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…

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Doctor Who Project: Earthshock

What are we supposed to have done?

Season Nineteen has been about change. A new Doctor stands at the helm of the TARDIS, and producer John Nathan-Turner has interwoven psychedelic psychological drama with pseudo-historical potboilers and manor house murder mysteries. The shift in tone from story to story leaves viewers guessing as to what comes next. None of it quite prepares viewers from Eric Saward’s “Earthshock” (Story Production Code 6B), which takes Doctor Who to brand new ground: a companion dies.

A broken mathematics badge

The argument can be made that two prior companions have lost their lives in a story, with Katarina and Sara Kingdom both perishing during “The Daleks’ Master Plan,” but neither really “settles in” to life on the TARDIS to the extent that viewers develop a relationship to them, certainly not to the degree that viewers have come to know Matthew Waterhouse’s Adric, the precocious and persnickety Alzarian maths whiz. Adric’s TARDIS tenure has not been the smoothest—from his first appearance in “Full Circle,” he has been an outsider, the butt of many a joke and never really given a chance to shine, to be the focus of a story. His single outing as the sole companion, “The Keeper of Traken,” sees him sidelined almost immediately by Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa, and in the very next story, “Logopolis,” Janet Fielding’s Tegan comes aboard, to say nothing about the little matter of Tom Baker regenerating into Peter Davison.

A crowded TARDIS

Nevertheless, Matthew Waterhouse does the best he can with the scripts, which so often lean into Adric’s youth and callowness, and though few might proclaim Adric to be their favorite companion, he’s firmly part of the TARDIS team, and indeed is the longest serving cast member by the time Eric Saward and John Nathan-Turner decide to remove him. Saward litters the script with foreshadowing of someone’s demise, and there’s more on-screen death in this story than has been seen in years, but the ending still has the power to shock, because it is ultimately a pointless death. Indeed, the most stunning aspect of “Earthshock” is not that Doctor Who finally had the narrative courage to fatally write off a companion but that it didn’t matter at all to the story’s outcome.

Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor, mightily annoyed with Matthew Waterhouse's Adric

Which is not to say that Adric is not heroic or that his death does not matter. Rather, to have Adric try, and fail, to alter the course of a gigantic space freighter as it is about to hit prehistoric Earth speaks to the very heart of Doctor Who, particularly the new vision of it as conceptualized by Nathan-Turner and embodied by Peter Davison in the character of the Fifth Doctor. Where every other Doctor in every other story (save the Third Doctor in “Doctor Who and the Silurians“) would have succeeded and rescued Adric, here, the Fifth Doctor fails, even as a plot to destroy Earth is foiled and history falls into its rightful patterns once more. His success, such as it is, comes, finally, at a cost. It’s a sobering moment, one that hints at a depth in the Doctor only suggested before, and one that helps viewers forget that these guys show up again…

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Doctor Who Project: Black Orchid

Why didn’t I leave after the cricket?

The TARDIS may be bigger on the inside than on the outside, but the typical Doctor Who story is larger still: worlds warring, cultures collapsing, aliens attacking, universes unravelling. Terence Dudley’s “Black Orchid” (Story Production Code 6A) shrinks that scope to the quotidian, presenting a simple two episode murder mystery with little on the line except the Doctor’s own fate, and in doing so, produces a tale grander than the usual galaxy-spanning fare. The actors, both guest stars and regular cast, take precedence over special effects and fantastical plotting. While most of Doctor Who‘s best stories are ones that it alone could tell, this noteworthy outing for the Fifth Doctor succeeds because it practically ignores everything unique about Doctor Who—except for the characters themselves.

The Fifth Doctor and Companions at a railway station

After a disorienting opening sequence showing a violent strangulation, then someone who looks very much like Nyssa turning over in bed, then an indigenous South American with a lip plate reading a book, the TARDIS lands on the platform of a railway station in the English countryside on June 11, 1925, where the Doctor is, apparently, urgently expected by Lord Cranleigh (Michael Cochrane). Before the Doctor and companions can catch their breath—to say nothing of the audience—they are whisked away to Cranleigh Manor in a stately green Rolls Royce.

The Fifth Doctor greets Lord Cranleigh

The initial establishment of the Fifth Doctor as a cricketer in “Castrovalva” pays off here, as Cranleigh needs the Doctor to both bat and bowl in the charity game held in conjunction with the annual fancy dress ball given for a local hospital. And bat and bowl he can, hitting frequently for six and taking several wickets to win the game. Director Ron Jones fully utilizes the location shooting to display Peter Davison’s own cricket skills in a loving montage that stretches nearly five minutes, a fair allocation given that the full runtime of the story is under an hour.

Peter Davision as the Fifth Doctor, getting ready to bat

But it is this attention to detail, to a deliberate development of the setting and character, that sets “Black Orchid” apart from the usual Doctor Who story. We see the Doctor reveling in a passion that has, ultimately, nothing to do with the outcome of the story, and yet it is not just a throw-away segment. Dudley draws upon the series’ larger scope, its vast store of lore, by having the local constable, Sir Robert Muir (Moray Watson) give both the Doctor and the audience a momentary pause:

Sir Robert: “A superb innings, worthy of the master.”

