Our Mode of Conveyance is Irrelevant (Time-Flight)
|Welcome to Longleat, Mr. Davison.|
It’s March 22nd, 1982. The Goombay Dance Band are at number one with “Seven Tears,” and stay there all story. Derek and the Dominos, ABC, and Bucks Fizz also chart. Lower in the charts are Flock of Seagulls with “I Ran” and U2 with “A Celebration.” While in real news, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has a groundbreaking ceremony. In less American news, the Canada Act passes the British Parliament, giving Canada the power to amend their own constitution instead of having to ask Britain to do it. In similarly partially-UK news, Chariots of Fire wins Best Picture at the Academy Awards, beating Raiders of the Lost Ark. Time Bandits, in hindsight the actual best film of 1981, was not nominated.
But for me it’s about a decade over, and we’re on scratchy VHS tapes from PBS again. Because Time-Flight was my first Peter Davison story, and one of the earliest Doctor Who stories I ever watched. Which sets up an interesting situation. Time-Flight is, after all, absolutely hated. Apparently the worst story of the Davison era by some margin, and the fifth worst of all time if the Mighty 200 poll is to be believed, which, of course, it isn’t.
One of the nice things about watching Doctor Who as a child with only the Peter Haining book to go by is that you simply don’t know things like that, though. I could, as a child, identify broad eras of Doctor Who that I didn’t care for as much as others, but even the Pertwee era, the one I actively liked least as a child, was fun. I was disappointed whenever a tape turned out to be Pertwee stories, but I still eagerly watched the whole thing. The idea that there were crappy Doctor Who stories isn’t one occurred to me until much later in life, specifically when I discovered that this story and the next were widely hated. So when I watched this as a child I didn’t hate it. It didn’t occur to me to hate it. It was Doctor Who. I liked Doctor Who. So I liked it.
To some extent, of course, there is an immature naiveté to this approach. Uncritical viewing is problematic. Of course, I wasn’t wholly uncritical at age ten – I knew I liked Doctor Who and that I didn’t like other things. But assuming that just because something says “Doctor Who” at the beginning it’s good is still fundamentally uncritical. But equally, there’s a difference between growing to dislike something like The Celestial Toymaker (which I had no idea wasn’t the classic I’d been told until I watched it and realized which use of “celestial” was in play) because there’s something fundamental about the story you didn’t realize and growing to dislike something like Time-Flight because you’ve stopped being able to enjoy something in the way that you used to.
(All of which said, there’s a racial issue in Time-Flight that I should quickly deal with, having just compared it favorably to The Celestial Toymaker. Kalid is an appalling racial stereotype of a character. That said, he’s not a character. He’s a disguise of the Master. So what we’re left with is “people who dress up in grotesque makeup and enact racist stereotypes are evil.” I have no problem with this assertion. It’s essentially what I said about The Celestial Toymaker, in fact.)
I’ve talked very briefly in past entries about the idea of redemptive readings, and as we step closer and closer to the “bad part” of the classic series this becomes a more immediate concern. So let’s use the example of the turkey of the Davison era to sort out a matter of aesthetic principle that’s been quietly underlying this blog from day one: it is preferable, given the choice among reasonable arguments, to like a piece of art rather than disliking it.
The underlying logic here is straightforward. Any argument for the worth of art is an affirmative argument, not a negative one. That is to say, on the whole we value art because of what good art does, not because of what bad art does. If you care about art, you care about good art. And thus, all things being equal, an argument that something is good is preferable to an argument that something is bad.
Now, of course, all things are not always equal. The Celestial Toymaker is overtly and destructively racist. There’s no way around that. Arguing that The Celestial Toymaker is good art anyway means that you have to argue that its virtues are sufficient to justify appalling racism, and that’s an essentially impossible lift. In a lesser example, The Invisible Enemy really just doesn’t give you much of anything to hang a “good art” argument on. I’d love to like The Invisible Enemy, but when there’s absolutely nothing to base that argument on… well, I’d love to be able to psychically cure cancer too, but alas, reality intrudes.
But there are also a vast array of grey areas within aesthetics in which one is left with multiple sets of standards by which one can plausibly judge a work of art. The Chase is a good example. There are many, many sound arguments under which one can conclude that The Chase is rubbish. But there also turns out to be one under which The Chase is a remarkably compelling piece of postmodernism. Given that all of these arguments are plausible, it is my assertion that one ought pick the one that makes The Chase good.
This is what I call a redemptive reading – the active decision to try to like something. The risk here is that one becomes uncritical. And that’s what a redemptive reading always has to fight against. A good redemptive reading should actively attempt to overcome every argument against the quality of a text. This isn’t about blindly liking all art, but rather about sightedly liking as much art as possible – about doggedly arguing on the side of aesthetic quality against all comers. Sometimes you’re defeated – sometimes there’s an argument against a text’s quality that you just can’t refute. But you should try, and I do try in this blog, especially with Doctor Who.
