Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord Review

The great tragedy of Trial of a Time Lord was how badly it wanted to succeed. From the opening model shot of the TARDIS being sucked into a great hulking behemoth of a spaceship and on, the story made its desires plain; this was to be the epic to end all epics, the triumphant comeback which once and for all would show that Doctor Who could still be great and prove an unanswerable riposte to all the naysayers at the BBC and among the general public who thought the show was finished - a resurrection, in short, to rival that of Lazarus himself. The fourteen part storyline was conceived to reflect the terrible tribulations the show had gone through in its recent past as well as to a tacit acknowledgement to its long-suffering viewers that those in charge realised how badly wrong things had gone but that things would be better, starting from now. What noble ambitions it had! And how far short it fell in trying to achieve them! Through a combination of bad luck, poor judgment and, sad to say, lack of ability, Trial ended up not being the glorious second coming it wanted to be, but a gigantic mess, in a cruel irony not refuting the major criticisms levelled against Who but instead confirming them, and cementing in the eyes of the nation once and for all the impression of a once great programme now completely beyond hope of recovery. This was the Last Chance Saloon, and Doctor Who was all out of bullets.

These days, fans can look back on those dark days of the mid Eighties with little more than a nostalgic shiver. Back then, things looked bleak. The Powers that Be at the BBC, the Michael Grades and Jonathan Powells, wanted to cancel the thing outright, and in a way it was only the momentum of twenty years of history that was still keeping it on the air. Producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward had at best a fractious relationship, and the former’s penchant for style over substance and the latter’s love of militaristic grit over the magic realism of Who’s glory years had for many turned a beloved national institution into little more than a gaudy, rather nasty joke. This had reached its apogee with Colin Baker’s first year in the TARDIS, and while these days it’s possible to defend if not condone much of what’s in Season Twenty-Two there’s no denying that the show had lost much of its charm. Suddenly the show had become very hard to actually like, with a leading man who was at times abrasive, at others rude and uncaring, and even on occasion terribly, terribly un-Doctorish. This “difficult” characterisation of the Sixth Doctor had been a deliberate ploy on the part of JNT and Saward, to show over the course of a couple of years the incarnation gradually mellowing, not in itself an especially bad decision if you have the time and space to follow through on the plan (as Dr Bashir in Deep Space Nine several years later would show) but perhaps not especially wise when an episode-run is limited and there are people in charge just waiting for you to trip up.

Grade in particular greatly disliked the show, thinking that its cheap and garish look did not compare favourably with shows coming from the States such as Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galacticas (as well as, of course, Star Wars). However, a mixture of circumstances persuaded him and Powell to instead of cancelling it outright merely “rest” the show for eighteen months, the so-called hiatus, before returning for a shortened season wherein it was hoped things would either improve substantially or fall apart so completely that its cancellation became inevitable. There was thus much resting on how good Season Twenty-Three would be and therefore very sensibly Saward turned for advice to the man who at the time was generally considered the Greatest Living Doctor Who writer, Robert Holmes, to help him plan the comeback. The wheeze the two came up with was to reflect the fact the show itself was in the dock by having its leading man put on trial by the Time Lords and have to defend himself. As "evidence" the court (and we the viewers) would watch three of the Doctor’s adventures, one each from his past, present and future and each taking up four episodes, before the trial itself was resolved in a two-part grand finale. This synopsis having met with the approval of JNT, Saward then set about commissioning the stories, with Holmes himself down to write the opening four parts and the dramatic conclusion.

It has been said many times subsequently that the trial idea was a rotten one, that what the show should simply have done was ignore the fuss and set about producing a string of strong, standalone stories. I’m not sure I agree that it was so terrible a gimmick; the concept itself is neat if arch, and a nod to the viewer that the makers realised things weren’t right. The problems with what eventually ended up on screen are almost purely due to the execution rather than the idea itself. Whereas A Christmas Carol, on which of course the structure is based, had genuinely separate incidents for Scrooge which added up to a portrait of the man rather than pieces of a complex narrative, Saward instead tried to include elements from each of the stories into one overriding backstory, dropping hints and clues along the way which would be explained in the final two episodes. This was silly – no one on a Saturday night wants to be taking notes about a story they won’t see resolved until three months later – and in retrospect a narrative disaster as through a mixture of unfortunate circumstances most of the questions singularly failed to be answered anyway. The other major irritant as far as the theme goes are the constant interruptions in each of the stories when the action cuts back to the Doctor’s trial and he and his prosecuting foe the Valeyard (Michael Jayston) trade inane insults; these add nothing to the whole and merely break the flow of what they, and we, are watching.

