Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: Time-Flight DVD

By Jim Smith on 07 August 2007

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Concorde was the great Anglo-French aviation project. It promised, nay delivered, supersonic travel for civilians and took its name from a word meaning ‘agreement’ (albeit with an unnecessary vowel appended to it to make it sound more French).

When I was a kid the excitement that surrounded the very idea of Concorde was enormous and I specifically remember the anticipation I felt when I found out that next week’s ‘Doctor Who’ story would be called ‘Time-Flight’ and be about Concorde. Wow. Imagine that. ‘Doctor Who’ and Concorde. Together at last. Smelling the possibility of positive publicity British Airways had agreed to ‘Doctor Who’ producer John Nathan-Turner’s request to let him base a story around the aircraft. More, they’d even let the BBC shoot at Heathrow, and film on board and around a Concorde sitting on the tarmac.

Back then Concorde was new, exciting and ‘The Future’ and ‘Doctor Who’ was, unbeknownst to myself and my contemporaries (Children of the 80s that we are), on the verge of entering a decline in mainstream popularity from which it would never fully recover in the twentieth century.

Concorde ceased its regular Atlantic crossings in 2005, the same year that, entirely coincidentally, ‘Doctor Who’ made its triumphant return to mainstream success. The parallel is made painfully exact by the simple fact that ‘Time-Flight’ Part One was the last ‘Doctor Who’ episode to be watched by more than ten million people until the first starring Christopher Eccleston.

The whole of the Concorde era is contained between the transmission dates of two episodes of ‘Doctor Who’ both of which I own on DVD. Part of me finds that fact that unbearably sad. Not the fact that I own a lot of dodgy TV on shiny disc, of course. I accepted long ago that as a low rent Prufrock I am condemned to measure out my life in shiny retail items. No, it’s that Concorde no longer flies that I find almost tragic. It seems wrong, contrary to the very idea of technological advancement, that the era of supersonic travel should now be firmly in the past.

It’s Concorde itself, not ‘Doctor Who’, that comes across best on this DVD. Scenes set, and shot, on the aircraft itself or at its home at Heathrow, are glossy and involving and look impressive even now, twenty five years after being shot. That’s not something that can be said of the scenes recorded on the prehistoric Earth set where the rest of the story takes place. It’s not a bad set, per se (it’s clearly cleverly put together in terms of being able to be viewed from a multitude of perspectives) and it looks far better on shiny DVD that it ever did on scuzzy VHS but there’s still something spectacularly ontologically wrong about a scene where the Doctor dismisses the shot-on-film Heathrow as an hallucination and introduces his companions and the audience to ‘reality’, this turns out to be some small plastic rocks and a painted backdrop in Television Centre.

‘Time-Flight’ just about succeeds in holding the attention despite these – and other – notable production failings and (more importantly) the scripts for the serial being perfunctory and ugly things. These four episodes are structureless and stumbling, make little narrative sense and they display a level of practical ambition that borders on the insane.

Writer Peter Grimwade (who had previously directed ‘Doctor Who’ on four occasions and therefore should have had a better idea of what it was reasonable to expect its budget to cover, quite frankly) chucks in references to Aristotelian logic and a ludicrous number of big concepts in an attempt to keep his audience awake, but none of his scripts’ characters are memorable and what entertainment can be found in them comes from giggling along with the gaggle of camp performers recruited by the BBC to stand around in BA uniforms and try and look butch.

On a less irony-filtered note, Peter Davison acts his socks off, finding levels of eccentricity, character and humour in the part of the Doctor that the script doesn’t even hint at (rarely has an actor in the leading role of this series so noticeably lifted a shoddy story onto his shoulders and desperately tried to save it through his own actions) while guest star Nigel Stock finds a character where there isn’t one in his role as time lost academic Professor Hayter. Anthony Ainley is hilariously enjoyable as the Master and/or a fat little moustachioed magician called Kalid. Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding as the Doctor’s companions Nyssa and Tegan are, respectively, blandly forgettable and an amusingly acerbic and largely effective foil for Davison’s Doctor. (Tegan and the Doctor’s relationship in which sparks seems to fly between them based on some unspoken tension or a frustrated love/hate attraction from her side should have been made far more of in the series at the time.) That said, a scene at the beginning featuring the Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan mourning Adric – a regular character killed off in the previous serial ‘Earthshock’ – may well be the least convincing, least emotionally truthful moment in televised ‘Doctor Who’ that doesn’t involve Tom Baker pretending he’s gone evil and wants the Key to Time himself.

Also included on the discs are some deleted scenes (4 minutes of nothing much) some out-takes (14 minutes of entirely unfunny gaffes and fluffs from the studio floor), a compilation of behind the scenes production material (20 minutes of bits and bobs accompanied by informative running text which, unfortunately, contains an incorrect date in the very first line) and a brief (11 minute) and largely incoherent, interview with Grimwade in which the man somehow manages to combine being hugely endearing with a staggering level of casual arrogance.

Of greater interest is a lengthy interview with Janet Fielding about playing Tegan. Fielding made only four fewer episodes of ‘Doctor Who’ than Davison himself, and far more than Colin Baker or Sylvester McCoy ever did. It’s worthwhile getting her to her talk about the series on camera for the first time but unfortunately Fielding-as-herself seems thoroughly unlikeable and rather dull, which is a bit of a disappointment to me to be honest, what with Tegan being such an important part of my childhood. (Fielding also features on a commentary track with Doctor Davison and series Script Editor Eric Saward, who appears under his stage name of ‘The Amazing Saward – The Bitterest Man Alive’.)

All of these extras are worth watching once and do provide insight into how the story was made. It’s just that the story of the serial’s production is about as interesting as the serial itself, i.e. not very; and even that level of interest is only sustainable  if you are juiced up on a liking for ‘Doctor Who’, a love for the Davison era, Concorde nostalgia and a fondness for the early eighties generally. Which I am. God knows what you’d make of it if you weren’t.

As is traditional with BBC ‘Doctor Who’ DVDs, the picture and sound quality are excellent, while the cover in the slipcase is an absolutely bloody hideous, barely professional Photoshop atrocity – even more so than is usually the case in the latter instance.

Not all that long ago my local cab firm changed its name to ‘Concorde’. Recently, I was availing myself of their services to get myself to an airport in order to board a far less romantic plane than a Concorde. I asked the driver about the name change and he told me that it had happened because his boss had wanted a name that suggested speed and  ”Concorde means fast doesn’t it?”.

I nodded dumbly and then, I think, I might have mumbled something about it being the name of a defunct technological marvel, and it actually meaning agreement, but in French, or with an extra vowel, but I don’t think he was listening. I found the whole experience slightly alarming. Not the ‘not being listened’ to aspect, of course. That’s fair enough. I can go on, after all. It was the ignorance of even the faintest details about that icon of the early eighties that troubled me.

I bet he didn’t know who Tegan Jovanka was either.

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