By necessity, this week has been an exercise in saying “this is rubbish, and here’s why”. When faced with Doctor Who stories that are simply not very good, I tend to look for what is interesting about them, but the Colin Baker era has largely confounded that approach. Not so here, because Timelash might be pretty awful, but it does have something going for it.
First of all, we have to acknowledge the faults, but let’s not linger on them too much because they are all too obvious. Slightly more interesting is why the faults exist, and it basically comes down to Glen McCoy delivering a first draft that was so bad that the story would have been abandoned in the normal course of events, but the money was running out and there was a need for something that could be done on the cheap, so Timelash went ahead anyway, despite its obvious faults. The acting, the design work etc: let’s just take it as read that it’s mostly terrible. That’s not worth looking at in detail, and neither is the treatment of Peri as a victim of male kidnapping and perversion, because that happens in just about every one of her stories. It’s just a bit nastier than usual.
But before we get onto the really great idea that gets largely forgotten about Timelash, there is one major flaw that is an interesting flaw: HG Wells. This is not interesting for the reasons you might think. Looking at the ways in which McCoy clearly didn’t do his research properly so that just about every aspect of the character is a bad fit for the real person is relatively excusable in the realms of Doctor Who doing a celebrity historical (more of that below). What is not so excusable is how the premise of Wells being inspired by the Doctor is incompatible with the man’s beliefs.
When we looked at Utopia, I mentioned that Wells is a problematic historical figure who first detailed his vision for a utopian world in the snappily titled Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought (1901). I saved further discussion of Wells for Timelash, so let’s take a look at a quote from Anticipations.
Brace yourself for this.
And how will the New Republic treat the inferior races? How will it deal with the black? How will it deal with the yellow man? How will it tackle that alleged termite in the civilized woodwork, the Jew? Certainly not as races at all. It will aim to establish, and it will at last, though probably only after a second century has passed, establish a world-state with a common language and a common rule. All over the world its roads, its standards, its laws, and its apparatus of control will run.
I’m very sorry to do this, if Wells is your hero. But his views were monstrous. If you love him because he was the first sci-fi writer then you’re in luck, because you don’t need to love him for that either. He wasn’t. Not even close. Have a look at this post from my history blog: Science Fiction 1770-style. That will give you an example from 1770, and that’s not the first sci-fi book either.
Wells undeniably wrote some amazing stuff. But Timelash is not a celebration of his work (despite the references) so much as an examination of the man himself, and here is where it falls flat. The idea is a very simple one, too simple in fact. Where did Wells get his ideas from? In reality, the answer to that is probably by reading other sci-fi writers that came before him. If you click though that link above, you will see a quote from a book that is remarkably similar to The Sleeper Awakes, probably my favourite Wells book.
Instead, McCoy came up with the rather poetic notion that Wells was inspired by travelling with the Doctor, and he does that in a pretty basic way by throwing in some references to Wells’s best known works. It’s childish stuff: Morlox/Morlocks. But there is one huge problem. How on earth could any human who has had his eyes open to the wonders of the universe, travelling in the TARDIS with the Doctor, end up writing the views expressed in Anticipations a decade or so later? Why would anyone form a worldview that is all about crushing and destroying all diversity, when he has seen with his own eyes that we are part of a universe teeming with life?
Having said all that, I have to admire the inventiveness of this actually being a celebrity historical, and doing that in a way that is massively ahead of its time. There have been well-known historical figures in Doctor Who before, very recently in fact, but this is the only classic series example where the Doctor has an adventure with somebody well-known from history who is thrown into the Doctor’s world and inspired by him, rather than just being a part of the narrative of the story. It is very much the template for The Unquiet Dead or The Shakespeare Code, and that highlights another significant point about Herbert. This is the Doctor not just meeting a figure from history, but meeting a writer. The new series will do that on a few occasions, and it is an opportunity to interact not just with somebody from history, but with the fictions they created. See also The Unicorn and the Wasp in this respect. There is an attempt at that here too, with the Borad as a merging of the Eloi and the Morlocks from The Time Machine. It is far too handwaved rather than being a properly integrated idea, but in some respects it is unfair to criticise the first attempt at something for not arriving as a fully formed subgenre.
So let’s get to the really interesting bit now, and that’s the use of mirrors. I argued, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, in a recent article that Doctor Who is all about mirrors. But one thing’s for sure: mirrors feature strongly throughout the whole history of Doctor Who, and when they do there is almost always something fascinating happening on a thematic or symbolic level. If you read that article you might have noticed I didn’t mention Timelash, and that is because discussion of what the mirror theme is doing here needs to really follow on from a week of looking at the Sixth Doctor’s run of stories, to set it in context.
On a basic level, it falls into the category of the mirror as a weapon, something that happens a lot in Doctor Who (The Savages, The Mind Robber, Kinda, Blink and Vincent and the Doctor are all good examples). In Timelash the Borad has banned mirrors, and inevitably a mirror is used by the Doctor as a weapon to defeat him. But look at how he “fires” the weapon.
Timelash features a very odd bit of continuity, a reference to a Jon Pertwee story that doesn’t even exist. It’s quite bizarre and pointless, until you get to the moment where the Doctor breaks though the portrait of Pertwee with a chair. For the last three years, Doctor Who has been trying to live in the past. This season in particular has tried to relive past triumphs and has failed to find interesting things to do with them. At last we reach a point where nostalgia is evoked for the sake of it, without even referring to anything specific. And then the Doctor smashes through all that to get to the mirror, killing two birds with one stone: the Borad, and the pointless nostalgia kick. It’s time for Doctor Who to find a new approach. RP
The view from across the pond:
For my money, Herbert George Wells is the father of modern Science Fiction. Think about it: time travel (The Time Machine), space travel (The First Men in the Moon), alien invasion (The War of the Worlds) mad science (The Food of the Gods/The Invisible Man/The Island of Doctor Moreau)… you find a science fiction movie that does not have its foundation in one of these ideas and you’re probably not looking at a science fiction movie! Doctor Who may never have even been created if not for the ideas H.G. Wells gave us. So it was only a matter of time before Doctor Who paid tribute to Wells. And, being the sort of show that revels in a little paradox, proves to be the inspiration for Wells to come up with those very ideas.