But these issues wouldn’t be fatal if the actual stories themselves were any good. Unfortunately, none are without their flaws. The "past" story, commonly referred to as The Mysterious Planet, ended up being the final complete scripts Holmes would ever write for the series, and regrettably are not among his best. They see the Doctor and Peri (Nicola Bryant) visiting the planet Ravalox which, Planet of the Apes-style, ends up turning out to be post-apocalyptic Earth. Along the way they encounter not only Joan Sims leading a tribe of primitive survivors but a robot called Drathro which is guarding some sort of Mysterious Secret, a Mysterious Secret moreover which person or persons unknown are paying intergalactic conmen Sabalom Glitz and Dibber (Tony Selby and Glen Murphy) a considerable sum to steal. It’s not a terrible story, just mildly uneventful and makes for a disappointingly low-key way to kick off the season.

The second four-parter, known as Mindwarp, is equally boring. Written by Philip Martin, who had previously penned one of the few highlights of Baker’s tenure Vengeance on Varos, this underground adventure sees the Doctor and Peri encountering the Mentors, whose leader Kiv (Christopher Ryan) is dying. The only way to save him is to affect a brain transplant, a tricky operation which his chief scientist Crozier (Patrick Ryecart) is understandably having difficulties with. Over the course of four episodes little happens beyond the Doctor falling under the spell of Kiv and co while Peri runs up and down corridors with BRIAN BLESSED! who plays a leader of the resistance to the Mentors. In the final scenes, the Doctor is snatched away by the Time Lords to begin his trial just as BRIAN BLESSED! storms Crozier’s laboratory only to apparently gun down the unfortunate Peri, who has become the final recipient of Kiv's brain.

Parts Nine-Twelve, known as Terror of the Vervoids make up the most successful of the three individual stories. Written by Pip and Jane Baker, the duo who had the previous year contributed The Mark of the Rani which was by far the most benign story of Baker’s reign thus far, this whodunit sees the Doctor and his future companion Mel (Bonnie Langford) on a space cruise liner just as its passengers begin dropping dead at the hands of an unknown killer. As the Vervoids spawn in the ship’s hold the Doctor races against time to track down the murderer before the ship hurtles into a black hole. The story, while somewhat simplistic and boasting by far the most phallic of all Doctor Who monsters (indeed, when the editor of Doctor Who Magazine put them on the cover of his magazine a few years ago WHSmith complained that the picture was hardly suitable!) is also straightforward, with a nice threat and by far the two best cliffhangers of the season.

Unfortunately, just as things begin looking up, everything falls apart again. The original plan, to have Holmes write the last two parts, was sadly scuppered when, shortly after commencing work on them, the writer fell ill and died soon thereafter. Saward, who had grown very close to a man he saw as his mentor, was naturally very upset but agreed to take over the writing. However, he and JNT soon had what was to be their final and most bitter falling out over how the story should conclude. Holmes had intended to finish the season on a cliffhanger, with the Doctor and Valeyard locked in battle for all eternity, and the grieving Saward understandably wanted to remain true to his vision. The unfortunate thing was that JNT quite rightly viewed this as a terrible ending – not only would it leave viewers who had patiently and loyally followed the story throughout its entirety with an unsatisfactory and irritating denouncement, but it would also send the wrong signals to those in power, and leave what JNT called a giant question mark over the future of the programme. Saward couldn’t or wouldn’t see this point of view however, and when it became clear the two men were not going to agree withdrew permission for his version of Part Fourteen to be used.

