Monday, December 20, 2010

Serial 143: The Mysterious Planet - The Trial of a Time Lord Part I

Doctor: Colin Baker (6th Doctor)
Companion: Peri Brown

Written by: Robert Holmes
Directed by: Nicholas Mallett

Background & Significance: I like ending things with a nice flourish. There's nothing so wrong with some cool events. This past summer it was The Key to Time. For the holiday break, we get to talk about another significant event-story in Doctor Who history. So for the next two weeks (that's two posts a week for y'all. Happy Winter indeed) we're going to talk about a highly debated and strangely controversial Doctor Who story: The Trial of a Time Lord. But first! A little background:

At the end of Colin Baker’s controversial first season, BBC head honcho guy Michael Grade leveled his sights at Doctor Who and took the first shot he could at a show that had fallen considerably in the ratings in the previous several years. He thought the show was silly and stupid and started talking about cancelling it.

The start of this, we’ll talk about more when we get to Colin Baker’s first story “The Twin Dilemma” sometime later next year, but after a full season of odd choices including making The Doctor wantonly unlikeable (which I find a plus because it’s a bold, bold move), moving the tone into a noticeably darker and more-typical-of-the-80s sadistic nihilism (see "Vengeance on Varos" and others), and changing the format into something no one knew how to handle, it’s not hard to see why people started jumping ship. The show had gotten weak and weird and strange and was a far cry (in the span of a season, no less) from the rollicking adventures of Peter Davison just a year earlier and Tom Baker just a few before that.

As such, Grade threatened cancellation and producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner took to the streets to drum up support for Doctor Who. You can’t cancel the thing. It’s been on the air for twenty two years. It’d be like cancelling a long running soap opera and staple of British TV. Fortunately, somehow, Nathan-Turner managed to stay the cancellation with a lot of help from the fans and turn it into an eighteen month hiatus.

It was a hiatus from which the show would never recover.

Now I'll be honest with you right up front. I think the concept for Trial is a bit melodramatic. The entire concept of the The Doctor on Trial comes directly from the current state of the show at the BBC because, in the mind of still-producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner, Doctor Who really was on trial. As such, I really do think it's a bit of a melodramatic concept to insert into the show. "Oh woe is us! Behold The Doctor's slow fall back to Earth as the once great show slowly falls from the graces of everyone" JNT cries, completely ignoring all the little things he did to help the show reach this point over the course of Colin Baker's run to this point (some of which we've touched upon earlier in this year, the rest of which we'll end up discussing in the coming one).

That said? Putting The Doctor on trial is a really awesome idea. As a concept, The Trial of a Time Lord has captured my imagination for quite a long time. Once I became aware of the classic series and started flipping through the collections in my local Best Buy, I remember seeing the boxsets for Trial and being completely obsessed with the concept of putting The Doctor on Trial for an entire season. And by The Time Lords no less. All of that was positively enthralling to me, but maybe that's because I love courtroom drama and never found it in my interest to avidly watch Law & Order.

But enough about my hang ups. What about the story itself?

Trial of a Time Lord is an interesting story to talk about. For one thing, it marks the dissolution of Nathan-Turner's since-first-season-of-Davison partnership with his script editor Eric Saward. It's also the swansong for the derided and notoriously unpopular Colin Baker. And it's also the last thing Robert Holmes ever worked on.

Now I know we've spent a lot of time here loving on the late great Robert Holmes (and there's plenty more opportunities to come), but it's interesting that this serial is not only the last thing Holmes ever completed for Doctor Who, but the last two episodes of Trial was the last thing Holmes ever worked on before his death. As such, it's a definite crux of the classic series if you ask me. After this, there would be a new Doctor, a new script editor, and one of the shining beacons of Doctor Who would be gone forever. Trial is the start of a four-year road to Doctor Who's inevitable cancellation in 1989 and represents a significant turning point for what was once a gem in the BBC's crown as, by this point, the show had become almost universally criticized and reviled.

Trial became everyone's attempt to re-capture the hearts and minds of every Doctor Who fan out there. Everyone on board needed to make a concerted effort to turn out the best show they possibly could. But could they really win over everyone? After an entire season of showing off a Doctor no one really enjoyed on some weird, dark, nightmarish perversion of such a beloved show, was it possible to turn the ship around and return Doctor Who to its glory days?

