While widely reviled as one of the worst things Doctor Who ever broadcast, Timelash is in fact a masterpiece of postmodern avant-garde art…

No. I can’t do it. This is the one story from season twenty-two that is legitimately bad. To give you an idea of how bad, these are some quotes from the promotional blurb in the DVD booklet.

“Unfortunately, this tends to show in the finished production with dull, uninspiring, sets and costumes.” “Timelash has been much criticised for its production standards, unimaginative direction, padded scenes and over-the-top acting”. “Timelash isn’t all bad”.

When the very best the people writing the promotional copy can come up with is “it isn’t all bad”, that’s not really a sign of a story that a redemptive reading works for.

Interestingly, this is one of only two Colin Baker stories I have absolutely no memory of watching as a child – the other being The Mark of the Rani, which is the other story from this season that’s a bit hard to love. Clearly, children are better critics than you might think.

Basically, there are three flaws to this story, any two of which might be forgivable, but when all three are combined, it’s very hard to enjoy.

The script, first of all, is bad science-fantasy panto. It’s badly paced, with ridiculously drawn out bits of obvious padding interspersed with bits with far too many ideas, none properly developed.

The one idea in the script that people claim is a good one – H.G. Wells travelling with the Doctor and getting all of his ideas from the Doctor’s adventures – would be a terrible one even if the scriptwriter showed any awareness of who Wells actually was (he appears to have confused Wells with Conan Doyle in his biographical details). In a season where the show is looking back at its own past, looking back to the series’ prehistory, to a writer who clearly inspired much of the early series, is not in itself a bad idea.

But to have Wells take all his ideas from being brought into the future by the Doctor and seeing them… that’s simultaneously to deny the possibility of human creativity and turn the process of writing fiction into mere stenography; to ignore the actual connections to the real world that motivated Wells, whose science fiction was explicitly intended to promote a socialist, utopian, anti-imperialist political philosophy; and to do the very 1985 thing of using time travel to ahistorically claim that all ideas from the past only really exist as precursors to current ones, and have no context. Saying Wells’ work (and from it most of modern Anglophone science fiction) descends from a bad Doctor Who story is not quite on the level of Back to the Future‘s claim that Chuck Berry needed a white upper-middle-class Californian 1980s teenager to show him how to rock and roll, but it’s recognisably the same category of error.

So we have a script which seems to deny the possibility of inspiration and connection to material social reality, and to say that the only things worth talking about are Doctor Who stories. This goes against everything in the rest of the season, but would be forgivable if the programme looked good. Unfortunately, this was the story with the tightest production budget, so we ended up with sets draped with tinsel and glove-puppet aliens.

And even that would have been OK, were the story not directed by Pennant Roberts, whose idea of visual imagination is to make sure that the camera is pointed at the actors and turned on.

So the story has a terrible script that goes against everything else we’ve seen this season, incompetent production design, and barely competent direction.

And yet…it’s still quite fun to watch.

That’s mostly down to the performers. Paul Darrow, of course, famously hams this up to a ridiculous degree, playing his role as an impersonation of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III (actually more like an impression of Peter Sellers’ impression of Olivier). He very clearly has utter contempt for the material, and his performance is quite obviously intentional sabotage, yet at the same time he’s intensely watchable.

And Robert Ashby as the Borad is genuinely great, playing with an understated menace that, in a better production, would see him regarded as one of the all-time great Doctor Who villains.

(Nicole Bryant as Peri would be good if the scripts ever gave her anything approaching a character to play. She’s a good actor utterly wasted on the part as it’s shown on TV.)

But most of all, there’s Colin Baker. Baker is not generally regarded as one of the great actors to have played the part of the Doctor, but fan consensus is that he “could have been good”, and that the audio dramas he’s in prove that, and rehabilitate his Doctor.

This is just arrant nonsense. Baker is the best of the Doctors in the Big Finish audio dramas (largely because, unlike some of the others, he appears actually to have read the scripts before recording started), and he’s had some wonderful scripts in the part (Doctor Who and the Pirates, Jubilee, Davros, and The Holy Terror in particular are some of the best things ever released under the Doctor Who title). But the Sixth Doctor on audio is something of a distorted folk memory of the part he played on TV – a bumptious, rather Stephen Fry-like, take on the Doctor. That’s partly because of the scripts (and one suspects that the writers of those scripts are writing the Doctor more like the real Colin Baker, whose personality seems to be rather like that), but also because the nature of the audio medium requires a different style of acting.

Because Baker on TV is a phenomenally physical actor. Trying to grab screenshots of him in action for this series of essays has been an education in that in itself – he’ll flit through five or six microexpressions in a second, each one conveying a subtly different nuance of emotion or thought. Just watch him in his first encounter with Herbert in this story for example, as Herbert tries to exorcise him, the way he goes from jovial friendliness to confusion to a moment’s anger to amused realisation to patronising condescension in the space of three seconds.

Baker’s performance, honestly, is a wonder to behold. It combines the studied theatricality of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor with the larger-than-life performative aspect of Tom Baker’s. The result is something that’s rather like Troughton’s Doctor turned up so loud that the volume starts to distort – but this is clearly a deliberate, conscious, choice.

(Baker’s Doctor is rather more popular among autistic people than among fandom generally. Some of that may be down to ways his Doctor is characterised in the scripts – a general disregard for social norms, a love of language, and odd obsessions – but also these slightly exaggerated expressions are very characteristic of those autistic people who have learned that the normal autistic flat affect is misinterpreted by neurotypicals, and who become used to dialling everything up to eleven to compensate. Diagnosing fictional characters, particularly ones created by committee, is a futile and overly reductionist approach, but…there’s a resonance for me with Baker’s Doctor that there isn’t with, say, Davison’s or Tennant’s).

Baker’s performance is actually very close to Jeremy Brett’s performance as Sherlock Holmes in the ITV adaptations, which coincidentally started at the same time as Baker took on the role of the Doctor. Both emphasised sudden mood swings and bouts of energy, and consciously chose a theatrical style of performance rather than a more naturalistic one.

Baker is probably the last actor (except maybe Capaldi – or John Hurt, if you count him) to play the Doctor from the old British theatrical tradition of acting (classical acting), where an actor makes conscious, deliberate, choices that are intended to communicate with the audience, rather than the now-more-common Method style, where an actor tries to get themselves into the same emotional state as the character and trust that that emotional state will be reflected in their posture, tone, and so forth. Of course, almost all actors use elements of both of these, but Baker’s performance is far down the scale towards classical.

And the result is absolutely riveting. It’s almost impossible to take your eyes off Baker when he’s on screen, and you can still find new things in his performance, in even the worst story, after four or five viewings.

Baker, Ashby, and Darrow between them show three very different ways of dealing with bad scripts and direction, and between them they manage to make Timelash at least interestingly bad, and sometimes enjoyably so. (Again, we talked about camp in relation to this season earlier, and this one is as camp as it gets). When Peter Davison’s era of Doctor Who went bad in similar ways, in stories like Arc of Infinity or Warriors of the Deep, there was nothing at all positive one could say about the stories – Davison’s performance is too muted to hold a story together when everything around it is collapsing. When Colin Baker’s era goes bad, at least it doesn’t have that problem.

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