Suddenly there was a real crisis. JNT had this huge epic with no ending. In desperation he turned to Pip and Jane Baker and asked them to write a new version, literally having no one else to turn to. Miraculously they managed to produce something vaguely usable within days, but given the circumstances it's not unsurprising that their Episode Fourteen completely fails to provide anything like a satisfactory conclusion to the tale. This is one of the great shames of Doctor Who's history, as the Holmes/Saward Episode Thirteen which precedes it is extremely promising, and includes the finest scene the Sixth Doctor ever had on television, his speech in which he rails against the decadence of the Time Lords. However, from the moment Pip and Jane take over and have the Valeyard starts appearing and disappearing around the beach in the opening scene of Fourteen it's plain that we are in very different hands indeed. The following half hour is hugely anticlimactic, with an non-starter of a confrontation between the Doctor and his nemesis and a total lack of answers to most of the outstanding plot threads. Those who had been paying attention from the beginning never did discover the identity of the Sleepers from The Mysterious Planet or which parts of Mindwarp were the Valeyard’s fabrications while, on a somewhat more trivial note, the final shot of the Doctor going off with a companion whom he hasn’t technically met yet created all sorts of timey-wimey paradoxes that to this day cause headaches for those with too much time on their hands.

Of course, this wasn’t Pip and Jane’s fault – in the circumstances they were real heroes – but in a way, their Episode Fourteen acts as a microcosm of the problems of the season as a whole; confused, rushed, with some very misguided ideas and yet not without the odd sparks of something far better. Time and again during the season whenever a good idea appears to have come along something dreadful will butt its way in and ruin things again. A good example is the characterisation of the Doctor. Early on in the season it is very clear that an effort has been made to make him far more mellow and less abrasive – his relationship with Peri is now far chummier, his yelling is toned down and there’s even a line in Episode Three in which he makes the point that he is against violence in all its forms, a direct nod to those who had viewed his previous season as far too graphic. And yet what do we see in Mindwarp? An amoral, unpleasant Doctor who is not only oblivious to his companion’s sufferings but even at one point tortures her on the rocks. Argh! The excuse, that this isn’t really the Doctor, might be technically accurate – or not, it’s never entirely clear – but to the casual viewer the effect is the same. Equally, the idea of bringing poor Bonnie Langford in was not, bless him, JNT’s finest hour. She isn’t quite as bad as she might have been, but at no point does one watch her playing of Mel and think she is anyone else but Bonnie Langford. The cumulative effect mean that one has to try very hard to find those moments which make the story not a total write-off, but look closely and they are there. In Glitz and the Valeyard the story introduces two characters who are positive additions to the Who universe (although Jayston’s fine villain never gets the chance to achieve his potential) while there are a handful of genuinely memorable moments – the opening shot, of course, but also Peri’s death (undermined as it was to be at the season’s end), the first cliffhanger of the Vervoid section, and the Doctor’s speech.

But therein lies the heart of the matter; these dashes of colour are few and far between, and are surrounded by reams and reams of grey, lifeless banality. Despite the chance the show had had, despite the extensive run-in time, the detailed discussions and, above all, the good intentions and determination of those involved, the result was on average deeply mediocre. It turned out, despite what everyone had hoped, that the Powers That Be were not wrong; a mixture of strained relationships and creative exhaustion had left the programme a sad, emaciated shadow of what it had once been. Trial is by no means the worse story from the era – compared to such travesties as The Twin Dilemma or Time and the Rani it looks positively magnificent – but it is also rather insipid and at its very best can only be called Doctor-Who-by-rote, a set of scripts on automatic pilot with no sign of inspiration or, it has to be said, much passion (leading man’s performance aside). Viewed at the time, one could perceive the glimmers of something better to come with the conscious decisions made to lighten the tone, but now, in 2008, taken as the release must be as an individual piece of entertainment in its own right and shorn of all context, it just cannot be recommended. With great regret, for I like Colin Baker's Doctor, one has no choice but to pass a "Guilty" verdict on this most maligned of defendants.

