The Sixth Doctor (3): The Trial of a Time Lord – “Elevating futility to a high art”

The Prosecution: “Every time you appear on the scene people begin to die.”

Given the (restrospective) controversy about the levels of violence in the pre-cancellation series, starting the new one with an episode that so wryly pokes fun at these criticisms is a risky move. With knowing winks to the audience in lines like “I was beginning to fear you had lost yourself” and “Why do I have to sit here watching Peri get upset?”, as well as the Doctor suggesting that the first episode is boring, you could read that the production team are acknowledging the issues of an unworkable Doctor/companion dynamic, sadistic scripts and backward-looking stories. Which is all well and good, presuming they have an idea of how to fix them. And if Season 22 showed us anything, it was a production office out of ideas.

‘The Mysterious Planet’ is a game of spot the Robert Holmes stories, as he re-uses some of his oldest ideas (the two young people selected to become companions of Drathro, as in The Krotons; the idea of a tribe of technicians and savages worshipping a half-forgotten computer as in The Face of Evil; the devastated Earth and undeground stations from The Sontaran Experiment; Glitz and Dibber as Garron and Unstoffe). And, as a Doctor Who story that’s about watching a Doctor Who story and commenting on it, ‘The Mysterious Planet’ is Carnival of Monsters for the 1980s.

Holmes instinctively recognises that the Trial needs to hold up a mirror to the Doctor, and interestingly makes this a matter of point and counterpoint – the whole planet is schizophrenic, with the educated underground dwellers, and the tribe of the free both worshipping arcane and forgotten technology in the form of the Black Light totem and the “Immortal” robot. And as the Doctor descends into the underworld to face Drathro, Peri is taken to the surface to meet Katryca meaning both plots began to move towards a common destination. This is reflected in the court room, in the duality of the Doctor and the Valeyard – and if Holmes knew where the Trial was ultimately going, it makes absolute sense for this first part to be set on an Earth gone wrong and divided just as the sixth Doctor has gone off the rails and faces his darker self. But, to an extent, the Ravolox bits of ‘The Mysterious Planet’ are incidental. The point of this is to give us an entirely traditional Doctor Who story, and use the Trial format to dissect it, highlighting the typical moments where the Doctor is clever to get himself out of a fix; where he’s forced to do the villain’s bidding, and when he chooses to interfere. By going back to basics in this way, Holmes is rebooting the series.

His focus on questions of the sixth Doctor’s “well-known predilection for violence” implicitly strikes back at BBC bosses. Holmes had been here before, of course, as script editor – after the brouhaha following his own The Deadly Assassin, when the show was similarly in the spotlight for excessive violence, and the new producer Graham Williams was ordered to tone down Holmes and Hinchcliffe’s approach. On that basis, it’s not hard to guess where Holmes’ sympathies lie, and why he and Saward (who otherwise seem to be two quite different writers) seemed to find common ground. Holmes has the Doctor give a rousing defence of his methods. The court is told, “A certain amount of graphic detail is unavoidable”, which is all well and good until you consider that the kind of graphic detail in ‘The Mysterious Planet’ – a few fantasy laser guns and a stoning – bear no comparison to the body horror of Vengeance on Varos, The Two Doctors or Revelation of the Daleks. It’s like showing a video of the fight scenes in Star Wars and claiming that means Cannibal Holocaust is ok for kids. And because the show is pointing out relatively mild action scenes to critique, it makes the transgressions of Season 22 even more indefensible.

The second exhibit,  Philip Martin’s sequel to Varos, is an odd beast. ‘Mindwarp’ itself starts off pretty well, with the Doctor behaving like his next incarnation and going to investigate the mystery of gun running on a planet of caves. There’s also a sense that Saward is still holding up Androzani as the story he wants writers to tell: the comparisons here are obvious – Thoros Alpha and Beta are twin planets, Beta is riddled with caves, there is a grotesque capitalist organising the sale of weapons, and a monomaniacal scientist conducting his own experiments.

Then Martin has the Doctor driven mad by Crozier – and the spectre of Season 22 is raised again. Perhaps Martin’s aim was to show what would happen if the Doctor really were as bad as his critics make out – here, he betrays both Yrcanos and Peri, tortures his companion and seems like he’s only out to save his own skin. But it’s botched. As in Varos (and unlike Androzani) the Doctor becomes complicit in the violence rather than apart from it, however much Martin attempts to exonerate him. Because his behaviour is explained by Crozier’s brain experiments, why in the courtroom the Doctor starts to denounce the veracity of the Matrix is bizarre and tends to unnecessarily obfuscate matters. No wonder the cast weren’t quite sure whether all of this is meant to be for real or some elaborate sham. And what does this ultimately amount to? Yet another Colin Baker story where the Doctor has gone mad and does awful things to Peri. Hmm.

