“The Trial Of A Time Lord, Part 1: The Mysterious Planet” (Season 23, episodes 1-4. Originally broadcast Sept. 6-27, 1986.)
Season 23 of Doctor Who was a disaster. A horrible culmination of bad decisions, bad luck, showrunner incompetence, executive hostility, low budget, an untimely death, and quite probably some kind of hex cast by an evil witch.
Consisting of four stories linked together by the overarching subplot of the Doctor being put on trial by the Time Lords, the 14-part epic “Trial Of A Time Lord” was designed in part as a defense of the idea that Doctor Who was worth watching. And, of course it is—but not when these particular people are making it. Badly planned from the very beginning, “Trial Of A Time Lord” descended into total chaos midway through production when script editor Eric Saward quit, and it’s surprising that the show wasn’t cancelled outright at the end of the season. Instead, Sixth Doctor Colin Baker was shoved out the door, and the show got three more years, each progressively better, before being quietly put to pasture in 1989.
Season 23 is also the only season I haven’t written about yet for the Doctor Who coverage here. You can guess why I’ve been dragging my feet. But here goes! One caveat as we move forward: The “Trial” season is meant to be one long story broken into four parts, but I’ll be watching and writing up each segment individually over the next few installments. I have not sat through these particular Doctor Whos in years, so I’m coming to them with a fairly blank slate, although I remember the basic plot and especially the two major twists that will come up in future weeks. My comments on “The Mysterious Planet” will be relatively brief, in part because I have two infants with bad colds next to me as I write this. (Say hi to the nice readers, girls. Don't sneeze on them.)
But first, some context. If any season of Doctor Who requires some knowledge of what was happening offscreen to understand what was happening onscreen, it’s certainly this one. So, briefly:
Season 22 of Doctor Who was a disaster. I’ve talked about it already at length in my writeups on “Vengeance On Varos” and “Revelation Of The Daleks,” but essentially, the series botched an attempt to reinvent itself as darker, edgier sci-fi in the vein of stuff like 2000 AD and Alien. It was essentially a nihilistic satire on the very concept of Doctor Who itself. The centerpiece of this was the Sixth Doctor, who was deliberately designed to be brash, tasteless, arrogant and off-putting, dressed in a hideously ugly color-clashing costume as a way to take the character’s eccentricity to an acidulous extreme. This Doctor, along with his weak-willed, whiny and much-abused companion Peri, made for a main cast that was like a bitter, misogynistic parody of the traditional Doctor/companion team.
Now, maybe they could have pulled that off if they’d had the ferocity and dark humor of a writer like Alan Moore or a visual artist with the eye of Terry Gilliam. But instead, the show looked increasingly cheap, shopworn and tawdry, and Saward and his writers favored stories that were grim, bleak, and ugly. Doctor Who had become hard to watch. More and more people didn't try to. And the show was seen with contempt by management at the BBC, who cancelled it, then changed their minds after protests from fans, and merely put it on hiatus for 18 months to be retooled. When it came back, the show would have only a 14-episode run, much shorter than normal.
While the show was off the air, producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward came up with the idea of making the next season mirror the embattled status of the show in real life by putting the Doctor on trial for meddling in the events of history, the same charge he’d faced in 1969 in “The War Games.” The trial segments would link three separate adventures of the Doctor followed by a fourth that tied up the trial itself, with the Doctor taking on a final battle against his prosecuting attorney, a sinister Time Lord named the Valeyard. (And since the story is a comment on Doctor Who’s own fight against cancellation, the Valeyard is basically a stand-in for the BBC executives who were criticizing it. It doesn’t seem wise to devote an entire season of your show to a story in which the main villain is a thinly disguised caricature of your boss, but maybe that’s just me.) Things didn’t exactly go as planned, but that’s something to cover in later weeks—for now, let’s get into part one of the Trial season, a four-parter called “The Mysterious Planet.”
This first section of the epic has a lot of heavy lifting to do, introducing the Doctor’s trial in a courtroom on a Time Lord space station, and intercutting that with a more traditional storyline set on the mysterious planet Ravolox, which the court is watching a recording of as evidence in the Doctor’s trial, and which also sets up further mysteries to be dealt with in future episodes. The charge against the Doctor is vaguely defined as “interference” on the planets he visits, which is of course the entire premise of the show, so the real charge here is that he’s the star of Doctor Who.
At least in the first few minutes, there’s good reason to think “Mysterious Planet” will help get Doctor Who back on track. For one thing, the model shot of the space station was, at the time, the most expensive special effect the series had ever done, and it still looks pretty impressive. For another, the writer here is Robert Holmes, the best writer of the Classic era, who had recently given the Fifth Doctor a fantastic finale with “The Caves Of Androzani.” And Holmes also had the kind of mordant, caustic sense of humor that might have finally been able to deliver the kind of story that the Sixth Doctor era was aiming for.
