Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The Time Monster written by Robert Sloman and directed by Paul Bernard

This story in a nutshell: A hallucinatory experience that feels very much like 'a real pippin of a dream!'

Good Grief: The Master has been a thorn in the Doctor's side for too long now and he is having apocalyptic dreams about him (this might just be the best shot sequence of the entire story, it is genuinely frightening and disorientating). You have to wonder why the Brigadier doesn't have the Doctor sectioned when he asks him to put out a worldwide alert for the Master because he saw him in a dream - not half an hour ago! All the bitching between the Doctor and the Master in episode four is highly amusing, especially when the Master switches the sound off to his scanner whilst the Doctor is in mid-rant. The Master is right, this Doctor cannot bear to not have the last word. Jo gets the chance to hear the Doctor's subconscious thoughts - what a shame we aren't privy to them too. Especially the ones he isn't proud of. Letts was very interested in making the Doctor a flawed character and takes steps to suggest that he has doubts and fears like everybody else. An extension of that is his story of the blackest day of his life, a poetic tale that he tells Jo to cheer her up when they are locked up and awaiting execution. He talks of a hermit who lived halfway up a mountain on Gallifrey that taught him the meaning of life simply by staring at a daisy. Both the hermit and his own doubts about his character would return to haunt him in Planet of the Spiders. The fable tells of the joy of being able to experience life through somebody else's eyes, a profound sentiment that we should all remember in our blackest moments. On the whole though, this is as bland as the third Doctor comes. He's lost a lot of the arrogance and coldness that made up his early persona and hasn't quite transformed into the charming rogue of his final two seasons. He's caught somewhere in the middle; an apathetic man. He's heroic only in the sense that it is expected of him. He does nothing that genuinely surprises.

Groovy Chick: I don't know how Katy Manning does it. At times she was written in such a patronising manner (well, I say at times but what I mean is in this story) but somehow she manages ride that wave of condescension and cling onto her dignity and stroll through the story a hip and independent young lady. Compare and contrast with Victoria, who wallowed in sexist clich├ęs but didn't have the personality or charismas of Jo to burst free of it. Saying that the moment in episode one where the Doctor practically pats her on the head of getting a scientific question right (he sounds genuinely astonished) and deserves a conk on that mighty honker of his. The Doctor actually tells her it is her job to do as she is told. Apart from a brief moment when he believes the Doctor has been killed, Jo walks through the story completely unfazed by everything that is going on about her. Almost as if she is taking none of it seriously. I can't say I blame her but when even the most hysterical of companions stops giving a shit about proceedings and just seems to be hanging around for a laugh we're approaching unforgivable levels of nonchalance. Jo in her groovy Atlantean dress and hippy wig looks quite beautiful. There's a moment very similar to that of the one between the ninth Doctor and Rose in The Unquiet Dead in episode six, the Doctor apologising for bringing Jo to such a dangerous place and her telling him she wouldn't have missed it. She's the suicidal queen, throwing the TARDISes into Tim Ram because she knows she is the only leverage the Master has in stopping the Doctor from acting and defeating him.

