Wednesday, November 16, 2011

 

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

Mindwarp is one of the most extraordinary-looking Doctor Who stories ever made – sometimes brilliantly, sometimes just breathtakingly ’80s. Bright pink! Bright blue! Bright orange! And as well as the scenery, some of the people look like that, too. Today* is officially Peri’s birthday, and this was her final story with the Doctor, building up to a shock ending… Or is it? Add a memorable villain, guest stars who return with David Tennant, and behind it all, the Doctor’s still on trial: has the evidence here been falsified? Why is he behaving so strangely? And can he out-act Brian Blessed?

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the opening four episodes of Doctor Who – The Trial of a Time Lord… And, twenty-five years ago this evening, that superb cast led by Colin Baker and Michael Jayston was still in the middle of it. Before you watch Mindwarp, the second set of four episodes, you’re best off watching those earlier ones, The Mysterious Planet – not that you have to go out of your way to do so, as they’re all part of the same The Trial of a Time Lord DVD box set. The two mini-stories have much in common: the same ‘Trial’ framing device; the same lead actors; the same postmodern attitude to the series being on trial by hostile BBC executives, as I wrote last time. What’s different about this one is that it’s a much less straightforward narrative – to the extent that even the actors and director didn’t know what was supposed to be going on for some of it. And so it’s possible to slightly unfairly sum up the four mini-stories that make up The Trial of a Time Lord two by two: the odd-numbered stories as not very odd at all, but a bit forgettable; the even-numbered stories as memorable messes, full of interesting ideas but few of them complementing each other. I don’t know if this explains the bulk of fans’ relatively low opinion of Mindwarp (while a few think it brilliant), but it’ll do for mine (and why I have a very high opinion of some 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 this second set of four episodes at a lowly 160ish (not far off for me either, though I might put it as much as ten places higher).

While this ‘Detail’ obviously goes into some detail, 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. Should there be such things (tip: if you’ve not seen this, don’t read the comedy sketch at the bottom).


Sil and Kiv Have Gone A Bit Floppy
 
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That Golden Moment
“You’ll not die on me, you fish-faced monster!”
If you’ve ever seen Mindwarp, you’ll know that there’s one completely awesome scene. And why I can’t mention it. But I can mention one of the key characters in it, friendly neighbourhood surgeon Dr Crozier – in whose laboratory the chaotic story keeps snapping into focus. As do an Alien and a throbbing brain. That means that another brilliant sequence takes place there, half-way into the third episode (or Part Seven of The Trial of a Time Lord), as he performs his first big operation on Lord Kiv…

In the caverns of Thoros-Beta, profit is in progress, with Lord Kiv and the self-styled Mentors piling up trade with other cultures – if necessary, by lethal force (or even by recycling old costumes). And while the wriggling other Mentors led by Kiv’s aide Sil have no love or loyalty for their leader, they’re desperate to keep him alive for his brilliant business brain, without which they might all end up dead or, worse than that, poor. But that very brain is fatally expanding within his slimy skull, and only the greatest – as he’d be the first to tell you – doctor in the galaxy can transfer it to a new frame. The first ‘monster’ we meet in the story is a forewarning of this, as well as a basically terrible piece of design kept wisely in the dark, then almost redeemed by the way people chat about him afterwards like he was Harold down the chip shop.

Colin Baker makes the most of a wildly inconsistent script, Brian Blessed is at his most BRIAN BLESSED, and Nicola Bryant is terrific as she approaches her end, but it’s stolen from all of them by Patrick Ryecart as Crozier, playing it so intense and deadpan that he becomes much funnier – and more sinister – than anyone else. Confined mostly to one set, dressed for citrus insanity in lemon and then orange, he’s somehow still the centre of the story. An obsessive rather than the ‘mad scientist’ that the brain transplant storyline might suggest, he’s marvellously self-centred, regarding anything bar his medical experiments as an utter waste of his time. And, though with brilliant touches of eccentric charisma, as Patrick Ryecart has explained his part, he’s more Nazi than nice. Clipped, staccato, disturbing and funny, you can see how he can go on to give such a great sit-com performance as the awesomely continuity-error-in-reality-named Captain Hilary Duff.

