A Special Look at: Time-Flight

Time-Flight features the return of The Master since Castrovalva, and what appears to be the departure of companion, Tegan, at Heathrow Airport at the end of transmission. However, she would return again in Arc of Infinity. According to A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television by John Kenneth Muir in the commentary section on the story in the chapter, The Series: Season 19:

The momentum of “Black Orchid” and “Earthshock” collapse in “Time-Flight,” another dreadful story that rehashes the boring Master-Doctor dynamic that appears so frequently in the Davison Era.

The concept of a modern jet lost in prehistoric times is reminiscent of a 1961 episode of Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone. In “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” a commercial airliner went through a time-slip and ended up flying over a prehistoric jungle filled with Brontosaurus  and other dinosaurs. Although it did not concern prehistory, the Stephen King’s novella, The Langoliers (1995) also concerned an airliner’s flight through a crack in time. “Time-Flight” is probably as interesting nor as frightening as these two stories, and it adds little to Doctor Who history. It seems hindered mainly by it’s budget, which could afford neither prehistoric monsters nor a convincing prehistoric jungle set. All of “Time-Flight”‘s prehistoric scenes are filmed on the sound stage, and it shows. The alien jungle of “Planet of Evil,” way back in 1975, was dramatized more believably than the world shown in this story.

Although “Time-Flight” is enlivened by the enlarged role of Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa, and a surprise cameo by Matthew Waterhouse as a spectre of Adric, there is little else of excitement here. The Xeraphins, a gestalt organism like the Fendahl (“Image of the Fendahl”), are not the most memorable of alien races. The Doctor’s final solution to sabotage The Master’s TARDIS is reminiscent of “The Time Meddler” and “The Dalek Masterplan” wherein Hartnell’s version of the Time Lord removed precious components from the Meddling Monk’s time machine. The Master himself had already lost components of his TARDIS to the Doctor in the Pertwee-era story “Terror of the Autons.” So both premise and solution are weak in “Time-Flight.” Perhaps this is why Davison and Sutton have both said in interviews that this is their least favorite story.

“Time-Flight” ends Davison’s freshman season in ignominious fashion. Of the seven serials produced in this season, two are great (“Black Orchid” and “Earthshock”), two are good (“Four to Doomsday” and “Kinda”), and three are weak (“Castrovalva,” “The Visitation,” and “Time-Flight”). This is not a great average for the series, and it is obvious that entropy was starting to seep in. “The Visitation,” had it been produced in the first three or four years of the series, might be considered a great story. Within it’s historical context, however, it is an uninventive rehash of previous invasion stories. This is very much the case in “Time-Flight” as well, another regurgitation of the Master-Doctor feud that for some inexplicable reason seems to interest rather than frustrate many Doctor Who fans.

Despite the weak nature of several Season 19 stories, by “Time-Flight” Davison is firmly in command as the Doctor. He has shown rage, innocence, grief, naivete, athletic ability, and even a kind of low-grade charm. Season 20 would prove to be a for Davison’s fifth incarnation.

Finally, according to A Brief History of (Time) Travel on the production of the story:

By 1979, Peter Grimwade was no stranger to Doctor Who. Grimwade had worked on the programme as a production assistant as far back as Spearhead From Space in 1970. Over the course of the intervening decade, he began amassing experience as a scriptwriter, contributing to Z Cars, and latterly completed the BBC’s internal directors course. Around this time, Grimwade approached Doctor Who script editor Douglas Adams with an idea for the programme, concerning an evil force which came to control a rogue element amongst an alien species.

The concept was relayed to Adams’ successor, Christopher H Bidmead, who was intrigued and embarked upon further discussions with Grimwade. During one such meeting, the pair ran an errand at Heathrow Airport, which inspired the notion of involving Concorde — the world’s first commercial supersonic aircraft, which had only been in service for four years at that point — in Grimwade’s adventure. Bidmead thought that this would be a nice way to bridge the writer’s fantastical notions with reality, while Grimwade himself hoped it might lead to a chance to ride aboard Concorde. Soon thereafter, on March 14th, 1980, Grimwade was commissioned to produce a storyline under the title “Zanadin” — a name which had been conceived by Grimwade, Bidmead and producer John Nathan-Turner to be intentionally bizarre.

