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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord – The Mysterious Planet (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Trial of a Time Lord originally aired in 1986.

Well, this is a charade.

– the Doctor gets the idea quickly enough

The Doctor had been off screens for eighteen months following Revelation of the Daleks. Michael Grade was desperately trying to cancel the show, and it only limped back to screen with a significantly reduced budget and much shorter run of episodes. The show length was also reverted back to its default value. This season would only run for fourteen half-hour episodes – what would become the set length for Doctor Who in the years to come. (Indeed, counting the Christmas Special, the revived series also runs to that length, albeit in forty-five minute episodes.)

By all accounts, the production on the infamous Trial of a Time Lord was a disaster for reasons natural and otherwise. Veteran writer Robert Holmes was to provide the opening and closing scripts, but passed away before his work on the finalé could be finished. Script editor Eric Saward and producer John Nathan-Turner clashed over the climax of the trial, prompting Saward to resign and Nathan-Turner to temporarily become script editor himself. Colin Baker couldn’t make sense of Mindwarp. The last episode of the season was written by two writers wrapping up from Holmes’ first part, but unable to examine his notes on how he planned to conclude it.

Believe me when I state that every last ounce of this behind-the-scenes friction was visible on-screen by the end of the year. Luckily enough, the show does a decent enough job concealing these approaching problems in the first story of the arc. That’s not to say that The Mysterious Planet is an unsung classic, merely to point out that it is at least unburdened by the seemingly real time collapse of Doctor Who.

Ah, it's a fourteen-week adventure about watching Doctor Who!

Ah, it’s a fourteen-week adventure about watching Doctor Who!

Let’s pause here, as we prepare to examine the first story in the sequence. It does seem a bit strange to try and combat falling ratings on Doctor Who by making the entire season into one long and integrated arc. Of course, this had been done before, but The Key to Time did not have such an intrusive over-arching plot, while the idea of entropy weaved between the serials in the Fourth Doctor’s final year. This was something all together different.

There was a consistent cast maintained throughout the season. The action often cut away from the narrative of the particular adventure to these characters debating and commenting upon it. Details carried over from week-to-week. While the production crew may not have had a clear plan for the season-long story, it did have continuity. It had so much continuity that John Nathan-Turner felt the need to record continuity announcements to fill in the audience before each adventure.

Raindrops keep fallin'...

Raindrops keep fallin’…

However, this raises the question of why you would want to try something like this when you are desperately losing audience members. One would assume that the show should be accessible to attract a new audience, to encourage people who had been scared away by the continuity fetishism of Attack of the Cybermen to give the show a second chance. There was a hope that you might keep the audience tuning in by dangling this fourteen-week thread, but that idea presupposes that people are watching in the first place.

This is something that the revival did very well – it was open and accessible. It encouraged new viewers. It did have plot arcs and pay-offs, but they were generally subtly seeded throughout a season of relatively stand-alone stories. You could watch The Idiot’s Lantern or Tooth & Claw without picking up on the “Torchwood” reference, for example. The plot didn’t hinge on it. In contrast, if you tune in for Terror of the Vervoids without seeing The Mysterious Planets or Mindwarp, prepare to be confused by all those silly people in silly outfits making statements that seem to be profound.

Michael Grade's desktop image...

Michael Grade’s desktop image…

It isn’t the only aspect of Trial of a Time Lord that seems ill-judged. For example, the serial opens with one of the show’s best special effects, as the Doctor is pinched out of time and space, and is pulled to a trial on a satellite. The effect is breathtaking, and I can understand the desire to open the season with a “bang.” It’s certainly attention-grabbing. The problem is that it seems a bit silly to spend so much effort on an opening effect when the laser effects in the fourth part look as utterly ridiculous as ever. It might have been a better allocation of funds to improve effects across the season, instead of blowing the budget in the first two minutes.

Of course, I don’t run a show like this, so what do I know? However, I would assume that – if you decide to pursue this “one story” approach to a season of television in 1986 – then it would be prudent to carefully and meticulously plot it. At the very least, make sure that your basic idea incorporates a logical end point and makes sure that each of the writers knows what they are working towards. After all, the primary purpose of The Trial of the Time Lord is to play off the sense that the BBC are putting the show “on trial.” If you are constructing your fourteen-episode season can at least make a coherent argument in that context.

... And there goes the year's SFX budget...

