‘The performance was too grotesque to be real.’ Given the circumstances around it (the original Saward script being withdrawn and the Bakers not allowed to know its contents), this could have been much more disappointing. It’s by no means a great ending (and the final joke of the Valeyard’s survival inadvertently throws into doubt whether this is all still a Matrix illusion), but it generally works.
The best bits are the Valeyard’s confrontation with his earlier self at the top of the episode, which is the one moment we really get a sense of the character as a future Doctor. The Shakespeare quote and the line, ‘I really must curb these urges. I’ve no wish to be contaminated by your whims and idiosyncrasies’ plant the idea that this incarnation is doing his best to slough off his old persona to become a villain, but is constantly battling his true, mercurial nature. This, and his dismissal of the Master, ‘You really are a second-rate adversary’, are Jayston’s best moments. But I don’t think any of this brings to life the idea of the Valeyard as the ‘distillation of all that’s evil’ in the Doctor, especially as the Valeyard’s ultimate plan, assassinating the Supreme Court of Time Lords, is much too boring for even a would-be Doctor to contemplate.
This contains the most imaginative use of the court room set yet as the camera pulls back from it into the real court room to reveal Mel and the Inquisitor watching simulations of themselves on TV. But this, too, is undermined by the ridiculousness of the denouement, which basically involves Gallifrey collapsing as noises off while the Supreme Court is trying to unplug the telly, and then ducking to avoid some electronic spider webs. Combined with an end for the Master that’s basically a repeat of The Mark of the Rani‘s (caught in a booby-trapped TARDIS), and as the pay-off to three months of story, it’s weak as water.
He might not have known what lay in store for Colin Baker, but JNT was aware that this could have been the show’s final ever episode (hence all the drama of rewriting this episode to avoid the Reichenbach Falls original). As such, he should have made sure the last scene was better than ‘carrot juice.’ The Trial of a Time Lord corrects most of Season 22’s faults, and, week-on-week, is more straightforwardly enjoyable, but in no way forges a new direction for the series. True, the Doctor is no longer unkind; the companion is enjoying the trip of a lifetime, and the stories are suitably pitched at a family audience – but four years earlier that was the basic level of competence expected, not something you’d sigh with relief about. Still, there’s a general sense that the rot has been stopped and there’s a new baseline to work from.
Next episode: Time and the Rani