Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The Time Monster

27 Apr 2008, 11:06 pm

The Time Monster 1:

I dunno. This is a toughy.

You see, it’s not actually ‘bad’ yet. There’s some nice enough work at building tension, the performances are generally fine, but… it just seems to me that beyond the surface there’s not much going on.

Firstly, the whole episode is about something that’s going to happen, and as a result we have that rare thing – a first episode that’s heavily padded. Witness the Master being pointlessly found out by the head of the institute and then just hypnotising him again. You see, it wouldn’t be a problem if there was some sort of threat attached – it’s basically the same opening as the Daemons, let’s be honest – but for the most part there’s no reason to be worried. OK, the Master’s up to something, but that isn’t that menacing as of itself, especially when the machine he builds seems to work fine and dandy half way through the episode (‘yes, we must stop the Master switching on this device that doesn’t seem to do anything threatening’ is hardly a strong driving motor for a show). And throwing in a portentous dream is just a cop out. There’s just no tension.

Equally, whilst we’re on the dream, that does rather emphasise the further problem with starting up before the plot really starts – you have to find a way to get the Doctor involved when there’s nothing for him to investigate. And this episode takes the laziest way imaginable, with the Doctor having a precognitive dream out of precisely nowhere. It’s deeply annoying and screams plot device. And even then, they still foist a coincidence on the plot, with the UNIT mob just happening to be going off to visit the Master’s next project anyway. Though to be fair, this is sort of the problem of having a regular arch enemy anyway, as it’s far easier for the Doctor to stumble into something. It requires coincidence for him to stumble into the work of someone he already knows. It’s even harder when you don’t have the luxury of time and space travel, as bumping into the Master requires him to behave like a bit of an idiot.

There’s also one other problem, though it comes from a positive. After far too long we have the UNIT mob back again, especially worthwhile for Nicholas Courtney being charming… but they really have turned into comedy soldiers, haven’t they? And that’s the problem – there’s a degree to which this episode is scripted like a bad 70s sitcom. A really bad one. Consider the sequence of the Brig trying to figure out who to take with him to TOMTITT, as all the regulars count themselves out. ‘Who am I going to take’ wonders the Brig – and at that precise moment, in walks Benton all ready to go on leave. It feels like a joke, it has the structure of a joke – it just isn’t one. In deed, that’s the tone all the way through. Lots of times people make what appear to be attempts at jokes, none of which quite work – most noticeably the Brigs nice enough line about the Doctor consulting the entrails of a goat, which is suddenly made to look awful by the inexplicable decision to make Jo hoot like a demented harpy at it (not only is it a massively disproportionate response, it isn’t helped by the fact that no one else at all finds it funny).

This extends to the guest cast, with Stuart and Ruth being weirdly characterised – her as an annoyingly one note women’s lib cliché (which ironically manages to come over as far more sexist – cos that’s all feminism is about, complaining every time a man says something patronising) and him as a prat (it’s worth pointing out that Ian Collier’s performance is at least fairly likeable, which disguises this a touch, but it still beggars belief that this man is actually a professional scientist). Even the Master loses it – his ‘don’t worry your pretty little head’ line is deeply out of character, and only makes sense when you realise he’s only saying it as a setup for Ruth’s sexism stuff.

The only real saving grace here is that, by and large, the director doesn’t seem to notice that the script is as silly as it is, and is treating it with the same seriousness as the previous stories this season. And to be fair to the story as a whole, there are nice moments - the dream is good, the absorption of inertia is fun, the falling window cleaner too, even if it does seem odd that he finds himself as fascinated as he is by some scientists not doing very much in a room. The Master’s lightning quick response to the arrival of UNIT is plausible and amusingly ironic (lifelong pacifist indeed) and I do find the comedy accent amusing (if inconsistent).

But ultimately, nothing’s really happened at the end. It’s all competent enough, but really it’s all about moving the various pieces into position in order that the story itself can start, so it’s hard to judge yet.