… And there goes the year’s SFX budget…

Unfortunately, it’s quite clear that The Trial of a Time Lord does not have a coherent structure. It was plainly being made up as it went along. The concept of the Valeyard, for example, radically shifts between Robert Holmes’ penultimate episode and the Bakers’ final script of the season. The whole thing sort of implodes, for no reason at all. Behind the scenes, apparently John Nathan-Turner settled on the “trial” construct late in production, after Robert Holmes had begun to write The Mysterious Planet.

That’s a very dodgy proposition to begin with. How can you expect a story to incorporate the themes of your trial if it is already a work in progress? And some of that is quite evident. Given the fourteen-episode season, the plan was to do three typical four-part adventures and a four-part epilogue. The structure of those three regular-length stories would mirror A Christmas Carol. In that case, The Mysterious Planet would be “the past.”

... meaning we're stuck with freakin' lasers like this all year...

… meaning we’re stuck with freakin’ lasers like this all year…

And here’s where we run into a bit of bother? Which “past”? The show has been running for over two decades. It has been many things at many times. Is this episode intended to evoke the series at its prime, or just the previous season? Given that The Mysterious Planet is invoked by the prosecution, you’d imagine that it would be an example of the show’s worst past. In that case, then, perhaps the immediate past? Colin Baker’s much-maligned first season, with it’s nihilism, its gore, its continuity fixation?

But that doesn’t quite fit. After all, Mindwarp fits better as an illustration of Colin Baker’s first year in the role. Although the “present” is literally the trial itself, that would hardly make for a compelling four-part adventure. Instead, it suggests that the Doctor was yanked directly from an adventure similar in mood and tone to that of the previous season. It fits quite well, given that Doctor Who was almost cancelled by BBC at that point as well – so suddenly that Colin Baker’s final line in Revelation of the Daleks had to be cut. So it’s clear that Mindwarp is set in the “present” that is Colin Baker’s first full season in the role.

Telly about telly on telly...

Telly about telly on telly…

So that means that the “past” represented in The Mysterious Planet must be further afield than that. Indeed, looking at the scriptwriter and the laundry list of ingredients, The Mysterious Planet feels like it is an attempt to channel the spirit of the Tom Baker era. There’s a mysterious planet with a secret past, a pleasant sense of humour and the script is littered with Holmesian double acts. Indeed, Colin Baker’s Doctor seems to have settled down quite a bit here, and is more in line with the characterization of Tom Baker’s Doctor.

You can see the mellowing of the Doctor’s character in his interactions with Peri. Indeed, even the protective manner is which he walks with her under his umbrella suggests that their relationship might be a great deal healthier than it had been the last time we saw them together. “Is there any intelligent life here?” she asks, early on. “Apart from me, you mean?” he replies. However, they both exchange a knowing smile afterwards, and it’s clear that Peri is no longer uncertain or afraid of this version of the Doctor. Which, naturally, turns out to be a bit of an error on her part given how quickly the Doctor reverts (or seems to revert) to form in Mindwarp.

This might be a bit of an extreme reaction to the Sixth Doctor...

This might be a bit of an extreme reaction to the Sixth Doctor…

There is a hint of the Sixth Doctor’s flawed character remaining. He is, for example, very quick to consider leaving Glitz and Dibber to their deaths at the hands of the Free. “You have no quarrel with us,” he protests. “They destroyed your beacon.” However, this is the exception rather than the rule. In contrast, the Doctor’s conduct in the sequences set during the trial demonstrate his rather blustery personality. He’s the same as he ever was, but the “past” of The Mysterious Planet seems strangely idealised.

It’s worth noting here, of course, that the show has an agenda in showing us “the past.” No show wants to be cancelled… well, most shows don’t want to be cancelled. Doctor Who certainly doesn’t. So there’s no way that even the “prosecution” evidence is going to land any severely critical blows that could cripple the show. The Valeyard might be showing this footage to us, but it’s clearly not intended to convince us of his case – it’s not supposed to convince us that the show was always crap and that it should be put out of its misery. (Indeed, even Mindwarp tries to characterise some criticisms of Baker’s first year as mischaracterisation.)

Drathro culls...

Drathro culls…

So The Mysterious Planet presents us an idealised past. And, to be fair, this is the biggest problem with The Mysterious Planet. Watching The Mysterious Planet, we should be swept up in nostalgia, thinking, “Man, this show was pretty great, wasn’t it?” Instead, The Mysterious Planet instead offers us a perfectly average Doctor Who adventure, crammed with perfectly average ingredients. The end result is, “Well, there’s no real reason to cancel it, based on what we’ve seen, right?” Rather than, “don’t you dare cancel this!”

