On the way to Andromeda for a holiday, the TARDIS encounters a time tunnel. While trying unsuccessfully to navigate around it, the Doctor and Peri end up on the planet Karfel. This is not the Doctor’s first visit, however, and the locals seem pleased to see him again, especially since last time he and his companions saved their planet. But that was a long time ago, a few regenerations back, when Karfel was a different place. Now it is ruled by the despotic Borad, who makes pronouncements via video screen, and has the Maylin, the most senior member of the board of counselors, act as his enforcer. The people are constantly monitored by closed circuit cameras. Insurrection and rebellion are punishable by death, or exile in the Timelash, which casts the miscreant into time and space. This is the time tunnel that found the TARDIS, and as they passed through, the TARDIS crew was visited briefly by someone going the other way–the ghostly form of a woman with a talisman. It seems this woman grabbed the talisman from the Maylin before being thrown into the Timelash, and now the Maylin wants the Doctor to use his TARDIS to retrieve it. To ensure compliance, the Maylin has one of his people give Peri a tour of the facility, during which she is to be captured and held prisoner until the Doctor’s return. But the Borad is wary of the Doctor. He has already wiped Karfel’s history books of stories from his last visit, but his legend continues to be spread word-of-mouth. If the Borad has his way, this trip in the TARDIS to trace the talisman may well be the Doctor’s last…
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
Where to begin talking about “Timelash”? Regarded by many Whovians as not Who’s finest hour, and as much as I try to look for the positives, I have to agree. So maybe I should start with the positives. There are some, really. Trust me!
The first positive is the Borad. We don’t see him fully until later in the story, and when we do, he is a masterpiece of make-up. Part human, part Morlox, his face blending from one to the other in a fine piece of prosthetic craftsmanship. And the actor underneath, Robert Ashby, plays him so well, with a quiet, menacing demeanor, never shouting, but exuding power with every line.
Next, I’ll give a shout-out to Herbert. A delightful character, portrayed brilliantly by David Chandler. His enthusiasm, excitement, and trepidation are balanced well, especially considering who he is… which, if you haven’t figured it out by the end, is revealed by the Doctor in the closing scene. Morlox? Vena? Invisibility? Time Travel…? I like that end reveal, by the way. It was a nice touch, and I recall being both surprised and glad when I watched it first time around.
I also like the idea of the Doctor returning to a place he visited long ago, especially when that past adventure was one we haven’t seen, and involved a companion we haven’t met. It adds another layer of mystery and speculation, which is always good for the fans. The down-side of it here, as opposed to, say, in “The Face of Evil,” is that it really serves no plot purpose only to give the Doctor credibility and a reputation with the inhabitants.
Which brings us to the problems, of which there are myriad, and not one single person to blame for them. The writer, the producer, the script editor, the director, and the actors, and the designers all contributed to both the good and the bad. When it’s remarkably good (e.g., “Vengeance on Varos”), everyone can take a bow. When it’s remarkably bad, I’m afraid the shame-faces are shared too. Perhaps the biggest issue for me is the tone. It’s all too… panto, as in Pantomime, that great British tradition of campy, family-friendly, audience-participation theater. Some scenes avoid being over-played (e.g., the Borad’s chambers), but some are borderline ridiculous, like the fight scene at the beginning of episode 2, and, worst of all, the Borad’s finale when he gets pushed into the Timelash. I almost expected the cast to take a bow at the end!
It seems the show under-ran, so extra scenes were quickly written in, and it shows. The scene with the Doctor and Peri squabbling over where to go at the beginning is irritating. And the scene where the Doctor and Herbert argue over why Herbert shouldn’t be there is painful, almost as painful as the scene he played out with Peri just moments before having the same argument. The padding was so obvious, and inelegantly handled.
The Sixth Doctor’s character, which had settled down nicely over the past two or three stories, has suddenly reverted back to the crotchety, argumentative, demeaning egotist we met in his first story, “The Twin Dilemma.” This is jarring, and very unwelcome. I like where Colin Baker had taken the Doctor’s mellower, albeit still a bit full of himself, persona, and I thought it worked well. This, however, is possibly one of the most disappointing aspects of “Timelash.”
Put all this together with sets that are okay, but not special, Morlox that look no better than the Drashigs of 13 years previously, and tall android guards that look like giant Munchkins with their squeaky sing-song voices, yellow hair, and blue faces. What were they thinking?! Who thought this was a great idea?!
I know I’ve given the show a beating, but if I might just put the final boot in the gut, what’s with the TARDIS’s unexplained escape from the missile strike, and the Borad’s return by means of cloning? For a start, how hard would it be to explain that the TARDIS is invincible, or to have the Doctor working on some clever shield enhancement at the beginning of the story (instead of that inane argument with Peri), that comes into play at the end? Talk about deus ex machina (no, don’t, I think this story has that covered). And where was the Borad’s cloning experimentation mentioned previously? That’s right, it wasn’t! This was so obviously a device thrown in at the end so they could bring the Borad back for one last hurrah. Let’s call it a diabolos ex machina. Whatever, it’s lazy and it sucks.
Do I need to say this is not must-see Who. Sorry to say, but try as I might to be as generous as possible, “Timelash” has to be one of the worst of the Classic era. Watch it if you’re a completist, or if you just like watching car wrecks. Otherwise, feel free to skip it. Please.