“Then where will you be? Dead! No, worse than that. Poor!”
It’s all presented as the next episode, not a new story, but there’s no reprise, and Robert Holmes gives way to Philip Martin. It’s the planet Thoros Beta, the year 2379 and we’re about to see what was happening before the Doctor was taken out of time, or so we’re told. Certainly we see some highly impressive special effects and the most brilliantly realised alien planet yet seen. The pink sea and the ringed planet in the sky are completely unlike anything we’ve ever seen before and somehow manage to give this story a very different feel to usual from the beginning.
Of course, this being Philip Martin, we get a bit of metatextual stuff- the early trial scenes are essentially about directors’ choices of shots and decisions made in the editing! Still, seeing as I got a lot of enjoyment from this sort of thing in Vengeance on Varos I'm a bit disappointed by the relative lack of it in this story.
The Doctor and Peri are here to investigate a bit of naughty arms dealing, while Brian Blessed- in what is surprisingly his first appearance on Doctor Who- lies elsewhere on a table. This planet is ruled by the Mentors, led by a barely recognisable Christopher Ryan as Kiv, and the story is essentially based around mad scientist Crozier as he does loads of unethical experiments in a quest to cure Kiv’s headaches. Frankly, I’m not sure the people who design the headache pills I use are showing quite the same level of commitment.
Oh, and Sil’s back. Yay! I preferred the original costume, mind.
“I have a special death reserved for him. He is a traitor known as the Doctor.”
The Doctor can’t seem to remember anything after Sil uses the machine on his brain, which makes the trial somewhat unfair from this point on. And it’s quite surprising that we only get one episode of the Doctor being unambiguously himself- I didn’t recall the stuff about unreliable narration starting so soon.
Brian Blessed, in a surprising departure from his usual type of part, plays Yrcanos as a shouty barbarian king. It’s good to see that his previous work in The Black Adder, Flash Gordon and Blake’s Seven hasn’t typecast him as quiet, nervous types. The character’s just a bit of comic relief, really, but in spite of being a bit of a prat he’s a nice chap really.
The Doctor’s initial betrayal of everyone, and his later betrayal of Peri, comes as a bit of a shock. In the wider context of the show, with the axe hanging over it and the earlier examples of The Twin Dilemma and Attack of the Cybermen, this probably isn’t a great idea. But in the context of this particular story it actually works quite well; with the framing device of the trial it’s allowed to be portrayed in a metatextual way with the reliability of the footage from the Matrix being open to question in spite of the Valeyard’s protestations that the Matrix cannot lie. And it could of course be, partially or wholly, just a clever plan by the Doctor, or a result of what Sil did to his brain earlier.
Be that as it may, the scenes with the Doctor interrogating Peri arguably cross a line. I hope this is the Matrix lying.
Towards the cliffhanger the Inquisitor appears to voice Philip Martin’s own frustrations with the trial scenes as she states that “I do grow tired of these continual interruptions…”
“Today, prudence shall be our watchword. Tomorrow, I shall soak the land in blood.”
Oddly, the Doctor is given a chance to pause the trial but insists on its continuing in spite of the blatant unfairness of the circumstances. By now there is a definite sense of doom surrounding the fate of Peri.
Kiv orders the death of all those who fail to save his life, causing Sil to become quite splendidly panicked. He calms down after the operation’s success, though, claiming that “I endeavour to maintain a certain continuity”, something with which the story is about to start having problems very soon. Still, there’s some good stuff. The scene in which the Doctor uses his knowledge of the future to help Sil make money is a nice touch, but it’s odd this is not immediately seized upon by the Valeyard.
“I thought it was somewhat gratuitous.”
There’s a great scene in which Peri explains love to Yrcanos while he explains his conception of the afterlife, where his destiny is “Why, to fight! What else!” Yrcanos is bonkers, of course, but he’s basically a decent and even innocent fellow underneath all the shouting, and Peri clearly likes him.
Things get even more confused as the Doctor seems to become one of the goodies again, rescuing Yrcanos and endeavouring to save Peri. Yrcanos soon stirs up some real trouble for the Mentors, and Kiv is eventually forced to abandon his business meeting with a pink Terileptil so that he can have his brain transferred into Peri’s body. The operation begins, while elsewhere Yrcanos’ rebellion gets under way- and it’s at this point that the Doctor is taken out of time and we rejoin the first episode of the season.
As a coda we get to see the horrifyingly effective sight of Kiv occupying the body of a bald Peri. Crozier has discovered a way to transplant any mind into any body; practically a form of immortality. To this the Time Lords have to intervene. Presumably if the Doctor hadn’t intervened, Crozier would have failed to save Kiv and been executed by the bodyguards. As it is, the Time Lords now use Yrcanos as an assassin to kill everyone.
So, Peri’s dead. And it’s the most shocking and affecting companion death yet. I certainly hope they don’t retcon it. That would be bad.
So, surprisingly given its reputation, I liked this one. There wasn’t quite as much humour in the metatextual stuff as there was in Martin’s previous effort, but he still managed to use the format of the trial to play some rather enjoyable games with the different layers of narrative, once again giving us a piece of television drama which is fundamentally about the fact that it’s television. I think the broad sweep of what was happening is more or less implied (the Matrix showed the Doctor being a little nastier during his time as a “turncoat” than he was in reality, but broadly speaking it was all his plan) and anyway, I’m sure it’ll all be explained away perfectly satisfactorily at the end of the season. 4/5.