Thursday, December 30, 2010

Serial 146: The Ultimate Foe - The Trial of a Time Lord Part IV

Doctor: Colin Baker (6th Doctor)
Companion: Mel

Written by: Robert Holmes & Pip and Jane Baker
Directed by: Chris Clough

Background & Significance: If you count The Trial of a Time Lord as one giant serial of fourteen parts and disregard the four-story structure of it, Trial of a Time Lord is the longest Doctor Who story of all time and this last two parter is the thing that puts it over the edge.

I don't want to talk too much about the actual dynamics behind this story here because they work a little bit better as we get into it, but I can't really talk about the finale of this epicness without going into the gritty details of the behind-the-scenes, which I find terribly fascinating.

So as we mentioned back in "The Mysterious Planet", Trial of a Time Lord was the last thing Robert Holmes ever worked on. The first episode of these final two parts is the last thing Robert Holmes ever completed, and it is a MASTERPIECE. Seriously, I think it's one of my favourite single episodes of Doctor Who of all time. It's dark, elegant, creepy, and amazingly Holmesian in the best of ways. And it's as good as anything we've seen him do so far if you ask me.

Unfortunately, Holmes got incredibly sick and passed away before he could get past more than a rough outline of episode two, meaning Holmes's climactic part two is lost to us forever and we'll never get it back.

For long-time script editor Eric Saward, Holmes's death was the last straw he could take under Jonathan Nathan-Turner. He quit Doctor Who after editing "Mindwarp", but offered to write the final episode based on Holmes's original outline on the condition Nathan-Turner not make him to change anything from Holmes's original outline, which included the planned cliffhanger ending where The Doctor and The Valeyard grappled with each other and over a Time Vent and fell in. The vent closed behind them and the story ended with the fate of The Doctor left up in the air.

So Saward wrote the script and turned it in and then production on the end of Trial started. Locations were scouted, sets were built, actors entered rehearsals...

Then Nathan-Turner, for some reason, decided that the ending was too much of a downer and asked Saward to change the ending. And really, JNT. Why did you do this? You know how much Saward isn't messing around, you had agreed to the ending with enthusiasm, and everything is going good. What did you THINK would happen? Spoilers! Saward told you!

But no. Nathan-Turner did it anyways, and Saward got pissed, walked off the show for a second time, took the copyrighted script and outline with him, and refused to let Nathan-Turner use either for the final product.

So now, they're about to enter production and they have neither script nor outline on the last episode. All they have is list of locations and actors. THAT'S IT. I can't even imagine that day for JNT. Musta been awful.

With no other options, JNT (who couldn't even give the new writers any details about the original part two because of Saward's copyright) turned to Pip and Jane Baker, gave them a list of sets and locations, and asked them to write the episode. He could give them part one because it was done and turned in, but all of part two had to be their own extrapolation.

They turned around a draft in three days.

Now, after all this, did they pull it off? I mean, at this point, you gotta know if they did or not, right? You just gotta know...

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

So I’ve said this episode is a masterpiece. But why is it a masterpiece?

Essentially, the episode can be broken down into two halves. The Courtroom sequence and The Matrix sequence.

The Courtroom segment is particularly masterful. If there’s a fault with it as a segment, it’s the fact that so much of The Doctor’s case (going back to the start of the Trial) has been his argument that Matrix Data has been tampered with, something which The Valeyard has called “ludicrous” and which The Inquisitor has said is impossible. And yet there have been numerous other instances (“The Deadly Assassin”, “The Invasion of Time”, “The Arc of Infinity”) that have proven this claim complete nontruth.

Granted, this does harp into continuity a little bit and how Doctor Who stories should be able to standalone, but… Come on. How much can this go on before someone (The Doctor) calls “Bogus” and cites these occasions? I know that it hints at previous stories (something people aren’t so keen on doing in the Nathan-Turner era), but JNT oversaw at least two different stories that cited continuity occurrences that never actually happened (for future reference: Timelash and The Twin Dilemma, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were others). Why would he be so afraid of bringing up past stories now (including the awesomeness of “Deadly Assassin”) because Matrix break-ins are not uncommon.

