This story in a nutshell: The Trial comes to a head with some big surprises…
The Other Doctor: I love how the Valeyard tries to bluff his way through all the interruptions to his damning court case against the Doctor knowing that he is about to be rumbled. I think villains are always more dangerous when they are caught off guard. He wants to attain his freedom and operate as a complete entity, stealing the Doctor’s remaining lives. With the Doctor destroyed and unlimited access to the Matrix there will be nothing beyond his power. Just when I was thinking it was a shame to see the death of such a great villain the ending sneaks up and surprises us as the Valeyard turns to the camera and laughs menacingly. Hoorah! Lets hope we see him again one day. The Doctor needs someone to remind him to stop elevating futility to a high art! Michael Jayston is one of the major strengths of season twenty-three, he gives a towering performance and manages to make the most unlikeliest of dialogue (especially in the contributions by Pip'n'Jane) sound plausible, even frightening. It is a shame that he never had the opportunity to butt heads with the seventh Doctor, I have a feeling that would have been a terrific battle of wits.
Bubbly Bonnie: Oh sweet bejesus that Mel is a sparky thing, isn’t she? Despite being saddled with some dreadful lines I still maintain that she worked well in the trial season – I think there is something about pairing her up with Colin Bakers similarly theatrical Doctor that really stirs up some good chemistry. She’s about as truthful, honest…and about as boring as they come (at least she is honest about it). Mel spoils everything by refusing to let the Doctor sign on as a martyr. The ‘Don’t go through that…’
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘In all my travellings 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!’
The Good Stuff:
· Seeing James Bree in turn up in this story reminds me that he also saw in Troughton’s Doctor as well. This actor is a portent of doom for the current inhabitant of the main part…
· Glitz was my number one ‘I’d like to see return’ character so its great that we didn’t even have to wait until the end of the season to get a return visit from my favourite rogue. His appalled looking ‘are they all like you here?’ to Mel is hilarious and he looks positively affronted when the Valeyard calls him a common criminal! He’s a small time crook with small time ambitions and one of which is to stay alive and as such needs to be blackmailed into helping the Doctor. Isn’t it hysterical that Glitz wears a knuckle duster? Can you imagine him actually laying someone out with that thing? It's lovely that the Doctor asks them to exercise leniency with Glitz…that he isn’t beyond redemption.
· I know that the Master is contractually obliged to appear once a season but this has mostly led to some ridiculous appearances (and even more insane disguises) but for once it is a genuine thrill to see him. He looks down on the whole sorry courtroom and takes the piss out of everything – he has been watching this travesty of a trial from beginning to end and has been enjoying himself immensely! He’s in his element stirring up the Valeyard and showing his hand in trying to kill the Doctor and in doing so rocking the High Council to its foundations with his barrage of revelations. Turns out the Master is genuinely frightened by the Valeyard because he has all the Doctor’s intelligence and cunning but twisted into a darker persona without morality to hold him back. Finally the Master has met his match. He’s such a devious sod that he uses the Doctor as bait to bring the Valeyard out in the open so he can shoot him. There's a gloriously post modern feel to the Master having sat through the entirety of the Trial and not being at all impressed, he really is speaking for the majority of the fandom at the time this was aired.
· The revelations are genuinely shocking – I know back in the day people weren’t used to season long arcs but today’s audience are much more savvy about such things – and the return to the story that began in The Mysterious Planet gives the conclusion a real sense of epic proportions. Secrets were being stolen from the Matrix and fed to Andromeda via Earth and protect their secrets the Time Lords drew the Earth billions of years across space causing the fireball that nearly destroyed the planet. That is an awesome twist and it’s the first of many this story has to offer.
· I don’t think we should underestimate just how good of a twist finding out that the Valeyard is the Doctor really is. Never before had Doctor Who held off such a delicious concept for so long to create maximum impact and it is a revelation so good because it floors an audience that thinks this wrap up is going to be more dull court proceedings. This is something for us to really get our teeth into – a darker version of the Doctor for him to face. I cannot think of a more exciting twist in the shows history.
