There’s nothing you can do to prevent the catharsis of spurious morality. Doctor Who – The Trial of a Time Lord – The Ultimate Foe

Doctor Who

If The Ultimate Foe brings The Trial of a Time Lord to a slightly disappointing conclusion, the somewhat chaotic nature of the scripting of the story is probably the reason why.

Eric Saward had commissioned Robert Holmes to write the two concluding episodes.  Holmes was mid-way through episode thirteen when he was hospitalized and sadly, he was to pass away shortly afterwards.  With Holmes in hospital, Saward completed episode thirteen and, working from Holmes’ story outline, wrote the concluding episode.

JNT wasn’t happy with Saward’s ending (the Doctor and the Valeyard were trapped, apparently for ever, in a Time Vent) and asked for it to be changed.  Saward refused and then resigned as script editor, taking his script with him.  He also attempted to stop his section of episode thirteen from being used, but was unsuccessful.

Pip and Jane Baker were commissioned to write a new concluding episode.  For copyright reasons they couldn’t be given any details of Saward’s script.  So all they had to go on was episode thirteen and to make matters worse they had only a few days to deliver a workable episode.

Holmes’ section of episode thirteen runs up until the Doctor enters the Matrix.  After that (with one exception) the rest was scripted by Saward.  What’s interesting about Holmes’ scenes is how he takes yet another opportunity to tarnish the reputation of the Time Lords.  Holmes had started this process some ten years earlier with The Deadly Assassin.  And in many ways, The Ultimate Foe is really The Deadly Assassin II.

Episode thirteen answers some of the unanswered questions from The Mysterious Planet (although it’s debatable how many people actually remembered the points that are tidied up).  Glitz and Mel are called as star witnesses and the Master pops up.  I love the reveal of Ainley on the Matrix screen as well as his comment that he’s been sat in the Matrix watching everything and “enjoying myself enormously”.

The Master has the best seat in the house
The Master has the best seat in the house

All of the Time Lords’ dirty schemes are revealed (they’re somewhat complicated it has to be said) and there then follows a scene which could have been a game-changer in the direction of the series.

MASTER: You have an endearing habit of blundering into these things, Doctor, and the High Council took full advantage of your blunder.
INQUISITOR: Explain that.
MASTER: They made a deal with the Valeyard, or as I’ve always known him, the Doctor, to adjust the evidence, in return for which he was promised the remainder of the Doctor’s regenerations.
VALEYARD: This is clearly
DOCTOR: Just a minute! Did you call him the Doctor?
MASTER: There is some evil in all of us, Doctor, even you. 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.

The origin of the Valeyard is something of a mystery and is never addressed.  There was further mileage in an evil anti-Doctor (possibly taking over from the Master as the Doctor’s main nemesis) but it was never explored again (on television at least).  But these two episodes do give Michael Jayston a chance to flex his acting muscles (and lose the hat!) and whilst the Valeyard never develops beyond a fairly stereotypical villain, Jayston does give him a bit of class.

Mel - "As truthful, honest, and about as boring as they come."
Mel – “As truthful, honest, and about as boring as they come.”

Given the scripting race against time, episode fourteen is actually a lot better than it could have been.  There’s some nice set-pieces (the Doctor apparantly convicted in a fake trial room and the unmasking of Popplewick aka the Valeyard) but the Valeyard’s ultimate plan (to assassinate various key Time Lords) is a little less than impressive.  But there’s some prime examples of the Bakers unique use of the English language to enjoy – “a megabyte modem” and “there’s nothing you can do to prevent the catharsis of spurious morality” amongst others. 

And then it’s all over.  The Doctor is free to go and leaves with Mel (paradoxically before he’s actually met her!) and the Valeyard lives to cackle another day.  Colin Baker’s final words “carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice” are perhaps not the most impressive last words he could have had – but, of course, it wasn’t planned to be his final story.

Over the last three weeks or so, I’ve really enjoyed revisiting all of Colin Baker’s stories for the first time in a number of years.  He was something of a victim of circumstances and had things been different he could have gone on for several more years and really established himself as one of the best Doctors.  But even given his rather compromised stint, there’s still plenty to enjoy in S22 and S23 and it’s with a little regret that I bid him farewell.

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A web of mayhem and intrigue. Doctor Who – The Trial of a Time Lord – Terror of the Vervoids

vervoids

Anybody who’s ever studied the tortured production history of S23 will probably be aware that Eric Saward had some trouble in finding workable scripts.  Various writers were approached and submissions were made, but many of them came to nothing.  So it’s fair to say that Pip and Jane Baker weren’t his first choice to fill episodes nine to twelve –  they were commissioned more as an act of desperation when everything else had fallen through.

