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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord – Mindwarp (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.

Hey, keep together. This is a great day for battle. A great day to die!

Does he always go on like that?

Afraid so.

-Ycranos, Tuza and Peri discover she apparently has a type

The Trial of a Time Lord loosely adheres to the structure of A Christmas Carol. If The Mysterious Planet can be seen as the “past” story, then Mindwarp is very clearly the “present” story. The BBC’s sudden “hiatus” for Doctor Who yanked the series suddenly out of Colin Baker’s first season, to the point where dialogue from Baker referencing the planned series opener had to be dubbed out. As a result, for the eighteen month gap, Colin Baker’s first full season in the role was a perpetual “present.” It was the last Doctor Who that had aired, and – as a result – it was the version of the show that first popped into people’s minds when they thought of the series.

So it seems fitting that The Trial of a Time Lord sees Colin Baker yanked directly from an adventure that looks like it could have been filmed as part of his first full year in the role. If The Mysterious Planet evokes a hazy and romantic past, a story constructed from familiar archetypes and plot points, then Mindwarp is a very clear acknowledgement of what the show had evolved into. Given the difficulties facing the programme after that problematic year, Mindwarp is the segment of this over-arching plot that needs to make the most robust defence of the show, or at least deflect the most criticism.

Despite some interesting strengths, Mindwarp doesn’t quite construct a convincing argument in favour of the show. More than that, though, its deflections prove a little weak.

Out of this world...

Out of this world…

I feel the need to clarify that Colin Baker’s first year on the show was not entirely bad. Sure, it gave the series three of the worst adventures that it ever produced – Attack of the Cybermen, Timelash and The Mark of the Rani. One of those three even opened that season, which was a miscalculation if ever there was one. If you roll in the previous season’s disastrous début for the Sixth Doctor, The Twin Dilemma, it looks even bleaker. However, the year gave us two genuine classics in Vengeance on Varos and Revelation of the Daleks.

However, and here’s what’s notable about those successes, Revelation of the Daleks and Vengeance on Varos didn’t succeed despite the general aesthetic of the year. There’s no way that you could air those adventures in any other run of episodes and have them fit in. They are very clearly, and very obviously, Colin Baker stories. So, building on that, one might imagine that the best way to defend the “present” version of Doctor Who would be to construct a story of that level of quality.

Stay sharp...

Stay sharp…

If you want to make a convincing case that Doctor Who, as it is now, doesn’t deserve cancellation, then you need to offer something that matches Revelation of the Daleks or Vengeance on Varos. And Mindwarp doesn’t do that. However, it comes considerably closer than any other story in the entire Colin Baker era. It isn’t an utter failure, and it demonstrates that all these themes and ideas are not inherently terrible, but it doesn’t manage to produce anything quite as convincing as either of the aforementioned classics.

Coming from writer Phillip Martin helps. Martin has an idea how to best use the tropes and conventions of this era better than virtually any other writer. Indeed, I’d argue that he has a better grasp of the style than Eric Saward, who script edited the previous season, and whose writing record is all over the shop. Martin understands how to write that sort of grim and nihilistic story in a way that avoids seeming excessively gratuitous and playing into the worst conventions of that season.

Sil crazy after all these years...

Sil crazy after all these years…

In fact, Mindwarp might have made a pretty great story, were it not tied to The Trial of a Time Lord. The biggest albatross around the serial’s neck is the ambiguity of it all. We’re subjected to a great deal of footage of the Sixth Doctor acting like a selfish coward, while he protests that the show is being edited to make him look bad. “It was never like that,” the Doctor assures us, and we’re sure that the Matrix has been tampered with. The only problem is that we’re not sure how much.

In The Ultimate Foe, it is confirmed that the events depicted in Mindwarp don’t sink up to what “really” happened, to the point where Peri actually survived. Ignoring the narrative cop out for now (oh, I’ll get back to it!), it leaves us wondering just how close – if at all – that adventure came to depicting an actual adventure. “For a lie to work, madam, it must be shrouded in truth,” the Master explains in The Ultimate Foe. “Therefore most of what you saw was true.”

An impressive body of work...

An impressive body of work…

The problem is that “most” of what we saw was pretty damning. Even Colin Baker has admitted to being a bit confused about the whole thing:

I was very confused by it, but I had a very different problem, especially in Mindwarp because there was a point when I said to Eric Saward, the script editor, “When I’m tying Peri to this rock and threatening to torture her, am I doing it for some subtle reason of my own, because I think I’m being watched or whatever, or because I’ve been affected by the mind probe, or is the Matrix lying?” Those were the three alternatives as I saw it. He said “I don’t know, you’d better ask Philip Martin”, so I got in touch and gave him those three alternatives, he said “I don’t know, Eric wrote the trial stuff, all the Matrix stuff was added after, by Eric, you’d better ask him.” So I went to John Nathan-Turner, he said “Oh, whichever you like.” This is the level of involvement at the time. Eric was going through his own problems at the time, disagreeing with John Nathan-Turner on all sorts of things. I felt that was all very sloppy, it was all cobbled together a bit. The stories were written independently, and the trial theme was put on top. I felt it was the Matrix lying, so I really was torturing Peri. But it was very difficult. You expect the writers to know what’s happening, but that’s not always the case.

