|This shot is a redemptive reading all on its own.|
It’s March 9th, 1985. Dead or Alive are spinning right round. Like a record, baby. They continue to spin all story long, with Madonna, Prince, and Jermaine Jackson also charting. In news, Mikhail Gorbachev takes over in the Soviet Union, and Mohammed Al Fayed takes over Harrods. Riots break out at the FA Cup quaterfinal between Luton Town and Millwall, presaging ominously the Heysel Stadium disaster that summer.
While on television, Timelash.
Ah. Timelash. Apparently the second worst Doctor Who story ever. Indeed, its flaws are obvious – it’s in many ways The Horns of Nimon only with Paul Darrow instead of Graham Crowden, and while Darrow’s solution to the problem of the script is much the same as Crowden’s, he lacks the sheer mass of cured pork necessary to pull it off completely. For what it’s worth, this isn’t the second worst Doctor Who story by some margin – let’s put it at the very least behind both Warriors of the Deep and The Celestial Toymaker. But it’s tough to argue this works, even if it’s not quite as bad as its reputation. Never mind that, though. I remain not terribly interested in discussing the quality of Season 22 directly. Instead let’s talk about something that’s much odder than people tend to make it out to be about this story: Herbert.
It is worth observing that the model of “the Doctor teams up with a figure from history to fight aliens” was actually invented by Pip and Jane Baker for The Mark of the Rani, then reiterated in the next story filmed, namely Timelash. Yes, the historicals involved meetings between the Doctor and historical figures, but those were just that – historicals. Given that King John was a duplicate, George Stephenson is actually the first historical figure the Doctor encountered at all since 1966, and the first ever outside of a pure historical. Nowadays we’re used to this, with the historical figure team-up happening a minimum of once a season, but it’s remarkable that this model didn’t exist prior to 1985. Nobody remembers to put Mark of the Rani and Timelash on their list of Doctor Who stories that changed everything. (And both deserve credit, as there’s no way to seriously argue that one inspired the other.)
The relevance of George Stephenson as a choice can probably be put down to the quirks of Pip and Jane Baker as writers – it is consistent with their general aesthetic. More interesting, for my money, is H.G. Wells. Wells is lionized as a the father of modern science fiction, which is interesting given that almost nobody talks about any of his books following The First Men in the Moon in 1901. Indeed, Wells is an excessively sanitized character, the popular accounts of him largely treating him as a sort of pleasantly eccentric proto-steampunk figure instead of the aggressively socialist writer he actually was.
So what we have here is a defanged and largely pointless version of the father of science fiction appearing in a defanged and largely pointless imitation of scads of classic Doctor Who stories. It’s sorely tempting to just declare the exorcism point made and end the post at just under 500 words – especially since it’s just about the last story where a brief post that amounts to “well that was straightforward” would work as a joke. But that would just lead to some poster making a heartfelt plea that they’re disappointed I didn’t really talk about Timelash, and I’d hate to force that poster to out themselves, so I won’t.
Anyway, there’s an interesting aspect of Timelash yet to tag, which is the way in which the story is haunted by Jon Pertwee. And not just haunted by Jon Pertwee, but haunted by a Pertwee story that doesn’t exist. This is not the first reference to an unseen adventure ever, of course, but it is in many ways the most substantive and deliberate. There’s stuff like Planet 14 from The Invasion, but that can be explained away as a continuity goof. And there’s stuff like the Terrible Zodin, but that’s clearly intended as a joke. And there’s stuff like Meglos, but that story suggests a visit that was more tourism-based. The only story to really resemble this is The Face of Evil, and even there the story hinged specifically on the unseen story being a Tom Baker adventure.
But what we have here is something altogether stranger – a continuity reference to nonexistent continuity. What, exactly, is its purpose? Typically we’ve assumed that continuity references exist as a sort of fan appeasement based on nostalgia. As we talked about last time, though, nostalgia is based on a lie. First of all, the remembered past is never based around the imitation of its own past. Nostalgia, by definition, wants something different than what the past was. Second of all, though, nostalgia is by its nature based on an idealization of the past with at times minimal intersection with the actual material past.
In this regard, then, the nostalgia for the non-existent Pertwee story within Timelash is almost purer and more honest than normal nostalgia. At last, we have nostalgia that’s honest about pining for a past that never existed! But this observation seems short of the mark. Nostalgia depends on the lie that it is accurate. Which is what makes Timelash’s invocation of a false past so strange. It’s not even as though Pertwee is a particularly sensible era to choose here. The only eras where stories like Timelash unfolded with any regularity were really the Hartnell era and the Graham Williams half of the T. Baker era. The closest to this Pertwee ever got was Peladon, which is, let’s face it, not very close.
