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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts thirteen and fourteen)

“There’s a lesson here,” our son opined. “If you’re a bad, bad person, don’t stand so close to your crazy, crazy high-tech machine!” Well, you said it, kid.

So at last this troubled season and absolute mess of a story comes crashing into its barely watchable end. It should have been a much more satisfying conclusion than this. The problem is that the final two parts were meant to have been written by Robert Holmes, in close collaboration with the script editor Eric Saward. But Holmes was dying, and Saward is said to have completed the final draft of part thirteen before writing the concluding half-hour himself. Then Saward elected to leave the show and took his script with him. With deadlines looming, the producer turned to Pip and Jane Baker, who’d written parts nine through twelve, to finish from the half-hour that Holmes had set up, while a grave BBC attorney ensured that not one word of Saward’s script was used.

I contend that the more sensible solution would have been to dump the script of part thirteen as well. I know that’s heretical – Holmes was the grand master of classic Who, the writer everyone loves – but the Bakers shouldn’t have been hamstrung with all that setup to bring the epic to their rushed conclusion. I can’t imagine what they would have come up with, and since I dislike very nearly all their Who writing, I wouldn’t bet that I’d have enjoyed it, but I do believe that they could have developed something much more coherent than all the guff about Victorian bureaucracy, wherever that was going. Perhaps it was considered, and perhaps they told the producer that they had barely enough time to write one half-hour, let alone two.

One thing these parts badly needed was a proper conclusion to the huge revelation that Peri had been killed. There’s an all-smiles moment where the Time Lords tell the Doctor that she’s alive and well and living with Yrcanos as a “warrior queen.” So how’d that work? Did they reverse time so that the mad scientist never transplanted Kiv’s brain into her body? Did Yrcanos still storm into the room shooting people? What happened to everybody else in the room, and the scientist the Time Lords were so afraid of? Even more insanely, the Doctor accepts that this is a satisfactory happy ending for Peri and leaves her to life in the 24th Century, departing with Bonnie Langford’s character Mel, presumably to transport her back to her timeline.

Naturally, this hasn’t set well with anybody. There are novels and audio dramas that pick up Peri’s story and, in different ways, resolve this properly. But to be honest, I like the first way this was resolved. In the late eighties, Philip Martin, who wrote the Yrcanos episodes of the story, novelized it for Target Books and explained that Peri and Yrcanos did not go back to his planet where she could live with him, but they returned to Earth in the 1980s and Yrcanos entered the world of professional wrestling in California, with Peri as his manager. I have never been interested in wrestling, but I can get behind Yrcanos putting Hulk Hogan and the Iron Sheik in choke holds. With or without the wrestling part, Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant should have had a farewell scene together, and the Doctor should have gone immediately to his companion to see that she was all right rather than just taking some random woman’s word for it. Nobody thought this through.

But that’s kind of the Colin Baker era in a nutshell. Everything should have been better. Colin Baker’s a good actor and certainly seems to be a great guy. He could have been a great Doctor in better circumstances, without the lousy scripts that Saward had developed for him, and without the interference of the higher muckity-mucks at the BBC screwing with the show. Twisting the knife one last time, they accepted the producer John Nathan-Turner’s resignation on the understanding that he fire the star before he went. Then they unaccepted his resignation and told him the only show they wanted him to produce was more Who. But with Saward gone, this is the end of what I call “the swamp.” There are a couple more turkeys to come, but overall, things are about to get a lot better.

We’ll take a short break from Doctor Who to resume a couple of shows that we’d shelved for a breather, but we’ll start Sylvester McCoy’s first season in a couple of weeks. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts eleven and twelve)

In the scene above, Honor Blackman’s character proves that she has never seen a horror film where the mad scientist thinks the monsters won’t attack her. Her character is seen reading Murder on the Orient Express earlier, so it’s not like the tropes of fiction are unknown to her. Then again, Orient Express is not a particularly long book, and the props department seems to have wrapped a dust jacket around one of those mammoth thousand-page James Michener novels, so maybe 20th Century fiction has mutated wildly by the year 2986 and she’s expecting the monsters to embrace their creator?

