of a Time Lord
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All photos © BBC
Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
he mid-‘80s were a turbulent time for “Doctor Who.” After the 22nd season, which ended in March of ‘85, the show was cancelled. There was a considerable uproar from the public, BBC bosses were forced to rethink the move, and its status went from cancelled to 18-month hiatus. But the reprieve came with a few conditions.
The 22nd season had been viewed by some as considerably more violent and adult in tone than such family-friendly fare ought to be, and so producer John Nathan-Turner was asked to tone down the gore and emphasize wit and humor for the 23rd season (which, all things considered, wasn’t an unreasonable request). Season 22 had also, for the first time in the show’s long history, been comprised entirely of 50-minute episodes – 13 of them, in fact. Season 23 was granted a 14-episode order! Sounds positive, right? The catch was that the show would revert back to its 25-minute format, so the seasonal running time had been effectively halved (and it retained this episode/minute count until the show finally did end in 1989.) Finally, the show needed to prove itself, and this wasn’t a guarantee of further seasons. This was no longer the ‘70s, and certain higher-ups were frankly embarrassed by “Doctor Who,” and thought it looked cheap compared to other film and television sci-fi (again, a valid point). In an inspired move, the art imitating life notion of putting the Doctor on trial for the entire season was born.
“The Trial of a Time Lord” kicked off its 14-episode story arc in September 1986 with an opening effects shot that is quite simply the greatest piece of eye candy in the classic series’ entire 26-season run. A giant space station hovers in black silence. The camera slowly moves toward it and begins to track its way around the exterior in a dizzying series of abrupt twists and turns. A blue beam of light shoots out from the station into the depths of space, and then we see the TARDIS being pulled toward and into the ship. It’s a dazzling 30 or so seconds of model and film work. Surely a sign of greatness to come, right? Well, without tainting views prematurely, let’s just say it’s a huge shame the rest of the season isn’t nearly as operatic. “The Trial” is broken down into four subtitled stories that make up the whole season (although “The Trial of a Time Lord” is the only title ever used on screen). For discussion purposes, it’s easiest to address the four stories individually; however, from a viewing standpoint, the entire affair really works best if you just watch and think of it as a 14-part saga.
The first four episodes, also known as “The Mysterious Planet,” are the setup. The Doctor (Colin Baker) emerges from the TARDIS into an empty hallway. Clearly dazed, he shakes his head and bolts through the nearest set of doors into a courtroom filled with Time Lords. He is to be put on trial for his constant interference in the affairs of other worlds and peoples. This is the second time he has been on trial in his numerous lives (the last time was in Patrick Troughton’s final story, “The War Games” in 1969,) which first introduced the Time Lords. It’s interesting to note that since the “Trial” season is the last time the series ever featured the Time Lords, both their beginning and swansong revolved around putting the Doctor on trial. The judge for the proceedings is called the Inquisitor (Lynda Bellingham) and the prosecutor is a severe, humorless figure known as the Valeyard (Michael Jayston). The Valeyard intends to make his case by presenting two different segments of the Doctor’s life by accessing the Matrix, which is a vast computer program containing the sum total of all Time Lord knowledge. (The Matrix was first introduced 10 years prior in the Tom Baker tale “The Deadly Assassin.”) And so the story moves through a video screen in the courtroom and we are taken – along with the eyes of the courtroom – to the planet Ravalox, and we see a story from the Doctor’s past. (As has been stated elsewhere, the concept of the Doctor spending a season watching “Doctor Who” was meta before meta became chic.)
The Doctor and his companion Peri (Nicola Bryant) wander through a forest, and she remarks that it reminds her of “Earth after a thunderstorm.” They find a passageway underground, only to discover evidence indicating that Ravalox is Earth at some point in the future – although it has obviously been moved far from its proper place in time and space. Eventually they encounter two separate factions of residents – an underground technology-based civilization and a surface-based tribal group. Neither has any idea of the history of their planet -- and making matters worse -- all appear to be slaves of sorts to the hulking silver robot Drathro. As the events progress, it appears that certain bits of info are being censored by the Valeyard – or maybe by the High Council of the Time Lords. The format of the season dictates continuous interruption by going back to the courtroom and discussing what is or isn’t being shown.
Some critics have labeled the courtroom scenes as “intrusive,” but how could it have been done any other way? Even though the bulk of the season is spent in places other than the courtroom, the trial itself remains the dramatic thrust of the ongoing story, and failure to periodically return to the trial would’ve been a massive cop-out. These four episodes are also noteworthy for being the final complete contribution by the great Robert Holmes, who is regarded by most as the greatest classic “Doctor Who” writer ever. To be sure, it’s not his finest work, but students of his brand of “Who” will no doubt find it a pleasant “greatest hits” package.