The simple answer? No. But I think that's... well... We'll talk about that as we go on because it's definitely important and meriting of discussion.

The story itself is split into four acts and based on the structure of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", with acts one, two, and three, relating stories from The Doctor's past, present, and future (respectively) and the final, fourth act functioning as an epilogue to wrap up The Doctor's current situation, the Trial, and what exactly is going on with the mysterious Time Lord prosecutor: The Valeyard.

All of that we'll cover as we look at this story extensively over the next two weeks, but for now, let's just relish in what we have and celebrate two truly remarkable elements of greatness lost as a result of this Trial storyline: Colin Baker and Robert Holmes.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

What I find most interesting about starting to watch “The Trial of a Time Lord” is just thinking about the show in the context of its particular ethos, especially when talking about it in terms of part one.

Essentially, part one of Trial is almost a complete reboot. In the span of twenty minutes, they need to convince everyone who was tuning in that this show would be different. They would fix Colin Baker. They would fix the weird choices and the excessive violence. They would kick things off with a solid story from a tried-and-true Doctor Who writer. Their job, as it were, was to tell a solid story. It didn’t have to break anyone’s brain in half. They just had to prove that they could put on a good show.

As such, part one of Trial (and of "The Mysterious Planet") both function to do very standard, very traditional Doctor Who. There’s no need for obscurity. Just set up a mystery, set up some characters, set up some intrigue and a direction and send us out to sea.

And part one really does just that. A lot of the first episode is about attempting to wipe the slate clean and push the show into this new direction that everyone finds themselves in.

The two most stunning things about part one (in terms of slate cleaning) are the new and improved opening credits and the opening shot. The opening credits are still the same graphics that ran through Colin Baker’s first season but Nathan-Turner took the expenditure for composer Domenic Glynn to arrange a new rendition for the new theme song, showing a departure from Davison’s old adventurey tune and something a bit more unique to Colin Baker’s Doctor.

And then there’s the opening shot. And boy howdy. Boy howdy what a shot. From what I’ve read, the opening shot (that of a zoom in and examination of the space station upon which the Trial is set to take place) is the most expensive special effect in the entire classic series and it shows. Really, it does. It’s breathtaking. Its job is to pull you in, and it does.

We also get some introductions to the actual court proceedings, with some great performances by Colin Baker and the ever-so-mysterious Valeyard. If there’s one thing about this, though, it’s that The Valeyard is completely dogged in his attempts to discredit and depose The Doctor. I mean, knowing in hindsight what The Valeyard’s goal is and how much this means to him, you’d think he’d be a bit more subtle, but for now it’s just…. Kind of annoying.

As far as the charges against The Doctor? They are that he has, on countless occasions, been guilty of conduct unbecoming a Time Lord and, on has also on countless occasions, transgressed the First Law. He is a meddler. That is the charge. And it’s… kind of a hard one to refute.

But refute it The Doctor shall. So instead of going and presenting witnesses and the like, the Valeyard will show two different stories from The Doctor’s past that will prove his guilt.

We also get the really, really well done tease of “Where is Peri?” as The Doctor doesn’t seem to actually know where she is, or rather, he doesn’t remember. Which is strange, and something The Valeyard dangles over his head quite fantastically. We’ll find out what happened to Peri, but I love that it’ll take us another seven episodes to get there.

Also, can I just say? Having a seat on this Trial would be awesome. You get to go out and watch three cool Doctor adventures. That’s so sweet. Seriously. Let’s have that happen. Can I do that?

But what about the real meat of this story? The section about the, you know, eponymous “Mysterious Planet”? The planet the Doctor and Peri are exploring in flashback?

To me, The Ravolox story is really where it’s at in this episode, but I think that’s because we get an entire first episode here and the Trial segment is very much in the first quarter of the first episode (if you treat each individual section as one episode, “Mysterious Planet” being the first). This episode does a lot of good work in setting up the mystery of Ravolox and what happened there and all that.

Perhaps the most obvious thing going into this episode is the quite-clearly-evolved relationship between The Doctor and Peri, and while they do bicker (which was a constant total drag all throughout the previous season), the bickering is, of course, more subdued than anything. I love seeing the growth they’ve had together in their off screen time.

