Mr Set Hate: ‘Oh, ho ho. Not this fool again. Where’ve you been, fool? More of your turgid attempts at humour no doubt. Oh, well, it’s always amusing to see him fail so convincingly. Write on, fool… dig your own grave…’
You know when you’re in a restaurant and you’ve studied the menu and finally settled on the starter you want? If you are anything like me, up until the choice is made you get a rising sense of panic. Fellow diners ask you what you want. You mumble inconclusively. They declare their choice. You grunt the ‘that sounds nice’ noise.
Should you choose the same? Does that seem desperate? You could ask for the same but without the onions. Is that enough? Or should you choose something else? Something you like? What do you like? You remember liking things up until 10 minutes ago when the menu arrived. Think back… You don’t like beetroot. But that doesn’t help. There’s no beetroot here not to like…
Then suddenly, like a thunderbolt from the Earth God Haldren, you confidently declare, ‘Wild garlic risotto with horn of plenty, smoked paprika tomato and saffron. Please.’
Phew. Polite conversation ensues. Risotto. Good choice, you. You’re the Don of Decision. The Choosemaster General. Baron Starter. But then… No, the waiter. He’s coming back… What could he possibly want? Maybe he’s bringing bread… No basket. NO BASKET. Maybe they’ve run out of horn of plenty? You can substitute with chanterelle. Or portobello. Anything.
‘I’m sorry. We’ve just served the last risotto. But we do have Norfolk Asparagus served with a soft quail egg, and yeast-protein-sumac.’ Curse you Earth God Haldren! Why have you forsaken me?!
Which is rather a long and unnecessarily lengthy way to explain why Doctor Who fans in 1986 were a bit miffed about The Mysterious Planet (the not-really-proper) title of the first four episodes of The Trial of a Time Lord. You see we’d been promised and got used to the idea that the next story after Revelation of the Daleks was called The Nightmare Fair. And it was a bit of a soggy TARDIS duvet fantasy for Whovians, with the promise of the return of the Celestial Toymaker after 20 years, written by 1970s producer Graham Williams…
It didn’t matter that The Celestial Toymaker was one of the most interminable Doctor Who stories of the ’60s, or that Williams only previous script contribution was The Invasion of Time, one of the most interminable Doctor Who stories of the ’70s… (And don’t give me City of Death – Williams knew the best thing that he could contribute was bringing Douglas copious mugs of tea and prevent the writer from escaping out the window.)
Mr Set Hate: ‘Oh, how the fool rants and raves. I’m not sure the imbecile even believes what he’s writing. Keep scraping from that barrel, boy… it will end in your destruction!’
The fact is that Robert Holmes (yes, HIM) provides more than an adequate script. Sure, it’s formulaic. But the dialogue is killingly funny at times. Queen Katryka’s put down of Sabalom Glitz – ‘Be silent, fat one!’ – is possibly my favourite funny moment from the whole of Doctor Who. Go watch, doubters.
In fact, I’d like some kind of control group of unsullied, historically innocent Doctor Who fans to watch The Trial of a Time Lord. And then tell me if it’s any good or not. Because frankly, I have no idea. And that’s because I know so much about the turbulent events of its creation that it’s impossible to take a dispassionate view…
For me, the epic serial is like some grand game of Consequences played out to 5 million viewers for 14 weeks on BBC1. In case you don’t know, Consequences is an old parlour game where each person takes a turn writing a word or phrase forming part of a set structure in order to build a story. Sometimes the results are hilarious and profound, with the random writings strangely adding up to a coherent whole. Other times they are just bizarre, akin to the ramblings of the Graff Vynda-K after a particularly convincing prophecy of his imminent demise.
Picture the scene: Doctor Who has been given a last-minute reprieve from cancellation, the BBC bigwigs (Michael Grade et al) are breathing down the production team’s necks, granting the series an E- and a note that they ‘must do better’. Annoyingly, they don’t make it clear want ‘better’ means; they think it may have got ‘too violent and adult’, or ‘too silly and childish’ – one or the other. Or both. So, you’d think the Doctor Who team with Eric Saward leading on the scripts would pull their socks up and produce something irrefutably brilliant (or at least do their very best to do so).
