Doctor Who Project: Time-Flight

I’ve never heard such an extravagant explanation.

Never let it be said that Doctor Who skimps on season ending stories. For “Time-Flight” (Story Production Code 6C), Peter Grimwade’s Season Nineteen finale, the BBC combines the best of British science fiction with the best of British (fine, Anglo-French) engineering by filming in and around the Concorde. John Nathan-Turner even manages to get permission for Grimwade to put British Airways’ very expensive and prestigious airplane in jeopardy, with not one but two separate supersonic transports disappearing on approach to Heathrow. Try getting a major carrier to allow its livery in even the most benign piece of fiction nowadays.

Two time-trapped Concordes

In keeping with producer Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward’s devotion to continuity, we find the Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa still in shock over Adric’s demise, with the Doctor adamant that he cannot revisit his own history to undo the young Alzarian’s death. As a peace offering, the Doctor offers to cheer everyone up with a quick visit to the Crystal Palace in 1851 for the Great Exhibition, as one does, only to find the TARDIS on a collision course with another object in time and space. After an emergency materialzation, the TARDIS appears over a runway at Heathrow in the present day (so, roughly 1982) before the Doctor “parks” the blue box in an observation overlook in Terminal One, which of course attracts some slight attention. The Doctor pops out to get a paper to check the cricket scores before being confronted by the authorities as a crestfallen Nyssa and Tegan look on.

The TARDIS in Terminal One, Heathrow

Unlike the Doctor’s last impromptu visit to an airport, “The Faceless Ones,” the Fifth Doctor now has bureaucratic contacts of his own to call upon, and he shamelessly name drops UNIT and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, a pleasant call-back to a once-important feature of the series and and also a very convenient means of involving the Doctor in the disappearance of Concorde. Indeed, absent Whitehall’s imprimatur, Grimwade would have needed to put the Doctor through a convoluted series of hoops—well, more convoluted, at any rate—in order to have him, Nyssa, Tegan, and the TARDIS as passengers on another Concorde flying the same descent approach as the missing plane into Heathrow, just to test a theory.

Cramped Concorde Cockpit, with Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor, Richard Easton as Captain Stapley, Keith Drinkel as Flight Engineer Scobie, and Michael Cashman as First Officer Bilton

Which is not to say that Grimwade and director Ron Jones don’t take their sweet time making anything actually happen in this four episode story. Having gained access to Heathrow and Concorde, the BBC take full advantage. Several scenes occur in the cramped cockpit, with the flight crew of the second jet (Richard Easton as Captain Stapley, Keith Drinkel as Flight Engineer Scobie, and Michael Cashman as First Officer Bilton) occupying nearly as much screen time as the Doctor and companions, calling out checklists and repeating radio instructions, while the plane itself, on a side tarmac on a snowy London day, features in plenty of glamour shots as our time travellers climb the long stairs to the entry.

Concorde Glamour Shot

Sure enough, the second Concorde disappears off the radar scope just like the first one, confirming the Doctor’s suspicion that a “time warp” exists over the approach path to Heathrow. But despite the TARDIS registering a temporal displacement some one hundred and forty million years into the past, Stapley lands the Concorde right back at Heathrow, parking where they started. (British Airways wasn’t going to actually move the plane for Doctor Who.) Or so it seems.

Michael Cashman as First Officer Bilton, Richard Easton as Captain Stapley, Keith Drinkel as Flight Engineer Scobie, and Sarah Sutton as Nyssa

The Doctor feels something is wrong, and once everyone disembarks down a ladder that miraculously appears next to the airplane, Nyssa pierces the illusory veil. All around, nothing but rocks, as befits the Earth over a hundred million years prior, and, curiously, a wrecked spaceship and a lone stone building, quite out of place indeed. They have been tricked by a hallucination powerful enough to have momentarily affected even the Doctor, caused by a most unlikely foe…

The Mysterious Kalid!

In classic fashion, Grimwade reveals the villian Kalid at the end of the first episode, right before Kalid sets his amorphous Plasmatons (think grey bubble wrap with legs) upon the Doctor. The cliffhanger turns out to be not much of anything, since the Doctor is released unharmed to enable additional long conversations to take place between the Doctor, the flight crew, and the companions to start the second episode. And talk they do, with whatever budget remains in the shooting block obviously having been spent on the Cybermen action sequences in the prior story.

The Fifth Doctor in a spot of bother

Credited as Leon Ny Taiy, Kalid appears in thick and frankly ill-considered makeup, which, combined with vaguely Mandarin costume, veers towards an Asian or Arab stereotype, sufficient to make that found in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” appear almost enlightened by comparison. The disguise, which is revealed as such at the end of the second episode, and the pseudonym both serve to hide the return of, yes, the Master, Leon Ny Taiy being a tortured anagram of Anthony (Tony) Ainley. Absent the need for such iffy subterfuge, which produces at best a wan degree of surprise, far more plot, or at least substance, could have been added to the story, to say nothing of sparing us the spectacle of Kalid.

