Since the forthcoming DVD release of Trial Of A Time Lord constitutes, in effect, an entire season of Doctor Who, we’re going to cover it in more detail than usual between now and Friday…
The 23rd season of Doctor Who appeared after an unprecedented 18-month absence and was the second season to have been whittled down from twenty-six to fourteen episodes. The BBC’s most successful black sheep, long regarded with derision by a succession of BBC controllers, had now passed into the hands of arguably its most formidable enemy – Michael Grade. Grade hated Who, and famously put the show into Room 101 using as an example – perhaps a little unfairly – the very worst monster the Doctor Who special effects team ever had to cook up for £23 – the ‘Murka’ in the much-derided Warriors Of The Deep.
With a long and punishing absence behind it and a dwindling episode-count, it seemed the Gallifrean’s days were numbered back in 1986. Whether this inner-party wrangling should have been quite so explicitly reflected in the revenant 23rd season is arguable, but it was certainly audacious…
Trial Of A Time Lord uses the ‘linking’ device of a prosecution of the Doctor by the Galifrean High Council to present four stories as evidence against him, presided over by Lynda Bellingham as Inquisitor.
The first three tales – The Mysterious Planet, Mindwarp and Terror of the Vervoids – could stand comfortably on their own; their intermingling with the machinations in court are superficial and could comfortably have been edited out. The final tale – The Ultimate Foe - sees the trial itself come back into focus after having annoyingly interrupted every story several times for points of order and other meaningless excuses for the Doc and chief prosecutor the Valeyard (Michael Jayston) to verbally abuse each other. The Valeyard is not quite what he seems, and The Ultimate Foe will find him an evil enough force to get The Master (the deliciously wicked Anthony Ainley) back on the side of our Galifrean hero for the first time since The Five Doctors…
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves without a TARDIS. The first of the Trial stories, then…
1: The Mysterious Planet (eps. 1-4)Director: Nicholas Mallettwriter: Robert Holmes
PlotThe first ‘evidence’ against the Doctor (Colin Baker) recaps an adventure with Peri (Nicola Bryant) on the planet Ravalox, where the fact that the mouldy corridor the TARDIS materialises into seems to be the remnants of Marble Arch station indicate that Ravalox is actually Earth in the far future…yet it is on the other side of the galaxy…
But this is not a question that will be addressed until later in Trial, and in the meantime our heroes must deal, once again, with a society divided between technocracy and savagery. The ruined world is ruled over by ‘The Immortal’, a robot being called Drathro (Roger Brierley), who presides over a sterile society locked away from the atavistic warrior tribe ruled by Queen Katryca (Joan Sims).
The Doctor and Peri are predictably split up early, with Peri captured by the warriors and informed that – due to the paucity of women in the ‘Tribe Of The Free’ – she must marry ‘many men’. Oh dear! Meanwhile the Doc isn’t doing much better, getting stoned (not in a good way) by the robot-ruled natives and forced to solve some problems for Drathro in his labs.
Skirting around this action and getting caught up with Peri’s fate are space-chancers Sabbalom Glitz (the excellent Tony Selby) and his dim-as-a-coalshed cohort Dibber (Glen Murphy)….
OpinionThis is the first Doctor Who tale to benefit from an Outside Broadcast Unit, and the sacrifice of film’s cinematic quality in Who is to the benefit of the performances, as attested to on the accompanying commentary (see below). Baker and Bryant conspire against writer Holmes to bring a friendly interpretation to the traditional parrying and discord between the two, and it’s a genuine delight to see them getting on at last. Robbed of some of his truculence, I really began to warm to Baker in the part, and felt sorry that the role was handed on after this, only his second series.
Joan Sims is always a welcome face in British households familiar with her from the Carry On movies, but the transition from battle-axe to warrior queen is a bit of a leap, and she was a less-than-sprightly 56 when she took the part. The far more obvious casting of Selby as a space-rogue is an absolute delight, and thankfully we’ll see him again before the Trial is over.
Drathro and his L3 minion robot are impressive feats of robotic simulation; set-quality is fairly good and the extensive exterior shoot betrays the money spent on this season-opener, along with the astonishing motion-control work depicting the Galifrean hi-jacking of the TARDIS, which opens Trial in Star Wars style.
Who fans will have trod most facets of this plot many times over, and here it’s the innovative design and attention to detail that carries the piece, along with the Shakespearean ‘fools’ Glitz and Dibber, arguably the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of classic Doctor Who.
Those playing any Who drinking games will have a chance to knock one back here as Colin Baker slips into Pertwee-mode at one point and utters the immortal standard “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow!”.
– Commentary with script-editor Eric Saward (episode 1 only)Eric finds himself on his own in the ‘naughty’ sound-booth away from the big party above; he did a less-than-complimentary interview regarding his Who colleagues at the time of Trial and might rub Mr. Baker up the wrong way again (though that’s not the official story, it is mentioned by Baker with some tenderness in the commentary for Terror Of The Vervoids). Saward refers directly to the verbatim script in his commentary and provides some useful insight into the genesis both of Trial and Mysterious Planet.
– The Making of The Mysterious Planet (24.58)Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, Eric Saward, Tony Selby and others feature in this livelier-than-usual look at the internecine politics of Doctor Who in the (literally) ‘trial’ period.
– Deleted and Extended Scenes (8.29)If you think they left a lot of the trial-room guff in the show, you should see the reams of it they left out. Or maybe not, but the scenes with Selby and Bryant are worth it.
– Trailers and Continuity (9.59)For the nerdiest of geeks only. Even includes Ceefax listings and Baker’s confrontation with Roland Rat!
– 35mm Film Sequence (1.15)The pretty unexpected and dazzling motion-control opening shot to Trial is presented separately here, and wouldn’t look out of place in new Who.
– Music videosVarious versions (including ‘2008’ remixes) of the theme music and the ‘Trial theme’.
– Info text trackThe usual fascinating info which is too subtle to enjoy with the sound up and too dry to appreciate with it off.
– Wogan (14.22)A slightly awkward chat-show encounter between Baker, the lovely Lynda Bellingham and the velvet charmer himself, who revels in his ignorance of Doctor Who.
– Blue Peter (6.46)A charming look at the robots of Ravalox on children’s show Blue Peter, where Janet Ellis introduces her dad Mike as the operator inside the L3 machine! Bonnie Langford turns up too.
– Points Of View (2.21)Anne Robinson fields both praise and criticism from Trial viewers.
– Photo Gallery (6.28)A good assortment of shots covering production of Mysterious Planet.