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The One with Concorde

By Bevan Lewis

The Bottom Ten No.5
DWM Score: 46.16%
DWM Placing: 155th

What more could an eight-year-old viewer hope for? As if the excitement of time travel and an evil genie-like figure who spewed forth wonderful yellow goo was not enough, the latest Doctor Who also boasted the presence of one of the technological triumphs of the previous decade, Concorde. It was these features that caused this story to stick in my mind for fifteen years, the snapshots of memory reawakened on a recent re-viewing. The flush of nostalgia, warmed by the production value toleration caused by a six month chronological immersion in Doctor Who, lead me to really enjoy quite a fun story. Imagine my surprise when I turned to the fan press for some alternative appraisals - I began to wish that the TARDIS had arrived at its intended destination, the Crystal Palace exhibition, after all.

“Was left feeling rather disappointed with the story ...”
“... In the final analysis the whole thing is a bit of a shambles”
“There is no doubt in my mind that Time-Flight was the worst story in an otherwise excellent ... season” (all from The Television Companion)
“2/10” (The Handbook: The Fifth Doctor)

Reappraising the story, most of the points of criticism are valid. The plot is certainly convoluted and raises almost as many questions as it answers. There are far too many elements at play. I think that the primary problem is that the scripts had the Master's involvement implanted after completion - the story had originally been accepted in March 1980 to be used in Tom Baker's final season. Without the Master's involvement (necessary to complete Anthony Ainley's contract to appear in two stories per season) a number of plot problems dematerialise. How did the Master escape from Castrovalva? Why did he dress up as Kalid, how and why did he set up the time corridor, and what was his motive for acquiring the Xeraphin? Without the Master we would have had a conceptually interesting story of unified race memory and a good old Catholic struggle between good and evil, this time within one ‘organism’. Nevertheless I can recall being delighted by the surprise appearance of the Master, my favourite baddy. At that time Ainley's overacting (particularly bad in this story due to most of his threat being conveyed by macabre laughter and grimace rather than through dialogue) was far less apparent.

“It's amazing - this thing's smaller than it is on the outside.”
- The Doctor

Aside from plot problems this story has had its fair share of criticism directed at production values. There are shortfalls, however viewing the story chronologically as I did the problems did not stand out so markedly. Alright, Concorde taking off with the famous fowl flying across, and shots of travel agency model Concordes on a bit of sand are not great. Most of the criticism has been directed at the scenes on the surface of prehistoric earth. Yes the sets are restrictive, pantomimic and the lighting could have been better, but then again how many dramatically splendid planet-scapes have we seen in Doctor Who? Even the great City of Death features a distinctly dubious scene at the end when the Doctor and company travel back to prehistoric Earth. I think that City of Death worked production-wise because it was allowed sufficient budget to create a substantive body of filmed action. Time-Flight inverts this - a superb first episode of exterior filmed footage followed by typical ‘exteriors done interior’ material. How would our view of Time-Flight have been changed if the heath had been a real heath? I visualise the story in a setting similar to that of The Sontaran Experiment. Of course we should comment on, and where appropriate criticise, production values. The plot was allowed to over-extend the BBC's capabilities (The Handbook: The Fifth Doctor and The Television Companion both observed that “scenes involving Concorde crash-landing on the barren plains of prehistoric Earth would be difficult enough for an epic cinema film to achieve convincingly, let alone a series with the modest resources of Doctor Who”). Peter Davison has commented: “Well, with Time-Flight I think we had just run out of money... It was just hysterics from beginning to end, because it was so cheap” (DWM 214). However the BBC could not be held responsible for other expensive delays caused by snow at Heathrow and that old stand-by, industrial action.

I face a Xeraphin-like inner battle in accessing this story. Is my fondness for it purely a result of woolly-headed nostalgia, or is there a gem within the cobweb of colliding plot elements? The first episode is great. The filming at Heathrow and in and around Concorde, something of a coup d'etat for the BBC, is great. This lends the story the Pertwee-esque feeling of the otherworldly Doctor becoming involved in supernatural events in our familiar technological society. The script also has some great and memorable moments - the Doctor's line “It's amazing - this thing's smaller than it is on the outside,” when he enters Concorde, also the Master's comment about the TARDIS in Part Three: “So typical of the Doctor's predilection for the third rate”. The reference to previous stories is great and another sign of things to come. The scenes with Nyssa and Tegan being threatened by apparitions of previous foes (Melkur and the Terileptil) and friends (Adric) as they approach the centre of the citadel provides a neat moment of recognition. Also, the precursory scene reflecting on Adric's death in the previous serial is dealt with subtly rather than overhanging the whole story. The Doctor's defeatist attitude at the end of Episode Three where he pronounces that “It means the Master has finally defeated me” not only provides a suitably worrying cliff-hanger, but also indicates the Doctor's sense of despair at losing Adric. The Captain is also wonderful, representing a rare example of the temporary human companion who does more than walk around acting as a dumbfounded foil to the Doctor - his bemusement at the end of the story as the airport controller confronts the Doctor asking for an explanation is great, as is the season ending cliff-hanger with Tegan being left behind.

This story suffers from the series-ending syndrome of biting off more than it can chew, combining grand plans with a distinctly un-grand budget. The plot is not hole-proof by any means, and production-wise the story is not in the top echelon. However, I believe that the ambitious hopes of the story create enough interest to legitimise the story. Perhaps, however, I have still not removed the rosy spectacles of nostalgia. At least the story goes beyond Professor Hayter's plea apparently to all Doctor Who writers; “Oh Doctor, on top of everything else, not little green men from outer space”!

#4 : The Underwater Menace

This item appeared in TSV 56 (October 1998).

Index nodes: Time-Flight