Grimwade worked quickly on his outline, and consideration was given to positioning the story (now renamed “Xeraphin”) as the finale of Doctor Who‘s eighteenth season. At about this time, however, Nathan-Turner decided to hire Grimwade to direct another Doctor Who adventure, Full Circle, delaying work on “Xeraphin”. It was subsequently agreed that Grimwade would revisit his adventure at the end of the summer — after completing Full Circle and before directing another Doctor Who serial, Logopolis — with a view to making “Xeraphin” as part of Season Nineteen.

The postponement of “Xeraphin” was beneficial in at least one respect, because it gave Nathan-Turner more time to negotiate access to both Heathrow Airport and a British Airways Concorde for filming — both firsts for a television drama. Aided by false intimations that the Doctor Who production office was in discussions with Air France for similar accommodations, Nathan-Turner scored a major coup when he was able to obtain the necessary permissions from both Heathrow and British Airways.

As 1980 wore on, it became clear that Grimwade would have to make several changes to his storyline. Tom Baker had now decided to leave Doctor Who, and so “Xeraphin” would feature an entirely different line-up of Doctor and companions. In addition, Nathan-Turner and Bidmead had reintroduced the Doctor’s Time Lord archnemesis, the Master, and the producer was eager to feature the character in two stories every year. It was planned that the Master would appear in Season Nineteen’s debut serial, and Nathan-Turner asked Grimwade to incorporate the character into “Xeraphin” as well. With the storyline duly amended, Grimwade was formally commissioned to script his adventure on September 22nd. The contract was issued under the title “Zanadin”, but the story reverted back to “Xeraphin” soon thereafter.

More changes came over the course of 1981. It had been decided that Adric would be dropped as a companion in the story preceding “Xeraphin”, and so would have to be removed from the action. Furthermore, since “Xeraphin” was now intended to be the last story of Season Nineteen, Nathan-Turner wanted to end the year on something of a cliffhanger, akin to the Doctor’s regeneration at the conclusion of Logopolis. It was agreed that “Xeraphin” should culminate with Tegan apparently being left behind as the Doctor and Nyssa leave in the TARDIS. There were no plans to write Janet Fielding out of Doctor Who, but this development would also give Nathan-Turner the ability to change his mind about retaining Tegan as recording for Season Nineteen progressed. Meanwhile, new script editor Eric Saward felt that the Master had worn out his welcome and championed the idea of killing him off in “Xeraphin”. Nathan-Turner, however, stood by his plan to feature the Master as a recurring foe for the foreseeable future.

During the summer, the job of directing “Xeraphin” — now classified as Serial 6C — was offered to Andrew Morgan, whose credits included Blake’s 7. Unfortunately, Morgan was unimpressed by Grimwade’s scripts, and turned down the offer at the last minute. Left with little time to find a replacement, Nathan-Turner turned to Ron Jones, a neophyte director who was just competing Black Orchid, his first assignment. Jones agreed to move directly onto “Xeraphin”. Meanwhile, both of Grimwade’s Concorde captains had to be renamed to avoid confusion with real individuals: Irving became Markham and then Urquhart, while Rathbone became Stapley. Flight Engineer Tulley was subsequently rechristened Scobie as well.

Anthony Ainley was contracted to play the Master on October 1st. It was agreed that he would be credited as “Leon Ny Taiy” (an anagram of “Tony Ainley”) at the end of part one, in order to preserve the surprise of Kalid’s unmasking in the second installment. It was also observed that the death of Adric in the preceding story, Earthshock, might be spoiled if advance listings for Serial 6C omitted Matthew Waterhouse’s name. Consequently, a brief appearance by an illusory Adric was added to episode two. Meanwhile, the novelty of the strange title “Xeraphin” had gradually worn off on the production team, and in mid-December, the story was renamed Time-Flight.

