The courtroom is called to order as our witnesses for the defence of the 30th Anniversary of the Classic Doctor Who series The Trial of a Time Lord are sworn in to give testimony. Now, called to testify on the anniversary of the end of the second story Mindwarp, is Barnaby Eaton-Jones...
Like The Three Doctors story, the High Council of The DreamCage have brought three like-minded souls together to fight the corner in this last themed series of Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor. I am the oldest and most decrepit. Therefore, I’m clearly the First Doctor – trapped in a Time Eddy (or, because I’m posh, a Time Edward) – and struggling to bring anything new to the party aside from a willingness to pop up and read off a cue-card every now and again. The next review in this series comes from the Second Doctor-esque Ian Ham; a cosmic hobo if I ever I saw one. His bumbling style hides a precise intelligence and he’ll always hide behind others when scared. If only so he can steal the last Pork Pie off the buffet table. Then, there’s the dandified Robert Barton-Ancliffe, who strode in with the first review last month (read about The Mysterious Planet here) and pontificated and punned his way in spectacular style, so that everyone took notice of him. He’s definitely the Third Doctor.
*Placing right hands solemnly on my dog-eared copy of Peter Haining’s ‘Doctor Who: A Celebration’ and hope nobody mentions that my research is as flawed as his was*
‘We, Barnaby Eaton-Jones, Ian Ham and Robert Barton-Ancliffe, do hereby swear that the reviews we are about to give shall be the truth, mixed with some opinion, humour, and inevitably, some terrible puns. Furthermore, we will endeavour to present an honest appraisal of ‘The Trial of a Time Lord’ which will, where possible, judge the finished story on its own merits, delving into scandalous rumour, hearsay and conjecture where directly relevant to the matter at hand, or if it’s a particularly juicy anecdote.’
Part Two – ‘Mindwarp’
Reviewed by Barnaby Eaton-Jones
For you to understand this review, you don’t need to have watched the previous episode or, indeed, the following episodes. It won’t help you, as it didn’t help the Sixth Doctor! Of course, I may refer to them in my justification and judgement, but I will always do so with as much confusion as the naughty Valeyard brought to proceedings and who knows whether, actually, all this is actually happening inside the Matrix anyway and this isn’t my opinion after all?
1986 seems rather a long time ago. That’s probably because I’m in denial that I’m heading for 50 years of age and keep thinking that the ‘80s was a decade I’ve only just left. Fortunately, I left the fashion there too even though it appears to be fashionable to have your haircut and wear your clothing in an ‘80s way again (I mean, seriously? You’ll regret the photos in thirty years time too, I assure you). But, as an impressionable 13-year old, I was at the right age to really dig Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor and claim him as my own. He wasn’t my ‘first’ Doctor but he was the one at the helm when I started properly sailing the ship of fans. And you know what a mess that makes, when the ship hits the fans. So, even as a young teenager, I knew Doctor Who was struggling. At a time when the likes of Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist and the newspapers weren’t quite as powerful as they’ve now become, the headlines still blazed with indignation when the BBC ‘rested’ the show after Colin Baker’s first season. The reasons cited were the level of violence that had crept into the episodes but, in actuality, the show always reflected the times it was broadcast and the mid-‘80s were a particularly violent time of upheaval in a political, economical and sociological way.
So, essentially, when the show returned it was on trial. Literally, in the case of more series being made and also in the theme that the whole season ran with. I thought it was a good idea at the time and I still think it’s a good idea now. I’m not sure it was executed as cleanly as it could have been, due to the intense production problems and clashes of personnel, but –hey – I’m also a fan of similarly-linked Key To Time season in Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor years.
We’ve heard Rob’s thoughts on the opening story, which plays out like a properly ‘new’ version of the show (light humour, good location work, satirical edge, solid characters, less graphic action, and a mellowed and sweet relationship between Doctor and Companion – in the form of Colin Baker’s Time Lord and Nicola Bryant’s American Peri), but will this next story follow the same pattern or will it upset the trial of a new type of style?
Exhibit A: ‘Mindwarp’
If you’re going to spend thousands of pounds on a model shot of a floating space courtroom, you may as well use it again. So, the opening of this story brings us back to that model and straight inside to the studio-bound Gallifreyan court room. I was never sure why Gallifrey had a floating space station that looked seventy miles wide and then contained all the action in a cramped court room. I mean, I’m being pedantic, because I obviously know the TV budget was miniscule and what they did was actually rather good, but it seemed an odd choice to allocate such a large portion of the budget to building a space station model that was so very large and then to cut to an inside view that was so very, very small.
