A lot has been said about “Trial of a Time Lord”, some of it by me, but that’s neither here nor there. This Colin Baker series comes from another era. It was era of disappointment in many ways – of enormous potential squandered. A time when optimism was slowly eroded away to despair.
I remember those times well, or at least passably well, I was Vice-President of the local Doctor Who fan club, TARDIS. (The Arizona Regional Doctor Who Interest Society – don’t blame me for the tortured acronym, that was from before my time.) TARDIS was at the time the largest Doctor Who club in Arizona with a typical meeting attendance of about 30.
Peter Davison episodes of DW had been shown on the local PBS station, but to watch the Colin Baker episodes was an exercise in international intrigue. In those days, you could typically expect years before DW would be syndicated and arrive in the Phoenix market. In those days, the conflicting video and videotape standards between the US and the UK were formidable. Tapes had to be made when the episodes aired in the UK and mailed to someone in the US. They, in turn, needed to have a British TV and VHS deck, plus a second US standard VHS recorder and a video camera – which they would aim at the screen and record the playback on the UK VCR. The result was of low quality, and as they would get copied and mailed around the US, the quality deteriorated. The holy grail was to either be in the first tier of copies or, better yet, to actually be the recipient of the original tape.
How long it took from original airing until we sat around at our bi-weekly meetings on Saturday nights was highly variable, and much anticipated.
Trial of a Time Lord though was something special, not only was the Doctor back after an 18 month “rest” but we all thought, “This will be something special – something that will bring the show back to its glory days.” We had, perhaps naively, hoped it would reverse the decline that had begun at the end of Tom Baker’s era.
Here’s another reason it was special – it was the first, and only, time that I personally listened to Doctor Who live – as it actually aired in Britain. It was over the phone.
I suppose I should explain how that came about. Around that time I was a FidoNet BBS operator, and through those connection, I met a nice chap named Frank Thornley. (Frank, if you’re still out there, here’s a shout out!) Frank was visiting the United States with the aim towards establishing a business arrangement between his Compulink BBS and the US’ BIX service. He and his wife Sylvia, who I didn’t meet for several years, were contemplating setting up some sort of office in the US. Honestly, I don’t know what they’re exact plans were, but I do know that they ultimately didn’t cut a deal with BIX and, in the end, established their own online service called CIX (The Compulink Information eXchange) which was, I gather, quite successful.
I was unemployed and had plenty of time on my hands, so I was helping Frank get acclimated to Phoenix. I happened to be at his apartment at the very time that the first episode of Trial of a Time Lord was on, and he was talking to his wife on the phone. They turned on Doctor Who for me and let me listen for a few minutes on the phone. Well, that was a big thrill in those days. They were terribly nice people. I haven’t heard from them in years, ever since they were talking about buying a yacht and traveling the world. What I remember of that phone call was, “Hmmm, the phone makes the theme music sound very different!”
Anyway, a few weeks to a month after it aired in the UK, I had seen Trial of a Time Lord, and had some opinions on the matter. Since then, several months ago, I watched the first two episodes of it again, and then didn’t finish. Now, in the last two weeks I have watched it in it’s entirety, and the complete contents of the “bonus features” on the DVDs. Now, it’s time to re-evaluate the Trial.
The Doctor is on trial for his life. Snatched, alone, out of time and space he is brought before an “independent” inquiry by the Time Lords of Gallifrey. The charge: meddling.
Bringing the case against the Doctor is the bloodthirsty Valeyard, a Time Lord who seems desperate to have the Doctor executed for his alleged crimes.
In the case for the prosecution, the Valeyard uses evidence from the Matrix – the Gallifreyan computer that contains the sum total of all knowledge. He demonstrates two tales from the Doctor’s history, the second, culminating with the death of his companion Peri.
In rebuttal, the Doctor presents a case from his own future showing that, “he gets better.”
The Master arrives, inside the Matrix, proving that the evidence has been tampered with by the Valeyard in an effort to kill the Doctor. The Valeyard is revealed to be a future incarnation of the Doctor himself, who has gone evil. In the end, the three renegade Time Lords battle it out inside the Matrix where nothing (least of all the script) makes sense. In the end, both the Doctor and the Valeyard escape, the High Council is deposed and Gallifrey is in anarchy after yet another one of the Doctor’s visits.
