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The jury's still out
on 14 April 2013
Beware of spoilers below:
This was the first series after the suspension, and I can't help feeling this story didn't help the show's already troubled reputation. The 'trial' was clearly a self-aware attempt to reflect on the series itself being put on trial by the BBC. What is damning is there's a strong case for the series being laid to rest, at least for a few years. After 18 months of preparation (the trial idea was suggested very early on) it often seems as though they're making it up as they go along. If you're going to write something as complicated as a 14-part tale of intrigue like this, you make sure you have it planned our properly. Ensuring the writers and actors actually know what they're doing might also be an added bonus. It speaks volumes that only writer Robert Holmes and script-editor Eric Saward knew how this story was supposed to end. After Holmes unfortunately died and Saward walked out, we have an unresolved ending with Gallifrey descending into chaos and the only person who could do anything about it toddling off wittering about carrot juice with a companion he's never met. The Doctor is put on trial - the prosecution uses a case in which he saves the galaxy and then another case the prosecuting Valeyard lambasts him over the deaths that occurred. Rather than pointing out the obvious flaws in the prosecution (that none of them would be here now were in not for him, and that the Time Lords abducted him before he could save his companion and prevent the experiments the Time Lords wanted stopped) the Doctor just rants like a buffoon. He then presents a case in which he commits genocide as his defence. Seems like the trial really was reflecting the show itself.
There are often complains that Dr Who needed more money. That argument was valid during the McCoy years when the show's creative head was back in place. But it seemed nobody involved with Dr Who at this point had any idea how to go about spending cash wisely. For each of the three series prior to the suspension the production team wasted half the year's budget taking the show abroad for no better reason than so the team could have a free holiday at the licence-payer's expense. More money was spent on trying to turn the show into a mimic of big US films. Where's the valid reason why Michael Grade should have stumped up more money? So the production team could go holidaying in America or Australia? So they could spend more money on spaceships and big monsters like the Myrka? No BBC budget of any size was ever going to make the show look like Star Wars or Alien.
The money in "Trial" has been similarly spent on big effects. There's the (admittedly great) opening sequence, but all it does is serve to illustrate how shabby the rest of the sets (including the half-finished-looking trial room) seem. Then there's a fantastic-looking robot which does little but stand in a control room shouting at people.
The stories themselves entertain but they're pretty lightweight. Holmes' episodes (despite being a collection of 'greatest hits') are very watchable, whilst the Sil story is kind of fun. That leads us to another bitter pill of this story. The greatest death scene a companion has had in the series' entire canon is ruined with the most pathetic cop-out imaginable. The Vervoid episodes have their moments, even if they do teat their audience like simpletons. The finale also has memorable scenes, but overall it's just a mess. The Valeyard descends from genuinely sinister bureaucrat to panto villain and at the end of it all, in a bizarre Freddy Krueger-like "see you next time" coda, appears to be alive after all.
This DVD set is worth buying just for the extras. There are 'making of' documentaries, along with a reflection on the Colin Baker era as a whole and much more. What is interesting is the "Open Air" episode from 1986. Pip & Jane Baker claim they wanted to make something to challenge the fans, but also add they thought cliché-ridden running around corridors were "what the fans wanted". Their Vervoid story must add to the evidence they believed they were writing for rather simple-minded children. Whether that's the view of the then production team as a whole can only be guessed at.
This story is entertaining, and the Doctor/Peri duo are now a more likeable team. But just don't try to think about the plot, because I'm not sure anyone making the show figured it out.