Trial: The Ultimate Foe

Well, that was absolutely insane. The story of how it came to be is just as shocking as anything that’s in the show, with poor old Robert Holmes passing away, Eric Saward throwing a wobbley, and Pip & Jane Baker having to cobble together the final episode in no time at all, without being allowed any knowledge of the plan for how everything was supposed to tie up.

The result is obviously a complete mess, but I was impressed by how quickly the first part got on with revealing who The Valeyard was and that the trial is a complete sham, in order to create a whole new mini-adventure. This was achieved by the sudden reappearance of The Master, which I suppose is to be expected whenever there’s a desire to throw everything at the script just to see what sticks.

I was surprised to see Glitz again so soon – I was aware that he’s turning up in a future story, but his appearance here was part of a pleasing attempt to incorporate elements from all the component parts of the season into its conclusion. As well as taking Glitz from The Mysterious Planet, you also had the same one-inch-VT-shaped Macguffin, while the shadow of the Terror of the Vervoids conclusion was present throughout.

And of course Mindwarp is represented by the retconning of Peri’s fate, which didn’t bother me because I knew it was coming, but does detract from the boldness of her original exit. What I didn’t know was the detail that she’d been married off to Brian Blessed, which is absolutely hilarious. I’m sure they’ll be very happy together. I was a little disappointed at first that not many other questions about the reliability of the evidence were cleared up, but the more I think about the more I appreciate the opportunity to make my own mind up about what’s real and what isn’t.

Besides, there wasn’t really much time to go over too many specifics, as the last episode ended up with more things to wrap up than it could comfortably accommodate. Even so, they made things even more complicated by including so many intricate twists to the narrative. The depiction of the Matrix was certainly in keeping with The Deadly Assassin, although obviously not as good, despite the best efforts of the excellent Geoffrey Hughes. Multiple Geoffrey Hugheses, in fact. It felt like there were a few too many layers to the illusion, and so it ended up feeling a little disjointed.

This was partly due to a surfeit of potential villains – Glitz, The Master and The Valeyard – all with their own weirdly ill-defined and suspiciously flexible motives, and each double crossing the others at every opportunity. It was fun to be kept guessing as to just whose side Glitz and The Master were on – both in relation to The Doctor vs The Valeyard and to each other – but in the end I felt like I needed a diagram.

“Fun but complicated” seems like a good summary of both this segment and the season in general, but I want to emphasise that I did enjoy it a hell of a lot more than I thought I would. Colin has improved to the point where I think it was a mistake to sack him at this stage – you feel like one more season of developing in the same direction might have ironed out the remaining issues. That said, the improvements to this point haven’t gone far enough to stop him being my least favourite Doctor to date, so I can’t say I’m sad to see him go. It’s just weird that a Doctor’s tenure should end like that. Those are not brilliant last words.

RATING: 7

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 7.25

  • Seasons/Series watched: 23 of 35
  • Stories watched: 143 of 263
  • Individual episodes watched: 653 of 826

Which I guess means that the serial The Trial of a Time Lord gets a 7 out of 10 overall. That seems fair. It also means that Season 23 is better than Season 22, but still well below the expected standard, which is also fair. But with the sad realisation that I’m hurtling towards the end of the classic era, I have but one classic Doctor to go, and it’s one that I’ve seen very, very little of before. I’m not sure what to expect, but I’m looking forward to it, even though it’ll be all over in as little as six weeks…

Trial: Terror of the Vervoids

The trial of the century continues, and it does kind of feel like it’s been going on for a century. We’re now in to The Doctor’s defence – how come the prosecution got eight episodes and he only gets six? – and taking a glimpse into the future. I’m quite enamoured with the idea of skipping past the introduction story and seeing the new companion for the first time in situ, but in practice it’s a bit disorientating. It’s not helped by that opening TARDIS scene being a mess of chaos and noise. Just horrible.

But as time wore on, something happened which totally shocked me. I found myself not hating Bonnie Langford. Somewhat confounding expectations, Mel seems to be made of much sterner stuff than Peri. She matches The Doctor for bravery most of the time and there’s already more of a rapport between them; she’s smart enough to hold a plot-advancing conversation with him, but inexperienced enough so that he can explain certain things to her, and therefore us. That scream, though. Are all episodes from now on going to end with Mel screaming, and wherever possible a crash zoom into The Doctor’s astonished face?