#695 28 Apr 2008, 12:42 am
The Secretive Bus

Ah, Stewart and Ruth. Possibly the most irritating guest characters in a Doctor Who story, certainly up till this point. Is it this episode that has the "We've done it! We've done it! We've done it!" dance complete with comedy music? One of the most dire moments of Who ever, surely?

#696 28 Apr 2008, 10:04 am

Originally Posted by The Secretive Bus
"Ah, Stewart and Ruth. Possibly the most irritating guest characters in a Doctor Who story, certainly up till this point. Is it this episode that has the "We've done it! We've done it! We've done it!" dance complete with comedy music? One of the most dire moments of Who ever, surely? "


Up until that point, I'd almost liked Stewart (as I say, Collier's putting in a performance that's a heck of a lot more charming than the character as scripted), but that sequence is just so dumb and forced it immediately made me think 'oh, he's crap'. Scientist as naughty schoolboy. Please.

#697 28 Apr 2008, 6:38 pm

The Time Monster 2:

Yes, it’s the second episode of the Time Monster – gasp in amazement as the villain spends the entire episode sat in an office checking through his maths homework. Applaud as the Doctor destroys all mystery by explaining the entire plot within twenty seconds of arriving on the scene. Be amazed that the old age make up effects in the last season of Who aren’t significantly better than these made over thirty years previously…

I mean, honestly. Did anything actually happen in that episode?

Once again, a reasonable technical sheen tries its best to disguise the shortcomings of the story. But, it’s just dull. After a first episode that’s tries to be about the Doctor racing to prevent a catastrophe, and fails, it’s somewhat underwhelming that pretty much nothing happens when the Master switches on his machine. In deed, if anything, it makes the Master’s plan look more ludicrous. He spends ages building this machine, and then decides to test it in a needlessly high profile manner (why not run a test on it – why does he need to summon Kronos in front of the funding body). As a result, he just draws attention to his plans before he can actually implement them. It’s like he wants to make it harder for himself. It’s one of those stories where people behave in an odd way, because to do otherwise would screw the story up.

We’re also feeling the lack of threads. Because the Master wants to summon up an all powerful evil being (and he can’t) there’s really not much else the story can do without extra elements to the plot. Everyone’s on the scene, every one knows what’s going on… where can we go? And I’m sorry, but the Doctor’s massive info dump of exposition ten minutes in is one of the sloppiest bits of writing we’ve seen. OK, it’s an attempt to add some threat, but without some physical evidence of what the hell a Chronovore is, it’s just words, and words that, crucially, destroy a lot of the mystery that might keep us watching. Compare with the careful building up and resolving of the various questions in the Mutants. Here we know exactly what the Master’s planning to do. But because we know that, the only real tension left is in whether he can do it or not – and that in itself isn’t interesting. Because that’s just a cat and mouse game of whether the Master can get back into a room and switch a machine on, which is hardly the most engaging plotline. They’ve basically written themselves into a corner, and added a bucket of telling not showing. Stop the Master doing something not terribly interesting otherwise a Gobbledegook monster will come along and destroy us. Yes, that’s a hook, isn’t it?

It’s not all bad though. There are some nice bits – the Doctor’s slow mo run to save the day, the Brig’s dialogue – and particularly the Benton/Master scene which is a properly nice moment for the former. He get’s to show resourcefulness, but the manner in which the Master outwits him, partially down to his own slight sense of victory leaving him to drop his guard is glorious (‘No, Sgt. Benton, that is the oldest trick in the book’ is probably my favourite bit in the story so far!), and is so nicely done that you actually miss the fact that the whole sequence is blatant padding.

But when push comes to the shove, there’s just nothing in here that’s particularly interesting or gripping.

#698 29 Apr 2008, 5:12 pm

The Time Monster 3:

This story is just a lot of sound and fury, isn’t it? Nothing’s going on.

For the first two episodes we’ve had the Master followed around by the University bloke as standard underling to talk to – and the story’s really confused about how he interacts with the Master, frankly – within a few minutes of this episode starting, he’s killed off… and replaced by an Atlantean standard underling to talk to. Neither of them do anything, and the death of one for replacement by the other is a distraction – an illusion of progress and change… whilst nothing happens. Slowly. It’s symptomatic of the entire story.

