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Never Mind the Morlox

By Peter Adamson

The Bottom Ten No.3
DWM Score: 45.26%
DWM Placing: 157th

Celebrate! Timelash is no longer the worst ever Doctor Who story of all time. Timelash is now third worst. I of course disagree with this judgement, firstly on the grounds that anything from such a small and therefore precious era should be treated just as harshly as any cast-off from the vast and varied epoch of the Earlier Baker. It's fair I suppose, but I won't have it, because of my second reason: Timelash, I attest, is misunderstood.

Well, allow me to clarify. Timelash per se is not a bad story; it is simply not a good story. A good story merits the top ten, twenty, or at least the Top Fifty; usually because of a number of redeeming set pieces or performances, taut scripts or, failing that, half-remembered childhood affectations. Timelash has few of those at present because A) it comes from a season not largely known for its cleverness or inventiveness, and B) it isn't old enough to be remembered fondly. Unkind critics might say that Timelash would be greatly improved if it were lost forever; this may indeed be so, at least in the minds of its judges. As a wise man was heard to say upon numerous occasions, The Memory Cheats.

In a way Timelash has been lucky. Placed near the end of schedule, its traditionally starved budget actually aids the look of the story. Karfel is a drab and minimalist world, whose natives for the most part wear humble robes of earth tones and dwell in sterile corridors which “all look the same”. There is no pageantry in anything, with the exception of Vena, so heavily made up and richly dressed in flowing burgundy that she is set apart from her fellows, and well she might be. Also residing in this New Romantic nightmare are veiled Guardoliers, and blue-skinned Androids; remember that the script calls for very few (if any) shiny surfaces on the planet by the Borad's decree. All so far a budget art director's dream. If contrast is needed, look no further than the cluttered elegance of Herbert's cottage. Despite this constraint, Bob Cove's set design at last shows that there is more to Art Deco than the functional glitz of a Sandminer crew: with its sparsely adorned walls and straight lines the whole set up looks distinctly un-SF in the best BBC sense (the glitter is inside you see). Before it all turns into a Duran Duran video, however, the Doctor and Peri arrive - the former standing out amidst his dull surroundings as well as he did in The Mark of the Rani.

What's that you say? The Timelash is full of tinsel? Well I don't know - I mean it looks like tinsel, maybe it's just a coincidence? You disagree? Ah well. Time to move on.

Without a doubt Glen McCoy's greatest influence from H. G. Wells can be seen in the characters who populate his story.

“The fact is, the Time Traveller was one of those men who are too clever to be believed: you never felt that you saw all round him; you always suspected some subtle reserve, some ingenuity in ambush, behind his lucid frankness... Things that would have made the fame of a less clever man seemed tricks in his hands.”
- The Time Machine

What's good about Timelash of course is Colin Baker, proof that a dedicated working actor can do as he's told and just play the damned role with no histrionics and no tantrums (at least none offstage). We're given the mixed blessing of Eric Saward's TARDIS interior padding machine to compensate for nearly five minutes of Episode One, but in the time given Baker does himself proud, portraying a Doctor manic, aloof, and foppish. If you can be bothered to look past his Season Twenty-One debut, there's an intriguing anti-hero to be found, and while Timelash doesn't show him at his most passionate or his most complex, it certainly doesn't show him out of character. Unlike the supporting role Baker was often forced to play, particularly in Eric Saward's stories, Timelash allows the Doctor to be the Doctor - to go one-on-one with his enemies and mess around with gadgets (a particularly affecting image given this story's nod to the Pertwee era).

Peri on the other hand gets very little to do, which was, I admit, a poor move. Her victimisation at the hands of the Borad is more a matter of her filling an established role rather than adding something to the story. Luckily, Peri's loss is the story's gain, with its memorable surrogate companion Herbert.

“Looking round with a sudden thought... I realised that there were no small houses to be seen. Apparently the single house, and possibly even the household, had vanished. Here and there among the greenery were palace-like buildings, but the house and the cottage, which form such characteristic features of our own English landscape, had disappeared.
‘Communism,’ said I to myself.”
- The Time Machine