Colin Baker does some truly fine work here and comes off as prentious without being… you know… an asshole. You can tell that Holmes definitely has a particular affinity for the character, even in this incarnation. He’s not writing him like Tom Baker, nor is he writing him like Pertwee. This is very much Colin Baker, and (for me) the definitive Colin Baker as The Doctor. He feels totally Doctory, and it’s a total plus (and exactly what this needed to do).

But even beyond that, there’s a lot to love. We’re introduced to the *classic* Robert Holmes double-act of Sabalom Glitz and Dibber and Holmes KILLS it with these two. Seriously honestly and truly. It’s just some exquisite dialogue and banter between the two. To add to the pile, they’re not even the bad guys of the story. Just an added spanner to the works. And everything they say and talk about is just truly, truly gold. Great Holmesian stuff goin' on with this right here.

We also get introduced to the two different societies and learn about the mystery of the Immortal One and the people who follow him (the undergrounders) and those who seek to destroy him (the overgrounders) and we also come to the realization that Ravolox might, in fact, be Earth, just two million years in the future, devastated by solar flares, and in the completely wrong part of space.

We also meet Balthazar, who's the ungrounders' resident reader dude. He's read all three books the undergrounders have and knows all about them. (And because Robert Holmes is funny, those three books are "Water Babies", "Moby Dick", and "U.K. Habits of the Canadian Goose" by H.M Stationery Office. And boy does Balthazard love thinking about The Canadian Goose.

All in all, the great start to what promises to be a truly classic story. It’s not blowing your mind, but you can just feel the love on the page as Robert Holmes seeks to re-claim both the show and the character of The Doctor. It’s funny, witty, inspired, and a truly truly great start to such a story. It’s totally everything you could ask for in a first episode.

Part 2:

If I had to pick one thing to really enjoy about part two, it’s that it takes what is a very solid part one and then just runs with it and makes it a little bit crazy. All the elements that were laid out in the first installment are expanded and developed.

Essentially, the Ravolox storyline is divided into two sections: the part with The Doctor and the part with Peri.

Peri’s part is perhaps the easiest to talk about. She’s brought before the Above-grounders and their queen and sentenced to death. There, she meets the truly fantastic Glitz/Dibber double act and wacky antics are had.

With a show of long and varied history like Doctor Who, it’s impossible to not have memorable characters. I mean, we all have them. From Richard Mace the thespian in “The Visitation” to Count Scarlioni in “City of Death” to Garron and Unstoffe in “The Ribos Operation”… The show is positively brimming with a wealth of interesting characters.

That said? It’s really saying something that Glitz and Dibber are truly and wonderfully memorable characters. Holmes is really just wheelhousing them and it shows. They’re funny and witty but also well rounded. Their banter is strong but never forced and they come with the right assortment of quirks and interesting fun-ness around them.

More than anything it’s all about Sabalom Glitz (as we’ll see next week, but I’m getting ahead of myself). He really shines as an entertaining and memorable character in the best of ways, and everytime we cut away from him, I find myself wanting to cut back to him so we can have some more stuff to say.

The most expansive bit of the story, of course, is The Doctor’s bit, where he meets up with the God of the Undergrounders, the evil “Immortal”. Turns out, The Immortal is nothing more than an L-3 robot named “Drathro” (which I find awesome. Drathro the robot) who has two twin looking dudes for assistants.

Again, it’s just really solid work by Holmes (and I sing his praises constantly but they are deserved, my friends). The assistants are totally a double act between themselves and foils for the giant robot. One of the marks of a Holmes villain is they are unnatural-in-some-way (usually grotesque) and are trapped and seeking escape, typically relying on the use of avatars (humans) to help them achieve their goal. We saw it in “Pyramids of Mars” (Sutekh) and “The Time Warrior” (Linx) and it holds true here.

Drathro is slowly malfunctioning and just wants The Doctor to help him, but… The Doctor is, of course, less than compliant and manages to escape through some awesome Doctorness, leading Drathro to send out a service robot to capture The Doctor and bring him back.

