Part one of our two-part review focuses on the story content provided in this classic collection.
Once again the restoration for this set offers improvements over the DVD release, and I appreciate that they also restored the extended edits. Season 23 isn’t the most visually interesting but it does have some great shots which are done justice in the release like the opening shot with the space station and the exterior beach of Thoros Beta. The audio work by Mark Ayres was typically impressive as every episode, extended included, has been given a 5.1 Surround Sound mix.
After an 18-month hiatus Doctor Who finally returned to television screens in 1986, but something was different. For starters, the season had returned to the 25-minute format and there were only fourteen episodes, half of the previous season. With this new format came the second season-long arc for Doctor Who which revolved around the concept of the Sixth Doctor being put on trial (again) for meddling in the affairs of other planets and species (again). The series would also be injected with more humour and the Doctor’s abrasiveness toned down somewhat, though this isn’t the case with the courtroom scenes as the Doctor clashes with the antagonistic Valeyard (Michael Jayston), all whilst the Inquisitor (Lynda Bellingham) attempts to mediate.
Trial of a Time Lord consists of four separate segments: The Mysterious Planet (episodes 1-4) Mindwarp (episodes 5-8), Terror of the Vervoids (episodes 9-12) and The Ultimate Foe (episodes 13-14) These segments are often interrupted by outbursts from the Doctor or Valeyard, with several instances of Colin Baker face zoom-ins which feel more comedic than anticipated. For the purpose of this review, I will be analysing them individually. The Blu Ray collection also contains extended edits of all fourteen episodes and a special “trial-less” version of Terror of the Vervoids which I will cover briefly also.
The Trial of a Time Lord-episodes 1-4 (The Mysterious Planet)
As the story opens we get a brilliant model shot of the space station on which the trial is taking place. It is easily the best practical effect of the classic era and tops much of Nu-Who’s offerings also. The Tardis is beamed into the space station and as the Doctor steps out and walks into the courtroom the scene is immediately set: The Valeyard sinisterly explains the situation, the Doctor bites back and the Inquisitor attempts to mediate the squabbling. This is pretty much the extent of the trial scenes for much of the story and though some exchanges are humorous they do wear thin.
We are shown the first piece of evidence as The Doctor and Peri (Nicola Bryant) find themselves on a, well, mysterious planet. They quickly realise that the planet is actually Earth, devastated by a fireball, 2 million years in the future and located two light-years from the previously known location. The plot sees two factions of humans, those who remained on the surface and devolved into a warrior tribe and those who inhabit a complex underground complex, enslaved by a sentient robot known as Drathro, and raised to believe that the surface is nothing but a sea of flames.
The segment was written by Robert Holmes and features another of his signature duos in the form of Sabalom Glitz and his partner Dibber who came to Ravalox to destroy a “black light” generator which powers Drathro. They provide some fun banter in an otherwise fairly bland script, one that was sadly rewritten and it shows, as the story is rather bland and forgettable, hardly a fitting final completed script from one of Doctor Who’s finest writers.
Looking at positives I did find the suit for Drathro to be one of the better looking non-Cyberman ones and some of the ideas were intriguing, like the underground humans worshipping three pieces of literature, one being Moby Dick. It is clever ideas like this that sadly feel lacking in what could have been a fascinating story, and whilst The Mysterious Planet has its moments it is the weak link in the season.
The Trial of a Time Lord-episodes 5-8 (Mindwarp)
Mindwarp is a bizarre and odd story, easily the strangest of the Sixth Doctor’s era and is, at times, rather unpleasant and grim, making it a fascinatingly morbid watch. It takes place on Thoros Beta, the home planet of the villainous Sil (Nabil Shaban), previously seen in Season 22’s “Vengeance on Varos”, and his people The Mentors who are attempting to save the life of an influential figure, Lord Kiv (Christopher Ryan), by employing a group of scientists to transfer his mind to a new body.
The issue is that there are seldom any bodies that prove suitable and as such they become desperate. The Doctor and Peri arrive; investigating arms sales, and quickly get into trouble as they kill a monstrous being known as The Raak in self-defence. As they attempt to escape they happen upon Sil and the Doctor is interrogated –his mind seemingly wiped as he betrays Peri in an effort to cosy up to the Mentors.
Mindwarp is notable for several things, mainly the death of companion Peri whose body becomes the final home for Lord Kiv’s mind. There’s also the bombastic presence of BRIAN BLESSED (a name that has to be written in capitals to do that booming voice justice!), who plays King Yrcanos, a proud warrior who became the subject of experiments alongside Dorf (Thomas Branch). They team up with Peri and other escapees to take down The Mentors, yet in the end, he has to kill Peri, now home to Lord Kiv.