All the same, we’re entering a period of Doctor Who where that does become, in the general case, impossible. Material reality intrudes. The series fails in a concrete and measurable way. Getting cancelled is necessarily a failure case for television. And while the failure could viably be seen as existing anywhere along the production line – it doesn’t have to be a failure on the part of the producer or script editor, for instance – it still means something went wrong, whether in the making of the show or in its paratextual elements.
So somewhere in the course of the next three seasons of entries we need to come up with an account of what went wrong. But we also ought try to minimize the damage, if you will. If we can manage it, we should favor an account of the 1980s in which we have to dislike as little of Doctor Who as possible. And so, against all consensus, I propose the following heresy: it’s wiser to dislike Earthshock and like Time-Flight than it is to like Earthshock and condemn Time-Flight. Earthshock’s flaws are indicative of an aesthetic approach to Doctor Who that is flawed outright – a belief that Doctor Who should be something that it is not only ill-suited to but that is on the face of it inferior to other possible models for what Doctor Who is. Time-Flight’s flaws, on the other hand…
Well, let’s tick them off. It looks cheap. Yes, indeed, it does. But again, as sins of science fiction go, cheap isn’t the worst option on the table. Cheap is at least interpretable within the general realm of what science fiction television is. We might manage some sort of critique on the grounds that the story itself seems to avoid taking itself seriously, giving you an airline crew that rather camply disbelieves in the cheap-looking ancient world, insisting that they’re still in London. But again, there’s a frame of reference that works here. Almost everyone plays their part straight, and where there are problems it’s that everyone is just a little too eager to take the cheap sets seriously. But the story is in on its own joke, and just as the Williams era was able to get away with this sort of double-layered meaning, so does this.
The difference is that where the Williams era all too often found itself hamming it up to compensate for a weak script. Here the script is actually functional in its own right. Over the course of its hundred minutes Time-Flight manages to move among several ideas and reversals, most of them interesting. Disappearing airplanes works as a story. Evil sorcerers in the ancient past works as a story. The Master trying to take advantage of an ancient race of aliens works as a story. The final part – an extended sequence of TARDIS repairs – is the weakest link, but we’ve got a story here that moves confidently through a large number of ideas while maintaining a pleasant grin about the sillier aspects of it.
Even the Master isn’t that problematic. Yes, his scheme is bonkers and makes no sense, but it’s so recognizable as a villainous scheme that it doesn’t have to. The fact that he has zero motivation whatsoever to dress up as an Arabian sorcerer just isn’t that big a problem – dressing up in outlandish disguises is the sort of thing that black hatted villains do. It’s completely consistent with the narrative codes this story is operating under.
Which leaves the complaint that it follows Earthshock. Admittedly, for me at age ten, it didn’t. It came out of nowhere on its own, and the bits about Adric made no real sense to me. But the complaint that this is a letdown after Earthshock is largely based on the idealized version of Earthshock instead of the actual one that aired. The one where just because a companion died it’s automatically a dramatically successful one, and just because there were space battles with Cybermen it was exciting. As opposed to the one where the most annoying companion in the history of the show dies because he’s a self-centered smartass, where the Cybermen are hammed up robots, and where the tough as nails female commander is played by Beryl Reid. (Not all of these are criticisms, mind you.) Following from that Earthshock – the one that actually aired, I mean – Time-Flight looks like exactly the sort of thing that sort of show would do to decompress after a “massive event” like that. So, what, we’re going to complain that the Doctor and company move on to new adventures too fast after Adric’s death? They mourned Adric longer than most of the audience did.
What we do have is a show that actually has room for all of its main characters in the plot. We have Sarah Sutton finding new ways to simultaneously convey strength and vulnerability with Nyssa, and Davison showing that he really can make anything look convincingly suspenseful. Even Janet Fielding is starting to show that she can work as a companion. All she really needs is to leave her dire “lost stewardess” concept behind and become someone who wanted to travel the world and instead found something far more wonderful to travel. And between this story and the next one, that gets accomplished too.
So we have a functioning TARDIS crew having an interesting and plausibly fun adventure.There are, slowly but surely, things going direly wrong with Doctor Who in 1982. But Time-Flight isn’t one of them. Is it a classic? God no. It’s miles away from that. But it’s difficult to escape the sense that most of the stick this story gets is from the same people who want to pretend that Earthshock successfully recreates Aliens on a BBC budget, and that their biggest problem with it is that it’s an unmistakable reminder that that’s not actually what Doctor Who does. What Doctor Who does, and more to the point what Time-Flight does, is put a series of interesting ideas that don’t seem like they should go together on a screen in a way that has its an intelligible logic to it and a cast that’s fun to watch. Does anyone seriously not want to know what the people who came up with Arabian sorcery kidnapping a Concorde into ancient history to harness the power of Jekyll and Hyde aliens are going to come up with next?
March 9, 2012 @ 12:51 am
Nicely said – certainly I found nothing/ no one to dislike in this season until a fan told me there was about a decade later.
