classic ‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “Time-Flight”

Doctor Who Time-Flight Peter Davison Anthony Ainley

(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:

Doctor Who Time-Flight

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:

Doctor Who Time-Flight

to the Cretaceous:

Doctor Who Time-Flight

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:

Doctor Who Time-Flight

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:

Doctor Who Time-Flight

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.

Like this:

Doctor Who Time-Flight Sarah Sutton Peter Davison Janet Fielding

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.

Doctor Who Time-Flight Janet Fielding Peter Davison Sarah Sutton

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.

Doctor Who Time-Flight Janet Fielding Sarah Sutton Peter Davison

“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.

Doctor Who Time-Flight Richard Easton Nigel Stock

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:

Doctor Who Time-Flight

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:

Doctor Who Time-Flight TARDIS Concorde

Doctor Who Time-Flight TARDIS Concorde

Doctor Who Time-Flight TARDIS Concorde

Doctor Who Time-Flight TARDIS Concorde

Doctor Who Time-Flight TARDIS Concorde

Doctor Who Time-Flight TARDIS Concorde

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:

Doctor Who Time-Flight Michael Cashman Richard Easton

But then Stapley’s “I’m gonna have a go at flying this thing” is pretty darned arrogant… or stupid:

Doctor Who Time-Flight Michael Cashman Richard Easton

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:

Doctor Who Time-Flight Michael Cashman Richard Easton

Bilton says:

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

Doctor Who Time-Flight

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:

Doctor Who Time-Flight Michael Cashman Janet Fielding Richard Easton

“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:

Doctor Who Time-Flight TARDIS 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:

Doctor Who Time-Flight Peter Davison

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:

Doctor Who Time-Flight

He’s saved!

• Ewwww:

Doctor Who Time-Flight Khalid the Master

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?”

Doctor Who Time-Flight Michael Cashman

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:

Doctor Who Time-Flight Janet Fielding

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”)

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Bonnie-Ann Lynch Black
Mon, Dec 12, 2011 2:08am

wow!  i can’t believe how much of this episode i’d forgotten…. although i remember that line of the Doctor’s about it being smaller inside; i remember them climbing into the TARDIS on its side, and a lot of other stuff — but totally forgot the plot!

Paul Wartenberg
reply to  Bonnie-Ann Lynch Black
Mon, Dec 12, 2011 5:46am

I vaguely remembered this episode as the one where Adric’s death was still an emotional sore point, and that the Doctor abandoned Tegan as a response to that.  Which I thought was weird, because I was ‘shipping Five/Tegan for the longest time…

What I liked about this episode was that The Doctor referred to UNIT, which was a nice continuity nod, but it still seems to me like a wasted plot element since neither the Brigadier nor Sgt. Benton showed up (the Brigadier would show up later for Marwyn Undead).

I agreed that it seemed weird that The Master wore a disguise this storyline, but the previous episodes showcasing him always had him going by disguises all the time.  Maybe he does it out of habit.

History of Bubbles
History of Bubbles
reply to  Paul Wartenberg
Tue, Dec 13, 2011 7:10am

 I wouldn’t say I “shipped” Five and Tegan, (I just don’t really like that word, it feels so reductive) but watching it I did PERCEIVE that there was SOMEthing going on there, very very deep down on both sides. At least up through this episode. :/

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  History of Bubbles
Thu, Dec 15, 2011 9:02pm

Maybe there was, and he couldn’t deal with it…

Mon, Dec 12, 2011 3:19am

Speaking of old Who, two more lost serials were found:

Paul Wartenberg
reply to  Linnet
Mon, Dec 12, 2011 5:49am

Just snippets, parts  of whole stories, but still intriguing finds.  Lemme know when Tomb of the Cybermen is found in toto and then we’ll discuss SQUEEEING!

Wait, just found out a whole episode of Tomb HAS BEEN FOUND! SQUEEEEEEEEEEEE (fangasm)

reply to  Paul Wartenberg
Mon, Dec 12, 2011 2:11pm

No, actually Linnet is right: two complete episodes – one from Galaxy 4 and one from The Underwater Menace…

Mon, Dec 12, 2011 10:37am

There’s a trick with the coin toss (not that I think it’s necessarily what they meant to imply): if you find yourself saying “best of three”, then you know which way you wanted the decision to go.

Real TARDISes don’t fly along motorways.

Tonio Kruger
Mon, Dec 12, 2011 8:28pm

Poor Tegan. Perhaps she’ll catch up with the Doctor in a future episode. Call it a wild hunch if you will but I bet that’s what happens….

History of Bubbles
History of Bubbles
Tue, Dec 13, 2011 6:50am

Oof. What an episode to return from a blogging hiatus on.

 It is pretty crushing what happens to Tegan at the end there. I always chose to view it charitably as the Doctor misunderstanding and thinking Tegan meant to stay, but it is pretty weird. Especially with the way he (and the show) treats her after she comes back next season, like she’s little more than an irritation.

I love the way they interact in her first season. How she is outspoken, but all the things she has to speak are of value. And she irritates him, yes, but it’s more like she gets to him in an important way… there’s something about her that’s necessary to him as a character. They balance each other out. I am probably way overstating it.

But his attitude toward her from “Arc of Infinity” onward (starting here, if you characterize him as leaving her behind deliberately) just doesn’t sit right in light of that. I dunno. Any thoughts, anyone?