|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?