Also at kinda fault is The Master, who’s just another added thing who doesn’t really bring anything to this story (or rather, this episode) except the convenience of info-dumping. I mean, I’m all for The Master, but this is another example of poor use of him. He comes in and drops some science (granted, the most awesome piece of science, which we’ll get to in a minute) but it’s still just him on a screen being lord-over guy. There's nothing menacing or maniacal or outright devious about him. This isn't really his master plan (pun) nor does it seem to be some dastardly scheme. Even in the hodgepodge part two he's just kinda there.... Here he just comes in and feels really... shoehorned. Need an info-dumping guy? Oh sure, The Master's a great guy for that. (This is what we call a "horrible misuse" of a character, don't you agree?)

Granted, he does come in and prove The Doctor’s case of Matrix-tampering and the revelation of The Valeyard... But more on that revelation in just a minute.

In true Robert Holmes: Awesome Storyteller fashion we get the heightened of stakes. The Master is just the latest in a long string of stacked blocks as the tension tower readies to fall.

Tension building, of course, comes from the re-introduction of Mel and Sabalom Glitz, who arrive as summoned by The Master (whom Glitz reveals he has worked for in the past) to be witnesses for The Doctor. (Also, can we get a Glitz/Master buddy team up con man story wacky 80s action show? We can do that, right?)
If there’s an issue with that, it’s only that Robert Holmes dislikes Mel. I mean, yes, she is a stunt-cast, but that doesn't mean she's awful. Doesn't matter to Robert Holmes, though. There’s a reason all her lines are decidedly self-deprecating and when The Doctor chases after The Valeyard, it is with Glitz and not Mel (who would, of course, be the obvious choice).

Also interesting to note, because The Doctor hadn’t met Mel up to this point in his life, this is a case of non-linear Doctor chronology, with The Doctor meeting Mel at a different point in their history. The Doctor’s first adventure with Mel would have to be after Peri but before Vervoids, and because this is immediately after Peri, The Doctor couldn’t have met her yet and because this is after Vervoids for Mel (as she references it), it is after she has met The Doctor and known him some time. I love that. I love it when The Doctor meets characters “out of order” (as if there should be an order) (and for that matter, that's why I don’t give a crap about all the River Song haters out there, because I love the idea and I think it’s super well done).

Anyways, with all those pieces in place, here’s a youtube that is magic. And reveals The Valeyard’s true identity and has some awesome stuff about The Time Lords and a great speech by Colin Baker. It’s just win.

So that all segues really nicely into our second half of the discussion about the episode, when the story becomes about The Doctor’s now-fight with The Valeyard. And it all gets…. Kinda nuts…

We find out that The Valeyard is actually The Doctor, but the dark side of him, split off between his 12th and 13th Incarnations. And that is just…. it’s brilliant. I love that. I don’t even care that The Valeyard got to do nothing but sit around and posture for twelve parts. And that The Time Lords are working with him, knowing all this. That's just... yes.

Then he runs into The Matrix? And we get the second half of this story in The Matrix? It’s seriously like… I dunno, man. I’ve seen the other Time Lord stories since "The Deadly Assassin and all of them want to be “The Deadly Assassin”. “The Invasion of Time” was designed to be a sequel for “The Deadly Assassin” (and we’ll be talking about it that story in just a few weeks) but it never held up to “Deadly Assassin’s” promise. And I can just see Holmes watching Doctor Who and shaking his head as they fail to follow up on his truly epic tale of Time Lords and The Master.

And what makes this episode so good is that it’s a total sequel to “The Deadly Assassin”. Never since that story has Time Lord society been so fantastically explored as a crumbling entity mired with corruption and evil, but Robert Holmes brings that all back here. And then he totally brings in The Matrix in the best possible way, repeating “The Deadly Assassin” conceit of The Doctor going in to fight his rival and getting stuck way over his head as he fights through the nightmarish landscape, which is totally controlled by his evil foe. I know that it's probably re-hash? But this just feels different. The stakes are different, the story is different, the outcome and repercussions are different. It's just the situation that's similar. And it's such a fantastic use of everything that I just don't care.