Last night, after our son condemned this whole adventure as lousy, he started playing one of the video games on his tablet, and something or other went wrong and he lost it completely, crying uncontrollably. He was exhausted, and hadn’t slept well the night before. On Sunday evening, we had come home late from a trip to the local observatory, and heaven only knows when he fell asleep. So by the time we watched Doctor Who on Monday, he was a mess, grouchy, and overtired.

Tanned, rested, and ready, he was more in the mood for the show tonight. He enjoyed seeing the recap of the end of part ten, when the Doctor sets off a fire alarm and sends a guard running so he could get past him, and told us “that’s my favorite part of this whole story!” Some of this was still a little over his head. He had trouble understanding why the scientist decided to destroy everybody (to keep the plant-monster Vervoids from reaching Earth), he grumbled that the bright red part of the Vervoid mask looked like a wool sweater, and the cliffhanger ending to part twelve landed with a thud. The Time Lords realize that by killing all the grown-in-a-lab Vervoids, the Doctor may have committed genocide, but I forgot to check to see whether our kid knew what that meant first. Well, he’s learned a new word.

I asked whether he enjoyed these two parts more than the previous two, and he agreed, but with a shrug. “It’s tolerable,” he decided, before going on at the lengths that a seven year-old can enjoy about how if he was going to either watch other Doctor Who stories or take money to watch ones he doesn’t want to see, he’d probably take the money, because he doesn’t like this one very much.

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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts nine and ten)

Tonight, our son let us know he’s like most of fandom and is not impressed by this epic-length storyline. He doesn’t like this segment of the story, because it’s too scary, “and I don’t like the other two DVDs of ‘The Trial of a Time Lord,’ either!” And that’s not true, because he laughed all the way through the last two episodes during all of King Yrcanos’s shouting, but the dreariness of these two has retroactively turned him against the rest.

Well, I may not care for the other two DVDs we’ve watched either, but they’re art compared to this chunk. It’s written by Pip and Jane Baker, and because they were seemingly incapable of giving any of their characters any kind of individual dialogue, everybody talks with the same voice, and it’s a voice that does crossword puzzles all day. Arthur Hewlett is here, briefly, and so is Honor Blackman, unfortunately, because she is playing to the rafters. Nobody wants to say anything bad about the actress who played Cathy Gale and Pussy Galore, but she really is awful in this. Bizarrely, this story is set on a 30th Century cruise between planets, and the only passengers we see in this have speaking parts. The passenger lounge should be absolutely full of people, but I guess there just wasn’t any budget at all for even a single extra. It’s really, really noticeable.

Monday morning quarterbacking again, but if we must have had the whole season dealing with this one story, I really would have prefered if they dropped this dopey “here’s an adventure from my future” angle and just spent episodes nine through [spoiler!] dealing with the Valeyard and what he’s up to. That’s a plot that doesn’t get anywhere near the attention it needs, while this totally boring murder mystery drags on.

Joining the cast this time, it’s the odd situation of the Doctor introducing us to a companion that he has yet to meet. She’s called Melanie, and she’s played, to the abject horror of many SRS BSNSS fans in Britain, by Bonnie Langford. Most of the Who companions up to this point were played by unknowns near the beginning of their career, but Langford had a reputation. She had been a child star – I reminded our son that we saw her in Wombling Free – and was really successful in musical theater. She’d been playing Peter Pan when she was cast as Melanie. But a decade before Who, she had played an infamously bratty little girl in a popular series called Just William who was always shrieking that she would “thcweam and thcweam until she was thick.” I think she might have been similar to Angelica in the cartoon Rugrats.

Last year, when we watched that surprisingly good episode of Buck Rogers that guest starred Gary Coleman, I thought there might be a comparison. In the late eighties, there was a contingent of British Who fandom that desperately wanted the show to be taken more seriously – by the producers and by the public – and was exasperated by the show hiring sitcom stars and showbiz celebrities. I was reminded of how, when I was a teenager, I rolled my eyes at the memory of Buck using the “Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout” kid, and I think that Bonnie Langford hit a similar chord. Remember we’re just a year away from the debut of Star Trek: The Next Generation at this point, and no matter how much people may like Wil Wheaton now, the news that there was going to be a kid genius on the show made people write angry screeds to the letters page of Starlog whining that the Enterprise didn’t need a Boxey Adama.

