Dragonfire

It’s nice to end the season with a raft of changes. There’s been much improvement since McCoy and Cartmel took their respective reins, and this feels like a statement that the transition period is now over – goodbye to the last vestiges of the old, hello to the new companion.

I’m expecting big things from Ace; she’s practically worshiped by everyone Who fan I know who’s a couple of years older than me, and so was just old enough to watch some of this era go out. So it’s with some trepidation that I say that while the first impression is a promising one, I wasn’t immediately blown away. I’m impressed by how different she is from the last few wet lettuces, and she’s clearly an improvement on Langford already, but some of the dialogue seems a bit off. Obviously the contemporary slang is going to sound outdated to my millennial ears, but I can easily ignore that. It’s more that it feels slightly jarring and unnatural – I think it’s that she’s slightly too posh to pull it off convincingly. Even in the late 80s, companions have to speak either RP or foreign, nothing in between.

These complaints are minor, however, and they’re nothing that can’t be solved over the course of the next two seasons. Ace certainly intrigues me; all I really knew about her is that she’s from Perivale in the 80s, so it was certainly a surprise to see her turn up on a distant ice world. The explanation was vague, seemingly deliberately; I believe I’m beginning to encounter the Cartmel Masterplan. I know that the show is about to get increasingly dark and mysterious, but thankfully I’m largely unaware of the details. I just hope enough of it was fitted in before the whole shebang was cancelled.

Meanwhile, as well as the introduction of Ace, this story also saw the return of Glitz, who was back in the slightly-pathetic-but-lovable-rogue role from last time. The antics of our intrepid foursome provided a bit of bulk to a slightly thin plot – it all boiled down to The Doctor stopping the bad guy from getting the treasure, and the rest was just running around, albeit mostly enjoyable running around.

I liked the friendly dragon – it’s such a Doctor Who thing to make the monster a good guy. The design was a blatant rip-off of the Xenomorph from Alien, however, and the bits where the soldiers were tracking it down through corridors was pure Aliens. Plus, I kept getting the words Nosferatu and Nostromo mixed up, so I thought it was a complete rip-off at times. I should have been looking out for Raiders of the Lost Ark rip-offs instead. How was that for darker and edgier? Along with the humongous body count from an exploding space vehicle, for the second serial in a row.

I was relieved to read afterwards that it wasn’t just me who was massively confused by the ending of Part One. My notes were: “What’s the Doctor doing climbing over that conspicuous handrail anyway?” It becomes clear in Part Two, but at the time it just looks like The Doctor has decided to dangle himself over a chasm for no reason whatsoever, other than to contrive a literal cliffhanger.

Oh, and Mel left. Yeah, bye then. I know I’m being terribly unfair, but I just can’t get over my in-built aversion to Bonnie Langford. She wasn’t as bad as I expected, but she was never particularly good either, and that bloody scream just cut through me every time. It’s not you, Mel, it’s me, and Ace seems to be much more my cup of tea. Give me someone who responds to danger by lobbing a nitro bomb at it any day of the week. I live about five minutes’ drive away from Perivale too. I wonder if Ace shops at the big Tesco?

RATING: 7

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 6.75

  • Seasons/Series watched: 24 of 35
  • Stories watched: 147 of 263
  • Individual episodes watched: 667 of 826

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: 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