Doctor: Sixth (Colin Baker)
Companion: Peri (Nicola Bryant)
Writer: Robert Holmes
Aired: September 6-27, 1986 (weekly)
Need to Know:
Doctor Who started in 1963 and was canceled in 1989 (days before Michael’s birthday, actually). Less known is that the show was once canceled before that, in 1985. Well, it was put on hiatus. The show was brought back 18 months later in a 1986 “trial” season. The creators decided to reflect this in the series, and so began The Trial of a Time Lord.
The Trial of a Time Lord begins with “The Mysterious Planet.” Well, it actually begins with Parts 1-4, but fans have been calling it The Mysterious Planet since the name of the shooting script, written by Doctor Who legend Robert Holmes, surfaced a few years ago.
The Trial was divided into four parts, run over 14 episodes. The Mysterious Planet represents Past, specifically, an adventure in the Doctor’s past (that we conveniently haven’t yet seen).
On to the review!
No one can review Trial of a Time Lord without talking about the opening shot. The first computer controlled camera rig in Britain used for the opening shot of the end of an era. Sort of bittersweet, really. The model is incredible, the shot is beautiful. Honestly, if there was one shot I could show to a person to convince them of the good in classic Who, it would be the big, glorious opening of that beautiful space station. Definite points for this one.
The effects used in the Trial bookends are less than awesome though. Bad grid wipes on “high-technology” computer screens and truly awful matte paintings of planets abound. The actual studio effects really do bring down the exterior space stuff.
Colin Baker is fantastic in this story as the Sixth Doctor, clown-coat-wearing man-of-“mystery”. Far improved from the pompous ass of a character he’d had forced upon him in the previous seasons, Baker has admitted that he was deliberately playing against what the scripts for this serial were telling him to do and it drastically improves his work in this story. He and Peri’s dynamic in this story is great. They’ve clearly grown to like each other. He’s settled and become less angry and more fun and that might be due to the writing touch of Robert Holmes.
Of special note is the opening scene on Ravalox with him and Peri walking. Their conversation, and his acting performance, are so much more real here. He’s clearly enjoying himself again, and you can tell that his Doctor has finally become a Doctor who doesn’t just share the universe with a companion, he’s one who enjoys it. The scenes in the Trial show a different, joking side to the Doctor. It makes a bit less sense for him to be so joking, but it is nice to see that the pompous side that people remember the Sixth Doctor for is here and isn’t annoying for once.
As improved as Colin Baker’s Doctor is, there also has to be mention of the massive improvement in Nicola Bryant’s depiction of Peri. She’s still whiny, but she’s taken great steps to becoming far more likable too, endearing herself to the audience in that same walking scene that made me like the Doctor. Peri still mostly just runs and complains and shouts for this story, like companions are expected to do, but at least Bryant and Baker were making moves to make her more likable through acting if not through the script they were given.
The monster of The Mysterious Planet, Drathro, is probably the best-looking robot in the classic series. Look at his head. It’s magnificently stupid, but it works. The joints and hinges look like you could never fit a person in the suit. It’s honestly one of the best suits the show has ever done. Problem is that I have no idea about Drathro’s deal.
Why is he ruling a planet of less-than-intelligent people? Why is he chasing after the power of black light (trying to find the stains in his house, maybe?)? Why do the people on his world call him The Immortal (other than the obvious robot-ness)? He’s just got no point, so I really didn’t care. Watching Colin Baker just insult the shit out of him was great though. Nice to see the Doctor taking Drathro as seriously as the writing people did, at least.
The villain of the larger Trial arc is, of course, The Valeyard, played by Michael Jayston. He’s excellent. He’s got the poise, the voice, the look (despite the black skull-cap of doom) of what should have been an amazing Doctor Who villain, a villain everyone’s wanted to see again after his appearance, but a villain who’s writing is…less than par, honestly. He sort of blathers on, speaking of a larger plan, but showing no evidence of it (a writing problem, mainly).
The Inquisitor is something rare in Doctor Who: a female Time Lord. Sadly, she suffers the same fate as other background Time Lords, in that she’s a pointless cypher, spouting pronouncements about the Laws of Time and the Whatsit of Rassilon, but not really doing anything. She’s a Time Lord, but she’s no Doctor, which seems like a terrible waste if you’re doing an arc about the Time Lord’s judicial system and she’s the judge. I’d theorize that she’s so bland because she’s never left Gallifrey, but that’d be me adding a layer to her character, something the season’s writers couldn’t be buggered to do.
Now, Robert Holmes was literally months from death when he wrote this, so some care must be taken when talking about the writing. It’s a Robert Holmes story, so it’s better than most scripts the show has had, but it is decidedly on the weak end of Holmes’ work. On the upside, the Sixth Doctor is written the best he probably is in the classic series in this arc and Peri’s given things to do other than scream.
The robot costumes for Drathro and the L1 robot are some of the best the show’s done too. Probably the best takes on “evil humanoid” and “death on tank treads” that the show has done. Considering they were done on less than the standard 1980s budget (basically, lunch and maybe a drink), Mysterious Planet’s monsters are excellent.
There was such a push to start Trial with as big a bang as possible, and it shows, but the villains were just so…whimpy. The Doctor is great. Peri is bearable for once. The shoot is gorgeous. The effects are the best of the series. The designs are great. The acting is…late ’80s Doctor Who acting. Background characters, including the strangely-loved Sabalom Glitz (not a huge fan, honestly), are well-realized, but not fully fleshed out. An admirable effort, but the serial’s already showing signs of being a mistrial (see what I did there?).
Should you watch it?
If you’ve tried and been able to stomach the Eighties offerings of the series, go for it. It’s honestly the best you’ll get of the unfortunately underwritten Sixth Doctor on TV. If the adventures of the Fifth and Sixth Doctor haven’t worked for you before, you’ll also find this one skippable.
I give this three weird-Valeyard-skullcaps out of five.
The Trial continues!