Tuesday, September 06, 2011


DVD Detail: Doctor Who – The Trial of a Time Lord: The Mysterious Planet

It’s September, and Doctor Who’s back on TV, as it always was. Twenty-five years ago this evening, a superb cast led by Colin Baker and Michael Jayston launched into the longest and most postmodern of all Who stories, in which the Doctor is taken out of time and placed on trial alongside the show itself. Does the opening special effect still look as fantastic as it did in 1986? Can the Doctor convince the Inquisitor (and the audience) that he hasn’t been misusing his time? And might this existential crisis be a better DVD release than it is a story?

Back in 1986, the BBC high-ups had turned against Doctor Who. They cancelled it, then grudgingly allowed it back eighteen months later with a reduced running time, reduced budget and a series of directives from above that (as the excellent, if dispiriting, set of extras here reveal) were long on criticism and very short indeed in saying what they wanted instead. So when the punch-drunk series returned twenty-five years ago tonight with most of the executives wanting it to fail, it wasn’t a massive success. The Doctor Who production team fought back by giving all fourteen episodes one long story arc: in pretty much the most obvious and postmodern theme in the series’ history, the Doctor’s popularity is tested on a big TV screen while his corrupt superiors are completely stacked against him. It’s the ‘Trial’, symbolising a trial, and it’s sometimes a bit of a trial. So as to avoid swallowing the whole lot at once, it’s broken into several mini-stories as different parts of the ‘evidence’ (structured into past, present and future, inspired by A Christmas Carol), the first being sub-titled The Mysterious Planet. It’s possibly not the best of the Trial, but it’s probably the one of which I’m fondest… And what do other fans think of it? Back in September 2009, Doctor Who Magazine 413 published “The Mighty 200” – 6,700 fans’ votes on all 200ish TV Doctor Who stories to that point – and placed the whole Trial of a Time Lord 142nd (about right, to me) but these first four episodes at a lowly 165ish (I’d put it about thirty places higher).

While this ‘taster’ may not be short, incidentally, my policy in these is not to be too spoilery. So read on without fear of finding out too many key twists from the end.

That Golden Moment
“Listen… You are only a robot. The people out there – the work units, the organics, whatever you choose to call them – they’re living creatures, Drathro. They have a right to their lives.”

‘It’s not fair!’ – I was a teenage tin tyrant
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Everyone else rightly remembers this story for a special effects sequence that’s still striking a quarter of a century later, or for a star-studded guest cast boasting the likes of Michael Jayston, Lynda Bellingham, Tony Selby and Joan Sims. I remember it for all those things, too, but still more for Colin Baker facing off against someone you’ve probably not heard of in a big metal suit. Colin is a very theatrical actor, and one of the reasons I love his Doctor is that he’s at his best when giving speeches. Robert Holmes was the best of the Twentieth Century Doctor Who writers, and the two or three stories he wrote for Colin give him brilliant speeches that Colin rises to magnificently. The Mysterious Planet is the last more-or-less full story Bob Holmes wrote, and Colin gets superb material here particularly in the first episode – bubbling with enthusiasm then wistfully compassionate as he tells his companion that “nothing can be eternal” – and then again half-way through Part Four, trying to persuade a robot tyrant to let his people go, when the Doctor makes a mistake. Ironically, though you’d expect great speeches of a courtroom drama, not one of them is in the courtroom this time, despite this scene being fine advocacy from an actor who started as a lawyer.

And perhaps surprisingly, the character that I empathised with here even more than the Doctor was the robot tyrant, Drathro.

In September 1986, I was fourteen, and perhaps there’s something about being a bright teenager that leads to empathy with existential crises. The show was certainly in the middle of one, but from the very first time I saw this episode, I knew instinctively that Drathro was having one, too, and that that’s why the Doctor’s advocacy gets it wrong. I’ve never read another reviewer that came to the same conclusion; it may have been a theme of the script, or merely something that I read into it – making it a rare Doctor Who story that was rewritten better in my head as I was actually watching it – but ever since a man in 2000AD’s 1980 Robo-Hunter – Day of the Droids woke up, accidentally opened his face and discovered he was a robot, I’d been fascinated by existential questions. Long before I ever heard of the Turing Test, I was often on the side of robots in sci-fi, reasoning that if I didn’t know if they were sentient or not, perhaps neither did they, and that might be depressing them.