We’re half way through, and there’s really no plot. The story, what it amounts to, is the Master trying a series of increasingly successful attempts to capture a time monster (hence the title) whilst the Doctor wanders off and distracts himself and let’s the Master get on with it. There’s a sequence half way through when they retreat to a cottage on the grounds, and the Doctor says all they can do is wait and orders up tea and cake. Really? Is that the best this story can do? The Master’s taking over the world, and you just wander off saying ‘well, we can’t do anything yet, how about a cuppa.’ The Doctor doesn’t wait. He shouldn’t wait. And yet this entire episode is about filling in time until the Doctor can do something.

And why can’t the Doctor do anything? Because it’s all too small, that’s why. The plot is hinged on one simple device – the Master summons a monster with a machine. That’s it. The moment the Doctor’s on the scene, it should be a piece of piss for him to defeat that. So they’ve got to invent way to distract him or stop him from actually doing anything – be it dangerous time eddies that people can’t get through, or, more prosaically, just not doing anything about it when he has the chance (‘yes, the Master wants to use this machine to take over the world – tell you what, let’s just wander off and do something fundamentally less important for the moment, shall we? Give him a chance to pop by.’).

The story needs more threads. It’s odd, but for a story so epic in scope (with a neat sci-fi concept and Atlantis jostling for position) it feels so small. There’s only about two sets, and two groups of people (all of the goodies just hang around together – that’s six people, and as a result no-one gets to do anything worthwhile or memorable on any level). And it has to work its damnedest to keep them apart (because that would switch off the story) but unless they meet there’s nothing much that can happen. It’s all exemplified by the Doctor’s contraption. The Doctor building up a jammer from all manner of household rubbish is such a delightful (and quintessentially Who-ish idea) that it’s easy to miss the fact that it’s a pointless distraction and waste of time. The moment it operates, the Master over-rides it in about three seconds.

And then, after having half the episode be about the Doctor not quite doing anything yet, the Master joins in! The Master, in contrast, has almost looked like he’s doing something in this episode (he hasn’t, he’s just got a little bit closer to actually pulling off what he’s been trying to do for – or more accurately, he’s got a little bit less unsuccessful this time). And then, just when he can trot off to Atlantis to sort it all out, he decides to hang around and try to destroy the TARDIS (which he must know is rather pointless).

Good things in this episode… Well, the Brig gets all the nice lines (same as usual). And the idea of the Master plucking random elements of the past to attack the UNIT convoy is quite fun (although, much like the Doctor’s device, fairly pointless sideshow distractions). Beyond that, still dull.

#699 30 Apr 2008, 12:31 pm
The Secretive Bus

The only amusing thing I can remember about the first half of the story is the cliffhanger to part 2. The Atlantean chappy appears (not exactly a cracking cliffhanger in itself) and just watch the university guy's reaction. He jerks his entire body round with his arms held out as if holding an invisible teatray and with the most comically aghast face since the monkey bastard from The Wheel In Space.

Other than that, I can't remember a decent reason for watching this. It's just a series of silly performances, bad dialogue and upskirt shots (male and female). Which I'm sure, all things considered, is targeted at a niche audience somewhere.

#700 30 Apr 2008, 6:37 pm

The Time Monster 4:

There’s something almost heroic about the determination of this story to get worse every single episode. ‘Hey, you thought last week was boring? Wait til you get a load of this!’

After an episode that included lots of detail to disguise the fact that there isn’t actually a story going on, this one is fairly open about it. It doesn’t even try to pretend there’s anything going on. The major action of the episode is the Doctor trying to give the Master a bit of a talking to, and the Master not listening to him. That’s as dramatic as it gets. I’m not exaggerating.