Heathrow Airport in Hounslow, Middlesex was the only location used for Time-Flight. Work there began on January 6th, 1982, with material on the concourse shot in Terminal One. The next day, cast and crew shifted to the roof of Terminal Three; by this stage, Fielding had been reassured that Tegan was coming back in Season Twenty, and indeed this decision had been made as far back as September. Waterhouse was issued a contract for his cameo appearance on this day. Work at Heathrow was intended to conclude on the 8th, but the weather was stormy and the Concorde which British Airways had planned to provide had to be pressed into service. As a result, scenes in Concorde and on the tarmac were postponed to January 11th, at the British Airways Maintenance Area.

Jones had hoped that some of the scenes on the prehistoric heath might be filmed on location or at the Ealing Television Film Studios, and was disappointed to learn that the budget for Time-Flight would not permit this. In the event, the heath was the main concern during the serial’s first studio block on January 19th and 20th in BBC Television Centre Studio 8. Originally, this work was intended to be confined to the first day, but technical problems pushed some scenes back to the 20th. It was then a race to complete the other planned shots — in and around the Heathrow offices, as well as various special effects. Nathan-Turner was dissatisfied with the results, and some of the material was remounted in TC8 on January 24th.

Meanwhile, it had been discovered that the script for part three was drastically short, and on the 25th, Saward asked Grimwade to contribute a further seven minutes for the episode. Later that week, Grimwade provided various new and extended scenes, including more material involving Bilton and Stapley spying on the Master and later trying to pilot the TARDIS, and additional exposition about the Xeraphin.

The second studio block — again in TC8 — spanned February 1st to 3rd. The initial day concentrated on TARDIS material. The 2nd was devoted to scenes in the Concorde hold, the area outside the sanctum, and the various corridors of the citadel. Waterhouse returned on this day to finish out his tenure on Doctor Who, more than two months after recording his farewell adventure. Waterhouse concentrated on the theatre after leaving Doctor Who, although he had a small role in a 1984 science-fiction film called The Killing Edge and recorded a cameo appearance as Adric in Peter Davison’s final story, The Caves Of Androzani. Waterhouse’s first novel, Fates, Flowers, was self-published in 2006.

February 3rd was the final day of filming for both Time-Flight and Doctor Who‘s nineteenth production block. The material that remained to be recorded included the sequences in Kalid’s chamber, as well as the Xeraphin sanctum. The transmission of Time-Flight episode four then brought Doctor Who‘s nineteenth season to a close on March 30th.

According to the m0vie blog review:

I’ve never heard such an extravagant explanation.

– Hayter’s gonna hate

Time-Flight is a much maligned piece of Doctor Who, and hardly the best way to round out a season that has, generally speaking, done a reasonable job introducing a new lead actor following the departure of the most iconic actor ever to play the role. The show’s nineteenth season holds together reasonably well, with Earthshock generally highly regarded and only Time-Flight considered to be a complete failure.

And yet, despite that, I can’t hate Time-Flight. That’s not to suggest that the traditional criticisms of the serial are off-base. They are entirely spot-on. The production is shoddy, the plot is nonsense and the dialogue is terrible. It seems like everybody was trying to push one last story out the door before breaking for holidays, and nobody cared too much about the final product. And yet, despite that, I find myself able to forgive quite a lot of the show’s problems.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not good Doctor Who. It’s not even passable Doctor Who. However, I’d argue that it is nowhere near the worst that the Davison era would produce.

I should begin with a confession. I was not too fond of Earthshock. I can admire that the serial mostly succeeded in what it set out to do, but I’m not particularly charmed by the idea that a reasonably solid base-under-siege thriller featuring a familiar alien would set the template for the show’s next couple of years. I think a lot of the later Davison stories suffer for being “Earthshock… but not as good”, which I accept is hardly a fair criticism of Earthshock as a story.

However, Saward’s Earthshock felt like a conscious regurgitation of a kind of story that the show hadn’t done in a while. Much like his enjoyable first script, The Visitation, harked back to The Time WarriorEarthshock felt like a conscious return to the Patrick Troughton era. (Arguably right down to the use of the Cybermen, who had their heyday in that period of the show’s run.) Earthshock was executed with a lot of zest and skill, but it felt a little too recycled.

