Thursday, July 11, 2013

Telling Conventional Fan Wisdom™ Where To Stick It

Librarian in the TARDIS, Review 6.01

Title: Timelash
Written by: Glen McCoy
Team TARDIS: Sixth Doctor, Peri Brown
Adversary: The Borad, Maylin Tekker
Originally Aired: March 9 and 16, 1985
Number of Episodes: 2 (45 minutes each)

Synopsis (from TARDIS Wikia) -
On the planet Karfel and in 1885 Scotland, the Sixth Doctor and Peri, together with a young man named Herbert, become entangled with the machinations of the despotic Borad.

My Review:
At the beginning of this blogging project, I noted that I wanted to review stories not necessarily based on what Conventional Fan Wisdom™ tells us is good. As much as I love things like “The Aztecs” and “Earthshock” and “Remembrance of the Daleks” - those reviews have been done to death and I felt it was time to show some love to other stories in the Doctor Who family. I also wanted to dispense with Conventional Fan Wisdom™ in reviewing things that fandom tells us are horrible, terrible, utter shit and Simply Not Worth Your Time (the red-headed stepchildren of Whodom, if you will).

When I first embarked on my voyage through Classic Who, I tried to stay away from fan opinion for the simple fact that I wanted to go into it the way I went into New Series - untainted by outside opinion and able to form my own reactions and thoughts to each story in turn (this is why I was so surprised when Conventional Fan Wisdom™ told me to hate the “Daleks in Manhattan” two-parter when I actually loved it - it was also my first indication that Conventional Fan Wisdom™ was not all it was cracked up to be). But I also wanted to get into fandom and carve out my own little corner and stake out a presence and be known on some small level. It was a hard balance to strike, lemme tell you.

I couldn’t get away from the disparaging comments and snide remarks about the Sixth Doctor’s era. I quickly learned about the behind-the-scenes woes and turmoil with hiatuses and complaints (to my great shame, the very first thing I learned about Colin Baker was that he was the first actor to actually be fired from the role of the Doctor - something I now know was patently unfair and Michael Grade is a big, fat, sissy, nincompoop - excuse me my potty language). Among these disparaging opinions was the Conventional Fan Wisdom™ that “Timelash” was The Absolute Worst Doctor Who story ever committed to screen (though there were some diverging opinions that distinction actually belonged to “The Twin Dilemma” or “Silver Nemesis” - that Mighty 200 poll did more harm than good, if you ask me). I approached all three of these stories with much trepidation. Didn’t help that I had recently bawled my eyes out at the end of “The Caves of Androzani” with the death of the Fifth Doctor and I wasn’t sure if I was going to take too kindly to Peter Davison’s successor, simply on principle.

(I’d like to just take a moment and reflect on how I was sore about something that happened almost thirty years ago and is now a long-gone memory in the annals of television, but I was reacting strongly to it in 2011. That’s what this show does to you. Plus, I’m an emotional twerp. Hell, I cried at the end of “The Chase” - but those were happy tears. That’s another story - remind me to tell you about it later).

Well - chalk it up to another tick in the “Conventional Fan Wisdom™ SUCKS!” column because “Timelash” is not as eye-blindingly bad as “everyone” (quote,unquote) seems to think.  In fact, it's one that I rather enjoy.  And it also lends to the idea that some people are merely “fans” in that they like to have a platform to bash incessantly on the show (or they like to bash incessantly on anything.  Fandom, sometimes I just don't get you).

Something I've noticed about the Colin Baker era of Doctor Who is the amount of dystopian stories there are.  This may come down to percentages simply because there are a lot fewer of ol' Sixie's televised stories out there, but there is a distinct 1984/The Giver/The Hunger Games feel to much of his run.  Between "Timelash" and "Vengeance on Varos," there is plenty of Crapsack World to go around (don't click that link if you value your free time).  And I'm not sure that Doctor Who had done a whole lot of that up to this point.  Personally, I enjoy a good dystopia story (I have The Giver listed on my personal "List of Greatest Books Written In All of Our Lifetimes And Beyond," if that tells you anything...) and I am intrigued to see how far they could have taken this theme in the Sixth Doctor's era, had it been allowed to continue.

But it's not all Doom and Gloom in Karfel.  Part of it is the Doctor's brightly colored coat - which, for all the assertions that it was meant as a commentary on how his regeneration went wonky and he wasn't right in the head, I actually think it's a mark of his colorful and outgoing personality.  The Sixth Doctor wants you to know that he's there, that he's not going to disappear into the background without a fight and you are going to take notice of him, regardless of the shit you try to pull (the BBC - and fandom, really - could have taken note of that).  That's one thing that I find so fun about Six - and I didn't expect to.  The Sixth Doctor is one that took me completely by surprise how much I enjoy his portrayal.  Not enough to unseat Five as my Doctor, but enough for me to create an "I Love the Eighties" tag on my Tumblr (I already had "I Love the Sixties" - but I'm not sure if the Seventies are going to get that distinction).

What was I saying - oh yes - Doom and Gloom in Karfel.  Well, we establish early-on that the ruling class on Karfel are a bunch of jerks and there's an underground resistance force that hasn't gotten very far with the whole "You Rebel Scum" act (the most they've been able to do is not get eaten by the Morlox).  The daughter of the pro-temp leader, Vena, has run off with the Maylin's Artifact of Great Power But Not So Much Responsbility and she's fallen into the deadly-dangerous Timelash.  Meanwhile, the Doctor and Peri are dealing with the TARDIS's inexplicable moods and they've indavertantly fallen into the time tunnel that makes up part of the Timelash. They run into Vena, land on Karfel, and get separated (as is tradition once the Doctor and his companion(s) join up with the adventure - already in progress).