I've always found it curious that people polarise opinions of a films/books/BBC Telefantasy into like vs. dislike – and assume that "don't like" equates to "dislike" – there's plenty of things in the world that I can't find much to like about, but that doesn't necessarily make them bad things.
Ok, so this story is a bit loopy, and the effects and budget aren’t exactly brilliant, but that's hardly saying much. Personally I'd take Time Flight with all its stupidity over The Android Invasion any day.
March 9, 2012 @ 1:36 am
I've never had a problem with Time Flight either. Conventional fan wisdom – the positives as well as the negatives sometimes – is a baffling thing. I don't mind Earthshock especially, and any show that can have the two stories next to each other is a wonderful thing.
March 9, 2012 @ 2:01 am
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March 9, 2012 @ 2:22 am
I found this to be surprisingly fun, given its reputation.
I was convinced some of the unreality of the effects work is intentional, or at least doesn't harm the story. In the scene where air crew are successfully persuaded that it's really not Heathrow out there, they're standing in front of a VERY dodgy Heathrow bluescreen. When it then cuts to the exterior-in-the-studio, that ends up looking no less real in comparison – whereas if they'd filmed the Heathrow shot on location, it would have been a "yeah, right" moment.
March 9, 2012 @ 2:23 am
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March 9, 2012 @ 2:24 am
I watched this the other day and I still see a redemptive reading as a bit of a stretch. The thing about the "Arabian sorcery kidnapping a Concorde into ancient history to harness the power of Jekyll and Hyde aliens" take is that, with the possible exception of harnessing the power of the Jekyll and Hyde aliens, all the things you mention are essentially spectacle rather than story, and if you're going for something that's mainly spectacle it really matters whether or not it's executed well. And it's hard to argue that Time-Flight is executed particularly well (and hard to argue that Earthshock isn't).
The most interesting thing it does is set up a series of internal conflicts: within the Xeraphin, between the hypnotised and non-hypnotised flight crews, between the two Time Lords. But each of these is pretty much done before it can turn into anything interesting. Surely the right way to resolve this would have been for the Doctor to find a way for the good Xeraphin to to win, not for two boys to have a build-off in a garage.
I think the killer argument against Time-Flight is the trouble you yourself clearly had in coming up with strong arguments for it. It's easy enough to take on subsets of the arguments against it, but, to take an example of a persuasive sympathetic reading, your entry on Four to Doomsday left me prepared to rewatch the story with a much more sympathetic eye (and I did, and I liked it, though the end is still rubbish), while this one just leaves me feeling that you're shouting at me for having a different opinion.
March 9, 2012 @ 5:42 am
Arguing that The Celestial Toymaker is good art anyway means that you have to argue that its virtues are sufficient to justify appalling racism
This isn't obvious to me. I mean, saying that something is good art despite being pervaded by some horrific prejudice (which I think is something we have to say about quite a bit of art) isn't the same as saying that its goodness justifies the prejudice. Those just strike me as radically different claims.
By analogy: Do the cultural achievements of ancient Greece make it worthy of our affection, despite the ghastly treatment of slaves and women? Absolutely. Do the cultural achievements of ancient Greece justify the ghastly treatment of slaves and women? Hell no.
March 9, 2012 @ 5:43 am
Fair point. "Outweighs" would be the better verb.
March 9, 2012 @ 6:14 am
Heh. Quite by chance, my latest blog entry, which went up this morning a couple of hours before yours, comments on the fact that "I do approach every story with the attitude that I'm going to enjoy it", and that "a couple of times when people have pointed out negative aspects to stories that I have reviewed positively, I've more or less agreed with them. Except… well, I've generally (and subconsciously) put those aspects in the best possible light."
So you're not going to get much argument from me on the benefits of redemptive readings! Of course, you're coming at the subject here from a better-developed and informed perspective and have devoted considerably more column space to it; but at least I got my comment in first 😉
March 9, 2012 @ 9:05 am
The main thing about Time-Flight is that it suffers as a result of being made as a Davison-era four-parter, when it feels like it wants to be a Pertwee-era six-parter.
Just imagine Letts & Co. could do with UNIT being called in when Delgado's Master hijacked a plane into the past. (In fact, it would probably be better than a lot of actual Pertwee-era six-parters!) OTOH the extended Pertwee version of Time-Flight would have had unconvincing rubber dinosaurs it the prehistoric scenes…
March 9, 2012 @ 9:46 am
had to have redemptive readings on stories that you're so bored with that you can't justify the time to sit through them again. I mean, i like the idea in theory. I approach sitting down to watch Doctor Who like i'm going to enjoy it, but we're entering in the years where I've spent more hours of my life TRYING to force myself to enjoy the program… and i just don't.
March 9, 2012 @ 10:18 am
Phil, I have to give you credit again for going well out of your way to give stories the benefit of the doubt. It's incredibly admirable and incredibly beneficial when trying to re-evaluate material like this.
