Tag Archives: valeyard

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!

 

Advertisements

Crisis, chaos and The Ultimate Foe (1986)

ultimate foe 1

1.

It’s a Monday morning in 1986. Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner, aged 38, sits restlessly in his office, smoking not-his-first cigarette of the day. Also in his office, a lawyer who’s been seconded from some dry and dusty corner of the BBC to witness the forthcoming meeting. The lawyer looks around JN-T’s office, filled with Doctor Who paraphernalia and wallpapered with showbizzy photos, and imagines that this is not going to be an ordinary day at the office. An awkward silence ensues as they wait for the meeting’s other attendees to arrive.

JN-T has been producing Doctor Who for six seasons, and he’s used to crises. He’s pulled stories out of oblivion, he’s saved doomed shoots, he’s made the unworkable work. Last year when his series was effectively cancelled, he resorted to leaking torrentially to the newspapers and whipping up a media outrage to force his bosses to back down and reinstate the show. But nothing compares to the mess he finds himself in as the last episodes of Season 23 loom.

His script editor, Eric Saward – the only other ongoing staffer on the program – has resigned in acrimony. JN-T is now doing his job as well as his own. Over the last year, he and Saward have been supervising the making of the longest Doctor Who story in history; fourteen episodes of The Trial of a Time Lord. But the two have clashed over the story’s climax and Saward, who was writing the final episode, has withdrawn permission for its use.

JN-T needs a new script which concludes the longest and most complicated narrative the show has ever seen, at a time when its survival has never been more precarious. And he needs it in a week.

As he stubs out one fag and lights another, perhaps he wonders how he got to this predicament. The show’s hiatus was a blow, but at least it offered the production team time, a luxury they rarely had in the past. Plus they had 12 fewer episodes to produce this year. Where had all that time gone? How had it all fallen apart?

(And perhaps the lawyer wonders how soon this will be over so he can get to morning tea.)

In this sort of crisis, a producer usually turns to his script editor. But that’s no longer an option. What JN-T needs is someone who can work fast, who knows the program, who knows the Trial and who’s crazy enough to take the brief. Writers are few and far between. The great Robert Holmes who wrote Parts 1-4, has died. Philip Martin, writer of Parts 5-8, could be around. After that, the ranks are thin. But JN-T has a writer in mind. In fact he has two.

‘John, are you there…?’

A knock at the door!

The meeting’s hitherto absent participants had at last arrived. The producer’s face flushed, matching his Hawaiian shirt.

He rushed to answer the door.

There stood an elderly looking couple.

Pip and Jane Baker!

‘Where the hell have you been?’ John cried. ‘I need a script!’

From Doctor Who: A Script in Time (unpublished), Target books, 1987.

So JN-T explains the situation to the Baker Twins. Part 13 is written and ready to go, but he can’t use Saward’s Part 14. In fact they can’t even discuss it for fear of being accused of plagiarism, hence the presence of the lawyer. Locations are secured, cast are booked. Shooting starts next week. Can they write a new Part 14?

To their merit, Pip and Jane don’t run from the room. Nor do they refuse what sounds like an impossible task. They say yes. And off they scurry to do the work. The lawyer heads off for a coffee and a cake. JN-T allows himself a brief sigh of relief, lights another ciggie and starts script editing Parts 9-12. Written by Pip and Jane Baker.

And as far away as Australia, news of the production debacle is spreading. Young Spandrell reads an issue of fanzine Data Extract with a lyrical headline: Holmes dies, Saward quits, Brigadier returns. Like most fan news of the time, it proves to be partially correct.

2.

Born out of chaos, The Ultimate Foe feels chaotic. How could it not? This 55 minutes of television has a total of four writers between it. Holmes wrote the first half of Part 13, and it’s solid enough, delivering the season’s two big revelations: that the Time Lords destroyed Earth and that the Valeyard’s a future version of the Doctor. Saward wrote the rest of that episode, plunging the Doctor into the nightmare world of the Matrix. And it’s good stuff, producing some of the most memorable images of Colin Baker’s tenure, such as the set piece where he’s sucked into a beach.

P&J attack Part 14 with gusto. Their solution to the problem presented is incident. Part 14 has its characters embroiled in incident after incident before it ends with the Valeyard attempting to let off a big bomb. Inspired it’s not. What’s most obviously missing is a big confrontation between Doctor and Valeyard, with all those future regenerations at stake. Perhaps it ends with a moment of ruthlessness from the Doctor which shows us that his journey towards becoming the Valeyard has begun. But anyway, Pip and Jane delivered an episode which has never ranked among the series’ worst (they saved that for their next story), nor its best. But sadly that’s what the series really needed at this point.