Other than a less irritating scream, the one thing Mel’s really lacking so far is a reason to care about her. The lack of introduction means that we don’t know a great deal about her or her background, and we skipped all the stages where the audience become emotionally invested in her welfare. I applaud the desire to try something new, but there’s a reason why 90-odd% of companion introductions are done in a certain way.

However, where the future setting really comes into its own is with the trial sequences. As the season has gone on, the writing has been less pre-occupied with allegory about the show itself being on trial, and is instead concentrating on making the events within the courtroom more exciting, and increasingly more central to the story being told. This serial marks a slow transition from the trial being the framing material to being the main action, and it’s better for it.

The reason being that as the evidence becomes less and less reliable, the show is doing interesting things with the narrative that are actually quite far ahead of their time, in Doctor Who terms. Thus far, unless specifically informed otherwise, we’ve accepted that everything we’ve seen happened as depicted, but now we can’t take anything for granted. As the Matrix-tampering ramps up, we’re challenged to reconsider everything that’s happened so far. How much of the last section actually happened, considering The Doctor’s amnesia? With this one, is it just the bits The Doctor mentions that have been tampered with, or everything? Did The Valeyard get there even earlier than The Doctor did, and planted the whole thing?

Because if he did make the whole thing up, then he probably could have done a better job of it. I quite enjoyed the slower pace and the more light-hearted touches, but the murder mystery aspect didn’t live up to its promise. Oh, what a surprise, it was one of the three shady scientists, and the shadiest of the three at that. To be fair, I spent most of the first part distracted, trying to work out what I recognised the old passenger from. He was the old archbishop in The Black Adder!

As for the Vervoids, I liked the concept, and it gave The Doctor a chance to talk about morality and the importance of empathising with the enemy. It all boiled down to a Genesis-esque dilemma, and I can’t decide whether he made the right choice this time. But let’s face it, there’s only one thing they’re particularly memorable for. They’re a bunch of six foot fannies dressed in suits made of leaves.

Overall, don’t say this too loudly, but I’m starting to think The Trial of a Time Lord is actually pretty good. Obviously, a lot rides on the final two parts, and I have no doubt whatsoever that this production team will find some jaw-dropping way of fucking everything up. But regardless, up until this point at least, this is way better than the previous season. Still far from the show at its best, but it appears to have started the climb back up from the nadir.

RATING: 7

Trial: Mindwarp

Well, that was unexpected. I loved that. All the ingredients were wrong, but somehow that was perhaps my favourite Colin story so far. This is despite him being absolutely peak Sixth Doctor in terms of his baffling behaviour. The exaggerated cruelty and ruthlessness were clearly been played up to show that something is not right, even though he was effectively not much different to how he started out.

The difference here is that there’s some kind of method to the madness, because you’ve got the “present” Doctor on trial, and in these scenes so far he’s been acting much more like how I expect The Doctor to act. He’s eloquent, morally superior and his anger is being channeled in the right directions. I’m still not clear whether his turncoat behaviour in the flashbacks is due to (Adam) Crozier’s experiment, a clever ploy or a result of some bastard meddling with Matrix, but I expect things will make more sense by the end of the serial/season. Or maybe not, considering I’ve just read that Colin was never told which of those three options it was either.

One thing I am sure of is that this isn’t actually what happened to Peri – that spoilery ship has sailed a long, long time ago. Nevertheless, it was a bloody effective death within the context of this segment. Maybe I was reading too much into it because I knew what was coming, but it seemed to be all leading up to it. The Doctor, either seemingly or actually, abandoning her, making her feel isolated and longing for her own time, and then eventually failing to save her. I thought she was a goner at the end of Part Three/Seven, which is one of the bleakest cliffhangers of all time.

Regardless of whatever her fate is retconned to in about a week’s time, this is the end of Peri, and I can’t say I’m sad to see her go, other than the fact that I’m absolutely dreading being subjected to Bonnie bloody Langford. Nicola Bryant is clearly likeable and a good actress, but the writing consistently let her down throughout her stay, and there was just no chemistry whatsoever between her and The Doctor. It all seemed like a bit of a cock-up, and it’s a shame that Nicola/Peri wasn’t around in a more stable era for the show.

Back to this story, and I enjoyed the courtroom scenes a little more this time round; they feel a lot less tacked on now that important plot details are being revealed within, and The Doctor’s amnesia gave this an extra edge, whilst also fixing the problem of a lack of peril in the flashbacks.