The problems behind the scenes in The Trial of the Time Lord are beginning to bleed out in front of the camera. Although they won’t completely explode until we hit Terror of the Vervoids.

Their relationship is on the rocks...

Their relationship is on the rocks…

Anyway, the problem with this set-up is that it’s very hard to determine which aspects of what we are seeing on screen correspond to the actions of the Sixth Doctor. Well, that’s not entirely true. The problem is that nothing we see here is explicitly impossible conduct from the Sixth Doctor. From the moment the character was conceived, the production team imagined him as an anti-hero who might eventually win the trust of the audience – or, at least, that’s the official line on the character. However, the problem is, no matter how thoroughly the show might have redeemed the character, he would always have the potential for such behaviour.

Okay, tying Peri up and stating a willingness to let her drown seems out of character, even for a version of the character who almost strangled her to death. “Of course,” the Sixth Doctor states early on, clutching at straws to explain his behaviour. “Sil was right. It was a ploy to fool the Mentors. Yes, clever old me. Let the Matrix show what it will. A clever ploy. You’ll see.” It’s a plausible excuse, and it’s one that we can see the Sixth Doctor using to rationalise his actions. The greater good and all that.

Facing up to it...

Facing up to it…

Indeed, we even see some stuff that isn’t out of character, but still points to the flaws in this iteration of the character. For example, he conceals Sil’s involvement from Peri in order to trick her into going along with him. When Peri points out what Sil put her through, the Doctor is dismissive and flippant. “How could I forget?” he asks. “It cost me a fortune in bird seed.” Peri pleads, earnestly, “I want out, and I mean it.” The Doctor just ignores her, “Come on, mustn’t lose track of your friend Sil.” In many ways, this exchange is more typical of the relationship between the pair than any of the genuinely sweet stuff during The Mysterious Planet.

There must be, after all, a reason that the Time Lords picked this version of the Doctor to put on trial. After all, if the Valeyard ultimately wants his regenerations, you’d suspect an earlier version would be better. Of course, the reason this is the Sixth Doctor is because the Sixth Doctor was anchoring the show when it was almost cancelled. However, in the context of the show itself, the Sixth Doctor is also the version of the Doctor who it is easiest to condemn, who is most flawed, who is toughest to redeem. If this is a show trial to validate the Time Lords’ deal with the Valeyard, then picking the Sixth Doctor amounts to stacking the deck.

Embarrassing bodies...

Embarrassing bodies…

Indeed, the court room scenes continue to demonstrate how inept the Sixth Doctor is at defending himself, how his bluster and pride undermine his case, and how he refuses to engage with the court in any meaningful fashion. Righteous indignation is great, but a few logical arguments would be more effective. He did, after all, save the universe at the end of The Mysterious Planet, despite his interference. And, in Mindwarp, he was ultimately doing the dirty work for the Time Lords.

More than that, though, he is too stubborn to grasp any of the life lines offered. “It occurs to me, Doctor,” the Inquisitor states at one point, “that your current mental condition makes it very difficult for you to defend yourself. I would therefore suggest that this court be adjourned.” It’s actually remarkably fair. In light of the fact that the Doctor has incomplete memories, he might be wise to accept. However, his pride gets in the way again. “No. And I refute any implication that I’m barmy.”

Beneath the Planet of the Mentors...

Beneath the Planet of the Mentors…

Even when the Inquisitor tries to rephrase the proposal so that it might be less offensive to the Doctor’s massive ego, he’s still not receptive of an opportunity to straighten things out. “No one is impugning your sanity, Doctor,” she clarifies, “merely suggesting your memory is a little faulty.” The Doctor still refuses to budge on the point, “Nevertheless, I would like this trial to continue.” Indeed, even after that point, he still refuses the assistance of a “trained legal mind.”

Which brings us to Peri. The show repeatedly makes the criticism that the Doctor is oblivious to the danger in which he places his companions. This isn’t an argument specific to the Sixth Doctor, even if his knack for ignoring Peri’s rather overt confessions of discomfort make him a larger offender than most. In fact, Russell T. Davies made this clear throughout the revival, evidence of the Doctor’s lack of forethought.

Will she Peri-sh?