Kiv rambles wonderfully about his donor body-to-be having an primitive sting at the end of its tail – and how “I could, perhaps, sting all my assistants to death!” – as they prepare to operate; the Doctor camps up his pleasure at being allowed to monitor the equipment; Crozier eyes the Doctor like a wolf assessing a tailored suit (in a threatening plotline that, unfortunately, never goes anywhere, built up until suddenly dismissed in a late aside, as if they’d just thrown the script in the air and picked the bits up at random… Similarly, the nature of Crozier’s experiments changes at the last minute and makes a nonsense of much of the earlier dialogue); piercing music echoes; Crozier’s eyes narrow in a fabulously crazed single moment as he begins the operation. Later, Kiv will come round and see a thing of beauty; later still, Crozier’s eyes shine as he sees his ambition to conquer death within his grasp… But my favourite moment of him is tiny, arrogant, and perfect, and brilliantly down to Patrick Ryecart and a bit of business. Once the operation’s complete and the spectators have drifted away, Crozier is simply how we imagine every brilliant surgeon to be: dismissive and rude to his patient, and only caring for his own achievement. In a scene framed by a gorgeous effects shot of the arching roof of his lab, he’s sipping a cup of tea when his assistant, Alibe Parsons’ glamorous Matrona Kani, alerts him to something going wrong. Crozier takes this in at a glance:
“Cardiac arrest. His body’s – reacting to the drugs.”
And in that gap in the middle of his sentence, in protest at being interrupted by what he clearly sees as his patient letting down his genius, instead of leaping to his feet he takes another sip of tea. It’s a perfectly calculated little moment, and the tiny stutter on the “F” as he calls his lord and master a “fish-faced monster!” allowing us just for a fraction of a second to think of another, more Brian Blessedy word, is the icing on the cake.

Patrick Ryecart and Brian Blessed spar deliciously in rival interviews in the ‘Making of’ – the former saying the latter needs to be licenced, the latter that the former never knew his bloody lines (and, to show he’s watched it, tipping his tea. Patrick Ryecart is still as reliable today; he didn’t turn up to a convention earlier this year, and was represented on stage by a dummy in his orange surgeon’s gown to wicked lines from Alibe Parsons). Other stories found on the disc will reveal a moment when Mr Blessed, too, may not have got his own lines word-perfect…
“The major thing was sort of replacing Brian Blessed’s brain. Which some people would argue is not a bad idea in real life – in fact, having replaced his brain, I think it might be what sent him up Everest without any oxygen.”
Something Else To Look Out For

While the postmodern commentary of the Trial impinging on the ‘main’ story got in the way on The Mysterious Planet, here it suddenly works better on a much more fragmentary story where the viewers, too, must be arguing about what’s really going on. Informed by Philip Martin’s groundbreaking series Gangsters (from whom it borrows Alibe Parsons), the hints of today’s interactivity make it seem far more modern. So while, for me, this isn’t the best segment of the Trial, it’s the one that makes best use of the overarching story in its own, with the interruptions resembling a DVD commentary in which cast members argue over the deleted scenes and try to salvage their own parts in a box-office disaster. It’s not the a clever noir-style plot the format could have led to, an unreliable narrator usually works better when the production end has more of an idea than the audience, and there are still riskily near-the-knuckle complaints such as calling it “inconsequential silliness” and “gratuitous,” but when the Valeyard counting the precise number of times the Doctor and his companions have respectively been in danger is a point-perfect echo of Mary Whitehouse, ticking off numbers of unsuitable incidents with no regard for narrative, and when Michael Jayston sarcastically invites us to watch “The Doctor’s next – frightening adventure,” you feel that they at least knew what they were doing better than Gerald Ratner.

The sparring between Colin Baker and Michael Jayston suddenly becomes more dangerous as the stakes rise: the Doctor becomes less playground and more lost; the Valeyard seems to know exactly where to twist the knife to stir up self-loathing in the Doctor; and his “Who else is there?” booming out of the sky is one of the few times he makes a telling point, a dramatic moment that almost anticipates the Doctor damning him as a second-rate god at the climax.

