Reviewed: Doctor Who Season 23 – Doctor in Distress


Much has been written about Doctor Who’s famous hiatus enforced by Michael Grade after Season 22. Most viewed it as the “incredibly long” hiatus at the time. Truth of the matter is, it hasn’t been a whole lot longer than some of the modern hiatuses the show has had. We went 16 months in-between the end of Series 9 to Series 10 (NuWho). It was 18 months in between Season 22 and 23 in the Classic show. While we don’t know when Series 12 will start in 2020, it’s probably a good guess it will be between 12-16 months there, too. So the Michael Grade break isn’t as awful compared to some of the other breaks, which didn’t garner pretty bad charity songs to try and bring the show back faster.

Once the show came back, what did we get? Not the original season as intended. Given the order to rest the series came before all the episodes had transmitted, they were able to put the slight “pause” at the end of Season 22 which would have resulted in a quite different Season 23. The original, unproduced Season 23 had six stories that were abandoned. I won’t get into that too much here, but the single most annoying thing about the lost Season 23 is they were going to do a sequel to the William Hartnell story, The Celestial Toymaker, here titled The Nightmare Fair written by former series producer Graham Williams. They even convinced the original Toymaker, Michael Gough to reprise his role. Arrrrrgh! There’s more to read here if you want to check it out.

Anyway, back to what was produced. It was the same production team, but the number of episodes was halved. Not by number though – the BBC pushed their spin on things, but the reality is this: Season 22 before included 13 episodes, but that was the year they tried double-length episodes (similar to NuWho) – every season before 22 had (roughly) 25 minute episodes. For Season 22, we got 45-50 minute episodes, but fewer of them (13 vs 26). However, when the show returned for Season 23, there were 14 episodes, but they were returned to the 25 minute length. The BBC tried to push that as an “increase in episodes”, which is technically correct, but it halved the overall screen time for the complete series. Additionally, one of the big knocks on Season 22 was its violence, so that kind of stuff was ordered to be removed, and replaced with lighter fare. I’m pretty convinced that the remit to tone down the violence is what led us to an intentionally lighter character in Melanie Bush (Bonnie Langford).

The show saw the final use of the title sequence that first was introduced in Season 18 (Tom Baker’s last). Visually, it was the same as Season 22, but there was a new variant of the theme song that I think most fans at the time thought was the worst in the show’s history. I realise the perception of it has changed over the years, but at the time it was looked at pretty poorly (which may have continued to it changing again for Season 24). 

Now, The Trial of a Time Lord itself is officially the longest story in the show’s history. As it originally went out in 1986, the episodes were numbered “Part One” through “Part Fourteen”. Much has been said about that – some people consider it one story, some people consider it four. It was produced as four separate stories (The Mysterious Planet – 7A, Mindwarp – 7B, Terror of the Vervoids – 7C, and The Ultimate Foe – 7D). The DVD box set that came out some years ago gave them separate story numbers as well (144 through 147). Despite all that, I’m in the camp that The Trial of a Time Lord is a single story, as through all home video releases it says Episodes One through Fourteen. The production codes and titles are for our benefit in separating them. That’s my take on the “One Story vs Four” debate here.

The overall narrative went back and forth between the Trial sequences and the bits of the individual stories – 3 of the 4 were “evidence” in the trial. I’ve seen a lot of reviews of this going all the way back to 1986 (as I was watching the show then) and most seemed to dislike this – the most frequently used term is that it was “too jarring”. I never agreed with that. I loved the back and forth. It felt like I was getting two stories at once.

Despite having four writers and four directors, the connecting Trial scenes gave the whole thing a more unified feel. I do wonder how much that was told to the individual directors. All fourteen episodes end in some sort of close-up. Almost all of them are of Colin Baker, but there was one that ended on a Vervoid, and another on the Valeyard (Michael Jayston). I wonder if the directors were all told to do that. If not, then it was a really weird coincidence that almost all of them ended on a close-up of Colin’s face. As you can see.