· The nightmarish sequences inside the Matrix are brilliantly directed by Chris Clough, they’re dark and menacing and the sound effects (a bell tolling, maniacal laughter, children singing) are used to disturbing effect. The lights of the Fantasy Factory all snapping on at once is a visual worthy of Sapphire and Steel it is so surreal. The feather explosions across the courtyard look fabulous and I cannot compliment Clough enough for his handling of the Doctor’s fake execution. Even Mel looks creepy shrouded in shadows beckoning the Doctor back to the courtroom. The whispering of ‘Death Death Death Death’ is very effective. Clough's best direction for Who by a country mile.
· The cliffhanger is stomach churning but less because of the Doctor being dragged into the quicksand and more because of the nightmarish image of the hands groping their way excitedly at thin air. We think of Doctor Who at the time as something that everybody was pointing at a laughing but I had a friend who was seven when this was on and she absolutely adored it…except for this cliffhanger which gave her nightmares for weeks and her parents wouldn’t let her watch any more. All she remembers was the Doctor dressed up like a clown (ahem) being dragged under a beach by dirty hands and it still makes her shudder to think about it today. So the show was still doing its job even during its more difficult periods.
· Whilst I don’t buy into the idea of a Megabyte Modem, I can buy into the assassination of the Time Lords in the courtroom and the race against time to warn them and subsequent fight between the Doctor and Master is far more exciting than similar scenes in The Deadly Assassin. The music is especially good in this climatic sequence. I don’t know what those sparkling blue bits do that come spitting out of the machine but I bet it's not nice.
The Bad Stuff: ‘That’s it Doc now we’re getting at the dirt!’ is a line that should never have seen the light of day. ‘How utterly evil!’ is another (although the Master’s quiet ‘thank you’ is quite lovely). And ‘You’ll soon have ample scope to indulge in melodrama!’ Retconning Peri’s death was a big mistake (given it was one of the more memorable and dramatic moments of the season) and it's something I like to skip over when I think of her character's outcome. As far as I’m concerned she did die on that surgical bed. What do you mean I can't make it up as I go along? The Doctor dressed up like Ronald McDonald clutching his head and going boss eyed as rainbow lights strike him is not exactly the sort of image the show needed at a time like this. What is it about these villains who enjoy wearing rubber masks? They always look absolutely convincing until it comes time to pull the rubber facade off. The Megabyte Modem is a decidedly dodgy piece of design work (Doctor Who rarely descended to a box with flashing lights) and the technobabble that centres around it remains unintelligible. If it is real science (and Pip'n'Jane and Colin Baker maintain that it is) I would rather they went for a more entertaining and understandable creative alternative. ‘You can never prevent the catharsis of spurious morality’ might just be my most quoted Pip'n'Jane line. It's treasurably bad. When the whole story should be leading to this point it feels rather strange that the High Council being deposed is thrown in as something of an afterthought. Nice to know that in the Time Lords eyes that once you save the lives of your jury all charges of interference and genocide will be dropped. Their just making it up as they go along.
Result: I don’t care who knows it – I really like Trial of a Time Lord and I think The Ultimate Foe is a pretty damn good climax. Part Thirteen is the better of the two (and not because it isn’t the part written by Pip’n’Jane) because it is always easier to set things up than to conclude (look at Russell T Davies) and it manages to be classic episode of shocking revelations (The Master! The Valeyard is the Doctor! The Time Lords tried to destroy the Earth!), quality dialogue (the Doctor’s incensed speech to his people) and some dark and twisted imagery within the Matrix. It's about as far from the dying show of repute as you can get. The second episode is full of cracking moments too but wants to fit in too many bluffs and whimsical scenes when it should be squarely focused on wrapping the story up. Throughout the guest cast are terrific (Ainley, Bellingham, Jayston, Hughes and Selby all shine), the music is evocative and Chris Clough delivers his finest direction for the series with some very atmospheric sequences (especially the Doctor’s fake execution). It's not perfect by any means (the megabyte modem) but it’s an exciting, engaging conclusion to a largely fun experiment and in his last story Colin Baker gets to show all sides of his wonderful Doctor. A shame it had to end here as he clearly had so much more to give but the TV series' loss is Big Finish's gain: 8/10