We also get a really interesting bit where officer Merdeen (who's a total honcho guy in the society) pulls Balthazar aside and sends him out into the real world with The Doctor. So he's been sending people out onto topside? I think that's awesome, but why? And how? Strangely, I don't think we ever hear those answers, but they're interesting to think about (and also not pertinent to the story. All that matters is that the people are being released, so that little bit that slipped under the radar is understandable).

There’s not much to talk about in regards to the Trial storyline as it’s firmly backgrounded here (which is a good choice. Let the story breathe and play out. Also, good Doctor Who. No need to interrupt quality watching). There’s only one really great part to introduce here and that’s The Doctor playing on “Valeyard” by calling him “Boatyard” and “Graveyard” because he can. It’s just funny and well done.

It’s amazing how everything seems to be moving faster and faster as we enter the cliffhanger for the episode. It’s just incredibly well done. Normally the leadup to the third part finale is a harrowing intense action affair with lots of intercutting and cross switching and heightening of tension, but the tension here is just… solid. It really feels real and solid and not only do we have to contend with the Above-grounders and the Undergrounders but also with Drathro the Robot who seems to be independent of the two.

That really just… works. I like stories where The Doctor is caught in the middle of the action, just like he is here. I love this cliffhanger. It’s a total “Doctor in peril” cliffhanger, but he’s caught between the two forces in front of him. The Undergrounders block the way to the surface and Drathro’s service robot is blocking his way back into the underground complex. The Doctor, Peri, Glitz, Dibber, and Balazar are trapped in the middle.

It’s just elegant, and continues everything along the “Just tell a good story” train that this story needs to be. Still great Colin Baker, still great writing, great pacing and storytelling. Still great stuff. Onward!

Part 3:

Again, part three. Hardest to write, hardest to deal with, but really, after everything all it does is set all the pieces in motion for the finale. Again. Robert Holmes. Killing it. With all the pieces in motion, everything we’ve known goes up a notch.

As far as that goes, here’s what we know and here’s why it works.

Drathro’s black light generator (that which powers him) has been destroyed by Dibber (as happened towards the end of part two) and he is now on his way to imminent destruction. As such, we’re now racing against the clock as the second that the black light system self-destructs there will be a huge explosion and everyone will be wiped out.

The Above-grounders, under command of their Queen (Katryca, but I like calling her Queen so I’ll stick to that) destroy one of Drathro’s service robots and, thinking the Service Robot is the Immortal and now he is dead decide to storm his castle and plunder his technology to re-appropriate it for their own. So now they’re heading into an inevitable conflict with the Undergrounders and are going to be right in the heart of the Black Light explosion that is… definitely on its way.

Merdeen is discovered by one of his men and is accused of being the one who sets the people in the place free to the outside world. As such, there’s a reckoning coming for Merdeen who is both friendly to the Abovegrounders and a generally all-around good guy and it really makes his decisions at the end of this part, where cliffhangers the thing that much more powerful, because he is and wants to be Anti-Immortal, but he got called on it and now has to prove himself. Even on a character level, it works through just one well placed scene. That's solid, strong storytelling. More props to Robert Holmes.

And then we have Glitz and Dibber, who are also on the planet to accomplish a certain something (although we know not what), but they have big guns and stuff and are planning on raiding or whatever to get what they want. Also, they kill every scene and there’s a discussion of philanthropy that’s just awesome.

Finally, we have another piece of intrigue about the Trial, in which The High Council of Time Lords have decided to excise a conversation between Glitz and Dibber for… some bizarre reason. The rationale is interesting and terribly topical even to today. It reminds me of the current situation of Wikileaks and state secrets. Which is what it kinda is. The Valeyard and everyone think it’s unnecessary to the trial while other bits (like the excessive violence) are not glossed over.

To see part of the why it’s just so interesting (and because I love Glitz/Dibber and this cliffhanger), I’ve youtubed it. Because I love you.

Also, that cliffhanger (which is yet another Doctor in peril cliffhanger) works because the dude TOTALLY pulls the trigger. It’s one thing to point it at The Doctor, but the dude fires. Strong stuff, really. I very much enjoy it. It’s one thing to have peril. It’s another to hit the peril home.

Anyways… continuing on… In the middle of all this is The Doctor, who’s forced to stop the violence between the Under-and-Above-Grounders, Glitz/Dibber and their scheming (which can’t be good, let’s be honest), Drathro’s imminent destruction, and Merdeen and his sudden anti-Doctor stance.