I'm afraid I have to side more with Will Whyte and inkdestroyedmybrush on this one. Do I think it's the worst Doctor Who serial ever? Of course not-there are far worse. On the other hand, I find it really hard to come up with a measure of quality under which it could be considered good. Merely not being totally misguided like "Earthshock" doesn't quite cut it for me-The story makes no sense, isn't terribly interesting, is ludicrously silly (and not in a good way) and like Will said it's not executed well.
Speaking of "Earthshock", I am gonna be that guy who calls the story out on not dealing appropriately with Adric's death. You hate him and I hate him (and it should be quite clear by now I REALLY hate him), but the TARDIS crew didn't seem to hate him and the callousness with with he's discarded here really stretches my patience, especially if John Nathan-Turner and his crew are trying to turn Doctor Who into a soap-influenced cult sci-fi show, where characters and their relationships with one another are paramount.
That being said, there is a level under which I can consider "Time-Flight' incredibly entertaining: We're entering the era of Doctor Who where I find it just as enjoyable to watch the show as enjoyably shlocky material for MST3K-style riffing session as I do as an actual work of provocative science fiction theater. With no investment in the characters, the ideas or the plots (and without the general offensiveness and tastelessness of the Colin Baker era) Doctor Who here becomes a delightfully campy guilty pleasure for me for the next few seasons, starting here. As admittedly problematic and racist as The Master's disguise is, it is an absolute riot to watch Anthony Ainlay and Peter Davison stare each other down taking the patent ridiculousness of the entire thing totally seriously. "Is The Great Khalid not allowed to travel where the spirit guides him…Doctor?" just slays me every time. This is genuinely classic stuff here.
March 9, 2012 @ 11:31 am
Phil, to be honest, I am almost stunned that you would want to undertake a redemptive reading of this awful, awful story. To make a few bullet points:
1. I cannot disagree more strongly regarding the absolutely appalling treatment of Adric's death. I know you have a deep dislike of the character, and I know you are not alone in that feeling. Nevertheless, we are talking about the first death of a long term companion in the show's history — and a young boy at that! — who heroically sacrificed his life to save the human race. And the entirety of the Doctor's response is "Well, he wouldn't want us to mourn. Let's go sightseeing at the Great Exposition! We can eat candy and ride the Ferris Wheel!" As best I recall, Davison never acknowledges Adric's death again until his own regeneration, at which point (perhaps ironically) "Adric?" is his last line. Even watching “Time-Flight” at the age of 16, I was horrified at the Doctor's callousness.
2. The Master's Khalid disguise is ludicrous. Setting aside the racism inherent in the disguise, apparently the Master is a method actor — he insists on maintaining his Khalid disguise even when he is alone and no one is watching him! I mean honestly! Who did the Master need to fool except for the audience and the TARDIS crew, and IIRC, there was nothing in the story suggesting that the Master expected the Doctor's arrival. So why did he spend two whole freaking episodes pretending to be an Arabian sorcerer?!? Other than, naturally, JNT’s obsession with spectacle over competent storytelling.
3. The plasmatons were rubbish. Much worse than the rubber Kinda snake, IMO. Also, Paul mocks the idea of "unconvincing rubber dinosaurs" above, but really, what's the point of setting a story in the Pleistecene if you're not going to have dinosaurs? Unless you want to pretend that the hilariously anachronistic bird that flew in front of the Concorde in the stock footage take-off of Episode 4 was actually a baby pteranosaurus or something.
March 9, 2012 @ 11:34 am
4. Once again, the Fifth Doctor continues his track record of utter uselessness. To recap (since this seems like an appropriate place to review Davison's first season):
(a) He spends most of "Castrovalva" locked in a cupboard, needs Shardavan to explain the plot to him, and then needs Shardavan to sacrifice his life to save the TARDIS crew (everybody else in the city just ceases to exist without any apparent concern from the Doctor).
(b) In "Kinda," he unleashes the Mara by childishly mucking about with technology he doesn't understand, and then treats Adric like absolute crap over reactivating the mech by innocently closing its door.
(c) In "The Visitation," he loses his screwdriver, and then just goes without because he can't be buggered to replace such useful technology.
(d) In "Black Orchid," the TARDIS crew’s entire involvement in the plot solely arises from the Doctor's childish decision to crash a party under a false name, apparently just so he can play cricket!
(e) In "Earthshock," Adric has to save the human race from destruction while the feckless, impotent Doctor is busy turning the TARDIS over to the Cybermen while waxing poetic over the joys of a well-cooked meal.
(f) Finally, here, in "Time-Flight," the Fifth Doctor's essential uselessness is lamp-shaded by the episode 3 cliffhanger, which has Davison with a stricken, hang-dog face, whining that "the Master has finally defeated me!" Turns out the Master hasn't won after all, due entirely to the intervention of the Concorde flight crew who manage to sabotage the Master through sheer dumb luck.