It’s interesting to note that The Mysterious Planet represents a massive shift from the previous season. Colin Baker’s first season of the show had seen a particular kind of continuity fetishism come to the fore. The season opened with Attack of the Cybermen, which seemed to exist to tie together all Cybermen related continuity. The Two Doctors gave us our first non-anniversary multiple Doctor story. Revelation of the Daleks might have been the strongest story of the season, but it still played into the whole “Dalek Civil War” plot.

Thinly Valeyard threat...

Thinly Valeyard threat…

The Mysterious Planet looks to the past, but in an entirely different way. Rather than looking to particular storylines or plot points, it instead focuses on tropes and concepts that are associated historically with the series. It is just as much an ode to the past of Doctor Who, but in an entirely different (and more accessible) manner than some of Colin Baker’s earlier stories. The problem with it is – for the most part – that it’s too preoccupied revisiting these old storytelling techniques to do anything especially exciting with them.

And, indeed, this effect is somewhat undermined by the fact that – again – the trial sections are written very much in the style of the prior season. This doesn’t just extend to the characterisation of the Doctor, but also the show’s attitude towards continuity. “I see, Valeyard,” the Inquisitor notes, referencing The War Games, “that it is on record that the Doctor has faced trial already for offences of this nature.” The Doctor also tries to invoke his status as President of Gallifrey for The Five Doctors, only to be shot down. These moments lead nowhere dramatically, and serve to introduce complex continuity in the first ten minutes of the new season.

"It's..."

“It’s…”

There are some interesting moments. For example, Glitz is perhaps the last truly great character that Robert Holmes created, and he gets some great lines here. Holmes knows that he’s offering a Doctor Who story by rote, and at least he acknowledges that in the dialogue. When Glitz provides a vital piece of exposition for the audience that he and his colleague should take for granted, Dibber responds, “I know all that.”

The Mysterious Planet is littered with those sorts of examples of self-awareness. Forced to resort to another cliché, Glitz is reluctant, “Somehow I always feel foolish saying this. Take me to your leader.” Even Drathro tires of the stereotypical double act of Tandrell and Humker. “Silence! You drain my energy reserve with your constant infantile bickering.” However, while acknowledging the script’s reliance on these sorts of devices is endearing, it doesn’t really make up for the somewhat casual plotting.

And I-ee-I will alwaaays love yoooo-ah...

And I-ee-I will alwaaays love yoooo-ah…

While the Doctor’s rapport with Peri has improved, sadly the show’s attitude towards her hasn’t quite been redeemed. It’s nice to see Nicola Bryant costumed in such a way that isn’t so crassly intended to transform her into a sex object, but there’s still the fact that almost everybody on the show still thinks of her as one. When she is captured by the surface dwellers, the leader immediately sees value in her reproductive organs. “I shall provide some excellent husbands for you,” Katryca boasts. “Such women as we have must be shared. Think about it.” Well, at least there’s a choice, even if the choice is death.

There’s also some awkward moments towards the end when the Doctor seems to take for granted that Drathro is not alive. Of course, he has to kill Drathro to save the universe, but he seems to rather quickly dismiss the robot’s right to life on the basis that he is not flesh and blood. “I know of values,” the robot confesses. “Is your point that organics are of more value than robots?” And the Doctor explicitly responds, “Yes, if you want to look at it that way.”

Gunning for the series...

Gunning for the series…

It seems rather harsh and in conflict with the Doctor’s broader moral philosophy that just because something is different does not mean it is less. Although, I suppose, it does set up his decision in Terror of the Vervoids. Indeed, the script seems to acknowledge this flaw in the Sixth Doctor’s reasoning, as he pointedly recognises Drathro’s lifelike characteristics. He sees the “hubris” in Drathro, something he then points to as “a human sin.”

Another interesting point raised by The Mysterious Planet is the important of the Earth to Gallifrey. It is something that has never quite been explained, and there’s been a great deal of discussion on the matter. In covering this serial, the always insightful Phil Sandifer over at TARDIS Eruditorum has a fascinating bit of insight:

Tellingly, though, the constellation he names – Kasterborous – cannot be a Gallifreyan one, since constellations are merely happenstance arrangements of stars in the sky of a given planet, and thus one cannot see a constellation that one is a part of. So when Gallifrey is said to be in the constellation of Kasterborous, what can this possibly mean?