The DVDs


The fourteen episodes of Season Twenty-Three are presented on four DVDs, each segment of the story with its own case, ala The Key To Time release of last year. There has been much debate down the years as to what each separate story within the season should be called, and here they are known by their most common names, as referred to in the above review as well – so Episodes One-Four are called The Mysterious Planet, Episodes Five-Eight Mindwarp, Episodes Nine-Twelve Terror of the Vervoids and Episodes Thirteen-Fourteen The Ultimate Foe. These names appear on the title menus of their respective DVDs, and each menu has its own set of clips running alongside the options, taken from the parts in question. The episodes themselves and all possible extras bar the commentaries, are subtitled.

As ever, the episodes' Video and Audio are as good as they possibly can be. Regarding the visuals, this was the first season to be shot entirely on video, and as such the image is often fairly soft, with background detail not as delineated as it could be. However the prints used appear unmarked and bright, making this still several steps up from the videos in that old TARDIS tin used the story's VHS release. The Audio is a cleaned up 2.0 track and is perfectly fine.

The Extras are scattered across the four discs. All fourteen episodes are accompanied by commentaries by Colin Baker, who is joined along the way by various cast and crew members looking back at their own contributions to the show. By far the most entertaining group is that watching Terror of the Vervoids; as well as Baker, director Chris Clough, writers Pip and Jane Baker and actor Michael Craig, who played the Commodore, provide a lively session well worth a listen, and notable too for the rather telling mention of Eric Saward towards the end of Episode Ten (Saward having alienated most of those involved with the show with a rather vitriolic interview he gave about the programme and its makers shortly after his departure.) Clough and Baker take central stage again for the last two parts of the season, this time accompanied by actor Tony Selby (Glitz) and, for Episode Fourteen only, Pip and Jane again, and again these are good tracks. Unfortunately Selby also joins Baker on what are the dullest four parts commentary-wise, namely The Mysterious Planet; although they, Nicola Bryant and actor Adam Blackwood (Balazar) are genial company their conversation suffers the odd lull and is a bit slow in places. Better are those for Mindwarp during which Baker and Bryant are joined by writer Philip Martin, who like the Bakers provide a background to what is being watched which balances nicely with Baker and Bryant’s on-set anecdotes. In addition, as a bit of fun A Fate Worse Than Death? (2:22) has Baker and Bryant chatting over the infamous moment at the end of Episode Fourteen in which Peri’s true fate is revealed. Eric Saward also lends his voice to two commentaries, understandably recorded separately from everyone else, to Parts One and Thirteen, which are also revealing - he sounds genuinely regretful in places as to how things turned out. As ever, I find the best way to watch all the commentaries is with the info-laden Production Subtitles turned on which often complement, bar the odd repetition, what is being said.

The Making Of the epic are covered in four parts across the discs, story-by-story, with a total running time of ninety minutes. The format of these is similar to those of part Who discs, with an impressively large collection of actors and production members discussing their memories. As a companion to these, there’s also Now and Then – On the Trail of a Time Lord (21:01) a mildly dull feature in which some of the locations of the story are revisited but which is enlivened by a brief prologue which looks back at the history of location shoots on the series.

Of course, almost as important as that is the documenting of the entire hiatus crisis, and this is superbly covered in Trials and Tribulations (55:05) the centrepiece documentary of the whole set. This tells the complete painful story, from Baker’s casting through to his eventual firing following the end of Trial, and benefits not only from new interviews with most involved (including, as a bit of a scoop, Jonathan Powell) but also extensive use of an interview the now sadly-departed JNT did back in 1994. Everyone gets to put their side of the story in an extremely balanced and absorbing account, with Baker in particular being magnificently nice about the whole thing while showing that even after all this time he still hurts from what he went through. This is very possibly the best documentary the Restoration Team have ever produced, but it’s far from the only feature on the subject: to give a historical flavour, there are a collection of news clips announcing the hiatus in 1985 Hiatus (3:54) (as well as a crowing Cyberman appearing on Wogan) and the infamous Doctor in Distress music video (3:44) which is even worse than you remember, and includes lyrics of McGonagall-level brilliance such as “If we stop his travels he’ll be in a mess,” and, describing the Daleks, “There were evil metal creatures who tried to exterminate, Inside each of their casings was a bubbling lump of hate.” Rounding off this subject, there’s The Lost Season (10:57) which covers what’s known about the stories which were originally planned for Season Twenty-Three before the cancellation crisis began (and which include a couple of alarming caricatures of Peri.)

