The Trial of a Time Lord encompasses the entire 23 season of the show, and has A Christmas Carol sort of feeling to it. It’s also one of the poorest stories ever created for Doctor Who, having a descent build-up ending on a very, very low note. The series at this time had just faced a chance of cancellation, but ended up renewed. In this manner, Doctor Who had also been on trial. This is the only post which will cover an entire season of Doctor Who as singular post. According to The A.V. Club review of The Ultimate Foe:
This is the way the Sixth Doctor era ends: Not with a bang, but a whimper. Offscreen, the show loses the script editor who was, for better or worse, the driving force behind the grim, violent, and often misanthropic vision of mid-1980s Doctor Who, and it would very soon lose Six’s actor, Colin Baker, who was fired after season 23 was over. Onscreen, the 14-episode “Trial Of A Time Lord” arc limps past the finish line with the final segment, “The Ultimate Foe.”
It shouldn’t be terribly surprising that after a dozen episodes of mediocre buildup, the final two half-hours wrap up the story in a less than satisfying way. But given the behind-the-scenes chaos that plagued this season and particularly the making of these last two episodes, it’s a victory that they were finished at all. Even in the best of circumstances, an ambitious idea like a season-long story would have been challenging to pull off, and Doctor Who was decidedly not in the best of circumstances at the time. The show’s production team was already embattled going into season 23, having just weathered an 18-month hiatus that was one step away from being cancelled outright, and their bosses at the BBC made their continued coolness toward the series quite clear.
In response, producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward devised the “Trial” concept as a way to answer the question of whether Doctor Who deserved a future by forcing the Doctor to fight for his own future in a courtroom against an implacably hostile prosecutor, a Time Lord called the Valeyard, in a multi-part story that mixed his past, present and future and collectively formed the longest serial the show had ever attempted. A bold move, perhaps, but in the final analysis taking on such a big project just proved that skepticism about the series was well-founded. Each of the three segments leading up to “The Ultimate Foe” had serious problems on their own terms. But heading into the final stretch, it’s clear that nobody gave enough thought to the much-more-important overarching courtroom plot—neither in how the three “evidence” storylines were relevant to it, nor in how to make a compelling story out of the trial itself. Not only are the courtroom scenes dreadfully static and dull, but there is little sense that they’re progressing anywhere in particular. Though the Doctor repeatedly suggests that something is fishy with the evidence being drawn from the Time Lords’ supposedly unimpeachable databank, the Matrix, the obvious next step of showing him actually trying to investigate the problem never happens. This, even though the idea that the Matrix has been tampered with is basically a steal from the Fourth Doctor serial “The Deadly Assassin,” during which the Doctor proved his suspicions with some extra investigation that’s apparently impossible here.
And the Valeyard, despite being the season’s main antagonist, remains for 12 episodes a one-note, undeveloped character who does nothing but hector the Doctor with repeated and increasingly tiresome complaints. There’s no hint of what he’s really up to, or who he really is, and so the sudden suprise-twist revelation of his true identity early in “The Ultimate Foe” seems to come out of left field. Which is a shame, because the idea that he is really a future version of the Doctor himself is a potentially fascinating one that deserved to be explored in greater depth. That’s the problem with a lot of big surprise twists: The twist often is the story, and keeping it secret means you can’t tell that story the way it needs telling. The idea of a Doctor who has become so afraid of dying that he sabotages his own past to keep himself alive could have made a great story, especially if it explored how his fear so twisted him that he became his own opposite, not merely evil but also someone whose power rested on his ability to use rules and laws to get what he wants—diametrically opposed to any of the Doctors we had met up to this point, all of whom were iconoclasts and forces of chaos more than anything else. Spinning that tale well meant, at the very least, dropping some hints about it earlier than episode 13 of 14.
Of course, there was an unavoidable reason why “The Ultimate Foe” failed to follow through on exploring the implications of its shocking twists—not just that the Valeyard was the Doctor, but that Ravolox from “The Mysterious Planet” was really Earth, moved across several light-years and disguised in order to cover up corruption in high Time Lord circles. Namely, that the scriptwriter who was going to do it, Robert Holmes, died after writing episode 13 but before finishing the final one, which set off a cascade of following disasters. The strained relationship between Nathan-Turner and Saward devolved into total, acrimonious meltdown over a disagreement about Holmes’ original ending, and Saward quit. For legal reasons, that ending had to be scrapped, and Nathan-Turner had to bring on new writers to finish the last episode but could tell them nothing about what was supposed to have happened. And the writers he chose were Pip and Jane Baker of “Terror Of The Vervoids,” whose scripts had the virtue of coming in on time but were condescendingly simplistic, pedantic and aimed at an audience of children they seemed to think were kind of dumb—and hugely at variance with the intelligent but deeply cynical approach characteristic of Holmes. All this ensured that “The Ultimate Foe” was essentially doomed to be a confused, sloppy mishmash.
Finally, according to the Den of Geek article, “Doctor Who: Season 23 finally commissioned, 25 years late“:
The audio arm of Doctor Who spin-offs, ‘Big Finish’ has announced its latest project – the recording, at last, of the ‘lost’ Season Twenty Three of Doctor Who.
This ‘original’ Season Twenty Three, 6th Doctor Colin Baker’s second year in the role, was originally due to be aired from January 1986, but when John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward discovered in early March 1985 that BBC One Controller Michael Grade, in an attempt to solve a problem of financial shortfall, was not only pushing the new series back to the September, but also halving the number of episodes, they decided to revamp all of their plans, and thus they commissioned the sprawling curate’s egg that was the 14 episode epic, Trial of A Timelord.
The original Season Twenty Three was well advanced by this stage, with seven commissioned scripts, two of which were all but complete. It is from these scripts, and others, that the Big Finish ‘Lost Stories’ producer, David Richardson, has chosen to attempt to revive the lost season. He stated that, although three of the scripts made it to novel form, others have, “remained locked away in their respective writers lofts for well over 20 years. It’s taken a lot of (very enjoyable) detective work, but I’ve managed to source seven unmade adventures that will now finally come brilliantly to life on audio.”
The mystery now rests in the question as to what will make up this new seven-serial audio season. With Colin Baker on board stating that he “couldn’t have been more delighted” with the turn of events, and coupled with his original companion, Peri Brown, played by Nicola Bryant, expectations are high, especially given the list of Who luminaries who wrote the original scripts, such as Robert Holmes – writer of stories such as Talons of Weng Chiang and Caves of Androzani, Christopher H. Bidmead – writer of Castrovalva and Frontios, Philip Martin – writer of Vengeance on Varos, Graham Williams – series producer from 1977 to 1980, and Peter Grimwade – series director and writer of Mawdryn Undead. Oh, and there was also a script by Pip and Jane Baker in which they blew up Gallifrey.
But let’s not mind that for now. Instead, let’s take a look at what we actually know about Season Twenty Three and have a think about what might, and what might not, be coming soon to a CD near you. Or maybe even Radio 7…
Both the Philip Martin and Graham Williams scripts, “Mission to Magnus” and “The Nightmare Fair” were novelised and have been mentioned in the press release. The former has been adapted for audio by the original author, and the latter has been adapted in the place of the deceased Graham Williams by John Ainsworth, who stated that “working on the script has been great fun. I have made every effort to remain true to the original TV script but have also been able to include extra material from Graham’s own novelisation of the story. Hopefully listeners will get a good sense of what the story would have been like had it been made for TV”. Wally K Daly’s “The Ultimate Evil” was similarly novelised, but has not yet been mentioned.
Taking each story in as much depth as we can, we can start with Williams’ “The Nightmare Fair”, which was commissioned on November 17th 1984. This was to have been directed by Matthew Robinson, who had previously been at the helm of Colin Baker’s first season opener ‘Attack Of The Cybermen’. The story was to have been linked to directly from the end of the previous season’s closer, “Revelation of the Daleks”, in which the Doctor tells Peri that he’s taking her to Blackpool, “the nexus of the primeval cauldron of Space-Time itself”, as described by Williams in his novelisation.
Once lured to the seaside town, the Doctor and Peri were soon to discover that something mysterious was afoot in a local video arcade. At the back of it was to be found the third season baddie, The Celestial Toymaker. The idea was that the Doctor and Peri would have to fight their way through the Toymaker’s various video games in order to defeat him, thus providing a late 20th Century revamp of the Toymaker’s earlier eponymous story. Upon the announcement of the hiatus in March, however, this story was immediately cancelled. Despite this, fans have been particularly familiar with this story for several years, not only because it was novelised in 1989, and it was also previously adapted for audio in 2003 in a charity adaptation.
Although not mentioned (yet) by Big Finish, Season Twenty Three’s second story was to have been Wally K Daly’s “The Ultimate Evil”, which was to have opened with the TARDIS working far too well for a change, leaving the Doctor at something of a loose end. Bored, he decides to visit the peaceful country of Tranquela, but soon encounters an evil arms dealer, the Dwarf Mordant, who has been busy inciting hatred and violence there via a device which inspired violence in both Tranquela’s inhabitants, and those of the continent of Ameliora.
The Doctor was to succumb to the violence himself at one point, which would no doubt have gone down particularly badly considering the criticisms of the previous season’s violence. Fiona Cumming, who had previously worked on ‘Planet of Fire’ was to direct. However, like the first story of the season, “The Ultimate Evil” was cancelled upon the commencement of the hiatus, although it was later novelised by Daly for Target.
The next story that Big Finish mention was Philip Martin’s “Mission to Magnus”, previously known as “Planet of Storms”. This was the third story to be commissioned for Season Twenty Three’s, and was possibly going to have been directed by Ron Jones, who had worked on Martin’s earlier “Vengeance on Varos” and would do so again on the ‘real’ Season Twenty Three’s ‘Mindwarp’. The plot entailed the Doctor and Peri being threatened by Anzor – a Time Lord who had bullied the Doctor in his youth – who had locked the TARDIS in orbit around the planet of Magnus.
