Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Serial 122: Time-Flight

Doctor: Peter Davison (5th Doctor)
Companion: Nyssa, Tegan Jovanka

Written by: Peter Grimwade
Directed by: Ron Jones

Background & Significance: Spoilers: It's The Master. Again.

I go both ways in my views on the Jonathan Nathan-Turner years of Doctor Who. There are some things that he did that I'm personally very in favor of (the desire to make Doctor Who more action and excitey, no-more-than-four-episode stories, etc., his propensity to mine other classic stories for ideas, bringing in new blood to write for the show, casting Peter Davison, who is very clearly his vision for The Doctor) while other things make me question his judgment (Colin Baker's first season in general, his self-righteousness, his obsession with Doctor Who's legacy and past, not leaving after "The Caves of Androzani", Tegan...).

One of the things I go both ways on is his handling of The Master.

Now, I know we've talked about this before, but I LOVE The Master. I'm very much interested in antithesis characters for some reason. Yin vs Yang and all that. But there's a fine line with The Master. We've seen him at what is possibly his absolute best, but the really outstanding Master stories are rare. The Master as a character has a propensity to be tremendously silly and boring as it's really easy to write moronic, hokey villains who descend into schlocky tropes rather than come up with a convincing, smart, complex villain. Really great Master stories occur whenever The Master manages to out-think The Doctor. Really bad Master is when he acts like a mustache-twirling melodrama villain who chuckles and postures and never actually gets anything done.

My problem with Nathan-Turner's era is we get a lot of the latter Master rather than the former. When Jonathan Nathan-Turner came on as producer, he sought to bring on The Master twice a season because The Master was popular and would drive up ratings (which, as a producer, is fine because his job is to bring viewers to the show). Nevermind a character's power in scarcity; the more you make The Daleks appear, the less effective they are. The Master's the same way. Like The Joker (and the two are stunningly similar in a lot of ways), the more sparse his appearances, the more "OH DAMN" comes out whenever he actually appears. Not only that, but The Master's motivation needs to be very specific, from something as big as "taking over the universe" to something as small as "transforming to normal again". In "The Deadly Assassin" The Master just wants to regain a life he has squandered after twelve regenerations. Killing The Doctor, The Time Lords, and causing catastrophically devastating cosmic destruction is all just a wonderful bonus. Unfortunately, The Master of the Nathan-Turner era fast descends into two really base and lame motivations: take over the universe, kill The Doctor. Compare "Deadly Assassin" to "Mark of the Rani" and you'll see that The Master just becomes a one-dimensional villain with the sole motivation to kill The Doctor. Why? Never really explained.

Which brings us to "Time-Flight", the second Master story of Peter Davison's first season.

At this point, there's really nothing I can do except bemoan the downfall of a truly awesome character (seriously, did you SEE "The Deadly Assassin"?). Time-Flight is as flawed a Master story as they come and his once greatness has descended into... camp and boring motivations and... no. I'm sorry. But not taking The Master seriously as a villain wrecks him as a character. And that's the saddest. So let's watch as this gets terribly ridiculous and terribly weak as The Master skates the line towards "Mark of the Rani" level of awful.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

“Time-Flight” gets to a start with an… okay first episode. Honestly, the first time I was watching it I was expecting garbage, so it was actually totally watchable by comparison, but this time, knowing how bad it ends up being is just a total… Yeesh.

Let’s start with what works: Davison. Good lordie lordie lord do I loves me some Davison. I know we around here at Classical Gallifrey have made it no secret that we really love our Davison but man oh man does he make everything better. Seriously, every line, every motion, every movement is just spectacular. All the things I have to love about this story so far all come from a huge love of Davison and whatever. I love when he runs out of the TARDIS to check on cricket scores or even the part where he reluctantly tells his crew that Adric is dead and they just have to deal with it. It all just works.

Not only that, but there’s the great part with the TARDIS in the Concorde hold and The Doctor lowers himself in and the TARDIS is all orientated weird. I like that. It’s a good example of Grimwade with cool ideas. Which we see in his later stories, but not here.

The other really great thing that sticks out in this serial is the Adric aftermath. This story comes right after Earthshock, so The Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan are still reeling from the tragic loss and The Doctor’s attempts to deal with his own feelings while dealing with an onslaught of verbal attacks from Nyssa and Tegan is really powerful. Where it fails, though, is from is the fact that two minutes into dealing with the death of a VERY close friend, The Doctor says “Hey let’s go to The Great Exposition” and then everyone seemingly forgets about it. It’s just kinda weak.