Will she Peri-sh?

In many ways, this is one of the criticisms of the character that The Trial of a Time Lord makes that lands a little too close to home, like the accusation that the Sixth Doctor is not a hero. In fact, the only way that The Ultimate Foe can think to undermine this ending is to offer a last-minute re-write to the scenario that we saw play out here. It’s hardly the best outcome for Peri, but we’ll deal with that in time. However, it’s a very manipulative way of evading the argument.

Everybody laments how Colin Baker was put in a truly awful position by Doctor Who. There is no disputing that. However, Nicola Bryant suffered just as much. She spent her time on the show being objectified and ogled and taken advantage of. Peri’s primary function on the show was to serve as eye candy that could be put in peril. This isn’t a knock on Nicola Bryant, who did the best she could with the material. However, one of the reasons I am (surprisingly) fond of Mel as a companion is that the show doesn’t treat her nearly as bad.

Sadly, a typical Peri moment.

Sadly, a typical Peri moment.

Indeed, the fact that Peri is routinely treated as nothing but a sex object is even treated as a joke here. Discussing an old dying warlord, she notes, “Beams that kill weren’t the only thing he had on his mind. Dirty old warlord. Glad we left that place when we did.” She is so used to the objectification that she seems visibly relieved when Sil refers to her as the Doctor’s “revoltingly ugly assistant.” At least she doesn’t have to worry about Sil, then.

And here’s the thing – that sort of abuse and objectification come written into Peri as a character. It’s heavily implied that her experiences of the wider universe are just repeating a pattern from the real world, that she is used to that sort of behaviour. Indeed, her remarks to the Doctor suggest that she thought he was the best man she’d ever met. “I used to think that you were different, that you cared for justice and truth and good,” she states at one point. “I can’t bear to look at what you are now.” Of course, if the Sixth Doctor is the best man you’ve ever met, it hints at deeper problems.

Just to cap it all off...

Just to cap it all off…

It’s remarkable that so much of Peri’s back story outside the show hints at sexual abuse of one form or another. The book Shell Shock suggests that Peri was abused by her stepfather. The audio drama Peri and the Piscon Paradox instead suggests that a boyfriend abused her. Either way, it seems like Peri is defined by victimisation. This is arguably the most damning criticism of this era of the show. The way that the show (and the Doctor) treated Peri is indefensible, and trying to retroactively insert a lazy “happy ending” that marries Peri off to a guest star who is defined by his tendency towards violence is just as bad.

At least the ending presented in Mindwarp is reasonable feasible. It’s unpleasant, it’s awkward and it has fairly bleak connotations, but at least it is honest to the way that the character has been treated by the series so far. If you’re going to keep one of the leads around to be abused and objectified, with little interest in her as a character, then stripping away her identity (by having somebody steal her brain), her beauty (by cutting her hair) and her own agency (by having a guest star randomly brutally murder her) is at least consistent.

"I'm Brian Blessed!"

“I’m Brian Blessed!”

Indeed, an optimist might hope that all of this bleakness would somehow serve as a form of catharsis of all this – a vow of “never again.” For all that Mel attracts a great deal of criticism, she was at least treated consistently better than Peri. Of course, she gets the same “quickly paired off” ending as Peri ultimately did, even teamed with a morally ambiguous guest star, suggesting that not everything has improved for female companions. Well, at least Ace was treated better.

As one might expect from Martin, given his work on Vengeance on Varos, Mindwarp is a staunchly anti-capitalist tale. Doctor Who has always leaned a little bit to the left (arguments about the Pertwee era notwithstanding), but Mindwarp manages to be exceptionally on the nose.  They even have a “Sacred Commerce Room”, in case we needed anything made clearer.

A sting in the tale...

A sting in the tale…

The portrayal of the Mentors as unchecked capitalists pre-dates the appearance of the Ferengi in The Last Outpost on Star Trek: The Next Generation by exactly a year. Both races are not exactly subtle condemnations of the concept. Still, at least the portrayal of the Mentors as literal and figurative monsters is at least in line with the general politics of Doctor Who, troublesome though they may sometimes be.

Kiv threatens Sil with the most severe of sanctions, urging him, “At once! Before I perish! Then where will you be, eh? Dead. No, worse than that. Poor.” Again, it feels a little bit blunt. As does the revelation that the Mentors are so fixated on the idea of wealth that they can buy an entire race for these experiments. “We pay you enough,” Sil advises Crozier. “We have given you a whole race of people to play with.”

A Blessed conqueror...

