Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Time Monster

Chapter The 54th, it's once, twice, three times Atlantis.

The Master disguises himself as a scientist and spends months hiding in the home counties working on government-funded research into the important work of sending cups from one room to another without touching them. This is project TOMTIT, as in 'what the tom-tit would you want to do that for?!' No, I'm joshing, it really stands for Transmission of Matter Through Inter, er, something. Oh dear, I seem to have got bored before the end of the acronym. Anyway, The Master's really using the experiments to power a crystal from ancient Atlantis to summon an all-powerful being that eats time, a Chronovore, because loony. This causes all sorts of temporal leakage, meaning people age decades in seconds, or get regressed to babies, or window-cleaners fall off their ladders in slow motion. Nasty. This activity in turn alerts the Doctor and he arrives with Jo; UNIT troops follow on in force with anti-tank guns, for all the good that'll do. The Master travels to Atlantis, in search of a larger version of the crystal, and the Doctor and Jo pursue. After some intrigue in the Atlantean aristocracy, a fight with a Minotaur, and an interminable moment of charm from the Doctor banging on about an old hermit he knew on Gallifrey, the Chronovore is released. The Doctor pleads for clemency, so it stops short of punishing the Master, and it nicks off. As does the Master.

Every so often a story comes along which causes the blog to grind to a bit of a halt. Looking back at  the past two years of blogging (the anniversary was a couple of days ago!) there are purple patches where I'm rattling off stories at a rate of one a week, and then a long gap before,for example, The Armageddon Factor struggles into the light. This isn't writer's block, it's rarely being busy with other important life events, it's mainly because, as in this particular instance,  it takes so long to watch the thing. I don't think I've watched The Time Monster with the family before. Maybe my eldest (boy of 10) might have been old enough when it was last released to buy, seven years ago, but his siblings (boy of 7, girl of 5) were not, and I can't see what circumstances would have arisen for me to suggest it for a viewing since. Despite this, nobody was interested in sitting down with me this time, even though they'd heard nothing but the title, which should sound quite exciting to their ears, I'd have thought. The story seems to give off a bad smell somehow. [Or maybe it's the curse of the word 'time' in a Doctor Who story title - see Deeper Thoughts section below.] The upshot was I had to find 25 minutes here and there when everyone was abed or out, and watch it on my own. This took a couple of weeks, all told.

First-time round:
After the giddy rush of the early years of Doctor Who on VHS in the late 1980s - when releases were rare, the date of the next one a complete mystery, and you never knew what shop a tape would turn up in next - there followed a few solid years of collecting in the 1990s. The range had established itself, you could reliably find the tapes on the day of release in lots of stockists, and a regular two stories every two months were made available. This was a great time for many old sci-fi titles. Volume One in Worthing in those days had an entire wall of tapes including Doctor Who, Red Dwarf, Blake's 7... Star Cops, Doomwatch, Moonbase 3, Survivors. We'd never had it so good. In 1996, the range was paused to clear the shelves for the Paul McGann TV Movie's release, and - we maybe dared to hope - all the regular releases of Paul's new stories thereafter when the show got picked up. But that was not to be.

Instead, there was a big relaunch of classic titles in 1997. There was now a slight issue, however: the plenitude of those boom years had left not much of Doctor Who's archives left to plunder. For the remainder of the range, which was eked out another 7 years by the application of a drastically reduced release rate, there were reissues, a few problem stories (with missing episodes or missing colour) and, well, quite a lot of the dross. By the turn of the millennium, the DVD range had got going in parallel, and I was buying the old titles - the better ones - again, with restored picture and extras. Meanwhile, the VHS range was jumping through hoops of desperation packaging up two infamous 6-episode Pertwee bore-fests, Colony in Space and The Time Monster, in deluxe packaging as the 'Master Tin', just in time for Christmas 2001. I watched all 12 episodes, probably alone in my flat in Brighton as I doubt I would have persuaded anyone to watch with me, and afterwards promptly forgot all about it. I'd love to say that I at least use the tin for something useful, but it's in a cupboard with a few other Doctor Who tins, gathering dust. I bought The Time Monster again on DVD in 2010 with restored picture and extras; I will never learn.