You can see how good Colin Baker is when the script deals him an almost crippling blow: as Colin glumly notes on the commentary, it takes him back to square one, completely destroying the character progression planned for his Doctor. Conceived as a ‘Mr Darcy’ who begins aloof and to whom we slowly warm, lead writer Eric Saward was utterly hopeless at writing that overarching story from the first, when The Twin Dilemma’s terrible writing blighted him. Just as finally, and far more thanks to the actor than his scripts, the Doctor has been mellowing, this story magnifies his ‘nice or nasty’ struggle without planning or revealing which bits are which. And the script editor had the nerve to blame other people? No wonder Philip Martin saw him as mentally fragile and “a bad guy pretending to be good” – which is when the lead writer should have stepped in to contextualise, rather than piss off. Mr Martin explains some of where he thought he was coming from on the commentary, but this is the first anyone’s heard of it – while the confusion of the Doctor being good, bad, mad or fake isn’t helped when none of the rest of the story can decide what it is, either (horror, comedy, sci-fi, barbarian swordplay, vivisection, a Dallas satire with green slugs as the Ewings, or a runaround with rebels?). On The Mysterious Planet, I talked about how seeing that when I was fourteen led to empathy with existential crises; something else I’d become very aware of at that age sprang to mind watching the ‘Doctor jiggles about too enthusiastically’ cliffhanger on broadcast, so I’ve always been amazed no-one said ‘Hang on…’ before it went out. What it looks like has always distracted me from the key turning point in the story, after which it’s anyone’s guess whether the Doctor’s in his right mind, in Brian Blessed’s, or simply invented. Though one scene, at least, is obvious, even if it was horrible for Nicola Bryant: the Doctor on the Rock of Sorrows saying ‘I am a wrong ’un and no mistake, I did it, guv’ like the notes of a provincial PC read out in court never fails to be a scream.

Peri’s Finest Hour?

Nicola Bryant gets a far better deal from the script than her co-star, and rises brilliantly to the opportunity of something more stretching than being chained to a rock (though as I’ve just noted, she has that too). Betrayed and abandoned, Peri seizes control of her own fate at key points rather than just suffer or revenge, and Nicola gives a truly powerful final scene, explaining on the commentary that she’d seen anaemic exits and decided that wasn’t for her. All that, despite being stuck in an electric pink smock after finally being allowed to dress as a grown-up in the previous segment – though it goes with the bright pink seawater. With so many others dressed in the same colour, they could make a camouflage bathing party that would be camouflage only ever on that one world (or in the ’80s).

The scene where the Doctor and Peri land at the seaside – the shocking pink seaside, with the brilliant indigo rocks and bright green sky – is a striking one, and not just to your eyeballs. Though it is a glorious example of finally having the technology to turn a cold British beach into an alien planet, and really going for it (thrillingly for fact fans, Peri goes out as she came in, with a story filmed on a nudist beach. And though she spends most of this one fully clothed, in one arresting respect she finishes up wearing much less than she started out, and it’s a fantastic look she’s much happier signing than a bikini shot). It gives Peri some oomph, and sets up many of the themes of the story: gun-running for profit; the great gag of ‘liquefied’ for ‘liquidated’ from the killer capitalists; and the in-joke and foreshadowing in one of the “Dirty old warlord!”

Which brings us to that old pulp SF cliché of ‘What is this Earth thing called love’, about which the kindest thing that can be said is that I’d rather have that than the horrible, horrible ‘Planet of Women’ script it replaced and on which Doctor Who once again dodged a CD phaser (it must be that they gaze into each other’s eyes and see the same taste in eye make-up. I say ‘taste’…).