But what about the stories themselves? Given there’s almost five stories here (the four individuals plus the court scenes), I wanted to talk about the Trial sequences themselves a bit)..

First up is…

The Mysterious Planet

This was written by long time Doctor Who scribe, Robert Holmes. I loved that Holmes was brought back, as he created some of the most classic stories from the past. This may not have been his best, but there were definitely some Holmesian moments in it. From the combination of Glitz and Dibber; the underground robot’s helpers, Humker and Tandrell; to the concept of Earth/Ravalox – classic Holmes pairings.

First off the caustic relationship between the Sixth Doctor and Peri Brown (Nicola Bryant) was scrapped. It was a shame they saved it til this story, because they’re back to being caustic (although for a different reason) in the second segment of Trial. Nicola and Colin were a great team, so it’s sad that the bulk of their time was spent griping at each other. I wouldn’t care about that so much if Nicola was around a bit more. The Mysterious Planet is really the only story where we see the two of them be truly nice to each other. I suspect this too was part of the remit to change the overall tone of the show after the previous series.

At the time, this story took a lot of grief for being “the worst Robert Holmes” story, but I never agreed with this. It’s not his best, no – Queen Katryca never felt compelling to me. I don’t know if it was Joan Simms herself or just the writing for her, but it’s the weakest part of the story. Every time she was on screen, I never felt like she was a leader of anything. She eventually gets killed, and I felt nothing for the character in any way.

That’s about it for the bad for me. There were a few other things that weren’t great, like one of the roving robots. But that’s typical practical issues on Doctor Who. That wasn’t the fault of the writing.

There were some of the usual Doctor Who tropes here – including running in hallways – and as a bonus, running outside! There was also a throwback.  The Sixth Doctor refers to Peri at one point as Sarah Jane, which made me chuckle – I love a good throwback.

At the time this story was new, I hadn’t seen a lot of the past of Doctor Who, and while the Trial scenes weren’t on Gallifrey, I loved the references to Time Lord past (the sleepers and the information Glitz was after). So when we got what seemed like a hint for future events, I wondered where it was going to come back. Modern Doctor Who does setups and story plants all the time, but in the mid ’80s, this kind of thing was not common.

In the end, despite the major negative that was Katryca, I thought the story worked well, and planted some seeds that would be revisited later in the series.

As a side comment, I thought Nicola’s hair and outfit was brilliant in Mysterious Planet. I always had a crush on Nicola, but in this story I loved her “look”.

Second up is…

Brian Blessed Gets Shouty Mindwarp

Brian Blessed is loud. Peri dies.

[Ed Note: I know your review is already long, but you need more than that.]

Oh, okay. The Mysterious Planet opened with that badass special effect of the space station pan. So did Mindwarp, technically. They had part of the station pan at the start of Mindwarp, but the real start of Mindwarp also had a cool special effect. When they finally show Thoros Beta, it’s got a pink ocean, and when the TARDIS lands, the ground and sky was coloured. In 2019, it looks a bit dated, but in 1986, I thought it was a very cool effect. Definitely led to the atmosphere of the story.

But the biggest draw for this story for me was Brian Blessed. An actor well known to both British and American audiences. Mostly for one thing. His insanely loud voice.

It’s not a joke that I said “Brian Blessed gets all shouty”. His character here, King Yrcanos is the height of bluster, and just feels like it was written for him. When I watch this story, I simply cannot see anyone else playing King Yrcanos. Heck, two of the characters in the story talk about his shouting, so it was definitely part of the character. I first ran into Brian in the 1980 Flash Gordon movie (Gordon’s ALIVE?!), and I knew him from the first series of Blackadder. I later found his work in a great many other things, but Doctor Who, Blackadder, and Flash Gordon were the foundations of my appreciation of Brian Blessed. In fact, if you go back in time, Blessed was one of the names being bandied about as the Second Doctor. Can you imagine how different Doctor Who might have gone if Blessed got the Second Doctor instead of Patrick Troughton?