Similarly, the basic concept of this episode (that of planes getting sucked through a time warp and getting stuck in pre-historic times) is actually kinda interesting. I’m on board for that in this episode. Even the silly pilots who insist on running around in their little pilot outfits.

But where the story doesn’t work is… I dunno. It’s mostly everything else. Like with “Invasion of Time” last week, you can tell that the budget has completely run out now that the season is ending. Except this is worse. The Heathrow stuff is fine, but the pre-historic stuff just does not look good. It’s like director Ron Jones made no concerted efforts to attempt to make any of this story look good or presentable. Everyone’s clearly standing in front of poorly conceived backdrops and on small slivers of stage with clearly foam rocks. It’s like they weren’t even trying.

And then there’s the bit where Nyssa gets to hang out with a bunch of pilots. I mean, girls like that, right? I find it amusing. Although it still doesn’t look very good (aesthetically speaking, I mean).

The mysteries are there, though. Like who’s the weird looking offensively Asian alien? And what’s going on with all of these people walking around pretending they don’t know where they are? And the weird [awful-looking] gray stone rock creatures? And they grabbed The Doctor! Oh no!

Again, the concepts are all here, it’s just another example of a story’s execution failing to hit the mark.

Part 2:

And then we get what I like to refer to as “The Unfortunate Thing I Most Remember This Story For”, which is, of course, the reveal of The Master as a major player in this story.

But before then, let’s talk about the fantastic things I really love about this story.

Again. Davison. I crazy love Davison. Every delivery he has is just pitch perfect, from his explanation of what happened to him at the beginning to his discovery that people stole the TARDIS or him cheating his coin to point him in a different direction. It’s all just… so so good.

But beyond this, this story is just yeesh. It’s tremendously boring and nothing really happens. There’s some awkward looking bubble capture devices where soap suds trap those they wants to trap. It just doesn’t look good and it looks cheap and lame and I’m just so over it. I mean, I appreciate the efforts, but seriously…. I have my limits.

And then you have Tegan and Nyssa running around accomplishing nothing except some dramatic walking and a confrontation with a ghost version of Adric and a monster from Traken and a Terrileptil and it just… Why. What does it matter? But they manage to break into this secret chamber that is important for… some reason? And Nyssa’s having a bit of a loop-dee. I’m just… A lot of this story is me just going with it for long stretches of time and that’s so disappointing.

Which brings us to the big bad guy. Apparently his name is Kalid and he’s a really bad Asian stereotype.

No. Wait. He’s The Master, just kidding.

It all just feels so bad. But then we have The Doctor facing him and acting circles around him and selling it despite how moronic it all is. Nevermind the way Kalid says stupid incantations and speaks with a nice slur, but… man oh man how bad is this. I keep relating it to "Talons of Weng-Chiang" which is also fairly racist as well, but that… that’s done with a level of innocence. This feels almost intentionally over the top and oh so horribly awful.

Not only that, but look, man. It’s The Master, right? Why in God’s name does he need to dress up like this in the first place? Is he hiding from the flight crews?

But they don’t even know him. No one does. Only The Doctor or his companions would. So why is he in disguise? Why does he need that? It just doesn’t make any sense. And now you have him come in at the end of all that and reveal himself? But why? What does that accomplish? Now The Doctor knows he’s up against The Master? What does that gain you, Master? Surely there must be some strategy behind it. And since when did The Master learn magic like this?

It just doesn’t make sense. Good god. What happened to this? What is going on in this story?

Part 3:

Of all The Master’s appearances this is easily one of his weakest. And that's saying something.

But first! To the good!

While I’m the first to be critical (at least in part) of Ainley’s Master, I will say that I’m actually a fan of him in theory. Likewise, there’s a certain… pathos that happens between this particular incarnation of The Master and this particular incarnation of The Doctor that’s just classic. Perhaps it’s because I’m just a huge fan of Davison’s Doctor and a huge fan of Ainley’s Master (in theory) mostly because I love The Master, but there’s something that just feels so… right about the way they interact. In an earlier entry the blog I mentioned The 10th Doctor going up against The Daleks in “Doomsday”, the way he strides into the room and talks to them so nonchalantly and unworried about the evil creatures he’s currently fighting. He holds a conversation with them, one that’s perfectly civilized, and he doesn’t come in with guns blazing because that’s not his style.

Really, I get that same feeling whenever I watch The 5th Doctor talk to Ainley’s Master. It just works, man. And it works so well. It feels so inherently quintessential Doctor Who, and maybe it’s because my 3rd Doctor/Master experiences are scant and wobbly at best, but this really is The Master/Doctor relationship I most think of whenever I think of The Master and his interactions with The Doctor. Not only that, but The Master’s plan is quite simple and not as basely moronic as it is in "Mark of the Rani" when his goal is simply “To Kill The Doctor”, which is as boring as they come.

