TV EYE: Classic Who Overload (Part 3)

Having picked up some more classic Who DVDs thanks to the budget shelves at Fopp, I’m now able to hit the nostalgia trail once again – although the results this time aren’t always favourable…


I grew up in the Graham Williams era of Who, when the show embraced intellectual silliness, so I’ve got a major soft-spot for that period of Who’s history… but there are points where I just have to stick my hand up and admit defeat. The BBC was already experiencing a selection of budgetary problems in the late Seventies, and most of the Graham Williams era does push the limits of what even the most kind-hearted SF TV fan will put up with. The jokier tone combines with a sudden burst of technical sloppiness (which is described by successive producer John Nathan-Turner in a 1994 interview as a general attitude of “That’ll do”, which I can’t disagree with), and a selection of stories which while often fun are also ludicrously ambitious (a surreal ‘Fantastic Voyage’-style journey into the Doctor’s brain in The Invisible Enemy is one example), and don’t play to the show’s technical strengths (unlike Hinchcliffe’s embracing of the Gothic in his run on the program). Now, I’d say that Season 16 – the Key to Time season – is the high point of the Williams era. There are ups and downs (and in the case of Power of Kroll, it’s a serious down), but it does notch up The Ribos Operation and The Pirate Planet, both of which are exceedingly close to stone-cold classic status (well, in my book anyhow). But The Invasion of Time comes from Season 15 – it’s a follow-up to the previous season’s The Deadly Assassin, once again being largely set on Gallifrey, and once again showing Time Lord society as a creaky, doddering dinosaur. It’s got a great set-up – the Doctor appears to have gone mad, and is helping a race of mysterious aliens invade Gallifrey – and it’s got a fantastic episode 4 cliffhanger where the aliens appear to have been defeated and everything’s fine… until without any warning, the Sontarans turn up! Unfortunately, once we get beyond that, things start going very wrong…

There’s only a few Who stories that go over six episodes and still manage to work. Even the ones that do are fairly obviously a four-parter and a two-parter welded together, and even the truly great ones (like The Talons of Weng-Chiang) suffer from a few slow patches, and generally show that in some respects, the 45-minute and largely self-contained episode format for New Who isn’t a bad idea. The Invasion of Time has a lot of padding – especially when we get to episode 6, with lots of random wandering around the TARDIS being pursued by the Sontarans – but the thing that really sinks it is how badly it’s made. Much of it is thanks to industrial action, which meant all the sets had to be constructed in an old Victorian hospital and basically shot on location, but while a similar situation helped 1988’s The Greatest Show in the Galaxy no end, here it just makes everything look horribly cheap. Weak direction combined with dreadful over-lighting, shabbily dressed sets (including several walls with half-completed rainbow murals that make Gallifrey look like a lunatic asylum) and some dreadful performances (especially from Derek Deadman as the Sontaran commander Stor, who seems to be channeling an asthmatic Ray Winstone) all drag the story down. Tom Baker’s also in a really undisciplined mode here – possibly because he knows that the script isn’t very good – and while there are a couple of decent actors at work here, they’re fighting an uphill battle against some weak dialogue, and a story that just doesn’t make sense, and really does come down to a lot of random running around and the Doctor acting awesomely out-of-character (the story ends with him wielding an enormous gun). I’m willing to suspend my disbelief, and Who always has weak moments – but The Invasion of Time is simply painful to watch for about 80% of its running time. The main thing I can say is that even with the technical limitations, it does still maintain some of Gallifrey’s sense of pomp and grandeur (unlike virtually all the Eighties Gallifrey stories, which turned the Time Lord home planet into a beige conference centre with lots of sofas) but it’s the first Who DVD I may not hold onto, simply because I can’t imagine ever wanting to watch it again…


And funnily enough, we once again hit a story where budgetary and script problems loom large. A frequent problem (especially during the Eighties) was Who running out of money towards the end of the season – this is long before the season finale became big-scale spectaculars – which is why Season 21 ended with the distinctly creaky The Twin Dillema (where budgetary problems were only the start of new Sixth Doctor Colin Baker’s issues), and why Peter Davison’s first season ends with something that could safely be described as a damp squib. To give you a clue as to eaxactly how much of a damp squib, I can remember being not very convinced by Time-Flight when I was eight years old, and time has not been kind. I’m usually more than happy to suspend my disbelief and salute Who’s often barking mad desire to mount epic stories on zero budget, but Time-Flight is the kind of thing that would have given New Who’s producers pause for thought. Concorde being pulled through time to prehistoric Earth by a mysterious force? It’s a great set-up, but Time-Flight is also a script that was comissioned by Christopher H. Bidmead, who at that point was no longer Script Editor (having handed over to Eric Saward), and Saward simply didn’t have the chance to comission anything else, so one of the most ambitious stories of the season got one of the smallest budgets. As a result, we get massive numbers of outdoor scenes being done on a set that’s theatrical even by Who standards, and a whole selection of special effects that are very obviously the effects technicians trying to acheive the impossible, and sadly failing. We also get Bidmead’s continued quest to clutter up the show – Adric may have perished in the previous story Earthshock (which, despite lots of weaknesses, is much, much better), but here the Doctor not only has Tegan and Nyssa, but also gets the three-man Concorde flight crew as temporary companions, bringing the total up to five! I’ll admit to a soft spot for Captain Stapley and his cohorts – they’re terribly camp, and often hopelessly wooden, but there’s a certain engaging quality to throwing ordinary people into completely crazy situations that’s almost New Who-esque at times, and they do provide some of the most fun moments in the stories (even if some of them are by accident).

The execution wouldn’t really matter that much if we had a good story to go with it – but while The Invasion of Time’s garbled story can be put down to being a rush-job, Time-Flight really makes very little sense, especially when you have Anthony Ainley’s Master disguising himself as fat Chinese sorcerer Kalid for absolutely no discernable reason whatsoever. In fact, the initial setup with Kalid and his bizarre Arabian Nights-style backstory is actually rather intriguing, and it would have been at least interesting to do “The Doctor versus a sinister magician” rather than “The Doctor versus the Master yet again”, as Ainley’s appearences were already getting somewhat ridiculous, only a year after the character had been relaunched. The Plasmatons certainly rank as one of the weakest monsters ever (they only actually appear twice, and don’t seem to be capable of doing anything other than lumbering vaguely and smothering people in fairy liquid bubbles), and after a couple of episodes of mildly effective build-up, it all gets drowned in technobabble while the climactic episode ends up featuring a worrying amount of the lead characters standing around on the ‘Prehistoric Earth’ set attempting to look significant. Like quite a few of JNT’s grander ideas, using Concorde is definitely attention-grabbing, but it doesn’t really do anything with our attention once it’s gotten it, and the climax, with Tegan being accidentally left behind by the Doctor, is just as perplexing as it was to my eight-year-old self back in 1982. Davison’s first season is, on the whole, pretty good despite its problems – but Time Flight is one of those stories that you have to watch with an awful lot of kindness, and which anyone who isn’t a pretty serious Classic Who fan should steer well clear of…

More soon!

One thought on “TV EYE: Classic Who Overload (Part 3)

  1. Yes, agreed on all counts. Having seen the DVD recently, my opinion of The Invasion of Time couldn’t be much lower. Everythign about it looks terrible. Even the Sontarans, who for my money were a relatively convincing alien in their first couple of appearances, look ridiculous.
    I haven’t seen Time Flight in years, but like you I remember it as dire.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s