I know Davison’s Doctor was a reaction against the relentless “look at me, I’m awesome” attitude of Tom Baker, but really, except defeating the killer frog in “Four to Doomsday,” did the Fifth Doctor achieve anything productive this whole season?
March 9, 2012 @ 11:34 am
6. Finally, I thought the season cliffhanger at the end of Episode 4 was cruel. Specifically, it was cruel to all the fans who detested Tegan Jovanka to give us false hope that this shrill, tedious woman was leaving forever, only to dash those hopes the following season.
March 9, 2012 @ 12:46 pm
Sorry, with the haters here. I was really, really primed to give this story the benefit of the doubt as an 11 year-old. I had been through Heathrow with my family all the way from NZ a year earlier and was stunned to see the ACTUAL, REAL LIVE TARDIS!!!one! sitting there with an armed guard (I was surprised that no-one else seemed to be paying it all that much attention).
So when Time-Flight actually screened out our way, and I realised from the synopsis that this was the one I had witnessed the making of….what a letdown. I tried to like it, I really did, and re-watching it, it does manage a certain campy sense of fun, but dear lord, did it fail as good, basic, Doctor Who entertainment at the time.
March 9, 2012 @ 1:04 pm
Time Bandits, in hindsight the actual best film of 1981
It is actually the seventh best.
March 9, 2012 @ 5:18 pm
Alan, it's even worse than that I'm afraid…
As an…experiment, I just rewatched Time-Flight. I like the idea of redemptive readings, and wanted to see what I could make of Time-Flight going into it determined to see as much good as I could.
Holy ****. Its heart may be in the right place, but that's absolutely the only thing that is. It's like a crap Claws of Axos. At least in Axos the visuals were worth looking at.
The Master loses all personality once he stops pretending to be Khalid. Not only does it botch what ought to be great character moments for Tegan and Nyssa, and completely waste the character of the Master himself, but also just makes the third and fourth episodes flat boring taken on their own without any consideration for the ongoing series at all. It manages to be dull on many levels simultaneously: metatextual boredom.
And the Doctor doesn't just seem useless: he actively seems like a huge jerk at times. Firstly, he makes the brainwashed Concorde passengers pry open the Sanctum for him without lifting a finger to help them, even though they've already been worked hard by the Master and some of them are obviously elderly. Secondly, there's the Adric thing. Stiff upper lip and all that, but, jeez! He doesn't even bother to give any justification for why they can't save Adric, and after the first few moments he's totally lost in his cricket obsession to a degree that seems sociopathically detached. Thirdly, he dumps Tegan at Heathrow without even asking her first! Not only is it cruel to the audience (because she comes back next story), but it's just as cruel to the character inside the narrative. The Doctor is a jerk on many levels at once. It's metatextual jerkery.
Time-Flight is a postmodern exercise in failing on many levels at once without ever seeming to try.
But much like the Daleks, out of this evil must come something good: search YouTube for Flight of the Darned.
March 9, 2012 @ 5:52 pm
On the subject of the poor handling of Adric's death, as I said, I think this has to be taken in the context of the almost overtly underwhelming way in which his death was handled. Of course the reaction after it was muted and they just moved on. Everything about the character's death in Earthshock was set up to do that. Nothing about Adric's death in this story seems to me to in any way fail to adequately follow the death we actually got in Earthshock. And all of the flaws in it are just extensions of the ones that were already there in Earthshock. Let that story take the blame for it, then.
March 9, 2012 @ 6:24 pm
I'm not denying "Earthshock" sucks-I agree it does. But the other side of this is just because "Earthshock" is rubbish doesn't mean "Time-Flight" isn't rubbish as well. Even if the treatment of Adric here is a logical extension of what happened the previous week, that doesn't mean John Nathan-Turner and his creative team are any less at fault for failing to follow through properly with the trappings of the genre they're trying to write for. To be blunt, you can't casually toss away characters in a character drama, no matter how shite they are, because emotional investment in the characters both onscreen and amongst the fans is the entire point of the genre.
Seems to me that if over a year into a Bold New Vision influenced by soap operas, cult sci-fi and other character pieces even the show can't muster up enough enthusiasm to care about its own cast, that's indicative of some fundamental failing on the part of the showrunners. I mean if they don't care about their own characters, why should I? And guess what? I don't. So, congrats guys. I guess that's worthy of some kind of parting gift.
I will, however, gladly go back to watching Anthony Ainlay ham it up in a shitty Halloween costume and Peter Davison desperately try to keep his dignity intact. At least I can get some entertainment out of that.
March 9, 2012 @ 6:52 pm
Speaking of which — Jesse, what happened to your blog archive? When I click the "archive" link on the page, I get a very sad message.