Really, it’s about as fantastic of a third part as you can do. It’s just spinning everything faster and faster as all the pieces for the big finale are slowly slid into place. Robert Holmes, as we know, is a fantastic dude at the telling of the story, and this third part is no exception.

One other funny thing to note: The Inquisitor spends a bit of time decrying the show for its violent content and we have some interesting commentary about things that “need to be shown” and stuff. It’s… just interesting and topical and kinda meta-commentary for the show.

Then again, this violence pales in comparison when compared to the violence of the previous season, but that’s another story for another time. The point still stands, though.

Regardless. Solid part three, solid continuation of a terribly solid story. Great stuff.

Part 4:

Needless to say, everything converges in part four, and this delicious romp comes to its full.

That was probably the weirdest sentence I’ve ever written on this blog (but don’t hold me to that).

MOVING ON. Basically everything converges and we get some more great Doctor scenes and the Undergrounders confront Drathro and Drathro kills the Queen and the Undergrounders scatter. The Doctor manages to stop Drathro and save the day… It’s… it’s all just quite good.

More than anything, I just love how well this story is told. It does everything it needs to do and they really don’t ever cut back over to the Trial if they don’t need it. It’s a stark contrast to the next stories, which seem to keep the need of constantly reminding you of what’s going on in the Trial. But really they don’t need to do that. They really don’t. Again, Holmes lets the story speak for itself, only interrupting it when absolutely necessary.

One of the best parts of the Trial cutaways is, of course, the Glitz/Dibber bits, but not for the reason you think. That reason (which is the best of an already strong series of interactions) is because Holmes actually sets something up here in part four and doesn’t pay off until part thirteen. It is, of course, the scene in which the Time Lords further edit out elements of the Glitz/Dibber conversation for... inexplicable reasons. It’s subtle (in my opinion) and if you’re not paying too close attention you won’t catch what he’s trying to set up here. You also know it’s important because it’s one of the very few times Holmes chooses to cut away from the Ravolox story and focus on something a bit different.

Another truly fantastic sequence is when Drathro the robot and The Doctor are arguing the value of human life. It’s a really excellent little sequence in which you get to see Colin Baker’s Doctor (who had, up until this point been considered pretty indifferent to human life) defend humanity to a robot who does not understand the intricacies of life. The discussion juggles logic and really neat ideas (Drathro can only live because of black light, so if black light spreads to the rest of existence and kills it, they didn't really need to live anyways. Black light is the source of life). It’s really just a great scene and rare for Robert Holmes. I mean, how often do you see him actively defending humanity?

It’s just a solid conclusion. We get Glitz/Dibber being a really neat sorta saving grace as they manage to distract Drathro enough for him to get him to leave with a briefcase full of microdots. Also, can I say how hilariously awesome it is to watch GIANT ROBOT DRATHRO carrying an itty bitty briefcase as though he’s going on a vacation? It’s just…. Love. At first sight. There. I said it.

If there’s a failing of this (and it actually is probably my one major complaint with this story) it’s that The Valeyard’s dogged (said it that way before but it’s apt) pursuit of The Doctor is actually kind of annoying. There’s a thing about evil bad guys constantly trying to accomplish something and failing (probably The Master’s ultimate problem or whatever) that really diminishes a villain’s power.

If there’s a problem with The Valeyard, it’s that. He seems a one note thing here. In the end he'll blow your mind, but until he’s actually able to literally go up against The Doctor mano-a-mano, he’s just stuck posturing… If there’s a saving grace to all this, it’s Robert Holmes’s dialogue and his exquisite banter between him and The Doctor. It’s really, really well done, but it’s going to get tired before ultimately saving in the end.

All in all, it’s a solid ending to a solid story. It’s not the most amazingly fraktastic thing ever, but it’s very good and it does its job and finishes the telling of the first of The Doctor’s Trial stories and does it well while also setting up some promising things for the future, such as the “Where *is* Peri?” and the “What’s Glitz talking about in that one scene?” and “What is up with the Time Lords?” and of course the whole “Why now?” of every story.

But all that is, of course, forthcoming.

