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

In all my travellings throughout the universe I have battled against evil, against power-mad conspirators. I should have stayed here. The oldest civilisation, decadent, degenerate and rotten to the core. Ha! Power-mad conspirators, Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen, they’re still in the nursery compared to us. Ten million years of absolute power, that’s what it takes to be really corrupt.

– the Doctor

There really are no excuses for the mess that The Trial of a Time Lord became. I mean, seriously. The producers had eighteen months to plan everything out. The task shouldn’t be that difficult. If you are going to fictionalise the persecution of Doctor Who by the BBC in the form of a trial, you really should have some idea what you plan to do or say at the end of it. If your fourteen episode season-long story arc is about defending a show that is coming close to cancellation, then perhaps it might be a good idea to be able to tell us why it shouldn’t be cancelled. The Trial of a Time Lord is a gigantic mess, and something that makes a stronger case in favour of Michael Grade’s attempts to cancel that show than it does against them.

The Ultimate Foe isn’t as soul-destroyingly horrible as Terror of the Vervoids, but that may be because Pip and Jane Baker only wrote half of it.

Only himself for company...

Only himself for company…

To be fair, Robert Holmes’ death was a major blow to the series. More than any other writer, Holmes had cast a shadow over the series, providing any number of classic stories. If you were constructing a defence of the show, it made sense to assign Holmes to offer the closing argument. His ill health and his premature passing might have understandably thrown a wrench in the works, but there is no reason that things should have become so messed up.

After Holmes passed away, producer John Nathan-Turner turned to Pip and Jane Baker to finish the season finalé. Again, it’s easy to understand why he would do that. The Bakers were Nathan-Turner’s favourite writers, and it’s clear that he admired their ability to turn out a script in very short order. This is why he would get them to write the next story, Time and the Rani, which opened the following season – another script he needed turned around fairly quickly.

Sands of time...

Sands of time…

Of course, there’s a reason that Pip and Jane Baker could crank out a script fairly quickly. They are terrible writers. I am generally more diplomatic in my condemnation of some of the show’s weaker elements – the harsh realities of television production and all that – but I truly loathe the scripts that Pip and Jane Baker churned out. They were paint-by-numbers patronising nonsense that treated the audience like idiots.

You might argue that there really wasn’t another choice here. I am more sympathetic to Nathan-Turner than most. After all, Eric Saward’s departure had left Nathan-Turner editing the scripts, a task that really wasn’t his area of expertise. I think that both BBC and fandom were incredibly harsh towards Nathan-Turner and often the producer did the best he could with the material he had to hand. Some of his bad decisions (like the decision to court fandom) could not have seemed like bad ideas at the time. That said, some of his ideas (like “branding” the Doctor with question marks) were just bad ideas.

Courting public opinion...

Courting public opinion…

There is no reason that The Ultimate Foe should be a mess like this. The show had eighteen months to prepare for this season. With a longer break and a shorter season, you’d imagine that there should have been more planning. Robert Holmes was not in the best of health, and maybe it was unfair to expect him to contribute a script. However, even if hiring him to do a job like this when his health is failing seems reckless if you have absolutely no back-up plans.

The Bakers themselves have provided some context to this confusion:

Then Jane had a rather strange conversation with John just after Eric had left. He said ‘There’s a taxi on its way to you with a script in it. Read it tonight and come in tomorrow morning’. And he wouldn’t say any more. So the taxi came and we discovered it was script thirteen. We went in the following morning, and the first ten minutes was just the usual coffee and gossip. But there was another person there as a witness to ensure that John didn’t tell us anything that was in script fourteen, because of copyright difficulties. Obviously he wanted us to provide a replacement, but he couldn’t tell us how the series was supposed to end!

That’s just bad planning. Either buy the twelve pages from Robert Holmes’ estate and let the Bakers work from those notes, or scrap the entire first part altogether and write off the price of Robert Holmes’ script. There’s no situation where you should be dragging in two hack writers at the last minute to finish a finalé started by one of the greatest writers in the history of the show.

Parting shots...

Parting shots…

So The Ultimate Foe, the last story of this troubled season, is a game of two halves. It seems like the Bakers didn’t even read the script to the first episode. They seem to have a bit of difficulty with Holmes’ conception of the Valeyard, writing him as nothing more than “the Master, Mark II.” It’s a bungled, bloody mess of an episode, and one that it is very difficult to make any sense of. There’s no really connection or through-line between the two parts of the serial, which poses all manner of problems.

