Robert Holmes, Philip Martin, Pip and Jane Baker
What’s It About?
The Doctor is pulled out of time and space by a jury of Time Lords. A Time Lord called The Valeyard is acting as prosecutor trying the Doctor for transgressing the First Law of Time: non-interference. At stake: the Doctor’s life. Citing evidence from the Doctor’s past, present, and future, the Doctor must prove his innocence, all the while determining who the Valeyard is and why he has targeted the Doctor.
Great Cosmic Protector of Grifters and Dissemblers, save me!
As a story, I do not enjoy Trial of a Time Lord. As a historical document, I am fascinated by Trial of a Time Lord. During their time on the show, Jonathan Nathan Turner and Eric Saward shifted the primary focus of Doctor Who away from telling interesting, fun stories and toward telling self-referential stories about Doctor Who as a phenomenon. Or, put another way, Doctor Who became about Doctor Who. The show was about itself, about referencing the past, about exploring the question of what made Doctor Who great. But it was rarely about telling good stories. Good stories did get told during the Colin Baker era, but I think, on the whole, this era was too focused on itself as a part of Doctor Who rather than focusing on finding its own voice, its own drive, its own storytelling agenda. By focusing on itself, it did eventually find all these things, but more by accident rather than intentionally.
Oddly, one of the recurring motifs in the Colin Baker era is the image of people watching TV: Vengeance on Varos, Revelation of the Daleks, and now Trial of a Time Lord. Each of these stories features characters watching other characters in stories, watching the Doctor. Trial goes to the unfettered end of this meta-imagery by giving us a Doctor watching episodes of Doctor Who.
Now, in many ways, Trial is a brilliant piece of post-modern conceptualization. It works as a metaphor for the behind-the-scenes turmoil going on at the time. The ultimate question in this case is whether or not Doctor Who deserves to continue being made. This commentary is not so subtle. And through this commentary, the show is able to evaluate and criticize itself. The only problem is that it is handled so sloppily, almost making the critique on its own. “The Mysterious Planet” segment is so effectively by-the-numbers old-school Doctor Who that it is incredibly dull. The banter between Glitz and Dibbler are yet another example of the Robert Holmes double-act, but the story is unbearably dull at times. Thankfully, it is punctuated by Glitz and trial scenes.
“Mindwarp” gets more interesting with each episode, but I just can’t bring myself to get past Brian Blessed’s over-the-top portrayal of Yrcanos. The story never quite reaches the amount of self-parody needed to contextualize such a performance. The ideas are what save this story, but even then it is almost not enough.
Oddly, “Terror of the Vervoids” was the most watchable segment for me. I enjoyed the idea of killer plant life, and Pip and Jane Baker did a good job of subverting expectations (even when the dialogue was atrocious). And despite knowing that “The Ultimate Foe” was incomplete when Robert Holmes died, it seemed better paced than much of what we were given throughout the season.
But overall, even Trial was not spared from the inability of JNT and Saward to create good stories. All the potential in this season was wasted by not taking advantage of the 18-month hiatus to start from square one. There was no real attempt to rebuild the show; instead it seems they merely take a clever idea and did the same old thing. It is full of flaws and grossly illustrates the deficiencies of the current form of Doctor Who. Thankfully, change is coming, but it is disappointing that Colin Baker’s era would remain unredeemed until Big Finish began producing stories. And I also hate that Michael Jayston was so interesting and turned in a great performance as the Valeyard. This makes the conclusion even more unsatisfactory. I want to know more about the Valeyard. I just want other people writing it.