So, that’s context. I think Time-Flight has a lot more ambition than its direct predecessor. There are actually a wealth of half-decent ideas here that play with the concept of the show, and which provide something a bit novel. “The Doctor’s theory is that this is a hijack in time rather than space,” Stapley explains, which is the synopsis of a Doctor Who show I’d like to see. Indeed, the notion of stealing a Concorde back to ancient Earth is a delightfully pulpy and cheesy premise, and one not without a hint of potential.

Of course, this brings us to the script’s stumbling block. It’s a big one, one that arguably encompasses all the countless flaws with Time-Flight, which make it almost painful to watch. There is no way that this script could be filmed on the budget afforded to Doctor Who. In fact, the show would struggle to produce a convincing version of the set-up now, at the point where the show is one of the BBC’s flagship exports with an impressive budget and top-of-the-line special effects.

The fact that the script comes from director Peter Grimwade makes this especially perplexing. It’s weird that Grimwade didn’t end up directing his own script, which would at least ensure a degree of unity to his creative vision. However, Grimwade had experience working on the show. More than any other member of the show’s writing team at the time, Grimwade had practical experience trying to visualise the fantastic. He knew how much to cost and how much compromise would be involved.

If anybody except Eric Saward or John Nathan-Turner should have realised the adventure was unfilmable, Grimwade should have been that person. The show somehow managed to wrangle filming on a Concorde, which seems like a typical gimmick from Nathan-Turner. Gimmicks aren’t inherently bad, but they need to be used cleverly and in a way that makes sense from a standpoint other than marketing. There’s something very frustrating when the opening scene on board a real Concorde suddenly cuts to an unconvincing studio air traffic control.

However, that doesn’t mean the ideas aren’t good. They are just very difficult to appreciate when the end product looks like this. Grimwade’s writing would look a lot better when stylishly produced in Mawdryn Undead, one of Davison’s underrated stories. It doesn’t help that Grimwade’s writing feels rather clumsy and unpolished here, felling like a very awkward first attempt to write for a show that could often challenge even the more experienced writers.

Consider the episode’s central menace, a species somehow merged into collective entity at war with itself. The collection unconscious turned into one single state of being, all minds coexisting at once as part of an indivisible entity. “The whole race physically amalgamated into one organism with one immense personality.” That’s a great hook, and it’s an idea that has been used quite often (and quite well) in science fiction. Doctor Who has never really grappled with it, although there are elements of it to be found in the characterisation of the Cybermen. Still, it’s rife for exploration.

Unfortunately, the episode never really delves too deeply into it. Instead, there’s lots of talking and exposition, as this massive union is represented by two guys in grey leotards bickering in generic terms. “You talked me out of my purpose, brother Anithon,” one protests indignantly, “but other counsels will prevail.” The scene is staged so clumsily that the Doctor has to explain what is going on, breaking the golden “show, don’t tell” rule.

At one point, Nyssa marshals the other characters to fend off these aliens. “With our minds. We must will the dark Xeraphin not to appear.” Click your heals if you believe, evoking the similarly stilted writing in The Last of the Time Lords. It’s hardly a satisfying dramatic beat and it makes it impossible to really establish a sense of tension or of stakes. The script for Time-Flight needed at least a couple more drafts before it was ready to put in front of a camera.

And yet, despite that, I think that the problems with Time-Flight are a lot less severe than the problems with Earthshock or Arc of Infinity. The problems here are fairly close to the surface, rather than embedded and threaded through the concept itself. With better production, some cosmetic line tinkering, this might somehow make a forgettable piece of Doctor Who. Instead, it winds up being a complete embarrassment.

Still, and I feel like I’m being boldly controversial here, I think that Time-Flight‘s crappiness is completely divorced from the crappiness that was beginning to seep in around the edges of the show as it approached its twentieth year. There are gaping flaws here, but they aren’t fundamental. At its core, Time-Flight is trying something relatively new. It falls flat on its face, and doesn’t really merit a defence, but it feels like it is at least doing more than simply playing to the home crowd in the way that Earthshock or Arc of Infinity did.

