Review [DW]: “Timelash”

22×5. Timelash
Writer: Glen McCoy
Director: Pennant Roberts
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor and Peri are drawn to the planet Karfel through a time anomaly, where the reclusive Borad rules as a dictator through a subservient “Maylin” and plans to depopulate the world by provoking a war with a species known as the Bandrils.

Review: You know that a Doctor Who serial has a bad reputation when an online commenter suggests – as one recently did regarding “Timelash” – forcing British politicians to watch it on a loop until they come up with a solution for Brexit. While I’m not sure if even that would manage to break the Brexit impasse, I’m obliged to report that, yes, “Timelash” is a pretty poor effort. In terms of worldbuilding, there is no context supplied for how the Borad came to power, why the population is so subservient to his dictates, or the history between Karfel and the Bandrils. The characters are a similarly thinly drawn bunch: Maylin Tekker (played by Paul Darrow of Blakes 7 fame) is just a run-of-the-mill sadistic autocrat whose about-face when he learns of the Borad’s real plans does not register as anything but writer fiat, the rebels are stock caricatures, and the involvement of a young H.G. Wells feels like the script trying too hard to to be clever. The serial’s conclusion is especially weak: first the Doctor appears to sacrifice himself by materializing the TARDIS in the path of an incoming missile, but survives through what he describes only as a “neat trick” that he promises to explain to Peri later, and then the apparently dead Borad is revealed to have cloned himself and tries to abduct Peri, at which point the Doctor literally resorts to taunting him about his physical appearance. There just isn’t much here that functions at any but the most superficial and perfunctory level, and in the context of an already mediocre season, “Timelash” is a misstep that the program really couldn’t afford at the time.

Rating: *1/2 (out of four)

Review: [DW] “The Two Doctors”

22×4. The Two Doctors
Writer: Robert Holmes
Director: Peter Moffatt
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Second Doctor and Jamie travel at the Time Lords’ behest to the scientific research station Camera, where the corrupt scientist Dastari, the augmented androgum Chessene, and the murderous Shockeye are collaborating with Sontarans to unlock the secrets of time travel technology. The Second Doctor is kidnapped and brought to Seville, with his Sixth incarnation and Peri, having rescued Jamie from Camera, in pursuit, while Chessene and Dastari prepare to harvest the symbiotic nuclei from the Second Doctor that make time travel possible.

Review: Unlike in the first two multi-Doctor serials, the Second and Sixth incarnations encounter each other mostly by chance rather than because someone is purposely trying to bring them together (as did the Time Lords in “The Three Doctors” and Borusa in “The Five Doctors”). I’d like to praise the script for finding a new way to involve more than one Doctor in the same story, but unfortunately it doesn’t hold up as a whole.

The Sixth Doctor is drawn into the story because he senses telepathically that the Second Doctor has been executed, passing out in the TARDIS and then heading to Camera to consult Dastari for medical advice. At first, it seems that perhaps a time paradox is in play as a result of the time travel experiments on board Camera, and that the logical contradiction of the Doctor being alive despite a previous incarnation’s death represents the beginning of the universe’s unraveling. Unfortunately, the script does not continue down this path (though I’ll admit I have no idea how it could have done that and still gotten back to business-as-usual by the end), instead explaining that the Second Doctor was just stunned and kidnapped and relying on a series of contrivances to move the narrative along. For example, is the Second Doctor being stunned really enough to make the Sixth Doctor think that he’s been killed and then pass out in the TARDIS? Isn’t it a little too convenient that he happens to go seeking medical advice from the same scientist that the Second Doctor was visiting when all this started? Is there any point to making Jamie so panicked and disoriented that he literally acts like a growling monster and assaults Peri, other than that the first episode needed a cliffhanger? And finally, since when does the Second Doctor run errands for the Time Lords? When he sent for them in “The War Games,” I got the distinct impression that he’d been entirely out of contact with them since the beginning of the series.

The behavior of the villains also doesn’t withstand much scrutiny. DastariĀ  passes out when the Sontaran attack begins, apparently because Shockeye had drugged all the scientists’ food in order to subdue them – but why drug Dastari if he’s in on the plot with Chessene and Shockeye all along? At first I actually thought he might have changed sides off-screen, perhaps after awakening to find Chessene and Shockeye in control, and I’m still wondering if that might be the case, given that he does have an off-screen about-face near the end when he seems to have reconciled with the Second Doctor by the time Chessene returns to the hacienda basement. Chessene also has an abrupt change of mind when she gives up on the plan to harvest the symbiotic nuclei from the Second Doctor, instead resolving to turn him into an Androgum. Why? Apparently because the Time Lords may intervene before the harvesting operation can be completed, but are we supposed to believe that changing someone into a different species is somehow quick and efficient by comparison? This strikes me as a case of what at least one Star Trek reviewer derisively described as “Fun with DNA,” and it’s no more plausible here than the time that most of the Enterprise crew turned into deranged animals and Picard and Data managed to “cure” them with some technobabble.