In a way, though, this seems to make a great deal of sense. The rather surreal unseen last-minute coup on Gallifrey only really makes sense as an attempt by the series to explain the behind-the-scenes difficulties on the series. The initial interpretation of the trial would suggest that the Doctor represented his show while the Time Lords represented the BBC who sought to cancel it. Instead, The Ultimate Foe reveals that absolutely every facet of the trial seems to represent the show itself.



Far from a conflict between the show and the BBC that was so ardently attempting to cancel it, The Ultimate Foe instead suggests that the real problem with Doctor Who is, in fact, Doctor Who. Indeed, the prosecutor in this trial is ultimately revealed to be a version of the Doctor himself. “Surely even Gallifreyan law must acknowledge that the same person cannot be both prosecutor and defendant,” the Doctor protests at one point, but the irony is obvious.

The best argument for the cancellation of Doctor Who is, in fact, Doctor Who. The messed-up, disturbed, jumbled and confused relic of a show that can’t even mount a credible defense of itself. The case for the prosecution doesn’t come from Michael Grade or any other stuffed shirt. It comes from the show itself. It’s a fascinating idea, even if I am fairly sure that Pip and Jane Baker weren’t explicitly arguing that the series was making a pretty good case for its own cancellation. The Bakers are not that subversive, and it’s probably a happy coincidence that the story can be read that way.

"It's like my coat, but inside my head!"

“It’s like my coat, but inside my head!”

Robert Holmes, on the other hand, is a gleefully cynical writer at the best of times, and he takes great pleasure in revealing that the Doctor is essentially putting the Doctor on trial. “There is some evil in all of us, Doctor, even you,” the Master handily pops by to explain. “The Valeyard is an amalgamation of the darker sides of your nature, somewhere between your twelfth and final incarnation. And I may say, you do not improve with age.”

However, what exactly is the Valeyard? It’s a question that fandom has grappled with quite a bit, and to which we’re unlikely to ever get a more concrete answer. He has to be more than merely “the Doctor as a villain”, as the Master fills that niche quite well. Indeed, Holmes wrote the Master’s first appearance, so it seems that he would be aware of how redundant that concept would be – especially since the Master appears in this story.

That sinking feeling...

That sinking feeling…

Unfortunately, the Bakers don’t really see that obvious problem. Instead, they play the Valeyard as “villainous Doctor” completely straight, which becomes completely ridiculous when they bring the Master into the plot in more active manner. “You really are a second-rate adversary,” the Valeyard declares, chasing the Master out of the area in a sequence that looks like a live-action Daffy Duck cartoon. If this is what the Valeyard was always intended to be, it seems somewhat shallow. It feels like a waste of fourteen episodes of build-up.

What does the Valeyard want with the Doctor’s regenerations? It’s frequently suggests that he wants to live, but that seems a bit strange. He surely exists at the moment, so his existence is not dependent on the Doctor. The Deadly Assassin explained that the Time Lords could grant the Master a new cycle of regenerations, so it seems strange they can’t do that for the Valeyard here. Even if they can’t, this is a character who worships death as “the ultimate reality.” I don’t think that his interest in the Doctor stems from his own self-preservation, as convenient as that might seem. His interest in the Doctor’s lives seems to be more to impair the Doctor than to enhance himself.

The Master copy?

The Master copy?

After all, why have a trial in the first place? The Time Lords are powerful enough to compel the Doctor to the space station. They could just kill him and do what they want. If they promised the Valeyard the Doctor’s regenerations, there are easier ways. Surely the deal would be better made in a back room rather than a court room? The only reason for the trial would seem to be because the Valeyard wanted the trial. It is, after all, an excuse to simply sit back and watch Doctor Who.

I suspect that the Valeyard was a piece of criticism of the show, as imagined by Holmes. The Valeyard seems quite a bit like toxic fandom. When the Doctor ventures into the Matrix, he finds that the Valeyard has taken over “the Fantasy Factory” and turned it into something toxic. It’s run by bureaucrats, insisting on rules and procedures, more interested in simple mechanics than any sense of fun. Mr. Popplewick protests, “There are procedures to follow, sir. Necessary routines to be completed.”

Me, myself and I...

Me, myself and I…

The Valeyard is a character who wants to sit in a courtroom and watch Doctor Who. Despite his aggression, it’s hard to argue that he’s not a fan. Inside the Matrix, the Doctor finds himself in surroundings that hark back to The Talons of Weng-Chiang. He is almost drowned, in a shout-out to The Deadly AssassinThe Fantasy Factory is nothing but a collection of bland and familiar retreads of familiar concepts, instead of something new and brave and exciting. Holmes has gone on record and explained that he is not fond of reliving past glories, so it seems reasonable to suggest that he included these iconic shout-outs for a reason.