The Sixth Doctor and the opposing counsel, in the form of the Man In Black (also known as the Valeyard, or whichever rhyming moniker the Sixth Doctor tries to bestow on him), are bickering like politicians. The Inquisitor is keeping them in check with the authority of a teacher telling off two naughty boys in infant school. And, you know what, it works. It’s repetitive, even by this story, and the flicking back and forth between the trial scenes and the new adventure becomes very convoluted here, but it’s got a style of its own and – like the equally brilliant Vengeance On Varos (penned, incidentally, by the same writer as Mindwarp; Mr Philip Martin) – it gives an audience’s commentary on the story you’re watching by the structure itself and the characters who are outside of it and looking in. It’s a story within a story, which Michael Jayston and Lynda Bellingham (as the Valeyard and Inquisitor) sell very well, with the right mix of energy and style to match Colin Baker’s powerful and focused performance as the Time Lord on trial.
It’s here in this story, for one of the first times in the entire series, we are witness to what looks like a truly alien planet. Thoros Beta. Pink seas (with the consistency of ‘goo’, as Peri describes it), blue rocks and sand, and a floating Saturn-like planet more visible than a Sun or a Moon, in a green sky. Unlike yet another bleached quarry, this looks like there has been some real effort by the production team to make it something familiar but unsettlingly unfamiliar.
It is at the very beginning of this adventure that the ambiguity of the evidence presents itself, when the Sixth Doctor protects Peri from a monster attack and, in the process of being strangled to death himself, the laser gun in the monster’s hand goes off as the Doctor bends its arm away from his own head and the monster is no more. This, of course, gives the Valeyard a chance to accuse the Doctor of a needless death again.
This is where I find the Trial theme interesting because, purely by accident, the Trial of the Doctor is happening to an incarnation who is genuinely ambiguous. Colin Baker has long since explained that the idea for his portrayal was to start off as someone that the audience didn’t warm to, in a deliberate reaction to the nice and ‘safe’ Fifth Doctor (as portrayed by Peter Davison). He was supposed to be a little more alien, his two hearts a little more out of synch, and his actions more open to interpretation; which would have mellowed over subsequent seasons (he’d planned for long term, rather than short term). There’s the oft-quoted phrase that his Doctor may step over a dead body with no emotion but then cry when he sees a butterfly, which shows that the Sixth Doctor is a perfect conduit for the trial because his very personality is erratic and forceful and stubborn and adamantly right in all the decisions he makes. So, because the first series of his regeneration showcases him as someone not afraid of a gun or a fight, this interjection by the Valeyard is a perfect one to sets up this particular story very nicely.
And what a story.
Philip Martin, as proved by his previous Sixth Doctor adventure, knows how to do dark and depressing in a very mesmeric and intelligent way – it’s still an action/adventure tale with a moral but it’s one that is woven through with deep themes and powerful portents. Here, he goes even darker and, here, he reintroduces his brilliant creation of Sil and his race (the Mentors). Nabil Shaban gave such a memorable and oily performance as the slug-like, money-mad alien in Martin’s previous tale that it is a delight to see him back and joined by another Mentor, in the shape of Christopher Ryan’s Kiv. Unfortunately, Kiv is a little more po-faced than Sil and not as interesting a creation – simply because the character is dying and needs help to stay alive. This help comes in the shape of mad scientist Dr Crozier, played with detached perfection by Patrick Ryecart, who has been experimenting away on many creatures to see whether he can transfer the brains of one into the body of another.
This tale is deliberately disjointed because it needs to be within the format. The previous story had to show the Doctor doing things a little wrong here and there but ultimately being good. ‘The Mysterious Planet’ could well be a template for a new, less aggressive and more humorous version of the show – as if the production team were doing this in purpose to show what that would be like – and then this story delves deeper into the style that the first season of the Sixth Doctor exemplified, with real bloody consequence to any actions, dark forces challenging a morally epileptic main character (who is as much an anti-hero as a hero), and with not everything having a neatly-tied up happy ending. The following story would put forward a story that nestled somewhere between the two extremes.
So, here, as the story progresses, the Doctor becomes more of a passive and yet aggressive figure. He ducks out of the story at times (including being forcibly removed), whilst Peri is put into more and more peril. Whereas, usually, the female companion adhered to the template of ‘scream/rescued’, Peri here seems uncomfortable and scared and disturbed. She doesn’t want to continue on in this adventure and, at one point, is cruelly mocked by the Doctor as she is chained to the rocks at the sea’s edge, awaiting torture (the Doctor’s actions being explained away later as either the Time Lord’s Matrix – the all-powerful ‘brain’ that’s documented these events -manipulating footage or that the Doctor’s acting this way because he knows the Matrix is watching him - as he was suspiciously sent to the planet at the behest of the Time Lords). However, none of this is made crystal clear and you get a disturbing tale of a companion who doesn’t want to be there, realising all her fears by having her life taken away at the end.
This is the most powerful part of the tale and, sadly, is contradicted later in the closing episodes when her death is claimed to be fake and that she is happily living a life as a Warrior Queen rescued by a Warrior King who she clearly didn’t like when they met and who she describes as a ‘Dirty old Warlord’, with naughty things on his mind about her. The Warrior King is a character called Yrcanos, played in typical booming style by Brian Blessed. It’s a powerful performance and Blessed convinces beautifully but it’s clear that he is lusting after Peri and she isn’t happy about it. A sad reflection of the ultimate trajectory of Nicola Bryant’s well-acted portrayal is that she’s constantly the object of sexualised danger and only gets the first story of this series with the Sixth Doctor where they appear to be genuine friends rather than in the final throes of a relationship gone bad.
