classic ‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “Time-Flight”
(all spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode… or unless you don’t care if it’s spoiled for you. this is a love fest only — all complaints and bitching must come from a place of love / previous: “Earthshock”)
Let us be kind and say that this is not one of the most successful Doctor Who stories ever. Its ambitions laid bare the budgetary limitations of the show at the time in a way that its narrative creativity fails to make up for. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have moments that are fun or interesting, or that it doesn’t have moments that stand out now, in retrospect, and when comparing it to what Doctor Who has been in recent years. In fact, I enjoyed rewatching it a lot more than I expected to, given my less than generous memories of it.
These are the sorts of things that loomed large in my recollections of these four episodes:
See, the Master has gotten stuck down the end of a time tunnel 140 million years in Earth’s past (counting back from 1982, that is) and has sucked a British Airways Concorde back to him so he can use the passengers as a slave labor force. We can guess he didn’t have a choice as to which sort of plane got sucked down his timewarp, or else he’d have gone for one that carried a lot more passengers than a Concorde did.
Of course, from the production standpoint, a Concorde is a helluva lot cooler than a 747. I’m sure that back in 1982, the supersonic plane seemed really neat and futuristic in a science-fiction-is-now sort of way, and the show did have access to a Concorde at the actual Heathrow Airport for filming. But the power of even the BBC is limited, and getting that plane onto a seared prehistoric landscape wasn’t possible. Hence the truly bad model shots, which are laughably cheesy even grading on the Doctor Who curve, which always required that the viewer be forgiving.
The Doctor happens to arrive at Heathrow — “accidentally,” of course, though I’d always suspected that the TARDIS went out of its way to land the Doctor in the middle of a mess, and now we know that’s the truth of it — just as that Concorde disappears from radar and officials are starting to panic. Unaware of what’s going on, the Doctor attempts to get himself out of hot water with airport security by name-dropping UNIT, which gets him roped into helping figure out what happened. So the Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan, and another BA flight crew troop onto another Concorde to recreate the first plane’s flight path, and they end up 140 million years in the past, too. Which results in some truly terrible greenscreen effects, required to create the transition from an illusory 20th-century Heathrow:
to the Cretaceous:
The illusion has been created by the Master, part of how he keeps control of the slaves. But what makes no sense whatsoever is why he would feel the need to disguise himself, and so poorly:
It’s almost as if he knew the Doctor was coming, which he couldn’t have known. Although it wouldn’t have made a lick of difference to anything at all — not the characters within the story, and not to the structuring of the story by the writer — if he had known and hadn’t bothered to disguise himself anyway. Except for this: it allows for a cliffhanger ending to one episode as the Master reveals himself. Which is hardly a cliffhanger at all. It’s more like an “Oh, it’s you again” moment of exasperation.
The structure of original Who, requiring a cliffhanger ending every 23 minutes, has rarely been so annoying as it is here.
I had in fact forgotten about this bit of goofy FX:
Why does the Master need slave labor? To help him dig up a gestalt alien intelligence whose power he wants to enslave. (There’s a lot of dominating going on here.) The gestalt Xeraphin will be able to power the Master’s damaged TARDIS, apparently. Even before the Xeraphin are dug up, the Master is able to partially harness their power to use psychokinesis to create these “servants” literally out of thin air. Once I saw them again, I remembered thinking of them as the Soap Monsters.
So that’s the bad stuff — basically, the entire story, as well as how it was produced. So what’s the good? There are some nice bits that show the Doctor’s relationship with Tegan and Nyssa, which really stand out both because there was always so little that was truly personal between the Doctor and anyone prior to new Who — seeing him behave and respond more like a man in the new series throws such moments in the old show into sharp relief.
As the Doctor mentions the Master for the first time, that he’s there and the cause of the mess they’re, he just barely puts his arms comfortingly around Nyssa. Because he knows she’s going to have the reaction she does indeed have: she’s horrified more than most companions would be. The Master killed her father, and worse, the Master now looks like her father because he took over her father’s body. I think it’s often forgotten, because she’s so smart and poised, that Nyssa is just a child — she’s supposed to be, what, maybe 16 at the most?
The Doctor didn’t used to be very physical with his companions, so even something as innocuous as this is notable.
They’re all a bit on edge even before they get mixed up in the Concorde business, because they’re mourning the loss of Adric… and because Tegan suggested the Doctor should be able to pop back and extricate Adric from the crashing freighter before it crashes. He gets very angry and barks at them never to suggest he do anything like that ever again. (“There are some rules that cannot be broken, even with the TARDIS,” he says. Now, the new Doctors break those rules all the time. It makes me wonder whether it was never a matter of temporal physics, all those rules that couldn’t be broken, but merely the Time Lords who were watching that kept him in check. Was he afraid of losing the freedom they allowed him? Was the Doctor always on a tighter leash than we released? With the Time Lords gone, is it simply a matter of no one around to stop him breaking those rules now?)
In an attempt to cheer them all up, he tells the girls that he’s taking them to the Great Exhibition in London in 1851… but they land at Heathrow in 1982 instead. The girls are annoyed that he’s gotten sidetracked… again.
“We were supposed to be going to the Great Exhibition!” –Tegan
“Well, we will, eventually.” –the Doctor
“That’s all you ever say.” –Nyssa
“You promised!” –Tegan
Here’s one of the little hints about the fun, nondangerous adventures that life in the TARDIS allows for… but that often get pushed aside. But the Doctor’s pride is at stake here: Tegan says they should leave the Concorde problem to the experts — at this point, nothing suggests it’s anything beyond an ordinary aviation problem, probably a technical issue or that the plane has crashed — and that gets the Doctor’s hackles up. He’s an expert! At everything.