The Bearded Wonder: The Master has had enough of this piffling little planet and is going for a grand finish, haunting the Doctor's dreams, manipulating time, attempting to ensnare time monsters and playing God in Atlantis. All in a days work for the half baked fruitcake with arsenic frosting. Plenty was asked of Roger Delgado during his three year tenure as the Master but this was the only time that he was written for in quite such a mortifying fashion - where the character wouldn't be out of place in a pantomime. It is a sign of what an astonishing actor that he is that he manages to overcome the cod-Greek accent, the grovelling and snivelling, the cheap tricks and maniacal laughter and still manage to keep his intact and provide a great time for everybody watching. Delgado is worth his weight in gold and nowhere does he prove it more than in The Time Monster, where everything around him has gone to shit and he still smells of roses. Pertwee was right to fear his popularity, the Master is every  bit as vital to this story's (limited) success as the Doctor, perhaps even moreso. Since this pretty much reaches Scooby Doo levels of naffness, it is a surprise to me that the Brigadier didn't rip away the Master's anti-radiation suit as soon as he entered the room wearing it. You'd think he would begin to suspect something when he started bellowing 'Come Kronos! Come!' An embarrassing slip on the Master's part who soon gets straight back into character. He wants control over the Earth and the universe itself - I'm not quite sure what he is going to do with it all but I'm sure it will be tediously overcomplicated and barmy. About as close as classic Who ever came to examining the Master comes in the exchange 'You're mad! Paranoid!' 'Who isn't?' It's the paranoid part that interests me. Of what exactly? We get to see a new shade of the Master's character when he turns on the seductive charm and climbs the ranks of Atlantis by promising dark romance to Galleia. I like how she falls for the sinister side of his character, he doesn't have pretend he is someone he is isn't to intoxicate her. She wants a bad boy in her life and when the creaky body of Dalios and the simpering poetry of Hippias are her best alternatives who can blame her? I don't think the Master has ever looked so smugly satisfied as he has the moment he sits in the throne at the head of Atlantis. A buxom babe at his side, guards to do his every bidding and the Doctor at his knees in chains. Turns out the Master would rather be killed than lose out to the Doctor - a belief that the John Simm Master would follow on with. The Master grovelling at the Doctor's knees a the climax is the most pantomime the character has ever dared to descend. Delgado almost gets away with it too.

UNIT Family: 'Greyhound Three - we're stuck in the mud!' Oh the irony of that statement. One criticism about the UNIT stories midway through the Pertwee era is that the whole organisation is supposedly starting to feel a little bit too cosy and indolent. Having Mike turn up at the start of the story and state that he hopes something dreadful happens soon because he is bored isn't exactly the most dynamic of introductions. It suggests that they just hang around between invasions and drink army cocoa and Benton's brew. Once upon a time this organisation could pull on impressive resources to take down any alien menace and now it is reduced to a bouffant-bothered Brigadier huffing because nobody will escort him to Prom, sorry to the demonstration of TOMTIT (it's a choice between Yates and Benton and one is duty officer and the other is heading home to knit a tea cosy). The Brig has been lobotomised to such an extent that he needs jolly Sergeant Benton to explain the science to him - how the mighty have fallen. It's not as if the TOMTIT technobabble is especially hard to grasp, even if you are a pompous military idiot. I think if you rosy up the Brig's cheeks, put a wind up key on his back and have him marching around banging drums in the background of scenes and he would look less of a goon than he does when getting involved with the action (his nadir comes in episode two when he unwittingly contributes to the explanation of Stuart's ageing but can't figure out how). If you are having a bad day you simply have to watch the second episode of The Time Monster with the commentary switched on. John Levene's solo effort is a joy to behold because he seems to think that this is some kind of forgotten gem and his personal contributions are the work of a skilled actor at the height of his powers. The pantomimesque trick that the Master attempts to pull on Benton in episode two is highlighted by Levene as an especially golden moment for his character. Note the urgency in episode three when the entire universe is in all probability going to ignite and the regulars pop back to Stuart's flat for marmalade sandwiches and a nice cup of tea. Despite falling for the most obvious of tricks, Benton is given some of his best material because he is allowed a little autonomy and lumbered with tweedledum and tweedledee (Ruth and Stu) and thus is able to appear decisive and gifted by default. Ultimately UNIT is so vital to the story they can be trapped like flies in amber for two whole episodes and completely miss the climax.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'That's the most cruel, most wicked thing I've ever heard!' 'Thank you, my dear.'
'It was the daisiest daisy I had ever seen.'

