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:
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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).
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?
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.
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.
"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.
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!