There’s also the Doctor’s behaviour in this segment-at times it seems as if he is pretending to be antagonistic to curry favour, but at other times he is downright vicious and cruel. It is heavily implied that the evidence in the trial has been tampered with, and this becomes more apparent later on.
To sum it up, Mindwarp is a very good 80s Who story and is a standout for the season, Brian Blessed is great and the supporting cast is also solid. The brutal “death” of Peri is comparable to that of Sarah Kingdom in “The Destruction of Time” and it was nice to see Sil again.
The Trial of a Time Lord-episodes 9-12 (Terror of the Vervoids)
This segment presents a (Doctor…) whodunit in space as the Doctor and new companion Mel (Bonnie Langford) find themselves aboard a starliner housing a terrible secret, answering a distress signal. After the relative brutality of Mindwarp, Vervoids feels more like a more familiar setup, though this works to its favour for the most part. The new combination of Six and Mel is fun to see here, and I argue that Mel, outside of screaming a fair bit (nothing new there), is solid in this story and in the following segment too. She has solid chemistry with the Doctor and it’s a shame that their time together was cut so short.
The Starliner, the Hyperion III, is headed by Commodore Travers who knows the Doctor and puts Him and Mel under surveillance. The two still manage to sneak around in an attempt to figure out who sent the distress signal and why. They soon discover that the Star Liner is also home to the Vervoids, a plant-based slave species artificially created by the Mogarians, several of whom are aboard the starliner. They are awakened and soon begin to rebel against all non-plant-based life on board.
There’s also the matter of the starliner heading dangerously close to the Blackhole of Tartarus, and that the increasingly paranoid Bruchner has decided that the best way to deal with the awakened Vervoids is to steer the ship into said Black Hole. After being stopped The Doctor is forced to commit genocide by wiping them out using a rare mineral that speeds up photosynthesis. This decision results in the Valeyard changing the Doctor’s charge to that of genocide, something that leaves the Doctor in a difficult predicament.
Terror of the Vervoids is a good little story and a nice change of pace from the previous segments. It doesn’t tread a lot of new ground but I’ve always had a soft spot for it and the Vervoids have a unique design that’s a standout for the era.
The Trial of a Time Lord-episodes 13-14 (The Ultimate Foe)
As the Doctor finds themselves stuck in a rut, Glitz and Mel are taken from time and sent to the space station as the Master makes an appearance from within the Matrix. The Matrix had been used as a means of viewing the cases for the trial and as such, it is discovered that certain members of the High Council of Gallifrey had been meddling with it. The script ties itself back into The Mysterious Planet as it is discovered that Earth was moved as a means to protect secrets held on the planet.
What follows is a truly brilliant speech from The Doctor and one of my favourites, as well as the reveal that the Valeyard is actually a future incarnation of The Doctor. He escapes the courtroom and enters the Matrix with The Doctor and Glitz in tow. The realisation of the Matrix as a recreation of Victorian London offers an eerie setting, as does the Valeyard’s base “The Fantasy Factory”.
After some waiting room shenanigans we get one of the best Doctor Who cliff-hangers as Six, having been stranded on a beach in the Matrix gets dragged into the sands by various vicious sentient hands. After denying this illusion we get the final episode which feels rushed in places, understandable when considering the problems behind the scenes. Writer Robert Holmes passed away before he could write episode fourteen, having penned episode 13. Pip and Jane Baker, who wrote Terror of the Vervoids, were commissioned last minute to conclude the story, and script editor Eric Saward had also left due to the stressful work conditions behind the scenes.
Considering these sad and unfortunate circumstances I’m surprised that Foe is as fun and inventive as it is. I love the surrealism throughout the final segment and it was nice seeing Anthony Ainley again, even if the Master doesn’t get much screen time.
Trial of a Time Lord ends with The Doctor clearing his name and being told by Mel that he needs to continue exercising and that some carrot juice would do him wonders, thus his final lines “carrot juice carrot juice carrot juice”. Not exactly a high point to go out on.
The extended edits for each of the segments offer more subtle differences than anything else but some stories benefit from having the occasional scene included or added lines to flesh character interactions out. The “trial-less” edit of Terror of the Vervoids, meanwhile, is an intriguing curio and what-if scenario.
Sadly, Colin Baker would be fired from his dream role as The Doctor, and consequently Doctor Who as a series continued to face issues until it was cancelled in 1989. Trial of a Time Lord isn’t the strongest set of stories but does offer an interesting concept that has yet to be re-explored. It’s a shame that this was Colin Baker’s final outing as the Sixth Doctor as he’s on great form and the character had a lot more to give. Thankfully the world of audio has been kind to Six and they have many stories to explore under the Big Finish label.
The Mysterious Planet
Mindwarp, The Ultimate Foe
Check out the second part of the review, which features a rundown of the packaging, special features and audio/visual details as well as a final review score.
By HW Reynolds
Images provided by BBC