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Into the Timelash
on 20 September 2014
The Borad of Karfel is a supposedly benevolent dictator, but runs a surveillance state dominated by androids. Any opponents soon find themselves aged out of existence by a time accelerator or if they're lucky, exiled on a one-way journey into the unknown through the dreaded Timelash.
According to one poll (where it was rated next to last out of 200 stories), `Timelash' has a standing among `Doctor Who' fans almost as horrendous as the Timelash does for the Karfelons. But does either one really deserve their terrible reputation? Can anyone survive the experience? There's only one way to find out ... "Prepare the Timelash!"
As the Doctor and Peri bicker their way through the Vortex in the TARDIS, they become entangled first in the Timelash - a Space/Time corridor to Earth - and then the murky politics of Karfel. Imagine `Julius Caesar', set in space, complete with the intrigue, death and togas. The Doctor is not pleased at getting stuck in a Time Corridor (again), and when this Doctor is displeased, it shows! Colin Baker's portrayal of the Sixth Doctor is certainly different from the Fifth, but very enjoyable and with a great line in insults. ("Microcellaphic apostate!") Why shouldn't a brilliant alien sometimes seem brusque and a touch arrogant? The essential, reliable Doctor is still there under the mannerisms, he'll take any risk to save his companion or a world in peril - in this case he must track down a vital stolen power key before Peri gets eaten by a Morlox beast!
Glen McCoy's script is ambitious, perhaps slightly too ambitious for the budget but why not? Beyond the politics of Karfel, the story is also an extended homage to the works of H.G.Wells plus a few jokey hints of the Bond films and some of this perhaps went over many viewers (including me) at the time. I remember spotting the references to `The Time Machine', `The Invisible Man' and `The War of the Worlds' in 1985 but only now do I realise he also included `The Island of Doctor Moreau' with its grotesque human/animal hybrids, and a clever nod to Wells' satirical take on spiritualism from `Love and Mr. Lewisham' where the hero challenges a fraudulent spiritualist.
There's a large guest cast with generally good performances including four that really stand out:
Maylin Tekker is very memorably played by Paul Darrow in total contrast to the cold, controlled Kerr Avon he played in `Blake's 7'! If the ambience of Karfel is `Julius Caesar', he's playing `Richard III' as Tekker smiles, slimes and schemes his way to the top. Paul Darrow's enjoyment of the role and Tekker's enjoyment of the pursuit of power are both obvious. Not everyone liked the style here, but I think it's great fun - "Save your breath for the Timelash, Doctor. Most people depart with a scream!" Are there no limits to his villainy - or will a better man ever appear from behind the `mask'? Dean Hollingsworth is excellent as all the Borad's sing-song voiced androids (but only one at a time, for obvious reasons) with a cleverly acted, contemporary 1980s `robo-dancing' style.
Down at the far end of the time corridor, the Doctor does find rebel Councillor Vena and the amulet/power key, materialised in the room of a cheery young chap called Herbert (David Chandler), who's on holiday for a spot of fishing in the Highlands of Scotland, 1880. It's another excellent guest performance - he's bubbling with enthusiasm at the idea of time and space travel and desperate for a look in the TARDIS. Naturally, the Doctor refuses with all his usual tact (!) but Herbert stows away and for the rest of the story becomes a wonderful companion for the Doctor, actually superseding Peri with his eager, humorous (and on the Doctor's side, very grudging) partnership.
Back on Karfel, full-scale rebellion has broken out helped by the Doctor, doing some clever things with Kontron crystals taken from the Timelash to shift Time around as easily as only a Time Lord can. Eventually he challenges the Borad, skulking in his dank vault - and what a superb Borad it is from Robert Ashby. Almost hidden under layers of excellent makeup (and also rather hidden by being in this disregarded story), he gives one of the great `voice' performances of classic `Doctor Who'. Surely the way he is introduced to viewers, seated in a chair and filmed in close-up without revealing his face, is a tribute to Bond villain Blofeld? The Borad is seen stroking not a white cat, but his own flipper!, and one of his lines sounds like a nod to Goldfinger. (Goldflipper?) "Choose your next words carefully, Doctor. They could be your last!"
So if there are these very enjoyable performances and witty touches in the script, why does `Timelash' have such a poor reputation that even the DVD insert says apologetically "Timelash isn't all bad"!
The sets and costumes come in for some criticism, but the sets are meant to have matte and lifeless surfaces - the Borad (for all his claims of superiority) has a horror of seeing his own reflection, which, cleverly, is shown to also affect the androids he has programmed as extensions of himself. The costumes are mostly futuristic togas which look fine for `Julius Caesar' in space, but it must be said the mushroom-hatted, fishnet-draped `Gardoliers' don't look great.
The bad reputation is probably explained by the fact that in the two places where parts of this story don't work, they fail quite spectacularly. The one set that for me stood out for all the wrong reasons was the interior of the feared Timelash itself. As the Doctor dangles on a rope (and invisible wires) retrieving Kontron crystals, he's surrounded by silver tinsel blobs stuck on like sea-urchins and hexagonal lumps so obviously polystyrene that bits of it crumble off and float down like snow in the gentle breeze ruffling his hair. Why on earth (or Karfel) wasn't the Timelash portrayed by a `green screen' CSO void filled with swirling background weirdness, echoes of the screams of the exiled and a howling gale (not a gentle breeze) of `Time currents'? It would probably have been cheaper than building the set and certainly far better at convincing us that "He's dangling on the edge of oblivion!"
Peri is sidelined as companion and (by Nicola Bryant's own estimation on the commentary) spends 60% of her time chained up. Peri is not once but twice placed in jeopardy from an unconvincing Morlox creature and even when not tied up she seems unable to run away, though she is only `trapped' against a flat cave wall with miles of floor space to escape into. Nicola Bryant deserved a better characterisation for Peri in this story, and at least a small alcove to do her valiantly professional `trapped and screaming' acting in; the end result would have looked far less silly if Peri was obviously trapped, as it's clear the Morlox can't actually chase anyone - it consists entirely of head and neck.
But please don't let me put you off entering the Timelash, if you watch the odd ropey bits with a tolerant chuckle there's a lot else to enjoy. I haven't even mentioned the mysterious previous visit of the Third Doctor and Jo Grant, or the deadly missile fired by the Bandrils that the Doctor simply blocks with the TARDIS in a "neat trick" he'll "explain one day"! Actually no explanation is needed; everyone knows the TARDIS is *indestructible* - another "neat trick" of Time Lord technology.
Finally, before the curtain falls there are three twists in quick succession; one good, one implausible and one brilliant. I'll award this story four Kontron crystals, because although it's not a classic, it's fun and certainly far better than its awful reputation suggests. It turns out that surviving `Timelash' is easy; just throw yourself in and enjoy the ride! 4*
NOTE: If you don't know the story already, don't read the DVD insert before you watch it and do navigate off the DVD menu quickly to avoid seeing the background clips. Spoilers!
The DVD Special Features are few but good:
The commentary is really enjoyable, well worth listening to; Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant and Paul Darrow obviously had fun recording it and looking back at making the show and their own performances in it.
`The Good, The Bad and The Ugly' - 25 minute feature considering why `Timelash' turned out as it did, with an excellent set of contributors.