During the whole 14-part trial, we get to see three new stories which, although officially untitled, are known as “The Mysterious Planet”, “Mindwarp” and “Terror of the Vervoids.”
First, the background. I’m not a fan of producer John Nathan-Turner’s era. As far as I can tell he made nary a good decision. New theme music during Tom Baker’s final year – poor. New style at same time – usually jarring and unconvincing. The question marks – trite! Peter Davison’s Doctor – weak and ineffective. Colin Baker’s Doctor – obnoxious and loud. Colin Baker’s costume – yuck. Sylvester McCoy – stuffs ferrets down his pants. McCoy’s theme music – too dance music. The companions – horrible. In fact, the only things that I recall liking about his decisions were: Colin Baker’s casting (sadly, the scripts failed him), The Trial of a Time Lord theme version by Dominic Glynn and Peri’s first appearance in a bikini.
And so it came that when I first saw Trial of a Time Lord, I thought it was a depressing failure. The show continued in the vein it had been. Their 18 month hiatus had taught them nothing.
Now I wonder.
Having watched the bonus material, I have a much better feel for the reasoning – and where to put the blame – for the failure.
The story simply cannot be treated as a whole as it is a disjointed mess. The trial sequences foul up the other stories continually, so let’s start with them.
Eric Saward, script editor for the series, claims to have written them. That’s not a claim I’d boast about. Never has there been a more poorly conceived trial sequence in the history of television.
Consider: The Doctor is accused of meddling. He was previously convicted of it and sentences to exile on Earth. Since then the Time Lords have kept track of him and on occasion used him. Let’s be blunt: the Doctor always meddles. If all they needed to do was prove that, he’d be convicted. He is guilty of that “crime.” Of course, he’d argue it shouldn’t be a crime, but that’s a different case. Given that, the Valeyard could choose any of the Doctor’s adventures and convict him without chicanery.
Instead, he starts with the adventure of the planet Ravalox, which, the Doctor discovers is actually the planet Earth, renamed, nearly destroyed and hidden. Who could do that? We later learn it was the High Council themselves. The destroyed the planet to protect Time Lord secrets and then tried to cover it up. The Doctor stumbles into the situation and that’s what ultimately precipitates the High Council’s attempt to have the Doctor tried and destroyed.
During the court sequences, the discovery that Ravalox is the Earth is revealed, and some characters have their words “bleeped out” because they contain top secret information. (Later revealed that they were talking about the Matrix.) Why oh why would the Valeyard choose that particular story to try to convict the Doctor?! Surely he raised more questions in the court than he answered when any other adventure would have done! Answer: It reveals plot points to the audience, but it makes no sense in the context of the trial. That’s bad scripting. If Saward were working with a script editor, that never would have passed, but he wasn’t. No one was watching the watcher.
Mindwarp fairs a bit better as evidence. Unfortunately, we’ll never know how much of the story really happened. The Doctor’s brain is scrambled by an alien mind probe and he begins acting like a villain… or does he? The Doctor can’t remember and the Valeyard is tampering with the Matrix to make the Doctor look worse. In the end, Peri’s brain is killed by the bad guys and then her body is destroyed – on the orders of the High Council. Later we’re cheated out of even that ending when we’re told Peri is alive and living as a warrior queen. At least this one makes sense in the context of the trial, both showing the Doctor is the worst possible light and bringing us up to the point where he is brought on trial.
Finally, the Doctor get’s to put his case. He, paradoxically, decides to use his adventures in the future to demonstrate that he gets better. This falls apart logically and legally. He gets better? So what? He still committed the crime he was accused of. How can this be his future if he gets convicted executed before it happens? (Let’s not try to understand Time Lord time lines… the Valeyard really fouls this one up.) The only defense the Doctor could have is to prove he didn’t commit the crimes or, perhaps more cleverly, he might have proved somehow that meddling shouldn’t be a crime.
Finally, after the Vervoid segment, the Valeyard calls for the charge to be changed to genocide – the Doctor wiped out the entire Vervoid race. Did he? I thought these were events that hadn’t happened yet! How can he be guilty of a crime he hasn’t committed yet? And of course, if he’s found guilty and executed, he cannot commit the crime, so there’s no reason to convict him.