It gets worse. Warned by Crozier that he only has a very little time to save Peri, the Doctor wanders about fomenting rebellion and chatting to a comedy space slug, indulging in banter with Yrcanos and basically abandoning Peri to her fate. And what a fate: given she’s been such an object of physical lust throughout her time, this is the ultimate body horror – the personality and self entirely eradicated and the frame occupied by a cold, alien monster. We don’t even see the moment of death: she’s just gone. It’s a potentially awesome exit, and because of the Doctor’s lack of urgency, the countdown to her demise is even more horrible – and it’s hard to argue against the Valeyard that the Doctor’s “negligence had made it impossible for her to live”. What lets these four episodes down is the doubt about why the Doctor is behaving so out of character. Unreliable narratives can be interesting, if there’s a point – but here, it just feels like the writer, script editor and director hadn’t really discussed it. Thanks to this slapdash approach, we end up with a Doctor who looks guilty as charged.

The Defence: “Is this relevant?”

The Doctor’s defence against these accusations – against the idea that he is a failed incarnation whose principal effect is to cause chaos and death, is a story plucked from his own future: ‘Terror of the Vervoids’. “Is it going to be the Doctor’s defence that he improves?” asks the Valeyard, incredulously. And apparently, astonishingly – it is!

The painful self-analysis of Parts 1-8 has been replaced by a breezy tale of mayhem and intrigue. The courtroom scenes are genuinely incidental, and barring a couple of instances of falsified evidence, this could have played as a straightforward story. To some, that’s a strength. However, placed in the trial format as the Doctor’s best example of the good he does, it looks unimpressive. Particularly since, if you replaced Tryst with Lasky, Mandrels wth Vervoids and zoology with agronomy this is pretty much a re-hash of Nightmare of Eden. Sadly, although it shares the earlier Baker story’s weak design work and variable acting, it lacks Tom Baker, Douglas Adams and Lalla Ward. Instead, Pip and Jane focus on their perennial obsession with unethical female scientists. Oddly, given Colin Baker has cited them as favoured authors, the Bakers also undermine the Doctor by making him a self-avowed fat clown. If this is the best defence of the era that both Colin Baker and the sixth Doctor can come up with, we really are in trouble. And the climactic accusation of genocide tends to undermine the whole Trial format – what was shaping up into a critique of the Doctor (and the show’s) raison d’etre suddenly becomes about a crime of which the Doctor is unambiguously innocent.

The Verdict: “Goodbye Doctor!”

Robert Holmes’ final script is a fascinating summary of his obsessions. The off-kilter Victoriana, the crepuscular world of cluttered rooms and rickety fairground paraphernalia, half-heard children’s laughter and the sound of  hurdy gurdy hint at the world of childhood terrors Holmes conjured up in his greatest scripts. By uncovering the secrets of ‘The Mysterious Planet’ and unmasking the Time Lords’ conspiracy, Holmes shows he had a good idea of where this was going. And his master-stroke is making the chief villain the Doctor himself – who else would have the moral authority to really nail the Doctor on his worst flaws? But, the twist is the Valeyard is the Doctor at the end of his life, having surrendered to the Time Lord love of order and self-preservation at all costs. It’s a shame they bottled out of making him a full-blown future incarnation, but nevertheless, the point’s plain: the Doctor has to mend his ways or this is his future.

Sadly, the Bakers’ script for Part Fourteen suffers from similar flaws to their earlier efforts: too many under-developed plots and a story that’s extended by just throwing in another left-field development: here, it’s the collapse of the High Council and the Valeyard’s attempt to assassinate the jury. After Holmes sets up the Valeyard as an intriguing Hyde to the Doctor’s Jekyll, the Baker’s fumble the denouement by transforming him into a duplicate of the Master. Apparently, the Doctor’s darkest impulses consist of wanting to steal the Time Lords’ secrets and dress up in Victorian costumes, which puts an interesting spin on Remembrance of the Daleks‘ revelations.

As the climax to 14 weeks of trial, this doesn’t cut it: the idea of a future Doctor, desperate to avoid his final death, is wasted, the Master reverts to his worst use as a black hat baddie, and whereas Holmes seemed to be heading to a place where the Valeyard and the Doctor could finally resolve the questions of his interference and the deaths these cause, the Bakers tie it all up in a jolly romp that lacks the introspection and validation that Holmes seemed to be suggesting.

Ironically, catharsis (of spurious morality or otherwise) is what The Trial of a Time Lord is lacking. The Trial was explicitly set up to confront and purge the worst excesses of Season 22. Instead, it ends up confirming them. Only Robert Holmes – who’d lived through these problems before – saw the solution. The Doctor should have dismissed the Valeyard’s trumped up charges and unmasked the only person who could hate the Doctor that much: himself. And, to top it all, ripped down the hypocrisy of the Time Lords’ non-intervention policy once and for all. Instead, Philip Martin gets to crowbar his own story into the Trial, complete with a cowardly and untrustworthy Doctor, and then Pip and Jane off-handedly have the Doctor accept that he’s bad, and promise that he’ll get better if he gets another chance.

“It seems I must mend my ways,” said the fifth Doctor at the end of yet another massacre. But two years down the line nothing’s changed. We have yet another Doctor who’s failed to find another way, still steeped in blood, and a script editor still clinging to The Caves of Androzani as a viable model for stories rather than the one-off rescue job it actually was.

Surely it can’t go on like this?


  1. Pingback: 1986: The Trial of a Time Lord | Doctor Who: 50 Years, 50 Stories
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