Thursday, 14 November 2013

Time-Flight written by Peter Grimwade and directed by Ron Jones

This story in a nutshell: It’s quite hard to put this rationally but a Concorde is stolen by a magical genie who brings it down in prehistoric times where he psychologically overwhelms the crew and passengers and gets them to break into a metal egg to reach some psychic aliens. Or something. Doctor Who has never sounded more like a b movie.

Fair Fellow: One thing I have noticed whilst working my way through the worst of the fifth Doctor stories is that Peter Davison is much better than I recalled him being. He was the best thing about mostly yawnsome The Visitation but he acquitted himself rather well in Castrovalva, Kinda and Black Orchid too, even though all three stories portray him as ineffective character. His biggest challenge was always going to be Time-Flight, a story so outrageous in its ambition it was bound to fail and required an actor of steel to drag something respectful from its ashes. After watching Time-Flight it is nothing short of a minor miracle to say that anybody has any dignity left intact, that’s how good Davison is. He strives to give this material significance and that is what you call a game performer. There are some rules that can never be broken and he really goes at Tegan and Nyssa for making the suggestion to save Adric. He points out quite reasonably that Adric did have a choice to stay on the freighter, although I have to wonder if it had been somebody else that he thought something of he might have bent the rules a little and at least tried. Let's be honest that was never going to be the case with Adric. He tries to be responsible for the TARDIS. When he name-dropped UNIT and the Brigadier all I could think of was the fourth Doctor would never do that. Peter Davison declared this story crap (a remark that led to a minor backlash against the actor from fans who thought he was summing up his entire era) and who are we to argue with the lead actor? He’s always found domination such an unattractive prospect, which is lucky considering how many times he’s been offered a hand in controlling the universe. When asked if he loves the company of fools you can only look back at his companions this season and weep. The look on his face when he declares that the Master has finally defeated him is one of horror – could it be that the Doctor enjoys their rivalry as much as his foe? Or that he is simply appalled that he has been bested by such a preposterous scheme? Things are so exciting in episode four the Doctor takes a nap on the floor of the TARDIS. At the climax he was just waiting for his chance to skip back in the TARDIS and dump Tegan, wasn't he?

Acidic Aussie: Finally confirming that she is stark staring bollocking mad Tegan suggests going back to save Adric. Tegan is the embodiment of the ‘wants what she can’t have’ individual, she has spent the whole season arguing, bitching and beating up Adric and now he is gone she says she will miss him. In the same vein she has made such a fuss about reaching Heathrow and when they finally make it she bursts into tears at the thought of being left behind by the Doctor and Nyssa. What the hell? Is that she just likes a moan? I can only come to the conclusion that she will never be pleased. Go with me here because I'm going sound a little loony tunes myself but I am starting to wish that JNT had let Janet Fielding play herself as Tegan rather than forcing her into the characterisation as decreed by Eric Saward and his merry band of writers. It is clear from the commentaries, featurettes and behind the scenes extras over at Big Finish that she is a witty, observant and enjoy woman to spend time with - the complete opposite of the character that she was shaped into on this show. JNT obviously saw some of those qualities in Janet Fielding and then proceeded to let his script editor stamp them all out over three years. It's devastating. Fielding comments that Tegan has a personality but not a character and that is an extremely intelligent observation and not something I had thought of before. In what threatens to become development (but stops just shy of that) Tegan says that flying on an aircraft feels unreal after the TARDIS. When they see Adric in the catacombs is he a vision of her subconscious guilt…or is he simply the worst nightmare Kalid could draw from her mind? In a moment of sheer insanity (and extreme amusement) Tegan talks to passengers that are stumbling across prehistoric Earth towards a Concorde as though they are on the tarmac at Heathrow. It's so bizarrely juxtapose that if you had just switched on you would have to wonder what fresh madness you had stumbled upon. Tegan admits it is not exactly dull travelling with the Doctor. Depending on your opinion of the character (some strange, unbalanced individuals out there admire her) the climax will provoke two opposable reactions. Either her exit will be greeted with a party or tissues.

Alien Orphan: Poor Nyssa suffers all sorts of frightening attacks, loss of control and hallucinations. No wonder shacking up with the lepers feels like the more appealing option come Terminus. Nyssa’s worst nightmare is the Melkur because what came from it killed her father. She is strong enough to see through Kalid’s tricks, though. It is clear that Peter Grimwade doesn't know what to do with Nyssa and so he writes her out of a scene as soon as possible. He does the same thing in Mawdryn Undead, which is probably the worst case of leaving Nyssa in the TARDIS to file her nails since she joined the crew.

