Nobody likes Time-Flight. Most fans consider it one of the low points of 80s Doctor Who, and it really does showcase the worst the 80s have to offer. This really looks cheap. But this is Doctor Who, the show we all love, so let’s turn this around and take a look at what’s good about it first, because there is no such thing as a Doctor Who story with nothing going for it.
I mentioned in my last review (Death to the Daleks) that there are a lot of Doctor Who stories where the first episode is much better than the rest of it, and here’s another example of that. Because of the location filming, this is the one episode that doesn’t actually look cheap, and all those exterior scenes look great because of the snow – just a blessing in disguise for the director, although doubtless not thought of in those terms at the time! It does cause difficulties with integrating with stock footage, but that’s always a nasty business anyway.
Anthony Ainley really doesn’t get enough praise. He is one of those actors who could inject some entertainment value into an otherwise yawn-inducing story, as he is just so fun to watch. All that muttering away to himself as Kalid brightens things up no end.
In amongst a sea of dodgy special effects, the Xeraphin are actually quite good, with bits of their faces and chests missing so you can see through them to the background. There is some attempt to explore Nyssa’s psychic abilities, something that should have been featured more during her time on the show, and at least there is some acknowledgement of what has just happened with Adric. It is made pretty clear here that the Doctor cannot go back within his own time stream to fix things, a rule he later ignores in “Father’s Day” to his cost.
That’s not a bad roll call of positives, but it is obviously hard to get past the negatives here. Apart from the first episode, this is all just so amateurish, and looking at the stories that surround it that’s not commonplace, give or take a giant snake. However, if you look at season finales it becomes clear that this is not so unusual: the money has run out. The same problem occurred with The Invasion of Time, and would happen again with The Twin Dilemma.
Cosmetic things are clearly the biggest problem:
(1) The shot of Concorde disappearing fades to a completely different cloud shot, which spoils the illusion.
(2) The TARDIS materialises in a photograph over Heathrow Airport.
(3) All the snow disappears when Concorde takes off – and that’s because it is grainy old stock footage.
(4) The long shots of the prehistoric landscape are blurred.
(5) In Part Four there is a shot of lots of people walking out of the Master’s TARDIS, which is achieved with split screen. Unfortunately the split screen is unstable so it looks like the left hand side of the column is wobbling away from the right at the top.
(6) The Master’s TARDIS prop wobbles when he gets into it.
(7) When Concorde takes off from prehistoric Earth another bit of stock footage is used, and you can see a blurry image of the airport in the background.
But all of this comes down to one thing: ambition stretching ahead of the money. And Doctor Who’s constant attempts to do more than it could afford is actually something to be proud of. We can’t expect every risk to pay off. RP
The view from across the pond:
I began my review with “TimeFlight is pretty universally disliked.” Then I had a thought: let me see what Roger wrote first so I don’t “reinvent the wheel”, so to speak. Roger opens with “Nobody likes Time-Flight.” But here’s the thing: I DO! I always have. And when my son and I watched it together, he also really liked it.
Part of it is that we get some acknowledgement of Adric, the companion who died in the previous story. One thing about the original series that I really liked is that we’d frequently go from one story right into the next. The advantage of leaving space between stories was that writers of the Doctor Who range of novels could cleverly put stories between them, but the experience for the viewer is greater when going from one story to the next. Having that continuity here, having just watched their friend die and now sharing thoughts about it, is well done. Sometimes it’s those character moments that helps a story stand out. I loved when stories had an epilogue; a prologue could work just as well!
Another reason to like this story is that there’s a simplicity to it. The effects were all over the map with airports visible during take-off in prehistoric times and poorly used split screen thanks to a drifting TARDIS, but let’s not forget: this was a time before the reboot, when money was hard to come by for the show. (In fact, it’s been said that one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation had the same budget as one season of Doctor Who, so come on, give them some credit here.) The best way to watch classic Doctor Who is to think: stage play.
When I saw Les Miserables on Broadway, one of the cast (Jean Valjean, I think) leaps off a bridge. To achieve this effect, he jumps off the bridge which is about 18” off the ground, then he stand there with arms raised as if falling and the bridge is quickly raised above him and moved out of sight of the audience. Lights flash to indicate his falling, but clearly the actor never fell more than those original 18 inches. Where were the “special effects”? Why did everyone love this play when they couldn’t even use green screen? Because it was just that: a play! So the DW production crew had to make a Concorde jet travel back to prehistoric Earth, crash, and take off again. Be happy we had footage of a real Concorde jet! While they may not have won any nominations for best special effects, they told a good story. The Twilight Zone told a similar story with The Odyssey of Flight 33 and that is a well-loved story and that crew never get out of the plane, meet an alien race or have the Master mumbling to himself.
And that brings us to our favorite, if over-used, villain: The Master. Anthony Ainley is wonderful. He may not be Roger Delgado as the Master, but boy is he fun. Here he mumbles incantations to himself like some mad magician from Arabian Nights and seems to be fanning incense into his face with his hands as he does it. But why is he in disguise? In case one of the Xeraphin recognize him? In case in 140 million years BC he bumps into someone he knows? It makes no sense. So when he is thwarted from using his rubber, 2-headed floating creature, he rather grotesquely develops the worst cold in history as he collapses. And moments later, (and perhaps a box of Kleenex tissues he kept in his disguise), we see the Master we know so well…
And of course he’s wearing his normal clothes underneath, complete with gloves! (Why do Time Lords never change their clothes?) You can’t make this stuff up!
And speaking of making stuff up: the TARDIS has a feature that you can flip the internal configuration to make getting in and out easier. As Nyssa points out: this would have been a good tool to have on Castrovalva… but again, it’s poorly thought out. Everything inside the “relative dimension” of the TARDIS should remain constant. If it doesn’t, how much gets broken while the TARDIS is in flight? It would have made more sense to just store the TARDIS upright and avoid this silly concept.
But silliness aside, Doctor Who was always about trying things, telling stories creatively, as best they could. As the Xeraphin are semi-see through, we wonder: was that the original intention? When the Concorde fades and a completely different cloud shot appears, could that not have something to do with the time-flight itself? Or perhaps it doesn’t matter. It’s just like that bridge being pulled outside the view of the audience. The story is still a fun, light one. It’s not full of gravitas, has nothing to advance the characters and the Doctor even seems to stand around a lot in this story with little to do but look confused. Heck, Nyssa gets asthma or something in this story! Cotton wool attacks pilots… but it’s a fun story. Maybe not a classic in the sense of going back to watch time and again, but take that time-flight and enjoy it. Don’t look for an academy award nomination, look at it like a school production and enjoy it for what it is!
I will say one strange thing though is that this is a season finale. As decisions go, Earthshock, one episode earlier, would have made a more impactful finale with Cybermen, the death of Adric and the silent credits, but instead the season concludes on a story with weird sets, questionable effects and silly dialog. My first viewing of this was not during its original broadcast, so I never saw it that way, but it must have been an odd ending for the audience at the time.
Doing these reviews has been a time-flight in their own right as I jump around from one Doctor to another. I can’t wait to find my own time again with this year’s Christmas Special: Twice Upon a Time. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Arc of Infinity