You see, you really do get the sense that they’ve had a lot of cool ideas for set-pieces here… they’ve just forgotten that they need a plot to back it up. Look at the cliffhanger, and it’s resolution. The Master’s all ready to hop off to Atlantis, but then discovers that the Doctor’s TARDIS is heading their way. Ah, says he, I don’t want any one to follow me, so he sends various historical people to attack the UNIT convoy. All well and good. Until the resolution, where his pointless Atlantean chum (only purpose – someone for him to explain the plot to, that’s all the character does) asks ‘so have you destroyed it then’, and the Master says ‘no, it’s indestructible’. So the deeply tenuous justification for the Master deciding to put a temporary halt to his plans in order to provide a cliffhanger (oh and more time for the Doctor to catch up) is just changed overnight. The Master then says that people can be destroyed, but what’s the point of that? He’s about to destroy the world, why worry about getting a few soldiers who can’t possibly stop him? Oh, and whilst we’re on the cliffhanger, it’s disappointing that the reprise drops the nicest bit of it. The previous episode ends with the Brigadier urgently calling for Yates on the radio, and in gorgeous touch that’s underplayed to the degree of being easy to miss, he stops calling for ‘Yates’, and starts calling to ‘Mike’. A lovely genuine human moment. Whereas in this episode, this bit is dropped, and replaced to a shot of Benton trying to get in touch back at the cottage. Where his immediate response on not hearing anything is saying ‘I think they’ve copped it’ in a tone of mild concern (and then to add insult to injury, the scene is rendered utterly pointless when the Brig phones him up a minute or so later and, in the same nondescript tone, Benton replies ‘oh good. We thought you’d copped it’. We know. You said it about thirty seconds ago. Grief).

And it just gets worse. The Master then proceeds to waste as much time as possible playing around with a few control buttons (as if he hasn’t had enough time to do whatever he needs to in the two whole episodes he hasn’t moved from the lab in) in order to give the Doctor a chance to catch him – oh and for the unfunny comedy troop of Benton, Ruth and Stewart to try a raid based on little more than suicidal idiocy. I love the way that upon deciding to launch a planless attack on the Master, Stewart picks up a spanner, the implication being that the ‘lovable’ foolish scientist’s only plan to stop the Master, who let’s remember hasn’t done anything evil in front of him, is to smash his head in. Family fun, eh? And even if it wasn’t, these three decide to attack a man who has a machine that controls time with one gun and a spanner? No, there are four spanners here by my count. And once again, it’s pointless – as the Master gets away in a really badly done move within about twenty seconds. Actually, what’s most depressing about this is that a mere two episodes after the script credits Benton with a degree of resourcefulness and intelligence, the vacuous desperation of the script requires him to become a cretin again - ignoring everything he’s been told by a man he trusts to go along with the witless bravado of a self-righteous lunatic. All for the sake of filling in a bit of time (oh, and before I forget – Collier’s lost it by this point. The character’s so badly, clunkily written, that he’s lost all the charm I initially talked about – it’s all so self-consciously ‘funny’ that you just want to smack him).

Next, we have the Doctor’s ship landing inside the Masters (and vice versa). The Russian doll TARDIS thing is a corker of a concept… but once again, it’s not attached to anything in the plot. It’s simply there as a device to stop anything from actually happening. (And even then, we once more have the Doctor announcing his entire plan as being ‘waiting’ - if the hero can't be arsed to do something, why the hell are we watching?)

Likewise, the frozen UNIT and baby Benton are nice enough ideas – but all they’re actually doing is filling in time and giving the impression that something’s actually going on. And fair enough, something is going on… but it’s progressing a, by this point, irrelevant sub-plot that has no need to be there at all.

And then, as I said above, we have the entire plot stalling whilst the Doctor tries to give the Master a lecture. The Doctor’s so desperate to do this that he actually steps out of the TARDIS to face possible destruction. It beggars belief. This is ten minutes of an adventure show featuring the good guy trying to talk the villain out of doing something – such a pompous, school teacher-y way of behaving that, combined with the natural pomposity of the Pertwee Doctor, we actually root for the Master, a fact not helped by the fact that we initially view the sequence through his eyes. When he says ‘I could throw you out into the vortex’ your first thought is ‘well go on then’.

Nothing happens. At all. We’ve had four episodes now, four episodes which consist of nothing more the Master trying over and over again to do the thing he did at the end of part one and get it right, and the Doctor hanging around at the sidelines going ‘well, I can’t really do anything.’

