Friday, August 9, 2013

Trial of a Time Lord, Parts 1-14 - "Well, can't we just have the edited highlights?"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Trial of a Time Lord: 1-4 - Details

Season 23, Story 1 (Overall Series Story #144)

1-4 "The Mysterious Planet"

I have to admit, and I'm going to get a little autobiographical here, that wasn't sure I'd ever seen anything more than clips or a few scenes from this entire 23rd season prior to popping the disc in the player for this viewing. "How can this be," you might ask? "You call yourself a Whovian but aren't certain whether you've seen an entire season or not?!" Well, here's what happened ...

It's the mid-1980s. Yours truly is a gawky, geeky teen with too-long ("feathered and layered," is how I remember asking for it to be cut) hair, ill-fitting (too skinny for my height back then) clothes, and a host of other teen-aged problems: social anxiety, mild depression, bad skin, more smarts than sense, and a bit of a compulsive. In other words, obviously a Whovian. I'd been watching Doctor Who for years already and was finally seeing Davison era stories being broadcast (in the U.S.) for the first time after having watched the heck out of the Pertwee and Tom Baker years as they cycled through the various CT and MA public TV stations I could configure the rabbit ears to tune in to.

Saturday nights were appointment TV for my grandmother and I the weekends and summers I spent up at my dad's. Channel 57 showed an entire story edited together into one broadcast each week at 7:00 PM. My grandmother was a good sport about the whole thing. I'm not sure she actually liked Doctor Who all that much when Tom Baker wasn't involved, but she never complained, at least not any more than I did, when a story was terrible. As occasionally happened even during the Baker years, but happened more often thereafter. We would sip our drinks -- me a Coke from my traditional glass, I used one of the same set each week, hers was a highball (Scotch and soda, a woman of refined tastes, she was) -- and we'd discuss some of the plot points as we watched to make sure were keeping all the twists and turns of story straight. She'd usually turn in for the night after that and I'd go back to my Dad's and stay up late as I could -- probably reading Target novelizations until I fell asleep.

This was how it went, week after week, month after month, until we hit the "The Twin Dilemma." Both of us pretty much threw up our hands at that point and said, "This sucks." Or words to that effect. I don't remember now if we just stopped watching after the first full season of Colin Baker, or if they stopped showing them after season 22, but that weekly tradition ended sometime before the McCoy years and we would only occasionally watch an older story on VHS after that. She passed away a few years later and Doctor Who went into the wilderness years. I never saw any of the McCoy stories broadcast as they were broadcast in the 80s, but did rent a few after they came out on VHS. "The Curse of Fenric" put an end to that though. Never stopped reading the books, kept watching the Pertwee, Tom Baker, and Peter Davison years every chance I got, but never tried the Colin Backer or McCoy stories again. Until ...

Back to the present day. A father now myself, watching both the new and classic series with my son, starting a new tradition, but with the same iridescent drinking glasses, things are great. Doctor Who is not only back, it's one of the biggest things on TV. And now, it's my job (self-assigned) to give Sixie a fair shake despite my less-than-fond memories of what happened to the show once Colin Baker got the role.

Recently, I surprised myself by actually liking a story of his; so, perhaps the task is not be beyond me ...

The dread/anticipation mix for this phase of the enterprise was something like a seven percent solution -- dread being the predominant compound in the beaker, but anticipation is there, swirling and bubbling over the flame as well, undeniably present where one might have supposed it'd burnt off a quarter century ago when an unstable Six tried to choke Peri. I set out, for the first time since starting this blog, to give a full season of the classic series a sequential viewing, something I've been deliberately avoiding in order to mix things up and let different Doctors and eras bounce against each other. Netflix threw me for a loop though and sent a disc out of order when one wasn't available, so I did end up getting a break during this stretch.

But enough about me. On with the show ...

Here's a visual cue in case you've forgotten the particulars. 
My, my. While watching, it started to come back. The lines shaved in the beards of Glitz and Dibber were quite distinctive and did end up jogging my memory after all; I had seen this story before. Also remembered how the Time Lord tribunal all turned in their chairs, the rotation of their elaborate collars neatly synchronized, to watch the Valeyard's video "evidence". What I'm surprised I didn't remember was how charming, snarky, and downright personable Six was in this one! (Not the Six I remember at all.)

Michael Jayton was icy and sinister as The Valeyard, but hampered by dialogue that was not the best Holmes ever wrote. Sadly, the whole thing is undermined by the completely incomprehensible idiocy of the Time Lord tribunal. I mean, if this is what passes for jurisprudence on Gallifrey, it is quite impossible to view them as an advanced civilization. The Doctor's indignation and complete lack of respect for the proceedings are entirely justified. No reasonable person would give credence to the "justice" of such a court.

