A review of the DVD box set for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2008. (The David Tennant/Catherine Tate season had just been broadcast, if that helps you see what I’m trying to do with the opening paragraphs!)
As a recipe for success, the ingredients are tasty enough. There are certainly some big ideas in the mix… Earth is torn from orbit and dragged across space. Brain surgery turns aliens into slaves. A mystery story, inspired by the work of Agatha Christie, has our heroes hunting a killer. We meet an alternative version of the Doctor, lifted from a point between two incarnations.
Script all this with skill, cast it well, produce it with care, and you can win yourself millions, billions, koquillions of viewers. Back in 1986, they took a different approach, and the fourth episode of this season earned a rating of only 3.7 million and an Audience Appreciation figure of 72. (Or was it a rating of 72 and an AI of 3.7? The memory cheats.) The Trial Of A Time Lord is, in short, a TOATL mess.
The Doctor is dragged before a court of his Time Lord peers, charged with having altogether too much fun. Madame Inquisitor is the judge, the Valeyard prosecuting, and evidence takes the form of three separate adventures. The first, recording the Doctor and Peri’s visit to the planet Ravalox, is about as uneventful as Doctor Who has ever been. If the Time Lords suspect the accused has been running amok through the Universe – enjoying the lead role in a popular television series while they’re stuck at home mopping the Panopticon – then this is a strange way to prove it. The story is lifeless and plodding, lacking in any narrative drive. We have no clear idea what’s at stake for the Doctor, and hence no reason to care. By part two, you want to climb into your TV and give everyone involved a good chivvying.
In this context, the Inquisitor’s regular interjections prove delightfully apt. “What is the relevance of this presentation?” she bristles, her patience understandably tested by the fact she’s craning to watch a TV set placed 20 feet above her head. Later, when she says “I would appreciate it if these brutal and repetitious scenes were kept to a minimum”, it sounds like Linda Bellingham is accidentally reading out Jonathan Powell’s notes on the script. Before these episodes went in front of the cameras, Powell – BBC Head of Series and Serials – set out a lengthy list of suggested changes, describing the story as “lightweight and trivial” and suffering “a fatal lack of conviction”. His notes are recounted on the production subtitles, and it’s hard not to agree with every single criticism. As a comment on a trial story where the sentence is death, “a fatal lack of conviction” is deliciously ironic.
The second segment of evidence takes the Doctor to Thoros Beta, home of the Mentors – represented here by the Doctor’s old foe Sil and his boss, Kiv, who bicker like estranged lovers and insist on being carried around by muscle-bound black men, like Madonna arriving on stage at Wembley. They’re queer fish and no mistake.
This tale of alien vivisection is a step up from the Ravalox debacle, but leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Horrific things happen to nice people, and as the Doctor’s senses are addled for most of the action, we’re left without the balm of his moral outrage. Peri is murdered in the final scenes, and while the Doctor may stand up in the courtroom to rage against the injustice, we’re left feeling cold and alone. Many have argued that the later revelation of Peri’s escape destroys the impact of one of the series’ most shocking moments – but this reviewer, for one, is happy to know she survived. Peri’s supposed demise is sadistic and grotesque, and has no place in Doctor Who.
Happily, a sense of fun makes a welcome debut with parts nine through 12, when the Doctor dips into his own future to present his tussle with the Vervoids – a race of plant-men in deciduous tracksuits who run riot through a space-liner. We’re left to wonder how much of his destiny the Doctor sneakily jog-shuttled through while compiling his evidence. While seeking information on his eighth incarnation, he must have been surprised to be pointed to a box of comics in the corner.
The Doctor’s defence is a very silly murder mystery, but it’s by far the most entertaining portion of the trial. This is thanks to a script from Pip and Jane Baker, written in a language tantalisingly close to English. Everyone enjoys quoting such weirdness as “I entered this affair as a Judas goat, and intend to readopt that role”, but the worst/best line comes from scientist Doland, explaining why the hold of the Hyperion III is full of Vervoid pods: “We’re merely taking the shucks as an example to fellow Earthbound agronomists.” You can guarantee that sentence will never be spoken again in the history of the world. Even the Vervoids aren’t immunised against the script. “He cannot be permitted to prevent us from reaching planet Earth,” whispers one, over the course of about half an hour. “We are doing splendidly!” hisses another, as if counting up the takings at a cake stall. It’s the campest boast ever delivered by a Doctor Who monster.
