You might think a surprise twist would be diminished on a rewatch. But that’s nothing to a time loop.
Call it what you like – a rewind, reset switch, Undo, a Big Friendly Button – it all amounts to the same thing. Doctor Who’s Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS opts for the latter phrase, even goes and burns it into poor Clara’s hand. But this sort of temporal shenanigans has more worth as a comic than a dramatic device. (See Bill& Ted, The Curse Of Fatal Death etc)
On one level, it’s a powerful tool. The big enabler for the writer to steer us into a big dead end – the bigger the better! End of the world, end of the universe, the TARDIS has already blown up and we’re all dead. You can almost hear the Cloister Bell striking Dum-dum-dum! It’s the ultimate cliffhanger when you can actually throw your characters off the cliff, right?
Everything’s okay when one of the characters can warn their earlier self know not to walk too close to the edge. Everyone’s saved. They never even went for that clifftop hike or if they did they brought the proper safety equipment and none of it ever happened. Bob’s his own uncle.
Usually in some feeble attempt to make it all mean something, somebody is able to recall something of these non-events and in some way learn and grow from the experience. In this case it’s Clara (who will later remember the incidents) and a salvager who develops a conscience about this joke he’s been playing on his little brother.
Fittingly enough, it’s rubbish.
So is there anything salvageable in the pile?
Well, let’s see what we have here.
Wooden salvage operators who have been ribbing their baby brother, convincing him he’s an android. What larks. So persuasive is their merry jape, the poor lad is still declaring ‘No fear, no pain!’ when he’s been skewered by a large metal rod. Apparently, since the accident that netted him a replacement pair of bionic eyes and voice box, he’s never once hurt himself – not even stubbed his toe – in this dangerous profession. And no explanation is given as to what explanation the brothers gave him when he felt the need to visit the bathroom. Imagine the embarrassment as he tries to fit a waste pipe to his groinal socket.
It’s not as though Doctor Who has no precedent for this – Guy Crayford in the equally daft AndroidInvasion. But prior ignorance is no excuse.
The funny thing is, post-skewering we might believe the fellow is an android the way he engages in strenuous activity – like fighting charcoaled Siamese twins from the future – while acknowledging the grievous wound with no more than a wince and a hand clamped over where it hurts a bit. That could be a(nother) failing in the script or simply down to the general woodenness of the acting.
Clara and the Doctor are the saving graces in the acting department. Neither can singlehandedly save this sinking ship, but they are a pleasure to watch. Together or apart, they do a great deal to keep us entertained – until we discover where it’s all leading. There’s suspense and action aplenty and the barbecued horrors that stalk everyone through the TARDIS corridors are suitably nightmarish, presented in their earlier appearances in a sort of blurry shimmer like heat distortion. Although it’s not difficult to guess the nature of these ‘monsters’, it’s not a bad stab at seasoning proceedings with a surprise twist and their presence lends the air of urgency and inevitability that the story desperately needs for it to have any chance of working.
Likewise the various temporal echoes (murmured voice overs from the past and the idea of Clara and the Doctor occupying the same control room but just seconds apart) are a welcome ingredient. Part of what you’d expect, in fact, from a time ship breaking apart.
And therein also lies a problem.
It’s by and large everything you’d expect. In this golden chance to explore so much more of the TARDIS interior, the degree of inventiveness is limited. I’d go out on a limb and say it’s produced on a larger budget than Invasion Of Time, but all that amounts to is that most of it involves running around more expensive-looking corridors. Notable exceptions being the opera house/theatre, a rather lovely library and the tree of egg-like light bulbs. And yes, the enormous reactor room with the suspended star is impressive, but it is essentially just a catwalk with a CGI backdrop. With infinity to explore, writer Steve Thompson doesn’t really let his imagination wander too far. And that’s a shame because if there was one area where the story could have redeemed itself that was it.
Had we been shown genuine wonders, well, I might have felt the experience more worthwhile. Especially given that it was all going to be neatly time-waved away, it was under some pressure to show us something truly special right up to the point when the Doctor throws the Big Friendly Reset Switch back through the time fissure. And it falls short of that target.
While also offering up some A-grade stupid. From the spectacularly involved magno-grab and giant mechanical claws system for dumping the TARDIS on a scrapheap to fooling an intelligent young chap he’s Kryten, it’s all a bit Red Dwarf without the laughs. (Well, there’s witty dialogue, but it’s not the riotous side-splitting sci-fi sitcom material brought to us by Lister, Rimmer, Cat and Co.) That spiralling sensation is just a wasted opportunity being flushed down the TARDIS bog.
As Macbeth expressed it (sort of), if it were undone when tis undone, then twere well it were undone quickly.
In the first five minutes, maybe. To spare us the pointless forty minutes of runaround.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, that’s my future self at the door just arrived to tell me not to bother watching it a second time. I should go and let him know he’s too late.
The Crimson Horror