Doctor Who - Trial of a Time Lord: The Ultimate Foe

It’s the end... but the moment has been prepared for as Robert Barton-Ancliffe, Ian Ham and Barnaby Eaton-Jones gird their loins and prepare to face The Ultimate Foe...

This feature on ‘The Trial of a Timelord’ has been a long road for your writers. In truth, we have worked as long on this feature as the 14 weeks over which the original series aired, longer in fact. It’s been a time of hard work, headaches, disagreements, triumphs and loss, but more than anything, it’s been one hell of a ride. Over the weeks we’ve learned many things – we hope you’ve enjoyed sharing our experiences and reminiscences, but in truth there is so much more that didn’t make the cut. Perhaps we’ll write a book one day filled with anecdotes about Michael Jayston’s fondness for fruit machines and Voltaire, Ian and Rob’s lost commentary on ‘The Mysterious Planet’ and surprising intolerances for Pimms and Lemonade, and the ‘3 Doctors’ photoshoot that was sadly vetoed by all concerned when we realised we lack the charm, style and grace of Messrs Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee.

Until then, read on for our commentary on the final two part story of ‘Trial’ and our closing remarks on the series as a whole. Ooooh and some exclusive interviews coming up with the stars of ‘Trial’ themselves!

As we settle in for the series finale, it appears that time has got the better of one of our number, as Barnaby, last seen punting down the Thames chasing Colin Baker for an interview, has got himself trapped in the Time Vortex.

The Trial of a Timelord Episode 13 (The Ultimate Foe Part one)
Commentary by Ian Ham and Robert Barton-Ancliffe

Barnaby (from the comfort of a black velvet lined glass cubicle): It's 106 miles to the Fantasy Factory. We've got a full season behind us... half a finished storyline... it's confusing... and we're wearing spats... FINISH IT!

Rob: Shhhhhh, its started! Oooh, the theme tune sounds much better on modern tv sound systems – and I haven’t even got a soundbar.

Ian: The Timelords would call it a sonic field energiser…*pauses witticism to admire the late Lynda Bellingham’s acting chops* Article 7. Sagacity is kicking arse around the courtroom.

Rob: Poor Jayston – the hat must itch something terrible…but his Valeyard laugh is brilliant and Lynda Bellingham certainly holds her own as the inquisitor here.

Ian: All three leads are again brilliant. Michael Jayston just knocks it out of the park all the time though.

But there's still room for the guest actors to shine, as James Bree’s Keeper of the Matrix proclaims, in a display of typical Timelord arrogance, that ‘The Key of Rassilon never leaves my possession!’ and one has to hand it to him, he does have a rather cunning security system.

Ian: I used to keep my key round my neck at uni. Until I nearly killed myself after a drunken night out and slippy halls of residence corridors. Also, for such a prized artefact, everyone seems to have a Key of Rassilon. They should market them on Gallifrey. Or maybe they should make them out of plastic like our £5 notes. Apparently they’re forgery proof too.

To the delight of ALL concerned, The Timelords have gone to great effort to pluck Mel and Glitz from their time streams to assist the Doctor…

Ian: Bonnie, Bonnie, Bonnie. Calm it down a smidge, please. And Glitz has gone a bit wooden too.

Rob: Oooh – Mel! I have a soft spot for Mel. And look, the Master! Bless Anthony Ainley.

Ian: And queue some Masterly Doctor/Valeyard expositioning.

‘You pretend not to know me do you?’ – The Master

Rob: He’s onto the Valeyard’s game. You know, perhaps every court room should have a huge screen displaying Anthony Ainley, to keep everyone on their toes...

The drama is peppered with the usual flurry of puns a la ‘Railyard’, ‘Stackyard’ but here’s where the answers to the season long mystery start to be revealed, or as Ian neatly sums it up:

Ian: Some major Earth/Ravalox expositioning

i.e. The master reveals that it is the Timelords themselves who have been manipulating the course of events on Ravalox and beyond to hide their own ham fisted blunders, and someone has seized on The Doctor as the perfect scapegoat.

Rob: This is weighty stuff, very talky!

Ian: Albeit a bit woolly and fluffy.