It wasn’t all shouting, either. There’s a scene early in Episode 8 where Peri talks to Yrcanos about love, and Blessed’s response is actually quite moving. He’s a brilliant actor, and his inclusion in this series was one of my favorite bits of casting in Doctor Who ever.

However, Blessed wasn’t the only good thing in this. Mindwarp brought back Nabil Shaban as Sil, one of the best things from the prior season of Doctor Who. His portrayal was one of the strongest things of the story. The character sounded annoying and was partially played for comedy, but I loved this. I always hoped he would have returned for a third time in the series, but it never occurred. Not on TV anyway; I know he came back for some Big Finish stories. I would love to see Sil in the new series with updated special effects. His status at the end of the story is unknown, so he could still be out there…

One thing that puzzled me a bit about this story is they repeated something that was generally accepted as not a success when it was tried the first time around. In Colin’s first story (The Twin Dilemma), the Doctor’s post regenerative state caused him to attack Peri and be generally unlikable.  That happened here too. For the overwhelming majority of Mindwarp, you had no idea whether the Doctor was acting under a “clever ploy” (like he says in the Trial segments), or if he was really out of his mind and tried to get Peri killed or at least tortured. When I first watched it, I truly didn’t know – which is the mark of a good drama. If you can’t figure it out until they hit you over the head with the explanation, then it’s well done. But I did think it was odd to repeat the “Doctor is extremely rude to Peri” angle yet again, right after they had eliminated that in The Mysterious Planet.

But overall, the last 14 minutes or so of Episode 8 are excellent – definitely compelling Doctor Who. I loved the chaos that was released and the way the story ended – with a bang. Peri was killed in the story (more on that later), a fate reserved for a select few Doctor Who companions. Nicola Bryant even pulled off the bald look. The kind of acting we saw from her in the final scenes of Mindwarp were unlike anything she did in Doctor Who. The only other time I saw her act like that was in the 2017 episodes of Star Trek Continues that she did – if you never saw those, you really should.

Bottom line, this was my favorite part of the Trial season – mostly (but not completely) due to Brian Blessed. Varoonik!

Terror of the Vervoids

Terror of the Vervoids was a story I liked right from the beginning. This was a straight up murder mystery. A classic storytelling trope, but of course with this being Doctor Who, it had some twists in it. If you like murder mysteries, then you’d probably like this; if you don’t, then you don’t. There’s more to the story than that, but at its core, Vervoids is a murder mystery with all that comes with that type of story.

What’s unique here is the cast. The major guest actor here is Honor Blackman, who is most known for playing Pussy Galore in the Sean Connery 007 film, Goldfinger. She plays the lead scientist in this story, Professor Lasky. Her character was well acted, but wasn’t on screen as much as an actress of that stature should have been, in my opinion.

However, this is also the story that introduced Bonnie Langford to Doctor Who. Bonnie is one of the more divisive people who have been in the cast. I always liked her, but I think that’s to do with the fact that Doctor Who was the first thing I’d ever seen her in (or heard of her for that matter). I didn’t have the built-in irritation that a lot of British folks did to her casting. However, I’m not here to write about Bonnie; I’ve done that elsewhere.

One last comment about the casting: back in the day, my first crush from this story wasn’t Bonnie Langford; it was Yolande Palfrey. I always hoped she would have been a companion…

But as I said earlier, this is a murder mystery. On the off chance someone reading this hasn’t actually seen this story, I won’t get into the details of the mystery in question. But I thought the story was well paced, and in 2019 I don’t recall whether I was taken in in 1986, but I do recall liking the story. Just not whether I figured it out ahead of time or not. In rewatching it now, I thought it still works, even though I know everything that’s going to happen.

One thing that gets brought up a lot is the design of the Vervoids. Without being too graphic about it, their faces look like.. well.. let’s just say “female anatomy”. How that made it past the censor always amazed me. Surely someone somewhere thought that before it made it to production. Still, it made it through to the final episodes. I wonder what the people making the show thought about that as a serious character design.