Not that Saward had much to do with the story.  The dispute over his script for episode fourteen (which I’m sure we’ll touch upon when we reach The Ultimate Foe) triggered his resignation and Terror of the Vervoids went through the production process without a designated script-editor (JNT assumed these duties).

The lack of Saward isn’t really notable – as the Bakers were quite able to script a decent story off their own bat (although as per all their stories, sometimes the characters are saddled with very unnatural sounding dialogue).  Vervoids is an entertaining whodunnit, packed with suspects and red-herrings galore.  It may (like the rest of S23) look a little cheap (some of the Hyperion III seems to be cobbled together from stock) but there’s a decent set of actors and minimal interference from the trial, which makes this one of the highlights of S23.

Professor Lasky gets caught by the Vervoids
Professor Lasky gets caught by the Vervoids

Chris Clough was assigned director of the final six episodes and his influence is notable from the first shot – he’s turned down the lights in the Trialroom and everything instantly looks a great deal better.  Although there are a few instances when it appears that the Matrix has again been tampered with, this doesn’t impact the story as badly as it did Mindwarp. And episode nine allows the story time to develop with the trial sequences book-ending the episode – it’s nice, for once, to have an episode where there aren’t delays every few minutes which are devoted to discussing meaningless points.

It’s maybe just as well that the Internet didn’t exist in 1986, as the casting of Bonnie Langford would have caused it to melt.  She wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms by a certain section of Doctor Who fandom (who clearly saw her casting as the final straw) but looking back at this story she’s perfectly fine.  She does lack any sort of background (inevitable since we’re introduced to her cold in this story) but Mel’s young, keen, headstrong and with a knack for getting into trouble.  She can also scream in tune with the closing sting on the theme music, which is a good trick!

True, her opening scene is somewhat iffy –

MEL: This will wake you up.
DOCTOR: Carrot juice?
MEL: It’ll do you good. Honestly, carrots are full of vitamin A.
DOCTOR: Mel, have you studied my ears lately?
MEL: It’s your waistline I’m concerned about.
DOCTOR: No, no, seriously, though. Is it my imagination or have they started to grow longer?
MEL: Listen, when I start to call you Neddy, then you can worry. Drink up.
DOCTOR: You’ll worry sooner when I start to bray.

But things do pick up after this.  It’s also interesting to note how mellow Colin Baker’s Doctor is – he’s a million miles away from the abrasive character of S22, all his previous arrogance and bluster have gone.

Once aboard the Hyperion, the Doctor and Mel mix with the guests and staff and start to uncover various conspiracies.  Clearly one whodunnit wasn’t good enough for the Bakers, so there’s a diverse series of events and problems which need to be solved.

Honor Blackman and Michael Craig are the main guest stars.  Blackman is good fun as the constantly bad-tempered Lasky, whilst Craig (although he sometimes has the air of a man who wishes he was elsewhere) is solid enough as Travers.  David Allister is quite compelling as Bruchner, the scientist with a conscience, whilst the late Yolande Palfrey manages to make something out of nothing, as the stewardess Janet.

Lurking in the air-conditioning are the Vervoids, who aren’t the most impressive monsters that the series has produced.  They’re just too polite to be particularly threatening (“we are doing splendidly”) and it doesn’t help that the actors in the suits tend to do typical monster acting – lurching from side to side and waving their arms about.

A scary cliff-hanger (something of a rarity in S23)
A scary cliff-hanger (something of a rarity in S23)

But if the Vervoids do lack a little something, then there are still a few scares to be had in the story.  Since the majority of cliff-hangers this season have ended on a crash-zoom of the Doctor’s pouting face, it’s nice to have two that buck the trend.  Episode nine gives us a chance to hear Mel’s ear-splitting scream as the Hydroponic centre explodes whilst episode ten has the creepy reveal of Ruth Baxter.

After twelve weeks, we’re now into the trial’s endgame.  Episodes thirteen and fourteen will either provide a satisfying conclusion to the previous three months or, well, they won’t.  The ultimate foe awaits ….

Now I am she, alive within this oh so wonderful, wonderful frame. Doctor Who – The Trial of a Time Lord – Mindwarp

mindwarp

Mindwarp is the story which suffers most for being part of the Trial format.  Like The Mysterious Planet the action stops periodically whilst not terribly interesting points are debated in the Trialroom. For example, in episode five, there are six courtroom scenes, several of which don’t serve any particular purpose (apart from providing some exposure for guest stars Michael Jayston and Lynda Bellingham).

But more serious than this is the Doctor’s growing realisation that what he’s watching on the screen varies significantly from his own memories.  Story-wise, this is interesting – but it does damage the narrative, how can we care about what we’re watching if it might not be true?