The next batch of four episodes is known as “Mindwarp.” Written by Philip Martin (who contributed “Vengeance on Varos” to the previous season), here’s where events start getting weird and out of whack. The story is from the Doctor’s present – it’s amidst these events that he was taken out of time and space and dragged to the trial. He and Peri arrive on the planet Thoros Beta, where the sky is green, the ocean is pink and the rocky seashore is blue. These effects were achieved via early Paintbox techniques - which will undoubtedly appear quaint by today’s standards. But I recall being blown away by the look back in ’86, and today I still marvel at what was “Who’s” first real stab at creating a totally alien exterior environment. The tale is one of brain transplantation, and at the end of the first episode (or rather the fifth of the season), the Doctor’s mind is indeed warped – so much so that his actions throughout the rest of the story are questionable. But so is the Matrix, and at this point the Doctor in the courtroom alleges the super-computer is being tampered with. Although his mind is muddled via a confluence of factors, the events shown by the Matrix are not as he remembers them. I’m a big ol’ unapologetic “Mindwarp” fan. It really should be called “Mindfuck,” for reasons you’ll discover on your own. It’s Nicola Bryant’s last story, and Peri has one hell of a sendoff -- especially given how benign a companion she was. Also noteworthy is the return of the slimy, amphibious Sil (Nabil Shaban) from “Varos,” as well as the omnipresence of the reliably boisterous Brian Blessed as the warrior king Yrcanos. (Baffling that this stint was Blessed’s sole “Who” appearance.)
Episodes nine through 12 include “Terror of the Vervoids,” and after “Mindwarp” you’ll either be grateful for or bored by this tale. I believe there are two types of “Trial” fans – the ones who like “Mindwarp,” and the ones who like “Vervoids.” There isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with this material, as it’s very traditional “Who” steeped in a whodunit-Agatha Christie archetype. After the madness of the last four episodes, some viewers likely would appreciate this story. Taking place in the Doctor’s future, the courtroom Doctor presents the events as a defense of his innocence. The luxury liner Hyperion III travels from the planet Mogar to Earth. There’s a killer on board, as well as some seeds that give way to a particularly nasty form of plant life called the Vervoids. After all these years, it finally occurred to me why this section of “Trial” leaves me wanting: After the momentum built up by the first eight episodes, this batch brings the trial itself to a near screeching halt.
Some critics have said that one of the strengths here is that the trial scenes are kept to a minimum. Again, as stated before, the trial is the crux of the whole thing! Not incorporating it even more thoroughly than the last eight episodes is a major misstep. If anything – since this is the Doctor’s defense – it should be glamorizing his character with frequent punctuations by the courtroom Doctor (unless one assumes his head is still too scrambled to do so, which is certainly a valid interpretation). With the absence of Peri, “Vervoids” also introduces a new companion, Melanie (Bonnie Langford) – and here’s where even the most fervent “Vervoid” supporter will agree with me: Mel is one of, if not the worst companion in “Who” history. She’s a screaming, health-obsessed bore. Why the Doctor would ever take her into his TARDIS is a mystery, and since her introduction sees them already together, we never find out how they met. It’s a shame for Langford, because I don’t think anyone involved in the production really gave much thought to the character of Melanie Bush, and the actress deserves far less blame than the creative team. Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore from “Goldfinger”) plays a big role as Professor Lasky, but you get far more pussy from the Vervoids than you will from her. Ah yes, the Vervoids. Their heads look like giant, throbbing parts of female genitalia. If I had to point to the highlight of this tale, I’d say it was the Vervoids. Even my other half, who’s all but lost interest in classic “Who” (thank you, new “Who”), said as she passed the TV, “They look kind of cool!” Your mileage will most certainly vary. It’s particularly peculiar that immediately after writing out Peri -- a botany student -- that the series chooses to do a story about killer plants. What a wasted opportunity.
And so we arrive at the last two episodes of “The Trial of a Time Lord,” also called “The Ultimate Foe.” I will not delve into the finer details of this section of “The Trial,” but it heavily involves the Matrix via an hour-long exploration of the surreal, and contains the shocking revelation of the true identity of the Valeyard, which is no doubt one of the most pivotal moments in ”Doctor Who” history. Despite being engaging, dreamlike fare, it is somewhat flawed, and the behind-the-scenes story is almost (if not more) interesting than the final two episodes themselves. In short order: Robert Holmes was supposed to write both installments. After writing episode 13, he came down with hepatitis (brought on by some bad shellfish). Then he died; the greatest writer of “Who” passed away at this critical juncture.