Fifth Doctor: “The Master?”

Sir Robert: “Well, the other doctor.”

The reference, ultimately, is to renowned cricketer W.G. Grace, known occasionally as “the Doctor” himself, but the brief possibility that the Master, or more intriguingly another Time Lord, is somehow involved creates a resonance that never quite goes away. Was this a knowing aside, a hint at the true culprit behind the opening murder? Has the Master summoned the Doctor to break his duck?…

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Doctor Who Project: The Visitation

So much for my friendly aliens.

Even though Eric Saward’s “The Visitation” (Story Production Code 5X) is the second story filmed in the Season Nineteen production block, the character development of the Fifth Doctor and his companions keenly reflects the story’s place as Peter Davison’s fourth televised outing. Typically this tight adherence to the subtle growth of the Doctor’s personality and his relationship with his companions would need to be added in by the production team, but here the snarls and smiles and subtle asides feel organic, integral to the four episodes of this story as well as to the overall trajectory of the Fifth Doctor as a whole, leaving little wonder why Saward would soon take on the script editor role for the series. Though current editor Anthony Root and producer John Nathan-Turner doubtless tinkered with the final script, “The Visitation” demonstrates how a keen familiarity with the overall vision of the series and its often convoluted continuity can take a decent story and elevate it into something even better.

The Fifth Doctor and Companions at Heathrow, 1666

Part of the strength of “The Visitation” comes from a commitment to the “through narrative,” the connecting bits of dialogue that refer to, and indeed build upon, events that took place in prior stories. While not quite as explicit as a formal “arc” as with Season Sixteen’s “Key to Time” stories, this through narrative rewards consistent viewers, albeit at the cost of confusing more casual audience members who might not know why Tegan is still disturbed by thoughts of the Mara or why the Doctor is constantly trying to get back to Heathrow Airport on a very particular day in 1981. Rather than being lore callbacks of a kind to delight people with encyclopedic knowledge of Doctor Who, as prevalently found in Seasons Seventeen and Eighteen, these connecting threads instead ground viewers in these particular characters, providing depth and familiarity as well as a sense that the Doctor’s adventures are interconnected.

The Terileptil's Android

The Doctor does manage to get back to Heathrow as “The Visitation” begins, though in 1666 rather than 1981, a slight error in calculation that puts the him, Tegan, Nyssa, and Adric in the vicinity of a manor house that was the scene of a break-in of interstellar proportions. Saward and returning director Peter Moffatt reveal the “monster” in the first five minutes of the first episode, rather than employing the more common first cliffhanger revelation, bursting a brightly colored android (Peter van Dissel) through a drawing room door, where it is met by a fusillade of bullets from the soon-to-be-doomed householders. It’s a clever bit of misdirection, as the real foes of the story, the reptilian Terileptils, appear only midway through the second episode.

A fugitive Terileptil

Fugitives from the justice of their own ruthless kind, the three Terileptils, survivors of a prison ship that exploded in Earth’s atmosphere, plan to rid the planet of its pesky human populace by releasing rats infected with an amplified, bioengineered version of the plague already ravaging Europe at the time. One Terileptil in particular (Michael Melia) remains behind at the manor house perfecting the plague, using villagers, subdued by the same prisoner control bracelets that recently held him and his fellow convicts in check, as a workforce. As far as Doctor Who villain motivations and plans for conquering Earth, it’s pretty run-of-the-mill, but the joy of this story comes not so much from the spectacle of a scaly green alien thundering about in high dudgeon as from the juxtaposition of high tech in a low tech environment that Doctor Who depicts better than any other show, embodied in the person of a jocular thespian (and, yes, occasional highwayman), Richard Mace (Michael Robbins), who all but steals the stage…

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Doctor Who Project: Kinda

There is great danger in dreaming alone.

Given that Doctor Who has never shied away from the allegorical and mythological, it’s surprising how long it took before the show based a story so directly on the notion of Paradise, in particular the Garden of Eden myth. Newcomer Christopher Bailey’s “Kinda” (Series Production Code 5Y) doesn’t take long to stake out the specifics, with forbidden apples being tossed around and snakes slithering about the otherwise idyllic garden planet Deva Loka, home to the mute, telepathic Kinda; a dome full of pseudo-British colonial occupiers straight out of Livingston and Stanley (with a bit of Joseph Conrad added for good measure); and a malevolent entity known as a Mara, lurking in the Great Dreaming.

The Mara (Jeffrey Stewart) confronts Tegan (Janet Fielding)

There’s quite a bit to unpack in this four episode story, so much that Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa is all but excised from “Kinda,” appearing in only the very first and last scenes as she recovers from the sudden malady that afflicted her at the end of “Four to Doomsday.” Between an overstuffed plot (which nevertheless contains quite a bit of filler) and a very strong guest cast, including Richard Todd and Nerys Hughes, there’s simply no room for three companions, a problem that will continue to plague the Fifth Doctor’s run for some time to come.