March 9, 2012 @ 7:07 pm
Regardless of Earthshock, Time-Flight really screws the Adric thing up in a serious way in just the first couple of minutes. Tegan makes what appears to be an incredibly reasonable point: they can save Adric and still let the freighter crash without actually changing the history of Earth at all–or even what we the audience see on screen, since we don't actually see Adric literally pulverised. Why is that not a thing that they can do? Apparently, just because the Doctor says so. Thing is…Davison's Doctor has been defined so far by his fallibility in comparison to Tom Baker's. Everyone takes the piss out of him! His inability to get things right has become a running joke with Tegan! The previous Doctors could maybe have gotten away with that kind of "because I say so" justification, but…trying to pull that now is going completely against the entire narrative of the new Doctor. Davison is the Idiot, in almost a Dostoevskian sense (because that's a word now). He works when he forces other people to explain things for him, not when he tries to just steamroll over thing like that.
March 10, 2012 @ 12:14 am
I brought this up on the imdb discussion board some years ago, and fans got extremely heated that I dared even mention it. But Adric is essentially Schrodinger's Cat, the freighter is the sealed box, it's impossible to see what's happening inside it. For all the Doctor knows, he could be at that very moment inside the ship picking up Adric. In fact, it's not even a time-sensitive issue, the current Doctor could just as easily carry out the task. It only becomes a fixed point in time as soon as someone with a bearing on the outcome witnesses it.
And I think this makes a very interesting comment on the nature of time paradox: for something that should theoretically be a hardwired physical certainty – that, if you change events, it causes dangerous ripples – it's pretty much entirely dependent on selective perception. The Doctor is only breaking the laws of time if he knows he's breaking the laws of time. While he remains ignorant, the laws are there to be broken. The time-traveller's knowledge is what separates the notion of changing events from the notion of becoming part of events.
For example, the Doctor can't go back to 1937 and stop Hitler, because he and we know how things are supposed to turn out. But all his adventures in time and space are someone's history, and who's to say which events he's becoming a part of and which he's actually altering? When he foils any murderous megalomaniac or alien invasion, how does he know he's supposed to be doing that? How does he know he isn't preventing their equivalent of World War II?
Anyway, the fans on imdb were having none of it, and were throwing all sorts of technobabble at me that I can't even remember now. But ultimately, until The Doctor (or we) sees Adric die, Adric can be saved.
March 10, 2012 @ 12:18 am
My favrourite film on that list is the short Tango. I hated number 3, Blow Out, and didn't think much to Time Bandits… I couldn't get to the end of either.
March 10, 2012 @ 1:00 am
I'd always thought that, had the production staff ever been interested in bringing back Adric, an interesting story might have been having the Master rescue him from the freighter. One of my pet peeves about the Master (and about most other two-dimensional Republic serial villains of the same ilk) is that he never repeats a plan no matter how close it came to fruition. In "Castrovalva," the Master had a boy who could do block transfer computations, math that could restructure reality itself. And once he lost that brilliant young boy, he never once tried to find out what happened to him to see if that ability could be recovered. The next time we'll see the Master again, he'll be in medieval England trying to sabotage the Magna Carta, apparently just "for the lulz."
March 10, 2012 @ 2:04 am
He's the Wile E. Coyote of villainy.
March 10, 2012 @ 3:56 am
Alan — the Master rescuing Adric is a great idea. You should mention it to the current production team. CGI Matthew Waterhouse!
March 10, 2012 @ 4:31 am
Jesse, what happened to your blog archive? When I click the "archive" link on the page, I get a very sad message.
The old posts are still there but the archive link no longer works, thanks to some change or another on Blogspot's end. I've meant to try to figure out a workaround, but I haven't had the time; I should just take the link out.
March 10, 2012 @ 7:14 am
"Does anyone seriously not want to know what the people who came up with Arabian sorcery kidnapping a Concorde into ancient history to harness the power of Jekyll and Hyde aliens are going to come up with next?"
I think Phil has identified the single best factor of Time Flight: its pitch. The initial pitch at the story meeting must have sounded like an utterly awesome trip. And then everything that happened to the story in its development after that very first pitch was screwed up to the highest degree.
March 10, 2012 @ 8:52 am
So the reason the Doctor can't rescue Adric is not because he can't but because he doesn't know that he won't do so at some point in his own future time-line? And the fact that the Master may also attempt the rescue may be the cause of the Future Doctor deciding to get there first. Or maybe he just couldn't stand the irritating little prick like everyone else.
March 10, 2012 @ 9:02 am
Also Philip I love the idea that we should give all Art the benefit of the doubt as to its 'goodness'(Except when it's racist of couse) rather charming. BTW in the highly unlikely event that you're ever stuck for a meta-textual idea How about applying your deconstructor beam to the words which never fail to cause a frisson every time I see them on these pages- 'This comment has been removed by the author' and 'Please prove you're not a robot'. There's a Douglas Adams story pitch right there.
March 11, 2012 @ 1:01 am
Following on from my comment that 'Time-Flight' is a Davison four-parter that feels like it wants to be a Pertwee six-parter. There's a dysmorphia there that's what makes it feel such a mess at times.
