Brace yourselves. All this week we will be looking at the 14-part Doctor Who story The Trial of a Time Lord. On Friday we will take an overall view of the story, so today I won’t be mentioning the framing narrative of the trial scenes, but instead looking at the “evidence” presented in the first four episodes at the Doctor’s trial. The Mysterious Planet is a title used for convenience for the first four episodes, because we have to call them something if we are looking at them as a discrete entity, and this was the working title and has been used in various official ways by the BBC over the years.
The whole series is presented as 4 x past, 4 x present, 4 x future, and 2 episodes that resolve the trial plot, so for these four episodes we are in the Doctor’s past from his point of view, although it is still an adventure that takes place after the last one we saw. Not just that, but some time is supposed to have passed, and the Doctor and Peri’s relationship has improved. This is probably the element of the story that is discussed the most, and it is pretty horrible that it had to be a thing at all, resulting from a disastrously dysfunctional start to their relationship which was borderline abusive, and spilled over into their first full season together. Peri at times seemed to be travelling with the Doctor because the writers dictated that she was, rather than having any reasonable motivation to stay with a man who constantly seemed to be trying to make her feel worthless. At first we appear to be picking up right where we left off:
PERI: Can’t we come back some other time, like when it’s not raining?
DOCTOR: Oh, stop whinging.
PERI: I don’t understand why you wanted to come here in the first place.
DOCTOR: Then you should have listened more carefully.
But then the Doctor starts to do something new: he praises Peri:
PERI: None of this makes any sense. Any soil left after the visitation of a fireball would be sterile.
DOCTOR: Well done.
PERI: Don’t patronise me Doctor. You knew from the start this amount of growth wasn’t possible.
DOCTOR: I also knew, that as a student of botany, you’d soon realise the truth without any prompting from me.
And then when he decides to overrule her, he does so in a funny and nice way, rather than just simply putting her down:
PERI: Well, possible or not, I want to get away from here.
DOCTOR: You’re absolutely right. We must find out what’s going on here.
Finally, when Peri gets emotional over the fate of the Earth, the Doctor gives her the rational argument, as he always would do, but this time tempered with understanding of her feelings:
PERI: This cinder we’re standing on is all that’s left of my world. Everything I knew.
DOCTOR: I know how you feel.
PERI: Do you?
DOCTOR: Of course I do. You’ve been travelling with me long enough to know that none of this really matters. Not to you. Your world is safe.
PERI: This is still my world, whatever the period, and I care about it. And all you do is talk about it as though we’re in a planetarium.
DOCTOR: I’m sorry. But look at it this way. Planets come and go, stars perish. Matter disperses, coalesces, reforms into other patterns, other worlds. Nothing can be eternal.
That’s about it as far as their relationship development goes, but it is a huge step in the right direction in comparison to what has gone before. It’s just a shame that this had to happen so late in the game and would be completely undermined very soon.
This is the last completed Robert Holmes script, and the first time we have really seem him recycle an idea wholesale. I don’t quite share the hero-worship of Holmes that most fans engage in, and find the quality of his work highly dependent on the abilities of his script editors. His work was sometimes mean-spirited and cynical in a way that is simply a bad fit for Doctor Who other than the version of Doctor Who bookish teens and nobody else wanted (we’ll get to that when we look at The Caves of Androzani). But this is something new from him. That’s new, in the sense of being something clearly not new. Ironically, at the moment that the series was trying to reinvent itself, its supposedly most reliable writer phoned in a rewrite of an old script: The Krotons, plus a few bits of The Face of Evil and The Ribos Operation for good measure. There’s nothing wrong with reusing old ideas as such, but the approach is a bad fit for the current TARDIS team and behind-the-scenes vision. It’s no good transplanting a story from one era to another and expecting it to work. Without the charm of Troughton or Tom Baker it all feels like an empty exercise. I can see the point of harking back to the past in what is supposed to be the past segment of this warped Christmas Carol, but a few bits and pieces like Colin giving us his Pertwee and a plot which wanders through Holmes’s greatest hits is not going to reignite the glories of the past.