Things change however with a speech from Colin Baker to match any in the series’ long run to wit ‘In all my travelling throughout the universe I have battled against evil, against power mad conspirators. I should have stayed here. The oldest civilisation: decadent, degenerate, and rotten to the core. Power mad conspirators, Daleks, Sontarans… Cybermen, they're still in the nursery compared to us. Ten million years of absolute power. That's what it takes to be really corrupt!’

And suddenly, in a twist to rival Luke finding out Leia is his sister…

Rob: Ah, so the Valeyard IS the Doctor! This should have been the episode’s cliff-hanger…

Ian: or in Eastenders speak, a ‘douf douf’ moment.

The Master reveals the Valeyard to have originated ‘Somewhere between [The Doctor’s] twelfth and final incarnation’. A neat trick on the writer’s part, leaving their successors a little creative wiggle room. Thus far however, aside from a brief namecheck by Richard E. Grant’s The Great Intelligence in the Moffatt era’s ‘The Name of The Doctor’ we’re still waiting – though Toby Jones’ Dream Lord from series 5’s ‘Amy’s Choice’ is a similar idea, revealing currents of suppressed arrogance and swagger just beneath Matt Smith’s righteous exterior.

As the action shifts to the surreal world of ‘The Matrix’, the Timelord’s repository of all knowledge, things take a turn for the truly bizarre as the character engage in a game of cat and mouse ranging from beach to the Victorian stylings of the ‘Fantasy Factory’.

Rob: There’s some nice sound design with children laughing and singing. The Music is still brilliant – reminds me of ‘Resident Evil’.

Ian: Some lovely night shooting and lovely locations.

Rob: Ah, the infamous hands reaching out of a barrel to throttle the Doctor…

Ian: The hands out of the barrel! Scared me to death. I’m sure I’ve seen a film on a dodgy VHS called The Fantasy Factory.

Rob: Interesting that Glitz has so willingly followed The Doctor into danger. A case might be made that he’s a companion in his own right – I wonder if the BBC site lists him?

It seems however, Tony Selby’s days as Glitz are numbered as he’s suddenly shot by a deadly assassin of sorts.

Ian: The harpoon is a bit violent…

Rob: Harpoon? I thought he’d just been shot by a rather bendy arrow…

Meanwhile, outside the Matrix…Anthony Ainley’s Master delivers some excruciatingly poor retconning (before that was a ‘thing’) ‘Ah the delightful Miss Perpagillium Brown’…’She’s a Queen, set on high by that fool Yrcarnos’. 

Rob: Life with Brian Blessed. We should all be so lucky. Still, it’s nice she survived, but it still doesn’t ring true somehow – who knows what’s true and what’s not in this story.

Whilst back to the action in the Matrix, with Glitz having survived to con another day…

Rob: Oooh, its Onslo!! Er…Geoffrey Hughes.

Ian: The bureaucratic Mr Popplewick. I’ve worked with a lot of people like that.

Rob: He is very officious, which is a form of villainy in itself, sort of like Uriah Heap ‘Such things cannot be rushed Sir!’ Hold on there’s two of them! ‘The very Junior Mr Popplewick’ haha.

Mr Popplewick, so the DVD text commentary tells us, is a creation of Eric Saward. Nice cut to the Doctor opening a door onto a beach – something tells us that the young Wachowski’s were eagerly watching, taking notes…and finally, as Colin Baker’s doctor is consumed by sand, leaving behind only his spats for posterity, the episode soon draws to a close…

Rob: Ah, the famous beach burial scene! Jayston’s disembodied voice is thrilling.

Ian: Both that and the barrel scene in this episode define the season. I still wonder how long it took to get the sand out of his spats.

Rob: A cliff-hanger Mary Whitehouse would have simply adored!

Episode 14 (The Ultimate Foe Part Two)

Ian: The theme tune has definitely grown on me. And as you said, it certainly helps listening to it through some decent speakers.

Rob: Bloody Hell, poor Colin Baker is going above and beyond here. I wonder if those are his feet sticking up from the sand!?

Glitz pays him a nice tribute as he fondles one of the Doctor’s Orange Spats...before The Doctor re-emerges like magic – complete with spats! YES!!