It’s that insular “fan friendly” approach to Doctor Who – serving up stuff that the show could do aimed more at the hardcore fan than the casual viewer – which pushed the show towards disasters like Attack of the Cybermen and Trial of a Time Lord. Michael Grade would find it easy to criticise the shoddy production values of stories like Time-Flight and Warriors of the Deep, but I think the show’s obsession with its own history and continuity did more damage than the poorly-rendered depiction of a Concorde landing on ancient Earth.

And though the story features the Master dressed up as a horribly racist sorcerer (“in the deserts of Arabia I learnt all the magic arts,” he boasts) for no apparent reason, Time-Flight feels like its own story. It should be noted that this is not making excuses for poor plotting. Why does the Master disguise himself? And why as a horrible ethnic stereotype? It looks like he simply covered his skin in mud to approximate blackface. It’s absurd.

Of course, there is a reason. “He’s insane!” the show seems to remind us every time the Master appears, as if that’s all the excuse we need. It is possible for an insane off-the-wall villain to work, but where their insanity is a characteristic rather than a motivation. The Joker from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is motivated by clear philosophical objectives, even if his methods are beyond our comprehension. Even the resurrected Master in Utopia has a very clear character motivation (resentment of the Doctor), while still being completely around the bend.

In the Nathan-Turner era, it seems like the answer to any question about the Master seems to amount to “he’s insane!”, which is just lazy writing. It is especially frustrating as the character was very clearly on the verge of rehabilitation. Robert Holmes made the character work brilliantly in The Deadly Assassin, and I’d argue that The Keeper of Trakken did an even better job of characterising the foe. He was still very clearly insane, but he had motivation and wit, both qualities sorely missing from any of his subsequent appearances until the last serial of the classic show, Survival.

This isn’t really a problem it is fair to place at Grimwade’s feet. The Master had been broken since his reappearance in Logopolis. I was never convinced that Anthony Ainley could have made a brilliant version of the character, but he never really got a fair chance. It’s pathetic and frustrating to watch the character devolve like that. The Master wasn’t always perfectly used during the Pertwee era, but the show managed to somehow break the character even more substantially after coming so close to repairing him. It’s not satisfying, and the way the show goes on to trot the character out whenever it needs a familiar convenient bad guy feels shallow at best.

It’s also worth discussing how Time-Flight deals with the fall-out from Earthshock. I noted in my discussion of some of the earlier Davison stories that the show was trying to push a little bit towards character-driven drama. There was a conscious attempt in stories like Four to Doomsday and Kinda to foster some friction between the TARDIS crew. It’s not a bad idea, particularly given that the show was switching to a twice-weekly slot and was paving the way for more soap operas on British television. To survive, the show had to adapt. It’s telling that the revived show learnt quite a lot from soap opera character dynamics.

Unfortunately, the classic show seemed unwilling to commit. It didn’t realise that conflicts existed to deepen and extend character, and to add a sense of character continuity. The purpose of characters fighting with one another – particularly on the regular cast – was to throw certain attributes into contrast. By doing this, the audience would get a much stronger sense of a given character, and that built-up image of a character would play into characterisation across a season.

Peter Davison’s first year never committed to that. It was almost afraid to let the conflicts illuminate characters. Were Adric and Nyssa romantically attracted to one another? Bah, this show does not deal with such things! Was Nyssa nursing post-traumatic stress from the loss of her entire world? Hey, look, animatronics! When did the Doctor tell Tegan that her aunt had been brutally murdered by a psychopath who the Doctor had allowed to live several times? Oh, it happened off screen!

So Time-Flight gives us character continuity, in the strictest sense, but only briefly. The screw discuss Adric for about two minutes before continuing the adventure as usual. Trying to keep Nyssa and Tegan out, the aliens project a vision of Adric which causes Tegan to freak out, until Nyssa “solves” the problem using logic – as the show completely misses the point that the loss of a friend like Adric should be emotional.