But the main setting was also a lot more interesting this time, which surprised me – I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to see Sil again, but he seems somewhat improved since last time, with clearer speech and more effort taken to make his pretentious language flow naturally. Christopher Ryan being his cohort was an unexpected bonus too – the second Young One in the last three stories.

But the main star was undoubtedly Brian Blessed, appearing here in the role of Brian Blessed. I’d hazard a guess that most Who fans consider his performance to be way too over the top, completely unsuitable, unnatural and unrealistic. I agree, but I don’t give a shit, because it’s Brian Blessed. Every time he was on screen, I couldn’t help but smile. I could watch him all day, and while his very presence outshadows everything else that’s happening at any given time, I don’t care because I find his presence so enjoyable.

RATING: 8

Trial: The Mysterious Planet

Oh boy. Where to begin? Perhaps with the absolutely atrocious theme tune. It’s barely recognisable as the Doctor Who music, it’s weak and it’s messy. I had no idea this version existed, and it managed to take me by surprise every time. I was startled and insulted by its shitness as each episode opened with a whimper. Weirdly, the middle eight in the end theme isn’t terrible, but the rest of it is just nothing but a disappointment.

But then, in the first part, it’s followed up by what’s probably the most impressive model shot the show’s ever had. I’m a huge fan of the BBC visual effects team of this era, and you can always rely on that set of model makers to deliver, even when the rest of the production is going to pot. This is the first episode to have been broadcast in my lifetime, and the show’s starting to get pretty close to how I remember TV being when I was tiny. Not only are the locations shot on video now, it’s even the type of tape stock that gives the look I associate with some of my earliest TV memories.

The aforementioned model shot leads into the establishment of the trial setting, and it’s so, so weird. It’s enjoyable in and of itself, thanks to the pedigree of Lynda Bellingham and Michael Jayston, along with a far less irritating performance from Colin than we’re used to. He really is so much better when he’s not with Peri, as his outbursts and anger are much more tolerable when they’re not aimed at people who are supposed to be his friend.

But the premise is misguided at best. In universe, it’s fair enough, and I like that they acknowledge the fact that it’s happened before, but in the implementation it feels like a parody of a courtroom drama, rather than something that exists in the real world. In fact, it really reminded me of The Jasper Carrott Trial, so I simply couldn’t take it seriously, even when The Valeyard is trying to raise the stakes every time we see him. The constant crash zooms in to Colin’s big daft face didn’t help.

I think it’s a bold and somewhat dangerous move to turn an entire season into an allegory for your behind-the-scenes drama, and most likely a foolish one. You’re asking for trouble when you have your lead character deriding the action for being boring, and questioning the point of it being shown at all. The discussions around the Doctor and violence could have been clever and interesting, but it was just all a bit too on-the-nose. I’m assuming the stuff about details being censored from the evidence will become relevant later (I have enough prior knowledge to know there’s a twist, but not exactly what it is), but so far it’s just a bit jarring – the interruptions really take you out of the main story.

I mean, it’s taken me this long to even mention that there is a main story; that’s how much of a distraction the trial is. The emphasis is perhaps slightly wrong, as the bits on the sort-of-eponymous mysterious planet feel like they deserved to carry more weight. The premise of the Earth being ripped from its place in space and time is certainly a strong one, but they didn’t find time to explain why. The format of this season also slightly scuppers any sense of peril; any cliffhangers where The Doctor’s in danger don’t really work when you know it’s essentially just a flashback.

The big robot ruling over a primitive set of humanoids, and selecting the cleverest and youngest ones to serve him, is essentially The Krotons again, and I wasn’t terribly keen on this element of the story, other than the gags about their sacred books. I quite enjoyed Glitz and Dibber though; they’re nothing we haven’t seen before, but they were fun to spend time with, and I always enjoy not knowing what side people are on. But can everyone stop objectifying Peri, please? I’m sure there have been companions who were subjected to worse sexism than this, but not for a while, and this stands out because it’s the fucking 1980s – the show should know better by now.

But you know, it’s weird. This is clearly a rubbish story/segment/season, but I enjoyed the experience of watching it more than I did for most of the previous season, and looked forward to the viewings each night more than usual. Dropping back down to 25 minute episodes helps, along with the rubber-necking factor of wanting to watch an absolute disaster unfold. But to give it its due, it is completely different to anything the show’s done before. It’s probably worse than anything the show’s done before, but as the shorter seasons lead me hurtling reluctantly towards the end of the classic run, I’m amazed and glad that I’m still finding it this much fun.

RATING: 7