Things are even worse back in court. “Are we to be subjected to more chicanery, Sagacity?” tongue-twists the Valeyard. The Inquisitor then challenges the Doctor’s criticism of the Matrix: “Are you questioning its veracity?” At this point, Pip and Jane show remarkable restraint – stopping short of mentioning the Doctor’s tenacity, or the Valeyard’s capacity for mendacity.
The trial winds up in a two-part finale, which is again an improvement on what has gone before. The revelation that the Valeyard is a demonic alter ego of the Doctor, dropped stylishly into casual chit-chat by the Master, cannons the story into entertaining new territory. Valeyard actor Michael Jayston – Trial’s great redeemer – is at his sneering best as we’re taken on a lively adventure into the dream world of the Matrix. With only about 45 minutes left to go, the story finally shifts into third gear.
Looking at these 14 episodes as a whole, it’s during the courtroom scenes that we most keenly mourn what might have been. It’s clear that no one involved in making this season ever stopped to ask themselves what the Doctor was on trial for. I don’t mean the specific charges he faces in the dock, but what the viewer was supposed to take from the experience. The trial is a rotten idea, but might at least have served an opportunity to redefine and relaunch the programme. With better scripts and greater clarity of thought, the Doctor could have vigorously defended everything he believes in, and reminded a weary audience why they once loved him.
Instead, our putative hero – in his test-card-and-tea-towel coat – sits back in his chair and grumbles about points of order.
There is only one possible verdict.
Send him down.
All praise must go to the producers of this box-set for providing a first-class selection of bonus features – the best yet. Prepare to surrender a whole weekend if you wish to partake of every documentary, commentary and ‘info text’ on offer here. However, while there’s a lot to enjoy, there’s also endless repetition of key facts. You’ll be reminded of the production order of these episodes 20 times, and wake up on Monday morning with the words “this season saw the use of OB cameras on location become standard practice for Doctor Who” drumming through your brain. Well, unless you also watched the embarrassing video for Doctor In Distress, in which case you won’t have slept at all. Instead, you’ll be haunted by the unique vocal stylings of Nicola Bryant, trilling the deathless line “Inside each of their casings was a bubbling lump of hate” in a previously unknown key. H-flat, perhaps. Or K-sharp.
There’s a host of contemporary TV items – Wogan, Saturday Superstore, Blue Peter – promising great things from this adventure, and predicting mass acclaim. They now bring only melancholy, in wave after crashing wave. You’ll need a strong stomach for the discussion show Open Air, which saw angry fans and pompous producer go head-to-head on live TV. Let’s hope we never see its like again.
The new documentary Trials and Tribulations, the highlight of this set, is a more measured response to the events of that year, and charts Colin Baker’s journey with Doctor Who from casting to shock dismissal. A man of parts, Baker’s tragedy was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Doctor Who blew itself to pieces in 1986, after script editor Eric Saward and producer John Nathan-Turner found themselves at loggerheads, and Saward – emotional and grieving following the death of his friend, writer Robert Holmes – walked away, taking his script for Part Fourteen with him. Commentators have long sought to assign blame for this bust-up to one party or the other, but the sadness and regret with which Baker, Saward and Nathan-Turner discuss these events demonstrates that the situation slipped slowly but irretrievably out of everyone’s control, and that no single individual is responsible. Life can be like that.
Only one aspect of the affair still appears to give pain to an otherwise phlegmatic Baker, and that’s Saward’s decision to attack his former colleagues in print while they were still fighting to get Trial in the can. The fact that Saward provides an independent commentary on Parts One and Thirteen suggests the pair won’t be meeting for a reunion sherry anytime soon. While Baker proves charming company on his commentaries – bantering cheerfully across all 14 episodes with an ever-changing roster of colleagues – Saward delivers a wistful rambling monologue, like the Ancient Mariner.
The Making Of The Trial Of A Time Lord – an epic documentary split over four discs – is another high-quality production, uniting insightful critical comment with informative cast and crew interviews. Not in the same league – though clearly made with love – are shorter programmes looking at Doctor Who cliffhangers, the shooting locations used for Trial, and the stories planned for the first, abandoned version of Season 23. This latter item uses specially commissioned artwork to illustrate such lost adventures as The Nightmare Fair and Mission To Magnus, and any heterosexual teenage boys watching will be delighted by the extensive and loving attention the artist has paid to Nicola Bryant’s knockers. It’s enough to make Sil and Kiv choke on their marsh-minnows.