Season 23 – When Doctor Who Went On Trial

The programme’s lead actors may look happy in the photo, but there can surely never have been an unhappier time behind the scenes for Doctor Who than during the preparations for Season 23. Narrowly reprieved from cancellation in 1985, the production team had to deal with a drastic reduction in the anticipated number of episodes (cut to 14 from the expected 26), forcing a complete rethink of scripts. Everything hitherto planned and commissioned for the next season was cancelled and script editor Eric Saward got to work on the new linking theme which, in a storyline mirroring the programme’s off-screen travails, would see the Doctor going on trial.

Much has been written about the unhappy events that followed but if there’s one single document that encapsulates Doctor Who’s problems at the time it has to be the BBC’s Head of Series and Serials Jonathan Powell’s memo of February 1986, in which he gives feedback on the early scripts for Season 23. After praising Philip Martin’s Mindwarp (‘a good narrative, involving characters…’) Powell offers a brutal assessment of Robert Holmes’s opener for the trial season, The Mysterious Planet.

“I do feel that with the Robert Holmes story you have quite a substantial problem to which I suggest you address yourself as a matter of great urgency.”

Powell goes into some detail as to the script’s shortcomings, criticising the tone (“the story comes across as very lightweight and slightly trivial”), characters (“Glitz-Dibber are impossible to take seriously in any sense”) and premise (“the story never seems to me to be properly or convincingly set up”). Clearly getting into his stride, the head of department plainly doesn’t have much time for the over-arching trial theme: “it is difficult to grasp the relationship of this story to the trial… it never seems clear to me what evidence this story offers to the Valeyard or indeed the viewer as to the Doctor’s culpability for any particular transgression of the Time Lords’ codes… we are never really aware of what it is that the Doctor is on trial for.”

The Trial of a Time Lord 15

The memo goes on to provide numbered lists of the story’s “several faults”, said to include “irritating and counterproductive” humour, a “confusing and difficult to follow” plot, and an unclear relationship of the story to the Doctor’s trial. A further list offers suggestions to remedy the situation including clarifying various plot points, strengthening the Doctor and Peri’s involvement and making Glitz and Dibber more threatening.

This must have made for grim reading for the production team. With filming due to start in a matter of weeks, it wasn’t going to be possible to make the complete overhaul of the story that Powell was demanding. Accustomed to receiving nothing more than a few lines of comment by way of feedback on scripts, Eric Saward and John Nathan-Turner must have wondered if they were being set up to fail, particularly as they had been given no direction from management as to what was required of them to steer Doctor Who in a more successful direction in this most crucial of seasons.

But the impact of the blow to Robert Holmes’s professional pride can only be guessed at. A veteran script writer and script editor, his ability was being sharply criticised in a way that must have been difficult to take. There would be few people who would argue that The Mysterious Planet represented Holmes at his very best but it seems a poor reward for such long and distinguished service to the BBC and to Doctor Who in particular to be treated in this way. Holmes started work on the concluding episodes to the trial season while Saward ploughed on with late rewrites to the season opener, but the illness which would prove terminal was starting to take its toll. Aged just 60, he died in May 1986 – just over three months before episode one of Season 23 was screened on BBC1.

You can read more about the unhappy background to Season 23 in Robert Holmes – A Life in Words by Richard Molesworth and JNT: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner by Richard Marson.