All this comes across, meanwhile, with a distinctly cynical and pessimistic tone, though the relatively small cast does at least preclude a bloodbath along the lines of, say, “Resurrection of the Daleks” or “Attack of the Cybermen.” Another contrivance brings most of the characters to the restaurant run by Oscar and Anita, the couple who initially put the TARDIS crew onto the villains’ trail, leading to a bad-tempered Shockeye assaulting Oscar, who then dies while lamenting the Hamlet performance that he’ll never give – in a scene that nearly becomes farcical for how the other patrons just go on with their meals as if they hadn’t just witnessed a murder. The Sixth Doctor brutally kills Shockeye with cyanide at the end, delivering a mean-spirited quip over his dead body, and both Doctors seem to embrace a sort of biological determinism in the way they talk about Androgums, discounting the idea that any member of the species could rise above their baser urges. This also undercuts the script’s apparent support for vegetarianism (something I’d like to get behind, as a vegetarian myself) – the only one who’s consistent in showing concern for animal suffering is Peri, and the Doctor doesn’t seem to be learning much of a “lesson” given his attitude to Androgums and his sarcastic humor about Shockeye’s death.

(On a related note, I think I’ve officially reached the point of finding the bickering between the Sixth Doctor and Peri annoying, even though I agreed with her distaste for the Doctor’s fishing expedition at the start. At times, it feels like the script is reaching for any possible reason for them to disagree, and not for the first time, I found myself questioning why she stays with him. As far as I can tell, “The Two Doctors” is set in the present day once they get to Earth, so why doesn’t she just go home?)

There is nothing wrong with bleak or violent content per se in science fiction – as I mentioned before, I’m a Blakes 7 fan too, and I consider “The Caves of Androzani” a high point of Doctor Who. But I’m not so sure it’s a good idea to undermine the Doctor’s own moral probity, which is something we’ve seen more of than usual in the past two seasons. Part of what makes the Doctor such a unique character is his relative distance from the audience (and from his companions) – in fact, I’m not sure I can even talk about his “character development” in the way I would for, say, the Blakes 7 cast, because his mind sometimes seems to function on an entirely different level. Part of what keeps him likeable and relatable, then, is the idea that however alien he may be, he will stand up for the “good guys” and refrain from resorting to violence too quickly. Take that away, and Doctor Who becomes a different kind of show – perhaps a sci-fi canvass that mostly rises or falls with the concepts and guest characters of each individual story. But even if that’s the intent, “The Two Doctors” would have to count as a fall.

Rating: ** (out of four)

Review [DW]: “The Mark of the Rani”

22×3. The Mark of the Rani
Writers: Pip and Jane Baker
Director: Sarah Hellings
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: Seeking revenge against the Doctor, the Master hijacks the TARDIS to 19th-century England where the exiled Time Lady known as the Rani has been extracting brain fluid from humans, turning mine workers violent and threatening to inflame an already tense situation against the backdrop of the emerging Industrial Revolution.

Review: The main merits of “The Mark of the Rani” are the portrayals of its Time Lord characters and the historical setting. After the sometimes disturbing violence in the previous two installments, “The Mark of the Rani” finds the Doctor operating with a more familiar moral center, expressing outrage at the behavior of the Master and the Rani and resolving the situation without resorting to physical violence. The Master is sometimes slightly campy, but in a way that’s consistent with his character, while the more practical but equally ruthless Rani gets to poke fun at his Bond-villain-esque tendencies. The concept behind the plot is clever, with the Rani choosing a location and era where the violence exhibited by her victims would draw less suspicion, and the pseudoscience underlying her scheme is portrayed plausibly enough. I’m less comfortable with the sociopolitical implications, however – while the miners only turn violent under the influence of the Rani’s interference, their understandable concern for their jobs never receives a particularly deep examination, and I can’t help but wonder what the British miners who had been involved in the then-recent industrial disputes of the ’70s and ’80s would have thought of this (though the scripts were reportedly commissioned before the pivotal 1984-85 Miners’ Strike). I was also less than impressed with the way the serial ends. The Doctor corrals the Master and the Rani into the Rani’s TARDIS, which he has programmed to take them into exile outside the galaxy, only for them to find themselves menaced by an escaped baby dinosaur (of which the Rani has several in her control room for no reason that’s ever stated) that’s growing rapidly due to some temporal thingamajiggy. Meanwhile, in what’s easily the serial’s lowest moment, three men have run afoul of traps that the Rani placed in the woods and been transformed into trees – yes, trees – and nothing is ever said about trying to restore them to human form or even disarming the rest of the traps.

Rating: **1/2 (out of four)