In a lot of ways, I love that this iteration of The Matrix is so much more focused than “The Deadly Assassin”. If there was a fault with that story’s Matrix, it was the non-linearness of the way it was constructed. But here, it is different. Here it is just as harrowing but without the intense surreality-dreamness of the other.

Honestly, what’s not to love? Colin Baker kills it. There’s hands that try to pull his head into a barrel full of water (chilling, creepy, ew), a wonderfully epic Dickensian feel to the surroundings, The Valeyard’s HQ is called “The Fantasy Factory” and it’s run by a chap named “Mr. Popplewick” who is obsessed with bureaucracy and paperwork.

Everything about that paragraph is win. I love that Holmes is allowed to just go completely crazy in this world and just do whatever he pleases, including the ever so fantastic cliffhanger of The Doctor on a beach, having signed his lives away to The Valeyard, and being pulled into the ground by disembodied hands. It’s nightmarish and disturbing and fantastically creepy and a truly grim end to the proceedings.

I can’t say enough about how much I absolutely adore this episode. That which isn’t win doesn’t disturb me too much. And that which is is win on a scale that Colin Baker’s Doctor hadn’t ever seen before. It’s masterful and wonderful and so so good. One of the best Doctor Who episodes I’ve ever seen. Easily.

Robert Holmes went out on a truly high note. One of his best. And that’s really, really saying something.

Part 2:

If there’s an issue with part two it’s… Well… They are numerous.

To start, I’ll say that I actually think it somehow works. And by all rights it shouldn’t. I mean, with all the chainsaws juggled into the air as they were in part one, it’s nothing short of amazing that they managed to make something that actually works in the end. They have to deal with The Master, The Valeyard, The Time Lord corruption thing, and whatever plan that The Valeyard was doing in The Matrix… It’s a lot to deal with.

But it somehow works, and satisfyingly. Was it worth it? Perhaps not. But it’s still a decent end to the story.

As for things and thoughts… Well…

If there’s one thing I can say about their abilities, it’s that the Baker’s do a somewhat decent job of trying to build on what was already established by Holmes. They attempt to mimic his flair for extremely sophisticated dialogue while simultaneously incorporating his Dickensian vision of The Matrix. If anything, it’s serviceable, but stilted. For every fantastic idea (like The Valeyard lobbing exploding quills) there’s another idea that’s a bit groanery (such as The Doctor quoting the end of “A Tale of Two Cities” as he’s about to get carted off for execution).

More than anything, I’m left with realizing how much of a jumble you’re left with if you have no idea what comes next. It’s something we tend not to think about, but if a writer left at the end of a part one, halfway through the story and you had to come in and pick up the pieces with nary but the first part’s script and not even an outline or brainstorming sessions for part two, how would you polish the story off?

Take a story like… Steven Moffat’s “Silence in The Library” (from the new series) for instance. At the end of part one you’re left with The Doctor, River Song, and the astronauts running from The Vashta Nerada while Donna’s been “saved” (whatever that means). And then there’s the whole mystery of the little girl and how the Vashta Nerada actually got to the planet or what happened to the people in The Library when it was invaded.

I think that’s the closest thing I can come to a comparison. How do you explain all those things away? It’s no wonder this story comes out a bit rushed and jumbled.

And I’m not one for giving free passes, but I think it’s okay for me to give them one this time. We do get some really cool things like The Valeyard trying to kill off the High Council and The Doctor managing to stop him, and the Bakers trying to give The Master something to do but…. failing (really, he’s just extra fluff that doesn’t need to be in here).

Colin Baker, too, does a really great job of at least presenting a believable acting of the events The Doctor’s going through. It’s when you start to look past his performance and start looking at what’s actually going on that it all kinda… falls apart.

I mean, when does he figure out that The Valeyard is masquerading as Mr. Popplewick (and why is The Valeyard so scared that he must run around in disguise as Mr. Popplewick?) or that the Trial sequence is a charade and when does he get his functional abilities back after being discoed by The Master? When you think about these things the story really, really becomes not as strong as it should have been and it becomes a series of checklists that The Bakers need to fix.

