Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...
Day 604: Time-Flight, Episode One
Time-Flight is the unloved child of Season Nineteen, isn’t it? On the whole, it’s a very strong run of stories, with some absolute ‘classics’ like Kinda and Earthshock, and some other tales that simply worked well for me, even if general opinion is mixed, with the likes of Four to Doomsday and Black Orchid… and then it ends with this tale. On the whole, I think the problems most people have with Time-Flight boil down to some of the more ridiculous elements, and I’ll get to those in the next few days I’m sure, but I was pleasantly surprised by this first episode… because it’s rather good!
I’ve only seen this story the one time, when it first came out on DVD, and over the years I’ve come to think of it as being one that simply never takes my fancy for a re-watch. All I can remember about it is that it largely takes place on prehistoric Earth, and the Master turns up somewhat improbably. I’d forgotten, for instance, that this first episode is largely set in the present day at Heathrow - I thought scenes here simply topped-and-tailed the adventure. I’m glad that’s not the case, though, because I’m really enjoying lots of the airport material. It’s almost like going back to the 1960s (I seem to be saying that a lot recently), where there’s something really exciting about seeing a location ‘as it was’ at the time. Landing the TARDIS right in the middle of the building is great fun, too, and I love the way that the Doctor decides that he simply has to go and have a look, and then on course he gets caught up in something. Curiosity defines this Doctor more than I’d ever noticed - making his comment in Black Orchid all the more appropriate!
There’s also something quite exciting about seeing the Doctor inside a Concorde. It feels at once like something too mundane for him (last week he was in a space freighter), and also terribly exciting because it’s not somewhere that you really get to see very often (especially not these days - Time-Flight has become a historical in more ways than one!). Seeing him peering round the cockpit brings the series closer than ever before to being Blue Peter.
I feel as though I’m being generous here - although I really do enjoy all the stuff at the airport and on the plane - because as soon as we touch down on to prehistoric Earth, things all start to fall apart for me. From the moment that they step off the Concorde and into some questionable CSO, we’re back into the story that I remember Time-Flight being, with not-particularly-great sets, some questionable guest performances, and monsters that aren’t… great. I have a feeling that the goodwill built up in the first two-thirds of this episode may dissipate over the next few days, so I’m glad that it has at least started strong. In that spirit, I’d like to add that the concept of everything in this episode is fantastic - the idea of stepping off the plane to find themselves back at Heathrow, until Nyssa sees through the illusion to a pile of bodies, is a great one, and I think it really is a case of the effect letting it down.
Something that does need to be mentioned is the way they deal with the aftermath of Adric’s death. It’s a tricky thing to pitch, really, and I’m not sure that they quiche get it right. Let’s use Journey’s End as an example: Donna’s memories of the Doctor have been wiped, and she’s been returned home. The Doctor can never see his best friend again, and she’s resigned to living a life in which she’ll never be as great as she could. The episode ends on a down-beat note, and you’re left with the Doctor alone, and sad, and soaked from the rain. But the crucial thing is… this comes at the very end of the season. When we next catch up with the Doctor, it’s Christmas, and he’s off for an adventure in Victorian London in the snow. Now, on original broadcast, there was a real gap between episodes that lasted months and months. You don’t get that now, if you’re watching the episodes through in order, but there’s still a real sense that a great deal of time has passed for the Doctor and the programme, so it can move on in to a bold new adventure. With Cybermen! That’s not to say that Donna’s departure is completely ignored, the Doctor is still hurting from it, and that gets touched upon later in the story, but it feels right that we should pick up with smiles, and festive cheer, and a brand new story.
Time-Flight doesn’t get that luxury. I commented the other day that to feels like a season finale… but it’s not. It’s the penultimate story of the season, so we’re going out with this one. As has become common practice for the series at this point, today’s episode picks up only a short time after yesterday’s one, and then we’re off into a new adventure. Now, this is where things get tricky. You can’t make the whole episode be about Adric’s death, or you’d never get a story going. Equally, you can’t simply ignore the fact that in the last episode you killed off one of the main characters! Do you see what I mean? Tricky to pitch. Time-Flight deals with it by… having 16 lines of dialogue between the three regulars, and then brushing it off with the Doctor promising a “Special treat to cheer us all up.”
After that, Adric is forgotten, and we continue on as though nothing had happened. It just doesn’t work for me, and it’s another example of the programme not always being good at the character-led pieces that a situation like this one really needs. A pity, in many ways, because those 16 lines between the Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa raise some interesting points that I’d love to see explored further (for example, Tegan’s suggestion that they could save Adric and still allow the freighter to crash so that it wouldn’t change history would be - so far as I can tell - entirely workable under the rules of more recent Doctor Who!), and it feels like there needs to be something more. I know Adric makes a brief cameo in this story somewhere, so I’m hoping that might give us something a little bit better.
I should point out that despite what I’m saying here, I don’t think you could have ended the season with Adric’s death: it’s just too bleak. In The Writer’s Tale, Russell T Davies has long discussions with Benjamin Cook about the ways to end that Fourth Series, and he worries that you need something to bounce back. I think what we ended up with there was perfect, but I don’t think it would have worked for Adric’s death - it’s just too major. I keep on saying it… tricky!