Sanders (Richard Todd), Todd (Nerys Hughes), andHindle (Simon Rouse)

With the Doctor and companions starting the story already on Deva Loka, for unexplained reasons, focus shifts to the inhabitants of the dome. The colonizing team, from an unnamed homeworld (though ostensibly Earth or one of its offshoots), has been losing team members on the planet they call S14, a troubling occurrence given that the native Kinda (pronounced ken-dah) show no hostile intention, even though the colonists are holding two Kinda as hostages. The last colonist to disappear left behind his Total Survival Suit (TSS), an armed and armored exoskeleton that an inquisitive Adric manages to activate. It herds him and the Doctor back to the dome as prisoners, where strait-laced mission commander Sanders (Richard Todd), inquisitive scientist Todd (Nerys Hughes), and paranoid security officer Hindle (Simon Rouse) nervously attempt to understand their puzzling appearance on the planet.

Tegan adrift in the Place of Great Dreaming

Adric’s misadventure leads to Tegan being left behind in the Place of Great Dreaming, a clearing dominated by massive crystal wind chimes that induce a hypnotic sleep. She falls prey to the somnolent song and finds herself in a dark void, eerily lit from jarring angles and with heavy shadows over her features. After encounters with other lost souls (possibly the missing colonizers?), she confronts a trickster figure (Jeffrey Stewart) who torments her with duplicates of herself, forcing Tegan to question her identity, her uniqueness, her very existence. Janet Fielding displays a deft and wide range of emotions in these scenes, certainly far beyond anything given to Tegan in her three prior stories. Slowly being driven mad, she agrees to allow the trickster to take over her physical being in order to escape the nightmare. As they grasp hands, a snake slides from his arm to hers. Subtle? No. Effective? Surprisingly so…

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Doctor Who Project: Four to Doomsday

Here we have a lively intelligence.

While viewers initially encounter the Fifth Doctor in “Castrovalva,” Peter Davison’s personal debut with the character comes in Terence Dudley’s “Four to Doomsday” (Series Production Code 5W), the first of his stories to be filmed. The Doctor we see in “Castrovalva” remains amorphous, changing, suffering as he is from a difficult regeneration caused by the Master’s mediocre machinations. Only his predilection for cricket comes through strongly in his opening story. It’s here, as the Doctor and companions find themselves not in Heathrow’s Terminal Three but aboard a spaceship slowly traveling to Earth, that the Fifth Doctor finally begins unveiling his characteristics, his temperament, and his manner.

The Fifth Doctor and Companions survey the Urbankan spaceship

For the youngest of the actors to inhabit the role thus far, Davison plays the role of the Fifth Doctor far more paternalistically, more didactically, than his predecessors. To be sure, his Doctor shows ample reserves of humility and kindness, and Davison imbues the part with a willingness to be fallible, a quite refreshing corrective for a character so often granted amazing powers as the plot requires. Yet there’s a surprising firmness in his attitude when the situation becomes serious, shifting from the jocular and familiar to the demanding, and slightly demeaning, at the drop of a celery stick. Over the course of this four episode story, he calls Adric a “young idiot” and accuses him of “sloppy thinking”; tells Tegan to shut up and has no patience whatsoever for her understandable concern about being held captive by evil robot space frogs; and leaves Nyssa to be captured, drugged, and almost converted into an android in order to advance his plans. Prior Doctors have been peremptory, cavalier, and even a bit huffy, but Davison’s Doctor acts as though the companions really are “children,” as he calls them. He’ll turn the TARDIS around and go home if behavior doesn’t improve, you better believe it. Absent Davison’s undeniably charming mien, these rougher edges would be quite jarring indeed.

Enlightenment (Annie Lambert), Monarch (Stratford Johns), and Persuasion (Paul Shelley)

About those evil robot space frogs: Dudley, who previously directed “Meglos,” puts our protagonists aboard a colony ship bound for Earth, helmed by Monarch (Stratford Johns), Enlightenment (Annie Lambert), and Persuasion (Paul Shelley), all of whom are initially encountered in the amphibian forms of their native Urbanka, a now-dead planet located far away from Earth by the Doctor’s reckoning. Broadly humanoid, with amphibian features and mottled green skin, the Urbankans claim to have three billion of their people on the ship, heading for Earth to colonize it. But the only other people the Doctor and companions have seen are humans taken from Earth over several thousand years: Bigon, of Athens (Philip Locke); Lin Futu, of China (Burt Kwouk); Kurkutji, of Australia (Illario Bisi Pedro); and Villagra, of the Maya (Nadia Hammer).

Kurkutji (Illario Bisi Pedro), Bigon (Philip Locke), Villagra (Nadia Hammer), and Lin Futu (Burt Kwouk)

Over some extended exposition involving separating the Doctor and Tegan from Adric and Nyssa, our time travellers come to realize that Bigon and his fellow exiles from Earth are not immortal, despite having been taken from Earth centuries prior. They, like the billions of Urbankan colonists themselves, are stored on computer chips inside robot bodies—androids, though Monarch, who perfected the technology and leads the Urbankans, prefers the phrase “fully integrated personalities with a racial memory.” And of course, Bigon reveals his android nature to the Doctor and a horrified Tegan in that most typical of manners, the mandatory peeling off of the face…

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