Final Thoughts?: These four episodes have a very simple, very basic goal in the overarching scheme of this entire season: Tell a solid story that is good and works to be classic, back-to-basics Doctor Who and setup the Trial storyline.

As that? It works, and does it excessively well.

"The Mysterious Planet" is one of those rare stories that just... works. It's not Robert Holmes being flashy or excessively clever or trying to break and bend everyone's minds as he was during his run during his script editing years, but rather it's just a simple tale that tries to be the best it can be. Much like "The Ribos Operation" before it, it just works to tell a really strong story. And, for me, it succeeds in that.

Since watching it, I've found "The Mysterious Planet" a terribly memorable story, not because it does anything amazing, but just because it is extremely solid. If it's better than "The Mysterious Planet" you're in for a really, really good time. If you're weak, you're just in for a good story. It really is some of the best Doctor Who I've ever seen, and that just comes from Holmes's fundamental understanding of Doctor Who stories and their construction and structure and all that to weave a charming and well-done tale.

Colin Baker, of course, rocks it. Despite the overwhelming lack of good stories, I'm a huge fan of the guy. I think he really presents a unique and memorable take on The Doctor and does a good job of bringing life to the character. It's not universally loved, but I don't see how you can be against him here. Throw any other Doctor-actor into this part and it's another Doctor Who story. A tried and true one, no less.

It's interesting to see him get a really good story like this. I'm sure if the rest of his tenure had been populated by stories of this caliber (they don't even have to be much better or worse than this), his era would not be nearly so universally despised as it is. It's just a fun story, anything and everything you could ask out of Doctor Who. He's just got it here, and throw him in with some competent, unsadistic writing (as opposed to almost all of his other stories) and write him as The Doctor rather than as some warped, distorted version of him and the result is clear: He really could have been one of the greats. Maybe not universally loved, but certainly more than enjoyable on most occasions.

All of this, of course, comes from a solid story that doesn't really contain the blatant nihilism intrinsic in his other stories. Imagine, just imagine if they had all been this good and if they had started him at this level of quality and maintained it through his run. That makes this story all the more special, I think, as the Sawardian (more than JNT) vision of Doctor Who is pushed aside here in favour of Holmes' and it's clear, at least to me, that Holmes is just writing the Doctor Who stories I really want to be watching.

But if you hated this and the Holmesian everything to it and you really wish for Sawardian Doctor Who back, don't worry. The next story does its best to pretty much erase all the progress made by this one. But that's a discussion for next time.

Next Time!: 6th Doctor! Crazy warriors! Really terrible, terrible script editing! More writing by the "fantastic" Phillip Martin! A sequel to Vengeance on Varos?! The Return to the Values of the Previous Season! And I bash the heck out of Eric Saward (I'd say I'm sorry, but I'm not)! We keep the running bandwagon train thing moving with The Trial of a Time Lord Part Two: "Mindwarp"! Coming Thursday!


  1. You like this story a lot more than I do.

    It has it's moments, but it feels like a mash-up of The Krotons, Face of Evil and Invasion of Time.

  2. I've actually heard the comparison to "The Krotons", but I can't speak to that as I haven't seen it yet. Of the three you've listed, I've only seen The Invasion of Time and I'm not sure I get the comparison. Maybe because they both take place on Gallifrey and involve Time Lords?

    Regardless, Mash-up/rehash stories don't bother me too terribly much. I mean, Battlefield has a lot in common with Remembrance of the Daleks. But in the end, they're both good times and solid stories burdened by being tons of fun. And when you get right down to it, that's all that matters.

  3. Krotons and Face of Evil are the stronger comparison, but their are clear similarities with The Invasion of Time. Katryca's people are very much like the savages who abandoned the capitol in The Invasion of Time. You have that juxtaposition between the technolical society buried away and the savages living in the wilderness, supposedly in tune with nature.

  4. One of my favourite DW stories, actually. Mash-up or not, but it has its own atmosphere, and there's a perfect balance of mystery and irony. The best kind of writing for the 6th Doctor. I've never understood the grudge against Six. I see his character as something pretty logical for the Doctor's regeneration cycle: relatively calm Doctors are replaced by hyperactive Doctors, so Six fits that pattern perfectly, coming next to more reserved Five. This particular story is the very right material for him, and Colin Baker handles it smoothly.