Drathro’s self-absorption is the (self-)centre of the story: the set-up of the two human tribes on the eponymous (or is it?) mysterious planet is a result of his rigid control; the threat of the black light explosion is down to his desire to take everyone with him; even his homoerotic servants Humker and Tandrell deserting him is triggered by his magnificent, hilarious reassurance that his armour means the Tribe of the Free don’t threaten him – “Their guns will destroy only you.” Drathro’s early observation that “organic” intuition often improves on his logic makes him sound slightly admiring and envious of the Doctor, while also seeking to control him – his existential crisis in a nutshell, like Taren Capel in reverse. He’s rather a good design, too, a massive robot with a curved head resembling both a signal receiver in a TV story about TV and a minotaur in a tale of a labyrinth (he looks even better next to his hench-robot, which is a bit rubbish). On the down side, he’s rarely directed to best advantage, but here he towers impressively over Colin as they debate on the crucial question of, if everything’s set to blow up, he should choose to be shut down five minutes early so that the five hundred humans he’s in charge of can live. And with Drathro entirely self-absorbed and far more charismatic than his vassals, it’s easy to miss just how appallingly he’s misused the power he gained through a state of emergency – it’s not just the explosive crisis presented here, but five hundred years in which he’s kept people enslaved by poverty, ignorance and conformity when none of it was necessary. Yet I still find him compelling.

The reason why I love the Doctor’s confrontation with Drathro to bits is that Drathro is tormented by not knowing if he’s self-aware or just programmed like that, which is why he has it in for the organics and why the Doctor’s tactless opening moral argument that he is “only a robot” is saying exactly the wrong thing. The brilliant Doctor winds him up, and the great big robot stops listening, because he doesn’t know whether he’s real or not and doesn’t like the Doctor rubbing it in. He’s such an underrated character, like Marvin the paranoid android done for real – a grumpy mechanical teenager with a marvellously flat, almost sulky delivery (Roger Brierley doing the voice, Paul McGuiness the physical acting).

And I’m certain, too, that the Doctor spots that he’s put his foot in it. His argument dances around Drathro, trying to find anything that will make him pay attention and think about anyone but himself. He offers a moral argument, then a logical argument, then one that’s both scientific and almost poetic; Drathro responds with a very ’80s Thatcherite argument, where he understands “value” only in the most limited sense, then with the sniffy thought that if no-one’s ever seen an explosion like this, well, there’ll be one soon. For me, it’s a major misstep by the script to suddenly inflate this internal debate with a threat to the world – the galaxy – the Universe!! – which seems less an exciting climax than a major loss of faith in the story’s ability to engage us so far, but I still think the misstep of dismissing Drathro’s personhood is a deliberate one: Colin plays it as if he realises what he’s said, and admits his humanity. Because he recognises that to be such a git, Drathro has to be a person – only an individual could be so selfish – and it’s at that point that Drathro’s earned the Doctor being angry at him.
“Hubris – false pride. A human sin. You’ve controlled your pointless little empire for too long – now you can’t see anything beyond it.”
Though the Doctor’s honestly talking to him as a person now, Drathro is too sunk in depression to notice – until the Doctor’s friends (and uneasy allies) turn up trying to get in the back way, aiming to persuade Drathro with Great Big Guns. Drathro, who’s been sulkily planning to let everyone else in the story die, then takes hilarious umbrage when he thinks the Doctor’s been having him on and snaps out of depression to malice, hoping to food-process and microwave the intruders to death. His angry response has far more believable undercurrents than any other villain I can think of who presses the button on the giant mincing machine: whether it’s someone tormented with doubt about whether he’s only programmed or ‘real’ and is taking out his existential crisis on everyone else, a superintelligent teenager in a strop, or displaying the self-absorbed hurt and outrage of the terrorist who suddenly twigs that their hostage negotiator is not, in fact, taking a genuine interest in them as an individual after all.

In the background, Nicola Bryant’s companion Peri is great taking the initiative; usually fine guest star Tom Chadbon is inexplicably wooden; and a pair of galactic con-artists have some entertaining moments, quoting from old Who stories, setting up the clue that the ‘muscle’ may in fact be the clever one all along, and in the end providing the very ’80s twist that the Universe is saved not by logic, nor moral force, but by Arthur Daley (oh, no, spoiler!). Just a shame about the gunge tank. But it’s the Doctor and Drathro here that have always fired my imagination.