Clearly, and this ties in alarmingly well with Gallifrey as we understood it back in The Deadly Assassin, the Time Lords’ understanding of themselves is defined primarily by reference to an external observer. They are, after all, seemingly a race governed not by the recorded facts of history but by the material memory of history. Their entire civilization is based around the Matrix, known to be a collection of memories. So it’s not a surprise that even the location of their planet is defined in terms of an external perspective. The only question is whose.

By far the most sensible answer, within Doctor Who, is Earth’s. Yes, there’s a sort of dreary cliche to the idea that the Time Lords are future versions of humanity, but it’s also difficult to avoid the fact that it makes a lot of sense. Not, as Miles and Woods sneer, because the sorts of people who like this idea are the sorts of people who want the Doctor to be Anakin Skywalker’s father, but because some version of this is already true. The series is hopeless at making up its mind whether the Time Lords consider Earth an obscure backwater or whether they see it as a vitally important planet, but it’s difficult not to observe that Earth has been the obsession of every single renegade Time Lord in the series from the Monk on.

It’s not a bad argument, even if I’m not entirely convinced. It would raise various paradox-related metaphysical questions that I’m not sure the show can support. But the broad points are compelling.

The writing's on the floor...

The writing’s on the floor…

The trial segments here are… well, they’re here. The trial structure is very clearly set up to channel the BBC’s persecution of the show, and to play that out on air. As such, it feels like a missed opportunity. There are a number of very nice moments here, but none of them really get to the heart of the criticisms of the chow. Most of them exist to construct straw man arguments that the show can joke about or dismiss as petty. The result is entertaining, but feels somewhat unsatisfying. It feels like a waste of the format to crack jokes about cliffhangers.

The complaints articulated by those in the court room are generic complaints at best. “Why do I have to sit here watching Peri getting upset, while two unsavoury adventurers bully a bunch of natives?” the Doctor asks early on, tiring of all the set-up necessary for the adventure. “The reason will be made clear shortly, Doctor,” the Valeyard assures him, rather patronisingly. It feels a bit of disingenuous complaint, as it seems unlikely that “pacing” was top of the BBC’s complaints. (Although, to be honest, the show’s pacing did need a bit of an overhaul in 1986, but it wasn’t the most pressing concern.)

Crashing the party...

Crashing the party…

That said, I do like the Doctor’s reaction to the cliffhanger. “Oh!” he protests. “Why’d you stop it at the best bit? I was rather enjoying that.” It is actually one of the better cliffhanger moments in the show’s history, mirroring the similar moment that ended the first episode of Vengeance on Varos. Indeed, it’s probably the best comment that The Mysterious Planet makes in defence of the series – recognising its charmy pulpy appeal.

The show does, to be fair, raise the spectre of violence. “Valeyard, are these unpleasant scenes necessary to your case?” the Inquisitor demands. “I find primitive physical violence distressing.” Later on, she asks, “Valeyard, I would appreciate it if these brutal and repetitious scenes are reduced to a minimum.” The problem, of course, is that nothing here is too shocking. I’ll freely admit that the moral guardians reacting to things like Vengeance on Varos or Revelation of the Daleks were over-reacting, but to frame her objections here seems disingenuous. Particularly since there’s violence more typical of the era in Mindwarp.

Drathro packs light...

Drathro packs light…

Of course, the Doctor mounts a defence to these accusations, but it’s weirdly conciliatory. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” he protests, “but I’m not given to violence as the Valeyard here suggests. Occasionally I might have to resort to a modicum of force…” This feels like a cheeky answer to a rigged question. His answer is correct – the violence in Vengeance on Varos was atypical and did represent something of the extreme. It wouldn’t be fair to characterise that as typical of the era. However, the violence in The Mysterious Planet is far from the most violent moment in this season, so using that as the baseline feels like cheating.

Still, it’s not all bad. For all that The Mysterious Planet is decidedly average, there is one touching scene, after Peri discovers that this is the future of Earth. “I’m sorry,” the Doctor suggests, in a touching moment that would have seemed out of character last season. “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.” In other words, everything dies. It’s a sentiment that Russell T. Davies would push to the fore of his first season, and it feels oddly appropriate here.

The Twin dilemma...

The Twin dilemma…

I think it is reasonable to argue that The Trial of a Time Lord put the final nail in the coffin of Doctor Who. The death cycle just took a while to completely claim the series. The suggestion that death and ends are natural seems the perfect place to start, then.

You might be interested in our reviews of the rest of Colin Baker’s final season, “The Trial of a Time Lord”:

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