice of the Daleks” Briggs gently asks the writer if he thinks he wasn’t a bit too ambitious with his script (he doesn’t) before the sometime director explains why he didn’t end up directing the script himself. Good.
Photo Gallery (8:22)
An unexpectedly enjoyable gallery this one. Among the usual collection of publicity stills and behind-the-scenes shots there’s the odd highlight, such as Ainley reading Doctor Who Magazine or a very revealing studio picture which shows just how small and simplistic the outdoors set really was.
One of the highlights of the disc is the inclusion, in .pdf format, of the entire 1983 Doctor Who Annual which looks splendid. There’s also the usual Radio Times listings to be found.
A heroic attempt by the Restoration Team to make this disc an attractive option with a gallery of good quality extras cannot disguise the fact the story itself is an out-and-out turkey, and easily qualifies as Worst Story Released This Year.