Time-Flight was…always a weird story. Before the era of stunt casting really got going, it was a story more or less written around the stunt casting of Concorde – the long-nosed supersonic plane that looked like an elegant eagle, but was apparently like sitting inside a suitcase.
When it emerged that British Airways was prepared to lend their supersonic baby to the production team of Doctor Who, what followed was always a lightweight, underbudgeted tale.
Cracks in time, Concordes in prehistory, some seriously dodgy CSO, the return of the Master, this time in a deeply culturally insensitive disguise, the reason for which was never explained on screen, ‘monsters’ which weren’t monsters but which looked like bowls of washing-up liquid, and ultimately some faffing about with a trapped, diverged racial consciousness being used somehow as a component in the Master’s Tardis.
Even in its plotting essentials, Time-Flight struggles to grasp for sense. On-screen, it gave up the struggle fairly early and just burbled on for a while until it could be decently given up for dead. Even Peter Davison, the Fifth Doctor, has always cited Time-Flight as one of the low points of his time in the Tardis.
It’s gloriously pointed then that he returns to read the audiobook of the Target novelization.
Three hours and change in the vocal company of an older, more cork-and-crackle-voiced Peter Davison is pretty much always going to be a pleasure.
Reading Time-Flight, Peter Davison doesn’t go overboard on giving each character a particular accent or vocal quirk. He makes sure he has you, and then just reads the story, with enough light and shade to push the thing along.
There are elements of the novelization which make Time-Flight more rational than it ever appeared on-screen – including an explanation of the whole ‘Kalid seemingly speaking gibberish for no reason other than his own amusement’ thing. That’s right – pick up this audiobook and you’ll understand why Kalid existed, possibly for the first time ever. It’s not an enormously satisfying explanation, and it’s over in the space of a line or so, but at least it’s something more than we ever got in the televised version.
The visuals of course are also much better in both novelization and audiobook, and some effects that didn’t succeed on-screen make their way into this audiobook with much greater success, Davison giving some richness, movement and colour to the descriptions of a landscape which shifts from one thing to another depending on how hard you concentrate on it.
The tale of the Xeraphin of Xeraphas is still, almost forty years on, a deeply confused idea, and also, this far on, can be seen as underlining the racially stereotyped values of good and evil that were judged OK in the Eighties – the ‘white Xeraphin’ are good, the ‘black Xeraphin’ are evil (just as the Fifth Doctor would do battle again with the Black Guardian, black meaning evil). But Davison here makes them sound like they were actually an OK idea, more or less confused in translation to the screen. It would be too much to say we care what happens to them, but they certainly seem less like they’re a talking MacGuffin in the novel than they did on the screen, and Davison gives them enough personality to make their backstory at least very nearly make sense.
There’s still a good deal of faffing about, as passengers and crew from an abducted Concorde are forced to troop back and forth, working on the Master’s plans, though freedom from production budgets allows Peter Grimwade to show more of what was in his mind for that than ever came through on-screen, and the book – and therefore the audiobook – is better for it.
It would be too kind to an underbudgeted, under-planned and underplotted story to say that in its audiobook version, it makes enough sense to really stand on its own two feet – especially because it came at the end of a season that was supposed to bring more scientific rationalism to the storytelling of Doctor Who. There’s no scientific rationalism here, there’s flim-flam, hoo-hah, gibberish and a Concorde.
But it’s probably fair to say that the novelization of the story makes about as much sense as Time-Flight is ever likely to do. Peter Davison certainly earns his salary on reading duty, making the story push along at some speed, despite some sections being almost custom-built to stand still for great swathes of time. The result is probably the best iteration of Time-Flight you’re ever likely to come across.
Whether that’s enough to make you spend money on it remains a question that only your curiosity or your nostalgic brain can answer. Tony Fyler