Tedium, thy name is ‘The Time Monster’.

#701 2 May 2008, 8:23 pm

The Time Monster 5:

There’s only one major thing wrong with the fifth episode of The Time Monster. And that’s the fact that it’s the fifth episode.

After two episodes that were basically a masterpiece of procrastination, we finally reach Atlantis – and suddenly the story gets good. Which does rather beg the question of why it’s taken so long to go there.

OK, so we’ve had a few brief visits there in episodes two and three. But that’s not what I mean. This is basically the moment that the actual story starts. Everything suddenly seems so much better and more interesting. There’s something going on, as opposed to avoiding something going on. Suddenly the heroes and villains don’t just have to wander around a computer with a furrowed brow. Honestly, why does it take until episode five before we come here? Ancient Greece and a Minotaur versus a woman’s libber and a prat hanging round a university looking at dials. There’s no contest, surely?

The episode isn’t entirely perfect – the resolution to the fairly definite and eerie cliffhanger is depressingly feeble (Jo simpy presses a handy ‘in event of cliffhanger’ button on the console), Hippias is one of the strangest performances in the series and the Master’s mate remains utterly irrelevant (although, bizarrely, recognised by the Doctor despite never having actually met him). But in comparison to the previous couple of episodes it’s dazzling.

There actually seems to be the making of a plot, in the most literal sense. Rather than a series of remote control attempts to fool each others plans, tinkering, maths and waiting, both the Master and the Doctor are actually doing something. The Master in particular has a ball, all manipulative and Machiavellian, finding who to side with, lying, hypnotising, trying to get what he wants. Actively trying. His scene with Galleia is beautifully plotted. Which leads me on to my next point. There are actual characters not one note ciphers. Galleia, for example, is genuinely interesting and multi layered – far from being anything as simple and straightforward as just an evil cheating queen, she’s complicated (witness her telling the Master that she wants nothing to happen to her husband, and Hippias’ genuinely sad lament for the loss of the girl she was). Likewise, everybody in Atlantis just seems to be so much better written, so much more real. Dalios is witty and wise, and genuinely likeable. Even Susan Penhaligon’s maid is given more scope. The dialogue sparkles, full of lovely jokes and wit (‘what did Poseidon have for breakfast’ Dalios asks the Master, before answering for him ‘fish, I suppose).

All of which is all well and good and entertaining, but it does lead to one fairly obvious point. Why haven’t they bothered doing this before now? If you can create good characters, write funny dialogue, and have interesting plots… why have you made us waste our time for four episodes? Why make us put up with a plotless runaround filled with crass caricatures? It seems obvious to me that this is the bit of the story that inspired the whole thing. They seem to have saved up their best writing for this section, and that could explain the lacklustre feel of the earlier stuff (it must be dispiriting wasting time before you get to the fun bit). So why structure it that way? One of the writers was in charge of the series, so why? Why?

#702 2 May 2008, 8:31 pm
Liberty Hall

...awww, I like this story. I like the relationship between Benton and Stewart. I like to think maybe, after Benton got his nappy off, they met up for a few jars & a game of darts - maybe they even went on a "Carry-On" style caravan holiday to the south coast to try (and fail) to "pull" some "birds".


#703 5 May 2008, 6:47 pm

The Time Monster 6:

If there’s ever a story I want to do a ‘Phantom Edit’ on, it’s this one. You see, it all comes together in such an epic and mythic way that you can almost forget how pants the first four episodes are. A good strong edit would remove the fluff and leave the strength of the story behind. As it is, there’s been far to much irrelevant action, too many disposable cliffhangers for this to be anything other than a low, low watermark.