It must be really infuriating to live with someone like that.
(Oh, the newspaper the Doctor is holding in that photo above? When the TARDIS materialized in the terminal, he popped out to buy it… for the cricket scores. *facepalm*)
That aspect of the Doctor’s personality clashes with that of Professor Hayter, a passenger from the first Concorde who has been able to resist the Master’s mind control. He guesses they’ve been hijacked to Siberia — which isn’t a bad guess at all — and doesn’t buy the Doctor’s outlandish story about where — or, rather, when — they are. The Doctor keeps talking about things like “psychotronics”… and Hayter keeps saying things like “This Doctor needs his head examined.”
Hayter is won over by the Doctor eventually, but not before a bunch of instances of Captain Stapley, of the second Concorde — who is quickly won over from skepticism to total supporter of the Doctor and protector of the girls — throwing Hayter these “Bitch!” looks when he disses the Doctor.
Hayter would have been a good companion for the Doctor — and an different sort of companion, as an older man, one apparently even older than the Doctor — but he ends up melding with the Xeraphin gestalt, which is pretty cool: You get on a flight in New York heading for London, end up in the Cretaceous, and join the commune of “an immeasurable intelligence at the center of a psychic vortex, all-seeing, all-knowing.” Neat.
How British Airways will explain the disappearance of one of its passengers in “midflight” — not to mention all the luggage left back 140 million years ago, not to mention also a multimillion-dollar supersonic aircraft — is not covered here. (Well, I presume the luggage gets left behind with the first Concorde, which is deemed unfit for flight, and so everyone goes back to 1982 on the second Concorde. I guess they could have transferred the luggage over. That wouldn’t have been much fun.)
These bits about dealing with the physicality of the TARDIS are fun. First they have to get it on the second Concorde:
There’s something very undignified about the poor TARDIS being carried about on a forklift.
And then, once it’s in the tiny cargo bay of the plane:
Though I don’t know how the girls should be able to just walk in. Sure, the Doctor has righted the TARDIS from its own perspective, but the police box that anchors it to the outside dimension is still on its side. The girls should probably be crawling in.
Speaking of the TARDIS, it’s always fun to see someone getting a look at the inside for the first time:
But then Stapley’s “I’m gonna have a go at flying this thing” is pretty darned arrogant… or stupid:
I vividly remember this moment, when Bilton and Stapley are trying to figure out which controls do what, starting with how to close the door:
Oh, I wouldn’t have thought it was that.
And Stapley instantly takes his hands off it like he’s just been burned by it. But of course it is that, and I also vividly remember a little exchange later on when everybody is in the TARDIS and someone — maybe Nyssa? — shuts the door, and Stapley throwing another of his “bitch!” looks to Bilton, a sort of “See? I was right!” But it’s not here at all. Maybe I imagined it.
Finally, this is the story at the end of which Tegan gets accidentally left behind on Earth. She’s been trying to get back to Heathrow for years, but it’s weird that the Doctor takes off without even saying good-bye, particularly since he had just been asking Nyssa where Tegan had got to (she’s taking a stroll through the terminal). And particularly since the spot of trouble he finds himself in
is nothing more than the airport authorities again looking for some answers from him about the police box. He spouts some nonsense about making a phone call as an excuse to pop into the police box (and then dematerialize), but he could have just waited it out inside, at least till Tegan returned. I mean, of all the stuff the Doctor willingly faces, this is what makes him run?
This is one of the more cruel things the Doctor has even done to a companion:
“I thought you were going with the Doctor.” –Stapley
“So did I.” –Tegan, her voice quavering
Random thoughts on “Time-Flight”:
• So here’s the TARDIS in Terminal 3 of Heathrow:
That mural in the background looks to me like a “history of flight” thing, or perhaps just a history of flight at Heathrow. If it isn’t, it should be, because then the TARDIS in front of it, as if to say, “This is the ultimate in flying,” is much funnier.
• This is a motif that will recur throughout the Davison era — the Doctor flips a coin to make a decision:
Though making the decisions isn’t what the moment is about! Because here, after he sees the result of his coin toss, he checks to make sure no one is watching, and he turns the coin over. He cheats at his own coin toss. He’s subconsciously looking for confirmation of a decision he’s already made, or delaying himself while making the decision. He’d probably say he was invoking some sort of quantum mechanistic method of finding the best decision… but he’s just phumphering.
It’s bits like this that I often saw in David Tennant’s Doctor, and when I see them again now, I can readily see the Tenth Doctor doing something similar.
• The Master kisses the Doctor’s TARDIS:
What the heck is the Master’s disguise made of that it would even do that?
• I love how Stapley gets his first officer, Bilton, to wake up from the Master’s mind control: “Remember Tegan?”
Bilton remembers Tegan, all right.
I figure Tegan may have had a nice boyfriend in Bilton for a while, after she gets left at Heathrow.
• Gotta love Tegan slipping right back into flight-attendant mode:
Ladies and gentlemen, we do apologize for the delay. Your flight is now ready for boarding.
Apologize for the delay! Hey, how does British Airways deal with a planeload of passengers who will surely want to talk to the press about how they were hijacked to Siberia?
This event must have been the worst PR disaster for British Airways ever.
• Great quotes:
“It’s amazing. This thing is smaller on the inside than it is on the outside.” –the Doctor, about the Concorde
“We shall command the whole universe.” –Khalid (the Master in disguise)
“I’ve always found domination such an unattractive prospect.” –the Doctor
(next: “Arc of Infinity”)