Between Seasons 22 and 23 Doctor Who was taken off air for a year longer than normal, and for its return the producer, John Nathan-Turner, was instructed to make it less violent. If hiring the writer of Vengeance on Varos for four of the episodes seems like an odd decision in light of that fact, how about this: two episodes that take inspiration from the nightmarish Matrix episode of The Deadly Assassin, the last time that violence in Doctor Who caused a big fuss. As decisions go it kind of defies explanation.
I would say that the end result was inevitably going to be a watered down version of the Matrix horror, which is what we get, but when you consider that we didn’t actually get a watered down version of a Philip Martin script (quite the opposite) then it doesn’t seem so inevitable after all. Nonetheless, watered-down Deadly Assassin is what we have here. It’s still quite creepy at times and a lot of fun, in particular the Victorian setting with children singing Ring-a-Ring-o-Roses in the background, and the hands dragging the Doctor into quicksand. The Valeyard might not have the single-minded aim of hunting down the Doctor and killing him that we saw with Goth in The Deadly Assassin, but the battle between them is interesting because the Valeyard sets himself up as a bureaucratic enemy in the form of Popplewick. Fighting against bureaucracy is always territory worth exploring for the Doctor, and in fact it picks up on the theme of the Doctor’s trial, a thinly-veiled critique of the trials Doctor Who itself was being subjected to at the time. The use of Popplewick as a direct lift from The Pickwick Papers is interesting, because Pickwick is actually anti-establishment despite being from the establishment (doesn’t that just perfectly describe the Doctor!), for example fighting against money-grabbing lawyers, so this is the Valeyard wanting to be the Doctor but getting it backwards. Popplewick is the Doctor as bureaucrat, rather than the Doctor as a force to fight bureaucracy, or perhaps simply an example of the Valeyard throwing the Doctor’s pet hate at him.
We will look at the overarching Trial story and the scenes in the courtroom throughout the whole series tomorrow, but it is worth mentioning here a bit of the background to the final two episodes, as it is important to understanding what we are watching here. It is fairly well-trodden territory, but just as a very basic run-down:
- Robert Holmes was supposed to be the writer of these two episodes, but sadly passed away before he could finish the second.
- Script Editor Eric Saward stepped in and finished the scripts.
- John Nathan-Turner rejected Saward’s work and Saward resigned.
- John Nathan-Turner hired Pip and Jane Baker to write a new Part 14, based only on the script for Part 13. For reasons of copyright, they were not even allowed to see the original Holmes/Saward Part 14, so were completely unaware of the intended resolution to the complex Trial of a Time Lord series arc. The Bakers had only a few days to accomplish this.
So it is worth taking a quick look at what might have been, had the Saward/Holmes Part 14 gone ahead: the Valeyard was the 13th Doctor (not an inbetweeny thing) who was afraid of dying and wanted to steal the 6th Doctor’s remaining regenerations to live those lives all over again. The episode ended with the Valeyard and the Doctor fighting to the death, both trapped forever.
Now, it’s pretty obvious that there are a couple of issues with this, and it’s not hard to see why JNT said no. Firstly, if you have any kind of belief in the long-term prospects of the show then you don’t want to actually make a future incarnation of the Doctor evil. In fact, if you have any understanding of the character of the Doctor, you don’t want to do that either. The presence of the Master makes all this very odd indeed, because he is already our dark mirror of the Doctor, so the Doctor doesn’t exactly need to mirror himself. JNT’s main reason is actually more debatable, because he didn’t want to provide something that seemed like the end of Doctor Who, to give the BBC an excuse to cancel it. This seems logical, but then again I can’t see it could ever have been a factor in any decision-making process. If the Beeb wanted to cancel Doctor Who after Season 23 then that’s what would have happened. I can’t see that the ending of Part 14, or indeed anything that happens within the fictional world of Doctor Who, would ever have played into that kind of decision. This is the organisation that is quite happy to let Class forever linger on a cliffhanger and I don’t see that things have massively changed in that respect over the years. So it was the right decision but for probably the wrong reasons.
