All this week we have been looking at the individual sections of The Trial of a Time Lord, although it was actually broadcast as one 14-part story. In retrospect the whole thing seems like an odd decision. After a longer than usual break between seasons, this was an opportunity to bring in some new viewers for what would have felt like a fresh start, but having only one jumping on point is a disadvantage. The trial scenes themselves do get terribly repetitive, but we are looking through a lens of binge-viewing rather than watching one episode per week. There is no reason not to accord this the same respect as, for example, the Hartnell era, where the only sensible approach to viewing is to make some allowances for the episodic nature of the show. It is tempting to criticise on the grounds that the VHS schedule was under way, and at this point there were seven Doctor Who stories available to buy, so John Nathan-Turner knew that this would eventually have a life beyond the viewers’ episodic consumption of the story, but really everyone had enough to worry about getting the thing made, let along having to think about making it work for two different media.
A couple of things are apparent right from the start of the story. Firstly we are back to 25 minute episodes, which seemed at this point to be Doctor Who’s natural format, with everyone having failed to grasp that you can’t just write 45 minute episodes as if they are two 25 minute ones stuck together, without actually picking up the pace a bit. But the episode count remains at 14 weeks, so in effect the amount of material we get is halved. Secondly a lot of money seems to have been spent on this. At least, that’s the impression we get from the clever idea of putting a lot of money on screen in the opening shot. The space station is a model shot with a motion-control camera, and it looks more than a decade ahead of its time. As a television special effect in 1986 it was astonishing.
But why are we on a space station at all? Is it just an excuse for a fancy bit of effects work? The whole story is a mess, but deep under the surface seems to be the suggestion that these Time Lords are from the Doctor’s future. That is one of only two possibilities, as the Valeyard himself is from the Doctor’s future. Either that, or the Valeyard has travelled into the past and engineered everything, but the ridiculous kangaroo-court nature of the proceedings would suggest that at least some of the Time Lords here are complicit in the Valeyard’s scheme, and have brought the Doctor forward in time from his past. This is supported by just about everything else we see. The Matrix was previously shown to be a dangerous process to enter, requiring special equipment, but now there is just a door to it on a space station. Plus, the Doctor is able to use evidence from one of his future adventures, so unless you throw all notions of linearity out of the window and try to rationalise Time Lords somehow living in a fatalistic universe with knowledge of everything that will happen to them then this has to be the future from the point of view of the Doctor and his own personal timeline. In retrospect it is tempting to place this during or post Time War.
But we’re groping around in the dark here because the whole thing is so incoherent. Whether filming was started before the season arc had been mapped out or not, it certainly comes across as if it was being made up as they went along, and that was definitely the case with the clumsy retconning of Peri’s death. The fault here is not so much with the reversal of what happened, which was really something that had to be done if JNT was going to be seen to have taken any notice whatsoever of the too-violent criticisms of the previous year. The fault is with the decision to kill a companion in such a brutal way in the first place. There is one thing having a companion die a heroic death, but having an alien transplanted into her head in a way that mimics brain surgery, with all her hair shaved off as well, is just not something Doctor Who could or should ever do. The retcon is accomplished by taking a shot from Mindwarp and placing it into soft-focus, so the Doctor seems either (a) uncaring, or (b) an idiot, to swallow that story without going to investigate things himself, as he never actually sees any evidence of Peri being still alive; it could just as easily be a bit more tampering with the evidence. Even if it isn’t, she wasn’t exactly head over heels in love with Yrcanos. Anti-feminist doesn’t even begin to cover it. A couple of words to the effect that he will visit her soon and make sure she is happy would have helped, at the very least.
But the Doctor is basically portrayed as a complete idiot throughout the whole story. He never says the obvious things that the viewers must be thinking in his defence. His objections to the Valeyard consist of claims of tampering with the evidence and not much else, but the limitations of the distortion of evidence really only relate to whether he is self-centered, self-serving and uncaring or not. His focus on that distinction kind of proves the Valeyard’s point, when he could instead be defending himself from the point of view of what he actually achieves in the first and third pieces of evidence, saving huge numbers of people on both occasions. Mindwarp is the one story where he is comprehensively defeated and he never calls out the Time Lords on taking him out of the action when he was about to put things right, instead of allowing it all to end in a massacre. How can he be expected to answer for the consequences of an adventure he was never allowed to complete? How many times does the Doctor turn things around at the last minute? To cut off the conclusion and blame him for the ensuing deaths is utterly bizarre, and the Doctor never makes that point strongly enough. Then later in the story the whole nature of the charges he is facing gets changed on a whim, as if that makes even a grain of sense.
The structure of the story is that of A Christmas Carol, with a segment from past, present (leading up to the events of the trial) and future. But the whole point of A Christmas Carol is that Scrooge changes his ways, and despite the Doctor saying he does so, we see no real progress. His behaviour towards Peri in The Mysterious Planet has already been moderated from the previous series, so in the end there is little noticeable difference between that relationship and the one with Mel, apart from the distorted relationship as shown in the unreliable evidence that is Mindwarp. The Doctor apparently ends the story every bit as egotistical, arrogant and non-Doctorish as this flawed incarnation has been all along, and the upshot of it all is that this is the last we will see of him. This is the version of A Christmas Carol where Scrooge doesn’t change, and pays the price with his life. RP
The view from across the pond:
Over the course of the last week, we’ve been examining The Trial of a Time Lord as 4 individual stories, but I submit that we should look at the Trial itself as well.