I can only conclude that copious amounts of drugs were involved in the creative process and it shows.
Let’s look at the individual stories. I’m not going to say a lot about them. The Mysterious Planet, written by Robert Holmes isn’t bad. It’s not his best work, but it shows his characteristic trademarks. The Doctor and Peri are finally getting along. I can remember that from back when it first aired. That was a breath of fresh air. It’s a pity that, from the interviews in the bonus material, it was revealed that they were supposed to still be snarking at each other, only Colin and Nicola played across their lines and made them affectionate instead of acrimonious. Watching the episode with that knowledge and it becomes obvious – what they say and how they’re saying it are totally out of sync. Amazing what acting can do to the written word.
Mindwarp by Phillip Martin suffers terribly from not knowing if it is real or not. As it stands it’s an unpleasant tale which serves as a sequel to the equally unpleasant Martin tale, Vengeance on Varos. Brian Blessed always puts in a 200% performance, and his stint as King Yrcanos is no exception.
The Doctor’s evidentiary tale is Terror of the Vervoids, by Pip and Jane Baker. This story is a plain old fashioned murder on an ocean liner mystery set in space, with killer vegetables thrown into the soup. (I couldn’t resist.) I thought this was a good solid effort by Jane and her husband, Pip. It won’t be remembered as one of the greatest episodes of Who, but it may have been Colin Baker’s most traditional story. Pity they didn’t start him that way and work from there.
Finally, there’s the Ultimate Foe, which serves as the conclusion of the Trial, as the Doctor and the Valeyard battle it out in the Matrix. This was a two part story that was supposed to be written by Robert Holmes, who, in conjunction with Saward, had plotted the conclusion out. (This also explains why Holmes’ Mysterious Planet setup the info about the High Council’s crimes.) Sadly, Holmes turned in the script for part 1 and promptly fell ill and died. Saward, who was completely in the loop about where the story was going, stepped up and finished episode 2 in accordance with Holme’s outline.
John Nathan-Turner didn’t like the ending, which apparently ended with the Doctor and the Valeyard trapped forever in some sort of void. JNT wanted a happy ending. He and Saward had a falling out and Saward quit, taking his script with him. JNT was forced to turn the task of completing the story over the Pip and Jane Baker, but they were not allowed to know any of the contents of the second part of the story. They were given the completed first script and told to write a second part based upon it.
We should not forget that Holmes originally wrote The Deadly Assassin, the first Gallifrey-based story and the introduction of the Matrix and it’s ability to form fantasy worlds manifested by the minds of the people trapped within. This time the Matrix is a dark, foreboding Victorian back-alley of a world but all too suddenly it becomes Pip and Jane Baker’s tortured, illogical fantasy mess. I suppose, given that they were told nothing about the original plot, they did a fair job of tying up the pieces – I suppose. I wouldn’t want that assignment, but I guess it pays the bills.
All’s well in the end, of course, and the Doctor leaves with Mel, a companion he hasn’t even met yet. That would be bad enough if I didn’t know what was going to happen next in Time and the Rani.
No panning of Trial of a Time Lord would be complete without mentioning the rubbish cliffhangers, apparently at JNT’s insistence: Colin makes dramatic face and holds it, camera zooms in, cue end music. Episode after episode until you begin to laugh about it. If it weren’t for Dragonfire in Sylvester McCoy’s time, they would surely be the worst cliffhangers ever.
I mentioned hope for the future. Back then everyone except, apparently, the production crew knew what was wrong with Doctor Who. Too much shouting, too much in-fighting, shitty stories. After the 18 month hiatus we just knew they’d had time to figure it out, and perhaps they did. Taken individually, both Mysterious Planet and Terror of the Vervoids showed a distinct improvement over previous series. Mindwarp was an unpleasant holdover to the bad old days. Despite that, it would have been passable if it hadn’t been tinkered with to make damning evidence. But all that was destroyed by framing the episode inside the trial, which ruined everything.
Even though it had been mangled, there were signs of improvement for the future. There was still hope for the Sixth Doctor, and for the entire series.
As we all know, then they fired Colin Baker, and things were about to get a lot worse.