The Catharsis of Spurious Morality: Doctor Who Season 23

S23

Season 23 may not be my favourite year in the long history of Doctor Who, but it does represent a pivotal point in my life as a fan – and indeed my life in general. On the Saturday morning of the fourth episode of The Trial of a Time Lord, my Uncle Gordon died. I was very close to him; he lived next door to our family home. He passed away quietly in his sleep and I, aged 16, was the last person to have seen him the night before. During the Saturday, my family gathered ay my parents’ house, including my cousins Neil and Jill. Neil was a Doctor Who fan too, but although we’d known each other our whole lives, we hadn’t to this point been especially close. As much for something to talk about as anything, we discussed the new series of Doctor Who. A few weeks later, Neil and Jill asked if I would like to come along to a Doctor Who fan group called WANT (Who Appreciation North Tyneside) in Byker and I agreed. Then came the Durham Group, then FanMail, then conventions, then FMtv, then TimeBase… and the rest is history. My life had changed forever.

As you will have gathered, this has absolutely nothing to do with The Trial of a Time Lord, but as fans in the 70s and 80s, Doctor Who was there throughout our formative years and certain eras of the show will undoubtedly evoke certain eras of our lives. This is a prime example, so if at any point I seem to view Season 23 from a rosier perspective than might be the norm, you can understand why. We had waited long and hard (or so it seemed) for this season; the 18-month hiatus seems like nothing after we’ve lived through ‘The Wilderness Years’ and ‘The Wilderness Years II: This Time It’s Cliquier’, but at the time it felt like an eternity. I’d never had any problems with Season 22 or Colin Baker’s Doctor; I still fail to see the vast difference between that and the previous season that a lot of fans perceive to be there. The supposed ‘violent turn’ that Colin Baker’s first season took does not, to me, seem to surpass Peter Gilmore being torn apart by a digging machine in Frontios or Peter Davison’s Doctor being violently beaten in The Caves of Androzani. I’d found Season 22’s Revelation of the Daleks breathtakingly new and exciting, so I had high hopes for Season 23.

The opening sequence of The Trial of a Time Lord seemed to fulfil all of my hopes, as the camera sweeps around a massive space station which then drags the TARDIS down into its snare. Sadly, they seem to have blown the whole effects budget on this one shot, as there’s nothing even half as impressive in the 14 episodes that follow. The Mysterious Planet (yes, I’m going to refer to these stories by their individual titles; if you don’t like it, you can go suck a Vervoid) was the last full script ever written by the great Robert Holmes. Holmes had returned to the series in recent years and written The Caves of Androzani (terrific) and The Two Doctors (divisive, but I love it), but by the time he got to write for The Trial of a Time Lord, he was unwell and only managed to squeeze out Mysterious Planet and half of The Ultimate Foe (on which more later) before passing away. There’s a lot in Mysterious Planet that is classic Holmes, particularly the double act of Glitz and Dibber, but it’s clear that this was a story that was underdeveloped by Holmes and treated with a bit too much reverence by Saward. If the script editor had been willing to give this story a further going over, it could have been so much better.

Nevertheless, I’ve got a soft spot for The Mysterious Planet. It’s unpretentious, never trying to be anything that it isn’t, and freed of the constraints of the trial sequences, it could have been a very strong story. Drathro and the underground dwellers, who don’t realise that the surface is habitable once more, are a lovely concept, but although the Drathro costume is impressive (albeit a bit clunky), the Marb Station sets are woefully over-lit. Everything looks too clean, even the village of the Tribe of the Free and being shot entirely on video doesn’t help. The actors all put in terrific performances, particularly Joan Simm as Queen Katryca, but there’s a real sense of actors being told to run from spot A to spot B without actually knowing what’s going on. The whole thing looks a bit rushed, though Dominic Glynn’s exciting incidental music keeps everything moving and definitely helps the pace. I was never a fan of Glynn’s take on the theme music in the past, but in this remastered form the bass has been brought forward and it sounds beefier and much improved.