Rather notably, the first episode ends the ground giving out from beneath the Sixth Doctor, as the very foundations of the world seem to swallow him. It seems that Holmes is suggesting something that has become quite obvious over the last number of years. The cult of obsessive fandom is eating away at Doctor Who. John Nathan-Turner’s decision to allow an encourage fans to fashion the show to their needs is ultimately damaging the show in the long-term.

Coming to terms with it...

Coming to terms with it…

The hardcore fans’ insistence on re-hashing old stories, dwelling on pointless minutiae and the sense of entitlement and possessiveness are rotting Doctor Who away from the inside. It’s no coincidence that the Valeyard wants some measure of ownership over the Doctor’s future. Indeed, the fact that the Valeyard comes from some point between the Doctor’s twelve and final incarnations seems to point out the way that obsessives have almost fixated on the finite number of regenerations that Holmes introduced in The Deadly Assassin, creating a morbid atmosphere where fans actively count down the Doctor’s remaining time.

There’s a lot of interesting ideas there, but none of them survive the transition to the second part, written by Jane and Pip Baker. Instead, the Valeyard is a standard baddie. The Master shows up and does even more baddie stuff. The Doctor winds up spending a great deal of the episode passive, creating the impression that the Sixth Doctor really couldn’t be too bothered trying to save his own show.

Baker street...

Baker street…

When the day is saved, Pip and Jane Baker fall back on the same sort of nonsense that resolved Terror of the Vervoids. As a rule, Doctor Who has never been too bad with technobabble, but the Bakers use it with such aplomb that the writing staff of Star Trek: Voyager would blush. Consider the following resolution:

What have you done?

Induced an anti-phase signal into the telemetry unit. The whole system should self-destruct.

You blundering imbecile. You triggered a ray phase shift that made a massive feedback into here.

Just in case anybody is wondering, that is not what good writing looks like.

The show also, to be fair, manages the weird and “timey-wimey” act of introducing a companion without actually introducing a companion. Mel almost seems like a prototype for River Song. This is the Doctor’s first time meeting her (having seen her in his future in Terror of the Vervoids), but she already knows him. “What have you been up to?” she asks, as if catching up with an old friend. This notably creates a bit of a gap.

Into the Matrix...

Into the Matrix…

Although we now have a story where the Doctor first meets her, we don’t have a story where she meets the Doctor. I can’t help but imagine that the Colin Baker era’s greatest contribution to the future of Doctor Who was inadvertently inspiring stuff like Bad Wolf and River Song. It’s not too difficult to imagine Mel influencing the creation of River Song, even if the idea of following through on an out-of-order companion would have been completely alien to the production team at the time.

Instead, it seems far more likely that the decision to introduce Mel without an origin story was just a means to effectively present a new companion without any baggage or back story – the show had enough problems to deal with, and writing an introduction of Mel was something that this approach allowed them to avoid, with little real thoughts about the logic of the situation. It plays into the idea of Mel as the most generic of companions, the one who was the best at running and screaming. While I tend to dislike that narrow approach to the role of companion, I have a soft spot for Mel. The show needed some simplicity at this point.

Glitz and glamour...

Glitz and glamour…

It’s also worth noting, as we close on this season, that The Ultimate Foe resolves very little. There’s a coup on Galligrey. The trial is suspended. The Doctor never really gets to prove his case and the Valeyard’s more potent criticisms (the genocide of the Vervoids and his disregard for Peri) are never really dealt with. It feels a bit strange that there was so much set-up for what ultimately becomes a last-minute switcheroo.

We also get a retcon that retroactively removes a lot of the power of Mindwarp. Apparently Peri is now happily married to a character with whom she didn’t seem to have an especially strong relationship, and who is subject to impressive mood swings. Given Peri’s history of being abused and objectified, and the uncomfortable implications of her relationship with the Sixth Doctor, this ending seems a lot more cynical and lot less happy than The Ultimate Foe seems to want us to believe.

Risen from the dead...

Risen from the dead…

At least killing Peri off was honest about how the show had treated her character. Here, the show attempts to offer us a “happy ending” that really doesn’t seem that happy at all. It raises questions about how much of Mindwarp was actually real, and on what terms the Doctor and Peri parted company. Did Peri suddenly realise that her relationship with the Doctor was toxic? Or did she forgive his repeated disregard for her well-being as she has done too often before?

The Ultimate Foe doesn’t really resolve The Trial of a Time Lord. All it really does successfully is to bring the season to an end. Not a fitting end, not an end that builds off what came before, not an end that validates the show’s continued existence. Instead, it literally just gets us to a point where the next season can pick up and pretend that none of this ever really happened.

Carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice.

– the Sixth Doctor’s last words

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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