The Ultimate Foe

A short piece about the concluding episodes of The Trial of a Time Lord for Doctor Who Magazine: The Complete Sixth Doctor, from 2002.


Down the ages, countless philosophers have attempted to prove the existence of God.

One popular line of reasoning is the ‘argument from design’. This points out that if we look at any ineffably complex system found in everyday life — such as predictive texting on your phone, or ticket pricing on — we might reasonably assume that it could not have come about by mere chance and that it had been designed. And so, if we look at the universe as a whole, surely such an intricate mechanism — covering everything from the orbital resonance of the planets circling the sun to the ‘penis fencing’ mating rituals of hermaphrodite sea slugs — must also have been designed; and that designer must be God.

It’s a persuasive argument. I’m a steadfast atheist, but I recall sitting in second-year biology poking at the innards of a sheep’s eyeball with a scalpel — teasing ciliary fibres from vitreous humour — and thinking that such a delicate and functional structure couldn’t have come about purely by chance.

I still feel a shadow of that notion while watching The Ultimate Foe (or whatever you decide it’s called). You see, with most other Doctor Who you can clearly understand how it came to be the way it is. Be it shaped by the whimsical Whitaker, the horror-hunting Holmes, or the comics-loving Cartmel, you can discern a straight line from inspiration, through design, to realisation. But then you watch the crazy mess of ideas that is The Ultimate Foe and the mind can only boggle over how it came to exist at all. As fans, we are blessed with certain insights into the production process. We know that Robert Holmes died with only the first of these two episodes committed to paper. We know that Pip and Jane Baker had to dash off the second in the manner of some bizarre game of Consequences’; extrapolating as best they could from what Holmes had already written. We also know that the only person who might have been able to smooth the join, script editor Eric Saward, had already activated his ejector seat and shot-off through the ceiling of Threshold House, leaving behind on a tear-stained copy of The TARDIS Inside Out and a poisonous interview in Starburst magazine.

Let’s be clear… The climax of The Trial of a Time Lord remains an absolute joy — but whether that’s because of or in spite of the circumstances of its production remains a mystery. The evidence for the defence? Exhibit A is the unexcelled dialogue: “You’re elevating futility to a high art! and “Only by releasing myself from the misguided maxims that you nurture can I be free!” and “I’ve thrown a pebble into the water and killed two birds with one stone!” and more and more. Exhibit B is the remarkable plotting: this is, after all, a story whose climax involves the Doctor’s companion racing to tell some Time Lords to turn the telly off. Exhibit C is the single most impossibly naff/glorious moment in the history of Doctor Who: that final shot of Peri Brown and King Yrcanos framed in a big, pink heart. Aw! Love ya, you dirty old Warlord!

And so it is that, although no-one involved in the making of these episodes — producer, writers, script editors, stars — had the first clue what was going on, they somehow managed to conjure something perfectly sublime, utterly majestic and totally impossible.

But if they didn’t plan it this way, we can only reasonably conclude that there must be a far grander design at work.

The Ultimate Foe. So completely divine, it’s enough to make you believe in God.

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