On the planet below, we would have found that Anzor and the planet’s ruling female caste had joined up with Martin’s earlier creation from ‘Vengeance on Varos’, Sil for the benefit of the corrupt Time Lord’s own ends. When the Doctor investigates, he was to discover that the classic 60s monsters, the Ice Warriors were hiding in the planet’s polar ice caps. Again, this series was immediately cancelled upon the announcement of the hiatus but was novelised for Target by the author.
The next story in terms of development was the, by now, eagerly awaited “Yellow Fever, And How To Cure It” by Who legend, Robert Holmes. Holmes had earned his stripes on undisputed series classics, Spearhead from Space, Terror of the Autons, The Time Warrior, The Deadly Assassin, Talons of Weng-Chiang, and The Caves of Androzani, amongst several others. This fourth Season Twenty Three story had been commissioned on February 6th 1985, around four weeks before the entire Season was scrapped, and was to be a six parter (or, indeed, a three-parter consisting of 45 minute episodes, as was the format of Who at this time).
The serial was to be filmed in Singapore and was to have featured Holmes’ own creations, The Autons, as well as the Rani, and possibly also The Master. Holmes’ story was one of only three that managed to remain commissioned after the hiatus announcement, and he was duly requested by series producer John Nathan Turner to revise his script to suit the reversion to the 25 minute episode structure. However, in May, Holmes himself asked the production team to drop his serial. Still, that does mean that he worked on it for at least three months, providing the possibility that there is more than just a bare storyline available for development, as many sources suggest. Holmes’ death the year after he wrote the story has meant that it hasn’t been touched since that time, however.
With two slots left in Season 23, Christopher H. Bidmead’s “The Hollows Of Time” was very likely to have taken one of the slots. Again, having been commissioned some five months before the scrapping of the Season, it was likely to have been in an advanced stage of scripting and development. Similarly, like Holmes’ story, this serial also limped on until May before finally being abandoned.
Of the two stories considered for the series’ final remaining slot, both were by writers who hadn’t previously worked for Who. The first, entitled “The Children of January” was commissioned on 6th February 1985 and was by the prominent Irish writer Michael Feeney Callan, who was noted for his work on Shoestring and The Professionals. This work is a strong possibility for inclusion in the Big Finish series due to the fact that Callan is still writing, and also due to the fact that the story remained commissioned until May 1985, like the stories by Holmes and Bidmead.
The other story in consideration for the final slot of the season was by a somewhat shadowy writer named Bill Pritchard, who I can’t find any other information on. Pritchard’s story was immediately nixed in March 1985 once the hiatus was announced.
Other Season Twenty Three possibilities that had already fallen by the wayside included “League of the Tancreds” by Peter Grimwade, who had directed several episodes of the show and also written “Mawdryn Undead” and “Planet of Fire”. Oh, and “Time Flight”, but we won’t mention that. Grimwade passed away in 1990, which suggests that this won’t be one of the finished scripts. Two other stories, one from Gary Hopkins, and one from Jonathan Wolfman, had also been discarded by the time of the hiatus.
Another possibility for the original Season Twenty Three was actually begun after the hiatus had been announced. On 11th March 1985, Pip and Jane Baker were commissioned to write an all new serial named “Gallifray” (sic) which was to feature the destruction of the Time Lords’ homeworld. However, like the remaining three stories by Holmes, Bidmead and Callan, this was eventually abandoned in May. Presumably, due to the Bakers’ extremely swift writing speed, this story would have been substantially complete by this time. Also, considering their continuing fondness for all things ‘Who’, this story would be a strong possibility for the new old season.
As the Big Finish producer, David Richardson, says, “I’ve spent the last week fielding emails from many people, all desperate to know what the final five stories are!” Richardson continued. “And, you know, I’d love to tell them. I’d just like to get it off my chest! But for now we can’t say I’m afraid – not until final scripts are delivered, and studio dates are booked, and everything is set in stone. But keep looking at the Doctor Who Magazine news pages, as we’ll be announcing the Final Five in there first!”
For my money, coupling “The Nightmare Fair” and “Mission to Magnus”, I think that “The Ultimate Evil” would be a definite for one of the seven slots. I’d suggest “The Hollows Of Time” and “Children of January” would also be strong possibilities, and I could easily imagine “Gallifray” joining them. A revamping of Holmes’ “Yellow Fever” would provide a huge coup for the Big Finish team, and I could imagine there would be no shortage of writers (such as Terrance Dicks?) who would be more than happy to complete it.
According to the m0vie blog review of The Mysterious Planet:
Well, this is a charade.
– the Doctor gets the idea quickly enough
The Doctor had been off screens for eighteen months following Revelation of the Daleks. Michael Grade was desperately trying to cancel the show, and it only limped back to screen with a significantly reduced budget and much shorter run of episodes. The show length was also reverted back to its default value. This season would only run for fourteen half-hour episodes – what would become the set length for Doctor Who in the years to come. (Indeed, counting the Christmas Special, the revived series also runs to that length, albeit in forty-five minute episodes.)
By all accounts, the production on the infamous Trial of a Time Lord was a disaster for reasons natural and otherwise. Veteran writer Robert Holmes was to provide the opening and closing scripts, but passed away before his work on the finalé could be finished. Script editor Eric Saward and producer John Nathan-Turner clashed over the climax of the trial, prompting Saward to resign and Nathan-Turner to temporarily become script editor himself. Colin Baker couldn’t make sense of Mindwarp. The last episode of the season was written by two writers wrapping up from Holmes’ first part, but unable to examine his notes on how he planned to conclude it.
Believe me when I state that every last ounce of this behind-the-scenes friction was visible on-screen by the end of the year. Luckily enough, the show does a decent enough job concealing these approaching problems in the first story of the arc. That’s not to say that The Mysterious Planet is an unsung classic, merely to point out that it is at least unburdened by the seemingly real time collapse of Doctor Who.
Let’s pause here, as we prepare to examine the first story in the sequence. It does seem a bit strange to try and combat falling ratings on Doctor Who by making the entire season into one long and integrated arc. Of course, this had been done before, but The Key to Time did not have such an intrusive over-arching plot, while the idea of entropy weaved between the serials in the Fourth Doctor’s final year. This was something all together different.
There was a consistent cast maintained throughout the season. The action often cut away from the narrative of the particular adventure to these characters debating and commenting upon it. Details carried over from week-to-week. While the production crew may not have had a clear plan for the season-long story, it did have continuity. It had so much continuity that John Nathan-Turner felt the need to record continuity announcements to fill in the audience before each adventure.
However, this raises the question of why you would want to try something like this when you are desperately losing audience members. One would assume that the show should be accessible to attract a new audience, to encourage people who had been scared away by the continuity fetishism of Attack of the Cybermen to give the show a second chance. There was a hope that you might keep the audience tuning in by dangling this fourteen-week thread, but that idea presupposes that people are watching in the first place.
This is something that the revival did very well – it was open and accessible. It encouraged new viewers. It did have plot arcs and pay-offs, but they were generally subtly seeded throughout a season of relatively stand-alone stories. You could watch The Idiot’s Lantern or Tooth & Claw without picking up on the “Torchwood” reference, for example. The plot didn’t hinge on it. In contrast, if you tune in for Terror of the Vervoids without seeing The Mysterious Planets or Mindwarp, prepare to be confused by all those silly people in silly outfits making statements that seem to be profound.
It isn’t the only aspect of Trial of a Time Lord that seems ill-judged. For example, the serial opens with one of the show’s best special effects, as the Doctor is pinched out of time and space, and is pulled to a trial on a satellite. The effect is breathtaking, and I can understand the desire to open the season with a “bang.” It’s certainly attention-grabbing. The problem is that it seems a bit silly to spend so much effort on an opening effect when the laser effects in the fourth part look as utterly ridiculous as ever. It might have been a better allocation of funds to improve effects across the season, instead of blowing the budget in the first two minutes.
Of course, I don’t run a show like this, so what do I know? However, I would assume that – if you decide to pursue this “one story” approach to a season of television in 1986 – then it would be prudent to carefully and meticulously plot it. At the very least, make sure that your basic idea incorporates a logical end point and makes sure that each of the writers knows what they are working towards. After all, the primary purpose of The Trial of the Time Lord is to play off the sense that the BBC are putting the show “on trial.” If you are constructing your fourteen-episode season can at least make a coherent argument in that context.
Unfortunately, it’s quite clear that The Trial of a Time Lord does not have a coherent structure. It was plainly being made up as it went along. The concept of the Valeyard, for example, radically shifts between Robert Holmes’ penultimate episode and the Bakers’ final script of the season. The whole thing sort of implodes, for no reason at all. Behind the scenes, apparently John Nathan-Turner settled on the “trial” construct late in production, after Robert Holmes had begun to write The Mysterious Planet.
That’s a very dodgy proposition to begin with. How can you expect a story to incorporate the themes of your trial if it is already a work in progress? And some of that is quite evident. Given the fourteen-episode season, the plan was to do three typical four-part adventures and a four-part epilogue. The structure of those three regular-length stories would mirror A Christmas Carol. In that case, The Mysterious Planet would be “the past.”
And here’s where we run into a bit of bother? Which “past”? The show has been running for over two decades. It has been many things at many times. Is this episode intended to evoke the series at its prime, or just the previous season? Given that The Mysterious Planet is invoked by the prosecution, you’d imagine that it would be an example of the show’s worst past. In that case, then, perhaps the immediate past? Colin Baker’s much-maligned first season, with it’s nihilism, its gore, its continuity fixation?
But that doesn’t quite fit. After all, Mindwarp fits better as an illustration of Colin Baker’s first year in the role. Although the “present” is literally the trial itself, that would hardly make for a compelling four-part adventure. Instead, it suggests that the Doctor was yanked directly from an adventure similar in mood and tone to that of the previous season. It fits quite well, given that Doctor Who was almost cancelled by BBC at that point as well – so suddenly that Colin Baker’s final line in Revelation of the Daleks had to be cut. So it’s clear that Mindwarp is set in the “present” that is Colin Baker’s first full season in the role.