The Valeyard
"I intend to adumbrate two typical instances from
separate epistopic interfaces of the spectrum."
This story is loaded with well documented problems, but it's entertaining enough in that it holds a certain (false) promise. We can muster some appreciation for the supporting cast delivering those oh-so-Holmesian (Robert, not Sherlock, I hope it goes without saying) lines. The few hints that are dropped about overall story arc we're embarking on are intriguing -- especially the Doctor not remembering where Peri is, and that there are secrets being kept from even the tribunal itself. If it keeps up like this, or were to improve (we know it doesn't, but still ...) then we could be on to something here. I guess what I'm saying is, the whole thing didn't necessarily have to go off the rails, but there's no denying this engine appears to be entering a sharp curve much too fast.

You've probably noticed I've not talked about the plot of the story at all. For the most part, my intent with these write-ups is give the bare minimum and let the linked description at the top of each post do that work. In this case it's a convenience I making full use of to keep allow for the personal touch as much as to not have to talk about how silly the story is. Russell T. Davies though must not have thought it that silly, because he has the Earth dragged across the galaxy later as well.

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Trial of a Time Lord: 5-8 - Details

Season 23, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #145)

5-8 "Mindwarp"

There's a lot going on here, but I'm going to hold off commenting in this segment of the post on the most impactful element of this story, the (apparent) death of Peri. Even having hints in the story itself that the Matrix can, despite everyone's claims to contrary, depict false information and knowing it's going to be undone later, the Doctor's initial reaction to her death is so repulsive and speaks so ill of his character that I prefer to hold off on it. Yes, yes, he does eventually react with horror, but the way the story unfolds, we get his initial reaction as cliffhanger, then replayed at the start of the next episode before finally seeing an emotional response that is something like appropriate. That initial reaction, "I'm not responsible for that!" is so self-centered, thoughtless, and cruel that it reinforces the impression created by the manipulated footage of the Doctor betraying Peri and Yrcanos. It is impossible not see the Doctor as craven and it is ... dismaying.

So let's watch the story unfold and circle back to this when we discover the truth of the matter later. For now let's just mention the one thing that redeems this story: Brian Blessed's insane hamming. Now, Brian Blessed is a fine actor capable of more than just boom and bluster. But, he's also the man who gave us Prince Vultan and, as a result, has to do that "Gordon's alive!" bit for the Queen on-demand until she dies or some shit like that.

Prince Vultan

So, the fact that Blessed comes to Doctor Who and is, from what I can discern, told his Vultan was 'a bit tame and could he maybe turn it up to 11?' is wonderful, in a way.

Blessed, playing it understated for this clip. There are two later instances
of his delivering his lines holding Ms. Bryant in the air by her elbows
where it seems possible he may, like a great bear, devour her whole.
Honestly, I just want to do this whole post as a gallery of Brian Blessed GIFs because the alternative is trying to justify the unjustifiable. Yes, let's ... let's just pause and just watch Mr. Blessed hunch, clench, grimace, and shout as if about to poop a live, enraged porcupine.

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Trial of a Time Lord: 9-12 - Details

Season 23, Story 3 (Overall Series Story #146)

9-12 "Terror of the Vervoids"

I haven't read up on this story, so I imagine if I undertook to list all the things that are silly and made no sense about it, I would end up with a pretty long list, and then find that more diligent analysts had doubled my tally. But let's start with this: the Doctor wants to demonstrate how his involvement in the affairs of other species results in positive outcomes and undercuts the case (I feel like I should be using scare quotes there, because what case?) of the Valeyard. To this end, he goes to the Matrix and looks for something in his future. Nothing says, "I concede your point," quite like ignoring your track record and looking for something you might do later that shows you're going to improve. Idiot. (He might also have tried the See, I Have a Future, Therefore You Didn't Find Me Guilty and Execute Me, So Can We Call the Whole Thing Off? Defense.)

Also, Time Lords are allowed to look into their own future? Really? Is it a special dispensation he was given because of the charges against him and his inability to point to a single instance in his past where he did good? Ugh.

It's a shame the trial is such a stupid hash, because it's wrapped around an otherwise reasonably enjoyable story. This is Doctor Who doing a shipbound whodunnit (there's even an Agatha Christie reference worked in via a copy of Murder on the Orient Express). It's a bit sloppy, no surprise there, but if you accept that the idea is everyone should be a suspect, and the resolution involves about the silliest, most contrived bit of herbicide you're like to ever see, then you can enjoy the unfolding of the story just fine. It's slight praise, but that's about what this one is worth ... again, minus the Trial wrapper which tanks the effort.

And, hey, look! It's Mel, a new companion who, for a structural reasons is a companion we meet after she's already joined the TARDIS so we have no idea how she got there or how long she's been there, a fact the writers go out of the way to avoid addressing. Which, OK, fine, now we've established that sometime after the death of Peri the Doctor met another companion and he's had an unknown number of adventures (maybe even companions?) before the start of this one. I'm not actually against building in blank spots in our knowledge, but the way it was handled here doesn't feel optimal. (Nothing about this Trial season so far feels optimal though. Ironically, the closest thing to a success that I've seen in this whole trial is Colin Baker's non-trial performance as Six. I'm finding myself growing fonder of him even as I get more frustrated with the overall production.)