Still completing that episode with all its predetermined strictures in record time, is a considerable achievement, one the Bakers are rarely given credit for. Years ago, someone interviewed them for DWM and in a smarmy little trick to end his piece with, asked the bemused pair was a ‘megabyte modem’ was, throwing a particularly lame piece of dialogue from this episode back at them. The elderly couple of course, had no idea what he was talking about, having no doubt long forgotten the exact wording they misused in a script decades ago. What a cheap, rude way to treat these people. Yes, they indulged in awkwardly pretentious dialogue and preposterous concepts, but on this occasion they saved the show’s bacon and produced, I think, their best work on the show. So credit where it’s due, and come back with your cheap jibes when you can write your way out of a mess like Trial.

Saward wanted a cliffhanger ending to their epic serial, where the Doctor and his dark alter ego the Valeyard fell struggling into a time vent. JN-T, it is said, wanted a happy ending to lessen the chance of his bosses taking the show off air again. This could be true, but on the making of documentary on the DVD of this story, he gives a slightly different reason that makes more sense. He said that after 14 weeks of this story he wanted a definitive conclusion. An end to the story, which the Bakers delivered. JN-T was often accused of not understanding stories, but on this occasion he was spot on. Imagine getting to the end Part 14 of The Trial and thinking, ‘Blimey, it’s still not finished!’

LINK to Robot: Holmes worked on both, script editing one and co-writing the other. That works for our next story too.

NEXT TIME… It will be the end of everything, even your pension! We germinate The Seeds of Doom.

Narrative, Mystery and Mindwarp (1986)

mindwarp

The trial has a great many twists… There are lots of layers, and it’s very, very complicated, which I rather like. I like things you can’t understand. Colin Baker, DWM 118.

The Trial of a Time Lord is Doctor Who‘s great experiment with presenting a dual narrative. Over 12 of its 14 episodes, it presents three Doctor Who stories as evidence in the Doctor’s trial for breaking the Time Lords’ law on interference. Interlaced with these three stories is the Doctor’s trial itself; we cut from the action regularly to see how the evidence is affecting the trial and specifically, three characters: the Doctor, court prosecutor the Valeyard and magistrate type the Inquisitor. We are effectively watching fictional characters watch Doctor Who.

So while the three stories are being told, there’s a longer narrative – a slower burn – also playing out. Watching just one of Trial’s  segments out of order means that the viewer gets a Doctor Who story in its entirety (the evidence, set here on the garish planet Thoros Beta), plus just one part of a much larger story (the trial). Whatever the merits of this approach (and they have been debated at length), I think it’s fair to say that it’s audacious and innovative move for Doctor Who.

Trial‘s second segment, known informally as Mindwarp (you didn’t really expect me to tap out The Trial of a Time Lord parts 5-8 each time, did you?) deals with the dual narrative approach neatly, and does something interesting with its main story too. But first, to the trial.

Someone once said to me about playwriting that each character, no matter how minor, needs to go on a journey throughout the story. They each need to be transformed; in some way changed by the events of the story, so they are a different person at the end, from who they were at the beginning. Thinking about the Doctor, the Valeyard and the Inquisitor – the characters in the ’trial story’ – I don’t think they can be said to be transformed in either The Mysterious Planet or Terror of the Vervoids. Which is another way of saying not much happens to those characters in those two stories to change them.

But much happens to them in Mindwarp, and the story it tells in the trial room is one of the Doctor gradually losing confidence in himself and his actions.

It starts with the Doctor treating the trial with mocking irreverence. He’s hugely confident in himself and his own actions and that both can withstand any criticism. But when the evidence shows him being subjected to a brain transference machine, the trial room Doctor realises he can no longer remember anything that happened on Thoros Beta after that point. To him, the evidence is no longer simply the replaying of recent events. It has turned into an allegation of his role in events he cannot recall, but which are played out for him on screen. And to him, the evidence looks flawed. His levity vanishes.

VALEYARD: Does any of your sudden and convenient recall agree with anything that the court has already seen?
DOCTOR: No! I mean yes, but, but the emphasis is all wrong.
VALEYARD: And what does that mean?
DOCTOR: The events took place but not quite as we’ve seen them.