And this is all stunningly miserable and cynical, in a way only Holmes at his worst can be. The moral high ground is repeatedly shown to be the low ground, with deviousness paying off instead. Holmes was always anti-establishment in his writing, but at his best he has the Doctor as an anarchist defeating injustice. Here the Doctor is the establishment, the one who wants to play it fair, and Glitz is the anti-establishment figure who is the one who gets to stroll in, all confident, and whose con tricks eventually work for him. So when the Doctor tries to reason with Drathro he is wasting his time, but Glitz simply lies to the robot and succeeds. This following from a moment earlier in the story where the Doctor telling the truth to Katryca falls flat because she has been lied to so much. He is the first person to just simply tell her the truth, and it is shown to be a complete waste of time. The irony is enjoyable, but it’s all rather dispiriting, with the Doctor spending a lot of the story getting tied up while other people get on with the adventure. But at least we do have a reasonably coherent adventure to watch, with minimal tampering with the evidence. Because things are about to get really confusing… RP
The view from across the pond:
Colin Baker’s last season as the Doctor is tied together by a trial. Fourteen episodes comprise the trial, which is made up of 4 stories. We’ll examine the trial on its own, but for now, we’re going to take a look at each of the individual stories starting with The Mysterious Planet.
And what were they thinking? What is Peri wearing? I know those skin-tight suits were there to draw in a certain demographic, but what the devil is that pants/suit things she’s got on? Who was that meant to attract? What did her hairdresser do to her hair? And the Doctor! Was he about to blurt out his name willy nilly? And did Ms. Pant-Suit really interrupt him? I could almost accept that if he had not attempted to use an umbrella to stop being stoned to death! I watch this one and cringe!
Speaking of attire, what the deuce do people wear in the underground these days? And why does Doctor Who have such trouble with twins? Seems Colin’s time as the Doctor started with annoying twins and it appears to be wrapping up in a similar way! Truly a twin twin Dilemma! Hunker and Handrail, or whatever their names are (Humker and Tandrell), are utterly detestable. If the Doctor took them to Varos and dropped them in the acid, no one would be complaining. Meanwhile, Merdeen isn’t a bad chap, just has no idea how to dress. He’d almost be better off getting his clothing from the tribe of the Free. (Would it cost him anything with a title like that? I think he could get a significant discount if he argues with the manager!)
It’s hard to talk about this story without suffering Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Katryca looks like the typical grandmother, just enough past her prime to not look threatening, while lacking sufficient age to need a walker. She’s comes across as frightening as a basset hound. (She went on to cameo as grandmothers throughout the world). Meanwhile Drathro is the main bad guy. He is so ineffectual as a villain, running circles around him would most likely crash his software. Look at him: his arms can’t move in any direction but up and down. I mean literally, move to a ninety degree angle to him, and wait for him to rotate, then repeat. Do that enough times and I am positive he would crash. In fact, he was such a bad robot (sorry J.J.) that he basically fell apart and lost those arms… see this image from the Doctor Who Experience. He’s unrecognizable now. (His career now includes standing around looking like a menacing radio tower.)
As for Dibber and Glitz…. Ok, Dibber is so useless that he doesn’t get to return later. He is little more than a common thug. (He now stars in a sitcom with his older brother called “Big Dibber and Little Dibber”.) But Glitz is actually the most redeeming part of the story because he’s genuinely likable. Tough finding good rogues these days. Seems many of the rogues gallery is populated with people we actually like. Glitz is funny, pithy and charming even with that perm. (I believe he now sells earmuffs having traveled with one Mel Bush for long enough to have developed tinnitus.)
And as evidence goes, the Valeyard choses this story to illustrate the Doctor’s meddling. But this happens to have some damning evidence against him too. The mere fact that the Earth has been moved is enough to get the Valeyard into trouble. And just how can you move a planet across the cosmos without wiping out life as we know it. Or did it, and the results are most blonde twins? Did the Valeyard think he wouldn’t be able to find sufficient proof of interference if he just watched any season of the show? More on that when we look at the trial itself.
I loved the idea of a season-long story arc, the likes of which we had not seen since the Key to Time but the evidence had to be better than this. As much as I liked Robert Holmes for his earlier work in Doctor Who, this one warranted five rounds rapid! Here’s to hoping the evidence would be better in the next part. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Mindwarp