And - due to the technology of the time tunnel - the Doctor ends up with one of his most charming one-off companions.  A shy-yet-adventurous young man named Herbert.  Herbert positively sparkles in this story.  And I so wanted him and Vena to get it together by the end of the story.  But when it's revealed that Herbert is actually H.G. Wells and he's got a story or two to write back on Earth... well, it's not meant to be (dammit).  But I do enjoy the Wellsian story aspects (even if I'm not as well-versed in H.G. Wells as I might ought to be - don't kill me!)

That's not to slag off Peri at all.  True, Peri doesn't come off quite that great in the second part of this story - but she has some brilliant moments in the the first episode.  Her interactions with the Doctor in the TARDIS are a delight - while they might bicker and carry on, she really does want to travel with the Doctor.  There is always an underlying friendship between these two.  There are more layers to the Six/Peri relationship than are immediate apparent.  Looking back, you can tell that they were going for the long game with these two and it's a shame that the BBC couldn't have more patience with what was going on (and here, we must shower Big Finish with all the praise and adoration for giving Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant more opportunity to explore these characters.  Hell, for the run they've given the Sixth Doctor, full-stop, they deserve a spot of honor in the annals of Doctor Who, forever and anon).

I know I talked in my last TV story review about how I didn't give a rat's left pinky toe about special effects as long as the storytelling holds up, and that remains true.  But when I see something I like, I do have to give props (no pun intended).  And I love the effect with the Timelash itself.  The fade-in/fade-out effect as people go in and out of the thing is just great.  Also, the atmospheric feeling the scene when the Doctor is climbing through the Timelash is so neat.  That is something that the writer's imagination can come up with perfectly, even if it gives the set designers and effects team headaches.  But for 1985, that wasn't half bad and I loved it!

Something else I loved about the story structure of "Timelash" is that we-the-audience get to see the action Karfel before the Doctor arrives.  It's like we time-traveled to the adventure before the Doctor did.  We know who the bad guys are and who the oppressed are and what kind of conditions they live on.  Plus, there's an added bonus (we later learn) that the Doctor has been to Karfel before and he is revered as a sort of hero among the people - even so far as they know (or accept) that he can change his appearance and he travels with companions.

Fun Fact: The story as televised says that it was the Third Doctor with Jo Grant that came to Karfel all those years ago - but the original script called for it to have been the First Doctor with Ian, Barbara and Susan. Hence, Tekker's surprise that the Doctor is only traveling with one companion. I couldn't figure that one out because I knew Three only ever had Jo or Sarah Jane when he actually got off-world.  But I suppose that the Third Doctor would have been more recognizable to audiences in 1985 because of VHS availability or reruns or what-have-you, so that's probably the reason for the script change (shame... I would have loved the original Team TARDIS to have gotten a shout-out.  But that's neither here nor there).

I've got to talk about Colin Baker and this is a good place to do it.  Like I said earlier, he is the only actor to have been fired from the role, but that is probably the most unfair thing to ever happen in television.  Because when you get right down to it, Doctor Who has few greater champions than dear Sawbones Hex (as he is known on Twitter - follow his Twitter feed, you will not be sorry).  For all the perception that the Sixth Doctor is brash and mean and unpleasant - there is a certain gleam beneath that rough exterior and that is due in no small part to how wonderfully Colin plays the part.  I'll get more into what's gone on with Big Finish in my next review, but that shine was there even in television and I'm really annoyed that people missed it the first time around (it's like when you hear that Firefly was canceled and you actually watch the show and you wonder how in the world those idiot TV executives and the media got away with the crap they pulled because the show is so good). If anybody has reason to be sore about Doctor Who, it's Colin Baker.  But the great thing is that he's not!  He goes to conventions and does interviews and DVD commentaries (and is so hilarious and lovable) and is just one of the most amazing people you could ever meet (haven't met him myself... yet. Gallifrey One, next February - YAY!) - and, most importantly, he has such a love for the show and it's good to see that hasn't dampened at all. So, yeah, can't say enough good things about Colin or his Doctor.  I think perception's softened up a great deal in years past and more people are giving his era a chance, which I think is wonderful.

In all, this is an enjoyable story.  Also, it goes to show that Conventional Fan Wisdom™ doesn't know what the hell it's talking about half the time.  So, all you Classic Who newbies out there - I'm going to give you this advice: Sample everything and find what you like.  Don't just follow the crowd with what's "good" and certainly don't listen to the crowd about what's "bad." Everyone's tastes run differently.  You may fall in love with the scarf - then again, you may fall in love with the celery or the amazing multicolored dreamcoat (or even something in black and white).  The very best thing about Doctor Who is that it's as wide and varied as the universe and it's not fair to limit ourselves just to what is publicly acclaimed.  If you do that, you will miss out on so many glorious treasures.  And you're only hurting yourself.

I have to throw some love toward Verity! for their Sixth Doctor retrospective last month. They mostly discussed "The Mark of the Rani," which is another favorite of mine, but they did have some good things to say about "Timelash," so I'm recommending that episode as a supplement to this review.  But, really, you should be listening to their discussions every week.

Next Time, on Librarian in the TARDIS -
Review 6.02 - If you start talking to yourself, you're not crazy. You're just a Time Lord.

Previously -
Review 5.03 - Why My Sister Let Me Sleep With the Light On

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