Timelash

Apologies if this one is less coherent than some of the other posts – I’ve got a terrible migraine and can barely focus on the screen. I’ve been half-considering leaving this one til tomorrow, but I’ve got quite a busy weekend ahead of me…

I always feel terribly sorry for Colin Baker. There is a certain section of Who fandom that considers him the worst Doctor, by a long way, and considers it acceptable to insult him at every turn (calling him “Fat Colin” and similar but much less complimentary names because, shockingly, he’s not the same weight at 65 that he was at 41). It’s a shame, because Baker was actually one of the best actors to play the part, and certainly the most enthusiastic – he’s described it as the role he was born to play.

However, Baker ended up having the shortest time in the role of any of the actors in the original series, only getting to do two full series (one of which was shorter than any before it), mostly because of events that had nothing to do with him. Many of his scripts were sub-par, the show was actually cancelled for 18 months while he was the Doctor, and the producer and script editor were barely talking to each other by that point.

Part of the reason for Baker’s unpopularity is actually because he thought through his performance more than many of the other actors to play the part. His Doctor was intended to start out colder and crueller than earlier Doctors, after his regeneration, and only slowly become more empathetic. He was also intended to be a more alien figure than his immediate predecessor. However, the scriptwriters seemed to be unable to cope with this – some carried on writing him just the same way they would have written any other Doctor, while others wrote him as practically a sociopath, delighting in unnecessary cruelty to Peri. It’s a tribute to the strength of Baker’s performance that he manages to rise above the widely variable scripts and actually deliver a mostly-consistent character who is recognisably the Doctor (Baker really studied the other Doctors’ performances, and incorporated tiny elements of them into his own but in subtly changed ways – even though I’ve often noted Willam Hartnell’s hand gestures and lapel-fiddling, and everyone who’s watched a Colin Baker episode has seen him puff himself up in self-importance while holding his lapels, it hadn’t occurred to me that the latter was a direct, conscious reference to the former til I heard Baker talk about it on the commentary to Timelash – the gesture is used in a very different way, but it implies a continuity of character).One of the things I love most about the Big Finish audios is that Colin Baker is *finally* given the opportunity to play the Doctor in the way he always wanted to, and I would argue that the best Sixth Doctor audio adventures (Jubilee, Davros, Doctor Who & The Pirates and a few others) are possibly the best things ever to come out of the show.

What makes it worse for me is that Baker was ‘my Doctor’. While I watched Peter Davison as a child, the memories I have of the show are almost all of Baker’s era – seeing two Doctors working together in The Two Doctors, the return of the Sontarans, the reveal that the Valeyard is in fact a future regeneration of the Doctor, Terry Molloy as Davros, the half-converted human Daleks, Sil, the return to Totter’s Lane and the chameleon circuit working again, trying to kill Peri, the giant marble statue of the Doctor collapsing onto him (I was *furious* as a six-year-old kid when my mum taped over my Betamax recorded-off-the-TV copy of Revelation of the Daleks). That’s the Doctor Who I grew up on. And there’s some very, very good stuff in there – and a lot more trying to get out from the production problems.

But there were two Colin Baker stories I didn’t remember from my childhood – Mark Of The Rani, which I knew would be rubbish because of its central villain and writing team, so I’ve still not rewatched it, and Timelash. I picked up Timelash on DVD relatively recently with no idea if it was any good – I don’t pay attention to fan ratings, because I’ve noticed that what I like about the show and what the most vocal members of the ‘fan community’ like are two very different things.

However, I wasn’t expecting even the DVD itself to proclaim so loudly that Timelash is, as the fan anagram apparently ‘wittily’ has it, Lame Shit.The blurb on the little insert in the DVD – the *promotional material* – contains phrases like “Timelash, by necessity, fell into the cheaper category. Unfortunately, this tends to show in the finished production with dull, uninspiring sets and costumes.” and “Timelash has been much criticised for its production standards, unimaginative direction, padded scenes and over-the-top acting”. This is the stuff that’s meant to make you want to buy it!

The documentary in the special features is much the same thing. Everyone from the writer to the actors to the script editor seems to be operating from the assumption that the show has no redeeming qualities and that its faults need to be explained. Producer John Nathan-Turner seems to have been chosen by everyone as the whipping boy for this – and one must admit that their reasons do have a ring of truth about them – but it must also be admitted that given that Nathan-Turner is dead it is easy to blame him without him being able to answer back. By the end of the documentary, one is reminded of Jake Blues – “No I didn’t. Honest… I ran out of gas. I, I had a flat tire. I didn’t have enough money for cab fare. My tux didn’t come back from the cleaners. An old friend came in from out of town. Someone stole my car. There was an earthquake. A terrible flood. Locusts. IT WASN’T MY FAULT, I SWEAR TO GOD!”