There are many kinds of sequels; most commonly, a sequel continues the story of the first in some way (as in Broadchurch series 2), some create a wholly new story for the same protagonists (as in Broadchurch series 3); occasionally, one gets a sequel that just takes the rough story beats of the primary source, and repeats them in a new context: arguably, The Force Awakens does this with the story of the original 1977 Star Wars movie, and Prometheus and Alien Covenant are to a certain extent remixes of the first couple of Alien films. The Time Monster is such a retread, taking the overall shape of The Daemons, which everyone was very pleased with from the year before, and presenting it again, like reheated leftovers.

Instead of Azal the Daemon, there's Chronos the Chronovore; instead of a heat barrier, there's a time field; the start of both stories sees the Doctor and Jo racing to stop an event (opening a barrow, running an experiment) about which the Doctor has had a unexplained doomy premonition at the top of the episode, but arriving just too late as terrible forces are unleashed and the credits roll. Even little moments recur, such as finding an object that's so heavy it feels like it's been fixed down, and countless other echoes. Also, Atlantis is mentioned in both. It's the third and final explanation given - so far - for the destruction of Atlantis in the series (the very first is in The Underwater Menace, and coincidentally all of three stories have now been covered now for the blog). Doubtless nobody knew or cared about contradicting continuity from The Underwater Menace, but contradicting something from a script only twelve months old, and written by the same people, is a bit different; the topic seems to have been a minor obsession of Barry Letts (producer and uncredited co-writer) at the time, which might have made him forget about its previous use. If only Barry and co-writer Robert Sloman hadn't also forgotten to include empathetic characters, or any kind of plot at all.

The Daemons is the root of the trouble; it has been somewhat overrated, particularly by everyone involved in its making, who clearly had (too much of a?) good time in so doing. The Time Monster script picks up on the regular cast's comic dislocation from usual context, but ends up forcing it: Benton in civvies or watching the rugby is okay, Benton in the nude is not funny; the Brigadier shooting five rounds rapid at a gargoyle is stupid but memorable; the Brigadier talking about consulting the entrails of a sheep, is just stupid. As such, it loses any of the charm of its predecessor, and magnifies its flaws. As I waded through the first four episodes, I started to think I was going through the different stages of grief: denial - it must be better than I remember - was followed by anger, sometime around when the Master's mesmerised institute manager sidekick dies and the script doesn't think to mention it, and the director doesn't aim the camera at it. I realised that the guy, dead or living, hadn't actually contributed anything to the story apart from padding, and neither had the MP and civil servant characters, and neither had Ruth and Stu, the Master' technical team. It sort of looks like they should, when Stu becomes an old man, and Ruth's a bit sad. But then that's reversed, and has no impact on the story again. In fact, in the first four episodes, only one character - the Master - actually does anything of any significance. Everyone else is bereft of agency. And they're all a bit smug.

I had started on the third stage of grief, bargaining - maybe I could just skip the final two episodes - when an unexpected thing happened: the story improved (fractionally). I double-checked, and it definitely wasn't depression or acceptance affecting my judgement. Don't get me wrong, it's not perfect: the dialogue is the worst kind of declamatory cod-Shakespearean guff, and Ingrid Pitt delivers all her lines like Jean-Claude Van Damme on Mogadon. But the Master recast as seducer is something new, and Delgado plays it perfectly. Various points in the last two episodes come close to actually being dramatic: Galleia's outgrowing the King, but still being loyal to him; her spurning and using of her former sweetheart, from when she was a commoner not a queen, and his death, actually have meaning. Yes, the Minotaur is the Green Cross Code man in a silly fake head, and yes Hippias wears more eyeliner than Siouxsie Sioux. But I cared, just a bit. Then everything gets exploded, and there's a coda riffing on themes from the Daemons again: a being with godlike powers is featured (didn't Terrance Dicks always complain that beings with godlike powers were powerfully undramatic? He should have had a word with his boss); this being can't understand human behaviour, and a self-sacrifice from Jo Grant saves the day.

