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The Trial of a Time Lord

Reviewed by Paul Scoones

The following article is a criticism of The Trial of a Tine Lord, which screened on British television in 14 parts from 6 September to 6 December last year. It is worth mentioning that if you haven't seen Trial yet, it might be a good idea to restrain from reading this until you have, unless of course you don't mind knowing what's going to happen beforehand. Nor, however, is it a blow-by-blow story breakdown, but for those of you who would like one, you can order a copy of my update to the Programme Guide, elsewhere on this issue. Be warned!

Trial was, as was often pointed out by the British media, a trial period for the future of the show itself. BBC1 Controller, Michael Grade, reportedly had the decision to cancel Doctor Who altogether resting of the success or failure of this one epic story. Well, we now know that Season 24 has gone into production, but with no more episodes than Trial had, and most importantly, with a new Doctor following the sacking of Colin Baker. It would not be unreasonable to suspect that the less-than-favourable response to Trial had something to do with the changes to Season 24.

Sadly, Trial wasn't the great new revival for the show that everyone thought it might be, and indeed it should have been. It was supposed to be a grand improvement on the much-criticised Season 22, but it ended being pale by comparison. What started off as a promising season deteriorated towards the conclusion as the scripts became heavily flawed with blunders, caused largely, I suspect, by not having one script editor for the entire story. Farming out the story to four writers probably didn't help either.

The basic premise of the Trial was a clever satire of the goings- on behind the scenes. There were many parallels, but I won't point them out here. In case you are not aware, Trial can be broken down into four separate segments dividing up the 14 episodes thus: 4-4-4-2, and although it was not presented as such, each of the four segments had a story title, which were, in chronological order, The Mysterious Planet, Mindwarp, Terror of the Vervoids and The Ultimate Foe.

The Mysterious Planet was Robert Holmes' last complete story for Doctor Who. Sadly, it is by no means his best contribution, although many of the tried-and-tested Holmesian formulas were there. Money was spent on these opening four episodes presumably to impress those viewers more endeared to the glossy look of American productions of this kind. Who can find fault with the opening shot with the camera sweeping smoothly over the surface of the enormous Time Lord ship? Special effects are all very well, but they do not make a good story. Good writing, directing and acting are needed for this, as the classic stories of the sixties, seventies, and early eighties will show. Unfortunately, the direction also let this story down somewhat with Nicholas Mallett making the fatal mistake of not keeping the pace going, but instead allowing long periods of calm in the narration of the plot. Acting, however, was on top form, notably the Time Lord courtroom personalities - the Valeyard (Michael Jayston), the Inquisitor (Lynda Bellingham) and, of course, the good Doctor himself, played by Colin Baker in a more subdued manner than his frantic and often boisterous persona of his seven previous stories. Nicola Bryant's Peri, too, has matured into a more rational and sensible companion, giving one the impression that there have been many adventures for the TARDIS crew since they left Tranquil Repose. But the scene-stealers for this story were those two loveable mercenaries, Glitz and Dibber played with great enthusiasm by Tony Selby and Glen Murphy. The characterisations left me with a nagging feeling that I recognised them from another story. A few days later it came to me - Garron and Unstoffe from another Robert Holmes story, The Ribos Operation. It is impossible to tell whether Holmes was reusing the characterisations consciously or not, but the similarities are too great to ignore. As for the plot, well, it left a few loose ends but these were happily tied up at the conclusion of the trial - one of the few things to reach a successful conclusion in The Trial of a Tine Lord.

Mindwarp was another disturbing story like Philip Martin's first script, Vengeance on Varos. Martin again teamed up with director Ron Jones to produce a story full of the signs of a frightening alien culture in a murky atmosphere of blurred distinctions between good and bad, right and wrong. Consciously or not, Mindwarp owed something to a story we have recently seen repeated - The Brain of Morbius. Both centered around a fanatical medical scientist's attempts to succeed in accomplishing a perfect brain transplant of some great being's mind. My main criticisms of this story were that Brian Blessed played his part way over the top so that his King Yreanos character bordered on the believable, and that the Doctor's affiliations to the enemy were not properly explained. My interpretation of the plot is that the Doctor as somewhat 'brainwashed' by Crozier's machine, but later came right again, whilst still keeping up the pretense. Sil had improved for this story, and Kiv was an even better character, played with great feeling by Christopher Ryan. Peri's death scene was equally magnificent, spoilt only by the revelation to the contrary in the last segment. It leaves me wondering how much of what we saw in that last episode of Mindwarp actually occurred.