As for me, I had no idea who Bonnie Langford was, I still haven’t seen Just William, and as soon as Pip and Jane Baker stop writing her dialogue, I’m going to like Melanie just fine.

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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts seven and eight)

There is an obvious topic to discuss with this pair of episodes, but I don’t want to be obvious. I’ll talk about it next week.

Instead, I’ll note that, since we haven’t watched Flash Gordon yet – but we will – this was our son’s first opportunity to enjoy the splendor that is BRIAN BLESSED hollering at top volume. Between the tentpoles of Sil sniveling and King Yrcanos bellowing, I don’t like anything about this story, but our son enjoyed BLESSED tremendously. He’s a loud kid. Mostly polite and loving, but he sure does forget to use his indoor voice a lot. Now here’s the loudest person he’s ever seen, and nobody’s telling him to stop shouting. He laughed all the way through this, so the weird and unpleasant ending didn’t have the effect that I think the producers wanted with him. Of course, I have been hinting that what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily the truth.

Naturally, I showed him BRIAN BLESSED doing snooker commentary a few minutes later. I’d watch all sorts of dumb sports on television if BLESSED was doing the play-by-play. Bowling, Texas Hold-em, darts, soccer, you name it.

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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts five and six)

Well, I said before that Nabil Shaban’s wonderfully disgusting character Sil was the best thing about this story, just like he was in his first story, and I stand by that. But it is worth noting that BRIAN BLESSED is here to yell and bellow and bring the house down as a warrior king, and Christopher Ryan, the second Young Ones star to appear in this show in a two-year period, plays another slimy member of Sil’s species. The story’s a mess, but I like these two. And our son was, momentarily, really impressed by the very ’80s planet that the visual effects team dreamed up, with a dayglo-blue shore and crashing neon pink waves.

Episodes six through eight are the first example of Doctor Who using the format of an unreliable narrator. The Doctor has amnesia after getting his brain blasted in the cliffhanger to part five, allowing the evil Valeyard to screw with the “evidence” of the story and make him look like a coward who’s switched sides to save his own skin. So we never actually get to see what really happened on the planet Thoros Beta… probably. Unfortunately, Eric Saward, the script editor, didn’t make any of this at all clear and was in the process of finding himself a new career. He gave a breathtaking bridge-burner of an “exit interview” to the magazine Starburst, telling his side of a show in turmoil and airing all the dirty laundry he could find, making enemies of everybody at every level of the show’s production. The sad result is that this segment didn’t get the attention it needed before they taped it, so everything is confusing and honestly annoying to follow.

I paused between episodes to explain how we’ve already seen how the Valeyard can edit the material, and that we can’t trust anything that happens onscreen. I did this because I knew our son would absolutely hate seeing the Doctor turn evil and treat Peri so horribly. He did, scowling all the way through part six. Unfortunately, this is going to get worse before it gets better.

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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts three and four)

This season is flawed in many ways, but one that irks me is that we keep hearing about plots and subplots that are far more interesting than what we actually see. The story of some people from the Andromeda Galaxy stealing secrets from [REDACTED], the greatest information source in recorded history, and being forced into hundreds of years of cryosleep is much, much more interesting than the Doctor’s latest adventure. Though I really do love how the Doctor talks and talks and talks and completely fails to convince the robot to see his point of view, and Sabalom Glitz stumbles in, sizes up the situation, and instantly cons the robot into falling for his scheme.

Our son mainly liked the robot stuff, but he got a great laugh out of Joan Sims yelling at everybody when they can’t decide which way down a corridor to stampede. Older fans, for whom this show is very often such SRS BSNSS, have always hated a tiny bit where a supporting player gets a face full of slime like a contestant on an ’80s Nickelodeon game show. I always figured that was for the kids, but ours was completely indifferent to it.

I have a very odd little memory about “Trial” that I feel like sharing. In the summer of 1986, the letters page of Doctor Who Magazine printed several notes from readers speculating and passing along rumors of the new season. There was one which stood out, and this isn’t an exact quote as I don’t have the issue anymore, but one part of the letter went something like:

I have heard it is to be totally modernised, whatever that means. (Theme music by Frankie Goes to Hollywood?)

I’m sure the writer didn’t intend to start a rumor that Frankie Goes to Hollywood was doing the theme music to Doctor Who, but he offered that as an example of what “totally modernised” could mean.