Fans have noticed that the story is a mess, even if they don't know why. And because being a fan is all about suspending disbelief and being drawn into the fictional world. (Or at least it was about that in the eighties. There's a whole media-savvy, TV Tropes generation that's grown up since then, who aren't interested in being drawn into anything.) so back in the eighties, fans tended to look for explanations within the fictional world. So they complained about plot holes that are just symptoms and side effects of the main fault at the heart of the story, which went totally unnoticed.
Ironically the closest they come to accurately identifying the flaw is when they claim that this type of story just doesn't feel right coming straight after 'Earthshock'. In fact, it doesn't feel right anywhere outside the Pertwee era! If we didn't know any better, we could almost think that this story was written by someone whose last exposure to DW was 'The Time Monster' and didn't realise how much the show, and TV in general, had moved on in the 9 years since then.
The fact that it was actually written by Peter Grimwade, the director responsible for some of the most eighties-feeling stories in DW so far, just makes things even more puzzling. Why was he delivering such a reactionary "Fuck you!" to the very style of DW storytelling that he helped create? We may never know…
(I had hoped Dr. Sandifer would provide a definitive answer to this question in his essay, but he doesn't even seem to have noticed that there's a question to be answered! In the past I've never understood why satirists joked about Media Studies degrees being so worthless and easy to obtain. I'm beginning to see their point now!)
Anyway, the strange thing is, whether intentional or not, and probably not, this leads to a sort of meta-story arc of Pertwee-style/Davison-style storytelling conflict stretching across the next few serials.
In 'Arc of Infinity' we have scenes on Earth and on Gallifrey, where the Time Lords are having trouble with Omega, which is eventually solved when the Doctor is reunited with someone from his past. Sound familiar? The main difference is this time it's Tegan, rather than a previous incarnation.
And since it's Tegan who started to reverse this narrative collapse, she now becomes the hero of the meta-story. That's why 'Snakedance' sees her fighting her old arch-enemy, the Mara. Her assistant, the Doctor, is still firmly locked in ersatz-Pertwee mode, so helps her with a blue crystal that spiritually affects people's minds.
It's only in 'Mawdryn Undead' that Grimwade and Doctor Who in general can both exorcise this Pertwee fixation. Meeting the Brigadier, accepting and bidding farewell to the past, and moving on, allows the fifth Doctor to finally reclaim his own show. And leads to the oh-so-eighties (though not necessarily in a good way) 'Terminus' next.
March 11, 2012 @ 5:32 am
Well, for one, I disagree that it feels like a Pertwee six-parter. It's much closer to a Pertwee four-parter. Specifically to The Three Doctors, whose plot it parallels almost exactly only with some standard issue Master tropes grafted on. Indeed, it far more resembles The Three Doctors than the next story does.
March 11, 2012 @ 9:03 am
"Please prove you're not a robot" is gratuitously offensive to any intelligent robots who might seek to comment on this blog.
March 11, 2012 @ 6:31 pm
My understanding was that "the pitch" was simply "let's cobble something together involving the Concorde and maybe we can score some First Class tickets for the writer and/or executive producer." Certainly, there seems to be no higher purpose to setting "Arc of Infinity" in Amsterdam other than the production staff wanting the BBC to pay for their vacation.
March 11, 2012 @ 6:40 pm
I've read this five times now and I still am not sure what you mean. I didn't see anything "understated" about the ending of Earthshock. Nyssa broke down into tears and collapsed into Tegan's arms (a more emotional response than she had to the death of her own father and the destruction of her homeworld), Tegan called out the Doctor's name in an accusatory tone, and the Doctor merely looked at her slack-jawed, completely speechless and (IMO) overcome with horror and guilt. The last time a serial ended in a way that cried out for followup the way "Earthshock" did, it was "The Silurians"! Except that "The Ambassadors of Death" didn't pick up five minutes after "The Silurians" with the Doctor still upset about what happened before abruptly deciding that it wasn't that big a deal and perhaps he and Liz should just go out for ice cream.
March 11, 2012 @ 6:44 pm
It's even worse than that after "The Wedding of River Song." Now, the Doctor can change fixed moments in time as long as he conceals all evidence that he has done so. Apparently, it was possible to save Adelaide Brooke after all. The Doctor only needed to take her and the other crew members 1000 years into the future and set them up with fake identities so that everyone would believe they were still dead!
April 15, 2012 @ 3:54 am
My own “redemptive” take on Time-Flight is that it’s at least better than The Visitation. There's a sense of the season coming full circle as this opens, like Castrovalva 11 weeks ago, on present-day Earth. Then we switch to the TARDIS and – oh – they start off by answering the question of what happened to the freighter escape pod, as that's clearly more important than Adric's death. There's the start of an interesting debate about why the Doctor can't go back to save Adric (surely not impossible, given no-one actually saw him die and they already knew he was in imminent danger and were trying to get onto the freighter). But the Doctor dismisses it all with a wave of his hand and decides everyone needs cheering up.
