There’s something that just doesn’t click for me about this. It’s very well made, and the script is immensely witty. Borusa deservedly gets multiple return appearances because he’s such a glorious Sir Humphrey character, glibly rewriting history like the consummate slippery politician. ‘We must adjust the truth to maintain public confidence in the Time Lords and their leadership,’ he smoothly declares, as he turns Establishment fixer to whitewash Chancellor Goth’s treachery and present him as a fallen hero. Big Finish have spun entire series out of this approach.
The Mind Robber for teenagers, with the Doctor trapped in a dreamscape manufactured by a psychopath manipulating a computer and the Doctor saying things like, ‘I deny this reality.’ As you’d expect from David Maloney working almost entirely on film, this looks great, following through on the nightmarish cliffhanger to Part Two with a series of equally disturbing images drawn from war films, spy thrillers, and generic phobias like clowns and spiders.
The Doctor and Spandrell become Holmes and Lestrade for an episode that’s half police procedural and half cyberpunk. The Time Lords are positioned less as Olympian gods and more like the United States government (‘The Time Lords must not be seen to be leaderless and in disarray,’ snaps Chancellor Goth – but seen by whom? The shobogan vandals Spandrell mentions, or by the other powers in the galaxy?).
On the one hand this is a consciously momentous, important episode, as indicated by the narrated opening crawl. The Doctor has finally returned home to Gallifrey, seven years after he was so unceremoniously exiled. And more than this, he’s returned when the Time Lords are facing ‘ the most dangerous crisis in their long history’. Bits of random Time Lord lore are scattered around liberally: the TARDIS is an obsolete Type 40 capsule; the Time Lords have a Capitol; the Prydonian Chaper is a thing. The Doctor speaks of the Chancellery Guard and the Panopticon. Everything has very grand-sounding names.
The episode plays out with the Doctor and Sarah Jane as witnesses to the end of an ancient feud between two alien rivals. It’s rare for the fourth Doctor to seem quite so passive: Baker’s performance becomes almost Troughtonish as he stands back while the regenerated Eldrad spills the beans about his deadly rivalry with King Rokon. The expression on Baker’s face, the little understanding nods he gives as Eldrad rants, wails and snarls, are pure second Doctor versus Zaroff. As is the ruthlessness with which he dispatches the ‘king of nothing’.
Finally, seven minutes into Part Three of Four, we meet the villain. Eldrad, at last, lives. Up until this point, there have been some reasonable ideas, but nothing has really been seen to happen since the quarry exploded at the start of Part One. It’s largely been the Doctor (or Professor Watson, or King Rokon) explaining things that are happening offscreen: the destruction of Kastria; Eldrad’s regeneration; nuclear unexplosions powerful enough to make a chair fall over.
This has the whiff of those turn of the 70s dramas (probably featuring Glyn Houston) where everyone is very serious, staring urgently at monitors, barking down the phone and saying things like, ‘Damn it, Marjorie!’ rather than having any actual incident. This actually makes it quite novel for Doctor Who, which even in the hinterland of the Pertwee years rarely featured anything quite so ordinary, but it’s hard to see much to entertain the kids here.
After the lushness of The Masque of Mandragora this is a clear step backwards. It doesn’t help that the opening scenes on Kastria are the worst bit of the episode as a plastic-looking spaceship wobbles into view in front of a BBC starfield before some quilts called King Rokon and Zazzka shout at each other about the obliteration module of ‘Eldrad the traitor’. It’s the kind of opening Doctor Who starts sending up itself when Douglas Adams takes charge, and it hangs this off a distinctly shaky peg. The prestige of the previous story disperses as completely as Eldrad.
Sad to say, like several Season 13 stories, this final episode doesn’t entirely work. In the last scenes the Doctor apparently allows half the masked revellers to be murdered by the Brethren, and then allows the Brethren themselves to be vaporised while he imitates Hieronymus (including a Dead Ringers style impersonation – sign him up, Big Finish). It’s ruthless, and a bit of a Pyrrhic victory given how important the gathered dignitaries (‘The most precious heads in all Europe,’ says Marco, gazing adoringly at the Duke) are meant to be to Earth’s future.
While Count Federico’s power grab plays out, the Helix, through Hieronymus, is making its own move. I like the convergence of the two strands here. The torture of Marco (very homoerotic) is meant to force a false confession that the young Duke is, in fact, the leader of the Cult of Demnos, discrediting him and paving the way for the Count to take over. That the real leader has been lurking under the Count’s not inconsiderable nose for ages is ironic, and the final face to face (well, not quite: in a very Sapphire & Steel effect, Hieronymus’ face is now a blank glowing sphere) confrontation between the two allies turned rivals inevitably comes off worse for the human than the super-powered alien.