So that means that the “past” represented in The Mysterious Planet must be further afield than that. Indeed, looking at the scriptwriter and the laundry list of ingredients, The Mysterious Planet feels like it is an attempt to channel the spirit of the Tom Baker era. There’s a mysterious planet with a secret past, a pleasant sense of humour and the script is littered with Holmesian double acts. Indeed, Colin Baker’s Doctor seems to have settled down quite a bit here, and is more in line with the characterization of Tom Baker’s Doctor.
You can see the mellowing of the Doctor’s character in his interactions with Peri. Indeed, even the protective manner is which he walks with her under his umbrella suggests that their relationship might be a great deal healthier than it had been the last time we saw them together. “Is there any intelligent life here?” she asks, early on. “Apart from me, you mean?” he replies. However, they both exchange a knowing smile afterwards, and it’s clear that Peri is no longer uncertain or afraid of this version of the Doctor. Which, naturally, turns out to be a bit of an error on her part given how quickly the Doctor reverts (or seems to revert) to form in Mindwarp.
There is a hint of the Sixth Doctor’s flawed character remaining. He is, for example, very quick to consider leaving Glitz and Dibber to their deaths at the hands of the Free. “You have no quarrel with us,” he protests. “They destroyed your beacon.” However, this is the exception rather than the rule. In contrast, the Doctor’s conduct in the sequences set during the trial demonstrate his rather blustery personality. He’s the same as he ever was, but the “past” of The Mysterious Planet seems strangely idealised.
It’s worth noting here, of course, that the show has an agenda in showing us “the past.” No show wants to be cancelled… well, most shows don’t want to be cancelled. Doctor Who certainly doesn’t. So there’s no way that even the “prosecution” evidence is going to land any severely critical blows that could cripple the show. The Valeyard might be showing this footage to us, but it’s clearly not intended to convince us of his case – it’s not supposed to convince us that the show was always crap and that it should be put out of its misery. (Indeed, even Mindwarp tries to characterise some criticisms of Baker’s first year as mischaracterisation.)
So The Mysterious Planet presents us an idealised past. And, to be fair, this is the biggest problem with The Mysterious Planet. Watching The Mysterious Planet, we should be swept up in nostalgia, thinking, “Man, this show was pretty great, wasn’t it?” Instead, The Mysterious Planet instead offers us a perfectly average Doctor Who adventure, crammed with perfectly average ingredients. The end result is, “Well, there’s no real reason to cancel it, based on what we’ve seen, right?” Rather than, “don’t you dare cancel this!”
It’s interesting to note that The Mysterious Planet represents a massive shift from the previous season. Colin Baker’s first season of the show had seen a particular kind of continuity fetishism come to the fore. The season opened with Attack of the Cybermen, which seemed to exist to tie together all Cybermen related continuity. The Two Doctors gave us our first non-anniversary multiple Doctor story. Revelation of the Daleks might have been the strongest story of the season, but it still played into the whole “Dalek Civil War” plot.
The Mysterious Planet looks to the past, but in an entirely different way. Rather than looking to particular storylines or plot points, it instead focuses on tropes and concepts that are associated historically with the series. It is just as much an ode to the past of Doctor Who, but in an entirely different (and more accessible) manner than some of Colin Baker’s earlier stories. The problem with it is – for the most part – that it’s too preoccupied revisiting these old storytelling techniques to do anything especially exciting with them.
And, indeed, this effect is somewhat undermined by the fact that – again – the trial sections are written very much in the style of the prior season. This doesn’t just extend to the characterisation of the Doctor, but also the show’s attitude towards continuity. “I see, Valeyard,” the Inquisitor notes, referencing The War Games, “that it is on record that the Doctor has faced trial already for offences of this nature.” The Doctor also tries to invoke his status as President of Gallifrey for The Five Doctors, only to be shot down. These moments lead nowhere dramatically, and serve to introduce complex continuity in the first ten minutes of the new season.
There are some interesting moments. For example, Glitz is perhaps the last truly great character that Robert Holmes created, and he gets some great lines here. Holmes knows that he’s offering a Doctor Who story by rote, and at least he acknowledges that in the dialogue. When Glitz provides a vital piece of exposition for the audience that he and his colleague should take for granted, Dibber responds, “I know all that.”
The Mysterious Planet is littered with those sorts of examples of self-awareness. Forced to resort to another cliché, Glitz is reluctant, “Somehow I always feel foolish saying this. Take me to your leader.” Even Drathro tires of the stereotypical double act of Tandrell and Humker. “Silence! You drain my energy reserve with your constant infantile bickering.” However, while acknowledging the script’s reliance on these sorts of devices is endearing, it doesn’t really make up for the somewhat casual plotting.
While the Doctor’s rapport with Peri has improved, sadly the show’s attitude towards her hasn’t quite been redeemed. It’s nice to see Nicola Bryant costumed in such a way that isn’t so crassly intended to transform her into a sex object, but there’s still the fact that almost everybody on the show still thinks of her as one. When she is captured by the surface dwellers, the leader immediately sees value in her reproductive organs. “I shall provide some excellent husbands for you,” Katryca boasts. “Such women as we have must be shared. Think about it.” Well, at least there’s a choice, even if the choice is death.
There’s also some awkward moments towards the end when the Doctor seems to take for granted that Drathro is not alive. Of course, he has to kill Drathro to save the universe, but he seems to rather quickly dismiss the robot’s right to life on the basis that he is not flesh and blood. “I know of values,” the robot confesses. “Is your point that organics are of more value than robots?” And the Doctor explicitly responds, “Yes, if you want to look at it that way.”
It seems rather harsh and in conflict with the Doctor’s broader moral philosophy that just because something is different does not mean it is less. Although, I suppose, it does set up his decision in Terror of the Vervoids. Indeed, the script seems to acknowledge this flaw in the Sixth Doctor’s reasoning, as he pointedly recognises Drathro’s lifelike characteristics. He sees the “hubris” in Drathro, something he then points to as “a human sin.”
Another interesting point raised by The Mysterious Planet is the important of the Earth to Gallifrey. It is something that has never quite been explained, and there’s been a great deal of discussion on the matter. In covering this serial, the always insightful Phil Sandifer over at TARDIS Eruditorum has a fascinating bit of insight:
Tellingly, though, the constellation he names – Kasterborous – cannot be a Gallifreyan one, since constellations are merely happenstance arrangements of stars in the sky of a given planet, and thus one cannot see a constellation that one is a part of. So when Gallifrey is said to be in the constellation of Kasterborous, what can this possibly mean?
Clearly, and this ties in alarmingly well with Gallifrey as we understood it back in The Deadly Assassin, the Time Lords’ understanding of themselves is defined primarily by reference to an external observer. They are, after all, seemingly a race governed not by the recorded facts of history but by the material memory of history. Their entire civilization is based around the Matrix, known to be a collection of memories. So it’s not a surprise that even the location of their planet is defined in terms of an external perspective. The only question is whose.
By far the most sensible answer, within Doctor Who, is Earth’s. Yes, there’s a sort of dreary cliche to the idea that the Time Lords are future versions of humanity, but it’s also difficult to avoid the fact that it makes a lot of sense. Not, as Miles and Woods sneer, because the sorts of people who like this idea are the sorts of people who want the Doctor to be Anakin Skywalker’s father, but because some version of this is already true. The series is hopeless at making up its mind whether the Time Lords consider Earth an obscure backwater or whether they see it as a vitally important planet, but it’s difficult not to observe that Earth has been the obsession of every single renegade Time Lord in the series from the Monk on.
It’s not a bad argument, even if I’m not entirely convinced. It would raise various paradox-related metaphysical questions that I’m not sure the show can support. But the broad points are compelling.
The trial segments here are… well, they’re here. The trial structure is very clearly set up to channel the BBC’s persecution of the show, and to play that out on air. As such, it feels like a missed opportunity. There are a number of very nice moments here, but none of them really get to the heart of the criticisms of the chow. Most of them exist to construct straw man arguments that the show can joke about or dismiss as petty. The result is entertaining, but feels somewhat unsatisfying. It feels like a waste of the format to crack jokes about cliffhangers.
The complaints articulated by those in the court room are generic complaints at best. “Why do I have to sit here watching Peri getting upset, while two unsavoury adventurers bully a bunch of natives?” the Doctor asks early on, tiring of all the set-up necessary for the adventure. “The reason will be made clear shortly, Doctor,” the Valeyard assures him, rather patronisingly. It feels a bit of disingenuous complaint, as it seems unlikely that “pacing” was top of the BBC’s complaints. (Although, to be honest, the show’s pacing did need a bit of an overhaul in 1986, but it wasn’t the most pressing concern.)
That said, I do like the Doctor’s reaction to the cliffhanger. “Oh!” he protests. “Why’d you stop it at the best bit? I was rather enjoying that.” It is actually one of the better cliffhanger moments in the show’s history, mirroring the similar moment that ended the first episode of Vengeance on Varos. Indeed, it’s probably the best comment that The Mysterious Planet makes in defence of the series – recognising its charmy pulpy appeal.
The show does, to be fair, raise the spectre of violence. “Valeyard, are these unpleasant scenes necessary to your case?” the Inquisitor demands. “I find primitive physical violence distressing.” Later on, she asks, “Valeyard, I would appreciate it if these brutal and repetitious scenes are reduced to a minimum.” The problem, of course, is that nothing here is too shocking. I’ll freely admit that the moral guardians reacting to things like Vengeance on Varos or Revelation of the Daleks were over-reacting, but to frame her objections here seems disingenuous. Particularly since there’s violence more typical of the era in Mindwarp.
