It’s an irresistible pun: Time-Flight is unashamedly upwardly mobile. How better to describe this cheap-as-chips story which has Concorde casually hangared in it? Not so much a guest star, more a guest prop and one which is a gleaming white symbol of 1980s materialism.
I suspect there’s a cohort of new Who fans who have never heard of Concorde, or who know about it only vaguely as a historical relic (not unlike a police box). It might be difficult for them to understand what all the fuss was about. But this is not a story about any old aircraft; it would never have got made if there was only a mere 747 available to shoot in.
This is a story which, at a conceptual level, is about the most famous and exclusive aircraft in the world. The sight of it in Doctor Who is so odd, you can’t quite believe what you’re seeing, as the Doctor (sporty Peter Davison) and gal pals Nyssa (sensitive Sarah Sutton) and Tegan (sassy Janet Fielding) clamber up the boarding steps to take their seats, stow their luggage and observe the no-smoking sign. It’s a strange mix of aspiration and delusion, but it’s also the TV show’s first commercial brand deal.
Time-Flight is sometimes quoted as Doctor Who’s stab at product placement, but that misunderstands the term. Product placement in films and TV productions is about covert advertising of products which the viewing public may be convinced to buy, simply by having them featured within the narrative. Think of the Sugar Puff ads in Daleks – Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.
But this is hardly product placement, because no one watching Time-Flight was about to run out the next day and book tickets on Concorde. In 1982, Concorde was an experience for the affluent and the globe-trotting. It was for people who had the money to spend on cutting edge technology, luxury service and status symbols. It’s not that no-one in Doctor Who’s audience was like that, it’s that hardly anyone was like that. Concorde was a prestige product for the super rich and Doctor Who a mass market product for anyone with a TV licence. Ticket sales, I confidently suggest, would not have taken off.
What it is about, is brand association and that’s a different thing altogether. That Doctor Who was suddenly interested in brand in 1982 fits in with an image of a time when the trappings of wealth were gaining visibility, but it also chimes with producer John Nathan-Turner’s ambitions for the show. He always wanted a deal with an airline – Qantas had been on his radar since the introduction of air hostess companion Tegan. His desire for consistent, stylised costumes for the regular cast had one eye on marketing opportunities. He reportedly also thought Tegan’s haircut could start a fashion trend. More than any of the show’s other producers, he was entrepreneurial. Having Concorde in Doctor Who must have delighted him. It speaks of ambition, glamour and prestige.
(All the more reason why it was such a bad idea to leave this story to the end of the season, when the series’ budget was running perilously low. Doctor Who was always a cheap show, but Time-Flight looks one seat class down from economy. Instead of lifting the show up, the world’s most expensive set dressing only throws the story’s tacky interiors and scatological monsters into stark contrast. It’s like parking a Maserati in a K-Mart.)
So why does Concorde, or more specifically its operators British Airways, want a brand association with Doctor Who? The answer’s surprisingly simple. In 1982, Doctor Who was a massive hit.
This gets overlooked a bit, but Season 19 brought loads of viewers back to the show. The previous year, Tom Baker’s last, had averaged 5.8m viewers. Peter Davison’s first series brought in 9.2m. Five of its episodes, including Time-Flight Part One, attracted over 10m viewers. It is, in fact, Classic Who’s last taste of broad, mainstream popularity, and comparable to the ratings peaks of Seasons 2, 17 and the Hinchcliffe years. It rated far better than the 21st century version of the show has done in recent years.
So through Time-Flight, British Airways gets associated with a hugely popular, family oriented brand which attracts millions of viewers. Two grand old British institutions combined for a (ahem) thrilling aviation based adventure. BA gets its logo and uniforms and livery broadcast on publically funded telly, reaching an audience that advertising on commercial networks can’t. No wonder when Nathan-Turner bluffed them by mentioning he might go with Air France instead, they rushed to secure the deal.
(Can you imagine it though? French versions of flight crew Stapley, Bilton and Scobie… and Angela Clifford to boot! Faffing about with outrageous French accents! Sacre bleu.)
From our fannish perspective, Time-Flight is an infamous disaster of a story. But I suspect no-one at either the BBC or British Airways considered it so at the time (neither did readers of Doctor Who Monthly, who placed it fourth out of seven in the mag’s Season 19 poll). Like so many other Doctor Who stories, this just wasn’t built for multiple viewings, let alone the intense scrutiny thousands of Whoheads subject it to. But as a disposable piece of cross promotion disguised as popular entertainment, I suspect it was mostly viewed as a success.
If anything, it’s amazing there weren’t more examples of it in Classic Who. That would-be story about the Master (Anthony Ainley) involved in a banking fraud? Sponsored by Barclays! (Plus he could disguise himself for no good reason again! He loves that schtick. Maybe a fatcat banker called Mr East.) Or if we’re sticking with luxury transport, surely there’d be some hidden alien menace in the back seats of a fleet of Rolls Royces? Or perhaps the silencing suds of doom might return, branded by Imperial Leather?
But hang on, I’ve got a better idea. New Who could make a Time-Flight sequel, but with Virgin Galactic! More hi-jinks with vanity travel for the super rich. With a cameo by Branson! Call it One More Time–Flight. Or maybe Wham Bam Sharaz Sharam, An Orange Kalid Sky? Or if the pooey Plasmatons return, perhaps The Pile High Club?
Oh yes. This trip’s not over yet. Sit down, strap in and hang on.
LINK TO The Silurians. UNIT and the Brigadier get name checked.
NEXT TIME… We have a New York stop over when The Angels Take Manhattan. Which is handy, as the Captain wants us to try that new Indonesian restaurant he’s found.