Something Else To Look Out For

That opening special effects shot? It does still look as fantastic as it did in 1986. Turning around a Time Lord space station that’s like a baroque cathedral among the stars, it was the most complex and expensive model sequence mounted for Doctor Who in the Twentieth Century. Typically, that segues into a scene scripted as a moody procession down a darkened corridor, which ended up having to be shot in an emergency outside a brightly-lit, very tacky door. And that’s the problem with The Mysterious Planet: it can’t help lurching between brilliance and banality.

The lead actors definitely lift it. Colin Baker’s Doctor is not just a great speaker but endlessly watchable, full of entertaining business. He and Peri are at last firm friends, too; engaging and enthusiastic together rather than the previous year’s bickering, in no small part thanks to the actors deciding their characters were going to mellow. While the Doctor’s coat is as garish as ever and his hair more so, Peri now has clothes someone might actually wear, which help her into a far better role. Colin has a very different but just as watchable relationship with Michael Jayston, together turning rather tiresomely written courtroom sparring electric – “The crime was in being there, Doctor!” The coldly powerful Mr Jayston is terrific casting, cutting through Colin’s florid charm (though some of the reason for that, when I gushed over how brilliant he is recently, must remain clouded by spoilerphobia); usually it’s only the Doctor or the villain who light up the screen, but in this case…
“Hear how the Doctor condemns himself with his own words.”
The script sets the tone – of being all over the place. Among the few things on which Colin Baker and script editor Eric Saward (who does his bitching in a separate commentary to everyone else, due to his immense popularity) agree is that Bob Holmes was a brilliant writer, though this isn’t his best. Some of the snags are clearly down to Eric’s idea of the Trial, though that’s not the only structural issue. The problem with the Trial set-up emerges very quickly. Although that’s where we start in Part One, soon we’re drawn into the Doctor’s exploration of the mysterious planet, with atmospheric long shots, lighting and music in a dark ruin before Peri makes her shocking discovery (guess) and she and the Doctor share some beautifully elegiac scenes together. It feels like the story’s hitting its stride… And then, with a grinding gear-change, the Trial not only interrupts but sneers at it:
“Can’t we just have the edited highlights?”
As if, fourteen minutes into a new series, the production team have lost all faith in it and can’t help ruining any atmosphere the story had built up. And throughout not fourteen minutes but fourteen episodes, this keeps happening. Most of the story works, but interrupting it with the Trial stops it every time it gets started – you can see why they killed off the Time Lords for the next big relaunch two decades later. It doesn’t help that the production values take a tumble once we get back below. After the effectiveness of the subdued lighting and ruined stair as the Doctor and Peri talk of dead worlds, the Doctor is plonked into a brightly lit studio that doesn’t look at all as if it’s suffered five centuries of privation, where he’s jumped by condom-clad men who appear to have been huddled waiting for their cue. The only thing that could make the tunnels look naffer is if a really pathetic vehicle were to trundle through it… Oh. You’ll know, if you watch it, what sort of place this ought to look like. It doesn’t (if only someone had taken a look at Doctor Who Magazine’s End of the Line).

Back in the script, several times there are sinister mentions of things that have already been revealed: both “the Immortal” and the fate of those in the Selection would have far more impact if we didn’t see them trolling along before we heard the terrible rumours, and that’s simply poor plotting. The case in favour of the Trial largely rests with its postmodern inventiveness, alternately playful, threatening and cheap, as various characters watch others on TV. It’s mildly amusing, but all the comments about violence, incoherence and dullness (“I would appreciate it if these brutal and repetitious scenes are reduced to a minimum,” “Why are we doing this?” “I tire of this empty banter”…) are surely rather Ratnerishly unwise, like singing ‘We’re ****, and we know we are’.
“Well, if the rest of his presentation is as riveting as the first little epic, wake me when it’s finished.”
With subtler irony, while the Court accuses the Doctor of violence simply because he’s caught up in trying to stop it, pastiching Mary Whitehouse, Joan Sims’ Katryca notices that the Doctor not carrying weapons makes him “unusual” amongst star-travellers; the people sitting in judgement and picking holes don’t understand the Doctor, but the people he meets do. Similarly, while many comments are as unsubtle as people just saying ‘ooh, this isn’t very good!’ and hoping the audience at home will disagree or titter rather than nod and switch over, having Handbag and Handrail expound on syllogisms immediately before Drathro jumps to a great big syllogism of his own is a clever touch. Though why, exactly, is the screen that the jury watch for most of their time in the Court directly behind them, so everyone has to crick their necks and squint? Surely the most appropriate place for the screen is the fourth wall.