Of course, the Doctor mounts a defence to these accusations, but it’s weirdly conciliatory. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” he protests, “but I’m not given to violence as the Valeyard here suggests. Occasionally I might have to resort to a modicum of force…” This feels like a cheeky answer to a rigged question. His answer is correct – the violence in Vengeance on Varos was atypical and did represent something of the extreme. It wouldn’t be fair to characterise that as typical of the era. However, the violence in The Mysterious Planet is far from the most violent moment in this season, so using that as the baseline feels like cheating.
Still, it’s not all bad. For all that The Mysterious Planet is decidedly average, there is one touching scene, after Peri discovers that this is the future of Earth. “I’m sorry,” the Doctor suggests, in a touching moment that would have seemed out of character last season. “But look at it this way. Planets come and go, stars perish. Matter disperses, coalesces, reforms into other patterns, other worlds. Nothing can be eternal.” In other words, everything dies. It’s a sentiment that Russell T. Davies would push to the fore of his first season, and it feels oddly appropriate here.
I think it is reasonable to argue that The Trial of a Time Lord put the final nail in the coffin of Doctor Who. The death cycle just took a while to completely claim the series. The suggestion that death and ends are natural seems the perfect place to start, then.
According to the m0vie blog review of Mindwarp:
Hey, keep together. This is a great day for battle. A great day to die!
Does he always go on like that?
-Ycranos, Tuza and Peri discover she apparently has a type
The Trial of a Time Lord loosely adheres to the structure of A Christmas Carol. If The Mysterious Planet can be seen as the “past” story, then Mindwarp is very clearly the “present” story. The BBC’s sudden “hiatus” for Doctor Who yanked the series suddenly out of Colin Baker’s first season, to the point where dialogue from Baker referencing the planned series opener had to be dubbed out. As a result, for the eighteen month gap, Colin Baker’s first full season in the role was a perpetual “present.” It was the last Doctor Who that had aired, and – as a result – it was the version of the show that first popped into people’s minds when they thought of the series.
So it seems fitting that The Trial of a Time Lord sees Colin Baker yanked directly from an adventure that looks like it could have been filmed as part of his first full year in the role. If The Mysterious Planet evokes a hazy and romantic past, a story constructed from familiar archetypes and plot points, then Mindwarp is a very clear acknowledgement of what the show had evolved into. Given the difficulties facing the programme after that problematic year, Mindwarp is the segment of this over-arching plot that needs to make the most robust defence of the show, or at least deflect the most criticism.
Despite some interesting strengths, Mindwarp doesn’t quite construct a convincing argument in favour of the show. More than that, though, its deflections prove a little weak.
I feel the need to clarify that Colin Baker’s first year on the show was not entirely bad. Sure, it gave the series three of the worst adventures that it ever produced – Attack of the Cybermen, Timelash and The Mark of the Rani. One of those three even opened that season, which was a miscalculation if ever there was one. If you roll in the previous season’s disastrous début for the Sixth Doctor, The Twin Dilemma, it looks even bleaker. However, the year gave us two genuine classics in Vengeance on Varos and Revelation of the Daleks.
However, and here’s what’s notable about those successes, Revelation of the Daleks and Vengeance on Varos didn’t succeed despite the general aesthetic of the year. There’s no way that you could air those adventures in any other run of episodes and have them fit in. They are very clearly, and very obviously, Colin Baker stories. So, building on that, one might imagine that the best way to defend the “present” version of Doctor Who would be to construct a story of that level of quality.
If you want to make a convincing case that Doctor Who, as it is now, doesn’t deserve cancellation, then you need to offer something that matches Revelation of the Daleks or Vengeance on Varos. And Mindwarp doesn’t do that. However, it comes considerably closer than any other story in the entire Colin Baker era. It isn’t an utter failure, and it demonstrates that all these themes and ideas are not inherently terrible, but it doesn’t manage to produce anything quite as convincing as either of the aforementioned classics.
Coming from writer Phillip Martin helps. Martin has an idea how to best use the tropes and conventions of this era better than virtually any other writer. Indeed, I’d argue that he has a better grasp of the style than Eric Saward, who script edited the previous season, and whose writing record is all over the shop. Martin understands how to write that sort of grim and nihilistic story in a way that avoids seeming excessively gratuitous and playing into the worst conventions of that season.
In fact, Mindwarp might have made a pretty great story, were it not tied to The Trial of a Time Lord. The biggest albatross around the serial’s neck is the ambiguity of it all. We’re subjected to a great deal of footage of the Sixth Doctor acting like a selfish coward, while he protests that the show is being edited to make him look bad. “It was never like that,” the Doctor assures us, and we’re sure that the Matrix has been tampered with. The only problem is that we’re not sure how much.
In The Ultimate Foe, it is confirmed that the events depicted in Mindwarp don’t sink up to what “really” happened, to the point where Peri actually survived. Ignoring the narrative cop out for now (oh, I’ll get back to it!), it leaves us wondering just how close – if at all – that adventure came to depicting an actual adventure. “For a lie to work, madam, it must be shrouded in truth,” the Master explains in The Ultimate Foe. “Therefore most of what you saw was true.”
The problem is that “most” of what we saw was pretty damning. Even Colin Baker has admitted to being a bit confused about the whole thing:
I was very confused by it, but I had a very different problem, especially in Mindwarp because there was a point when I said to Eric Saward, the script editor, “When I’m tying Peri to this rock and threatening to torture her, am I doing it for some subtle reason of my own, because I think I’m being watched or whatever, or because I’ve been affected by the mind probe, or is the Matrix lying?” Those were the three alternatives as I saw it. He said “I don’t know, you’d better ask Philip Martin”, so I got in touch and gave him those three alternatives, he said “I don’t know, Eric wrote the trial stuff, all the Matrix stuff was added after, by Eric, you’d better ask him.” So I went to John Nathan-Turner, he said “Oh, whichever you like.” This is the level of involvement at the time. Eric was going through his own problems at the time, disagreeing with John Nathan-Turner on all sorts of things. I felt that was all very sloppy, it was all cobbled together a bit. The stories were written independently, and the trial theme was put on top. I felt it was the Matrix lying, so I really was torturing Peri. But it was very difficult. You expect the writers to know what’s happening, but that’s not always the case.
The problems behind the scenes in The Trial of the Time Lord are beginning to bleed out in front of the camera. Although they won’t completely explode until we hit Terror of the Vervoids.
Anyway, the problem with this set-up is that it’s very hard to determine which aspects of what we are seeing on screen correspond to the actions of the Sixth Doctor. Well, that’s not entirely true. The problem is that nothing we see here is explicitly impossible conduct from the Sixth Doctor. From the moment the character was conceived, the production team imagined him as an anti-hero who might eventually win the trust of the audience – or, at least, that’s the official line on the character. However, the problem is, no matter how thoroughly the show might have redeemed the character, he would always have the potential for such behaviour.
Okay, tying Peri up and stating a willingness to let her drown seems out of character, even for a version of the character who almost strangled her to death. “Of course,” the Sixth Doctor states early on, clutching at straws to explain his behaviour. “Sil was right. It was a ploy to fool the Mentors. Yes, clever old me. Let the Matrix show what it will. A clever ploy. You’ll see.” It’s a plausible excuse, and it’s one that we can see the Sixth Doctor using to rationalise his actions. The greater good and all that.
Indeed, we even see some stuff that isn’t out of character, but still points to the flaws in this iteration of the character. For example, he conceals Sil’s involvement from Peri in order to trick her into going along with him. When Peri points out what Sil put her through, the Doctor is dismissive and flippant. “How could I forget?” he asks. “It cost me a fortune in bird seed.” Peri pleads, earnestly, “I want out, and I mean it.” The Doctor just ignores her, “Come on, mustn’t lose track of your friend Sil.” In many ways, this exchange is more typical of the relationship between the pair than any of the genuinely sweet stuff during The Mysterious Planet.
There must be, after all, a reason that the Time Lords picked this version of the Doctor to put on trial. After all, if the Valeyard ultimately wants his regenerations, you’d suspect an earlier version would be better. Of course, the reason this is the Sixth Doctor is because the Sixth Doctor was anchoring the show when it was almost cancelled. However, in the context of the show itself, the Sixth Doctor is also the version of the Doctor who it is easiest to condemn, who is most flawed, who is toughest to redeem. If this is a show trial to validate the Time Lords’ deal with the Valeyard, then picking the Sixth Doctor amounts to stacking the deck.
Indeed, the court room scenes continue to demonstrate how inept the Sixth Doctor is at defending himself, how his bluster and pride undermine his case, and how he refuses to engage with the court in any meaningful fashion. Righteous indignation is great, but a few logical arguments would be more effective. He did, after all, save the universe at the end of The Mysterious Planet, despite his interference. And, in Mindwarp, he was ultimately doing the dirty work for the Time Lords.
More than that, though, he is too stubborn to grasp any of the life lines offered. “It occurs to me, Doctor,” the Inquisitor states at one point, “that your current mental condition makes it very difficult for you to defend yourself. I would therefore suggest that this court be adjourned.” It’s actually remarkably fair. In light of the fact that the Doctor has incomplete memories, he might be wise to accept. However, his pride gets in the way again. “No. And I refute any implication that I’m barmy.”
Even when the Inquisitor tries to rephrase the proposal so that it might be less offensive to the Doctor’s massive ego, he’s still not receptive of an opportunity to straighten things out. “No one is impugning your sanity, Doctor,” she clarifies, “merely suggesting your memory is a little faulty.” The Doctor still refuses to budge on the point, “Nevertheless, I would like this trial to continue.” Indeed, even after that point, he still refuses the assistance of a “trained legal mind.”
Which brings us to Peri. The show repeatedly makes the criticism that the Doctor is oblivious to the danger in which he places his companions. This isn’t an argument specific to the Sixth Doctor, even if his knack for ignoring Peri’s rather overt confessions of discomfort make him a larger offender than most. In fact, Russell T. Davies made this clear throughout the revival, evidence of the Doctor’s lack of forethought.