So, in planning a 14-part epic (good idea, be bold!) with contributions from a team of crack writers, you’d start by getting them all together to map out the extended adventure, give then plot points and revelations to include in their segments, so that the whole 6-hour saga is coherent, compelling and unmissable television. Right? Nah.
Just cobble together a vague umbrella theme, get each writer to do their bit separately and don’t bother to do the re-writes and notes to keep them all on-track. Write the first bit, fold the paper, pass on to the next writer who writes their bit, fold the paper… It might just turn out brilliant.
Mr Set Hate: ‘Complaints about coherence? This from the one who flits about from subject-to-subject spouting half-truths and half-witticisms? Oh my dear fool, you have been naive….’
Take the video evidence as a prime example. In the first segment (episodes 1-4), we are adumbrated one typical instance from an epistopic interface of the spectrum (okay, so not one of Holmes’s best lines; my bet is it’s Saward’s). The adventure as played out on the Matrix screen is clearly tampered with. And in Holmes’ story this is done by a inserting ‘beep-beep’ noise at a crucial moment. Which is balmy because not only does this signal to everyone that things have been tampered with, it also draws attention to the conspiracy that the Time Lords put the Doctor on Trial to cover up. Why would you do that? Why not just NOT SHOW THAT BIT?
Then the next segment, episodes 5-8, the Matrix is either tampered with to show the Doctor being bad, or the mind-altering helmet is responsible, or Doctor Six really is an insufferable git after all. Writer, Philip Martin has gone on record to say that it woz the helmet wot did it, but no one thought to communicate that to director, Ron Jones. Saward didn’t think to ask when the scripts came in, and as Martin was off on his hols at the time of recording, Colin Baker took the decision it was tampering with the Matrix that caused the Doctor to go bad.
Unfortunately, the lack of clarity meant that many viewers clung (and still cling) to the ‘insufferable git’ theory. Then you get the clunky retcon at the end where the shocking death of Peri is dismissed by a throwaway line and a bit of schmaltzy slow-mo with music. No one is clear what bits of Mindwarp ever happened or not: we know that Peri survived (does she hold to the ‘git’ theory, seeing as her mate buggered off after abusing and leaving her to an agonising death? Did any of that happen?) and Yrcanos too.
Now the pair enjoy marital bliss as warlord and wife, and viewers are left with the unpleasant image of King Yrcanos dry humping Peri (do you really think the blustering Thordon thug would have the wherewithal to drop his breeches before mounting everyone’s favourite pseudo-American botany student?) while Dorf gnaws a bone curled up on the hearth nearby (who’s to say the dog-man didn’t survive too? We just don’t know). In fact, the whole segment on Thoros Beta could be accompanied by a flashing red sign saying ‘THIS NEVER HAPPENED’.
So on to episodes 9-12 (where I give up trying to name the stories, as it’s too confusing), aka the Vervoid one. This time, the Matrix evidence is blatantly edited in a stupid, obvious way. Whereas the Valeyard could have gotten away with it in the Ravolox segment (as the Doc’s memory is wobbly), here our hero has seen the footage himself beforehand. So he’s able to shout, ‘Eh, is this the director’s cut? Did I miss a focus group?’ whenever the false bits are unconvincingly dropped in. (Maybe the Valeyard broke his ‘beep-beep’ machine?)