The one thing I really want to take from all of this is the understanding that the original ending to Trial was going to be complete and utter clichéd, melodramatic drivel. Pip and Jane Baker don’t exactly have the strongest of reputations amongst Doctor Who fans, but let’s pause for a minute to reflect on the fact that they saved the day here, and did so under astonishing time constraints. They took the mess that had been assembled over the previous 13 weeks and actually fathomed out something reasonably coherent to wrap it all up. The identity of the Valeyard might be frustratingly vague, but that is a million times better than actually making him the 13th Doctor. This was the day that Pip and Jane Baker saved Doctor Who.
We’ll look at the whole weird and wonderful(ish) story arc of The Trial of a Time Lord tomorrow. RP
The view from across the pond:
Accused of genocide at the end of Terror of the Vervoids, the Doctor is in trouble. But help arrives in a rather odd way: two travel pods show up on the station; one containing Sabalom Glitz and the other, Mel Bush. (How she wasn’t deaf from her own squawking is anyone’s guess!) How did they arrive? The Master has been watching the proceedings and is not happy with the way things are going. So much so, that he actually tries to help his mortal enemy by sending these two as character references. And the big reveal is made. The ultimate foe, for whom the story is titled, is not the Master or the Daleks or the Mire but our own inner destructive tendencies. The Valeyard is the Doctor! A future incarnation to be precise.
I had been building to this all week: the reason the Valeyard makes so many bad choices in the evidence he selects against the Doctor and the reason the Doctor does the same in his defense is that they are both facing that inner destructive power: the ultimate foe. So how do we overcome that enemy of our own making, and for the trial, how will the Doctor? With matter dissemination, obviously.
The final story of the Trial is both magnificent and awful. The Doctor chases the Valeyard into the Matrix where everything is created by the mind. (If it sounds like the movie The Matrix, there’s a damned good reason for it!) It’s a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland world where nothing is as it seems. It’s also the place we will see the ups and downs of the episode. For instance, the Valeyard is creating a waking nightmare for the Doctor so, obviously, that will entail waiting rooms and red tape. While this is probably very close approximation of hell (only lacking telemarketers and automated answering systems) the entire Mr. Popplewick stuff gets tired quickly. It’s weak and barring the occasional laugh (like opening a door one is advised against opening only to have a blast of fire come out), it shouldn’t have lasted more than 5 minutes but instead feels interminable. By contrast, the scenes on the beach are marvelous with the Valeyard disappearing and reappearing closer and closer to the Doctor. Visually, a treat! Sadly, Glitz decides to crack some wise comment ruining the otherwise ominous effect. Also amazing is watching the Doctor getting pulled under the sand by hands from below. Unfortunately this gets resolved too quick and ridiculously. Plus I must ask my friends across the pond: do your sneakers (tennis shoes) all come with little jackets of their own? We don’t have that here. If you grab my sneakers as I’m pulled under the sand, you’re not getting little garments that my sneakers wear to the beach… you’re getting my sneakers!
But that all said, the tighter story line (2 parts) works reasonable well for it. Going back for another battle in the Matrix is the biggest thing in common with the two Bakers – both Tom and Colin find themselves in the Matrix battling an enemy that knows the “terrain” better than he does. What fails horribly is the idea that the Matrix is so easily accessed. It’s supposed to be the most impressive computer system created by the most impressive technology in the universe. But there’s an actual key to get into it and it can be copied… And you wonder why you missed the Mogarian “oversight”? The notion that the Valeyard survives is not hard to believe in a world in which you can mentally manipulate everything. All he has to do is “play dead” and it might look like he really does die. But the lack of ever getting another battle with him in the series is a disappointment. The one and only thing it does do is lends credence to Capaldi’s constant questioning: “am I a good man?” because he knows what his future was supposed to look like.
Doctor Who attempted something epic. Was it? Was it a good ending for Colin’s Doctor or did it precipitate a premature death? Did it help or hinder the series overall? Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the linking strands: the Trial itself and cast our verdict! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Trial of a Time Lord (overview)