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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord

“Carrot Juice? Carrot Juice!”

I really wasn't sure how to approach 'The Trial of a Time Lord'.

I dithered for a long time on whether or not I should review this dumpster fire as one story or four individual stories. The latter seemed like the most appropriate option since that's what I did the last time they did a season long story arc. But the Key to Time season, despite its naff ending, was a hell of a lot more fun to watch and review than 'The Trial of a Time Lord'. So I decided to just write one review and get the whole bloody mess over with in one fell swoop.

I first encountered ‘The Trial of a Time Lord’ sitting on the top shelf in the video section of W.H. Smiths (this was long before the age of DVDs). I couldn’t believe it, an entire season of Doctor Who! In a TARDIS shaped tin box! Wow!!! No matter the consequences, no matter how much it cost, I had to have it. It was an entire season of Doctor Who in a TARDIS shaped tin box for Omega's sake!!! If I'd only known then what I know now. Oh, who am I kidding. I still would've bought the bloody thing. That tin box makes a damn fine collectible. It's not its fault it happened to have a great big stinking turd inside.

I’ll skip all the behind-the-scenes turmoil, more than enough has already been written about this troubled era, and focus solely on the story itself. ‘The Trial of a Time Lord’ consists of three seemingly unconnected tales from the Doctor’s past, present and future, all presented to the court as evidence for the defence and prosecution, while the final two episodes wrap up the entire storyline. Yes, that’s right, you’re watching entire episodes of Doctor Who about a bunch of Time Lords lazing about and watching entire episodes of Doctor Who. Hmm, and most of them near the back appear to have nodded off. That can’t be a good sign.

First up is 'The Mysterious Planet' by Robert Holmes. Sadly, this is not one of the great man’s better efforts. It's not a terrible story by any means, simply a case of been there, overthrown that tyrant, saved that day. Still this is Robert Holmes, so the dialogue is sharper then usual, the supporting characters are a little more three dimensional and the robots aren’t half bad (we’ve come a long way since ‘Robot’). Tony Selby and Glenn Murphy are terrific as the typically Holmesian double act of Glitz (bloated and pompous) and Dibber (simple and common sense). Joan Sims, on the other hand, seems to think she’s making Carry on Boadicea. You half expect Sid James to show up at some point.

The best thing about 'The Mysterious Planet' is, surprisingly, the Sixth Doctor and Peri. I can only assume they attended relationship counselling at some point between seasons because now they actually seem to get along. Gone is all that wearisome bickering that blighted the previous season, replaced by mutual affection and gentle ribbing. When Peri is upset after they discover the truth about Ravolox, the Doctor is comforting and reassuring where before he would've been snide and dismissive. Sadly this improved partnership would prove to be short lived. Which brings us, unfortunately, to 'Mindwarp'.

A follow up to 'Vengeance on Varos', once again written by Philip Martin, 'Mindwarp' is the weakest story of the entire 'Trial' season. Its greatest fault is that you are never fully sure what is actually going on. Has the Doctor gone bad? Is he mad? Is the Matrix telling fibs? We never do find out, although the likely answer is the Valeyard tinkering with the truth. It also doesn't help matters that BRIAN BLESSED!!! is on hand to devour the scenery in a performance that even die hard BRIAN BLESSED!!! fans would admit was a bit much.

One thing 'Mindwipe' did have going for it was that gut punch of an ending where Peri is seemingly killed after having her body taken over by Lord Kiv. The Doctor's stunned reaction to her death may just be Colin Baker's best performance in the role. It's just too bad that producers bottled it and later revealed Peri had in fact survived. Not only that, but she was married off to BRIAN BLESSED!!! as well. I think we can all agree that she might've preferred the cold embrace of death instead.

The next tale, 'Terror of the Vervoids', from the typewriter of the dubious Pip and Jane Baker, is surprisingly alright, a fun spaceship-set Agatha Christie murder mystery with possibly the naughtiest looking monsters ever to appear in Doctor Who. If you can phase out Bonnie Langford you might just have a good time. Ah yes, Bonnie Langford. I honestly don't know what I can say about Bonnie Langford's Mel. Nothing good, that's for sure. If you were compiling a list of all the dipshit decisions producers have made over the decades, like making the Statue of Liberty a Weeping Angel, or not throwing the scripts for 'Love & Monsters' and 'Fear Her' into the shredder, casting Langford as the Doctor's new companion would be right at the top, eclipsing everything else on the list. That alone should've killed the show outright. That it managed to limp on for another three seasons is something of a minor miracle.