So it’s quite surprising to watch the actual episode and find it’s not all that bad. It’s far from good – there’s a reason I didn’t remember anything of it from childhood viewing – but it’s by no means the worst piece of TV ever or anything along those lines. The script is bad, of course – the pacing is hopeless and the plot makes little sense – but it’s not *uniquely* bad. In fact its faults are those of the late Tom Baker era (essentially writing science-fantasy panto) and nuWho ( ‘celebrity historical’ guest star writers who get all their ideas from their adventures with the Doctor are something of a staple in the new series, to the point where one could convincingly make a case that Timelash was the template for at least three stories from nuWho). Despite what everyone seems to think, having H.G. Wells adventure with the Doctor and see things that would be turned into pretty much every famous novel Wells wrote – which most people seem to think the saving grace of the story – is not a great idea, it’s a bad fanfic idea, and would be so even had they not portrayed the atheistic socialist humanist Wells as a Catholic spiritualist who used Ouija boards.

But like I say, those flaws aren’t unique, and there are actually some fine performances in the story (Robert Ashby is absolutely superb as the Borad). In fact the pedestrian nature of the original script was in some ways an advantage – Ashby and Baker rewrote a lot of their own lines (Ashby changed “That’s a lie!” into “Another expedition into the realms of duplicity”) giving some of their parts a baroque charm. The real problem is that Paul Darrow, as the central villainous character Tekker, has an absolute contempt for the material. His performance shows signs of having been worked on, but at some point during rehearsals he obviously decided to give up any pretence of taking things seriously, and just do a bad impression of Laurence Olivier as Richard III (I kept expecting him to say “It has been a HARD day’s night… and I… have been workinglikeadog!”).

If he’d been able to hide his distaste for the story, as Ashby and Baker do, rather than walking around with a giant neon sign over his head saying “I’m better than this, I used to be a real star, you know”, then the other flaws in the story (of which there are still many) would be forgivable – everything else is just the result of lack of time, lack of money, or plain incompetence, all of which sometimes happen to the best-intentioned people. Darrow’s performance, though, is plain sabotage.

Despite this, Timelash really *isn’t* as bad as its reputation – on an objective level it’s not that much worse than Destiny Of The Daleks or The Five Doctors. It’s just a shame that Colin Baker’s time as the Doctor was cut so short that this is one of a tiny number of televisual records of his performance. Baker *was* given good scripts on occasion – Vengeance On Varos, Revelation Of The Daleks and The Two Doctors are all strong scripts (though The Two Doctors has its own problems) – but what I wouldn’t give for a TV version of …Ish or Jubilee or even a fun bit of fluff like The One Doctor…

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6 Responses to Timelash

  1. RAB says:

    “…what I wouldn’t give for a TV version of …Ish or Jubilee or even a fun bit of fluff like The One Doctor…”

    Rumor has it somebody might be getting a nice Christmas present… ;-)

  2. Alex Wilcock says:

    I entirely agree with you about Colin, and Robert Ashby, and though I hated PAUL! DA! RROW!’s delivery at the time, these days I find him at least more entertaining than the rest of it… And, as I’m trying to spend a month and a bit firing out little pieces on why every period of Who is brilliant which you’ve been kind enough to enjoy, I won’t list any but one of the reasons I think Timelash really is every bit as bad as it’s painted – because it’s a joy to see someone make a passionate case in defence / mitigation even of a story I don’t rate :D

    When you mention the way they make the atheistic socialist humanist Wells into a Catholic spiritualist who used Ouija boards, though, I have a terrible suspicion I have the answer (or, more accurately, my other half came up with it a bit ago): For an ‘historical celebrity’, it’s bizarre that none of the Catholic spiritualism of Herbert is in any way related to the real Calvinist turned atheist Mr Wells. Can it be that the writer was so unbelievably dense that he just mixed up H.G. Wells with Arthur Conan Doyle and no-one spotted it?

  3. Oliver Townshend says:

    Guilty as charged on the not liking Colin Baker’s doctor, although over time I’ve come to realise that it was the scripts (which started going downhill with later Tom Baker/early Peter Davison). His earlier appearances in Dcotor Who and Blakes 7 are wonderful and gave my high hopes that Vengeance on Varos smashed into a pulp. Fortunately my childhood doctors (3/4) delivered definitive performances :)

  4. Jennie says:

    I dunno if “nice” is the word to use in that context, but yeah. We’ve already had a TV version of Jubillee, and although it was one of the better episodes of the Ecclescake era, it wasn’t a patch on the original.

  5. RAB – not being a huge fan of the new show, I suspect I won’t be as enamoured of the ‘present’ as others – plus, I was talking about wanting it with Colin in, which I *sincerely* doubt will be the case ;)

    Alex, I thought of that too, but I couldn’t bring myself to actually mention it in this post. To accuse someone of being *so* dense as to confuse ACD (an anti-rationalist bigoted misogynistic old Tory) with HGW (a progressive atheist socialist) purely because they both wrote very good books around the same time would be too insulting – even if it turned out to be true.

  6. Just found this after doing my own write-up on Timelash. I agree one hundred percent concerning Colin Baker. He is one of the Doctors that I grew up watching, for a long time he was very underrated, and the Big Finish stories starring him are superb. In any case, yeah, Timelash is pretty sub-par, but I do not think it is a completely irredeemable piece of rubbish like some people. Baker certainly does his best, and Robert Ashby turns in a mostly underplayed, suitably menacing take on The Borad.

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