The tampering is just one of the many inconsistent aspects that mar this epic story. The three segments – before the convoluted finale – all could have been half-decent Who adventures in themselves. But they cannot be fully enjoyed outside the Trial setting. The Key to Time’s umbrella theme is much less intrusive and it’s perfectly possible to enjoy The Ribos Operation separately, or conversely yawn-through The Power of Kroll without one tainting the other. But with the Trial stories, it’s like they’ve burnt the bottom of the stew and stirred it all the way through the pot…
Of course, one unplanned and unexpected consequence are the final two episodes. When Holmes sadly died, it should have been easy for Saward (or any other writer) to step in and complete the serial. Surely the climax was decided from the start? It was just a case of fleshing out the detailed storyline into a script that the writers, script editor, producer, and the BBC had agreed at the outset? No. All that Saward had to go on was the folded paper handed to him, and a blank next page to fill in. And when he went in a direction John Nathan Turner didn’t like, the producer pulled the plug. Tensions built. Saward huffs off and the lawyers are brought in to make sure Pip and Jane Baker came up with a completely different ending…
Mr Set Hate: ‘What vitriolic nonsense from such a pathetic being. My dear fool, you had better be heading to a lucid conclusion. It would be so down heartening to bring about your demise amid disappointment…’
So, the dust settled. Old Sixie and Mel head off into timey-wimey confusion to the tune of carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice… And the Half Doctor (naughty version) is vanquished forever… No. Wait a minute! Look! (Mwah, ha, ha, ha, ha…). And the trial is over. Or is it?
Despite the Inquisitor’s insistence that all the charges have been dropped, the trial of Doctor Who continues… This time, on a BBC space station known as ‘Open Air’, further charges are levelled against the show…
This time, the enemy isn’t some wayward robots, slug creatures, or sentient cauliflowers; it was a fearsome quartet of disgruntled adolescents (fear them!) who have sworn allegiance to the Merseyside Branch of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society (MBDWAS).
And in some complex metatextual chronic hysteresis, two of the current writers, Pip and Jane Baker are confronted by the writer and showrunner of the future (somewhere between his 12th and final incarnation), The Chibnall.
Yes, cheeky Chris gives his damning assessment of the Trial season, ‘It doesn’t seem to have much to it.’ Oh, Chris, Chrissey boy, you’re on TV, mate! Say something substantial… ‘It hasn’t improved that much since it went off the air.’ Now we’re talking! Give ‘em it straight, Chibbers!
‘It could have been a lot better. It could have been slightly better written.’ (*Cough* Cyberwoman) ‘…especially the last story. Not only [that it was too complicated], it was also cliched. It was very routine running up and down corridors with lots of silly monsters.’ (Sounds like the pitch for Dinosaurs on a Spaceship…)
Over the course of the interview, it becomes clear that the Chris and his MBDWAS chums believe Doctor Who may have got ‘too violent and adult’, or ‘too silly and childish’ – one or the other. Or both. Very helpful and constructive feedback, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Then, making a Master-like final intervention, John Nathan-Turner appears on the viewscreen and dismisses the little twerps with a wave of his charm and understated authority. Finally the presenter confronts the twitching teens with the accusation that they are ‘very silly’ as Doctor Who is ‘basically a kids’ programme’. This is too much for young Chibnall who retorts, ‘This is what we try to sort of… aim… for telling people. That is why we would like the show to be made more adult. It has the capacity to be very adult, very entertaining, and very dramatic…’ One day, you shall come back. Yes, you shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to us that we are not mistaken in ours. Goodbye, my dear. Goodbye, young Chibnall.
So, there we have it. Trial on trial. But I’ve always felt like they missed a trick. As the Master reveals when he pops up on the Matrix screen in part 13 that he, like the Doctor, the courtroom and the viewers at home, has been watching The Trial of A Time Lord as it unfolds. So, forget all the interminable spats between the Doctor, Valeyard, and Inquisitor, THAT’S the version I’d like to see: Ainley’s Master rolling his eyes, grimacing and offering his wry take on proceedings, occasionally breaking out into his Mutley laugh….
Mr Set Hate: ‘My dear fool. It seems you know too much. And so you must pay the price. And I have just the device to enact my revenge. Oh, don’t worry, fool, it won’t hurt. Well, maybe just a little, teeny tiny…’
Ahhhhhhhhh….! [Zoom in on open mouth, fade in theme music]