I was thinking that I’d maybe been too generous to the TV Movie. That maybe I’d been right the first time I saw it in assessing it as the worst Doctor Who story of all time.
Then I rewatched “Time-Flight” for the first time in at least 18 years and could barely summon the will to finish it.
“Time-Flight” is, according to The Mighty 200, the fifth worst Doctor Who story made up to that time, slightly better than “Underworld” and slightly worse than “The Space Pirates.”
It has its virtues, to be fair. For instance, the Concorde’s flight crew are charming can-do types who actually pitch in instead of spending the whole time standing around being bewildered, taking the initiative to sabotage the Master’s efforts and helping to get the TARDIS where it needs to be, not to mention rather improbably repairing their plane after it’s been damaged by, er, making an emergency landing on prehistoric Earth.
They’re far more appealing than the TARDIS crew, whom I liked when I was closer to their age but find a little insufferable now. Though Janet Fielding often did a pretty good job of playing her, Tegan the character is obnoxious by (misguided) design. Nyssa’s impressive technical expertise often gets lost in snowstorms of technobabble or set aside so she can be a damsel in distress. And Peter Davison…I always thought he got a bad rap as the bland, vulnerable, ineffectual one, but for the space of this story he briefly became my least favorite Doctor. Watching him wring his hands and stand around and plod through this story with the energy and emotional heft of a sheet of moist cardboard was agonizing.
The revisionist line on this story is that it’s full of exciting elements — “planes hijacked to prehistoric Earth by an exotic sorcerer seeking to unlock the magic of a race of angels locked in a civil war” does sound a bit more exciting on paper than, oh, “Cybermen try to take over a space freighter.” But the problem is that there’s really nothing to it beyond the summary. We don’t have any idea why the angels are quarreling, unless it’s that some of them apparently think being used by a sorcerer might be fun, and the quarrel never amounts to or results in anything. The sorcerer is of course the Master and his diabolical plan is just to fix his ride; why he bothers to dress up and who he intends to fool is one of the great unsolved mysteries of this story. And there is literally no reason for them to be on prehistoric Earth; it could have been the middle of the desert in the present day for all the impact it has on the story. The special effects are atrocious, the makeup pathetic, the direction somnambulistic. It’s not actively offensive, unless you count the “exotic” accent, but it’s pointless and almost thoroughly joyless.
Which brings us to “The Runaway Bride.” Not a story I remembered liking, but one I really enjoyed tonight. I’ve been hard on the new series, and it finally dawned on me tonight that I was looking for the wrong things. I was leaning hard on the stories themselves, the ideas, the exciting elements, looking for something that captured my imagination the way my favorite stories from the classic series did — the Pertwee Quatermass quotes, the Hinchcliffe horror retellings, and those excellent conceptual pieces from the Davison years, “Kinda,” “Snakedance,” and “Enlightenment.” I was looking for textures and moods that were long past, and I was looking for ideas and images. But the new series, as any idiot knows, is about characters and emotions, particularly during the Davies years, and connecting the cosmic with everyday life. I was looking for individual stories I could fetishize, because that’s how you have to watch the classic series; outside the remarkably consistent 70s Golden Age (and often even then), you’re looking at islands of quality amid a sea of workmanlike that’ll-do. But the new series has each story build on the previous, a cumulative effect that transcends the variable quality of the individual stories, and it’s the characters who are our islands where they used to be just our boats.
So while “Time-Flight” is about the best the classic series ever got at carrying over emotion from the previous story and feeding events into the next, it’s still regularly and rightly slammed for the awkward way it handles the death of a main character in the previous story, and the abrupt and opaque way it deals with another being left behind at the end. By contrast, and sheer accident (since it just happened to be the next in my rewatch of the new series and I hadn’t planned to watch it tonight), “The Runaway Bride” also deals heavily with the Doctor’s loss of a companion in the immediately previous story and his failure to take a newer one with him at the end of this story. But it’s 23 years and 5 incarnations down the road from “Time-Flight,” and this newer show allows its older Doctor to show plausible emotions, to be active and vulnerable, to be hurting but generous and engaged with the world. He can care about Rose, rather than making plans to take in a cricket match instead of mourning (or indeed making the slightest attempt to save) Adric; he can take time to listen to the thoroughly obnoxious mouth on legs he’s been collaborating with all episode when she talks about what she wants, instead of zipping off in the TARDIS without saying goodbye (though, to be fair, he does try).
Maybe it’s a little unfair to compare #196 on the Mighty 200 with #115, particularly since this is a production with the money and technology to show us a woman flying unharmed through a ceiling, floating bomb-laden Christmas ornaments, the TARDIS chasing a taxi down a motorway, a giant spider with a centaur-like torso that walks and talks, and oh by the way, pre-prehistoric Earth being formed out of space dust, an almost insanely moving moment that’s just a brief side trip for this story. All this in maybe an hour, mind you, as opposed to the 100 minutes “Time-Flight” takes to show us soap bubbles, airplane cockpits, leotards, and two men in tailed jackets exchanging circuit boards.
I get it, New Who. I admit it: you’re more awesome than anyone really has a right to expect. And I can’t wait till you start up again this weekend.