Script editor Eric Saward wrote a finale based on what he believed Holmes was aiming for. Producer John Nathan-Turner didn’t like what Saward wrote. Saward, after years of working on the show, had a breakdown and quit “Doctor Who” altogether. JN-T hired “Vervoids” scribes Pip and Jane Baker to write Episode 14 over three or four days, and they were not allowed access to either Holmes’ or Saward’s scripts or ideas (seemingly for legal reasons). The results are mixed, but not anywhere near as disastrous as all this drama would lead you to believe. “The Trial” ends dramatically sound, but not dramatically daring - which is where Holmes and Saward wanted to go.
Much has been addressed here about “The Trial,” but the truth may be that your enjoyment of this epic will likely depend on one major factor: Colin Baker’s Doctor and whether you like him or not. He is, admittedly, an acquired taste. There was a time when I thought the sun rose and set with the Sixth Doctor, and I’ve still got an immense fondness for him, and find his Doctor to be one of the most intriguing, simply because he’s so unlike all the others. As Doctor #6, he’s suitably placed to be a mid-life crisis Time Lord, given that members of his race supposedly have 13 lives. In this season, he’s considerably less brash than in his first, and the bickering dynamic between him and Peri has been toned down to give way to a friendlier, more traditional Doctor/companion relationship. But there was more behind-the-scenes drama to come, even after the “Trial” season concluded. BBC brass decided to grant the series another season, and this time they had only one condition – get rid of Colin Baker.
It’s a shame, because probably no other actor before David Tennant was as enthusiastic about playing the part as Colin Baker, and he initially claimed he wanted to break the seven-year record held by the other Baker, Tom. But it was not to be, and the Sixth Doctor’s tenure ended with him entering the TARDIS and bitching about carrot juice to Melanie. There’s a clip on disc four of this set from a show called Saturday Superstore, where Colin Baker takes questions from viewers. During this interview he supposedly knew he was losing his job, even though the public did not. A boy calls in and asks him where he would like to go if he had his own TARDIS, and Baker wistfully replies that he’d go back to the beginning of his time as the Doctor and start over again.
Special Features: Were I judging this set based on the dramatic content alone, I’d give it three and a half stars, but the extra content presented here is easily worthy of a whole extra star. This box set is quite simply the best “Doctor Who” DVD release ever, and I’m even including the new series box sets in that equation. There’s a commentary track for every episode (and Episodes One and 13 each include an additional track with Eric Saward). Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, Tony Selby (Sabalom Glitz) and a host of other actors, writers and directors provide plenty of insight as the season moves along. (Oddly, Bonnie Langford is conspicuously absent from the proceedings.) Disc Two features one tiny additional commentary clip called “A Fate Worse Than Death,” which should by no means be viewed/heard until you’ve finished watching the season, as it contains a scene from the final episode. Each disc also features deleted and extended scenes that add up to 35 minutes.
“Trials and Tribulations” is a fascinating 55-minute documentary that’s arguably the star attraction here. It’s an overview of Baker’s era that heavily concentrates on all the behind-the-scenes mayhem I’ve discussed in this review. Another doc, “The Making of The Trial of a Time Lord,” runs 85 minutes and is broken up into its appropriate subsections and spread out across the four discs. “Now and Then – On the Trail of the Time Lord” is a 21-minutes featurette on the locations used through the season. “The Lost Season” is an 11-minute overview of the stories that were originally planned for Season 23, before the show as put on hiatus. “Now, Get Out of That” is a 30 minute dissection of the cliffhanger aspect of the series.
There are loads of BBC archive clips to sift through – interview segments from shows like Blue Peter, Wogan and Saturday Superstore, a Lenny Henry comedy sketch, a Children in Need gathering of “Who” stars past and present and news items announcing the hiatus. There are three music video remixes, available to listen to in various audio formats. Photo galleries, production note options, trails and continuities, and computer accessible Radio Times billings and media coverage are also, as expected, included. There’s also an untainted, silent clip of the space station film sequence that opens the season. And finally there’s the music video for the dreadful pop song “Doctor in Distress,” which was a “We Are the World” type of affair created when the show was cancelled. It’s so bad, it’s bad. Not “so bad it’s good” and not Michael Jackson bad – just plain bad.