Tuesday, 29 September 2015

UNIT 1.1: Time Heals by Iain McLaughlin & Claire Bartlett (December 2004)

In Time Heals, the UNIT series proper is launched (a series that’s only four parts long, although I know I’ll eventually get to UNIT: Dominion and UNIT: The New Series). It’s something of a minor sideshow in the way that not all non-main-range-releases are – one hears a lot about the Fourth Doctor Adventures or the Fifth Doctor Season 19 boxset and all that extra paraphernalia in a way that one never really hears of titles like Time Heals and Snake Head. I’m sure part of this is down to the fact that I’m more than a decade late to the party, but surely the Doctor-less nature of what is in essence a Doctor-Who-ish set of stories, with only the one Doctor Who character as a (not enormously present) draw, means this mini-range is likely to be overlooked.

The most significant point about Time Heals is that it fails to deal with the fallout of 1.0: The Coup. This is undeniably true, although I can’t decide if Guerrier’s script went too far for the start of a new series and this one rightfully ignores it in favour of telling an accessible story, or this one unimpressively fails to follow up on it. There’s a brief reference to papers thinking it a hoax, which to be fair is the kind of thing we often get fobbed off with amid the current trend of alien invasions that get forgotten, even if this was rather more impressively dealt with in the Davies era. Since it’s something Doctor Who fails at so often – continuity from one story to another with regard to the public’s familiarity with extra-terrestrials – I can’t come down too harshly on the scriptwriters for this, but you’d think a story set directly after the first one in the range would try and address this sticking point with a little more chutzpah. The magnitude of Guerrier’s Silurian conference revelation wasn’t written to be ignored.

McLaughlin and Bartlett’s script certainly doesn’t ease us in gently, as we are presented with the theft of an alien spaceship, the disappearance of a CO, the collision of two trains and rogue matter transportation in the first ten minutes – not bad for a seventy-minute audio. The preponderance of news teams, press coverage and worries about terrorist attacks give Time Heals a global feel which rather sets it apart from the initial cosiness of the UNIT era; although it of course owes a huge debt to the writing staff that brought us Spearhead from Space and Terror of the Autons, this story feels much closer to Russell T Davies in terms of its aesthetic. That’s partly due to its 21st-century provenance, in which news reporters refer to terrorist events and the knee-jerk blaming of a militant Muslim faction. It’s a UNIT frustrated with politicians, bureaucracy and red-tape (not that that’s especially subtly conveyed). This really is The Mind of Evil for the modern age.

There are a few neat little elements to Time Heals – the missing half-an-hour business with the watches, for instance, and the merging of the bodies with various parts of debris is a nightmarishly gory image, as suitcases and train doors become embedded in the flesh. Unfortunately there’s also this hackneyed space-time matter transportation business, complete with exposition-heavy scientists’ dialogue, confident they’re about to make history as usual; it’s not especially fascinating as a major ‘hook’, and the writers overdo the spectacle and catastrophe (do we need a train crash, a jet plane and a submarine disaster?). That said, at least some of the panic of the action sequences is well-done; it’s the scenes between Kelly and Meade that are easily the worst.

More problematically, we’re presented with a cod-military agency that’s constantly harping on about the unpleasant nature of the press and the government, but it’s hardly an obvious moral leap that we ought to side with a group like UNIT either. Simply put, Time Heals has no triumphant justification for why we should care much for its central characters. It’s hard to blame the writers; I personally have no great love for UNIT without the Doctor’s compassion or eccentricity as a counter-foil to it. This will either become a serious long-term problem for the range, or it’s something that the scripts will overcome admirably. And to clarify, I’m not complaining because the main characters are unlikeable; generally speaking they’re not, and that’s a silly reason to damn a story anyway. I’m just unsure why we really need a pulpy modern-day story about a military organisation dealing with threats using ammunition and brute force; if you’re going to tell one, you need morally murky storylines, beautifully complex characters, and tragic poignancy of theme: a gritty story about what a world of existential horrors is like when there is no godlike Time Lord to deal with them. Time Heals doesn’t reach the mature heights I hoped for. It’s not the product of bad writers (I like McLaughlin and Bartlett’s work elsewhere, particularly when Erimem is involved), but its tone is poorly defined and the creative figures involved don’t seem to be on the same page about what they want this series to be, making it more of a problem with its inception. I hope the range gets better.

Other things:
Nice mirroring of the end of The Coup, in which Chaudhry ignores a set of squawking journalists in favour of Francis Currie.
The mystery being built up around Brimmicombe-Wood’s ever-absent character is rather tantalising; I’m interested to see where they go with this one.
Reports on the Silurians: “Man in a rubber costume, according to one lot.”
“How the hell do journalists always get to an accident scene first?”/“They’re half-human, half-shark. They smell the blood.” (Coincidentally reminiscent of the description of Magnussen, an analogy for Rupert Murdoch, in the Sherlock episode His Last Vow, but I only know this because I watched it last night).
“It’s a spacecraft, not a dog! Stop patting it!”
Bad line alert: “Instantaneous matter transportation won’t belong in Star Trek anymore.”
“…fundamentalists who last year vowed to bring down the West’s financial capital” (7/7), a reference to a war in Syria…are we sure this was written in 2004?!
The acting isn’t extraordinary – Siri O’Neal doesn’t sound very enthused with her part, which is a shame given it’s the biggest one. Richard Deal as Dalton puts more effort in: the sceptic to her believer, the officer baffled by the prospect of the extra-terrestrials. Hopefully their dynamic will enliven future stories (although it’s a shame Dalton wasn’t introduced earlier).
Chaudhry and Hoffman’s love life banter is painful to listen to.
“You’re an idealist?”/“Why else does someone become a scientist?” Hmmmm.
Wow, Nicholas Courtney is wasted in this; there wasn’t even enough material to refer to him in the review proper. Almost all he does is talk to himself in a car!
“You’re mad!”/“So the wife tells me; get moving!”
"Lieutenant Dodds, I could have you shot. Or buy you a pint. Your decision."

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