Tag Archives: the trial of a time lord

Mavericks, manouvering and The Mysterious Planet (1986)

mysterious planet

At the start of Doctor Who’s 23rd season, the show called up its most reliable writer to provide a series opener. As the show had only narrowly avoided cancellation the year before, it needed Robert Holmes to apply a reinvigorating shot in the arm, as he’d done before with Spearhead from Space and The Ark in (also) Space. But the story Holmes provided, The Mysterious Planet, proved to be, in the opinion of most fans, one of his lesser works.

Still, it’s a favourite of mine. Sure, it lacks the high stakes tension of The Caves of Androzani or the laser sharp focus of The Deadly Assassin. But it’s got a bitingly funny script and a world of intrigue to ponder over. In a standard Doctor Who year, this oddly charming tale, minus its trial room trappings, would have been a cheeky mid-season treat, a la Carnival of Monsters or The Sun Makers.

It’s got its problems, of course. Any prosecutor worth their salt would point out that the direction is flat, only occasionally mustering up any energy and never concocting any real suspense. Its design work is uneven, its performances a mixed bunch. But, its defence counsel might counter, it has one of Holmes’ wittiest scripts, with much quotable dialogue and plenty of engaging characters. Plus it reengages Holmes with many of his favourite tropes.

Like The Ark in Space, it wonders how humans will survive a future global apocalypse. Like The Sun Makers, it imagines a subterranean world where humans live, frightened of going onto the surface. Like The Krotons it gives us a present but unseen menace holding a society hostage and kidnapping their smartest youths. And it provides a new version of Holmes’ favourite supporting character, the colourful maverick.

It’s a trope with starts with Milo Clancey, runs through Vorg and Garron and ends here with Sabalom Glitz (Tony Selby). All are miscreant versions of the Doctor. They have his charm, his eccentricity and his colourful turn of phrase. But each come from a seedier place than the Doctor, who in case we forget, is a Lord. Clancey is wild frontierman, Vorg is a carnie and Garron’s a galactic con-man. Occupations the Doctor’s altogether too wholesome and scholarly to consider.

Glitz is something quite different from those previous oddballs. He’s been characterised as a dodgy dealer; as Selby puts it on the DVD documentary, an “Arthur Daley in space”. But this slant on Glitz comes more from his two subsequent stories than this introductory tale. Here, he’s articulate and witty. Sardonic even. He’s a mercenary, not the used car salesman he becomes. And although he might become a cuddly geezer slash ally to the Doctor later on, in this story, he’s a ruthless criminal.

His first act on screen is an aborted attempt to murder the Doctor (Colin Baker) and Peri (Nicola Bryant). He’d cheerfully shoot his way out of the Tribe of the Free’s camp if he could. Most chillingly, he wants to gas Marb Station in order to kill its inhabitants. Just because he’s given a few funny lines doesn’t change that.

In fact, I’d wager that it’s the casting of Selby which led the character down the Arthur Daley in space path, not the other way around. With lines like, “I should like to stand in paterfamilias for your absent father and give you away, my dear, but I always cry at these moments of deep sentiment.” and “whereas yours is a simple case of sociopathy, Dibber, my malaise is much more complex.” it’s not hard to imagine a different take on the character. Think, for instance, of Holmes’ Time Lord messenger in Terror of the Autons as Glitz, all bowler hat and establishment suit. Or an ice-cold businessman like Trau Morgus. Either would be valid takes on Glitz as scripted here. But the wide boy version sticks and by the time he gets to Dragonfire he’s been completely Daley-fied, an altogether less cultured, less witty piece of work.

His unscrupulousness remains constant though, and it’s that which sets him apart from the crusading sixth Doctor. After a season and a bit of being spiky and boorish, we finally get a version of this Doctor we can truly root for; compassionate, heroic and funny. I suspect that Holmes rather liked writing for the sixth Doctor. It’s an incarnation that seems closest to his conception of the Doctor – a slightly superior but affable character, but with an acid tongue. Baker embraces the chance to play the Doctor with this lighter aspect to him, looking for every opportunity to go for the physical gag or the emphasized word. He’s a vibrant, showman of a Doctor but one who cares about this planet, its people and crucially, his companion. His scenes in Part One where he tries to console Peri, distraught about the fate of her world, are the best of his era.

