Doctor Who: Timelash – Written by Glen McCoy & Read by Colin Baker (BBC Audio)

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In all of Doctor Who’s history, there are a handful – okay, maybe two handfuls – of stories that really fell flat on screen.

Some of them fell flat because their stories were so absurd that no amount of BBC budget and spirited performance could lift them into making any kind of sense. Some fell flat because of miscastings that failed to connect with the otherwise sound material. And yet others fell flat and have been consigned to the ‘bad stories’ pile because, for instance, the monster was naff, while everything else about the story worked rather well.

For examples of that third kind of story, imagine Invasion of the Dinosaurs with realistic dinosaurs, or, as has been subsequently fixed with CGI, Kinda with a credible snake in the final sequence, rather than the grossly absurd blow-up serpent that was all the production could manage when the story was broadcast.

The great thing about the novelizations of these stories is that they can fix the perceptions that linger in the mind about where the on-screen stories fell down. In the novelizations, the dodgy monsters, the wobbly sets, and even in some cases the rickety logic of the stories can be addressed, and you can end up with what is essentially a better version of the story than the one you remember from the screen.

Timelash, bless it, is a story that fell down on… well, let’s just say several fronts when it was broadcast. Suffering from a budget more than usually parsimonious after the Spanish location filming of The Two Doctors, it looked like a story made of dull grey Lego bricks, aluminium foil, and tinsel – no, really, tinsel.

It was also let down by writer Glen McCoy’s insistence that the main citadel on his alien planet Karfel had to be entirely lacking in shine and reflection. Yes, there’s a perfectly good in-story reason for that, and the introduction of mirrors and reflections is actually crucial in defeating the planet’s dictator, the Borad, and his androids on two occasions. But dear gods, it’s dull to look at.

And if we’re honest, the casting of roles in Timelash was very… half and half. Some casting was brilliant, such as using Denis Carey as the publicly acceptable face of the Borad, and David Chandler as Herbert, the clueless but enthusiastic Earthman who gets caught up in the affairs of Karfel. Likewise, Dicken Ashworth and Tracy Louise Ward convinced as Sezon and Katz respectively, ex-citadel-dwellers now living in the caves of Karfel and mounting a resistance against the Borad’s increasing demands for power to fuel his time experiments – especially the Timelash of the title, an unstable time corridor leading to 12th century Earth.

But most of the leading Karfelons gave performances that matched the sparkle-free environment in which they lived, which made them equally dull to watch, and paved the way for Paul Darrow to overact deliciously as Tekker, the man on the make, scaling the heights of power by happily consigning both friends and enemies to the Timelash when they become inconvenient.

Such were the levels of acting in the pitched verbal battles between Darrow’s Tekker and Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor that very often they stand out as the only shiny or sparkling thing in the whole story, and so risk being the main thing people remember about Timelash.

It’s time to forget everything you know.

Glen McCoy’s novelization is so much better than anything that made it to the screen, it quite blows your hair back. There is much more detail in the world-building of McCoy’s Karfel than we ever saw on screen. We get a lot more detail about the life-cycle of the Morloxes – the giant, cave-dwelling reptiles that are one of the surprising cores of the story (but which on-screen look depressingly rigid and plastic).

There are also whole new scenes – including a much better explanation of the Borad’s reappearance at the end of the story after he’s supposedly been defeated once. There’s much more logical bead-threading in the middle to get Peri to Katz and Sezon in their hideout at Falchion rocks, so the story feels significantly more satisfying than the on-screen version.

And while on screen, there are heavy mentions of the fact that the Doctor has been to Karfel before in his third incarnation, here we get some extremely cool new details of what he actually did on that occasion that makes almost everyone so initially glad to see him on his return.

We also get much more history of the delicately tense relationship between Karfel and Bandril, a planet with which Karfel has been in a trade relationship for decades, since not long after the Doctor’s previous visit. That really helps add weight to the third act threat of a potential planet-killing conflict that, in the TV version, is all a bit “Wait, what-now?”

