We’re back again, and a little early this time, with our Classic Doctor Who rewatch! Ordinarily I post about a week apart, but with the end of the classic series approaching, I’m trying to catch my posts up to my viewing. Today we take a look at something new and experimental for its day: Season twenty-three, also known as The Trial of a Time Lord.
The Doctor is no stranger to standing trial; this is at least his fourth trial. (For those keeping count, he was tried and convicted as the Second Doctor in The War Games; he briefly stood trial for assassination as the Fourth Doctor in The Deadly Assassin, but managed to wiggle out of it; he was tried and sentenced to death in a gross miscarriage of justice as the Fifth Doctor in Arc of Infinity; and now here we are again with the Sixth Doctor.) Here he’s being tried for interference with history and violation of the laws of time. His remaining regenerations are at stake; this adds a little weight to the foreshadowing of death in last season’s Revelation of the Daleks. Something is different this time, however: There’s a new Time Lord serving as prosecutor, and he seems to have something personal against the Doctor. He calls himself the Valeyard, or “learned court prosecutor” in old Gallifreyan; and he has secrets of his own.
This season is a bit of an experiment for its day; unlike any season before it, it’s one long story arc—in fact, technically it’s one long story, period. Officially it was only ever titled The Trial of a Time Lord; however, for production purposes it was broken into four parts, which each got an unbroadcast title of its own. I’ll use those titles here for the sake of organization, but when it comes to counting serials, I’ll stick with what has historically been the most popular reckoning, and count the season as one story. It’s worth mentioning that the 45-minute format was abandoned, and 25 minutes again became the standard; this seasons consists of fourteen 25-minute episodes. Based on number of episodes, this season is a bit abbreviated from the past lengths; however, fourteen episodes will be standard from here on out.
Part One, covering episodes 1-4, is titled The Mysterious Planet. It opens with the TARDIS being drawn onto a space station, which quickly is revealed to belong to the Time Lords. The Doctor emerges, sans companion, and finds that he has been placed on trial again. He declines a defense attorney, and chooses to speak for himself in response to the Valeyard. We don’t know the date for any of the trial sequences, other than that it is in the “Rassilon Era”, and after the events of The Five Doctors from the point of view of Gallifrey; the Doctor was named Lord President in that story, but has since been deposed (again) for dereliction of duty. The Valeyard begins his attack with footage from the allegedly-incorruptible Matrix of one of the Doctor’s recent adventures with Peri, on the planet Ravolox in approximately the year 2,000,000.
We don’t know how long it’s been since the preceding story, but Peri is far less adversarial toward the Doctor (she’s still whiny though). Big Finish, of course, has taken full advantage of this indefinite gap, filling it with stories. We get a new supporting character, the criminal Sabalom Glitz; he’s a decent and likeable guy regardless of his illicit career path. He borrows the Brigadier’s famous line: “Five rounds rapid should do the trick.” (The Brigadier’s daughter, Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, will do the same in Series Nine’s The Zygon Inversion.) The planet Ravolox turns out to be a displaced Earth; it was moved by the High Council to hide some shady activities of their own. It’s presumable that the Earth is later returned to its original location, but we don’t actually see it happen; as this story is used as part of the prosecution’s case, it doesn’t end as well as they typically do. The story does become a commentary on the value and definition of life through the Doctor’s arguments with the homicidal robot Drathro; and it introduces the concept of “black light”, which can serve as a power source. Its menacing service robot is very reminiscent of the War Machines from the serial of the same name. We get a new rendition of the title theme this season, though the visuals remain the same. Interestingly, the footage of the TARDIS being pulled to the station is the final footage in the classic series to be shot on film (though the sequence will be reused throughout the Trial season); all the rest will be shot on video.
Having laid the foundation of his case against the Doctor, the Valeyard continues his testimony in Part Two, Mindwarp. This part takes us to Thoros Beta, the homeworld of Sil and the Mentors; Sil was last seen in Vengeance on Varos. This story is about a century after that; the Valeyard, using Earth years, places it rather circuitously in 2379. I couldn’t help feeling that this story would have done better as an audio; it’s the first televised story of which I’ve ever felt that way. The story centers on the Mentors’ efforts to find a new body for their leader, Kiv, who is dying due to a mutation. They are oppressing a nearby humanoid race, led by the warlord King Yrcanos; the man himself is being used in experiments, but escapes and overcomes his conditioning. Thwarted, Kiv settles on Peri as a substitute.
This, therefore, is Peri’s exit serial, as she is seen to die, first by being displaced from her own body by Kiv, and second by being shot in Yrcanos’s attack on the Mentors’ lab. It becomes apparent as well that the Time Lords manipulated circumstances to ensure that the attack would succeed and kill everyone in the lab; they are unabashed about this, and state that it was to prevent a far worse disaster. However, Peri isn’t usually counted among the companions who have died; more on that later. Meanwhile, back at the trial, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that something isn’t on the level, as the Valeyard rests his case.
The Doctor takes up his defense in Part Three, Terror of the Vervoids. Again using the Matrix, he shows footage from the Hyperion III starliner in the year 2986 (clearly stated by the Doctor). Oddly, it’s an adventure from the Doctor’s personal future; though the Matrix is non-linear with regard to time, and therefore contains these records, it seems strange that the Doctor would be conversant with something that hasn’t happened to him yet! But no one in the courtroom thinks this is strange at all, or even mentions it. Stranger still, we get a new companion without any introduction: Melanie “Mel” Bush, of Pease Pottage, England. (Seriously, who names British towns?) We will never get her introduction on screen; ideally, it would be shown next season (more on that in a moment), but with Colin Baker’s unexpected exit, the opportunity was lost. Spinoff material has since covered that gap. However, it is clear that THIS adventure is not near the beginning for her, as she is familiar and at ease with the Doctor in a way that Peri never managed to be.
