We continue our theme of not-terribly-good Fifth Doctor serials with the story that concluded Peter Davison’s first season as the Doctor. This story is similar to Delta and the Bannermen insomuch that it was a serial I partially caught on UK Gold (never whole episodes – only snippets of each) and therefore wanted to see at some point. I was also very intrigued to see the very beginning of the story. As long-term fans of the show know well, the previous serial Earthshock ended with a massive departure for the series – the death of a companion. For a long while I could only imagine how the TARDIS team dealt with this death, and of course the challenge of time-travel that Tegan expresses so passionately: “You have a time machine! You can change the past!”
I had also though been warned that the serial had any number of flaws – chief of which is that the Master spends the first two episodes in disguise for no immediately obvious reason other than to provide the episode two cliffhanger – and to reprise the precedent set in Castrovalva of giving the character the Master is impersonating a false actor’s name based on an anagram of “Anthony Ainley.” Having watched it for myself, the reveal still seems entirely unnecessary to plot or narrative.
But I did get the DVD, and braced myself both to be unimpressed and to satisfy my curiosity. To be fair – Episode One is really quite interesting in terms of engaging the viewer with the story – flights are going missing from Heathrow, and nobody is quite sure why. The Doctor is co-opted in, and discovers his old enemy the Master is using human slave labour, captured via a time corridor, to help him escape from entrapment on planet Earth, many millions of years in the past. Along the way, it is discovered that there is a hidden species known as the Xeraphin who had crashed on Earth and possess powers that can help the Master restore his TARDIS.
All of these are good ingredients – in that regard it is a well constructed serial. But the execution falls a little flat. For all of the fanfare of using Concorde, both it and Heathrow feel chronically underused (as an aside – it’s amusing how little Heathrow has changed since then if you don’t count Terminal 5!) – the presence of Earth authorities and reference to UNIT feel wholly unneeded. And it is really hard to get beyond the pointless and rather silly disguise of the Master.
It was a sound idea, but the execution let it down somewhat. Interestingly, while I have rated Survival and The King’s Demons lower than this serial, I would say this is probably the least satisfying serial to watch that features the Master, in terms of the contribution that the Master brings. He’s actually rather dangerous in Survival portrayed in a more understated style, while playing a surprisingly enjoyable Medieval rogue in The King’s Demons. But the relatively poor role the Master plays is offset by the attempt at a reasonable story, and the genuine mystery set up in Episode One.