With the conclusion of Mindwarp, events were right up to date with the time of the trial, and so to conduct his defence, the Doctor picked something from his future, and this is where things started to go disastrously wrong. To have the Doctor witness an event from his near-future and then go off and experience it with the knowledge he has gained is, in anyone's books, a big no-no. We should have seen the Doctor in Terror of the Vervoids going around saying "Ah, I know what happens now...", but of course that wouldn't make a very interesting story, would it? This is the first of the major blunders in Trial, but doesn't really affect the actual story of Terror of the Vervoids, which covers four of the five episodes that husband-and-wife team, Pip & Jane Baker wrote for Trial. Again, this story owes a lot to another - Nightmare of Eden, as well as one or two others. I kept recognising ideas, and I am convinced there's also some Space 1999 in there as well - the Bakers wrote for this series at one time. Away from the influences and similarities, though, I felt that with a very few exceptions, the acting was the poorest this season has seen. After all the publicity about the original Avengers girl, Honor Blackman, appearing in Doctor Who, she played the character of Professor Lasky so flatly. There was so much potential in the part, and yet because of the way it was played, the character was instantly forgettable. Such a shame, as she was one of the main parts. Even Commodore Travers, played by Michael Craig, was somewhat wooden. The monsters on the other hand, were superb. The wierd Mogarians were unusual enough, but the colourful plant-like Vervoids were brilliant, and easily win my award for the best monster of the season. What a pity that they were absolutely, unique, thus forbidding any return in a fixture story. At times, however, you really had to concentrate on what they were saying - much the same problem as with the Cybermen in Attack. The highlight of the Vervoid story came very early on in the plot - at the end of episode one. You have to see it to believe it.

Which brings me to the last two episodes of Trial, known as The Ultimate Foe. If you ask me, they should have been called 'The Ultimate Mistake', a much more fitting name. Never before (and I hope never again), have I come away from a Doctor Who story wishing it had never been made, but it was that bad. I suppose the only way to rectify it would be for the Doctor to wake up and find it was all a bad dream. Bad it was; dream it unfortunately wasn't. There were too many flaws and blunders to list them all, but I shall attempt to pick out a few.

Firstly, immediately after the conclusion of the Vervoid plot, the Time Lords accuse the Doctor of genocide, when, as you and I know, in Genesis of the Daleks, the Time Lords sent him to Skaro on a genocide mission against the Daleks All I can conclude is that they realised this themselves, as the charges were dropped for no really good reason an episode later. The Valeyard was another big blunder - he is actually the Doctor, or rather an amalgamation of the Doctor's evil side somewhere between his twelfth and thirteenth regeneration Or should that be incarnation? Having the Valeyard out to see the Doctor lose all his regenerations is just plain stupidity on the part of the writers. The Doctor obviously has to reach the end of his lives in order for the Valeyard to come into existence. It was a nice idea - the Valeyard was 'The Ultimate Foe', i.e. the Doctor must fight himself, but it just didn't work. I'll bet anything that if the Doctor ever reaches his 13th self on television, the Valeyard plot won't make an appearance. Not unless by that time Doctor Who once again has a caring production team who stick to the continuity of the entire saga. On the subject of continuity, how can Melanie, who comes from the Doctor's future, go off and begin her adventures with him after the trial, seeing as chronologically, the Doctor has yet to have the adventure where they meet up? No, that was a big mistake, and the answer is that Melanie has to be taken straight back to wherever it was that the Master got her from.

I could write a very long article on the questions and problems that this story has raised (perhaps I will?). Season 24 doesn't have to try very hard to be an improvement.