Peter Davison and Anthony Ainley as the Fifth Doctor and the Master, disguised as Kalid

As Kalid, Ainley speaks in short, stacatto, heavily accented phrases while he taunts the Doctor, laying out his general plan for universal domination, all hinging upon harnessing the power in the “sanctum,” an enclosed compartment in the ancient building. Kalid has the hypnotized passengers and crew of the first Concorde working to break into the room, leading to the sight of First Class toffs wielding crowbars with quite some indifference. Claiming to be a fellow time traveller who has become stuck, Kalid seeks to enlist the Doctor’s aid, turning to threats against the passengers and crew when the Doctor fails to be swayed by such blandishments as power and wealth.

Nyssa, meanwhile, has been turned into a medium for the “intelligence” in the sanctum, leading her to find a secret passage into the room with Tegan. To get there, the two companions must confront their fears, forcing their way past Adric (with Matthew Waterhouse providing his final appearance in the series), the Melkur from Traken, and a Terileptil. It is uncertain whether these images come from the Master, who has managed to tap into the power emanating from the sanctum to a limited degree, or from the “intelligence” itself, which appears to have a binary, split personality, helping and hindering in equal measure.

Matthew Waterhouse as Adric, getting in the way of Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) and Tegan (Janet Fielding) yet again

Kalid prepares to kill the flight crew and a passenger, Professor Hayter (Nigel Stock), with his mental powers, amplified by those emanating from the sanctum, when Nyssa attempts to smash the sarcophagus inside the sanctum, causing psychic feedback, hurling Kalid to the floor, where he disintegrates in a grotesque scene full of slime and goop. Then, of course, he jumps up, peels off the robes and mask, and exults in full Master-ly glory at just how clever he has been. (Never let it be said that Anthony Ainley doesn’t do his best to play this aspect of the Master to the hilt; it’s what the script calls for, and he delivers.)

Anthony Ainley in his full glory as the Master

His escape from collapsing Castrovalva left unexplored, the Master relates that he is stuck in the past and inadvertently caused a “time contour” in attempting to escape, his own TARDIS having been damaged. There was no master (sorry) plan at work to draw the Doctor, it seems, snaring the Concorde being merely a happy coincidence that brings the Doctor to him. Still possessed of his shrink gun, the Master forces the Doctor to provide the key to his own TARDIS, hauled from the Concorde by his hypnotized army of passengers. Since the Doctor conveniently rigged his TARDIS with a Temporal Limiter, the Master doesn’t get far, but in the interim, the Doctor breaks into the sanctum with help from the passengers, who are awakened from the hypnosis after the Master leaves.

And then there’s more talking, this time with the Xeraphin, a long dead race from the planet Xeriphas, which was, as Grimwade helpfully tells us, “devastated by crossfire in the Vardon Kosnax war,” a bit of lore-babble that fits right in with the extensive techno-babble on display in this story. Two ghostly Xeraphin (Hugh Hayes and Andre Winterton) appear to the Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan, separate emotional components of their shared racial consciousness. Having fled to Earth to escape the destruction of their planet, they merged their consciousnesss into a single entity due to the radiation damage suffered in the war, and they were about to “regenerate” (a curious turn of prhase by Grimwade) when the Master appeared and appealed to their baser nature, promising revenge and retribution and conquest. In truth, the Master wants to use their combined mental energies to fuel his own TARDIS, a source of power stronger than the “dynomorphic generator” at the heart of all TARDISes; the power would make him unstoppable.

Hugh Hayes and Andre Winterton as the Xeraphin

What results is a mental battle between the two sides of the Xeraphin nature, played out by the Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan swaying back and forth with their hands out and their eyes fluttering as they attempt to help the good Xeraphin take control. But the Master has returned with purloined parts from the Doctor’s TARDIS and sucks the Xeraphin into his own TARDIS, leading the Doctor to proclaim, “It means the Master has finally defeated me,” an admission of failure from a Doctor who has had a rough go of it the last few stories.

A mental battle!

Never fear, though, because the brave lads from British Airways come to the rescue! In conjunction with Professor Hayter’s ghost (he merged with the Xeriphan consciousness to save Nyssa—long story) they rescue the Doctor and companions from the sanctum, which was re-sealed by the re-hypnotized passengers during the brain fight with the consciousness. Thus saved, the Doctor confronts the Master, who needs a repaired Temporal Limiter to escape in his own TARDIS. An uneasy truce holds, and the Doctor trades a working limiter—he has a spare one, according to Nyssa—for the purloined parts from his own time machine and the release of the passengers.