Thankfully the show did eventually return, and there are a large series of clips featured which show how the stars publicised the new season. Colin Baker makes a rather stilted appearance on Wogan (14:23) which shows just what a rotten interviewer the Togmeister could be at times and a far jollier one on the Saturday morning kids’ show Saturday Superstore (13:33) in which one young viewer who rings in sounds far more annoyed his name has been misspelt than excited to be talking to the Doctor. Bonnie Langford meanwhile popped up on the similar Saturday Picture Show (7:33) in which she chats to Mark Curry about her new role. No Who DVD is ever complete without at least one clip from Blue Peter (7:49) and the one on this set sees Janet “Teka from The Horns of Nimon” Ellis interviews her own father, who was the operator of Drathro, and Baker and Langford while Peter Duncan chats to a game Nabil Shaban in full Sil make-up.

Unfortunately, once the excitement had died down, people began to watch the season, and then the reactions were somewhat less enthusiastic. While those writing to a young Anne Robinson in the Points of View clip here (2:21) were largely positive (one correspondent even goes so far as to declare the series “startling good”) those appearing on the junior version TV Talkback presented by Phillip Schofield are far less impressed. By far the most squirm-inducing clip, however, is one in which a group of fans are asked onto Open Air (10:28) to air their opinions following Episode Fourteen and end up telling both JNT and poor old Pip and Jane that they didn’t think too much of it, much to the evident shock of the latter two.

In addition to those relating directly to the show, there are a couple of clips dating from around the same time included. That taken from Children in Need (3:17) is a fantastic piece in which a huge array of Who stars past and present piled into the annual fundraiser to present Wogan (making his third appearance) with a cheque, with Pat and Jon reprising their rivalry to general merriment. There’s also a sketch from Lenny Henry (4:34) in which his Doctor takes on a cybernised Mrs Thatcher (yes, but is it canon?)

As if all that weren’t enough, there are a couple more especially commissioned featurettes. The Restoration Team’s resident maestro Mark Ayres has remixed Dominic Glynn’s main theme in both 2.0 stereo and 5.1, as well as the “Trial theme”. To accompany these new versions, there are some music videos incorporating the opening titles and scenes from the story, as well as a “clean” version of the opening and closing title sequences (ie with no credits). There’s also a 35mm Film Sequence (1:13) of the opening CGI shot. There's a bonus documentary which appears to have wandered in by accident from another Who release entirely, Now, Get Out of That (28:21) which is an amusing survey of some of the more and less successful cliffhangers through the show’s history.

Rounding things off, there are a goodly collection of Deleted Scenes for each story ( although many of these are just extensions of the trial sequences) as well as the regular inclusion of Trails and Continuities (“And now on BBC 1....”) which include Colin Baker’s appearance on The Roland Rat Show and the Story So Far summaries given before each episode which the Powers That Be deemed necessary to remind viewers of what had happened up to that point. There are also Photo Galleries for each section, PDFs with with the usual Radio Times listings, a BBC Press Release about the season and an extract from a children’s magazine about the show. Finally a Coming Soon trailer for the already-released Four to Doomsday is included and, as is so often the case, makes the story look about a hundred times better than it is.

Overall


Although the episodes themselves aren’t especially highly regarded, Trial has regularly featured in lists of “Most Wanted DVDs” down the years. Not only does the idea of having a complete season released all in one go appeal to the completist in every fan, but the thought of seeing how the Restoration Team tackled this most controversial of eras for the show was enough to make even the most hardened Colin Baker-doubter salivate. It’s therefore wonderful to be able to report that not only does this release do justice to the season, but in fact goes above and beyond what could be expected. Indeed, it’s very difficult to imagine anything else that could have been included, and when one considers that there are a few extras that really didn’t need to be on here at all, given how much else there was, it’s very difficult to see this release as anything other than ranking alongside The Key To Time as quite the finest Classic Doctor Who release to date.

Film
4 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
10 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

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