In many ways, this is one of the criticisms of the character that The Trial of a Time Lord makes that lands a little too close to home, like the accusation that the Sixth Doctor is not a hero. In fact, the only way that The Ultimate Foe can think to undermine this ending is to offer a last-minute re-write to the scenario that we saw play out here. It’s hardly the best outcome for Peri, but we’ll deal with that in time. However, it’s a very manipulative way of evading the argument.
Everybody laments how Colin Baker was put in a truly awful position by Doctor Who. There is no disputing that. However, Nicola Bryant suffered just as much. She spent her time on the show being objectified and ogled and taken advantage of. Peri’s primary function on the show was to serve as eye candy that could be put in peril. This isn’t a knock on Nicola Bryant, who did the best she could with the material. However, one of the reasons I am (surprisingly) fond of Mel as a companion is that the show doesn’t treat her nearly as bad.
Indeed, the fact that Peri is routinely treated as nothing but a sex object is even treated as a joke here. Discussing an old dying warlord, she notes, “Beams that kill weren’t the only thing he had on his mind. Dirty old warlord. Glad we left that place when we did.” She is so used to the objectification that she seems visibly relieved when Sil refers to her as the Doctor’s “revoltingly ugly assistant.” At least she doesn’t have to worry about Sil, then.
And here’s the thing – that sort of abuse and objectification come written into Peri as a character. It’s heavily implied that her experiences of the wider universe are just repeating a pattern from the real world, that she is used to that sort of behaviour. Indeed, her remarks to the Doctor suggest that she thought he was the best man she’d ever met. “I used to think that you were different, that you cared for justice and truth and good,” she states at one point. “I can’t bear to look at what you are now.” Of course, if the Sixth Doctor is the best man you’ve ever met, it hints at deeper problems.
It’s remarkable that so much of Peri’s back story outside the show hints at sexual abuse of one form or another. The book Shell Shock suggests that Peri was abused by her stepfather. The audio drama Peri and the Piscon Paradox instead suggests that a boyfriend abused her. Either way, it seems like Peri is defined by victimisation. This is arguably the most damning criticism of this era of the show. The way that the show (and the Doctor) treated Peri is indefensible, and trying to retroactively insert a lazy “happy ending” that marries Peri off to a guest star who is defined by his tendency towards violence is just as bad.
At least the ending presented in Mindwarp is reasonable feasible. It’s unpleasant, it’s awkward and it has fairly bleak connotations, but at least it is honest to the way that the character has been treated by the series so far. If you’re going to keep one of the leads around to be abused and objectified, with little interest in her as a character, then stripping away her identity (by having somebody steal her brain), her beauty (by cutting her hair) and her own agency (by having a guest star randomly brutally murder her) is at least consistent.
Indeed, an optimist might hope that all of this bleakness would somehow serve as a form of catharsis of all this – a vow of “never again.” For all that Mel attracts a great deal of criticism, she was at least treated consistently better than Peri. Of course, she gets the same “quickly paired off” ending as Peri ultimately did, even teamed with a morally ambiguous guest star, suggesting that not everything has improved for female companions. Well, at least Ace was treated better.
As one might expect from Martin, given his work on Vengeance on Varos, Mindwarp is a staunchly anti-capitalist tale. Doctor Who has always leaned a little bit to the left (arguments about the Pertwee era notwithstanding), but Mindwarp manages to be exceptionally on the nose. They even have a “Sacred Commerce Room”, in case we needed anything made clearer.
The portrayal of the Mentors as unchecked capitalists pre-dates the appearance of the Ferengi in The Last Outpost on Star Trek: The Next Generation by exactly a year. Both races are not exactly subtle condemnations of the concept. Still, at least the portrayal of the Mentors as literal and figurative monsters is at least in line with the general politics of Doctor Who, troublesome though they may sometimes be.
Kiv threatens Sil with the most severe of sanctions, urging him, “At once! Before I perish! Then where will you be, eh? Dead. No, worse than that. Poor.” Again, it feels a little bit blunt. As does the revelation that the Mentors are so fixated on the idea of wealth that they can buy an entire race for these experiments. “We pay you enough,” Sil advises Crozier. “We have given you a whole race of people to play with.”
Apparently Martin was worried that audiences at home might somehow miss the subtext. So we get a few pointed references to Earth. For example, the Sixth Doctor proves quite an environmentalist. While examining the power generators, he notes to Peri, “As I suspected, a device for extracting energy from the sea. Something your planet had the technology to do long before its fossil fuels ran out, but they didn’t bother.” And then there’s the rather weird fact that the oppressed natives led by Tuza are presented as Native Americans. (And the fact that the majority of the Mentors’ slaves appear to black.)
The special effects for Mindwarp look great. The effects on the beach suggest a world that is truly alien, and it’s handled remarkably well. As with The Mysterious Planet, though, there is a sense that certain special effects are making leaps forward while others remain held back. It is, for example, very easy to see Christopher Ryan’s legs disappear into the bed during quite a few of the scenes featuring Kiv. Still, those effects look absolutely lovely.
It’s also nice to get some Brian Blessed action, even if the decision to marry Peri off to him has its complications. The ending might have its problems, but it’s worth it to give Brian Blessed his big “noooooooooooo!” Blessed makes the most of the material, milking lines like, “Oh, very well. Today prudence shall be our watchword. Tomorrow I shall soak the land in blood.” Even Colin Baker’s Doctor is in quite awe during Ycranos’ victory speech, gingerly waiting to point out, “Ycranos? It’s time we found Peri.”
The trial scenes continue to be a sticking point. The only criticisms raised during these sequences are the most petty of observations. Once again, we have objections about the set-up for the show. “Are you really offering this inconsequential silliness as evidence?” the Doctor asks. The Inquisitor agrees, “The Doctor has a point. Surely we could join this segment at a more relevant place.” Again, while maybe pacing was a problem, it was nowhere near the show’s biggest problem.
The trial scenes do get a bit of credit for dealing with the Doctor’s treatment of Peri, even if the show’s response is “well, it didn’t happen exactly like that…” However, once again, we get more cheap shots about the format of the series. Consider the discussion of a cliffhanger that hints that Peri and Ycranos have been killed:
Is Peri dead?
Then what was the point of showing that last sequence?
Simply as further evidence of the Doctor’s interference.
I thought it was somewhat gratuitous.
– the Doctor, the Valeyard and the Inquisitor
It’s interesting that the show chose to have the Inquisitor object to the violence in The Mysterious Planet, perhaps an acknowledgement of those put out by the violence of Baker’s tenure. However, Mindwarp would have been a much better place to position such a criticism. The Mysterious Planet features nothing excessive, while Mindwarp is more indicative of Baker’s first year. At one point, Peri and Ycranos face the possibility of having their skulls crushed. (“You must understand we can’t allow your bodies and skulls to be retrieved undamaged,” we’re told, “otherwise the Mentors will use brain surgery to create creatures like this.”)
Positioning the criticism of the show’s violence here would give the Inquisitor a stronger argument, and make its refutation somewhat more convincing. I have no objection to violence like that, in service of a story, and it is something that could be defended. Instead, the show just avoids the issue entirely. It feels a bit disingenuous, and also like it undermines the beauty of using the trial as a metaphor for the scrutiny that the series was under.
However, there is something be said for the show’s final argument. The Doctor is pinched by the Time Lords right out of space and time in the middle of a crisis. As a result of his absence, everything goes directly to hell. In fact, Peri and a large number of the cast die because the Doctor is not there. The subtext is clear: no matter how badly things play out when the Doctor intervenes, they always get worse if he isn’t around to save the day. Take the Doctor out of a Doctor Who story and things collapse.
It’s a solid argument for the importance of the character. Unfortunately, it is a bit undermined by the fact that the Doctor has been increasingly passive over the last number of years. Arguing that taking the Doctor out of his story might lead to a lot of people dying ignores the fact that, sometimes, leaving the Doctor in the story also leads to a lot of people dying. Indeed, Colin Baker’s Doctor emerged at the end of The Caves of Androzani, a story with a lot of people dying – including the Doctor.
Mindwarp might be the best segment of the trial, because it so perfectly evokes the state that the show was in when it was put on extended vacation. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t represent a ringing endorsement or a convincing defence. The best it seems to argue is that maybe things weren’t quite as bad as we made them out to be. That’s a perfectly valid point, but it is hardly enough to hold the threat of cancellation at bay.
So, to the future – and to Terror of the Vervoids.
I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name the last time we met.
Never mind, you can tell me later.
His name is Dorf and you are scum.
No, actually I am known as the Doctor.
– the Doctor, Dorf and Ycranos get off on the right foot
According to the m0vie blog review of Terror of the Vervoids:
Mmm. This is a situation that requires tact and finesse. Fortunately, I am blessed with both.
– the Sixth Doctor
Okay, so the “past” and “present” sections of The Trial of a Time Lord haven’t been blow-outs. The Mysterious Planet demonstrated that maybe, once upon a time, Doctor Who had been decidedly average, constructed of a checklist of familiar and inoffensive tropes. Mindwarp demonstrated that Colin Baker’s Doctor was the kind of character who you could probably imagine chaining his companion to a rock on the beach, before leaving her to die… or marry Brian Blessed… or something. But, hey, there was some social commentary! If The Trial of a Time Lord is constructed as a defence by the show to avoid being sentenced to the bleak nether-realms of cancellation, I have to confess that I’m not convinced. And I like the show to begin with.
Still, it’s not a total failure. I mean, whatever the show was or is, it can always be something better, right? And so, this final story, Terror of the Vervoids, could easily prove that the show has a very clear idea of where it’s going next? The future will be better tomorrow, and all that?
Sadly, no. The Trial of a Time Lord had managed to barely avoid condemning itself in the opening two stories. Hardly a solid position from which to mount a sterling defence. However, the season-long arc reaches the one crucial point where it is absolutely and pivotally important that it must not screw up… and it produces Terror of the Vervoids.