Big Finish, the audio company who acquired the license to do original stories for past Doctors, addressed this straight away and their stories featuring the Sixth Doctor and Peri show a much more comfortable relationship. You can see where the idea came from, with the Sixth Doctor almost a Professor Higgins from ‘My Fair Lady’, trying to correct and educate the ‘ignorant’ American girl. But, it’s only Colin and Nicola’s real life friendship that stops the onscreen pairing from being abusive to just being friendly bickering.
What redeems this is, of course, the Sixth Doctor’s wonderfully shocked reaction to Peri’s death. As if Peri’s gruesome demise isn’t enough (sitting bolt upright, with a shaved head, and speaking with the voice of Mentor Kriv; whose brain has been transplanted into her body), the Sixth Doctor’s combined level of struggling grief and immediate anger certainly cemented the terror to the viewing audience. The fact that they had to include a coda in the final episode, as mentioned above, where it’s shown that she didn’t die (due to the tidal wavesof complaints from concerned parents and their upset offspring), sucks all the power from such a vital moment in the story.
Out of all of the stories for The Trial of a Time Lord, this one feels the most fitting for the trial sequences, even if it still – to this day – doesn’t clear up the confusion of certain aspects. It’s clear, from later interviews, that the cast weren’t sure of how to justify certain character actions and reactions, with writer Philip Martin stating that script editor Eric Saward wrote all the trial scenes and mixed up the through line he had for the story. However, it has powerful moments and enough depth and realism which means it stands the test of time, with some exquisite direction from Ron Jones (who obviously liked his previous excursion in the world of Doctor Who, as he’s paired with the same writer and three of the same actors in Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant and Nabil Shaban).
Of course, the main crux of this story serves the trial aspect well, which is that – without the Doctor involved – things get more gruesome and a lot more scary. The fact he’s taken out of time, by the Time Lords, and unable to save Peri, means that she perishes. It’s clear that the Doctor gets into situations that contain bloodshed and death, which may well happen without his involvement, but when he’s extinguished from the narrative, then the resolution is tragic and unhappy. As the central character, he needs to be at the centre of the action.
My personal favourite bit is a comment on the nature of Doctor Who itself and how to circumvent the criticism, when the Valeyard suggests the story is getting inconsequential and silly, so Madam Inqusitor basically suggests hitting the fast-forward button to get to a more interesting bit. The format, for the Doctor’s big return in 2003, cut the episodic count and mainly contained stories in one 45-minute episode to alleviate this problem of ‘sagging’ in the middle of a story. It’s like this season gave the template on how to modify and improve Doctor Who – for the BBC Powers That Be and for the viewing audience at home, but nobody acted on it!
Addendum: Sworn testimony by Ian Ham and Robert Barton-Ancliffe
Ian writes: ‘Mindwarp! Pink skies! Brian Blessed! Peri's bald head! Peri's deep voice! Peri! These are the things that stick in my mind when I think of the third part of Trial of a Time Lord. My overriding memory seems to be of being really scared by the monster in the tunnel at the start. Very few other details stick out from the story apart from a general sense of Brian Blessedness permeating the episodes. And this is never a bad things in my opinion. Finally, as a 12 year old, I remember being very scared of Peri's transformation at the end and how impressively different Nicola Bryant made her voice sound.’
Robert writes: Memories of Mindwarp influenced my thinking on 'The Trial of a Timelord' for years. Perhaps the first 'Doctor Who' story that I can clearly remember making time to watch, 'Mindwarp', more than any other of Colin Baker's last series had a lasting impact. As a child, even I could sense that something was terribly wrong. Colin Baker gamely plays all of the shades that the script demands with conviction, from brash to downright cowardly/complicit in the mayhem that unfolds, and its a credit to his skills as an actor that he utterly convinces in the story's main plot, even as his helpless 'real' character in the trial stares on in disbelief. Brian Blessed is turned up to 11, but lest we judge this as simply 'vintage' Blessed, seek out 'Z Cars' (1962) and 'I Claudius' (1976), both of which prove that that he has the depth, subtlety, and range of an actor fully committed to his craft. As for Peri's supposed fate here, this is what scarred the young Robert Barton-Ancliffe to the point that even at the exalted age of 36, he still finds the story uncomfortable viewing. And however the writers retconned her horrific exit here in the later episodes of 'The Trial of a Timelord', nothing can lessen the impact of the scene where she is strapped down and Patrick Ryecart's Crozier orders 'shave her head'. Chills enough to last a lifetime.
The Trial of a Time Lord will continue after a short recess, on 22nd November. Court is adjourned until then.
Images - BBC