The interaction between the leads is less than convincing. “I’ll miss him,” Tegan observes. “So will I,” Nyssa remarks. “And me,” the Doctor concedes. “But he wouldn’t want us to mourn unnecessarily.” Okay, I’ll give the Doctor “unnecessarily”, but maybe a nice funeral service would be good, or a few kind words. But, hey! At least there’s a reference to Adric’s dead brother, the character who was never really mentioned once Adric joined the TARDIS, despite the massive impact that must have had. See what I mean about fumbling with character development?

Davison does his best with the material, but there’s simply not enough of substance available to help him create a credible emotional response to Adric’s loss. I do like that Davison attempts to pitch the rather swift shift back to business as usual as that Doctor’s attempts to distract his companions from their loss. He seems to want to help Nyssa and Tegan take their mind off the loss of Adric by taking them to the Great Exhibition. “How about opening day? Pass the time of day with the foreign royals. We could even drop in at Lords, see a few overs from Wisden and Pilch. I wonder if the Lion will be bowling?”

The opening of Time-Flight also engages in the occasional practice of dealing with the tropes the show has built up after considerable time on the air. Viewers tend to get a bit more sophisticated after a while, and television shows can’t always make the same unspoken assumptions they used to. This becomes especially obvious with long-running adventure shows like Doctor Who, which essentially débuted in a different world.

So the show questions the narrative logic of giving the protagonist a time travel machine. After all, surely he can just travel back whenever anything bad happens and get a do-over, right? Since that would undermine any dramatic tension, of course he can’t. Unfortunately, while acknowledging that problem, Time-Flight doesn’t have a more sophisticated answer than “because the producers say so.”

Not that you need one, but the Doctor’s response to Nyssa and Tegan’s questioning seems especially shallow. “Now listen to me, both of you,” he offers. “There are some rules that cannot be broken even with the TARDIS. Don’t ever ask me to do anything like that again. You must accept that Adric is dead.” At least when the Fourth Doctor spouted nonsense, he had the decency to sound relatively convincing. Here, the show draws attention to a logical plot hole, and then responds to it by mumbling to itself.

To be fair, Time-Flight does at least acknowledge the problem. Much like the problems with the character dynamics, the revived show does a much better job actually pasting over the flaws that the Davison era readily concedes. The idea of “fixed points” is nothing more than convenient gobbledy-gook, but Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith all make it sound authoritative and convincing. That’s how you answer “because we say so.”

Similarly, Time-Flight also acknowledges that the TARDIS is hardly as perfect a disguise or as innocuous as it once was. “At least we won’t be noticed,” Nyssa observes after the TARDIS lands. “Well, this is Earth. For once it’s a perfect camouflage.” Tegan quickly points out that the Doctor is almost two decades out of date. “This is the 1980s, Nyssa,” Tegan tells her friend. “Police boxes went out with flower power.”

The TARDIS is mostly ignored wherever it lands because it’s really just a convenient way of dropping the Doctor and his companions into the action. That way the Doctor doesn’t have to spend ten minutes accounting for his appearance or being locked up in a cage. However, with the show approaching its twentieth anniversary, it seems appropriate for Time-Flight to acknowledge that it’s hardly the most subtle form of transport.

However, Time-Flight can’t quite pull it off. The TARDIS is noticed, which makes sense given Tegan’s dialogue. However, that doesn’t explain why the TARDIS isn’t noticed any other time it appears anywhere. The show points out a logical plot hole which it avoids this time, but then applies to lots of other episodes. Again, the revived series would do a much better job explaining it with thematic techno-babble. I think there’s a lot to be said for the way that many of the approaches which worked so well in the Russell T. Davies era are rooted in the early Davison stories, albeit with much improved execution.

Still, I can’t bring myself to hate Time-Flight as much as I probably should, despite the very serious flaws. It’s not a great example of Davison’s work. It’s not even a good example. And yet, despite that, I don’t think it is as fundamentally flawed as either of the two episodes surrounding it.

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