Much the same as the last episode, this story’s finale is so entertaining that you wonder why it took so long to get here. Particularly because a lot of the detail in this segment is rushed – the route to getting hold of the crystal of Kronos should be harsh, difficult. As it is, it takes about two minutes to get past the world’s most rubbish guardian and straight at it. There’s potential here –a good episode’s worth of questing, all sort of danger and adventure… but the need to get to the end of the story as quickly as possible scuppers it. And that’s frustrating, because the story has been about a quest – the Master trying to release Kronos, but rather than a quest full of danger, it’s a quest that just seems to involve him doing a lot of sums. It should have been a series of battles with the Doctor desperately trying to prevent the Master passing the next obstacle. And as it is, the Doctor is at his most ineffectual in this story. Always hanging around the fringes, waiting. Only right at the end does he do something proper to defeat the villain – the Time Ram – up until then, he just sits around ‘waiting’ and ballsing things up. Heck, even then he doesn’t do anything – he needs Jo to make the decision.

That ending is massively right though –it tells us about the compassion of the Doctor and the bravery of Jo, and feels like a suitably epic gesture to bring the story to an end – considering the tale is, almost entirely, a game of cat and mouse between the Doctor and the Master rather than about an actual scheme, you couldn’t really end it any other way and you’ve just got to love a noble sacrifice ain’t ya? The sudden appearance of the god-like Kronos to save everyone doesn’t really feel like the cop-out it could seem. After all, we’ve already had an ending to the story, this is just shifting that ending so it can work as a series. Of course, this is the first spot where the script really goes poor in this episode, with the Master’s pleading so generic and out of character that even the mighty Delgado can’t do it convincingly. And it does go downhill from there somewhat, firstly with the Master’s pathetically easy escape (no matter what situation he’s trapped in this story, they can all be answered with a good shove, it would seem), and then the return to Cambridge for the Scooby-Doo ‘everybody laughing at not terribly good joke until the credits roll’ ending.

But I’m rushing ahead of myself. There are loads of incidental details I love, although not always for the best of reasons. I love the Doctor’s offhand dismissal of Hippias death (he says ‘he’s dead’ without going to check – last time I checked, being chucked through a window wasn’t necessarily fatal – and following his announcement I was half expecting Hippias to turn up in the background saying ‘actually, I’m all right’ whilst they ignored him and continued lamenting his demise…). It’s also hard not to mention the ‘dasiest daisy’ speech. There’s a degree to which it’s quite self consciously the ‘arty’ bit (you can almost hear Letts and Sloman’s saying to each other: ‘this is lovely, isn’t it? You’re great you are – they’ll be quoting this for years!’) and that almost takes the shine off it… but it’s such a nicely written moment that you’d have to be far more of a stone cold cynic than me to dislike it. Finally, the whole Atlantis subplot is wrapped up impeccably, with each character (bar the ever pointless Krassis) getting a beautiful tragic resolution – all destroyed by the Master’s treachery before the Chronovore brings the house down, even though he’s not directly responsible for any of the deaths, the man bringing death in his shadow. Which only makes the eventual return to wet caricatures in Cambridge all the more disappointing.

Overall then – a good enough idea ruined by not actually determining what the story is til too late in the day. A desperate series of plot stretching distractions almost, but not quite, redeemed by the two episodes somebody actually bothered to write.

#704 7 May 2008, 8:53 am

Good assessment of the Time Monster. I believe it is very well-received by children, especially the Doctor and Master spiting each other as well as nonsense like the minotaur bullfight, "Jojo Grant" etc, and it has some lovely design, including nearly-accurate Minoan-Crete stuff (though to be strictly accurate, the women should be topless).

It's a bit of a rewrite of "The Daemons" really (Master fails in attempts to resurrect and control ancient deity), before Sloman and Letts found their feet with "The Green Death".

As I watch DW mainly with an eye to the design and look of the thing (as a child, I rarely understood the entire plot - handy in the Hinchcliffe era, since so many of those were just knock-offs from cinema films anyway, so little was lost) it is the "moments" of imagination and strangeness and nice design that catch my eye (and imagination).

Laurence Miles latest blog entry* speaks elowuently of what Dr Who is really about - surprise (mystery) - and Time Monster provides plenty of surprises. Not least in its total change of pace, story and setting when it gets to Atlantis!

* http://beasthouse-lm2.blogspot.com/2...-surpriii.html

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