The Blu-Ray release comes with extended versions of all the stories, which are a bit of a double-edged sword. Missing scenes are usually missing for a reason, which is often to do with increasing the pace or tightening the story. Most of the missing scenes reinserted into The Mysterious Planet are trial scenes and you can absolutely see why they were taken out in the first place; the whole thrust of the story just grinds to a halt every time we cut back to the court room. Lynda Bellingham and Michael Jayston are golden as the Inquisitor and the Valeyard, but their scenes distract from the story and aren’t really that exciting. Similarly, one of the things that fans applaud about Season 23 is the more friendly relationship between the Sixth Doctor and Peri, who spent most of the previous season coming out of the TARDIS bickering. But here a new opening sequence is added in which the Sixth Doctor and Peri… er, come out of the TARDIS bickering. Oh dear. It’s amazing what editing can do, isn’t it?

Episodes 5 to 8 are Mindwarp by Philip Martin, who had written the previous season’s Vengeance on Varos and introduced the slimy alien con-man Sil, magnificently played by Nabil Shaban. If the main flaw of Mysterious Planet was being over-lit, this is not a problem in Mindwarp, where director Ron Jones turns the lights way down for the scenes in tunnels, which are the bulk of the story. It makes all the difference, especially in contrast to the garish Paintbox™ exterior of the planet, all green skies and pink oceans. Hey, if you’ve got the toys, you might as well play with them, right? Mindwarp was my favourite segment of The Trial of a Time Lord for a long time, but now I’m not so sure. Looking at it from the perspective of all those years, it now seems awfully morose; the dark and death-obsessed tone was something that I could shrug off in my younger years, but it now weighs more heavily upon me. Still, one cannot deny that it’s the best written script of the season.

Mindwarp also has a cracking cast. As well as the aforementioned Mr Shaban, there’s The Young Ones’ Christopher Ryan as Kiv, Patrick Ryecart giving a spectacularly arch turn as Crozier and, of course, the one and only Brian Blessed as King Yrcanos, in a performance that makes Flash Gordon’s Vultan look subtly nuanced by comparison. Special mention must, also go to Nicola Bryant in her farewell performance as Peri. I’ve never been a fan of companions being killed off, although a lot of fans cry out for that kind of melodrama, I find it a bit cheap and obvious. Knowing what we now know, of course, Peri isn’t killed off – but it’s played as if she is and Nicola Bryant plays it to absolute perfection. Watching it now, I think that the climactic sequence is muffed. The scenes of Lord Kiv waking up in Peri’s body following the brain transference are a mistake; the story would have a much more powerful punch if the audience thought that Yrcanos could potentially save Peri and the first they knew of her ‘death’ was when he bursts in and she sits up with that basso profundo voice. Imagine how much more of a dramatic slap in the face that would be! Oh well, we all make mistakes…

Pip and Jane Baker wrote The Mark of the Rani for the previous season, which was a reasonably good story let down by some of the worst Geordie accents ever seen on television, and they would go on to write Time and the Rani, the inexcusably awful debut for the Seventh Doctor which played out more like Galloping Galaxies than Doctor Who. In between, they wrote Terror of the Vervoids, which is… well, Terror of the Vervoids. A lot of people really like it, but I’ve always found it a trifle bland. It isn’t helped by probably the worst musical score that Malcolm Clarke ever wrote for the series. Season 23 dirched the Radiophonic Workshop and brought in independent composers like Dominic Glynn and Richard Harvey, who brought exciting new sounds to the series, but alongside these newcomers, Malcolm Clarke’s lumpen score sounds positively antiquated.

It’s a very traditional whodunit story with a lot to recommend it, but there are a number of issues that are simply unavoidable. First off, the monsters themselves – the Vervoids – aren’t much good. Putting aside their unavoidably vaginal appearance, which seems to have gone unnoticed by the production office, their voices and body language are very ‘somebody doing a Doctor Who monster in a comedy spoof’; I spent much of the story expecting one of them to say “DOC-TOR!” at some point. If the intention with The Trial of a Time Lord was to prove that Doctor Who had moved on, this wasn’t really the way to do it. Also, they’re supposed to be on this massive cruise liner and you never really seem to get a true sense of scale because of the limitations of the sets and the fact that it seems to have no more than a half-dozen passengers. When the Vervoids emerge, it’s no great stretch for them to overcome the humans because they’re almost equal in number.

As well as an extended edit, Terror of the Vervoids comes in a non-Trial version, with all of the courtroom scenes cut out and new special effects and title sequence. I wasn’t expecting to like this as much as I did, because I’ve never been a huge fan of Terror of the Vervoids, but it’s very enjoyable because of the sense of what we could have had. This Terror of the Vervoids comes over as some a sort of alternate Season 23 where they concentrated on presenting a series of enjoyable stories instead of tying it together with a rather tiring umbrella theme. Even at the time I remember being disappointed by the fact that the new series of Doctor Who was one long story. It felt like the BBC was trying to push the series into the mould of The Tripods, which since said series had enjoyed only mediocre success and would end up getting cancelled before its pivotal third series, was probably not the best mould to be using.