This story does have one thing that no other single story in the history of Doctor Who does. It features the introduction of a new companion, but unlike every other story, it comes from a point in the Doctor’s future. The Vervoid story is considered the “future” of the Doctor, and the “current” version of the Doctor was in the Trial sequences. More on that in the last segment, but we never did get a “bigger on the inside” sequence with Mel. There’s a joke in there about Colin’s size and Mel, I’m sure – they had a few of them as is. 

The story ends on a twist – but not in the Vervoid stuff, in the trial itself. The Valeyard turns around the Doctor’s evidence and makes it a negative to the point where it seems there’s no way out – I always thought it was a great shock twist to set the Doctor up for complete failure in the last segment of the season…

The Ultimate Foe

And that brings us to the finale. The Ultimate Foe. It was confusing both on screen and off. In fact, the off-screen stuff is a good story itself. 

First off the model from the first episode makes another appearance. Given how expensive it was, you’ve got to get some additional use out of it.

The reality. If you’re reading this review, you probably know this bit. These two episodes were to be written by Robert Holmes, who wrote the first four of Trial. However, after writing the first episode, he died. He never completed the last episode. So it was initially written by Script Editor, Eric Saward, and then presented to John Nathan-Turner who rejected the finale.  Saward’s finale ended with the Doctor and the Valeyard in a battle in the Matrix – a cliffhanger. JN-T postulated that handing the BBC a ready-made loaded gun to cancel the series wasn’t a good idea – especially when the show was fighting for its own life. Given what happened with the entrance of Sylvester McCoy after this series, Saward’s finale would have made for a far better regeneration than the exercise bike. On the other hand, I get where JN-T is coming from. I didn’t hate the final version, but the original would have been far more dramatic. Saward and JN-T weren’t the best of buddies in the first place, and this split them up permanently. Saward quit Doctor Who after this. His Episode 14 was ignored, and JN-T brought in Pip and Jane Baker to write the last episode. It wasn’t awful – they tried to mimic Holmes in some ways, but in other ways it was an odd tonal shift from what had just come. I don’t see Holmes writing something like “megabyte modem” in his script.

I actually really loved the first half of Episode 13 as it was 100% in the court. Unlike most, I liked the Trial bits, and we got a full uninterrupted segment there. It included the appearance of Glitz and Mel. They were brought by the Master (Anthony Ainley) here. Now Glitz knew the Master was sending them, so it begs the question – what happened with the characters to convince them to go there? He must have been relatively nice to them, since they weren’t complaining about being there. They appeared in some pod.  Given what the Tenth Doctor has said about “time travel without a capsule – that’s a killer”, perhaps what’s what those pods that Mel and Glitz arrived in – tiny capsules – akin to the thing that the Fifth Doctor was in briefly in Castrovalva?

A lot of these two episodes takes place in the Matrix. No, not Neo’s Matrix, but the Matrix that was first referenced back in another Robert Holmes story, 1976’s The Deadly Assassin. The Matrix is “the repository of all Time Lord knowledge”. It had a huge fantasy aspect in Deadly Assassin, and it did here as well. The events that take place in the Matrix are an odd fantasy world. Which seems to me to run counter to being a repository of knowledge; you wouldn’t think knowledge would try to kill you, but there we are. There was definitely some Holmesian stuff in there. Mr. Popplewick was a fun character, albeit not on screen a whole lot. Turns out, that was a way for the Valeyard to hide – although why he’d need to, I’m not sure. Kind of like the Master in Time-Flight – why was he hiding, exactly?

I actually loved the Master in this story – he shows up about 10 minutes into Episode 13, and is on the Trial room screen a lot. He’s kind of a talking head – and the position of the screen made him seem like he was lording over the court when he appeared. It fits the Master’s character. I also love at one point the Master laughs while he was talking – actually snorting in the middle of the laugh. It was one of my favourite acting touches by Anthony Ainley in his time in the role.