It's difficult to know how kids would have reacted to this at the time. In retrospect it looks crass, especially given a tiny tweak to the script (have the debate interrupted by the Concorde's time turbulence and hurl them straight into the next adventure) could have covered the awkward join. You might very well think the script editor is doing a really bad job. But still…
It's funny to see the TARDIS finally arrive by accident exactly where it's been heading for the last 9 weeks. The Doctor's startled reaction to the monitor is an amusing running joke (cf. Four to Doomsday and The Visitation). And the scenes in the terminal are good fun, especially the Doctor's diffidence: "I try to be responsible [for this box]". And the stuff with Concorde in the snow looks lovely, with a decent mystery to solve. The problems really start on arrival on Jurassic Earth, with CSO straight out of primitive Pertwee, and a set that make you fondly wish for a quarry.
Comparisons to Pertwee stories are apt, because Time-Flight is shaping up as an homage to Bob Baker and Dave Martin's scripts, and in particular The Three Doctors (which had just been repeated as part of the Five Faces season) complete with 1970s mysticism, references to the Great One and the Master in a rubber mask. Even the Plasmatons look like the rubbish anti-matter blob and gell guards. As such, this is less experimental and more "trad" than any other story in Season 19. It's still pretty poor, but there's a sense that the writer was striving to recreate something that worked once, and certainly more stuff actually happens to advance the plot than in most episodes this year. The difference is, Barry Letts would never have countenanced a story quite so ambitious on the budget without some serious re-writes. Whereas JNT and Saward seem to think they can get away with it.
April 15, 2012 @ 3:56 am
There are some half-decent bits – Adric's reappearance is a typically cruel trick by the Master, though it's a shame the Master himself didn't turn up as one of the ghosts as a neat bit of misdirection (did anyone actually guessed Kalid's secret at the time?). But the script is weak, with Hayter's tortured cry, "Is it you who authorised mass hallucination?" just taking the biscuit. And after the revelation of the Xeraphin feud, the final episode singularly fails to provide a decent climax. In fact, the Xeraphin don't appear at all. Instead, the whole episode is a tiresome mess of rewiring circuit boards and wandering between the Master and Doctor's TARDISes. And despite spending all that time talking about the Doctor's clever plan, the actual explanation for his victory is fumbled and off-hand. We don't even get the pleasure of seeing the Master, confounded, and trapped on Xeriphas swearing vengeance.
What we do get is an end of season "cliffhanger" of Tegan being left behind at Heathrow – EXACTLY WHERE SHE'S WANTED TO BE FOR THE LAST 13 WEEKS. And so we're left with the weakest episode of the season. It's not a total wash-out – Davison is at his most Troughtonish, taking impish delight in outsmarting the Master and desperate to get away without awkward explanations at the end. But like so many episodes this year, he's the glue that holds an otherwise shaky edifice together. Season 19's reputation rests on Kinda and Castrovalva, and fond memories of Black Orchid and Earthshock. And for all that it's said to evoke the spirit of Hartnell, the Pertwee years are a stronger influence, with The Visitation and Time-Flight apparently inspired by race memory of the Third Doctor's era, cod-mystic parables, the Master's regular recurrence, and the TARDIS family standing in for the UNIT family.
But the strongest influence of all is nostalgia, for "like Doctor Who used to be", hence the return of the Cybermen, the references to old companions and a "grittier" style. The trend of the series looking to its past for inspiration is going to become more predominant as the Davison years continue. In Season 19 the production team seems to be trying to incorporate this nostalgia into more experimental stories. Unfortunately that's not going to last.
January 24, 2016 @ 2:39 pm
Phil, thanks once again for writing these, and thanks for your commenters for their good thoughts.
I’ve been re-watching the Davison era for the first time in a long time, mostly enjoying it. This one I thought was the best so far. So it’s interesting and surprising to see that the consensus is “maybe it isn’t a total disaster.” This episode is exactly what I want from this show: all the actors with speaking roles play distinct characters who have a role in the story, the Doctor is imperfect but wins through teamwork, there’s a mix of silliness and menace, there are a bunch of ideas, the “science” makes sense at least on an intuitive level, there are memorable images (the TARDIS on its side in an airplane, a bunch of 20th century travelers wandering an ancient landscape), the ending has some dramatic charge, none of the effects are terrible in a boring way…
September 12, 2016 @ 10:04 am
“Over the course of its hundred minutes Time-Flight manages to move among several ideas and reversals, most of them interesting. ”
That’s one of the biggest problems, that it moves among ideas instead of sticking to one and doing it justice. Episode 3 is particularly bad at just tossing out random notions so that someone can deliver a bit of exposition and everyone else can accept it at face value. The whole reveal about the Xeraphin is a colossal mess.
Meanwhile, you continue your insistence that you know what Doctor Who ought to be about which means it’s not supposed to do something like Earthshock. We get it. We got it last time.