No, here we get something a bit different (similar, in a way to “Planet of Fire”, which has a really awesome Master objective). The Master’s only goal is to get the heck out of the modern era. He’s doing this with technobabble and by controlling and extorting the powers of some alien whatevers (they’re called Xeraphin), but the goal is still there and not a bad one to have. But despite having a really decent motive here, there’s absolutely zero explanation as to how in the world The Master managed to escape from Castrovalva. In fact, there’s not even an attempt to explain it. Now, you could argue that that moment isn’t exactly important because it’s not relevant to the immediate story, but you can’t keep sticking The Master in perilous positions and then have him get out of it off screen and with no explanation. That’s just lazy. At least try to explain it. But no, he’s gotta be camp.

But that’s just The Master. Even ignoring that, the story’s kinda muddled and I’m not exactly sure what’s going on with the Xeraphin or The Master, but that’s your typical Nathan-Turner era storytelling problem.

No, the stuff that isn’t good is, to me, far more egregious than just that. No, it’s when you have two Concorde pilots flying the TARDIS apropos of nothing. I mean, really? Really. This happens. I mean, really. What happened, man? At what point did it get to be that anyone (regardless of brain strength) could fly the TARDIS? I don’t wanna see it. The number of people whom we see fly the TARDIS should be minimal at best. Time Lords, River Song (backstory), AND THAT’S IT. What is this crap? Two namby pamby airline pilots running in and dematerializing and flying the TARDIS? Not just that, but flying it competently? Come on. What’s that? COME ON.

And the plane folk are all pretty moronic and the making them remember and not be brainwashed by the Xeraphin is… Ugh. It’s just poorly done and uninspired. None of them are that good of actors and yet… It’s just a waste of screen time. It’s a weak guest cast with poor direction and it doesn’t look or appear good.

And then there’s the Xeraphin themselves which is just… I dunno. It could be worse. I was expecting worse and there certainly have been worse, but… really? Whatever. I just don’t care. I’m sorry that you guys had a sucky life, Xeraphin, but whatever, kids. Whatever. It just feels so uninspired and terribly boring.

I mean, even the final moment, where The Master succeeds in tricking the Xeraphin to power his TARDIS and Doctor turning and saying “The Master has finally defeated me” is only (and I mean only) made better by Davison’s delivery. Take him away and it’s just a moment of high panto melodrama, one that doesn’t really have any stakes or real meaning behind it.

Thank God there’s only one part left.

Part 4:

The biggest and most important criticism I can point out about this story is its ability to be consistently boring no matter what’s going on.

Even in part four (when the big dramatic everything is supposed to be happening) we’re left with an extended intercut of montages. The pilots and Tegan help to re-make Concorde from cannibalized parts while The Doctor and The Master make modifications to their TARDIS to allow them to leave this place. Any stakes that might have been built up by The Doctor’s realization that “The Master has finally defeated me” is completely quashed by The Doctor coming face-to-face with The Master later in this episode to discuss peace agreements to get them out of this sticky situation.

I like that, of course. Any time you have the contrast of Davison in his muted whites talking to The Master, who remains clad in that ridiculously garish black outfit I’m on board. But beyond the concept of it, it’s all trivial.

If there’s one thing that comes out of it that I do love it’s that The Doctor, here, is The Man With a Plan. I love it whenever The Doctor comes up with and attempts to out-think his enemy. This is normally a McCoy thing, but Davison’s continued efforts to come up with a plan are so convincing and fantastic that sometimes while watching him I forget that what I’m watching is boring boring stuff.

Needless to say, The Doctor manages to get out of it, tricking The Master into heading back to the point of everyone’s origin (Heathrow) for calibration purposes and (because of the machinery The Doctor gave The Master) tricks The Master into arriving after the TARDIS and the Concorde will. With the extra time that they have, The Doctor manages to bump The Master’s TARDIS back in time to Xeraphus. And now The Master is trapped. So yay. He’s defeated.

There is some fun stuff with Tegan, though. It is funny to see her literally reduced to being a stewardess (I say this because I am mean and don’t much like Tegan at all and no that’s not going away) because she’s wearing the outfit. She does have a really nice presence with those around her (passengers) when she wants it. But even this is just a fleeting moment of character amidst me waiting for this story to end.

