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Straying from the straight and narrow
on 30 September 2008
With flagging ratings, a script editor in bitter creative conflict with the producer, a final episode that had to be re-written from scratch at the last minute, the behind-the-scenes dramas faced by the production team of 1986's THE TRIAL OF A TIME LORD mirrored the fictional pressures upon Colin Baker's Doctor, here put on trial by his own people.
Although the story is presented as 1 ongoing narrative, the episodes have traditionally been divided up into 4 separate sections of the trial (with the non-canonical titles: THE MYSTERIOUS PLANET, MINDWARP, TERROR OF THE VERVOIDS and THE ULTIMATE FOE). The 4 discs in the set reflect this division.
Overall, the concept of the trial itself is not a success, although the actors involved work hard (Michael Jayston is particularly good). Part of the problem is that we're never quite sure how the Time Lord's legal system works. Inexplicable absurdities of plotting mean that as a perceptive viewer following episode by episode, one cannot really take the legal proceedings seriously. Furthermore as the first 3 sections of the trial mainly involve Colin Baker's Doctor and Michael Jayston's Valeyard arguing about the events that they're watching on the Matrix screen, even as early as episode 3 the trial scenes have become repetitive and intrusive. It really should not have taken until episode 13 for things to get exciting in the court room.
Put simply TOATL was not what the public wanted and was deemed a failure. Certainly its interminable length put off the casual viewer, and perhaps it was just a bit too left field for its own good. Poor Colin Baker, as the leading man, got the blame for the perceived shortcomings of the series and was asked to leave the role of the Doctor not long after the end of the original transmission. Looking at the extras on the discs, it seems clear that most people believe this was unfair as he was simply the most obvious target and in the wrong place at the wrong time. While it's true that the horrible clown costume was a disastrous lapse of judgement and Baker was not always well-served by the scripts, he's a fine actor and on the extras he comes across as an intelligent, warm, affable and enthusiastic man.
So if the supporting structure of the serial doesn't work what are we left with? Well actually, divorced from the trial sequences, the individual stories aren't that bad. Robert Holmes' THE MYSTERIOUS PLANET (the last full DR WHO script he wrote before his death) is a perfectly decent DR WHO story even if there is at least one dodgy cliff-hanger and the last episode lacks tension. It kicks off the series very well and the opening effects sequence with the Cathedral-like space station is magnificent - a pity the show never had the budget to sustain this level of visual flair. Its main problem is that it lacks the edge of some of Holmes' better work (such as THE ARK IN SPACE or THE CAVES OF ANDROZANI). Indeed some of it appears to be ideas recycled from his earlier work - Glitz and Dibber for instance appear to be a revamped version of Garron and Unstoffe from THE RIBOS OPERATION. Nevertheless, the story chugs along agreeably enough with some witty lines and fun performances from Tony Selby and Joan Sims.
MINDWARP (episodes 5 to 8) is for me the best segment. A bizarre mix of H.G.Wells' ISLAND OF DR MOREAU, FRANKENSTEIN and various pulp sci-fi cliches it succeeds largely because it dares to be mad-as-you-like bizarre. It boasts an eye-boggling planet, impressive sets, an excellent cast (including a glorious turn from Brian Blessed), a superb incidental score that really accentuates the weird ambience of the story's alien setting and a cracking last episode. However, the script does Colin Baker no favours as we see him turn nasty again (much as he did in his first story THE TWIN DILEMMA) further alienating his audience - even if the events we see are most likely "falsified" due to tampering with the Matrix.
I can't say I'm a fan of TERROR OF THE VERVOIDS, but there are those who say this "Agatha Christie in space" story is their favourite, and for all its faults, I have to concede that the plot, at least, is solid enough. Bonnie Langford came in for a lot of criticism for her portrayal of new companion Mel. To be fair to her, she plays what she's given in the script for all its worth. She does so professionally and competently, and one should give her the benefit of the doubt. My belief is that people simply did not like the character - and, granted, her constant perkiness can be grating. But honestly, how else would you play lines like: "that's it Doc - now we're getting at the dirt!"? VERVOIDS, for me is a case of nice idea, shame about the execution. Not only the monsters, but also the sets and effects look a little bit cheaper and nastier than almost anything else we've seen so far this season. The dialogue too is florid and ludicrous - though those who love VERVOIDS tell me this is all part of the fun. The rather feeble shots of the HYPERION III travelling through space only serve to remind one of the majestic opening of episode one and cannot help but look that little bit worse by comparison. A reasonable cast including Honor Blackman and Malcolm Tierney work hard with the material they have.
The last 2 episodes (THE ULTIMATE FOE) are miraculously good considering the production nightmare of script editor Eric Saward withdrawing the final segment at the last minute. Husband and wife team Pip and Jane Baker (no relation to either Colin or Tom) were called in at short notice to create the series finale. Episode 13 provides some nice surprises and an excellent plot-twist. The scenes in the Matrix are exciting and only in the final 3 minutes does the story disappoint. Jayston is wonderful and it's a crying shame that he was never asked back to the show.
The discs are complimented by a staggering cornucopia of extras. I felt a vast sense of relief when I finished watching the lengthy deleted scenes (the VERVOIDS deleted scenes alone feel like they could have doubled the length of the story proper)! For '80's nostalgia fans there are WHO-related clips from Roland Rat, Lenny Henry, Saturday Superstore, Points of View and Blue Peter. For fans of naff '80's music there's the unexpurgated video of DR WHO's notoriously awful answer to DO THEY KNOW IT'S XMAS? - DOCTOR IN DISTRESS. Once heard, never forgotten!
There are multiple commentary options - although the ones without Eric Saward are generally the most engaging. There's a fun little piece on the art of the cliff-hanger, with writers Rob Shearman, Joseph Lidster and Nev Fountain discussing some of the more interesting examples. The "Making Of.." features are as watchable and professionally put-together as always. The undoubted highlight is the hour long TRIALS & TRIBULATIONS which covers the story of Colin Baker's brief time as the Doctor. Hopefully you 'll leave this box set with a new affection for the 6th actor to play the role on TV. My one criticism is that Brian Blessed wasn't asked to provide a commentary. His appearance on the Making of MINDWARP feature reminded me that he's a national treasure - his impression of Her Majesty the Queen is just one of the many strange delights on offer in this weird and sometimes wonderful release.