This story had an incredible foundation: the Doctor is on trial for interfering in the affairs of others. The Valeyard offers evidence to illustrate why the Doctor should be punished and the Doctor has to offer his own defense. I think someone should make a new Trial complete with the scenes from inside the courtroom but different evidence. Exhibit A: back at the end of season 2 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in an episode called Shades of Gray, Riker is injured and re-lives moments from the past two seasons. This idea could have been a fan’s dream come true. Still a new story with C. Baker on trial, but using clips from all the former Doctors. If this were done now, “future” evidence could be submitted, like that of The Day of the Doctor for the Doctor’s defense. Sadly, that wasn’t the way it went down. Instead we had one horrible story, one fairly weak story, one reasonably good story and a finale that runs the range from weak to strong at various intervals.
But the trial itself is actually quite good. It’s probably the best thing about this epic. I submit that the dialog is actually very enjoyable. One of my favorite moments is so basic but so underutilized in television writing.
Doctor: I protest!
Inquisitor: What now?
Doctor: Yes, now!
Inquisitor: I meant, what are you protesting about this time?
Yes, the misunderstanding. It’s something that happens all the time in the real world but it is never utilized in storytelling. I was impressed with the use here even though it’s a gloriously minor moment.
I further submit that the Doctor’s outbursts and calling the Valeyard by various names, such as boatyard, is quite fun to watch. But to be equally fair, I’d equally argue that name-calling should not be in the Doctor’s arsenal of tricks, however under the circumstances of a vast charade, it can be permitted. And considering he ends up calling himself all these things, it’s less name calling and ends up being self-deprecating.
I do think the final part has merit being called The Ultimate Foe because it represents that the greatest enemy we face is ourselves. But that begs the questions: can the Valeyard really be considered a villain? We are lead to believe he’s trying to kill the members of the high council as well as the Doctor, but even the Valeyard is unaffected by the explosion and he was right next to it. So is the Valeyard merely a trickster? Does anyone actually die at the hands of the Valeyard? The explosion in the Matrix can be a mental projection and not real, so why take it at face value that he intended to harm anyone at all? And the Doctor wonders for years if he is a good man, both in dreams (Amy’s Choice) and throughout his 12th incarnation. That inner demon might also explain why so many pieces of evidence are self-destructive. The Doctor-side of the Valeyard makes him choose evidence that is damning his cause, while the Valeyard-side of the Doctor makes him choose equally damning footage (like genocide) for his defense. Can we actually beat our ultimate foe? I contest that we cannot and the Doctor is no less vulnerable to that. The Valeyard represents it, but as an idea, cannot ever be beaten or ignored, but never needs to come back as a result because, effectively, he’s always there, in the Doctor’s memory. And that makes it an amazing idea.
Where I feel there’s a failure on the part of the writing comes from a few places. First, the Inquisitor herself. At the end of Mindwarp, she is all too aware of the death of Peri, but later the Master tells the court that Peri lives. Was she or was she not aware of Peri’s death? Was she just trying to antagonize the Doctor into being upset and needing a week between episodes to feel a bit better? I contest that she was not running her courtroom well because she had to know what happened to comment on it, or she was just being willfully cruel.
Another thing that makes me cringe is how many episodes gave us a cliffhanger ending that was merely a close up of the Doctor’s face. What sort of filming is this? Yes, he’s under stress, but a zoom in to the actors face might work once. To try that same trick repeatedly is evil incarnate. Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen, cameramen with zooming lenses… evil, degenerate and rotten to the core. This was worse than those lens flares in Star Trek (2009). Lastly, that Mel goes off with the Doctor makes no sense. It would have been easy enough to say the Time Lords were putting her back in her own timeline even if the next episode as planning on picking up where it left off. But considering it was a McCoy episode that followed, it would have actually made it more convenient to “slip her back into her own timeline” and then there was endless creative potential to do book versions of their first meeting and carry on until Baker’s “end” and McCoy’s beginning.
Objection: speculating unnecessarily.
Sustained. Please conclude your missive…
Verdict: I was very happy with the trial. It’s not flawless. I’d argue that it is flawed, but enjoyable despite those flaws. Like the Doctor, it fights with its own inner demons. It can never overthrow them but they serve as a great reminder for what we want to avoid in the future. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Time and the Rani
The Trial Of A Time Lord put the Dr. Who show itself on trial. As for how it might have been more successful as a Time War trial, that may imaginably still have story potential somewhere down the line, but with an originally new format that could work best for Jodie’s Doctor. Thank you both for your conclusive reviews for what may have been the classic Who’s most controversial season.
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Roger, you make a stunningly good point that I utterly failed to think about: the entrance to the Matrix is on a space station! With everything else going on, I wasn’t even thinking of that, and it’s rubbish!
As far as Peri goes, there is a follow up in Doctor Who Magazine, in an episode of Brief Encounters. It’s not that it makes up for the lack of caring in the show, but at least it gave us a chance to see them reunited. It’s not a warm, happy story. I still have a copy around here. Here’s a quick review.
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I vaguely remember that one. Big Finish have also done a post-Trial return to Peri I think, but my memory is fuzzy on that one so it can’t have made much of an impact on me.
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