Far from demonstrating that the show had a clear plan to improve in the future, it also makes it abundantly clear that it has no idea how to end this arc. As in, the one we’re watching now. The one that is vitally important not to screw up. The season-long arc that is designed to serve as a thoughtful and insightful defence of a programme that had been coming under heavy fire from all quarters. The fourteen-episode story that – due to a foiled cancellation attempt by the BBC – you had a year and a half to prepare for. Viewers probably had a suspicion that The Trial of a Time Lord may have been flying by the seat of its pants, but Terror of the Vervoids makes us wonder if the show is actually wearing any pants.
To be fair, it was probably already too late to save Doctor Who at this point. The damage had been done. The audience was just watching the long, slow and painful death of a once-beloved television show drawn out across years. Andrew Cartmel’s efforts couldn’t save the show starting from the following year, so I think it’s unfair to place the blame for the second cancellation of the show squarely on The Trial of a Time Lord.
However, it might have made a significant difference, even if the show’s prognosis was ultimately terminal. It may have bought us another year or two of the classic show. It might have vindicate Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant, both of whom were unfairly maligned for behind-the-scenes difficulties. Most effectively of all, however, it might have proven the BBC wrong. It was unlikely ever to convince Michael Grade, but it might have stood as proof of the show’s potential – a demonstration of the best possible past, present and future for the character that would have at least won back the crowd in a way that some of the later Sylvester McCoy stories did.
Unfortunately, The Trial of a Time Lord instead feels like an indictment. The most consistent story of the extended arc, The Mysterious Planet, is mediocre at best. The best serial in the season, Mindwarp, is bipolar and undermined by the show’s own lack of faith in itself. And the serial that is clearly meant to promise a bold and brighter future, Terror of the Vervoids, is just a shallow and half-hearted attempt to recycle familiar plot devices in a manner that is at best tedious.
After all, The Mysterious Planet and Mindwarp were apparently evidence for the prosecution. Of course, Doctor Who didn’t actively want to be cancelled at this point – against all evidence to the contrary – so the criticisms of the format were all shallow and intended to be unconvincing. It’s just unfortunate that the ambiguity of Mindwarp serves to illustrate the problems with the Sixth Doctor as a central character in a show like this. We’re told that some elements of the story were fabricated in order to excuse our lead, but it’s not too big a stretch to imagine a significant amount of truth in its portrayal of the Doctor as a failed hero.
In contrast, Terror of the Vervoids is supposed to be the show’s defense. It’s supposed to be the response to the “must do better” criticism that it has attracted for a considerable length of time. As The Trial of a Time Lord mirrors A Christmas Carol, this is supposed to represent the bold new “future” of the show, promising massive improvement if only it can be afforded a brief reprieve from the threat of cancellation.
Of course, Terror of the Vervoids didn’t wind up representing the future of the show particularly accurately, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. Writers Pip and Jane Baker are credited on the scripts for this story, the final story of this season and the first story of the next season. John Nathan-Turner was fond of the duo, probably for their speed and their adherence to formula. I am no fan of their writing, but I can see why a producer might favour working with them.
Writing both Colin Baker’s last story and Sylvester McCoy’s first adventure, it’s not too difficult to imagine an alternate world where Pip and Jane Baker would have left a sizable fingerprint on the last few years of the show. Based on the evidence presented in Terror of the Vervoids (and their subsequent work), we should really be grateful for Andrew Cartmel’s concerted effort to curb their influence on the series. It’s a shame that the Sylvester McCoy era had to end so abruptly, but imagining three years of stories influenced by Pip and Jane Baker is truly too horrible to fathom.
The problem with Terror of the Vervoids as a representation of the show’s future is that it’s just a collection of bits and pieces gathered together from the show’s history and a selection of iconic science-fiction, cobbled into a four-part story. To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with recycling in order to produce a Doctor Who story. After all, the Hinchcliffe era produced a number of classics that might affectionately be called “homages” to particular pulp fiction. The problem is that Terror of the Vervoids doesn’t put these pieces together with any skill. If you want to show us the potential future for the series, don’t half-heartedly knit it together out of tired and worn-out plot elements.
The very name of the serial calls to mind Terror of the Autons, the classic Pertwee story. Mel is cast very much as a traditional companion, even more-so than Peri. The bubbly tone of the episode and the combination of strange aliens seems designed to serve as a conscious callback to the show under producer John Nathan-Turner’s predecessor, Graham Williams. As such, Terror of the Vervoids seems less like a new direction for the show and more like a patronising attempt to pull together some classic ingredients. (Which, incidentally, The Mysterious Planet did much better – if still not exceptionally.)
The serial borrows heavily from sources outside of Doctor Who as well. Again, this isn’t inherently a fatal flaw. The problem is that these are old and familiar ideas that seem to have been pulled randomly from popular pulp fiction with little insight about how to use them well. The eponymous monsters, which have their problems, seem clearly modeled on the monsters from Day of the Triffids. Of course, any sentient killer plants are going to remind viewers of those monsters, but there is plenty of overlap, including the fatal stinger.
There’s also a very clear influence from Alien on the adventure, which would have been grand had Alien been a relatively recent film. Indeed, Doctor Who did a much better version of Alien before the movie was even released with The Ark in Space. These monsters stalk the humans on a space ship mostly used to transport cargo, laying eggs in the cargo bay and even using humans for reproduction. Again, this sort of set-up is perfect for the Hinchcliffe era, but it feels strange, then, that the show seems to tell the story in the style of the lighter and bubblier Graham Williams period.
Of course, the Vervoids themselves are a fairly crap alien race. Their design is fairly easy to mock, something of a Freudian nightmare. They even spray white dust from their heads! However, that’s not the only problem with the monsters. As with so many monsters at this period in the show’s history, the effect is somewhat undermined by the use of bright lighting. Although they are apparently plants, to the point where the suits have flowers at the end of their arms, the actors still move their hands like regular people.
Despite the fact that they are playing plants and a lot of their scenes feature the plants scheming with one another, the actors seem to spend most of their time bobbing around and flexing – creating a weird sense of constant movement that doesn’t evoke plant-life at all. Instead, the creatures look (and sound) like a bunch of thugs in jungle camouflage just spoiling for a fight. It’s not really that convincing, and I’d argue that it’s these elements that make the Vervoids a terrible foe for this story, more than any sexual explicit aspect of their appearance.
There’s a sense that Terror of the Vervoids is attempting to do a mystery story set in outer space. After all, Lasky is seen reading Murder on the Orient Express, and there is an investigation plot running parallel to the threat posed by these creatures. The problem is that – quite clearly – Pip and Jane Baker have absolutely no idea how to write a mystery. Quite simply, the story does not work as what it sets out to be, a more fundamental problem than the clumsy use of cobbled-together imagery pilfered from better writers.
Indeed, the resolution to absolutely everything hinges on the fact that the ship is apparently carrying around a huge supply of a fictitious mineral that is so highly valued that it would prompt a hijacking. That’s hardly fair game. After all, if we don’t know that such a mineral exists in the universe, we are very unlikely to figure out that it is on the ship. This plotting problem also stems into the Vervoid plot, as saving the Earth hinges on pointless technobabble concerning this “Vionesium”, which is first mentioned in the last ten minutes of the adventure. There are no hints or foreshadowing.
This isn’t a problem unique to Terror of the Vervoids, but it is one that stands out in this adventure because this story should be about putting your best foot forward. There is no way that the script should have made it to screen, even given all the trouble going on behind-the-scenes. And that’s before we get to the whole “genocide” thing that the script treats so casually, until it makes an issue of it and then handily drops it immediately.
“We are unique, the only members of the Vervoid species,” the Vervoids explain. “If he succeeds in eliminating us, Vervoids will cease to exist.” It’s easy to understand why they want to reach Earth, even if the consequences are dire. “Had a single Vervoid reached Earth, the human race would have been eliminated!” he protests in his defense. However, this doesn’t make the Vervoids inherently evil, something that the Doctor himself recognises, arguing, “The Vervoids are not psychopaths.”
This is the same character who refused to use genocide against the Daleks in Genesis of the Daleks. His later iterations in the revived series would soften a bit, and would wipe out many last survivors of dying races – but they would also make a point to offer their opponents a choice. You could imagine that the Doctor would work hard to find an alternative – to exhaust his options, to try to negotiate with the Vervoids. Of course, he’d never choose them over humanity, but we’d at least expect him to try.
Instead, the Sixth Doctor suggests the Vervoids can’t be considered to be alive due to their nature as plants. Mel reinforces this view handily for the audience, “Doctor, if you’re right, then coexistence with the Vervoids is an impossibility.” Travers agrees, “It’s a question of self-preservation. Kill or be killed.” In a way, this feels quite similar to the Sixth Doctor’s smug dismissal of the idea that Drathro might have an inherent right to exist in The Mysterious Planet. It feels like an ill-judged moment.
And, to be fair, the show calls the Doctor on this. However, given that the Valeyard changes the charge in the middle of the trial and is currently one shade shy of pantomime villainy, we’re clearly meant to side with the Doctor in this debate. The show handily drops the argument in the next episode, ignoring them for the conclusion of The Trial of a Time Lord. Those monsters were not like us at all, so his extermination of them must have been perfectly justified, right?
The show has always had a bit of difficulty with recognising that just because something looks monstrous doesn’t mean it is somehow less than us. That is one advantage that I think Star Trek always had over classic Doctor Who, the ability to recognise that ugly and evil are not inherently synonymous. Terror of the Vervoids just pushes this to the point where we are meant to root for the Doctor wiping out a race of sentient creatures, and not minding that genocide because they are different from us. Oh, and because he ages them to death or something, which is apparently technically different from murdering them or something.
There are some interesting aspects of Terror of the Vervoids, even if they are eaten away by the crap surrounding them. The revelation that the Matrix allows the Doctor to view his future adventures, for example, is a fascinating concept – but one that the show isn’t nearly smart enough to play with at this point. It also raises some fundamentally questions about the way that Gallifrey operates and when exactly the trial is taking place.