Mel is ... well, she's a bit much. I'd be surprised if she's anybody's favorite companion -- well, I take that back, I expect there is a small cadre of Mel devotees out there for whom she's their cosplay expertise -- but, once you get past the excessive chirpiness, her curiosity and courage are downright endearing. She's just so ... Mel about it.

How about those Vervoids, eh? Those costumes are like documentary footage of a jaundiced woman giving birth to an infant with no skull. A look only Harrison Chase could love.

Now forget I described them that way before pausing to acknowledge Honor ("Pussy Galore") Blackman's turn as Professor Lasky here. Anyone who's ever worked in the service industry has dealt with the likes of Lasky before and will find much to appreciate in her portrayal of that particular sort of entitled, arrogant humanity.

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Trial of a Time Lord: 13-14 - Index

Season 23, Story 4 (Overall Series Story #147)

13-14 "The Ultimate Foe"

This bit of criticism, cited on the BBC site via The Discontinuity Guide, pretty much covers it:
It is telling that when Pip and Jane Baker were commissioned to provide a replacement script for the final episode, after Saward withdrew his, they had no idea how the story was originally supposed to end, despite having themselves written four of the earlier episodes, and nor indeed did they know how it had begun - they had to go and research this from scratch ...
If the production team had wanted to present a coherent fourteen-part story, with different writers responsible for different episodes, they should arguably have devised at the outset a detailed storyline with a clear beginning, middle and end, so that each of the writers knew exactly where his or her contribution was supposed to fit into the overall picture. That they failed to do so, despite having had the luxury of the longest period ever available to any production team for the preparation of a season, can be seen as a damning indictment.
Doctor Who in the 80s was run by bunglers. John Nathan-Turner, whatever his virtues, simply did not have the skill set to successfully run a television series. We can make excuses for what happened here (the death of Robert Holmes, low budget, lack of support from the BBC, etc.) and cherry-pick elements that did work, not only here but across the all the years he was show-runner, but we ultimately judge by the totality of stories that made it to the screen. We can forgive flimsy sets, unfortunate f/x, the occasional poor casting decision, and a host of other minor failings, but sustained incoherence is inexcusable. If you're tempted to point out that the BBC scrapped the original season 23 a month before it was to start production, after scripts had been commissioned and directors assigned, and therefore blame the higher ups for setting JN-T & Co. back to square one, I can only point out that the originally planned first story of the "lost" 23rd season was the return of the Celestial Toymaker. As has been ably documented, this was wrong-headed on so many levels.

Even with only (!) twenty-odd years of history at the time "Trial of a Time Lord" was made, it was never really going to be possible to make stories that fit perfectly into an overall canon that provided proper guardrails, such a thing just didn't exist. The continuity was a hash before this production team took over, so we needn't, I think, hold anyone to account for Gallifreyan / Time Lord culture in general, and the Doctor's narrative arc in particular, not really making sense. But stories need an internal logic. In order to care about characters, we need to at least understand why they are behaving a certain way, even if its against their own interest, as if they were authentic. They can't do things just to advance a plot, or because a scene requires them to. When characters aren't behaving in a way we can fathom, they might as well just be saying, "Look at me I'm doing this! Now I'm saying stuff and it doesn't matter what I say because in the next scene it's going to be as if I never said or did any of this, or worse, did or said something else entirely! Hahahah." That's not drama or storytelling of any sort. It's Chinese dog food. (By which I mean it's basically pulped cardboard and other garbage mushed into a chunky, gelatinous glop which will actually kill your dog after making her very sick.) Sabalom Glitz isn't a good guy with a naughty streak, nor is he a psychopath with a certain charm. He's whatever the script needs him to be in a given scene. Oh, and he worked for the Master all along. The Master was in the Matrix the whole time, cooking up his scheme to set the Doctor and the Valeyard against each other/himself, yadda-yadda, and take over Gallifrey.

Again, I find myself at the end of a segment having avoided talking much about the actual story. Again, it's because it's not that much fun to write about. The Doctor being sucked into the sand on the beach in the Matrix by hands from below is a little creepy ... but that cliffhanger is resolved by his walking up out of the trap because he was never in any danger. The atmosphere of the Fantasy Factory location isn't bad. In a story we cared about, it would be quite good, but here it's the best thing about a show where the best thing ought to be the exciting conclusion to season-long mystery.

Let's end this all by reflecting on how we feel about Peri, having been cruelly murdered (her identity destroyed, technically) so a capitalist robber-baron slug could have his mind transferred into her skull back in "Mindwarp", suddenly being shown married to Yrcanos, gazing out the window of a castle in soft focus. I think we're supposed to imagine Peri is happy, but it looks like the clip was filmed in some other context, because she looks confused or distraught. The viewer is left with the feeling somebody was trying to clean up what they thought was a horrible mess someone left them so they wouldn't be blamed for it. Colin Baker was finally showing he deserved better, yet he was the one who ended up getting the axe.

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