Review [Doctor Who]: “Time-Flight”

19×7. Time-Flight
Writer: Peter Grimwade
Director: Ron Jones
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The TARDIS diverts to Heathrow Airport after encountering a spacetime anomaly, discovering that the Master has kidnapped the crew and passengers of a Concorde back to prehistoric Earth, where he is attempting to use the nucleus of an alien race known as the Xeraphim to power his TARDIS.

Review: I’ve long contended that fantasy and science fiction narratives usually need a set of rules. Since such narratives operate outside the boundaries of the real world, we need to have some sense of what exactly can and can’t happen if we’re meant to understand what’s at stake and feel invested in the characters’ choices. The biggest problem with “Time-Flight” is that it doesn’t have a clear set of rules, just a set of vague concepts about the Master’s TARDIS and the unruly collective consciousness of the Xeraphim. Once we arrive in the prehistoric Earth setting, the dialogue becomes bogged down in discussions of telepathic manifestations, quantum whatchamacallits, and temporal thingamajiggies while characters appear, disappear, and generally jump through random hoops.

Plot contrivances can be tolerable if at the service of some interesting character development or subtext, but characterization is fairly weak here as well. At one point I thought that we were getting glimpses of the fallible Doctor that has sometimes surfaced since Davison took on the role, in that he’s unable to keep Professor Hayter from being absorbed by the Xeraphim and later seems to have given up on freeing the Xeraphim. In fact he has a trick up his sleeve that involves somehow “intercepting” the Master’s TARDIS and sending it to the Xeraphim’s home planet where the Xeraphim might conceivably escape, but this is all accomplished through more of the borderline-incomprehensible pseudoscience. Later, Tegan is left behind at Heathrow in a scene so perfunctory that I honestly wasn’t sure what to make of it. Does the Doctor think she’s decided on her own to stay? Is he just avoiding the airport authorities and planning to come back for her later? I’m not sure, and certainly the departure of a companion deserves a better explanation than what we get here. As for the rest of the characters, only Captain Stapley and his crew made much of an impression – they’re able to wrap their minds around what’s happening and improvise ways to disrupt the Master’s plans. Professor Hayter rarely strikes a note other than aloof arrogance, and the Master himself spends the first two episodes in disguise as some sort of sorcerer and then abruptly drops the act, with no real reason supplied for why he gave up on it or why he was doing it in the first place.

“Time Flight” is not entirely without its merits. It does address the crew’s lingering grief over Adric’s death, with the Doctor insisting that he will not use time travel to undo what has happened even as he joins Tegan and Nyssa in mourning their lost companion. And the first episode carries some nostalgic value in showing the Doctor working with the British authorities to solve a problem, even invoking his UNIT credentials to get himself out of trouble. Arguably the most interesting as a concept is the Xeraphim’s collective intelligence, which isn’t actually their natural state but rather the form in which they were forced to preserve themselves. It is possible for individual personalities to emerge from the collective, and at the same time, the Master is able to disrupt the balance between Xeraphim of different moral orientations. Unfortunately, this is only briefly explored, and in general the script is more occupied with arbitrary plot machinations than with characters, ideas, or even any effective suspense.

Rating: ** (out of four)

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