And then it finally does end. And I laugh. Because Tegan wanders through the airport thinking of how fantastic airports are and The Doctor leaves her behind. It’s just a great moment because it makes me laugh at Tegan as she watches The TARDIS depart. As opposed to Adric’s death, which is the moment of cliffhangerness, but no. This is stupid. I mean, I don’t care about Tegan, so all she does is whine about how she didn’t get to go with the TARDIS. And now she gets to go live her life and we never see her again.

Haha. Just kidding. She fails at life and then rejoins the TARDIS crew much to everyone’s (especially The Doctor’s) disappointment. But that’s a whole different story.

Final Thoughts?: Good gravy is this one not good.

The worst stories, I find, are the ones that aren't necessarily outright bad. Something like "The Horns of Nimon" can have the worst sets, acting, script, direction and it can still be enjoyable on at least an ironic level.

But all that spark and wit and charm that you expect out of Doctor Who is just missing here. It worked in the Tom Baker era (especially in his second half) because so much of it was about being camp (intentionally or no), but the Davison era just.... it doesn't work in the Davison era. It feels so out of step with the sleek and exciting action and insta-classic feel that the era comes with that camp wouldn't even work.

But I'm digressing. Probably because I don't want to even talk about this story anymore... That stops now.

"Time-Flight" is a boring mess, which is the absolute worst thing a story can be. There is no worse emotion to feel towards a story than complete apathy, and this is that story. Calling it boring feels misnomery, though. It's not even that it's a mess. That suggests that the story is riddled with its own batch of problems, such as character consistency, plot quality, or production errors. "Time-Flight" actually suffers from none of those. Aside from Davison (who can't seem to ever be bad ever), everything seems to be half-assed, especially with writer Peter Grimwade and director Ron Jones.

Now, I really do like Peter Grimwade but man does his story just fail to reach the mark here. It's just boring and lacking any sort of umph you'd think a season finale about The Master would have. But no. It can't even do that. The Xeraphin are kinda stupid and I don't really care (I guess they're energy) and it's got some.... I don't know. It's just weird and it doesn't actually seem to fit together at all. This is probably one of those stories Saward calls "utter shite". Maybe he could have done something to fix it? No wait. Nevermind.

And then director Ron Jones... Oh... It's just so lazy and uninspired. Then again. "Vengeance on Varos", "Arc of Infinity". Need I say more? I really don't think so.

Couple in the fact that it just looks and feels cheap with really really awful special effects (especially coming off of "Earthshock") and really cheap and weak sauce sets and it just.... It's just a perfect story of blah, so much blah, in fact that I couldn't even pick a youtube out of this mire to display, and really it's not worth my effort. And that's just a shame. But then again, there has to be one blemish on the Davison record (can any Doctor come out with a perfect run of stories? I mean, I know that'd be difficult, but they all have to have them, right?) and "Time-Flight" is unfortunately it. And now it's out of the way and you never have to read me talking about it again.

Thank God.

Next Time!: 4th Doctor! Evil Robots! A Murder Mystery! Drilling! Fantastic Leela! Strangulations! And THE BEST ROBOT EVER! Cassandra is here next week to talk about the ever-so-wonderful "The Robots of Death!"


  1. This is one of the worst Dr. Who stories in my opinion.

    I must admit I like the fact that the Master dresses up as a weird Asian magician for no obvious reason. It appears he is doing it just for a laugh, which kind of reflects the Doctor's own eccentricity.

    On the whole I dislike Master stories. I hate the anithesis thing; it ends up making the Doctor lighter than light and takes away any ambiguity from his character.

  2. I don't think you're wrong about the awfulness about this story. I think it transcends opinion and treads into "Fact" territory.

    I will say that I like The Master dressing up *in theory*, but that sort of thing just leads to camp. It worked for Delgado, in my opinion. But the Davison era is decidedly... not. The Davison era is designed to be super modern and a reaction against the "standard camp" of the Williams era so The Master dressing up here just stands out as anachronistic and tonally bizarre.

    I will, however, outrightly disagree with you on The Master, but that's my own inexplicable love of antithesis conflict. If you ever bring in "The evil version of [main character]" I'm instantly on board.

    BUT. I do dislike taking it to the level they originally wanted to take it, where The Master was the id to The Doctor's ego. If you make The Master "just an evil Time Lord"... well... That's really good to me. It gives you a nemesis, which I like. And why not? Surely there must be evil Time Lords. Why not The Master?

  3. Lawrence Miles attempts to give a defence of this story in About Time vol.5. A challenging feat that only he could pull off.

  4. I should read that, because my god. There's a decent story in here somewhere (as with most all stories), but the execution across is just so......... not.