Like the story, the supporting actors are absurdly variable – a mixture of over the top and totally flat. The Samurai-ish warlord Yrcanos (in a story that’s far more racially mixed than most Who, to its credit, both in the actors and in the costume influences it plays with) is played by Brian Blessed, at one end of the scale – you may be able to guess which – while his companion in rebellion, Gordon Warnecke’s Tuza, is gorgeous but you’ll need to watch My Beautiful Laundrette to realise he’s not always wood from the neck up. I suspect that the Valeyard may have got bored with doing a director’s cut on the Doctor and tinkered with King Yrcanos, too, as I can’t say I’m sold on the notion of a bloodthirsty hereditary warlord suddenly becoming Che Guevara. Mind you, something needed to gee up the galaxy’s least lively rebels, who make the Tribe of the Free seem full of character and multilayered performances in top fashions (meeting them even brings Peri out in a rash of terrible dialogue, while the idea of twenty-year-olds being aged to death seems less about vampirism or time experiments than a bit bunged in before a cliffhanger and then forgotten about). It’s impossible, though, not to enjoy the bizarre inventiveness – and shouting – of Brian’s performance, and his grumpy concession:
“Very well. Today, prudence shall be our watchword. Tomorrow, we shall soak the land in blood.”
Again with the themes of The Mysterious Planet, only more so, Mindwarp moves from mere Minder-in-mass-murder to a full-blown critique of big business exploitation and capitalism as conquest, with Nabil Shaban again outstanding as Sil, the poison dwarf Mini-Me of Jabba the Hutt with a great tail and a fabulous laugh (which he was pleased gave at least one Doctor Who writer of my acquaintance nightmares). Returning from the previous year’s innovative if flawed Vengeance on Varos, he has considerably better design – suggesting, as with Kiv’s new body, that the Mentors become greener as they age – but a much less powerful part, becoming more the comic relief than the principal villain. Sil’s boss Kiv is a future returnee, with The Young Ones’ Christopher Ryan to become a Sontaran General opposite David Tennant (and, briefly, Matt Smith), while bored (occasionally amusingly so) head of security Trevor Laird comes back as Martha Jones’ dad.

For once, director Ron Jones – the bane of many ’80s Doctor Who stories – creates a bit of atmosphere here, though not consistently: ironically, his two strongest achievements are respectively in the dark and in chaos. The epilepsy-inducing strobes in the tunnels mostly come across as distracting escapees from the Top of the Pops studio, but they work brilliantly in the second (or sixth) cliffhanger, where a perfectly timed flicker of light enlivens an otherwise stock moment. Even better, though, is the climax to the final (or eighth) episode, half a dozen minutes in which everything at last delivers as Thoros-Beta collapses into a hellish clamour of claxons and lost souls and the Doctor enters his own private hell. With Nicola Bryant and Colin Baker each perhaps giving their finest moments, it’s a stunning evocation of everything falling apart without the actual production doing so.

Brian Blessed Versus the Fuckerons

Leading a fine set of extras, the twenty-minute The Making of Mindwarp is excellent and very entertaining, particularly – as above – Patrick Ryecart and Brian Blessed (of whom a career summary notes his subtle and varied roles, “And then Flash Gordon happened”). Half the cast do their Brian Blessed impressions; Brian does the Queen, asking him to say “Gordon’s alive!” before thoughtfully observing that with Yrcanos, like Vultan, he could let his hair down. It’s just a shame there’s no Nabil Shaban. And, wonder of wonders, before flouncing off in a strop, absentee script editor Saward for once even praises Colin’s performance, while Colin brightly observes:
“And for once, I wasn’t the most over-the-top person in it!”
With this and the commentary between Colin, Nicola and writer Philip Martin, you can also enjoy tales of why Philip felt like an assassin, why he was told he couldn’t be political, which door cost more than Nicola, and how Colin observed BBC unions at work. In other extras, Lenny Henry stars as the Doctor in probably the ’80s’ key piss-taking clip, though it’s a shame they cut the sketch before his show’s end credits and lose him boogieing in the TARDIS (I wonder if anyone has the full version? Mine’s on a Betamax I’ve not been able to play for twenty years). I’m always unhappy when an ’80s Who story is released without the option of being able to listen to the musical score separately. Richard Hartley’s glistening and occasionally thumping incidental music here is the exception: it’s the only score of the decade for which the master tapes no longer exist, so it’s not cost-cutting nor lack of interest that means there isn’t one on this disc. I’m still miffed it’s the excuse for not making the scores for the other ten The Trial of a Time Lord episodes available, though. There’s an impressively comprehensive location feature, plus nine minutes of deleted and extended scenes which are interesting but don’t add much until the last couple, where Sil uses a vital word and Tuza half-remembers that there was someone else with him (with an appropriate idea of who it is from Yrcanos). Quite an extensive photo gallery, too, and thankfully the DVD menus helpfully don’t give too much away this time. My favourite extra, though, is the tiny additional commentary – for part of a later Trial episode – on A Fate Worse Than Death. Apologetic Colin. Appalled Nicola. Priceless.