One other thing which led, I believe, to the bust-up between JN-T and Eric Saward was JN-T’s insistence that they not actually kill Peri. Now whether this came at the end, or was always planned from Episode 8, I’m not sure. But in short, the dramatic death of Peri was overturned in Episodes 13 and 14, when the Master reveals that Peri wasn’t dead, but “set up as a Queen by that warmongering fool Yrcanos”. The Inquisitor (Lynda Bellingham) told the Doctor that in the final moments of Episode 14 before the episode ended. Peri’s death was overturned. I didn’t want to see Peri die – I always liked her. Yet her death was well handled, and dramatically solid. To have it tossed away like that… Well, it feels very Steven Moffat to me.

One thing that confused me was a moment in the middle of The Ultimate Foe when the Keeper enters the courtroom and says “Insurrection is running amok on Gallifrey” and mentions the High Council has been deposed. Uh, why? What’s happening on Gallifrey to cause all that? It was a couple of throwaway lines by the Keeper, but for that kind of event to happen, a lot must be going down there – we don’t know anything about what happened!

The only thing I had a huge problem with was the way the Valeyard was shown to have “died”. He made a big deal out of the “Megabyte Modem” creating a huge explosion – which we did see, but he didn’t make any great effort to escape. Then he was shown to have died on the floor of the building – in a really weak death. Whether that was Pip and Jane’s writing, or Michael Jayston’s acting, I don’t know. But much like Peri in Episode 8, the last moments of Episode 14 were shown to have overturned that. Said last moment had the Valeyard as the final thing on screen in Episode 14 before the credits rolled – he was definitely alive. Which begs the question:  If you’re going to show a character thought to be dead, wouldn’t you use them again? It’s very Doctor’s Daughter. I wonder if there were any real plans to bring him back when they made that decision, or if it was just an open-ended thing.

And then Mel. I loved Mel – counter to most everyone’s opinion. But Mel did present an interesting conundrum here. The “current” time in play in the courtroom had Glitz and Mel arrive – out of time. When Mel appeared in the Vervoid story, it was in the future. Now we don’t know exactly where Mel came from to appear in the Trial room, but she definitely knew him, so it was at some point in the future. That “Future Mel” left with the Sixth Doctor at the end of Trial of a Time Lord, which created a problem. That Mel was out of time. They did not address that on the TV series at all. The next time we saw the characters, Sylvester McCoy was wearing Colin’s outfit and a wig, and regenerated into himself.

Other media did attempt to rectify this issue. There was a novel by Gary Russell in 1997 titled Business Unusual which was supposed to be the actual “first meeting” between the Sixth Doctor and Mel. It even spoke to her original character remit of being a computer programmer, something else that was never seen on screen. Later on, in January 2013, there was a Big Finish story called The Wrong Doctors which is another story of the “first meeting” between the Doctor and Mel. However, it also had our “current” Doctor trying to return “Future Mel” to where she came from, so that’s an interesting twist. Finally, there was another Big Finish story in 2003 called He Jests at Scars in their Unbound series which basically tells the story, “What if the Valeyard won in the Trial”. It has Bonnie Langford and Michael Jayston in it. It’s a bit odd – especially the ending. Worth a listen for sure.

Closing Thoughts

Wait a Minuet

I never understood the generally negative perception that The Trial of a Time Lord has had over the years. It’s never been seen as truly bad, but I’ve always heard people drag it down with snark, rather than building it up with what they liked. I never understood that. I loved the Trial: it’s an all over the place collection of story styles; some characters I really loved; not a lot I didn’t – overall the season was a great success to me. Too short, but that’s down to Michael Grade.

As I write this the series is just out on Blu-ray. I will digest the set in the next few weeks, and have a full-on review of the set later on in the year.

So to close: The Valeyard escapes, and the Doctor and Mel fly off talking about carrot juice and the exercise bike again. That’s not truly the end of the Sixth Doctor and Mel, as they do appear on screen again (albeit not together) in 1993’s Dimensions in Time. Hey Phil, would you like me to write 4,000 words about Dimensions in Time…?

Carrot Juice… Carrot Juice… Carrot Juice…

NEXT: 24/7.