Finally, the whole affair is brought to some semblance of a conclusion in 'The Ultimate Foe', a half-decent (the Robert Holmes half) run around the Dickensian psychedelia of the Matrix with the Doctor repeatedly exclaiming “I deny this reality! I deny it!” while the Valeyard practices twirling his moustache. Sadly, Holmes passed away before completing the story. The final episode was hastily rewritten by the Bakers after Saward refused to let JNT change Holmes' original ending, which lead to a final breakdown of their already turbulent working relationship.

The trial itself is undoubtedly the weakest aspect of the entire season. The repeated cut aways to the court room are often irrelevant and intrusive, taking you right out of the action and disrupting the flow of the individual stories (“Oh, why’d you stop it at the best bit, I was rather enjoying that”). Overall these scenes amount to little more than the Doctor and the Valeyard tossing lazy and tedious insults at each other (Farm Yard! Brick Yard! Scrap Yard! and so on) while the judge endlessly wails “Order! Order in the court! Do I have to separate you two?!” before finally zooming in on Colin Baker’s flared nostrils for the obligatory cliffhanger.

On a brighter note, Michael Jayston manages to swipe the entire season out from under the leading man’s nose while also managing to put Anthony Ainley’s pantomime Master to shame. This, sir, is how you do refined villainy. The big twist, though, that he is in fact a future incarnation of the Doctor, an amalgamation of his darker sides from between his twelfth and final incarnations (which is roughly where we are now), leaves me with a bit of a headache. Is he an actual regeneration of a separate entity born from the Doctor's mind? And how does killing his past self to steal his remaining regeneration makes any sense? Even Steven Moffat would struggle to make that massive paradox work.

Notes and Quotes

--That opening model shot looks good, but reminds me of the end credits of Red Dwarf which just leads to me singing the theme tune.

--Christopher Ryan (Lord Kiv) later appeared in the revived series as a couple of Sontaran generals.

--Despite overcoming dodgy headgear to put in a credible performance, it’s hard these days to watch Lynda Bellingham’s Inquisitor without wondering whether the entire OXO family are all Time Lords.

The Doctor: "Planets come and go. Stars perish. Matter disperses, coalesces, forms into other patterns, other worlds. Nothing can be eternal."

The Doctor: "In all my travellings throughout the universe, I have battled against evil, against power-mad conspirators. I should have stayed here! The oldest civilisation, decadent, degenerate and rotten to the core! Power-mad conspirators, Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen - they're still in the nursery compared to us! Ten million years of absolute power - that's what it takes to be really corrupt!"

Two and a half out of four TARDIS-shaped tin boxes.
Mark Greig is pleading the fifth More Mark Greig


  1. Mark, was this the end of the Sixth Doctor? Essentially a clip show?

  2. Except it was a clip show of episodes we hadn't seen before, so there's that.

    The cliffhangers that involved the flashback sequences are robbed of all tension because... well, if the Doctor's standing right here, odds are he probably survived.

  3. This is quite a mess as you aptly indicate here Mark. The idea is interesting, but the execution is a bit lacking.

    Mysterious Planet is decent, and the fact that Robert Holmes wrote it is likely why. Not great by any stretch, but not a bad watch. It's above the entire rest of the trial by a large margin.

    Mindwarp is poor and hovers just above my least favorite 10 with Twin Dilemma. It's all the worst of the 80s in one package and while the ending with Peri surviving may have been a cop-out, the alternative was garbage so I'll take her hanging out with Brian Blessed over that!
    The best part of this thing is that Christopher Ryan was also Mike from the Young Ones!

    Terror of the Vervoids had a few interesting bits, but was largely bad, and made worse by Mel, my least favorite companion from the classic show, and still near the bottom when you include new Who. I do love the banter between the captain and the Doctor though.

    It's bad enough we lost the mighty Robert Holmes too young, but it's worse that he couldn't finish the Ultimate Foe as it had a lot of promise. What we got was a mess that sent off poor Colin in a shameful way. I really wish we had more solid stories for Colin so his era would be fondly remembered, but alas, we have what we have.


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