We know that the Sixth Doctor and the Valeyard are out of synch with one another. The tendency is to believe that the Valeyard has travelled back in time and is intruding on the Sixth Doctor’s present – but what if he hasn’t? What if the Valeyard and the Inquisitor come from the same timeframe? What if they are based in the Sixth Doctor’s future? And what if they’ve pinched him out of his present to bring him to his future to stand trial?
After all, the use of the Matrix to see the future would be a fairly handy skill with massive social implications on Gallifrey, right? Surely the trial could actually just look into the future in the Matrix to see how they sentence the Doctor and then sentence him using that as a guideline? The ability to see the future would make plots like The Invasion of Time seem even more ridiculous than they would otherwise be. Even The Deadly Assassin would be handily resolved if the Time Lords could look into the Matrix and see the Doctor solve the crime in the future.
So it doesn’t really make that much sense to believe that the Matrix should chart the future. Instead, it makes more sense that the Doctor has been pulled into his own future and is exploring this Matrix’s past – which just happens to be his future. Since nobody has really done that much with The Trial of a Time Lord, it doesn’t really matter, but it’s fun to speculate. Could you retroactively connect this hearing to the Last Great Time War? After all, that might explain why the trial is taking place on a station rather than Gallifrey, and why The Ultimate Foe reveals Gallifrey to be in turmoil.
From a meta-fictional point of view, given that the Last Great Time War serves as a handy explanation for both the mess of cancellation-related continuity, explaining how we can have so many Ninth Doctors, then it makes sense for The Trial of a Time Lord to be an early echo of that conflict. After all, if Russell T. Davies can retroactively incorporate Genesis of the Daleks into the Time War, then it makes just as much sense to contextualise The Trial of a Time Lord as part of it.
I also quite like the idea that the Sixth Doctor’s view of his own future may have informed the Seventh Doctor’s approach to pre-emptively dealing with threats. The Seventh Doctor is, after all, a master manipulator, and that knowledge could at least be informed by his exploration of his possible future. I know this is – like the Time War theory – pure fan speculation, but it is fun to think about.
Terror of the Vervoids also introduces Mel. I actually don’t mind Mel, despite the fact that she tends to attract a lot of scorn. Again, she’s a concept that could very easily have been something very clever, but ultimately The Trial of a Time Lord was not smart enough to pull off that sort of high-concept. Mel is essentially a companion from the Doctor’s future. They are out-of-synch with one another. It’s not to hard to believe that this basic idea may have somehow contributed to Steven Moffat’s ideas for River Song. He was just better at follow-through.
Indeed, in many respects, Mel is Moffat’s ideal companion. Moffat has argued that there are particular attributes that lend themselves to companions, effectively limiting the role of companion to healthy young women. I don’t buy that logic for a moment, but – if you accept the idea that a companion should match a particular profile – Mel is fairly close to that profile. Much is made of the fact that Bonnie Langford was asked to pitch her screams to match the theme song sting. It’s often treated somewhat dismissively, but that ignores the amount of skill that such an act involves. The problem is that this is a reductive interpretation of the companion’s role.
The companion has to scream, so Bonnie Langford is arguably the most proficient screamer ever to play a supporting role in Doctor Who. The companion has to be able to run, so Mel is written as a fitness freak. Much like Martha, Mel would score top marks on a “companion efficiency” scale. She is even designed to function efficiently. Even in comparison to other companions on the classic series, Mel comes without baggage. She doesn’t even get an origin story. There’s no clutter here. Mel is literally a plot function constructed to optimise efficiency and given flesh.
I’m not generally a fan of that approach. I disagree with Steven Moffat on the requirements for a companion. I prefer a bit of variety, and a bit of novelty in the relationship between the Doctor and his companion. However, despite that, I am actually reasonably fond of Mel. She’s not one of my favourite companions, but I think she works much better than Peri. Peri seems like an attempt to construct an emotionally nuanced and fragile companion. Peri’s defining character traits were being abused and victimised by male characters, and freaking out.
She was especially high-strung, understandable since her main role was to be objectified by the villain of the week. The problem was the show wasn’t quite able to handle a companion like that, and the result was the disastrous combination of Peri and the Sixth Doctor. It seemed at times disturbingly like an abusive marriage. Indeed, sometimes it seemed like they only stayed together because the Sixth Doctor had convinced her that he was the kind and gentle man she ran away with, rather than convincing her to stick around based on the Sixth Doctor’s own merits.
Peri would have worked well with Peter Davison’s more gentle Doctor, but pairing her with Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor led to one of the most toxic dynamics in the history of the show. As a result, the more generic Mel works much better with the Sixth Doctor, because she doesn’t have any baggage that rubs against the Sixth Doctor’s sizable baggage. It helps that Mel isn’t objectified in her opening story. I wonder how much that shot of Nicola Bryant in a bikini set the tone for Peri’s time on the show.
More than that, though, Baker’s Doctor seems like a version of the character who needs somebody to keep him on the straight and narrow. He’s the most ethically fallible of the Doctors. Indeed, Mindwarp hinges on the fact that we really can’t rule out that sort of amoral and cowardly behaviour from his iteration. The sight of Mel forcing the Sixth Doctor on to an exercise bike and making him drink carrot juice is pretty much exactly what this version of the character needs – somebody to keep him in check.
Indeed, the Sixth Doctor continues his trend towards toning himself down. His exchanges with Mel might not bring out the very occasional tenderness he reserved for Peri, but at least they don’t make him seem as callous and indifferent as most of his banter with his former companion:
Do you know, I’ve always envied you that?
I shall probably regret this, but go on, I’ll bite. Envied me what?
Your amazing ability for almost total recall.
Compliments. You are undergoing a change.
It is, at this point, too little too late, but – at least – Mel and the Doctor seem to have a fairly standard relationship. Which is a step up from the uncomfortable dynamic that existed only one adventure earlier.
Mel doesn’t really have a personality to speak of, but she is at least characterised as “goodie-goodie”, and it’s nice to have somebody like that around. Of course, she doesn’t stop the Doctor committing genocide, but I guess we can’t have it all. I should also concede that we’ve reached the point where I’m actually quite happy that the series has recruited a perfectly bland and average companion. That is how bleak things are at this point in the series, that Mel is something to get excited about.
I’m sorry, that sounds unfair. Bonnie Langford does some great work here. There is something to be said for the way that Langford good-naturedly goes along with all that is asked of her. To be entirely frank, Mel isn’t the most rewarding of roles, but I think Langford never phones it in, to her credit. In fact, she brings a certain level of technical proficiency that helps the show. She’s not the best actress to ever play a companion, but she can pitch her screams to match the show’s theme song sting. I can’t imagine too many others could do that.
Still, Terror of the Vervoids is a mess of an episode. Literally all I can say in its defense is that there’s some interesting fan theories to be formed and that the new companion is pleasingly bland. That’s not a good thing, and it doesn’t bode well for the show’s future.
According to the m0vie blog review of The Ultimate Foe:
In all my travellings throughout the universe I have battled against evil, against power-mad conspirators. I should have stayed here. The oldest civilisation, decadent, degenerate and rotten to the core. Ha! Power-mad conspirators, Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen, they’re still in the nursery compared to us. Ten million years of absolute power, that’s what it takes to be really corrupt.
– the Doctor
There really are no excuses for the mess that The Trial of a Time Lord became. I mean, seriously. The producers had eighteen months to plan everything out. The task shouldn’t be that difficult. If you are going to fictionalise the persecution of Doctor Who by the BBC in the form of a trial, you really should have some idea what you plan to do or say at the end of it. If your fourteen episode season-long story arc is about defending a show that is coming close to cancellation, then perhaps it might be a good idea to be able to tell us why it shouldn’t be cancelled. The Trial of a Time Lord is a gigantic mess, and something that makes a stronger case in favour of Michael Grade’s attempts to cancel that show than it does against them.
The Ultimate Foe isn’t as soul-destroyingly horrible as Terror of the Vervoids, but that may be because Pip and Jane Baker only wrote half of it.
To be fair, Robert Holmes’ death was a major blow to the series. More than any other writer, Holmes had cast a shadow over the series, providing any number of classic stories. If you were constructing a defence of the show, it made sense to assign Holmes to offer the closing argument. His ill health and his premature passing might have understandably thrown a wrench in the works, but there is no reason that things should have become so messed up.
After Holmes passed away, producer John Nathan-Turner turned to Pip and Jane Baker to finish the season finalé. Again, it’s easy to understand why he would do that. The Bakers were Nathan-Turner’s favourite writers, and it’s clear that he admired their ability to turn out a script in very short order. This is why he would get them to write the next story, Time and the Rani, which opened the following season – another script he needed turned around fairly quickly.
Of course, there’s a reason that Pip and Jane Baker could crank out a script fairly quickly. They are terrible writers. I am generally more diplomatic in my condemnation of some of the show’s weaker elements – the harsh realities of television production and all that – but I truly loathe the scripts that Pip and Jane Baker churned out. They were paint-by-numbers patronising nonsense that treated the audience like idiots.
You might argue that there really wasn’t another choice here. I am more sympathetic to Nathan-Turner than most. After all, Eric Saward’s departure had left Nathan-Turner editing the scripts, a task that really wasn’t his area of expertise. I think that both BBC and fandom were incredibly harsh towards Nathan-Turner and often the producer did the best he could with the material he had to hand. Some of his bad decisions (like the decision to court fandom) could not have seemed like bad ideas at the time. That said, some of his ideas (like “branding” the Doctor with question marks) were just bad ideas.
There is no reason that The Ultimate Foe should be a mess like this. The show had eighteen months to prepare for this season. With a longer break and a shorter season, you’d imagine that there should have been more planning. Robert Holmes was not in the best of health, and maybe it was unfair to expect him to contribute a script. However, even if hiring him to do a job like this when his health is failing seems reckless if you have absolutely no back-up plans.