There’s more than poking fun at itself and Colin’s riveting set-piece speeches that make parts of the script shine, however. The pull-back reveal of Glitz and Dibber through the trees is one of the more stylish flashes, juxtaposing the newly relaxed Doctor and Peri pairing with the jarring dark comedy of a seedy, greedy version of the Doctor, a carelessly murderous traveller with immense but often misplaced self-confidence who keeps putting his companion down (the often dull text notes reveal that – rather than the excellent Tony Selby and Glen Murphy – the director had considered French and Saunders for the parts of Minder’s sociopathic future incarnations. I wonder if that’s why they did their sketch on the Trial set?). There are other clever juxtapositions, too – both sets of humans imprisoned by different dead dogmas while the Doctor tells us to “Never believe what is said” but find out for ourselves, and the different sets of hunters who swap places as to which is the threat to our heroes. The Reader of the Books (and, particularly, his books) is funny, and one of Bob Holmes’ best writing tics comes in, with snippets of a history that’s happened offscreen, though it’s a disappointment that the story of “the three Sleepers” is no sooner raised than it’s discarded.

Stolen Secrets

You might also ask, is it a miscalculation or a brilliant gag to do Planet of the Apes for laughs, on a BBC budget, with the climactic revelation ten minutes in? Other sources obviously date the story to 1986 – the Minder-a-likes blasé about mass murder to make a fast grotzit, touches of Spycatcher when elements are excised as “Against the public interest,” the post-apocalyptic Tribe of the “Free” being a tyranny led by a single shouting woman and her mumbling male advisers, with Joan Sims playing both Margaret Thatcher and Tina Turner – but there’s also a spray of naughty Doctor Who allusions. Not only does Colin get to spoof Jon Pertwee (and Peri respond “You’re alive. I knew it” rather than weep over his body), but Bob Holmes writes an outrageous remake of both The Ark in Space (far future, solar flares, Earth abandoned, sleepers, rigidly autocratic rule of survivors) and The Sontaran Experiment (robot with grabbing tentacles, abandoned Earth, Doctor staring right into monstrous villain’s camera) but mixed with The Krotons turned upside-down and made deeper and more layered (from the postmodern games to Drathro’s identity crisis).

I’ve criticised set design that suddenly tumbles from intriguing to just not looking like it gives a toss, but perhaps the biggest single fault is in the direction, which while not actively bad is mostly flat, simply lacking flair, pace and energy. Not even the explosions are up to the usual maniacally dangerous level of BBC enthusiasm. Thank goodness, then, for the music. Dominic Glynn provides a new version of the Doctor Who Theme which has less punch than the two previous versions, but an ethereal, almost water-like sound that suits the rippling titles and is particularly effective on the echoing fade into the story. He’s also responsible for the incidental music, which is some of the best in the series and quite the most consistently good thing about the production. It’s a great shame that, because the master tapes of the music for the next four episodes of The Trial of a Time Lord are the only ones from the ’80s which no longer exist, they chose to include no isolated score on any of these discs: I’d love to be able to play the elegy for Earth under the ground, the piping and the stately march for the Tribe of the Free, the driving music for the otherwise feeble L1 robot… The expansive music as Peri and Glitz yomp their way to the second cliffhanger, for example, is far more thrilling than the cliffhanger itself (a misfiring line that can be taken either as inappropriate despair from the Doctor or a postmodern statement that doesn’t raise a laugh). So the soundtrack, like Colin, is a highlight throughout.
“I did my best. I only hope it’s enough…”
Despite flashes of brilliance, too much of The Mysterious Planet feels uninspired, almost going through the motions – not bad, certainly, but not good enough to grab the audience and stick the two fingers up to the series’ BBC enemies that it needed. Ironically, though the direction looked distinctly unadventurous even in 1986, new Who viewers coming to the DVD might find the ‘DVD commentary’ style of the Trial more modern, with the Doctor and the Valeyard even arguing about the deleted scenes.