Delgado is excellent, but then he always is.  And, although a misfire, this story is a stepping stone: as part of Letts and Sloman's gradual shaping of what the Doctor Who season finale template should be, it prompted work that's been taken forward in the 21st century and is still ongoing today. Their next attempt, The Green Death, learns from all these mistakes and manages to be much better, and better remembered, than even The Daemons.

The main set-up for both stories is slightly unusual compared to the majority of Doctor Who in that the cast are temporarily based on Earth within an institution (university, army base) with only occasional forays into time and space, this being one of their mainly Earth bound adventures, but which does include a hop in the TARDIS partway through the running time.

Deeper Thoughts:
It's about the word 'Time'. One of the unwritten rules of Doctor Who fandom is that you should never trust any story with 'Time' in the title. It's always thought a reliable sign that the story will be a duffer. From memory, with my viewing of The Time Monster still fresh as a wound, I'd go along with the theory. But to be objective, I dug out the results of the official magazine's last survey of every Doctor Who story, from 2014, to examine this phenomenon further. This poll covered the first 50 years of the series, and listed 241 stories from most popular to least. There aren't many stories in the list with the word 'time' in the title; taking just the classic series, there are but eight, and you can't argue with the psephological significance that three, three, of that total are in the bottom five stories of the 2014 poll: Time-Flight, Timelash, and Time and the Rani. The Time Monster doesn't fare much better, teetering atop the bottom 20. The other half of the 20th century stories, along with five from the new series, take up odd spots in the lower-to-middle range, with not a single one troubling the top 50.

Generally, the new series 'time' titles fare better in the popularity stakes, but stories like The End of Time, Last of the Time Lords, and even Closing Time, have proved contentious based on anecdotal internet discussion to which I've been witness. So, why should this be? It's not to do with subject matter. True, getting too wrapped up in the mechanics of time travel is rarely as interesting as not getting too wrapped up in the mechanics of time travel; as someone wise once said, "Kids want Narnia not the wardrobe". That person was Steven Moffat, who since making that pronouncement has been responsible for more timey-wimey scripts than anybody else. But to give him his due, he does it very well, and perhaps the epitome of this style, Blink, is at number 2 in the same poll. If he'd called it 'Time not to Blink' would it have been lower? Anyway, a story like Time and The Rani is barely timey-wimey at all. Maybe putting the word 'Time' in the title might hint towards an overly portentous tone, and that might grate, but it's not something you could level at all thirteen stories. Perhaps the word is just cursed. Take as an example two stories made one after the other with the same lead actor and production team, and only one word different: The Day of the Doctor (at number 1 position), and The Time of the Doctor (dropping right down to number 95).

Since the poll, there's only been one new example, Time Heist, which hardly set the world alight. There's another soon to come, though: the first part of this year's season finale is called "World Enough and Time". Definitely portentous, and a high-falutin' literary reference to boot. Are we worried yet? It will be interesting to see how it lands. Screw the Radio Times, though, maybe it's not too late to change it. But to what? Is there an inverse example, a word that can be added to any title that would ensure its success? In the top ten of the 2014 poll, 'Daleks' is the only significant repetition. In the top 11, 'Death' appears twice. Clearly, Death to the Daleks would have to be a world beater, wouldn't it? Let's check... no, it's languishing at number 148. Bang goes that theory. 

In Summary:
Like the wine bottle experiment the Doctor assembles in episode 3, The Time Monster is silly, ugly, nonsensical, and falls apart at the slightest touch. Avoid.

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