The Bakers themselves have provided some context to this confusion:
Then Jane had a rather strange conversation with John just after Eric had left. He said ‘There’s a taxi on its way to you with a script in it. Read it tonight and come in tomorrow morning’. And he wouldn’t say any more. So the taxi came and we discovered it was script thirteen. We went in the following morning, and the first ten minutes was just the usual coffee and gossip. But there was another person there as a witness to ensure that John didn’t tell us anything that was in script fourteen, because of copyright difficulties. Obviously he wanted us to provide a replacement, but he couldn’t tell us how the series was supposed to end!
That’s just bad planning. Either buy the twelve pages from Robert Holmes’ estate and let the Bakers work from those notes, or scrap the entire first part altogether and write off the price of Robert Holmes’ script. There’s no situation where you should be dragging in two hack writers at the last minute to finish a finalé started by one of the greatest writers in the history of the show.
So The Ultimate Foe, the last story of this troubled season, is a game of two halves. It seems like the Bakers didn’t even read the script to the first episode. They seem to have a bit of difficulty with Holmes’ conception of the Valeyard, writing him as nothing more than “the Master, Mark II.” It’s a bungled, bloody mess of an episode, and one that it is very difficult to make any sense of. There’s no really connection or through-line between the two parts of the serial, which poses all manner of problems.
In a way, though, this seems to make a great deal of sense. The rather surreal unseen last-minute coup on Gallifrey only really makes sense as an attempt by the series to explain the behind-the-scenes difficulties on the series. The initial interpretation of the trial would suggest that the Doctor represented his show while the Time Lords represented the BBC who sought to cancel it. Instead, The Ultimate Foe reveals that absolutely every facet of the trial seems to represent the show itself.
Far from a conflict between the show and the BBC that was so ardently attempting to cancel it, The Ultimate Foe instead suggests that the real problem with Doctor Who is, in fact, Doctor Who. Indeed, the prosecutor in this trial is ultimately revealed to be a version of the Doctor himself. “Surely even Gallifreyan law must acknowledge that the same person cannot be both prosecutor and defendant,” the Doctor protests at one point, but the irony is obvious.
The best argument for the cancellation of Doctor Who is, in fact, Doctor Who. The messed-up, disturbed, jumbled and confused relic of a show that can’t even mount a credible defense of itself. The case for the prosecution doesn’t come from Michael Grade or any other stuffed shirt. It comes from the show itself. It’s a fascinating idea, even if I am fairly sure that Pip and Jane Baker weren’t explicitly arguing that the series was making a pretty good case for its own cancellation. The Bakers are not that subversive, and it’s probably a happy coincidence that the story can be read that way.
Robert Holmes, on the other hand, is a gleefully cynical writer at the best of times, and he takes great pleasure in revealing that the Doctor is essentially putting the Doctor on trial. “There is some evil in all of us, Doctor, even you,” the Master handily pops by to explain. “The Valeyard is an amalgamation of the darker sides of your nature, somewhere between your twelfth and final incarnation. And I may say, you do not improve with age.”
However, what exactly is the Valeyard? It’s a question that fandom has grappled with quite a bit, and to which we’re unlikely to ever get a more concrete answer. He has to be more than merely “the Doctor as a villain”, as the Master fills that niche quite well. Indeed, Holmes wrote the Master’s first appearance, so it seems that he would be aware of how redundant that concept would be – especially since the Master appears in this story.
Unfortunately, the Bakers don’t really see that obvious problem. Instead, they play the Valeyard as “villainous Doctor” completely straight, which becomes completely ridiculous when they bring the Master into the plot in more active manner. “You really are a second-rate adversary,” the Valeyard declares, chasing the Master out of the area in a sequence that looks like a live-action Daffy Duck cartoon. If this is what the Valeyard was always intended to be, it seems somewhat shallow. It feels like a waste of fourteen episodes of build-up.
What does the Valeyard want with the Doctor’s regenerations? It’s frequently suggests that he wants to live, but that seems a bit strange. He surely exists at the moment, so his existence is not dependent on the Doctor. The Deadly Assassin explained that the Time Lords could grant the Master a new cycle of regenerations, so it seems strange they can’t do that for the Valeyard here. Even if they can’t, this is a character who worships death as “the ultimate reality.” I don’t think that his interest in the Doctor stems from his own self-preservation, as convenient as that might seem. His interest in the Doctor’s lives seems to be more to impair the Doctor than to enhance himself.
After all, why have a trial in the first place? The Time Lords are powerful enough to compel the Doctor to the space station. They could just kill him and do what they want. If they promised the Valeyard the Doctor’s regenerations, there are easier ways. Surely the deal would be better made in a back room rather than a court room? The only reason for the trial would seem to be because the Valeyard wanted the trial. It is, after all, an excuse to simply sit back and watch Doctor Who.
I suspect that the Valeyard was a piece of criticism of the show, as imagined by Holmes. The Valeyard seems quite a bit like toxic fandom. When the Doctor ventures into the Matrix, he finds that the Valeyard has taken over “the Fantasy Factory” and turned it into something toxic. It’s run by bureaucrats, insisting on rules and procedures, more interested in simple mechanics than any sense of fun. Mr. Popplewick protests, “There are procedures to follow, sir. Necessary routines to be completed.”
The Valeyard is a character who wants to sit in a courtroom and watch Doctor Who. Despite his aggression, it’s hard to argue that he’s not a fan. Inside the Matrix, the Doctor finds himself in surroundings that hark back to The Talons of Weng-Chiang. He is almost drowned, in a shout-out to The Deadly Assassin. The Fantasy Factory is nothing but a collection of bland and familiar retreads of familiar concepts, instead of something new and brave and exciting. Holmes has gone on record and explained that he is not fond of reliving past glories, so it seems reasonable to suggest that he included these iconic shout-outs for a reason.
Rather notably, the first episode ends the ground giving out from beneath the Sixth Doctor, as the very foundations of the world seem to swallow him. It seems that Holmes is suggesting something that has become quite obvious over the last number of years. The cult of obsessive fandom is eating away at Doctor Who. John Nathan-Turner’s decision to allow an encourage fans to fashion the show to their needs is ultimately damaging the show in the long-term.
The hardcore fans’ insistence on re-hashing old stories, dwelling on pointless minutiae and the sense of entitlement and possessiveness are rotting Doctor Who away from the inside. It’s no coincidence that the Valeyard wants some measure of ownership over the Doctor’s future. Indeed, the fact that the Valeyard comes from some point between the Doctor’s twelve and final incarnations seems to point out the way that obsessives have almost fixated on the finite number of regenerations that Holmes introduced in The Deadly Assassin, creating a morbid atmosphere where fans actively count down the Doctor’s remaining time.
There’s a lot of interesting ideas there, but none of them survive the transition to the second part, written by Jane and Pip Baker. Instead, the Valeyard is a standard baddie. The Master shows up and does even more baddie stuff. The Doctor winds up spending a great deal of the episode passive, creating the impression that the Sixth Doctor really couldn’t be too bothered trying to save his own show.
When the day is saved, Pip and Jane Baker fall back on the same sort of nonsense that resolved Terror of the Vervoids. As a rule, Doctor Who has never been too bad with technobabble, but the Bakers use it with such aplomb that the writing staff of Star Trek: Voyager would blush. Consider the following resolution:
What have you done?
Induced an anti-phase signal into the telemetry unit. The whole system should self-destruct.
You blundering imbecile. You triggered a ray phase shift that made a massive feedback into here.
Just in case anybody is wondering, that is not what good writing looks like.
The show also, to be fair, manages the weird and “timey-wimey” act of introducing a companion without actually introducing a companion. Mel almost seems like a prototype for River Song. This is the Doctor’s first time meeting her (having seen her in his future in Terror of the Vervoids), but she already knows him. “What have you been up to?” she asks, as if catching up with an old friend. This notably creates a bit of a gap.
Although we now have a story where the Doctor first meets her, we don’t have a story where she meets the Doctor. I can’t help but imagine that the Colin Baker era’s greatest contribution to the future of Doctor Who was inadvertently inspiring stuff like Bad Wolf and River Song. It’s not too difficult to imagine Mel influencing the creation of River Song, even if the idea of following through on an out-of-order companion would have been completely alien to the production team at the time.
Instead, it seems far more likely that the decision to introduce Mel without an origin story was just a means to effectively present a new companion without any baggage or back story – the show had enough problems to deal with, and writing an introduction of Mel was something that this approach allowed them to avoid, with little real thoughts about the logic of the situation. It plays into the idea of Mel as the most generic of companions, the one who was the best at running and screaming. While I tend to dislike that narrow approach to the role of companion, I have a soft spot for Mel. The show needed some simplicity at this point.
It’s also worth noting, as we close on this season, that The Ultimate Foe resolves very little. There’s a coup on Galligrey. The trial is suspended. The Doctor never really gets to prove his case and the Valeyard’s more potent criticisms (the genocide of the Vervoids and his disregard for Peri) are never really dealt with. It feels a bit strange that there was so much set-up for what ultimately becomes a last-minute switcheroo.
We also get a retcon that retroactively removes a lot of the power of Mindwarp. Apparently Peri is now happily married to a character with whom she didn’t seem to have an especially strong relationship, and who is subject to impressive mood swings. Given Peri’s history of being abused and objectified, and the uncomfortable implications of her relationship with the Sixth Doctor, this ending seems a lot more cynical and lot less happy than The Ultimate Foe seems to want us to believe.
At least killing Peri off was honest about how the show had treated her character. Here, the show attempts to offer us a “happy ending” that really doesn’t seem that happy at all. It raises questions about how much of Mindwarp was actually real, and on what terms the Doctor and Peri parted company. Did Peri suddenly realise that her relationship with the Doctor was toxic? Or did she forgive his repeated disregard for her well-being as she has done too often before?
The Ultimate Foe doesn’t really resolve The Trial of a Time Lord. All it really does successfully is to bring the season to an end. Not a fitting end, not an end that builds off what came before, not an end that validates the show’s continued existence. Instead, it literally just gets us to a point where the next season can pick up and pretend that none of this ever really happened.
Carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice.
– the Sixth Doctor’s last words