Instead, Holmes turned in what’s probably his worst, least inspired script, seeming suspiciously like a rehash of older ideas done better in previous years. (The central divide between the barbarian tribe, underground technologists, and insane machine in charge, for instance, seems like a weak takeoff on “The Face Of Evil.”) He may not have been able to give it his best shot, considering he was already ill from the liver disease he would soon die from. Still, “Mysterious Planet” never really takes off, laden down by the script, a lot of time wasted running around in the forest or down corridors, and some atrocious acting by some of the minor characters, particularly Joan Sims as Katryca, the Boadica-esque warrior queen who sounds like she’s escaped from a community-theater Shakespeare in the Park production.
One thing that is a huge improvement, though, is that the Doctor and Peri are are now actually friendly to each other, thanks to Baker and Nicola Bryant deliberately going against the tone of their written dialogue. Though he’s still arrogant and she’s still a wet blanket, the opening scene between them is remarkably affectionate, given the the bully-and-abused-girlfriend duo they’d often seemed like the previous year. If only that had been the way their story kept going…. But that’s something to talk about for part two, “Mindwarp.”
The Doctor and Peri have landed on Ravolox, a planet which intrigues the Doctor because it’s identical in many ways to Earth, but is in the wrong part of the galaxy. Ravolox is also supposedly lifeless thanks to a fiery catastrophe centuries earlier, but they arrive in the middle of a forest. It’ll eventually be revealed that Ravolox is Earth, which only deepens the other unexplained mysteries.
Others on the planet are after more than just scientific curiosity. Sabalom Glitz, a mercenary trader, and Glitz’s dim-bulb bodyguard Dibber, are after secrets of their own hidden deep underground, in a shelter housing the only survivors of the planetwide conflagration. The underground city is ruled with a very literal iron fist by a cold, cruelly logical robot, who is named Drathro the Immortal despite that that name is better suited for a Dungeons & Dragons character or member of a Swedish black-metal band. To get there, Glitz needs to sweet-talk Katryca, leader of the Tribe of the Free, a barbarian village apparently made up of escapees from the Immortal’s shelter. Katryca is savvier than she looks and won’t be fooled as easily as Glitz hopes, but the real danger is Drathro, who thinks of humans as nothing more than “work units” to be killed when they cease to be useful, and whose power source, based on something called “black light,” is dangerously unstable and could cause a cataclysmic explosion.
All that is viewed and argued over on the space station by the Doctor and the Valeyard, who seems convinced that the Ravolox story is damning enough for the Doctor not only to be convicted, but executed. It’s hard to see why he thinks that. It’s a very strange case to open with if the Valeyard wants to convict the Doctor of reckless meddling, since his presence prevents the black-light explosion and frees Drathro’s oppressed people.
The trial segments are sloppily written, badly and statically staged, and something of a chore to watch. It’s hard to escape the idea that whatever the the Doctor is accused of is so vague and arbitrary that he shouldn’t be there at all, and little of the dialogue is devoted to making the legal case make any sense. Instead, we get metatextual commentary about how there’s too much violence in the Ravolox segments, a painfully obvious counter to the objection to violence in Doctor Who itself. Worse, both the Doctor and the impartial Inquisitor repeatedly object to watching the Ravolox sections, which only calls attention to how boring and poorly done it all is— even the characters in the story itself can barely stand to watch it.
This is actually one of Peri’s better showcases in the series, partly because of the thaw between her and the Doctor, and also because she has a few scenes when she actually gets to do something that drives the story forward instead of being helplessly and passively endangered. And yet, the misogyny that’s all too typical of Peri subplots shows up here too when she’s threatened with coerced marriage to multiple husbands, which sounds an awful lot like gang rape to me. It’s disgusting, really. (But that’s nothing compared to what happens to her next time….)
Despite the mandate to change things up, I don’t see much improvement between seasons 22 and 23. Though there’s a nicely turned joke that Drathro’s librarian Balazar is so proud of his meager collection of three books, one of which is “UK Habitats of the Canadian Goose by HM Stationary Office,” most of the humor here is puerile, particularly the annoying nicknames given to the Valeyard by the Doctor—Farmyard, Scrapyard, Boatyard—as if he’s actually scoring points.
• Isn't the Doctor facing double jeopardy here? He was already convicted of the same crime in “The War Games,” and pardoned for it in “The Three Doctors.”
• Merdeen is played by Tom Chadbon, who appeared as the detective Duggan in “City Of Death.”
• The pre-”Trial” hiatus in 1985 mobilized superfan Ian Levine to try to save the show via “Doctor In Distress,” an excruciating “We Are The World”-style celebrity pop song credited to “Who Cares?”—a supergroup including Baker, Bryant, series regulars Nicholas Courtney and Anthony Ainley, Ultravox drummer Warren Cann, and Moody Blues singer Justin Hayward.
• Upcoming schedule (biweekly on Saturdays at 2 p.m. Central):
• Feb. 22: A better Robert Holmes story, as the Third Doctor gets caught in the “Carnival Of Monsters”
• March 8: “Trial Of A Time Lord part 2: Mindwarp”
• March 22: “The Edge Of Destruction”
• April 5: “Trial Of A Time Lord part 3: Terror Of The Vervoids”
• April 19: Something from the Seventh Doctor? It’s been a while since we’ve visited him.
• May 3: “Trial Of A Time Lord part 4: The Ultimate Foe”
• TBA, when it’s out on DVD: Patrick Troughton's "The Moonbase."