In truth the selection of Pertwee is probably little more than another in a series of symptoms of careless and sloppy storytelling here. The cheap and silly filler episode has been a regular of the past few seasons, with only Season Twenty coming close to avoiding it (the one that’s written a disposable filler – The Kings Demons – and the one that’s shot that way – Terminus – are distinct). Timelash is fairly clearly this year’s entry to the group, and in that regard there’s a pleasant improvement in that they avoided putting it after their climactic and thrilling action script – unlike Time-Flight and The Twin Dilemma. And so what is most interesting about Pertwee is probably the very wrongness of the choice – complete with asserting a second companion alongside Jo.
It suggests, and not entirely inaccurately (especially after Holmes’s aggressive demonstration of what the actual past is like) that this era’s investment in the past is indistinct even by the standards of nostalgia – that what is really desired at this point is merely the vague feeling that the series is of the past. That is to say, what matters is not the content of the past but the mere existence of it – that some past is invoked. Given what pragmatic arguments were being aired in the series’ favor at this point in time, an issue we’ll look at in more detail around this time next week, this is almost grotesquely appropriate.
Because what’s interesting is that for all of its faults, Timelash pulls off a bleakly clever bit of thematic unity here. Just as the Doctor’s past becomes a meaningless thing that is referenced vaguely and for its own sake HG Wells is separated from almost all actual representation of his history. The list of historical howlers about Wells is huge – his accent is wrong, his hair color is wrong, he goes by Herbert instead of George, he’s inexplicably well off, he appears to believe in God…
Indeed, about the only meaningful trait Herbert displays in terms of him being HG Wells is that he’ll supposedly write several books based on these experiences. But, of course, the plots of his books don’t really resemble Timelash either. There’s a few names he might have ripped off, but this story’s suggestion that the events of Timelash secretly inspired the writing of HG Wells is… well, it’s a complete evasion of the actual history of science fiction in favor of a vague “history-ish” approach.
So yet again we have a story that seems to be about the horrible consequences that follow from itself. But this one ends up playing with unusually inflated stakes. The use of HG Wells is, of course, because of his role as the progenitor of science fiction. This isn’t quite true, of course, but clearly we’re not going to start worrying about that here of all places. And so the implication of the story is that really crap Doctor Who is the secret origin of all science fiction. Timelash thus positions itself, with hilarious hubris, as the logical endpoint of all science fiction – the point where everybody caught up to what HG Wells had really been doing when he invented the genre.
Unlike The Two Doctors, however, nobody at all seems to be in on the joke. This is in an odd sense the bleakest dystopia Doctor Who has ever produced. In a season known for its black comedy here we finally have a dark joke played so straight that it doesn’t get itself. A piece of cruel absurdism that finally, mockingly asks, “so, then, this is what you want science fiction to be?”
It’s not, of course. And it doesn’t come close to realizing it. If The Two Doctors was the story we could most readily believe was supposed to be an exorcism, this is the one it’s most difficult to give any real credence to. Everything about this looks like poorly written knockoff Doctor Who – the Meglos of the mid-80s. It’s by far the story that has the biggest problem with the 45 minute structure, with a second episode that just gives up on any sort of structured plot in favor of just running an endless sequence of climaxes until the clock finally runs out. The clone Borad is easily the single most flagrant attempt to stretch out the runtime of something since The Invasion of Time’s Sontaran surprise.
And here we do get to the problem with this redemptive reading of Season 22 – one I copped to when introducing the approach. It’s still based on the fact that the stories of Season 22 are almost all pretty bad. There are flashes of quality, and even, with Vengeance on Varos, a sustained attempt at it, but they feel like moments of lucidity in the midst of a protracted decline.
Which leaves us again having to ask why we’re even bothering with this process. What is it we think we can actually gain through this? It’s only redemptive, after all, if there’s some actual redemption. Otherwise we’re just giving clever and metatextual readings of why stories suck.
The answer is that much of this era is about closing off dead routes for the series to take. Many of the stories this season are the last or nearly last time the classic series attempts something like this – and many of the ideas are ones that just flat-out didn’t survive into the new series. Attack of the Cybermen is the last piece of vapid continuity fetishism. The Mark of the Rani is the last time the Master is used in quite this generic and leering a fashion, The Two Doctors does, in fact, spell the end of unproblematic “generic monster race,” and this is the last time the story does a generic space dystopia. For all the egregious faults of these stories they serve almost the exact purpose that they appear to in these readings. There’s no clear future at this point, but that’s not what this phase of the program is about. This is about purging the dead weight. Asking the question “so what’s left after all of this” is next season.
So at this point, a look at the scorecard. Doctor Who has had the qlippothic force of the Cybermen unleashed within its basic premise. It’s critiqued its own status as television entertainment, exposed the Doctor as an almost completely morally and philosophically bankrupt character, attacked the premise of monsters, and now, to top it all off, attacked the show’s standing as science fiction. At this point there’s only one thing left to do before we finish with our acknowledgment and naming of the show’s demons and get into the business of properly expelling them. Because it’s just not a narrative collapse until you’ve got Daleks in it.