To some people one of the hardest aspects to deal with in Timelash has been that Herbert George Wells was a flesh and blood historic figure, just like Wyatt Earp, Albert Einstein and the dozens of other real people the Doctor claimed to have met. This awkward marriage between our world and the fictional Who universe has, I strongly suspect, been one of the most popular reasons for the story's rubbishing in the portrayal of David Chandler's Herbert. My solution to this of course has been to just accept it without reservation. There seems so little within the programme which suggests that Glen McCoy and Pennant Roberts were deliberately trying to create as close a version of the real author as possible, so why not just accept that Who's Herbert isn't ‘ours’? This should also satisfy those who see the character as somehow disrespectful to the man in suggesting his best works came from a rather shabby escapade on an entirely unconvincing planet. You could choose to get all worked up by this, but frankly, life's too short. Observe instead the rare double-act that Herbert and the Doctor embody, especially in the cottage in episode two (the comic potential when Herbert tries to attack a completely oblivious Doctor with a hefty book has been grossly overlooked). With all his chivalric and chauvinistic buffoonery, Herbert is a product of his own era, more a neat throwback to Harry Sullivan than the later Adric, and it's a shrewd and bold move to align a very real historic figure along this type of comic foil. As the story suggests (with tongue firmly in cheek) that the young H. G. Wells was influenced greatly by his brief adventure with the Doctor, we should be grateful that the worst we got was a calling card and a “science... fiction!” groaner. At least he had his notebook with him. If Timelash was supposed to be a story based entirely around the real H.G. Wells, the whole thing would be ludicrous, and even if done well and faithfully the whole point of having the Doctor as the hero would be threatened. If you really want a bad version of ‘H. G. Wells, time traveller’, check out Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman sometime. Otherwise begin by accepting Herbert as the Who universe's genuine article, and it's surprising how everything else follows in place. Like Vena for example.

“And then, looking more nearly into their features, I saw some further peculiarities in their Dresden-china type of prettiness... the eyes were large and mild; and - this may seem egotism on my part - I fancied even then that there was a certain lack of the interest I might have expected in them.”
- The Time Machine

“Save your breath for the Timelash, Doctor. Most people depart with a scream.”

Superficially, Jeananne Crowley's Vena is quite bizarre. Her acting is bland, her face set in one expression, yet she is perfect in providing Herbert with the ideal model of the Eloi ‘Weena’ of The Time Machine. Vena, set apart visually from the rest of Karfel by her appearance, is woefully inarticulate in her actions. Her major role is one of gliding remotely around corridors and the TARDIS interior; slow to act when surrounded by fallen Guardoliers or faced with a Timelash at critical mass, she is in a perpetual dream world. Her only act of boldness is the very one which sets the story in motion - as she leaps into the Timelash with the Borad's medallion, she inadvertently embroils the Doctor into the goings-on on Karfel. Well, at last it's an improvement on the usual materialise-and-split-up scenario. Having provided a means for the more entertaining Herbert to stow aboard the TARDIS, Vena resumes the role of a spectator and cipher, given such lines as “he's dangling on the edge of oblivion.” If you think that's bad, Wells' Weena doesn't even make it to the end of The Time Machine, simply disappearing (or being eaten by a Morlock) well before the hero makes his escape. The interplay, or lack thereof, between Herbert and other supporting characters is also interesting. Vena, very much a transplanted Victorian lady in demeanour and attire, is the clear object of his attention, but this appears to be at the expense of the barely seen Peri and the proletarian Katz. There's definitely something in that if you follow the Time Machine analogy.

“Each of these creatures, despite its human form, its rag of clothing, and the rough humanity of its bodily form, had woven into it, into its movements, into the expression of its countenance, into its whole presence, some now irresistible suggestion of a hog, a swinish taint, the unmistakable mark of the beast.”
- The Island of Doctor Moreau

The Borad is another interesting figure, because here we have the advantage of two versions of his history - the unseen previous adventure with the third Doctor, and his eventual transformation into a hybrid monster. What is interesting is that as Megalon the story's villain recalls the antihero of Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau more so than his latter incarnation. In fact, the eventual transformation of Megalon into Borad is perhaps more ironic than Wells' Moreau being slain by his own creatures. In Wells' novel the beast-men decline into savagery after the death of their master. In Timelash there is only one beast-man, and his descent into madness comes as a direct result of his own meddling, manifesting itself throughout the story at the expense of his people and allies. Hidden away in episode four there's a telling literary allusion missed by The Discontinuity Guide. As the Bandrils launch their deadly warhead the Doctor mutters “Pelion on Ossa”, recalling the Greek myth of two Titans who attempted to besiege Olympus by stacking the mountains Ossa and Pelion together as steps. They failed of course, defeated by the gods either by lightning bolt or killing one another while hunting an illusory stag, but the lesson is a clear Babel-esque warning of the folly of getting ideas above one's station. Retribution, whether divine or alien, is assured. This of course is lost on the Borad, whose needs are really only biological - he is motivated towards having a mate and being the only non-Morlox survivor on Karfel. Because the Morlox are unintelligent, the Borad's desires are entirely destructive and indeed self-destructive, perhaps the ultimate aspect of insanity.