Despite this change towards a more accessible, likeable Doctor though, there’s still a fundamentally problematic approach to his character. He’s basically ineffectual when it comes to solving the story’s big problem. This isn’t uncommon in 1980s Who; look at the climaxes to Earthshock, Terminus, Resurrection of the Daleks and Vengeance on Varos for other examples where the Doctor’s efforts in winning the day are minimal. But here his impotence is underlined twice.

It happens first when the Doctor is in an argument with robotic underground despot Drathro (Roger Brierly). The Doctor is trying to convince Drathro that human life is of more value than that of machines. But Drathro is shown to outmanoeuvre the Doctor’s arguments every time. In the end, in very characteristic style for his sixth incarnation, the Doctor resorts to abuse, accusing the robot of hubris. These are actually a great couple of scenes, highlighting the Doctor’s love of life and humanity. But still, he loses that argument and that diminishes his strength as a character.

The second instance comes at the story’s conclusion. The black light system, upon which Drathro depends, is about to explode and the horned metal beast has decided that everyone should perish with him. The Doctor’s powerless to stop it, so it’s left to Glitz, our cold blooded criminal, to comes up with the solution. He tricks Drathro into leaving his castle, with promises of more black light on his ship. “Strange how low cunning succeeds where intelligent reasoning fails,” sighs the Doctor. Not just strange, Doc, but sad. Because it leaves you trying to contain the inevitable end-of-story explosion and doing little else. The colourful maverick saves the day, and our colourful hero is sidelined.

That’s ultimately why this story wasn’t enough to propel the series to new heights. Not because it isn’t clever or funny or interesting; it’s all those things. (We haven’t even got to Holmes’ use of the trial scenes to annotate the show’s narrative structure). But because even though it gives us a more likeable hero, it’s still undermining him throughout.

LINK TO Partners in Crime: Both are set in London, although separated by millions of years.

NEXT TIME: Will there be strawberry jam for tea? More from Holmes in The Power of Kroll. Kroll! Kroll! Kroll!

 

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Perdition, permission and Terror of the Vervoids (1986)

vervoids1

On trial for his many lives, the Doctor (Colin Baker) is, by Part Nine of the epic The Trial of a Time Lord, allowed to deliver his defence. This is his chance to show himself in the very best light, to showcase his intelligence, bravery and ingenuity. He has access to every adventure he’s every embarked upon, past and future. Which will he choose? Which is the story so compelling it will convince these stuffed shirts and half eaten biscuit collars to acquit him unreservedly and send him on his way? Surely one of the all-time classics? Androzani? Tomb? Genesis of the Daleks?

The answer, apparently, is Terror of the Vervoids. That’s the clincher. That’s the one which will do the trick. Well, if nothing else, it’s a bold and colourful choice, so it does seem appropriate for our vibrant Sixth Doctor.

Throughout his trial, the Doctor claims that the evidence has been tampered with; that someone with access to the key to the Matrix and a bootleg version of Final Cut Pro has distorted the evidence, making him appear more culpable than he is. But to be fair, the Doctor’s made some questionable editing choices himself. Why, for instance, include the unflattering spectacle of himself labouring on an exercise bike, while being harangued by new and energetic companion Melanie (Bonnie Langford)? Why include being nagged into denying himself a chocolate biscuit? How do those little moments help his case?

But to be fair, this is the one segment of The Trial of a Time Lord that feels the most independent from its story arc. The Mysterious Planet uses the trial to gently critique Doctor Who itself, and Mindwarp interweaves the trial and its own story to dramatic effect. Terror of the Vervoids feels the most like its own story, with the trial being secondary to proceedings aboard this space version of the Orient Express. Japes with exercise bikes and chocolate biscuits are indicative of this lack of concern with matters judicial, which are just getting in the way of the murder mystery writers Pip & Jane Baker are trying to tell.