The crew of the TARDIS teamed up with the crew of the Concorde

A picture of sangfroid and British can-do, the crew gets their Concorde up and running, taking off with the TARDIS back in the hold and the passengers with their tray tables in the upright position. The representation of the crew as resourceful and brave, more than the images of the sleek SST itself, repay British Airways’ risk in letting the show put the plane in danger in the first place. Once airborne, the Doctor surmises that dematerializing the TARDIS will “kick” the plane back into its proper time, which happens exactly as planned. The Master, meanwhile, has been fooled, the part given him by the Doctor forcing his TARDIS to materialize at Heathrow a few minutes after the Doctor arrives. More techno-babble sees the Master’s TARDIS bounced away, a galactic trick-shot that sends him to Xeriphas with a now-busted Temporal Limiter. The Xeriphan people may regenerate and the Master is trapped (hah!), leaving everything in a nice little package to end the story.

A near-collision in space-time at Heathrow

Almost, that is, because the Doctor inadvertently leaves Tegan behind at Heathrow. All throughout the story, Tegan’s background as an aspiring flight attendant comes into play. She comments about how she enjoys air travel and even takes charge of the passengers, herding them into their seats at the behest of Stapley. In the few moments they are at Heathrow in the final episode, she wanders the concourses as the tannoy announces the departure of an Air Australia flight, leading to a moment of wistfulness that Janet Fielding plays brilliantly. There’s a real uncertainty about whether she will stay with the Doctor or decide to remain behind and resume her life. With Adric having just left and the season coming to a close, the audience is certainly prepared for more change. And yet she seeks to continue her adventure with the Doctor, being crestfallen when he leaves in a hurry to avoid having to answer any more questions. It’s a shocking ending, both to the story and the season, and for those watching contemporaneously without knowing the cast list for the next tale, creates almost as much dismay as Adric’s death.

Janet Fielding as Tegan

Sarah Sutton has a chance to stretch her acting chops by being possessed, a sure-fire means of getting more, and usually better, lines in Doctor Who. Nyssa remains the Fifth Doctor’s “main” companion, serving as a technical assistant capable of acting on her own and amplifying the Doctor’s thought process, helped by Sutton’s faculty with techno-babble. Still, there’s a sense that even two companions are too many, particularly with the flight crew and the Master receiving quite a lot of attention in the script. Had Adric still been on the crew, there’s little doubt that someone would have needed to be sidelined, as happened with Sutton in “Kinda” a few stories back.

Sarah Sutton as Nyssa

The term “companion” makes a return for the first time since “The Visitation,” with Grimwade—or perhaps Eric Saward, who seems to appreciate the word, wielding his script editor pen—having the Master refer to Nyssa and Tegan as such:

The Master: Your companions have entered the sanctum, they’ve disturbed the neuronic nucleus, but they will have paid for the incursion with their lives.

As for Peter Davison, after a full season of playing the Fifth Doctor, he’s certainly carved out the character as his own. This more fallable and uncertain Doctor benefits from Davison’s guileless, earnest presentation of the Gallifreyan. He’s seen much, suffered more, and is finally confronting the limits of his own powers. This Doctor makes mistakes, has no sense of direction whatsoever, and shows a willingess to listen to his companions and others. Davison manages to imbue the Fifth Doctor with a bit of humanity while still retaining an essential alienness, no mean feat given some of the scripts he’s had to work with.

Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor

“Time-Flight” neatly sums up where things stand with Doctor Who as Season Nineteen comes to an end. John Nathan-Turner has fully freed himself from the shackles of his, and Davison’s, predecessors. There’s an intense focus on each individual story being woven together as a whole, not in terms of overarching narrative but as a connected skein, close to a soap opera insofar as small call-backs carry great weight for long-term viewers while scarcely discomfiting a more casual audience.

The TARDIS above a runway at Heathrow

There’s also, however, a sense that the writers, and the production team generally, revel more in the clever artifice they are creating, the ever-growing catechism of lore and canon they are enshrining, than in telling a compelling tale. “Time-Flight” has one too many elements in it: the Concorde, the Xeraphin, the Master. Pick two of the three and there’s ample room for the story to devlop, but all three wind up short-changing the overall effect, and one fears that it’s the presence of the Master—with no slight intended to Ainley—that undoes the intresting idea on offer here. The need to continue to say, “This is Doctor Who!” on the part of Nathan-Turner and Saward prevents it from being, well, Doctor Who, which earns its acclaim not because the Daleks show up every so often or someone remembers that the Zygons were responsbile for the Loch Ness Monster, but because of the intriguing blend of action and adventure made possible by a box that can go anywhere and a lead figure who can be anyone. It’s a show slowly, but certainly, becoming stuck in its past despite that fact that the main character can travel into the future.

(Previous Story: Earthshock)

(Next Story: Arc of Infinity)

Post 127 of the Doctor Who Project

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.