Timelash, by Phil Pascoe (and Glen McCoy)

Before I start – Colin Baker is here at Gallifrey One this weekend, and looking well – last time I saw him was in Brussels in 2020 and he seemed a bit frail, but it looks like the last few years have been good to him.

I remember catching the second episode of Timelash, but not the first, when it was first broadcast in 1985, the month before my 18th birthday. My main memory is that it was pretty obvious who Herbert was meant to be, and otherwise it did not make a lot of sense.

When I rewatched it in 2008, I was apocalyptic:

Timelash comes very close to The Twin Dilemma as being the worst Who story ever. Paul Darrow is just awful. Really awful. The glove-puppet aliens are just awful. Really awful. The pointless continuity with an unbroadcast Third Doctor story is just pointless. The inclusion of HG Wells is just stupid. The climbing wall scene is especially unconvincing. And what happens to all the people exiled to the twelfth century? Are they just left there? The only saving grace is that Colin Baker’s Doctor is a little less annoying here than elsewhere. But that is not saying much.

When I came back to it a couple of years later for my Great Rewatch, I was more forgiving:

One of the things I didn’t like about Timelash was the same essentialism [as with the aliens in The Two Doctors] – the Borad being evil at least in part because he looks evil. Another is the fact that the time travel part of the plot is rather botched (I am a fan of the twelfth century and would have liked to see some action there). But actually the story as a whole, and Paul Darrow, annoyed me much less on this viewing. Most of the plot makes sense, and is in keeping with the spirit of Who. While the production values are rather poor, everyone does seem to be aware of this and carries on as best they can in the circumstances. And having had almost 19 years with no real historical figures portrayed as a speaking role, now, with H.G. Wells, we have two in the same season. But I think he is the last in Old Who. (The Queen and Courtney Pine in Silver Nemesis don’t count, as neither speaks and the latter is not portrayed by an actor but by himself.)

I have to confess that this time around, I swung back to my earlier opinion. I found the script so annoying, the momsters so amateurish and the treatment of Peri so offensive that I was rather distracted from the actual plot. It is certainly in my bottom ten Old Who stories, maybe in my bottom three. I can only really recommend it to completists and to fans of Paul Darrow. 

Pennant Roberts directed some very good Blake’s 7 episodes, and also The Face of Evil and several other Who stories. But somehow the magic did not work here; a number of scenes seem very under-rehearsed, and the lead actors don’t seem to be under control. Clearly a lot of energy and money had been used up in earlier stories in the season, and in the pantomime which JNT was also directing Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant.

Author Glen McCoy, who at the time was working as an ambulance driver, had never written for television before, and has since developed a career as a motivational speaker. Incidentally he was the first person of colour to write a Doctor Who script – he describes himself to me as Anglo-Indian. (The first non-white director was Waris Hussein, way back at the start.)

The second paragraph of the third chapter of the novelisation is:

Peri was more than delighted, and left her position by the central console, assuming the problem had been solved. Yet her approach received an unfriendly glare from the Time Lord. Peri stopped in her tracks. ‘It is okay now, isn’t it?’

When I first read I it in 2008, I wrote:

It’s not a fantastic book, but it is at least at the level of quality of the average Who novelisation, unlike the original series; it makes you realise just how much the TV original suffered from a) Paul Darrow’s overacting as Tekker and b) the pathetic hand-puppet monsters. One of those cases where the reader’s imagination is better at supplying the effects.

As I already said, this time around I was so annoyed by the TV story’s flaws that I rather forgot that there was a plot when watching it, and reading the novelisation was a useful reminder that there was some purpose to all the running around. Some (but not all) of the sillier lines are cut. A surprising amount of the action is reported indirectly rather than in dialogue.

Given that McCoy wrote the book as well as the series, this is the first Doctor Who novel by a non-white writer. You can get it here.

Phil Pascoe reveals at the end of his Black Archive monograph that he actually loves this story, and it is intimately tied to very pleasant very personal childhood memories. It’s not the first Black Archive about a story which the writer loves but fandom generally doesn’t, so it’s always interesting to see what approach is taken. As he explains in the first chapter, “The Waves of Time”, Pascoe has decided to look at the story through the lens of H.G. Wells, and the extent to which he “haunts” the text. As I have myself been working through Wells’ novels (next up: The World Set Free), I found it an interesting approach.

The second chapter, “Working for the Benefit of All Karfelons”, looks at the economic set-up of the planet Karfel and applies a Wellsian critique to it.

The third chapter, “Don’t I Have a Say in All This?”, looks at just how badly Peri is treated in the story nd links that rather weakly to H.G. Wells’ feminism in theory and practice. The second paragraph of this chapter is:

I want to emphasise that I do not believe that anyone involved in making the story deliberately and maliciously set out to make a work which discriminates against women. However, there is much in Timelash that, to 21st-century audiences, would appear sexist. Does our unhaunting of the text require this Black Archive to become an apologia, or are some of the more egregious aspects of the story beyond reasonable defence? We encounter the problem, in reconsidering a piece of popular culture from decades past, of it no longer meeting today’s standards or expectations. Timelash can also be haunted from its future, our present, distorting the picture of how the story did what it did in its historical moment of 1985.

The fourth chapter, “Can’t You Speak, Dumbbell?”, looks at voices: interruptions, Paul Darrow’s performance, the Old Man as ventriloquist’s dummy, and the number of times people speak out of shot (to which I would have added the novelisation’s frequent use of reported speech).

The fifth chapter, “Science… Fiction” looks for Wells’ direct influence on Doctor Who and finds some, though not especially in Timelash.

The sixth chapter, “Food Which is Rightfully Ours”, looks at human meat in Who and Wells, and veganism and vegetarianism in Doctor Who.

The seventh chapter, “I Didn’t Realise Dying Heroically Was Such a Strain on the Nerves”, looks at two scenes near the end (in the Tardis console room) written by Eric Saward because the original script under-ran, suggesting that they subtly critique the entire story.

The eighth chapter, “Strange How You Can Forget What You Used to Look Like”, looks at the furniture, asks what the title actually means, and then leads into the ninth chapter, “Wish I Could Have That on Tape”, which attempts to reconstruct the Third Doctor’s adventure on Karfel.

The tenth chapter, “…Wash Us All Clean”, disarmingly admits the writer’s fond childhood memories of the story, separated from fan criticism.

The whole thing is interesting, though not all of the interesting parts are about Timelash. Perhaps that is just as well. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56)