They do include some justification for this being the story to “improve the Doctor’s defence”, although it’s far from convincing. The Doctor, you’ll no doubt recall, is accused with meddling in the affairs of other peoples and planets. P&J’s defence is a little arcane and quibblesome.

It comes late in the story when Commodore Tonka Travers (Michael Craig) asks for the Doctor’s commitment to helping him rid his ship of the murderous Vervoids. This allows the Doctor to play his big legal card; he stands up proudly in court and says he wasn’t meddling, he was asked to help! Well that’s OK then. Play havoc with as many alien cultures as you like, as long as someone gives you a permission slip.

It’s a nonsense excuse anyway, because it pretends that the Doctor’s been refusing to involve himself in the mystery for the last three episodes. Travers’ request is, the Doctor says, “the reason he could no longer stay on the sidelines.” Except he’s been anything but staying on the sidelines. He’s been investigating and snooping and deducting and setting off fire alarms with the best of them. He’s embroiled. Sidelines, my spat covered foot.

But let’s give up trying to make sense of the trial scenes; there’s not much sense to be made and besides, they are all the same. Except for a cute section in Part Ten, when the Bakers indulge in a little audience participation. Onscreen, we’ve seen three masked aliens, the Mogarians, talk with old Tonka about a nearby black hole. Court prosecutor the Valeyard (Michael Jayston) gets bored and interrupts, causing the Doctor to rebuke him, saying a vital clue had just been revealed and someone is about to die. And in a shout out to those of us playing along at home, he points out:

DOCTOR: If you had been watching, you would know who was the intended victim!

Suddenly, it’s like we’re watching Blue Peter. I can see everyone in the trial room holding their poses awkwardly while one of the presenters strolls on.

JANET ELLIS: Well the plot thickens! I do hope you were watching carefully. Do you know which member of the passengers is next to bite the dust? I wonder if you spotted the clue Doctor Who was referring to. Let’s go back and have another look.

It turns out one of the Mogarians is bogus and did not turn on his translator, as the Doctor demonstrates through an action replay. For a moment, it’s like we’re watching an adaptation of Doctor Who Brain Teasers and Mind Benders. Spot the ten differences between these two pictures! Look at these three Mogarians; can you tell which is actually a human in disguise?

And we get a sense that this story embodies Pip & Jane’s vision for Doctor Who, untempered by the influence of script editor Eric Saward, who’d recently quit the show. And that vision is of a children’s program with pretensions towards education. In their next story, they’d attempt to include a section retelling the story of King Solomon, only for new script editor Andrew Cartmel to point out its tangential relevance to the story.

But still, this story, bright, strange and spangly, has the feel of something traditional about it. It’s no mistake that its plot is reminiscent of The Robots of Death. This is, at least in part, an attempt to recreate some of Doctor Who’s classic old scares. Or as Steven Moffat would say, to Hinchcliffe the shit out of it. And in the story’s latter stages, as the Vervoids rampage through the ship, killing indiscriminately, director Chris Clough does manage to evoke some of that creeping menace of old.

The problem is it’s too often undercut by tinkly music, convoluted dialogue and garish design, making the whole thing an inconsistent experience. This tendency to mix the creepy with the silly extends to the genitally faced Vervoids (which gender’s genitals have always been the subject of debate). They start off as a shadowy, silent presence, but then suddenly they begin to talk. And talk floridly. “We are doing splendidly!” one of them crows. “Congratulations must be delayed!” another responds.

With dialogue like this, it’s no wonder the Doctor’s driven to wipe them all out. But in a hastily contrived plot twist, he finds that this action lands him in even greater strife, with his charge upgraded to genocide. Terror of the Vervoids turns out not to be hero story he needed after all. If only someone had just asked him to commit genocide. All in all, he really should have chosen Genesis of the Daleks.

LINK TO: Sleep No More. Misguided scientists creating monsters running amok in spaceships.

NEXT TIME… Demons run when A Good Man Goes to War.