Classified Material

Colin Baker and Michael Jayston are more harmonious in the 25-minute The Making of The Mysterious Planet (and Colin is a splendid raconteur and ringmaster for the commentary itself), with a strong line-up of interviewees for candid discussions, revelations, and disagreements with the script editor. It’s rather good, and joined by a remarkable host of extra features even on just this first disc in the set: eight and a half minutes of deleted and extended scenes, including the TARDIS materialising in the rain (I’m glad they lost the bickering), the Doctor pointedly pointing out there are ways to come upon knowledge that don’t involve the Time Lords and a sweet scene of Humker and Tandrell skipping off as a couple; ten minutes of trailers and continuity setting the story in the terrifyingly ’80s context of Roland Rat, Noel Edmonds (for the moment…), Paul Daniels, Russ Abbot and – also twenty-five years ago tonight – the very first episode of Casualty… There’s even a cameo from a future incarnation of the Doctor! Add to that some theme remixes and a scored photo gallery which go a little way to making up for the absence of an isolated soundtrack, Wogan, Blue Peter, Points of View (Anne Robinson before she did that to her face and a very badly-written slagging-off letter from a self-important fan. How unlike the home life of our own dear internet). For once, even the DVD menus are quite well put-together, and not too spoilery. PDFs include Radio Times features and a press pack from the time; interesting that the listings threaten the Doctor with “If found guilty, he will forfeit his remaining lives!” – as if some figure from the Doctor’s future would muck about with such things these days – and advertises the new video release of Day of the Daleks (which coincidentally blows its Dalek reveal mid-way through its first episode just as this blows Drathro’s – had neither story heard of cliffhangers? – and does a different bit of Planet of the Apes), when it’s now due out on DVD almost exactly a quarter of a century later. So whatever verdict you reach on the story, it’s a terrific DVD release.

Downhill, I can manage nearly five miles an hour
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The photos, incidentally, are from the Blackpool Doctor Who Exhibition. A major part of my childhood, it was closed in 1986, making The Trial of a Time Lord its last new season of Doctor Who. A new version opened in the 2000s, but the BBC closed it and flogged off the exhibits two years ago rather than preserve them for the nation. Philistines. So even in these glory days, some BBC brass are still tossers to Doctor Who.

Should you come across the novelisation, it’s not Terrance Dicks’ best, but quite interesting; with more of the original authors taking over in the mid-’80s after a long period in which Terrance had written almost all the Target series, it was his only book for Colin’s Doctor, so his only crack at a description, and a cracking one. It starts well but doesn’t really sustain the style (as well as displaying rather more typos than usual), though fans may note that the chapter title for the climax is The Big Bang – well, it’s better than last year’s, at any rate. Oh, and that opening line Mark Gatiss thinks he made up? It’s here.
“It was a graveyard in space.”
As this “Taster” has – as usual – spiralled out of control, you’ll be relieved that I’m being contrary this time: usually I do a whole DVD release at once, even if it’s made up of several stories; The Trial of a Time Lord box set is in theory all one big story, but I’m doing only the first disc with the opening evidence this month. As the Trial continues, the Doctor seems to be his own worst enemy… While the mini-stories alternate between straightforward but perhaps forgettable, and memorable messes of conflicting ideas. So, Next Time…

The Mysterious Planet… In a Hurry

And finally… Richard and Millennium have a few things to say about this story, too. You might also like to read Millennium’s Mysteries of Doctor Who #1: Just What Is so Mysterious about Ravolox? which was the first in an extensive series that later returned with the (more spoilerish, as it covers the next ten episodes too) Mysteries of Doctor Who #15: What the TRUNK is going on at Dr Who’s Trial?

Less seriously than the elephant, and mindful that my articles tend to go on a bit, Richard has helpfully condensed the whole story into two scenes for your entertainment and delectation:
Scene 1: ext. woodland. THE DOCTOR and PERI enter

THE DOCTOR: I wonder what this Mysterious Planet is?

PERI: Oh golly, Doctor, it’s Earth, isn’t it?


Scene 2: int. underground lair. DRATHRO – a giant robot – is pottering around. QUEEN JOAN of SIMMS enters


DRATHRO: Ooh, I feel a bit funny.

DRATHRO collapses on top of QUEEN JOAN; SABALOM GLITZ – a spiv – enters

GLITZ: Ooh, look at those >deleted< They’ll be worth a few grotzits.

THE VALEYARD: (off) Nothing to see here, Sagacity, move along.

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