Dreadful Dialogue: I'm at a loss to explain how the dialogue is quite as nauseating as it is in The Time Monster - Barry Letts and Robert Sloman wrote three other (well regarded) stories and none of them consist of the sort of tongue twisting, beatnik, flamboyant discourse that pollutes this story. It feels like the writers have simply forgotten how people talk for six's bafflingly apparent because there isn't a single other story in the era where such cod-modish crassness spews from the characters mouths. Watching the stories in order makes this one very much the sore thumb.
'Simmer down, Stu!'
'May God bless the good ship Women's Lib and all who sail in her!'
'You'll be consulting the entrails of a sheep next!'
'TOMTIT, that's what it's all about!' - Say that to the tune of Agadoo.
'That's alright, Prof. You go and enjoy your nosh. Leave it to the toiling masses.'
'It can swallow a life as quickly as a boa constructor can swallow a rabbit - fur'n'all!' - this might be the worst line in all of classic Who, a hotly contested field.
'Get on with it you seventeenth century poltroons!'
'Sorry about your coccyx, Jo.'
'How about curses, foiled again!'

The Good: 
* What a shame that Director Pervical has to become one of the Master's stooges because he gives as good as he gets when he first meets the renegade Time Lord - he could have been an amusing thorn in the Master's side rather than a snivelling brainwashed slave. He even scoffs at the Master's TOMTIT.
* When the whacky ideas start coming they manage to lift the story considerably. I love the idea of the chronovores, creatures that exist in the vortex and if let loose on our plane of existence would cause untold damage. Shame the execution lacks finesse but that doesn't take away from the strength of the idea. Creating a myth to tame reality when it has become unbearable works to explain how the Greek legends can worm their way into Doctor Who. . During the first third of this story the Master isn't engaging with the UNIT family at all, he's too busy running dull tests. The whole thing perks up considerably when they sabotage his efforts because it gives him the chance to fight back. Cue an attack on UNIT by a horseman in armour, Roundheads and the deployment of a V1 to take out the platoon of do-gooders. The Master having control over time to such an extent that he can draw in some of the most destructive weapons/soldiers throughout history and set them on his enemies is a lot of fun. More should have been made of it. Don't get me wrong, the scenes lack urgency and drama and the Doodlebug footage is in black and white  but it's some action and we should be grateful for it. Time Ram is an incredibly dramatic notion - two TARDISes occupying exactly the same space and causing utter annihilation. I bet that was a popular tactic during the Time War given both the Time Lords and the Daleks have time travel technology. I've heard many say that episode four is the nadir of the Pertwee era but it is my favourite part of the story (frankly it is my favourite episode out of the disastrous 16 episode run that makes up The Mutants-The Three Doctors). Like the transition between The Dominators and The Mind Robber, a one episode interlude was required in the TARDIS to help with the switch between the dreary contemporary Earth scenes and the am dram naffness of Atlantis. I especially love Letts and Sloman realising the potential of TARDISes within TARDISes long before Christopher H. Bidmead got a hard on for dimension transcendentalism. The loopy idea of having one ship inside another like a Russian Doll effect, constantly finding yourself in a loop of console rooms, is deliriously trippy. 'The TARDISes are telepathic?' 'Of course, how else do you think they communicate?'
* Thank goodness for the sudden cut to Atlantis in episode two to break the monotony. Filmed at Ealing, giving at a more polished look than the rest of the production to this point, it marks something of a turning point from all the dull explanations that have replaced any sense of drama or wonder.
* Am I the only person who likes the space age TARDIS design that appears in The Time Monster only?
* Dalios is the one element of the Atlantis scenes that excites because George Cormack is too good an actor to be sunk by the weight of the ungraceful dialogue. The character has a sharp wit, doesn't take anything seriously and questions everything. He's more than a match for the Master. He's the smartest person in the whole story and it might have been better had he stepped into the renegade Time Lord's life instead of Krasis. He would have single-handedly lifted the contemporary Earth scenes.