Also, if there’s one criticism I can level at it? This final part decidedly lacks balls. We just spent an entire season setting up The Time Lords as this really corrupt society and then we spent the last episode uncovering that truth, and we now have an episode that’s not about that at all. No. The Doctor saves them (which isn’t so wrong cuz that’s what The Doctor does).

But then it’s all wrapped up with a real quick (oh everyone’s going to be replaced and there will be elections and The Doctor would vote for The Inquisitor but The Time Lords don’t believe in absentee ballots or whatever) and The Doctor is exonerated (so he committed genocide and The Doctor’s getting off scot-free? Maybe it’s proof that they really are corrupt? But it benefits The Doctor so who cares?).

If nothing else, it totally is a fairy tale ending, and one requested and approved by the guy who brain-childed “Earthshock”, which is just a testament to how much Nathan-Turner fell away from his vision and… betrayed it. It turns what is a totally badass story into something that’s… still good, but lacking.

Even the revelation at the end that The Valeyard is now the Keeper of the Matrix (random?) is something that is introduced but feels tacked on and “Mwahahah”ish (The Valeyard even mwahahas). He will return and be a total menace later on! Let the fanfiction commence! But won’t people notice that this guy’s just hanging around? Heck, why didn’t The Inquisitor notice? This can’t possibly last long.

I know it sounds like criticism (and it is), but I still can’t crazy fault it. The Bakers had an impossible task and the fact that they managed to shill out something that’s actually really coherent, totally watchable, and, of course, terribly fun, makes me respect them a lot. It’s not as strong as I’d want or expect, but… given the death of Holmes, that is to be expected.

Final Thoughts?: I'm afraid that these final two parts will be forever cursed by a series of "What could have beens".

Of particular note is Colin Baker, who is as fantastic as he ever was and going up against a story that's finally epic in the way Doctor Who should be and the way he deserved.

If nothing else, I can't not blame Nathan-Turner for undercutting the story's power. I did manage to read Saward's draft of part two (it exists, just look around for it and you'll find it) and, while it had a definite promise for a final part, it ultimately fell a mite flat. I think it would have been better than this, but that's only because so much of what Nathan-Turner demanded from the end result of the story was a castrated version of what could have been. If there's a lesson in it, you have to make things matter and be important. Fluff doesn't work in Doctor Who, especially not in a show that's been around for fifty years and in which The Doctor has only not walked away unscathed... ten times?

Put The Doctor through hell and you have a better story. Make it end bleaker and it's more powerful. Don't give the audiences what they want. Give them what they need. Stakes. Loss. Drama. All these things make for better stories.

If this two part story has any tragic failing, it's in the fact that we will never see the fulfillment of the promise Holmes established in part one. Reading the Saward draft or knowing the Holmes outline still doesn't do justice to what could have been the final product, especially when it comes to the final adventure of Colin Baker. Since watching this story, I always think about the geniusness of part one rather than the letdown of part two... How uniquely Holmesian it was from the nightmare-esque qualities to the horror to the exquisite dialogue to his fundamental understanding of the character of The Doctor to his structure to the elegance... Having written (or co-written) eighteen [mostly] incredible stories and script editing three and a half of the most brilliant seasons the show ever had, Robert Holmes managed to wrap up his almost-twenty-year time with the programme with not just one of the best episodes of the classic series, but one of the best individual episodes he ever wrote.

And if that's not saying something, I don't know what is.

Out of all those who have died in the time since their work on the classic series, Robert Holmes is the one I miss most of all. And by jove I love that the guy totally went out on top.

Next Time!: 3rd Doctor! More Robert Holmes! Autons! The Brigadier! Liz Shaw! Possibly the best post-regeneration story that ever was? And some really f*cking terrifying crazy. No really. It's terrifying. "Spearhead From Space!" Coming Next Tuesday!

1 comment:

  1. It's a pretty disappointing conclusion to the Trial of the Time Lord season.