Little has been said so far regarding Tekker, but he is an enjoyable character in his own right. You get the impression that Paul Darrow is actively goading his audience into booing and hissing his every entrance from his first, superciliously applauding the Maylin he would as soon betray at the drop of a hat. It's probably for the best that Darrow was refused the chance to play the role as Richard III, because Tekker is really more a low budget Octavius Caesar without the nobility. His prime function is to be set against his unseen master, lecherously intimidating Vena, to whom the Borad pays no heed, and climbing the hierarchical ladder by betraying fellow councillors to an increasingly paranoid Borad. His eventual realisation of the full extent of his master's madness is curious, suggesting that his late death is more a matter of expediency than artifice. On the other hand, Tekker is far more interesting than his fellow councillors - bad guys usually are, but the sheer lack of animation exhibited by the ruling elite simply has to be a hangover of the Time Machine/Eloi elements. The mind shudders at anything else! Set against them, the rebel group are almost as faceless, with only Katz and the Northern-accented Sezon providing any interest. One may well wonder whether these two represent a hope-filled future for Karfel, but at this stage Timelash is merely plot-by-numbers, and there's little room for speculation beyond the ending. As the Doctor and Peri slip away to return to the TARDIS, the imminently departing Herbert stands in a tight circle talking animatedly with Mykros and Vena; leaving Katz (bereft of an injured Sezon) standing outside looking on.

I strongly suspect that one of the worst things that happened to Timelash was Eric Saward's script-editing, and the story's subsequent novelisation may confirm this. Saward's inserted, obvious padding is the lazier option taken while some frankly embarrassing expository dialogue remains unchanged. This is made worse by the New Zealand and Australian edit, which splits the story into four episodes - the dramatic conclusion to Part One comprises the Doctor and Peri preparing to finally step outside the TARDIS. Miraculously, and despite this, there are some moments of real ingenuity enhanced by the new episodic format. Take the burning android at the rocks in Part Two - an impressive and alarming enough spectacle, but something which goes unexplained during the rush of the scene, only to be revealed (in a wonderful little scene between Katz and Sezon) later in Part Four as the result of a future melee. Intriguing - as is the trickery produced by the Doctor and his Kontron crystal. True, like most of the devices in Who it may as well be magic, but then the Doctor is a magician, and he's careful throughout not to reveal too much to Herbert about the workings of his tricks. And it is a trick, as the Borad rightly observes before he dies, having ignored the Doctor's warnings of the crystal's power: “you tricked me!” - “you tricked yourself” is the reply.

“The thing the Time Traveller held in his hand was a glittering metallic framework, scarcely larger than a small clock and very delicately made. There was ivory in it, and some transparent crystalline substance.”
- The Time Machine

To balance out this high-tech trickery, we have the practical and the banal, such as entering the Timelash itself using no more than a rope. No special Time Lord gifts or sonic screwdrivers, it opens up the seemingly fearful device of subjugation as nothing more than a box of crystals (or tinsel to you hardened realists out there). You can either love that sort of thing or loathe it - I know which I'd rather do - and besides, the rope idea is irresistibly Victorian, suggesting something more akin to Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth than Wells' fiction. Timelash is typical anti-Bidmead Who; it carries an element of romance regarding technology, but the Doctor uses it only where appropriate and in a dismissive way. We're never really sure what effect his seemingly suicidal blocking of the Bandrils' warhead will be, the Timelash can be entered with a rope, and the Borad's weapons all fail him in the end. Indeed, ultimately it is not his own machines or devices which bring about his downfall, but his own frailty and ego. A harmless mirror renders him vulnerable (much as it did to the Android), and he is dispatched with nothing more than a simple shove from Karfel to Bonny Scotland.

So what would I do to improve Timelash? Well, I'm sorry to say it, but less would be more in this instance. The Morlox could have less time on screen, or be used less, but the Bandril Ambassador is fine, and curiously fey, contrary to its appearance (I watched The Curse of Peladon just the other day - what is it about ambassadors and their voices?). The second ending is tacked on and frankly pointless - why clone yourself if you have plans to be the only one left? It's the biggest plot hole and simply isn't as effective or dramatic as the Borad's initial demise, but it does bring Peri back as a character, and at least shows the Borad completely for what he is - a fragile egomaniac. I have no problem with the Loch Ness explanation. Despite some very real oversights I'm not prepared to call out the lynch mob for Glen McCoy yet - who knows how his intended Dalek story might have turned out had he not had to deal with the one script editor intent on keeping the series' best monsters for himself? Timelash may not be the best thought-out or the best edited Who story, but it is a curiosity worth investigating, and I know I'd rather watch this odd, often baffling four parter than something as over-padded and time-consuming as The Sea Devils. Third worst story of all time? Let's run that poll again in a year's time and see if we can't do better.

#2 : The Space Pirates

This item appeared in TSV 56 (October 1998).

Index nodes: Timelash