Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: Timelash DVD

By Jim Smith on 11 July 2007

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

The penultimate story of the twenty-second series of ‘Doctor Who’ (1985) ‘Timelash’ is a television programme where there are major failings from virtually every single department involved in its production. The writing, directing, set design and construction, lighting and special effects are all poor at best and most of the acting is pretty bad. In fact, I would honestly go so far as to say that there are times when this slow-moving, uninteresting and inconsequential serial fails to reach an acceptable broadcast standard.

The story’s scripts, a derivative and peculiarly paced pair of 45 minute episodes from writer Glen McCoy, had the misfortune to be put on screen by director Pennant Roberts (responsible for previous, equally insipid ‘Who’ serials ‘Warriors of the Deep’ and ‘The Sun Makers’) who not only failed to bring any energy or life to the production but also cast a group of actors who vary from the miscast to the borderline comatose via the screamingly over the top.

JeanAnne Crowley has been good in other things but she seems barely sensible here. David Chandler plays H G Wells with all the subtlety of a thigh-slapping principle boy while Paul Darrow, formerly the star of ‘Blake’s 7’ (and, cards on the table, a colleague of mine from my days writing and production managing ‘Kaldor City’ and someone for whom I have nothing but affection) turns in a performance of spectacularly unnaturalistic ludicrousness openly derived from Olivier’s as ‘Richard III’. What’s worrying is that it’s probably the most entertaining thing about the show. Colin Baker, as Doctor Who, tries hard in the role, but that script defeats him; required to repeat ‘buzz’ words several times for emphasis, shout and bluster, hang from wires, be overlit from above and talk to a bunch of non-entities while dressed like a clown he has nothing and no one to work with. Poor sod. ‘Doctor Who’ was, by all accounts, his dream job and after getting it he’s rewarded with a production like this, one where there are virtually no opportunities for him to do good work.

Anyway, back to that script; from wince-inducingly clumsy dialogue (“What? All five hundred of us?”; “…rule this corner of the universe with the power of a great ocean!”; “You’re about as powerful as a burnt out android!”) via contrivances too stupid to forgive (the dictator Borad’s antechamber has a gallery overlooking it, accessed by an unguarded stairwell; a man is able to break into the planet’s leader’s secret chamber by the simple process of nipping in behind him when he goes in) it staggers to a climax in which a nuclear disaster is averted in a manner that is never explained except by the Doctor smiling and saying ‘I’ll explain later’. There are also serious structural flaws in the episodes. The pacing lurches, stopping and starting constantly; long scenes of people standing around repeating plot information, and contradicting themselves, are interspersed with rushed action sequences and while there are, as noted, vital plot explanations absent, there’s also simply tonnes of padding (including endless scenes set in the TARDIS console room) while there are odd errors like dialogue about all the plants being imported from the planet Bandril (which we are elsewhere told is devoid of plantlife).

Production gaffes include FX shots showing planet Karfel as rocky when the plot requires it to be heavily farmed and a moment where a movable piece of the set visibly breaks in an actor’s hand. The monstrous, snakelike Morlocks are simply laughably bad (though better than the puppet Bandril ambassador) and scenes in which companion Peri (Nicola Bryant) is tied up and ‘menaced’ by one are notable only for representing the clearest indication of the series then current subtextual bent for having the nubile, buxom Bryant threatened in pseudo-sexual manner by both men and monsters on a semi-weekly basis. That the sets are all matt cardboard and plastic is, to be fair, given a scripting reason (mirrors are banned on this world) but that doesn’t stop the story’s setting being dull both literally and figuratively.

Digging around for good things to say about the serial is, while not fruitless, a time-consuming exercise which you will have little to show for in at the end. The Radiophonic Workshop’s Elizabeth Parker delivers a pleasingly jarring mechanical-sounding score , full of striking rhythmic noises (sadly it remains her only musical contribution to ‘Doctor Who’) and the make up for the villainous Borad is rather good – as is Robert Ashby, the actor playing him. Denis Carey, in a tiny role, is not ineffective. And that’s it.

‘Timelash’ is bad. In fact, it’s quite difficult to appreciate just how jaw-droppingly bad it is unless one is in the process of actually watching the thing. It isn’t even funny – avoiding ‘So Bad It’s Good’ and passing straight on to ‘So Bad It’s Bad Again’. It’s ninety-ish minutes of staggeringly inept television. Badly written, acted and made it’s the nadir of 1980s ‘Doctor Who’ and almost, but not quite, of the television series entirely.

The primary extra on this DVD is a documentary ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’. Now, to be fair, this is excellent. Not excellent enough to justify purchasing the disc but excellent all the same. Produced and Directed by John Kelly (who has done a number of documentaries on ‘Doctor Who’ DVDs) it takes a remarkably clear-eyed look at the disastrous piece of television it is affixed to and asks what went wrong.

A gaggle of interviewees turn up to offer opinions. The include writer McCoy, Script Editor Eric Saward and actors Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, Paul Darrow, David Chandler and Robert Ashby. Baker stands up for the show and the intentions of those making it while acknowledging its flaws; which is very commendable. Bryant contributes little but at one point compares director Pennant Roberts to Hitchcock; presumably Albert Hitchcock the Liverpool wet fish man is who she had in mind. Ashby is interesting and remarkably serious; Darrow chooses to affectionately mock the enterprise while Saward’s louche, understated, mind-bogglingly unselfconscious arrogance is both fascinating and disturbing. He manages four separate attacks on the show’s producer, the late John Nathan-Turner (with whom he had a notoriously fractious relationship) in just over nine minutes at the start of the documentary while never quite accepting any blame himself. Oh, he admits that the script writer needed ‘more help’ than he got while failing to acknowledge that, as script editor of the show it was his job to do the actual helping. He also noticeably declaims responsibility for scripting the padding scenes (production documentation indicates he penned it) and avoids mentioning the chronic under running of Part Two and over running of Part One; presumably because these flaws are unequivocally his responsibility.

It’s also worth noting that the documentary’s last minute contention that ‘Timelash’ stand up reasonably against other television aimed at children made in this period doesn’t withstand a moment’s consideration. ‘Robin of Sherwood’? The 1985 ‘Classic Serial’ ‘Oliver Twist’? Even ‘The Tripods’ and, indeed, all other episodes of ‘Doctor Who’ made and shown that year stand head and shoulders above ‘Timelash’. I also remember seeing the thing on transmission and noticing, at the advanced age of seven years old, the massive nose-dive in quality since the previous week’s story.

The disc also includes a commentary track on the episodes. This features Baker, Darrow and Bryant. I may be imagining it, but Baker and Darrow don’t seem to get on; swiping at each other with ‘witty’ barbs that don’t seem to be all that affectionate. Baker and Bryant also have little rapport and while Baker is witty and charming, discussing the serial’s production, the later careers of minor cast members and his intentions in the series’ title role, the track is, like the story itself, a stop-start, frustrating and essentially not very entertaining example of what it is.

Additional extras include an extensive photo gallery, a trailer for the next BBC ‘Doctor Who’ DVD release (nicely put together but it’s the menu for an unappetising meal, sadly) and PDFs of the ‘Radio Times’ billing for the story. That for ‘Part Two’ reads ‘Although fighting for his life the Doctor becomes interested in why no mirrors are allowed on Karfel’. Well, quite.

Despite the fine documentary included here and the impressive sound and picture quality of the disk (I’m no expert but it looks and sounds clear and clean to me) ‘Timelash’ remains a release for completists only. Well, completists and masochists, I suppose.

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