Scenes that on-screen felt chronically budget-short are hugely improved too. The scene where the Doctor dangles about for a while inside the Timelash – which is where the tinsel comes in! – in the novelization feels like a combination roller-coaster and tilt-a-whirl, with visual effects of a swirling, insecure vortex that belches while the Doctor is in it, giving a much more effective sense of peril than the TV version could ever manage.

Perhaps most pleasingly of all, though, the novelization entirely rewrites the personality of Tekker. While we bow to no-one in our appreciation of Paul Darrow, his smooth, snide interpretation of the character has a tendency to overpower everything else in the story. Here, Tekker is much less Richard III, and much more the sneering accomplice to the school bully. It may sound like a simple change, but it completely rewrites the power dynamic of the story, and d’you know what?

It works better.

We’re sorry, shade of Paul Darrow, but it works better when played a different way.

Oh, did we mention the android apocalypse? Thought not – there’s an android apocalypse in Timelash too. No, you probably won’t remember it from the screen version, where at most a handful of strikingly blue-faced androids beggared about the place for reasons that had too little explanation. This version gives you line after line of synchronised, marching killing machines, sent by the Borad to kill the higher echelon of Karfelons, before his carefully-orchestrated interstellar war kicks in.

That gives you an extra spin of drama that draws you in to a society that has been so ordered under the thumb of a dictator and is now dissolving rapidly, like a meringue under a blowtorch. It all adds to the energy and the chaos as we power towards the scrappy, scrambling end of the story.

With all of that said, it is true that the novelization shows exactly where the line between Glen McCoy’s script ends and script editor Eric Saward’s work-over begins. Despite giving a significantly miserablist outlook and tone to his own Doctor Who stories, Eric Saward has a gift for quick and witty repartee, and some of the best lines in the TV Timelash are missing here, suggesting they were Sawardisms, rather than original creations of McCoy.

Do you miss them? Mmmaybe, because they added a little sparkle to the original – but on balance, the novelization gives you so much more in terms of depth, world-building and plot-logic, you won’t mind too much that some of the best and funniest lines, particularly between the Doctor and Herbert, have been excised here.

Having established that the novelization of Timelash is around a thousand times better and more accomplished than the version that stumbled through BBC budgets onto the screen in 1985, what about the reading?

Well, the reading comes from Sixth Doctor actor Colin Baker, and any time you can get a Doctor actor reading a story in which they starred, you’re on to something special. In Timelash, Baker gets to deliver slightly different line readings to those he originally immortalised, and for the most part, they’re neither better nor worse than the originals, but hang together to create a slightly alternate universe version of Timelash that’s valid and fascinating in its own right.

His interpretation of Nicola Bryant’s Peri can sometimes come off as a little more whiny than the character ever really was, but to be fair, Colin Baker is a venerable gentleman of the universe, giving voice to a young American woman in her early twenties, so that’s always going to be a bit of a stretch. And while Vena, the high-born Karfelon who steals a vital amulet of power and falls into the Timelash, causing all sorts of chaos (Yes, we know – do try to keep up!), has the on-screen charisma of a marble, you might initially wonder at Colin Baker’s choice to give her a soft Irish accent here which never made it onto the screen.

There may well be method in his acting madness though, as Vena was played by Jeananne Crowley, who herself is Irish. Whether as a tribute, whether in memory of the actress’s real voice, or whether pretty much just because, Vena of Karfel is Irish now. It’s odd the first time you hear it, but it’s delivered with conviction, so it quickly becomes part of the furniture of this – did we mention – better-in-almost-every-way rendering of Timelash.

So, should you invest in the audiobook of Timelash?

Well, let’s put it this way. The TV version is 90 minutes long – 1 hour 30 minutes with a fairly shrugworthy cliff-hanger, visibly low budgets, plastic monsters, some great and some drab performances, and the sense of a world much deeper than the TV ever lets you see.

The audionovelization is over 4 hours long, and it feels quicker than the TV version, while simultaneously offering a broader, richer, much more detailed and much more logical world and story than its TV counterpart.

Absolutely, you should invest in the audiobook version of Timelash, because more than most audio novelizations of Doctor Who stories, it gives its original story a real redemption – and importantly, it proves that Timelash is a story that deserves that redemption, because the original story in the writer’s mind is in a whole different league to the version that ultimately appeared on screen. Tony Fyler

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