The Bad:
* Doctor Who is programme that has gone to far flung planets so it isn't always necessary for the characters to talk in a naturalistic way in order for you to enjoy the story. However if you are going to set a story on contemporary Earth (or in the near future) then it is a good idea that your characters have a certain degree of naturalism to them in order for them to convince. I can only put the lack of success of characters like Stu and Ruth down to the dialogue because the performances are generally fine (Wanda Moore pours on the scorn a little too much at times but on the whole she and Ian Collier are underplaying their parts). Ruth is a spokesperson for women's lib and that is her sole contribution to the story - if she isn't agonising over the lack of respect for women then she blends seamlessly into the background. I bet her husband is seriously hen pecked. Stu, as characterised, is even worse, a tussle haired hippy scientist with a line in hip language and an irritating knack of dancing around the room when an experiment is successful. I reckon he's into experimental drugs, puffing away on the fire escape when nobody is looking. No part of these characters convinces - I simply cannot imagine knowing anybody like either of them. And that's a problem when they are supposed to be the two normal characters surrounded by Time Lords and soldiers. I think Stuart's rapid ageing is supposed to enamour us to the character through pity but the fact that he looks like he is wearing a hideous rubber mask and how the story moves on from the consequences of his senility nips that in the bud.
* Don't get me wrong, the ability to transport things across the planet would be resourceful technology and a wonderful time saver but devoting two episodes to laborious experiments in a dreary institute to achiever something that is second nature on Star Trek is hardly a thrilling way to kick start one of the most ambitious of Doctor Who stories. First episodes are the bread and butter of Doctor Who, that stab of excitement in the gut as we head off on a fresh new adventure to anywhere in the universe. The Time Monster might be the only Doctor Who story that kick starts with its dreariest episode with far too many familiar elements that fail to excite. It lacks atmosphere, scares or interest. A far cry from where the season began. You would be hard pressed to figure where this story would end up give the weariness of the opening instalment. People complain about how long it takes for the Doctor to get involved in Revelation of the Daleks but he's irrelevant in episode one of this story too.
* With The Time Monster it becomes a game to spot things that amuse you to distract you from the general lethargy of the storytelling; the Doctor's insanely phallic TARDIS detector, the highly popular and much simulated 'we've done it!' dance, Bessie speeding down the road at a million miles per hour to a devil may care tune, how the Master pre-empts Chronos' every visitation with a bellow of 'Come Kronos, Come!' (note - don't try this during sex, it only invites awkward questions), how everybody gathers around the Doctor and watches in intense astonishment (except the Brig, who stands back as sceptical as ever) as he cobbles together his greatest invention out of a wine bottle, a cork, two forks and a cup of tea (this is the living embodiment of actors selling material that is beneath them), the random in-bred yokel who turns up to inform the viewer that the Doodlebug fell in this exact spot all those years ago and just happens to have a tractor on standby to drag the TARDIS out of the mud, Benton being turned into a baby wearing a nappy (which kind of suggests the adult version is too).
* It's no secret that some Doctor Who monsters don't quite live up to their fearsome reputation. What's not as widely accepted is that just as many do. However, when it comes to Chronos the train has well and truly fallen off the rails; a man trussed up in a white budgerigar costume and a roman helmet jammed on his head, hoisted up on a Kirby wire, flailing about and losing feathers and squawking like seagull that has spotted a fresh round of fish and chips. It's so appallingly unsuccessful you have to wonder why Barry Letts didn't gate crash the production and demand a reshoot. The success of the story does rather rely on the terrifying impact of the titular creature. This is the sort of horror that awaits us in the spaces between time. A good sprinkling of baking soda and they'll be exploding across aeons.
* I don't buy the idea that Atlantis was too ambitious for the show to realise in the early seventies - they had a pretty good stab at it in the sixties (and it was far more atmospheric in The Underwater Menace and not just because it was shot in black and white, the sets were genuinely more impressive) and managed to carve out a convincing corner of the universe in Frontier in Space (including several planets, palaces, prisons, spaceships, etc). The truth is as is so often the case in Doctor Who that it is the end of the season and the money has been spent already but despite all that the producer still wants to try and pull of a spectacular eleventh hour coup. We are left with a humiliating attempt at trying to pull off the scale and the majestic design of the ancient city but what ends up on screen looks like a shoddy am dram set complete with dubious extras and a cod-mythical score from Dudley Simpson. Despite its reputation for looking this tacky every week the truth is the set designers normally produce magic with their meagre budget but in this case the results make the show appear insolvent. The lighting is the biggest sin, it is over lit so every deficiency is evident and every drop of potential atmosphere is bleached away. It brings the flatness of a BBC studio into sharp relief. Aidan Murphy playing every scene with robotic over emphasis doesn't help, nor Ingrid Pitt's disinterest (in everything except bedding Roger Delgado, naturally). The costumes are spankingly clean, the wigs preposterously lustrous and mock-Shakespearean dialogue so extravagant it made my toes curl. Rarely has a setting in Doctor Who lacked this level of conviction, I could not believe in this society on any level (check out the appalling attempt at a backdrop of the sprawling cityscape over Dalios' balcony). Just when you think it can't get any worse, the bloody Minotaur shows up! Half man, half bull; it's a muscle bound actor with a pantomime bulls head (slick with Vaseline) dumped on his head going 'rrrawwwrrrr!' At least The Mind Robber had the sense to keep the mythical beast out of shot for the most part, terrifying with its shadow. The Time Monster goes all out and has the Doctor waving his red rag to the creature. Add some meekly falling polystyrene boulders, an unconvincing lightning effect and Chronos flapping his fluffy wings to complete the disastrous effect. The Fall of Atlantis, indeed. I had no idea it was so unremarkable.
* Is there a climax to this story? To my mind it just sort of stops. Chronos turns out to be quite lenient in the end and lets all the silly little mortals get on with their squabbles. If she was never a threat in the first place, what the hell was this story all about?

