Sunday, July 25, 2010
Grab Bag Reviews: "Timelash"
The episode that everybody loves to hate. If there were ever a contest for the 'Worst Doctor Who Story' it would probably come down to this one or "The Twin Dilemma"... another Sixth Doctor story.
As I've mentioned elsewhere, Colin Baker's tenure as the Doctor was part of a very turbulent time in the show's history. There were conflicts and controversies and much of the time the scripts were often running later due to last-minute re-writes. "Timelash" was no exception.
The story underwent numerous re-writes before the final product went before the cameras. Sadly, the story suffers greatly and is not helped by the attempts to make it a 'budget saving' episode.
The Plot: On the planet Karfel some of the population have grown increasingly disturbed by the actions of their leader, known as the Borad. The Borad seems to be heading them down the path of a police state -- with the population constantly under surveillance. He is also pushing them closer to war with their planetary neighbor, home of the Bandrils.
One young council member, Vena, acts to try to stop the Borad and for her troubles is sent down an unstable time corridor called the Timelash. Along the way she passes the TARDIS, which has gotten caught up in the Timelash's path and thrown to Karfel.
The Sixth Doctor and his companion, Peri, arrive and the Doctor startlingly reveals that he's been to Karfel once before in his Third incarnation. He finds the planet much changed and does not like what he sees. The Borad, however, is delighted since Vena took with her an important amulet and now he intends to use the Doctor to go after Vena and get the amulet back. In order to force the Doctor's hand the Borad orders Peri captured.
With no choice, the Doctor tracks Vena to Earth in the 19th century and also ends up picking up a stowaway -- the young dreamer, Herbert. The Doctor intends to return to Karfel and put things right but little does he realize the true nature of the Borad... and just what the Borad's twisted aims are for Karfel...
My Take: *Takes a deep breath* Okay, here goes... This story isn't all as bad as it's painted. *Waits for someone to start throwing rotten fruit*
As someone who often doesn't like the characterization of the arrogant, argumentative Sixth Doctor the script here actually manages to favor Colin Baker -- shaving off some of the worst of the sharp edges and actually allowing him to show a bit of charm and genuine humor. There are also several sequences where (gasp) the Doctor actually is allowed to show some genuine concern and liking for Peri instead of the usual constant bickering.
Unfortunately, Baker is the one who gets off the best here and the rest of the cast suffers. Well, okay, maybe not completely suffers but it ranges from mediocre to bad. Companion Peri screams a lot gets captured, gets rescued, gets captured, gets rescued, etc., etc., etc. and generally doesn't actually have anything to DO in the plot except be a Damsel in Distress. Ugh. Vena is simply yet another stock character. She acts as an exposition unit at times and provides the 'noble stance in the face of overwhelming odds' schtick which really turns her into more of an object than a character. Herbert is written as an eager puppy dog and the actor playing him pushes it a little too far... to the point where it would be fair to compare him to one of those small, hyperactive puppies which quickly go from being "cute" to "annoying". Most of the rest of the cast follows suit with rebel forces who are suitably... rebellious... again, without ever becoming actual characters rather than archetypes, and craven cowards who are simply craven. It's all very predictable... and therefore dull.
And then there is actor Paul Darrow. The thing which gets mentioned the most about this story. Darrow was and remains famous in cult science fiction circles for playing the duplicitous character Avon on the heralded British sci-fi series Blake's 7. Although I will admit to you all that I've never actually gotten around to watching the series myself. They're probably going to take away my cult sci-fi geek membership card for that admission.
Many viewers at the time would have likely recognized and known Darrow from his previous role when this story aired but surprisingly Darrow is not the true villain here. He is an over-the-top, slimy, bootlicker to the main villain instead. I'll give Darrow this -- he's obviously having a good time playing the role of Tekker since he gives each one of his lines a dramatic delivery -- but the result is a character that is actually amusing rather than threatening. Darrow nails the slimy tone perfectly. Too bad the slime trail is all that one remembers of the character on screen.
Then there is the Borad... There is a pretty good hook here -- the idea of a scientist mutated by his experimentations and gone mad. It's the stuff of comic book supervillains but here it just never quite works. It's hard for me to put my finger on... perhaps it is because the ending to the episode makes the whole thing fall apart and turns the Borad into something boring. The make-up designs for the character are really not that bad for the time period ,and considering that everything else in this story got scrimped on, but the character never quite reaches the heights (or depths as the case may be) for memorable villainy. He isn't crazy enough, he isn't rant-y enough, he isn't evil enough, he isn't sinister enough, he just never makes you... intimidated by himself. He never even really makes the Doctor intimidated by him... and that's a kiss of death. Viewers often take their cues from the Doctor and/or his companion and when the Doctor isn't afraid of a situation the audience isn't afraid either.
"Timelash" also suffers from it's mediocre to bad script. The story itself would not have been too bad if it had had the good grace to end with the defeat of the main villain. But no, it adds a second ending and then it adds a THIRD ending on. And by that third ending things are getting really, really silly and pushing credulity past the breaking point. I mean, one word here: clones. Seriously, ANY time clones are involved it's a bad sign. There have been a few shows and movies to pull off clone stories well but by and large it's bad and here, where it's all thrown into a mash in the last five minutes of the story?! No.
Then there are the budgetary constraints. Trying to save money on "Timelash" ultimately hurt the story greatly. Many of the costumes are simply ugly, some are laughable -- like the Guardoliers whose uniforms seem to consist of canvas coveralls and a beekeeper's hat with netting.
Making the whole story studio bound shows badly since the overlit sets look fakey and there are long scenes which just take place in rooms to keep the sets down. There is also a bit of corridor running and it was amusing and perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek when Peri tells one of officials touring her around that "All these corridors look the same to me."
And then there is the Christmas tinsel. It's everywhere. It's used in everything. Most noticeably the "entrance" to the Timelash is basically a curtain of silver Christmas tinsel with some strobe lights flashing on it. It's ridiculous and it ruins the story. Wobbly sets are one thing but THIS is a whole other level... down.
And we wont even mention the fact that the one Bandril which appears is so obviously a hand puppet it isn't even funny and the one Morlox monster we see is equally puppety.
In the end, eehhhh... I can't really say I can recommend "Timelash" but I don't like NOT recommending it because there are some really good bits here. Colin Baker gets some nice lines, such as when he tells Vena "I show little mercy to tyrants" (What, you thought it started with the Tenth Doctor and his "No second chances"?), and the script has the Doctor REALLY acting like the Doctor for a change.
In the end I would say that if you can be tolerant of some crap it's worth seeing "Timelash" at least once to hit some of the high points.