This concerned Colin Baker, who in rehearsals queried whether certain scenes were real or created by the Matrix.  Eric Saward was unable to clarify, so this leaves sections of the story feeling a little unsatisfactory.  We can say that the Doctor’s interrogation of Peri on the Rock of Sorrows in episode six and the end of episode eight are at least two examples of faked pictures.

On the original transmission, the end of episode eight was a shock (even allowing for the crash-zoom into the pouting face of Colin Baker).  That this ending is negated later in the season is a fatal flaw.  It would have been far better to have it revealed that the Time Lords were responsible for Peri’s death – since they took the Doctor out of time before he could save her.  Instead, we have the fudge that it never really happened.

If we put aside the problems with the Trial format, then Mindwarp is still a solid, if unspectacular, Doctor Who story.  Brian Blessed is the main guest star and he produces a typical Brian Blessed performance.  Even by the mid 1980’s, he was (in)famous for his larger than life performances and he delivers a typical one here.  He has a greater range than this though (at times he’s quietly menacing in I Claudius) so it’s a pity he couldn’t have had a more subtle character to play.

Nabil Shaban returns as Sil, much more of a comic relief than he was in Vengeance on Varos.  Christopher Ryan (clearly an actor who can’t appear in Doctor Who unless he’s encased in latex) is very good as Kiv, Sil’s boss.  Patrick Ryecart gives a typically smooth performance as the unscrupulous Crozier whilst Thomas Branch is able to overcome the difficulties of restricting make-up to deliver a touching turn as Dorff.  It’s not all good news though, as Gordon Warnecke is monumentally wooden as Tuza, but his bad performance is an exception.

This is Nicola Bryant’s last story and, as has become a familiar story trope, she spends the majority of it fighting off somebody’s unwelcome attentions.  It surely can’t be unintentional that Yrcanos shares a number of character traits with the Doctor (they both shout a lot, for example).  The Peri/Yrcanos romance must be the least convincing since Leela/Andred and it’s interesting to ponder exactly how much of a say Peri had in matters.  After the Doctor was removed from Thoros Beta she clearly had few other options than to stay with Yrcanos, but after the Doctor realises she’s still alive he never seems particularity interested in visiting to see how she is.  Poor Peri!

"Protect me. I am your lord and master"
“Protect me. I am your lord and master”

Nicola Bryant does have some good material though (her final scene is stunning) and there’s some nice exchanges between Peri and Yrcanos.

PERI: Why do they want Tuza?
YRCANOS: Execution one at a time, that’s how it will be.
PERI: Oh. Oh, it’s strange. Ever since we came to Thoros Beta I’ve been homesick. Not so much for a place, but a time. I just want to be back in my own time with people I love.
YRCANOS: What is that? Love?
PERI: Well, it’s when you care for someone or something more than yourself, I guess.
DORF: More than yourself?
PERI: Well, I know it sounds crazy, but, sometimes more than life.
YRCANOS: I care nothing for mine.
PERI: How can you say that, Yrcanos?
YRCANOS: Well, on my planet of Krontep, when we die, our spirit is returned to life, to be born in a more noble warrior.
PERI: Until what? Where do you end after all your brave deaths?
YRCANOS: You become a king! Me, after my next death, I join the other kings on Verduna, the home of the gods.
PERI: To do what?
YRCANOS: Why, to fight! What else?
PERI: Well, that figures

If the Trial sequences don’t help the story, then the decision to have the Doctor act out of character for several episodes is also not a great move.  Colin Baker’s abrasive performance during parts of S22 hadn’t found favour with some, so S23 (particularly with its reduced running time) should have concentrated on making him a more accessible character.  Of course, at the time nobody knew that Baker would shortly be sacked by BBC management – if he had stayed on then this wouldn’t have mattered so much.

Mindwarp seems to be a slightly less focused story than Vengeance on VarosVaros had a clear satirical point to make, whilst Mindwarp doesn’t – and at times feels much more like generic Doctor Who.  It’s also saddled with some pretty poor dialogue – “Nobody likes brain alteration” – which suggests that Eric Saward’s attention was elsewhere.  Indeed, he’d soon be gone and his eleventh hour walkout would be another blow to an already beleaguered season.

Nothing can be eternal. Doctor Who – The Trial of a Time Lord – The Mysterious Planet

nicola and colin

Doctor Who’s fall from grace in the mid 1980’s was dramatic and sudden.  In 1983 the series celebrated its 20th Anniversary and still seemed to be regarded as one of the nation’s favourties.  But by 1985 the series was tagged as old fashioned, violent and dropping in popularity.

