Thursday, 12 November 2009

Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord Parts One to Four: The Mysterious Planet

Part One

“I intend to adumbrate two typical instances from separate epistopic interfaces of the spectrum.”

It gives me a warm fuzzy glow, all the ambiguity about the story title. Reminds me of the early Hartnells. (Although, as we’ll see, this reminds me mainly of The Krotons.) And I for one will be taking neither side in the debate as I’m rather fond of shades of grey.

Anyway, the story starts with the most fantastic special effects sequence we have yet seen- something which looks like, yet cannot be, CGI. And while we’ll see nothing as mind-blowing as this for the rest of the four episodes, the production values seem pretty impressive to me, whatever may have been going on behind the scenes. 

The Doctor (now with a red cravat) is put on trial by a bunch of Time Lords in a fairly obvious metaphor for off-screen events- actually a brilliant idea in principle, and something which mostly works very well, at least for these four episodes. This trial is also the last time we’ll ever see many of what have become the essential trappings of Time Lord society- robes, Chancellery Guards and the like.

Lynda Bellingham and Michael Jayston are great as the Inquisitor and Valeyard respectively, which is quite a relief as the story absolutely needs them to be. The Doctor has, of course, been deposed as president, and in the interests of providing a more dramatic narrative he insists on defending himself in spite of having had no chance to do any preparation whatsoever, which is hardly fair. He has no real idea what he’s supposed to be defending himself against either but as the charges against him seem to constantly change arbitrarily throughout the story this hardly seems to matter.

That’s the framing sequence dealt with; the four-parter proper is another good ‘un from Robert Holmes, crammed with great ideas and great dialogue. We have the planet Ravolox in the far future, a planet suspiciously similar to Earth. We have a relationship between the Doctor and Peri where they’re back to being friends, a relief after certain recent stories where their relationship has been decidedly awkward to watch. And we have the fantastic Glitz and Dibber, the, ahem, Holmesian double act at its finest. Their dialogue is fab; the whole riff on the prison psychiatrist is a joy.

The whole script sparkles, with Holmes seemingly in a much lighter mood than he has seemed to be in of late. The postmodern wit is back (“Ancient life on Ravolox by Doctor-“), and so are the great ideas. The Doctor and Peri discover what seem to be the ruins of Marble Arch, and it seems that this could almost be Earth except it’s two million miles out of place, instantly a great concept. And it’s a nice touch that the whole thing is laid out like something that was once a tube station, and its inhabitants call it “Marb Station”. I’m enjoying this hugely, which is more than can be said for the Doctor: “Can’t we just have the edited highlights?”

On top of this we have the village, with Joan Sims as Katryca doing an impressive female version of Brian Blessed. I love her reaction to Glitz’s story- she’s clearly no fool. We also get Balazar and his books, another top comedy moment. And just when you think it’s peaked already, here’s Tom Chadbon…

Part Two

“These bars remind me of home.”

The early courtroom scenes in this episode suddenly make it very clear; Holmes is writing for the Tom Baker Doctor, isn’t he? In fact, it’s mere minutes after this thought occurs to me that the jelly babies come out. And I can’t think of any better way of writing for Colin Baker’ Doctor. Certainly the early wobbles over the character’s instability seem to be long gone by this point, although Colin’s performance seems to wobble a bit at the “I always like to do the unexpected” line.

The Immortal has two human underlings who, much as they remind me of David and Tony from The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, I shall henceforth refer to as Gonds for obvious reasons.

It’s another damn fine episode, with a bit more plot fed out to us amongst all the fun; Drathro and his “secrets” are to do with some “Sleepers” from Andromeda. Drathro’s power comes from a Black Light converter which relies on an aerial in Katryca’s village. An aerial which Dibber blows up, meaning that Marb station is soon going to blow up. Oops.

We also get another mention of Saward’s Speelsnapes, and some great character stuff. Drathro knows perfectly well that there’s rain falling outside and that the solar flares’ effects have been much exaggerated, but continues to ration water because that’s what the plan says, inflexible as any machine. A more sinister example of the same mindset, and the most disturbing aspect of the story, is the “culling” of “work units" above the set quota in spite of the fact this is completely unnecessary.

Part Three

“They are out of control, outside the plan.”

Holmes puts into the Inquisitor’s mouth some ironic commentary on recent off-screen-developments: “Valeyard, I would appreciate it if these brutal and repetitious scenes were kept to a minimum.” I’m tempted to see in this not only the obvious reference to criticism of the previous season but also a nod to the truncated length of this season, although sadly I think that may be a temptation too far. Still, more great dialogue.

It’s confirmed; Ravolox is Earth. And there’s now a race against time to avert a big bang. We get some postmodernism and political commentary too, though; the Matrix scenes are censored, something that can hardly fail to conjure up either recent criticism of the programme’s violence or government cover-ups. Mind you, Glitz and Dibber are blatantly talking about the Matrix.

Part Four

“Oh, the Black Light, yeah. We’ve got so much of that, sometimes we can hardly see.”

The Doctor is frustrated by his failure to persuade the solipsistic Drathro that, as he’s going to die anyway, he might as well allow everyone else to survive. But Drathro insists that “The work units exist only to serve me. Without me they would have no function.” This is a disturbingly accurate prediction of modern management practices…

Fortunately, Glitz’s “low cunning” proves to be more persuasive than the Doctor’s moral arguments and so catastrophe is averted. But still unsolved are three questions; why has Earth been moved two million years through space, and by whom? What are the “secrets” of the Sleepers? And what exactly was the point of the Valeyard showing us all that?

Well, that was great, Holmes at his best. And at this stage at least the trial scenes are fine. 5/5.


  1. The special effects in the opening scene was the only highlight of the entire Trial season.

  2. I know my love for this season is not exactly popular!!! But I maintain that this is the best season in the 1980s up to this point.