Ian: Enter The Valeyard. Looks great with robes flowing in the breeze.

Rob: Apparently he had a ball on location – if nothing else, he got to ditch the hat! Oooh, they gave him some proper dialogue to chew on here. ‘The Undiscovered Country’ speech - FIVE YEARS before Christopher Plummer’s Shakespeare loving Star Trek antagonist General Chang appropriated it!

Ian: And Baker fires the literary wit right back! ‘Hamlet Act 3, scene 1!’

Suddenly, The Valeyard displays the true freedom, and danger of The Matrix, as he does a Nightcrawler and flits instantly back and forth around the scene with little more than a *ting*

Rob: I swear – this isn’t special effect – Michael Jayston actually has that power. It’s useful for beating fans to the bar after a particularly gruelling signing. I’ve seen it – ‘Um Mr Jayston, could I maybe have an autogra..’ *ting* and he’s gone!

Rob: Ah, the Master’s Tardis console room – a simple redress with black but oh so cool!

Ian: Isn’t it a coincidence that the Master’s TARDIS Console Room is always a black version of whatever the Doctor’s got at the time?

Rob: Oooh, the Doctor is being rendered catatonic by video special effects! Top marks to Colin Baker for acting with his imagination though…and look! The Master’s TARDIS is a statue of Queen Victoria! Rather effective really.

The Valeyard makes yet another dramatic entrance.

Rob: I see what Jayston meant about the fun they had on location, is still rather restrained, but he’s clearly enjoying being able to bring more physicality here…

Ian: It’s FAR better when it’s dark and dingy on location.

Thankfully The Doctor escapes back to the relative safety of the courtroom.

Rob: This set is starting to grow on me a bit…Oooh, it was a bluff! The Doctor is not back in the court room at all!

Ian: Double Oooh - a Matrix within a Matrix. Where have we seen that since?

Suddenly, Mel springs into action, easily besting the Matrix Keeper. The Guards seem content to let her – this would never have happened on Commander Maxil’s watch! [Colin Baker having played Maxil in previous Doctor, Peter Davison’s story ‘Arc of Infinity’]

Rob: Now the Doctor is quoting Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ – tit for tat – Kirk got there first in ‘The Wrath of Khan’, so we can’t grumble that Nicholas Meyer nicked the quote from Hamlet right back for ‘The Undiscovered Country’.

Back in the Master’s Tardis he’s trying his trusty old hypnotism to convince Glitz to betray The Doctor, but soon resorts to straight up bribery.

Rob: He used to be so classy! Mind, Eric Robert’s Master used bribery too in the 1995 TV Movie.

But the surprises don’t end there…as the writers opt for the ‘Scooby Doo’ ending and The Valeyard is unmasked.

Rob: Whoah…..ONSLO IS THE VALEYARD! That’s some serious ‘Mission Impossible’ stuff right there.

Ian: Bloody good Popplewick Mask!

The Dastardly Valeyard is using ‘A Megabyte Modem’ to wreak havoc on the matrix!

Ian: Oh dear oh dear. The Megabyte Modem. And then the MASER. Good old Pip & Jane. This scene is full of their wonderfulness.

Rob: How many bytes per second can that baby download?

And so we come to the thrilling climax where we are told that ‘And Insurrection is running amok on Gallifrey!’

Ian: Mass revolution and insurrection on Gallifrey passed off in a couple of lines from The Keeper. At least it’s cheap I suppose.

Rob: Haha - The Master is once again poised to take control of the universe – just how dastardly can one arch nemesis get!?

A proper resolution in classic Who style, as The Doctor sciences the shit out of the Megabyte Modem, supplying some suitable technobabble, with poor Michael Jayston forced to join in.

Rob: Oh no!! They’re both being mithered by video effects!


Ian: A lot of Blue escape from the Matrix and all is OK. The Doctor is pardoned, and all OK.

Rob: And they’re offering the Doctor the Presidency AGAIN!? Politics on our world have nothing on Gallifrey…

Ian: Bloody Peri copout. Living forever wearing noise cancelling headphones. Poor thing.

Rob: At least Colin Baker’s reaction to the news is rather touching…

Ian: Carrot juice carrot juice carrot juice! Poor Colin.