A Blessed conqueror…

Apparently Martin was worried that audiences at home might somehow miss the subtext. So we get a few pointed references to Earth. For example, the Sixth Doctor proves quite an environmentalist. While examining the power generators, he notes to Peri, “As I suspected, a device for extracting energy from the sea. Something your planet had the technology to do long before its fossil fuels ran out, but they didn’t bother.” And then there’s the rather weird fact that the oppressed natives led by Tuza are presented as Native Americans. (And the fact that the majority of the Mentors’ slaves appear to black.)

The special effects for Mindwarp look great. The effects on the beach suggest a world that is truly alien, and it’s handled remarkably well. As with The Mysterious Planet, though, there is a sense that certain special effects are making leaps forward while others remain held back. It is, for example, very easy to see Christopher Ryan’s legs disappear into the bed during quite a few of the scenes featuring Kiv. Still, those effects look absolutely lovely.

Grabbing life by the throat...

Grabbing life by the throat…

It’s also nice to get some Brian Blessed action, even if the decision to marry Peri off to him has its complications. The ending might have its problems, but it’s worth it to give Brian Blessed his big “noooooooooooo!” Blessed makes the most of the material, milking lines like, “Oh, very well. Today prudence shall be our watchword. Tomorrow I shall soak the land in blood.” Even Colin Baker’s Doctor is in quite awe during Ycranos’ victory speech, gingerly waiting to point out, “Ycranos? It’s time we found Peri.”

The trial scenes continue to be a sticking point. The only criticisms raised during these sequences are the most petty of observations. Once again, we have objections about the set-up for the show. “Are you really offering this inconsequential silliness as evidence?” the Doctor asks. The Inquisitor agrees, “The Doctor has a point. Surely we could join this segment at a more relevant place.” Again, while maybe pacing was a problem, it was nowhere near the show’s biggest problem.

Starnge new worlds...

Starnge new worlds…

The trial scenes do get a bit of credit for dealing with the Doctor’s treatment of Peri, even if the show’s response is “well, it didn’t happen exactly like that…” However, once again, we get more cheap shots about the format of the series. Consider the discussion of a cliffhanger that hints that Peri and Ycranos have been killed:

Is Peri dead?

No.

Then what was the point of showing that last sequence?

Simply as further evidence of the Doctor’s interference.

I thought it was somewhat gratuitous.

– the Doctor, the Valeyard and the Inquisitor

It’s interesting that the show chose to have the Inquisitor object to the violence in The Mysterious Planet, perhaps an acknowledgement of those put out by the violence of Baker’s tenure. However, Mindwarp would have been a much better place to position such a criticism. The Mysterious Planet features nothing excessive, while Mindwarp is more indicative of Baker’s first year. At one point, Peri and Ycranos face the possibility of having their skulls crushed. (“You must understand we can’t allow your bodies and skulls to be retrieved undamaged,” we’re told, “otherwise the Mentors will use brain surgery to create creatures like this.”)

Making light of the situation...

Making light of the situation…

Positioning the criticism of the show’s violence here would give the Inquisitor a stronger argument, and make its refutation somewhat more convincing. I have no objection to violence like that, in service of a story, and it is something that could be defended. Instead, the show just avoids the issue entirely. It feels a bit disingenuous, and also like it undermines the beauty of using the trial as a metaphor for the scrutiny that the series was under.

However, there is something be said for the show’s final argument. The Doctor is pinched by the Time Lords right out of space and time in the middle of a crisis. As a result of his absence, everything goes directly to hell. In fact, Peri and a large number of the cast die because the Doctor is not there. The subtext is clear: no matter how badly things play out when the Doctor intervenes, they always get worse if he isn’t around to save the day. Take the Doctor out of a Doctor Who story and things collapse.

At least he's having a blast...

At least he’s having a blast…

It’s a solid argument for the importance of the character. Unfortunately, it is a bit undermined by the fact that the Doctor has been increasingly passive over the last number of years. Arguing that taking the Doctor out of his story might lead to a lot of people dying ignores the fact that, sometimes, leaving the Doctor in the story also leads to a lot of people dying. Indeed, Colin Baker’s Doctor emerged at the end of The Caves of Androzani, a story with a lot of people dying – including the Doctor.

Mindwarp might be the best segment of the trial, because it so perfectly evokes the state that the show was in when it was put on extended vacation. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t represent a ringing endorsement or a convincing defence. The best it seems to argue is that maybe things weren’t quite as bad as we made them out to be. That’s a perfectly valid point, but it is hardly enough to hold the threat of cancellation at bay.

So, to the future – and to Terror of the Vervoids.

I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name the last time we met.

Dor… Dor…

Never mind, you can tell me later.

His name is Dorf and you are scum.

No, actually I am known as the Doctor.

– the Doctor, Dorf and Ycranos get off on the right foot

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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2 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on apinampa.

    • Thanks for sharing. I’m doing Doctor Who pretty much daily at this point, if you want to check it out?

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