This is quite a frightening idea; that you might be confronted with video evidence of yourself behaving wildly out of character or even committing a crime. But if you had no clear memory of the events, how could you refute the evidence of your own eyes, or hope to offer an alternative version of events? In the Doctor’s case, events on Thoros Beta hardly show him in a good light.

Let’s jump to the Thoros Beta story. The Doctor and Peri arrive to find out who’s supplying arms to people called the warlords of Thordon. But this is soon forgotten when they see Sil (Nabil Shaban), the reptilian capitalist villain from Vengeance on Varos. Sil’s boss Kiv (Christopher Ryan) is there too, suffering from a condition where his brain is swelling within his skull. Surgeon Crozier (Patrick Ryecart) is attempting to find a suitable body into which to transfer Kiv’s brain.

After being subjected to the brain transfer machine, the Doctor initially appears to lose his marbles for a bit, before deciding to betray Peri and new found ally Yrcanos (BRIAN BLESSED!!!) and side with Sil. It is suggested by the trial room Doctor and by Sil himself that this is a ruse, designed to gain the bad guys’ confidence. And so it appears to be; late in proceedings the Doctor switches sides again and appears to be back to his normal self.

For the period when the Doctor is working with Sil, he’s quite horrible, particularly towards Peri. And we never find out for sure if this behaviour was indeed a ploy, or if the Doctor’s brain was scrambled by the machine, or if the evidence had been tampered with to make the Doctor appear to be a bastard. Hang on to this, I’ll come back to it. Because something nifty is about to happen.

In Part Eight, the Doctor on Thoros Beta seems back to normal. With Yrcanos in tow, he’s off to stop Crozier operating on Peri. We’ve been here before; the story is rushing towards its conclusion. Then, mid corridor run, the TARDIS appears in a shaft of blue light, the Doctor is drawn into it, and the ship disappears, to land a second later on the space station where the Doctor’s trial is taking place. It’s a great moment as we realise this is where we came in back at Part One of Trial. It’s the classic series’ cleverest use of time travel to double back on its own narrative, and perhaps the most elegant of its kind in all of Doctor Who. To use a Moffatism, a true timey-wimey moment.

But the really neat bit is that the two storylines – trial and Thoros Beta – now converge. The Doctor can merely watch the conclusion of events play out on screen. The Inquisitor suddenly takes a more active role, describing how the Time Lords decided to intervene, saying events had gone too far. And then the story ends in devastating style; Peri’s brain is wiped, and replaced with Kiv’s. Effectively she’s transformed into a monster. Yrcanos breaks in a shoots the place up. Everyone dies.

In the trial room, our three characters reach the end of their journeys. The Doctor is shattered, but vows to fight on. The Inquisitor has become the Time Lords’ voice, justifying their actions, no longer an impartial observer. The Valeyard is triumphant, and the trial no longer seems like a joke, but in fact a cover for something far more serious.

The trial room story (or this part of it) has ended. But the conclusion to events on Thoros Beta feels unsatisfying, because we never found out the reason why the Doctor was acting the way he did. Later in Trial, it’s confirmed that the Thoros Beta evidence was altered and that Peri survived. Which changes the way we look at Mindwarp. It becomes the only story where the viewer is presented with an unreliable version of events. Let me tell you a story, Mindwarp says, but it might not all be true.

Mindwarp is famously the story where disgruntled script editor Eric Saward walked off the program. His mind clearly was not on the job during this story. Colin Baker has often said that he couldn’t get an answer from script editor nor director on what was causing the Doctor’s erratic behaviour. This uncertainty is often pointed out as a production error. And it probably is just that.

But what that narrative vagueness has left us with is something unique: a Doctor Who story we’ll only ever know part of. Bits of the full story are missing. It’s a story which, because of its very design and construction, we’ll never get to the bottom of.

If I didn’t know about the behind the scenes turmoil engulfing the show at this time, I’d be tempted to say it was deliberate, with writer Philip Martin wildly experimenting with the program, keeping everyone in the dark about the lead character’s motive – even the actors and production crew – to create something which genuinely wrongfoots the viewer. There’s a part of me that would really like that to be the case. Because as noted by Colin Baker himself, it is possible to like something you don’t fully understand.

LINK TO Turn Left: Both feature the faux death of a companion.

NEXT TIME: Love & Monsters. Elton! Fetch a spade!