Rob: Epic! Still, at least being a series ending, there won’t be a nail-biting cliff-hanger for once – I’m worn out after 13 weeks!

Ian: A cliffhanger! The Valeyard lives!!

Rob: Gotta love that Valeyard. He’s like Ming the Merciless’ more clever older brother.

Barnaby: Well done my dear fellows. You did QUITE well. Now, abandon me to the Matrix!

Rob and Ian: *stony silence*.

And surprisingly, that’s it! Doctor Who was to return, and run for another three years before the lean years and RTD’s triumphant revival. It’s a shame really, but like everything good, the second Baker era has come to an end, but fear not. One day, we shall come back, yes we shall come back…until then…

Closing Remarks

Barnaby Eaton Jones:

Like ‘The Key to Time’ before it (featuring the other Baker, in the form of Tom’s Fourth Doctor), the idea of linking stories under an umbrella arc is a good one. It might not always work as well as expected but it does give the long-term viewer more reasons to invest in their favourite programme. It’s clear that modern Doctor Who is not afraid to do such things, since it returned to our screens.

So, from the perspective of the past, I loved Trial. I was drawn in by the idea that the Doctor was forced to account for his actions and that the Valeyard was turning on the head the notion of the Doctor as a hero. All the normal situations that you’d cheer on the Doctor in and the way many adventures had concluded or advanced was fodder for accusations. It fitted rather beautifully and challenged the very notion of the show itself. I remember watching agog as that long tracking shot of the space station that held the courtroom in seemed to go on forever. That oh-so-expensive tracking shot that you sort of took for granted without realising, in later life, how much of the budget was blown on it.

I liked the bitchy triumvirate of the good Doctor, the bad Valeyard and the not-so-ugly Inquisitor. Those court room scenes never felt forced and, in viewing in the future, they seem a little more repetitive by their nature because nobody watches episodically anymore. It’s one big binge.

My genuine surprise was still triggered years later, watching it again, when the Master turned up in the Matrix and at the way the Valeyard is revealed as a future ‘stuck’ regeneration between two others; condensing all the ‘evil’ in the Doctor. I adored the surrealistic end, at the Fun Factory, with so much imagery that sticks with me to this day. The Doctor appearing out of the sand, the Valeyard teleporting across it and the hands out of the barrel clutching at the Sixth Doctor’s head. I remember being appalled by Peri’s demise and somehow confused by the get-out-clause that she’d buggered off and married Brian Blessed. I couldn’t see how that would have ever worked. Melanie Bush, in the form of Bonnie Langford, almost stopped me being able to suspend reality when watching the show but then it’s all redeemed by her performance within the Fun Factory setting at the denouement.

It’s a big, bold and brave move to mirror what was going on outside the show by satirising it within. That takes confidence and an almost do-or-die attitude. Obviously, it doesn’t all work – it’s by no means perfect but, then again, what series is? But, what it’s trying to do is pull the rug from under the viewer’s feet and give them something they’ve seen before but yet something they’ve not seen before. It seems to be a theme running through the Sixth Doctor’s all-too-brief tenure at the TARDIS, as he begins his journey with the ‘Change, my dear. And not a moment too soon!’ line. I don’t think you can argue that, whether you were watching it then as a giddy teenager or watching it now as a cynical adult. Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor era did bring a major change and I, for one, thought it was an exciting and forward-thinking one. The Trial of a Time Lord seems to be every single thing that personifies the first series of this incarnation’s stories, all concentrated on an overall concept that would see the programme being put on trial by the BBC and by the BBC broadcasting that trial.

Whatever your opinion is of this series, it’s a grand experiment and a courageous move by a production that was not only fighting with the powers-that-be but also fighting with each other during the making of it. So, on its 30th anniversary, The Trail of a Time Lord still hasn’t lost the power to shock. It’s a little bit rebellious, it’s a little bit disrespectful, it’s a little bit anti-establishment and it’s a little bit challenging. This was the loud, aggressive, in-yer-face Punk era of Doctor Who. It did signal change. And not a moment too soon.