The Good Stuff: Contrary to popular opinion there is some good stuff to be unearthed in Time-Flight but it is so swamped by ineptitude that it is often hard to spot. Vanishing aircraft gave me nostalgic thoughts about The Faceless Ones (the memory cheats you know, that one wasn’t exactly a classic either). People mock how the TARDIS crew forget about Adric and get all excited about the Great Exhibition but honestly he was such a fungal rash it was the only sensible thing they could possibly do. It is very funny that the one time the Doctor tries to take them somewhere other than Heathrow that that is exactly where they end up. The Concorde looks resplendent in the snow. For a few seconds of footage you can see exactly what JNT was aiming for. The first half of episode one is an acceptable slice of contemporary drama, it is just when we are slingshot into prehistoric times that things derail so spectacularly. The Master is trapped on Xeraphas desperate to escape, which is at least a decent enough reason for his actions if not his methods (not that you would know he was desperate though because he is still insufferably smug, pantomimesque and looking like he is having a great time). The three stooges, sorry pilots, provide some comedy relief especially when goofing about in the TARDIS. A whole race physically amalgamated into one organism is a lovely idea. A TARDIS around a TARDIS inside a Concorde is another.

The Bad Stuff: Time travelling Concorde crash landing on prehistoric Earth is a crazy enough concept from a fresh writer with no idea about the show but from a director who understands the technical difficulties and budget restrictions (he helmed the under funded Logopolis and Kinda) it is lunacy. ‘Sharaz Sharaz! Jamal! Balor Balor!’ – the Master has finally gone round the bend and started talking in tongues? The cheek of trying to suggest they have genuinely transported an aircraft to the rocky wilderness of prehistoric Earth by building one out of proportion leg of an aircraft in the studio is astonishing. I’m not sure which is more artificial, the performance of Judith Byfield as Angela Clifford or the design of the Plasmatons? How can a story dive bomb so spectacularly halfway through the first episode? The Doctor has a telepathic bubble bath. If you can make matter out of thin air wouldn’t you summon your resources to create something a little more threatening than dancing lumps of white faeces? Arabian Nights? The pantomime at Eastbourne is more convincing than this set up. Hayter is such a stiff character and one who is so deliberately obtuse that literally everything somebody says to him he argues with. Although he has the reverse effect of making Tegan seem quite reasonable. Any point Hayter is proven right I wanted to put my fist through the TV, he’s heartless, arrogant and perfectly awful. A character made out of pure cardboard. Imagine if Kalid had not turned out to be the Master, he would have been the shittiest villain we have ever witnessed…before the reveal you have to ask yourself why but afterwards you have to ask yourself why why why why why? Does the Master only dress up in these outrageous disguises so he can see the look on the Doctor’s face when he transforms? Has he spent entire years/decades/centuries in ridiculous guises waiting for his nemesis to show up (I guess so if you count his stint as a scarecrow in The Mark of the Rani). A more post-modern show would have run with the running gag of the Doctor trying to pull the mask off every fake looking villain thinking it was his arch enemy. Somehow, unbelievably, Matthew Waterhouse is ever worse than ever in his final, infinitesimal performance. Watch the old dear in the holiday hat bashing away at the sanctum; she’s really going for it! There is an extra trying to earn her fee. There’s plenty of talk about the Xeraphin being at war with itself psychologically but this is never dramatised; all we get is explanations, exposition, dry old facts. ‘Soon I will know everything!’ – Hayter dies in terrible agony, which is probably my favourite moment from the four episode, however unintentionally. What is it with extraneous characters flying the TARDIS this season (Tegan in Castrovalva and Four to Doomsday, Adric in The Visitation, all and sundry around the console in Black Orchid and now Stapley in Time-Flight). This isn't a number nine bus, you know. The Master has finally defeated the Doctor…by plugging in a few wires hehehehehe. That would have been a crap defeat. I haven’t even mentioned the musical score which is like a cheese grater driving into your brain and draining the story of atmosphere, although to be fair the director is a co-conspirator in that aim too. How can they take off with all those rocks everywhere? Surely the tires would burst? I can't believe I am trying to rationalize this nonsense.

The Shallow Bit: Stapley, Bilton and Scobie are the campest bunch in a TV show until Gavin and Tim come along in The Brittas Empire. Andrew is the cutest thing. Why does the Master have such a phallic gun? Is it saying something about him psychologically and sexually?

Result: For fifteen minutes you would be perfectly within you rights to think season nineteen will continue the run of luck of the last few stories and end the season on something entertaining and contemporary. I have seen Doctor Who stories crash and burn halfway through (The Ark) or in their last instalment (Pyramids of Mars) but to abandon all hope before the end of episode one is a new record. It’s not just that the story looks hideously cheap or that the plot is told entirely through exposition and pantomime antics or even that we have to suffer another minute of Adric…the very ideas at the heart of this story are so unconvincing you couldn’t even kick start it if you did have decent characters, strong dialogue or decent production values (of which there is a dearth of all three). Time-Flight is the most ill conceived, sluggish, embarrassing slice of hokum. The Davison era hits its nadir: 2/10

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