The problem is that Timelash is generally considered rubbish, coming in above only The Twin Dilemma, although some polls put it a few stories higher. If we’re being honest, it is not Doctor Who at its finest. But credit where due: the show was always willing to experiment with ideas so it’s only right that we throw this one a proverbial bone. On top of that, as I’ve said before, good or bad is relative; what makes a story good for one person might be the epitome of bad for another. No, what is actually a problem is if a thing is forgettable. If there’s one thing Timelash is not, it’s forgettable. In fact, once you’ve seen it, you’re bound to remember things about it. This seems to be a trait of Colin Baker’s era; his time was one of creating indelible memories, even if they were often lackluster ones. In the same way, the Doctor’s coat stands out like a sore thumb… or sore body… his season is littered with those ideas that didn’t quite work out, but we can honestly say, they will never be forgotten. Take, for instance, those purple-faced androids with blonde hair or the dinosaur that moves like an amusement park ride, utterly lacking the requisite fear it should be generating. But if we look beyond the visuals, like Herbert has to with his odd little telescope, what we get is a loving little homage to Wells.
At a glance:
- Karfel and the interplanetary war being waged is a clear take on The War of the Worlds.
- The Doctor becoming invisible and wreaking havoc, The Invisible Man.
- His TARDIS, needless to say, The Time Machine.
- The Borads experiments parallel The Island of Doctor Moreau.
So why does the story fall so low on most polls when it is clearly based on absolute classics? I’d say there’s a list of possible reasons that, on their own, might have been overlooked by most viewers but once compiled into a single story, it’s very hard to ignore the flaws. The idea that the Doctor has been to Karfel before is awkward as a lot of the story seems to hinge on us knowing Magellan and caring about him, even though the Doctor has never met him in a televised adventure. Tekker’s comments about traveling with only one companion demonstrates that there’s something amiss too, because he was supposedly traveling with Jo Grant… which would have been a one-companion trip. Unless someone was counting her neurosis as a second person… Because that’s a brief statement, maybe one ignores it and moves on but the inclusion of the Third Doctor in some weird form of comic book wall art, neatly found exactly where the Doctor breaks the wall, does not help the situation at all. As tributes go, this is awful!
The “previous visit” is awkward by itself but now add these things:
- The interior of the Timelash is a weird climbable affair with jutting crystals. How does this explain the science of an opening into space/time?
- The Borad, after being pushed through the Timelash, finds himself on Earth… because all time tunnels from Karfel must lead to Scotland… where he might or might not be seen and believed to be the Loch Ness Monster. I know the TARDIS probably confuses the Doctor where “size” is concerned but the Borad is roughly man-sized. Nessie (or the Skarasen for people who have actually watched Doctor Who) is a bit too large to be confused with a man-sized object. One wonders if the writer, Glen McCoy, even bothered to know what show he was writing for!
- The adventure has the Doctor “find” Herbert’s calling card as a weak attempt at a big reveal. It’s so weak an attempt for something that could have been revealed much more smoothly (like they could have shown the card fall from his pocket, I imagine. Or, Herbert could have commented about writing about this adventure and threw his last name out there, for which Colin, in all his typical bombast, could have had the realization that he was dealing with the H.G. Wells. But no… he displays it to Peri on a business card.)
- And jumping back up to the weak writing, the detonation of the Bandril rocket is dismissed in such an out-of-hand way that it begs the question: was it ever really a threat? “It was a neat little trick” is all the Doctor offers accompanied by the ubiquitous “I’ll explain later”. In other words, the writer chose the lazy way out. You have to wonder why a script editor is even paid if they aren’t even looking at the script and saying “hey, this won’t work; you’ve got to revamp this bit here!” Even if the Doctor simply said, “I allowed it to hit the TARDIS as it was dematerializing.” The neat little trick was the one pulled on the audience. The “I’ll explain later” literally could have him finishing with “…when the cameras stop watching us.”
- Lastly, and worst and most telling aspect, featured far too prominently throughout Colin’s era, the Doctor literally abuses the Borad to defeat: “You’re nothing, Borad. Just a self-degenerating mutation. You’re finished, Borad. Your reign of terror’s over. Nobody wants you. Nobody needs you. Nobody cares!” Not much of a hero when he’s reduced to ridiculing the villain to oblivion. Since when was the hero big on name calling? Acerbic is the very word and it’s unbecoming of the Doctor. Where is the hero who offers the chance for redemption? And remember, this is actually an old friend…
Unfortunately, when you have such poorly executed ideas, a weak story doesn’t help make it better. Hell, Peri didn’t even wear a neon outfit! They always brighten up the day. Still, it doesn’t change the Borad’s lust for her. It seems she was Miss Universe back then since all creatures great and small were pining for her.
But I will leave you with this: if you think about the Saturday afternoon sci-fi movies from that era, this is still at least on par with many of those. Paul Darrow alone adds something; his over-the-top style making him a terrifically smarmy villain. It’s just that we are comparing it against other Doctor Who stories and that brings it down. The creators of Doctor Who tried a fun Saturday afternoon romp – take it as that, and enjoy it. Or use it to recognize where the show went wrong and what might have led to its downfall. Just don’t take the Doctor’s approach and ridicule it out of existence with the cruel line “nobody cares!” ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Revelation of the Daleks