Robert Barton Ancliffe:

Consider it for what it offers. A rare experiment in long form storytelling, for a show that often hit the reset button, ‘Trial’ actually has much more in common with today’s ‘Doctor Who’ than the majority of stories that preceded or followed it up to 1989. Series long story arcs, The Timelords as antagonists, actions with real consequences and a glimpse of the Doctor’s dark side are all par for the course nowadays, but at the time were, conceptually at least, as compelling as any number of special effects or dastardly villains. ‘Trial’ didn’t necessarily originate any of these tropes within the ‘Doctor Who’ oeuvre, but there is clear evidence that in bringing them all together, whether ultimately successful or not, there was a masterplan at work.

As for Colin Baker, dear ‘VI’ as he now signs at conventions, has undergone something of a renaissance with fans of the show. With countless hours of further adventures with Big Finish Productions, and a willingness to embrace his history with the show, he has won many new admirers, to greatly swell the ranks of those who always appreciated his unpredictable, erasable yet often charming take on the character. Delving further into interviews it’s also interesting to hear of Baker’s plan to play the long game, where his initially spiky character would slowly win over the viewer’s trust and perhaps become the most outwardly heroic Doctor of them all.

This series saw a sad ending to Nicola Bryant’s time as Peri and the introduction of Bonnie Langford’s Mel. We needn’t opine ad infinitum on this. You’ll have your own opinion, and this really is one of the beauties of the programme’s format. Don’t like the status quo? Something new and different is bound to be waiting in the wings.

Finally, perhaps the biggest impression ‘Trial’ left on this writer is that it was his first real foray into sci-fi horror. For all of the talk that season 23 was lighter in tone than what had come before, imagine yourself as a six year old with boundless imagination, and a lingering fear of the dark. As you might have guessed from previous entries in this feature, Robert Barton-Ancliffe finds ‘Trial’ rather scary to this day. It might be that this is the first time his parents let him watch unaccompanied and start to choose his own televisual destiny as it were. Still, a few gentle shocks and challenges are brilliant for young minds, and with ‘Trial of a Timelord’, this writer got off to a cracking start.

Ian Ham:

Forgive me if these scribbles get a bit self-indulgent, it’s been that sort of week.

Sci-fi has a peculiar place in our collective hearts. At the present time, us geeky types like to band together and discuss the finer points of UNIT dating, or if Peri really is married to Brian Blessed, and the wider general public generally have no idea what we are talking about. I’m sure it has been the same throughout history. I imagine socially awkward Egyptians probably pored over the scrolls showing the plans of the latest pharaoh’s sarcophagus and arguing loudly that the side panels are the wrong size. And the more introverted cavemen arguing over Ug’s cave painting of their new leader, saying his ornamental fighting spear should be a bolder shade of brown.

My point is that certain members of society will always turn to the world’s minutia, argue about it until they are blue in the face, and sometimes end up with a consensus of how it could be made better; it’s how the human race progresses.

Doctor Who is an especially good example of this. Fans of the show have been talking about the smallest details of the show for almost its entire run. The internet has only exploded this phenomena. But these discussions provide some safe spaces for people to talk when there are no other topics available to them. It lets the most nervous person have a say.

I remember watching ‘Trial’ as a shy 12 year old with my brother in my Nan’s bedroom. I imagine that the rest of the household were watching something on the only other TV in the house, so we were banished upstairs. I remember it being dark, and I remember my little brother not really getting it. It wasn’t as good as ‘The A Team’ or ‘Knight Rider’ in his eyes. But I remember thinking about this strange colourful programme and the possibilities that it held. The travelling and the adventures. ‘Trial’ was the first series that I watched from beginning to end. I followed the action from week to week, thanking whoever it was that put the section on the start of each episode to tell you what had happened over the past million weeks.

A member of my family died this week. I know this sounds completely stupid but, amongst all the sadness, it seems oddly comforting that there are many silly TV shows that we can still get lost in for a few minutes where all the nastiness goes away. Thirty years have passed since I sat as a child and watched this set of episodes, but when I sit down to watch them again nothing seems to have changed. I am still being called down for my tea and I’m still being told off for biting my nails.

Here’s to sci-fi TV. May it last forever so us geeks can argue about it in comfort.

Images - BBC, Tardis Wikia
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