Doctor Who needed friends in high places, but it was sadly out of luck.  Previously, executives and programme controllers had both enjoyed the series as well as recognising its importance in the BBC1 schedules.  But by the mid 1980’s a new breed was in place – Michael Grade and Jonathan Powell disliked the show and their dislike became public knowledge.

Therefore, in 1986 it was clear that the series was in trouble.  Initial omens for S23 weren’t good.  The episode count was slashed to fourteen 25 minute episodes, film was replaced by VT for exterior shots and there was a general feeling that the budget was much tighter than before.  If the reduced episode count had ensured that more money was spent on each story then that would have been understandable, but apart from the odd impressive FX shot the series looked as cheap as it had for a long time.  Foreign filming (a regular occurrence during the previous three seasons) now seemed to be a thing of the past.

With only fourteen episodes, the programme needed to make an instant impact, but it’s fair to say that the most calamitous decision was to have an overall umbrella theme of the Doctor on trial.  Given that the series was fighting for its life with the BBC executives, it clearly struck JNT and Eric Saward as a witty idea to have the Doctor do the same.

As it stands, the Trial sequences slow each story down, as periodically the action is paused for the Doctor, the Valeyard (Michael Jayston) and the Inquisitor (the late Lynda Bellingham) to debate what we’ve all been watching.  The Trial only really comes into its own in the last two episodes, but at the start of the series that’s three months away.  How many people would stick with it throughout all fourteen episodes and remember the plot threads from this first story which are only answered three months later?  The ratings tell their story on that one.

court
I foresee many objections in the weeks to come

The Trial starts with The Mysterious Planet which was Robert Holmes’ final complete script for the series.  Holmes died whilst writing the first of the two episodes designed to wrap the season up and it’s long been regarded that his illness played a factor in the slightly underwhelming nature of this story.

The Mysterious Planet feels like a first draft and although there are familiar Holmesian traits (such as the roguish Sabalom Glitz) there’s a certain lack of sparkle.  It’s a perfectly serviceable story (although it draws heavily on Holmes’ own back-catalogue) but after being off-air for 18 months, Doctor Who needed to come back with a bang and this was a little disappointing,  It’s certainly no Caves of Androzani, that’s for sure.

Whilst looking for inspiration, Holmes seems to have drawn upon his debut Doctor Who script, The Krotons.  Drathro, like the Krotons, remains unseen by the population and regularly takes the two most intelligent work-units to live with him.  Although Drathro actually puts their genius to some use, unlike the Krotons.

While the story is a little underpowered, there’s still plenty of good moments.  The relationship between the Doctor and Peri has noticeably softened since S22 and therefore it’s a shame that Nicola Bryant’s days were numbered, particularly since this is the last story where she has decent interaction with the Doctor.  And as with The Two Doctors Colin Baker benefits from having Robert Holmes write his dialogue.

DOCTOR: I know how you feel.
PERI: Do you?
DOCTOR: Of course I do. You’ve been traveling with me long enough to know that none of this really matters. Not to you. Your world is safe.
PERI: This is still my world, whatever the period, and I care about it. And all you do is talk about it as though we’re in a planetarium.
DOCTOR: I’m sorry. 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.

Tony Selby seems to be enjoying himself as Sabalom Glitz.  Glitz is derived from other Holmes creations, such as Garron, but there’s a slightly harder edge to Glitz (at least in this story).

GLITZ: You know, Dibber, I’m the product of a broken home.
DIBBER: You have mentioned it on occasions, Mister Glitz.
GLITZ: Which sort of unbalanced me. Made me selfish to the point where I cannot stand competition.
DIBBER: Know the feeling only too well, Mister Glitz.
GLITZ: Where as yours is a simple case of sociopathy, Dibber, my malaise is much more complex. A deep-rooted maladjustment, my psychiatrist said. Brought on by an infantile inability to come to terms with the more pertinent, concrete aspects of life.
DIBBER: That sounds more like an insult than a diagnosis, Mister Glitz.
GLITZ: You’re right there, my lad. Mind you, I had just attempted to kill him. Oh, I do hate prison psychiatrists, don’t you? I mean, they do nothing for you. I must have seen dozens of them, and I still hate competition.

dibber and glitz
Glitz, Robert Holmes’ final comic creation.

The core of the story (a group of primitives who treat various technological devices as items for worship) is a very familiar one and Joan Sims is, at best, merely acceptable as Katryca.  We’ve seen far too many similar civilizations in previous Doctor Who stories for the Tribe of the Free to make any particular impression, sadly.

But although The Mysterious Planet is uninspired, it’s not particularly bad.  On it’s own merits it’s perfectly watchable and would have slotted in very comfortably mid-season to many a series of Doctor Who.  As a season-opener for what looked like a make-or-break year, it falls somewhat short though.