The story itself is of the Vervoids, plants that take over host populations, and in fact are an intelligent species of their own when fully grown. However, they spread like wildfire, displacing entire species; and as such they constitute a hazard to Earth and other planets. The Doctor is forced into destroying them—and thus, the Valeyard twists the Doctor’s defense into a new accusation: That of genocide, which is punishable by death. However, the Doctor argues that the Matrix can be manipulated.
This story includes the Sixth Doctor’s final scene in the TARDIS console room. He doesn’t appear there in the finale, and doesn’t return next season. Or rather, I should say, it’s Colin Baker’s final appearance there; the Sixth Doctor, on the cusp of regeneration, does briefly appear there next season, but is played by Sylvester McCoy.
We finish up with Part Four, The Ultimate Foe, which takes place in its entirety aboard the space station and in the Matrix. It’s only two episodes instead of four, the shortest of the season. We pick up right where we left off, with the Doctor asserting that the Matrix has been altered, and the Valeyard and the Inquisitor denying it; in fact, they summon the Keeper of the Matrix as a witness to its incorruptibility. They are almost immediately countered, however, by the appearance of Melanie Bush, Sabalom Glitz, and an unexpected third party: The Master. He speaks from inside the Matrix, giving the lie to its incorruptibility, and states that he is not the one who changed the records, although he did send Mel and Glitz to assist the Doctor. He explains that the Valeyard IS the Doctor, or rather, an amalgamation of the Doctor’s darkest aspects, arising from somewhere between the Doctor’s twelfth and final incarnations. (Interestingly, with the advent of a new regeneration cycle in NuWho, this greatly widens the possibilities! A History of the Universe, without any NuWho materials to review, actually predicted this possibility; it states, “Note also that the Master says “twelfth and final”, not “twelfth and thirteenth”, leaving open the possibility that the Doctor will survive the end of his regenerative cycle.”) He wants the Doctor’s remaining regenerations for himself. Exposed, the Valeyard flees into the Matrix itself, where the Doctor follows.
Of course, the Master, being the Master, is not doing this out of the goodness of his heart. He considers the Valeyard a greater threat than even himself, and he will brook no competition. At the same time, with both being the Doctor (in one sense or another), he’s okay with them killing each other, or with either one of them killing the other. From his point of view, it’s a win either way. Aside from that, he has broadcast the proceedings, causing the common people of Gallifrey to unseat the High Council; he intends to take control of the planet in their absence. Unfortunately, the Valeyard has similar plans, and in addition, he also plans to kill everyone in the courtroom. The Doctor, Mel, and Glitz, from inside the Matrix, must thwart all of these plans, and defeat the Valeyard in a final confrontation. (We do see that he survives at the end, disguising himself as the new Keeper of the Matrix.)
Some items of interest: The hands in the sand within the Matrix are similar to the hand mines on Skaro in The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, and I suspect may have inspired that scene. Overstimulation can render a Time Lord catatonic and open to hypnotic suggestion, which is not too farfetched, but seems like a serious weakness. The Doctor intends to return Mel home at the end so he can meet her in the proper order, but it’s not seen whether this actually takes place, as Colin Baker was unceremoniously fired by the BBC between seasons. (He was offered the chance at a regeneration story, but denied the opportunity for a third season, therefore he declined to film the regeneration, and by default, Mel’s origin story as well.) Peri is seen to have survived, with the footage of her death having been a manipulation by the Valeyard; she has since married King Yrcanos, and never returns home, but at least she survives. (Spinoff materials have since made her fate quite muddled.) Sabalom Glitz is quickly one of my favorite supporting characters; he reminds me a great deal of Richard Mace from The Visitation, who was fantastic. At one point the Doctor claims to be over 900, as several later incarnations will also state. And finally, this is the final appearance of the Time Lords as a society in the classic series. They’ll get a few more mentions, and the Doctor is traveling to Gallifrey at the beginning of the 1996 movie, but they will not actually appear again onscreen until the revived series’ The End of Time.
This season is much tighter and better all around than the previous season. It’s the high point of Six’s tenure for me; I hate to admit it, but I never could really see him as the Doctor until this season. Mel is a much more likeable companion than Peri, though I understand that she doesn’t rank high on lists of companions; I expected her to be annoying, but she really wasn’t, except for that high-pitched scream she uses so often. I do wish we could have had her origin, but I understand other sources have provided it. Michael Jayston was fantastic as the Valeyard; he’s everything I would expect from an evil Doctor—calculating, passionate, anger barely held back, and possibly a bit crazy too. There’s a popular theory that says that the Metacrisis version of the Tenth Doctor will become the Valeyard, and it certainly fits; by his original regeneration cycle, that’s about as close to “between twelfth and final” as one could get, and I unashamedly would love to see that happen—David Tennant, I think, bears enough resemblance to Michael Jayston in body shape and facial shape that he could play the role. Still, the character has appeared again in other materials, and if he doesn’t reappear onscreen, it’s good to know the character wasn’t left hanging.
Next season: The Seventh Doctor takes the stage! See you there.
All episodes can be viewed on Dailymotion; links are below.