Result: People seem to queue up around the block and ask 'what went wrong?' when it comes to The Time Monster. Technically it should have everything going for it. The writers of The Daemons, The Green Death and Planet of the Spiders, the director of Day of the Daleks and Frontier in Space, Terrance Dicks at the height of his powers, Jon and Katy settled into their relationship, the UNIT family plus the Master, a script bursting with ideas that can encompass everything from TARDISes within TARDISes and a trip to Atlantis and an attempt to craft an end of season spectacular. Why then does this have such a gutter reputation? The general lethargy in the production is mostly to blame, I think. It infects everything from the writing (the dialogue lacks urgency, the plot lacks drama), the performances (everybody involved acts as though this is a jolly romp rather than an end of season spectacular) and the direction (which is flat, lacking atmosphere and quite unimaginative for the most part). Something might have been salvaged had one of these problems struck but the coming together of all three creates a feeling of this story being made up on the spot by a team of regulars (including the production staff) that are far too comfortable with each other. For a story that finishes a universe away from where it starts, The Time Monster feels startlingly unambitious and lackadaisical. It's the story you can stop and point it if you are one of those people that suggests that the Pertwee era lacked any urgency potency. The contemporary Earth scenes are so unimportant that all the characters that make up the first four episodes are written out completely when the action moves to Atlantis, only to return for a token gag at the climax. The Ancient City is realised so inadequately on every level you have to question whether the production team is in desperate need of a shake up. When Inferno is the ultimate expression of Sherwin's exiled on Earth format and Atlantis represents the production teams desire to get away from that, you have to ask who had the right approach. And look at all the embarrassment along the way; Bessie's super drive, TOMTIT, a thick as shit Brigadier, baby Benton, the Minotaur... The Time Monster is one of those rare Doctor Who stories where nothing comes together and you genuinely question your love for this silly old show: 3/10


David Hancock said...

Couldn't agree more. I'd speculate that much of the season's budget went on The Sea Devils, which left the season finale looking woefully inadequate; especially when compared to the beautiful Peladon sets. Sadly, even Skybase was better realised than Atlantis.

You're actually not on your own in liking the new TARDIS set, although I don't know how long I could have stuck it (of course, it returns later, looking much more impressive with more traditional roundels).

I have to admit, I do miss the original style TARDIS interiors. Just imagine what could be done on today's scale and budgets with a more traditional design...

Anonymous said...

Am I the only person who actually LIKED the Brigadier's exasperated "You'll be consulting the entrails of a sheep next!" line?

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Anthony Pirtle said...

You know, the last two episodes almost work as a two-parter. It's a shame. As an aside, I half expected Pertwee to say, "And the old man under the tree was Clara Oswald..."