“Behind every illusion there’s a conjurer…” – The Doctor
Unlike many, I don’t consider this to be one of the worst Doctor Who story ever—there are several others I consider even worse–but I definitely understand the ridiculous characterizations, unrealistic reactions, shaky plot points, and other frustrating aspects of the story that make many people hate it. That said, I find that there are many things that are just as good as other average stories. For example, the idea of airplanes accidently flying into a time tunnel that takes them back to early Earth history is not a bad starting point. I’m sure the several close-up and interior shots of Concorde, which was then the height of ultra-modernity and British pride, were quite exciting at the time. The idea of a powerful alien race, once separate entities and now amalgamated into one powerful intelligence, whose powers are being tapped by an evil outsider and thus causing internal conflict is actually a rich premise.
Nyssa inexplicably falling susceptible to an outside force, the crew fighting back hypnosis by concentrating on the Doctor, and the crew having to use ingenuity to reassemble the airplane to make it out alive are all good plot points. The impenetrable disguise and unexpected re-appearance of the Master could have been a good idea as well if better executed. Above all, I love the fact that the Doctor suddenly invokes UNIT and gets all kinds of clearances and respect at the airport. It’s very common device in the modern era but this is the first time we see this post-1970s.
Unfortunately, the whole of the story doesn’t hold together because too much of it is weighted down by poorly thought-out dialogue and character responses. No one reacts normally to the idea of having been kidnapped and sent back in time or the incredible notion of time travel and the TARDIS. It’s like it’s all a happy lark, especially at the end. (There are a few nice scenes with the crew fighting off hypnotism. I hope we’re supposed to assume that the larger group of passengers never recover to see that they are not at the airport? Otherwise having them all standing around at the end chatting with boredom as the Master is holding them captive is just ridiculous.) Characters manage to do things they shouldn’t be able to do (understand alien races, manipulate the TARDIS) and the effects are quite shoddy at points (sometimes unnecessarily so).
By the end, some things just get exasperating and silly. Why do they keep referring to them breaking through “a wall” when it is very clearly a pod or spaceship they are working on? What is the deal with the single mind of the Xeraphin suddenly being represented by two corporeal brothers? Why is the Master’s costume so bad? And why in the world was the Master ever disguised in the first place? Was he really necessary in the end or could we have just had a cool villain named Khalid? Why would the Doctor forget Tegan? These missteps all leave a bad taste for the episode for most people.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
The sudden and silent appearance of the professor we had just seen melting away is rather cool and (implied) ghost like. I also like Nyssa’s unnerving moments of being possessed (“The control divides us!”). The seeming death of Khalid is unsettling just because its gross.
- Post-UNIT Doctor invokes UNIT to get through security
A slightly different script and dialogue might could have made this story workable.