So come August, and I was in a fan club in Atlanta called Terminus TARDIS that met at Emory University’s White Hall and showed old episodes and had a monthly newsletter. And just before the season started, whoever wrote the season 23 preview column ran that example as fact: the new theme music is by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. In actuality, it was by Dominic Glynn and I like it a lot more than the previous “starfield” music.

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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts one and two)

So now we’re in September 1986. Doctor Who was unfortunately back down to 25 minute episodes, and more unfortunately still shot entirely on videotape. Fans have been Monday-morning-quarterbacking season 23 more than any other point in the program’s history and saying what they would’ve done to prove the show’s worth in the face of its postponement and newfound hostility from the higher-ups at the BBC. My simple take, assuming anything was possible: instead of 14 half-hour episodes, seven one-hour episodes, each self-contained, on film.

Certainly instead of being so foolish as to reflect in the narrative that the show was “on trial,” I’d have forged ahead confident that the battle was won and the show had survived. That’s PR 101, but the producer’s instincts were at a pretty low point in 1986, and his script editor was so dispirited that he was just months from a flounce so spectacular that he hasn’t worked in TV since. So we’ve got a script by the amazing Robert Holmes that’s full of lines like “Be silent!” and “You must think me a fool!” among many other issues.

Joining the proceedings in weeks one and two, we’ve got Michael Jayston as a rival Time Lord who’s got it in for the Doctor, along with Tom Chadbon as a guard in an underground city, and Tony Selby as a new recurring character, the “lovable rogue,” it says here, Sabalom Glitz. The most interesting casting choice is Joan Sims, best known for playing daffy old ladies in comedy films, as the leader of a tribe of peasants.

The story was witty enough for our son to enjoy it, and he liked the two big robots a lot. Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant have a much more relaxed and friendly rapport in this story than we’ve previously seen, and there’s a genuinely great scene in part one where the Doctor tries, and fails, to reassure Peri that she shouldn’t be sad to learn that Earth, two million years in the future, has been wiped out, because all planets and stars find an end eventually. I really enjoy that moment. Like a lot of Doctor Who, it starts well for me and runs out of steam pretty quickly. The problem is that unlike a lot of Doctor Who, this continues running out of steam a lot longer than it usually does.

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Doctor Who: Revelation of the Daleks (part two)

You know, that hung together better than I remembered it. Alexei Sayle’s still the best thing about it, and it would have been a whole lot more wonderful with more of him blowing up Daleks with his concentrated beam of rock and roll, but I think it gelled for me a bit more this time, for some reason. Sayle’s sonic cannon was, of course, our son’s favorite part of the story. His eyes lit up and he had the biggest smile you can imagine on his face when that first Dalek exploded.

Actually, one reason I enjoyed this more than I have previously is that I used to really, really loathe a character played by Jenny Tomasin, and thought the actress did a rotten job. I was wrong. Her character is a really tough one for an actor to play; she’s meant to be much more pathetic than endearing, and foolishly duped by everybody around her. But apart from one snickeringly bad line reading in part one when she bellows “Find the intruders!” I think Tomasin played this role extremely well, which can’t have been easy when you’ve got an amazing actor like Clive Swift literally brushing you aside. I may have mentioned before that my time talking with and observing the actors at the Children’s Museum of Atlanta gave me a newfound understanding of what actors have to do to make their characters work at all. I’m always glad of the opportunity to reconsider the opinions I held when I was even more stupid than I am now.

But right behind Sayle, there’s William Gaunt underplaying his role of a disgraced assassin from a noble order, and Eleanor Bron, who’s magical in anything. I love how Gaunt’s character acts like he is in complete control of the situation in Davros’s lab, and responds to any obstacle without taking an extra breath, just communicating with his eyes and piercing stares. And Colin Baker and Terry Molloy get one of the better Doctor-Davros arguments – easily the first good one since “Genesis,” honestly – as they debate Davros’s latest sick scheme.

We won’t wait fifteen months until starting the next season of Doctor Who like us poor folk had to do in the eighties… in fact, we’ll be back for more adventures in time and space in about eleven days. But first, something else, like the other two shows that we’re watching, that I’ve never seen before… stay tuned!

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