Doctor Who reviews: Timelash
Recently, Michele was working on a paper for school that examined how H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine influenced Doctor Who. It was an excellent piece of writing. I cannot believe that I’d never before noticed how significantly Terry Nation had borrowed from Wells when writing the first Dalek storyline, i.e. the Daleks equal the Morlocks, the Thals equal the Eloi, etc.
So, as she’s working on this paper, I happen to casually mention to Michele that on one occasion the Doctor actually met H.G. Wells. Oops. Suddenly she wants to see this story. I tried to explain to her that “Timelash” is not a well regarded Doctor Who serial. In fact, one commentator went so far as to point out that the title is an anagram for “lame shit.” Michele was amused by this, but undeterred. So I popped “Timelash” into the DVD player, and we watched it. She ended up laughing at most of what came up on the television screen.
As I’ve written before, I am a big fan of Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor, and on the whole I find his brief tenure on the series to be very enjoyable. Even so, I will readily admit that “Timelash” is not an especially good story. That said, I will argue that it is rather underrated… which basically translates to my saying that is nowhere near as awful as most other people argue! Certainly Baker himself is in fine form, bringing his brash, argumentative, authoritative Doctor right to the forefront. It definitely suits this story, given that he is handed a pair of larger than life adversaries to verbally fence with in the forms of the Borad and Maylin Tekker.
The plot by Glen McCoy definitely has potential, exploring what happens when the Doctor returns to a planet several decades after he had a prior (untelevised) adventure. We very rarely see the lasting consequences of the Doctor’s actions anywhere, so this trip to Karfel offers us a chance to examine how a previous encounter with the Time Lord can affect a civilization for good or bad.
The main villain, the mutant Borad, is actually a novel, intriguing foe, one who is well played by actor Robert Ashby, with an excellent make-up job realizing the character. Considering the Borad survives the events of “Timelash,” albeit as a deposed despot left to spend the next several centuries swimming about Loch Ness, I’ve always hoped that one day he would turn up again in another story. Given the generally poor perception of “Timelash,” I doubt that Steven Moffat will be dusting off this vintage baddie any time soon, but there are still the Doctor Who audio plays and novels.
I think the main area where “Timelash” fails is in the budget. It definitely had a very cheap, shoddy look about it, with plain sets and very drab costumes. One of the worst offenses has to be the inside of the Timelash tunnel itself, which looks horribly tacky and is so obviously a glittery Styrofoam wall.
I really cannot fault McCoy for any of this, though. He was a relatively new writer who had never worked on Doctor Who before. In this case, I think the lion’s share of the blame should be laid at the feet of script editor Eric Saward. It is all well and good for Saward to bemoan the fact that producer John Nathan-Turner forced him to work with a succession of inexperienced writers. But it was Saward’s job to look at McCoy’s script, point out to him what was not achievable on the limited money allocated to the show, and suggest other alternatives. Saward seems to have abdicated his responsibilities, though, content to let McCoy’s ambitious vision be poorly realized on a shoestring budget, all the while blaming JNT for the substandard end result.
I was also extremely underwhelmed by how the Doctor’s companion Peri was portrayed. Nicola Bryant, as I’ve observed in past blog posts, was often handed subpar material to work with. But this has to be one of the character’s all time worst stories. Except for a few scenes where she’s squabbling with the Doctor, poor Peri spends nearly the entire serial running from trouble, getting captured, being left tied up, and screaming for her life. Makes me appreciate how the character has been handled on the Big Finish audio plays all the more.
As I mentioned earlier, the Doctor meets H.G. Wells in “Timelash,” although for almost the entire story he is just a young man named Herbert. It’s only in the very last scene that the Doctor discovers his full name, and realizes that he’s probably had a huge impact on the future author. There was definitely — and again I use the word — potential to a fictional encounter between the Doctor and Wells, the real-life writer whose influence on the series cannot be denied.
Regrettably, the meeting between the two does not come off especially well. For most of the story, Herbert is written as a naïve bumbler who is in way over his head, as well as a bit of a wet blanket. I think David Chandler gives it his all, though. I had always hoped, as with the Borad, that we would see another meeting between the Doctor and Wells, hopefully when the later was an older, more seasoned individual. I think Chandler expressed interest in reprising the role. Even though that never did occur on television, Wells does meet both the Tenth Doctor and the Victorian incarnation of Torchwood in the comic book special The Time Machination by Tony Lee and Paul Grist which was published by IDW in 2009.
Before closing out any look at “Timelash,” I would be extremely remiss if I did not mention Paul Darrow in the role of Maylin Tekker. To say that it is a broad performance would be a vast understatement. Reputedly this was inspired by Colin Baker’s appearance as a larger-than-life space pirate, Bayban the Butcher, on Darrow’s series Blake’s 7 a few years previously. When Darrow was then cast in “Timelash,” he apparently wanted to see if he could out-ham Baker’s earlier performance. I honestly do not know if Darrow’s over-the-top villainy should be considered one of the most risible aspects of the serial or if it takes a mediocre production and rockets it into high melodrama. I will tell you this, though: I half-suspect the reason that that there’s so little scenery in “Timelash” is not the result of budget problems but due to Paul Darrow chewing it up.