The best anecdote, though, is obviously when Colin Baker is quoted – and asterisked out – in the mostly unthrilling text notes recalling how, at the visual effects-laden and stressful end for one day’s shooting, Brian Blessed cost a lot of money in setting it all up again next time by exuberantly forgetting the name of his slimy enemies in a way that will surprise few viewers of Fry’s Planet Word:
“Let’s find the Fuckerons!”


Businessbeing From Possicar and Time Lord Guard
 
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These photos, too, 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 Fuckerons.

Philip Martin’s novelisation is not a happy experience. The other stories of the Trial had been published a couple of years earlier, so you got the impression he was struggling with it – though there’s more material, most of it was probably cut from the script, as his overwritten and ponderous prose style suggests he’s much happier with writing for television. Unusually for a book, though it’s not a perfectly plotted descent in quality, it’s easy to identify the best of it – the first page, as the Doctor muses over his trial and struggles with disturbing flashes of memory (flash-forwards, in the context of most of the narrative – and the worst, which with eerie symmetry is the epilogue’s comedy ‘afterlife’. Even the cover’s a mess: not matching the style of the three other Trial novelisations, and a pretty horrible painting that’s almost certainly the worst from the normally almost photorealistic brush of Alister Pearson (compare it to his gorgeous cover for the whole season-length story on VHS a few years later, for example). Rather more effective follow-ups to the end of the story, incidentally, can be found in Colin Baker’s own graphic novel The Age of Chaos, Big Finish’s audio play Her Final Flight and, certainly the best work overall though with the relevant echo its most self-indulgent part, the superb New Adventures novel Bad Therapy by future Doctor Who TV author Matt Jones.

Though I usually review a whole DVD release at once, and though The Trial of a Time Lord box set is in theory all one big story, again there’s more to come. So, Next Time… Er, with all the “Next Times” I’ve found online too spoilery, why not try this hilariously ’80s fan trailer?

The Trial of a Time Lord… In a Hurry (Continued)

And finally… Richard and Millennium have a few things to say about this story, too. Millennium’s (spoilerish, as it covers the next six episodes too) Mysteries of Doctor Who #15: What the TRUNK is going on at Dr Who’s Trial? Less seriously than the elephant, but also with a spoiler at the end if you look carefully, Richard has helpfully condensed the whole story into three scenes for your entertainment and delectation:

Part Two: Mind How You Warp
Scene 1: int. laboratory. CROZIER, a mad scientist, and SIL, a slimy gonk, are discussing immortality. THE DOCTOR and PERI enter

THE DOCTOR: I wonder what Sil is up to?

PERI: Oh golly, Doctor, this is Sil’s home planet, isn’t it?

THE DOCTOR: Er…


Scene 2: laboratory, later that day. THE DOCTOR is attached to A MACHINE

SIL: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again!

MACHINE: [FX] Fizz Bang Wallop

THE DOCTOR: I’m BRIAN BLESSED!

Enter Brian Blessed

BLESSED: Ooh, how very dare you!

MACHINE explodes for no readily apparent reason


Scene 3: the TRIAL ROOM. THE DOCTOR confronts THE INQUISITOR

THE DOCTOR: You killed Peri!

THE INQUISITOR: Yes, we did, we really really did. [Miranda Hart-style to camera] We didn’t really.


Roll titles


*All right, technically yesterday by the time I published this, but these things take time.

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Comments:
Of course the *best* follow-up to this, and one that almost makes the retcon make sense, is Peri And The Piscon Paradox...
 
Oh dear - I'm woefully behind with Big Finishes, and I'd been meaning to listen to that one months ago, but forgot... So I have today. And of course you're entirely right! It's extraordinary. Everyone, listen to that above all.
 
Yeah, Big Finish have been very patchy over the last few years, but that one's in the four or five best things they've ever done, and in my top twenty or so favourite Who things in any medium.
 
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