Terror of the Vervoids and its successor The Ultimate Foe team up Colin Baker with Bonnie Langford as the new companion Melanie Bush. I guess at the time I bought into the common conception of Bonnie as the screaming child-woman with the annoying hair, but looking back, she’s much better in these two stories with Colin Baker than she would be in Sylvester McCoy’s first season. It’s almost as if the writers bought into the whole ‘scweamer’ thing in Season 24 and she’s never again presented as effective and mature as she is here. The fact that we never got more Sixth Doctor and Mel is one of the many tragedies of the months that followed The Trial of a Time Lord; they really could have been one of the great Doctor/Companion partnerships of the 80s, with Mel bouncing much better off the boisterous Baker than the mercurial McCoy. Oh well, c’est la vie.

Back in the day, The Ultimate Foe was my favourite part of The Trial of a Time Lord… and I guess it still is. Though it has a lot wrong with it – almost all down to the backscreen bickering that was going on – it’s still entertaining and creative and very, very different. For those of you who’ve been living on a craggy knob for the last thirty-some years, The ultimate Foe was supposed to be written by Robert Holmes, rounding of the story that he’d set up in The Mysterious Planet, but Holmes passed away after writing only one of the climactic two parts and script editor Eric Saward stepped in to finish the script from Holmes’ notes. Producer John Nathan-Turner didn’t like the final episode, particularly not the Reichenbach Falls-inspired open ending with the Doctor and the Valeyard tumbling into the void in mortal combat; they disagreed, they fought and Saward flounced off taking his script with him. In stepped Pip & Jane Baker at JN-T’s behest to write a final episode based on precisely no knowledge of how the thing was supposed to end.

Despite this epic SNAFU, The Ultimate Foe hangs together surprisingly well. Set largely in the fantasy world of the Matrix, it has a surreal and fantastical quality; even the courtroom scenes are tense and interesting, unlike those in the rest of the season. Revealed to be an evil incarnation of the Doctor, the Valeyard gets to come out from behind his podium and Michael Jayston is finally given the chance to shine. He’s a great villain and it’s a pity he would never return after this story, though his presence does make the Master (who pops up in episode 13) seem ineffectual and superfluous by comparison. Oh yeah, Glitz comes back too, but he’s never as good without Dibber. Geoffrey Hughes puts in a terrific performance as the Dickension creation of the Matrix, Mr Popplewick and James Bree, who was a Time Lord as far back as The War Games, returns as the Keeper of the Matrix.

It all moves so fast that you don’t notice it doesn’t make too much sense, especially the second episode which is still incomprehensible despite having an extra 5 minutes to play with. In fairness to Pip & Jane, they do a sterling job with what was a pretty impossible mandate, though introducing new elements at so late a stage was probably an unwise move. Some of the computing references, though topical at the time, sound positively antiquated now and it would have been a better long-term strategy to keep the Matrix as an incomprehensible piece of ‘magic’ alien technology. The end works nicely (though I think all things considered I’d have preferred the Reichenbach Falls version) but it’s a bit unfortunate in retrospect that Colin Baker’s last words as the Doctor are “carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice”.

Looked back on, The Trial of a Time Lord does not disappoint. Given its restricted budget, its demands from on high and its behind-the-scenes battling, it’s a small miracle that it turned out as well as it did. It’s still decidedly a family show at this stage, though the next season would take a worrying wobble towards being a kids’ show. Although it’s not his best material, Colin Baker gives what could be considered his star turn as the Doctor; the 18 month hiatus seems to have invigorated him and he comes back all guns blazing. Again, it’s a crime that he never really got the opportunity to find his feet in the role – no other Doctor has had so many obstacles placed in his way. These Blu-Ray collections continue to deliver the goods, with another excellent package of extras. I thought this was an odd choice for release at first, but seeing what they’ve done with it, I can understand why they chose Season 23. Next up is Season 26, from the very heart of my youthful fannishness, when I was writing for a popular fanzine, attending a convention every other weekend and had a massive crush on… well, you’ll have to wait and find out, won’t you?

 

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