Re-Tried With New Evidence, Part 1 – Doctor Who: The Trial Of A Time Lord – The Blu-Ray Director's Cuts, Reviewed

Over the last couple years, BBC Video has been doing the amazing work of painstakingly restoring full seasons of the original 1963-1989 Doctor Who series for blu-ray, and releasing the seasons as both beautiful limited-edition box sets in the UK, and more readily-available standard editions in the US. These sets have been a dream come true for dedicated Whovians, and seem like profoundly unlikely releases for a couple reasons. Firstly, with few exceptions Doctor Who has never been available in full-season box-set form; the format of the series was always long, loose seasons broken down into several, usually four-to-six episode serials, and each of those serials got their own individual releases. This made the show a bit more approachable in some ways, as each story arc stands reasonably on its own, and the individual movie-length releases make it easier for newcomers to sample various points of the long-running show's 26-season run. But it also made Doctor Who a cumbersome and very expensive show to collect. But secondly and perhaps more importantly, Doctor Who was not produced in a format conducive to HD. Up until its last few seasons all of the on-location work done for the show was shot on film (though most of the negatives didn't survive), but the studio work forming the bulk of most episodes was shot on tape, and the show was edited to tape in SD. However, the professional-grade tape formats used (at various times throughout the show's run, 2”, 1”, 3/4”, then various betacam formats) did hold more visual information than SD home video formats (especially NTSC in the US) could utilize, leaving some room for HD upconverts to look far better than the old DVD and VHS releases. BBC's painstaking HD restorations use new scans of the negatives when possible (particularly in the cases of the entirely-shot-on-film Spearhead from Space and Shada), and when that isn't possible (which is most of the time) they pull every bit of detail they can out of the original tape masters, resulting in new 1080i versions that look shockingly good. These aren't simply upscales of the old DVDs repackaged into a single box-set, these are the episodes lovingly cleaned up in a way that you have never seen them before; the best that a low-budget series from the 1960s, '70s, and '80s could possibly look. Not to mention, each season comes packed with new and old extras, and whenever additional material could be uncovered, extended director's cuts of the episodes.

Rather than starting at the beginning and moving forward, BBC has been releasing an assortment of the various Doctors, allowing fans to get a taste of the show's various eras and incarnations in HD. At first the releases were about what fans would expect, starting with the fan-favorite seasons of Fourth Doctor Tom Baker, Fifth Doctor Peter Davison, Third Doctor Jon Pertwee, and then another fan-favorite from Tom Baker, since he is generally the most-loved Doctor and certainly the longest-running. But one of the latest releases is a very unexpected choice indeed. For the fifth box set I would have expected a Second Doctor Patrick Troughton season, or perhaps one of the much-loved final two seasons with Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy (although one of those followed, and was just released in the UK with the US version coming next month). Instead, they opted to release the second season from Sixth Doctor Colin Baker; season 23 of the overall series.

Colin himself has grown into a very popular Doctor over the years, thanks largely to his run of excellent audio serials produced by Big Finish Productions, which really allowed his gruff and sardonic Sixth Doctor to shine. But while he is very good as The Doctor, his era was famously a mess, and his two seasons are widely considered to be two of the worst, although they did at least produce a few good story arcs like the excellent Vengeance on Varos and the fascinating but flawed Revelation of the Daleks. It wasn't his fault; his era was plagued by behind-the-scenes tension and drama as the working relationship between the two showrunners, producer John Nathan-Turner and head writer Eric Saward, became increasingly toxic and embittered, and this toxic working environment caused the show to become very dark and very sloppy, with a few stories more or less falling apart on-screen. As the show's increasing darkness and violence alarmed parents and BBC executives, the show was put on hiatus for a season with demands that the team get their act together; they couldn't, and towards the end of Colin Baker's second season Eric Saward quit in frustration with the finale unfinished (it didn't help that the long-time Doctor Who writer who was supposed to pen the finale died before the script was done, and no one could figure out what to do about it), and Baker was unceremoniously fired from the show as viewers not privy to the behind-the-scenes drama associated his Doctor with the era's failure. But now, as Colin Baker's cult reputation as a great Doctor trapped in a deeply flawed era has grown over the years (Peter Capaldi's ascerbic Twelfth Doctor borrowed heavily from Colin's Sixth, with much-loved results), BBC video somewhat shockingly decided to make this embattled season the fifth entry in their blu-ray line. The box set clearly seems aimed to look honestly at, and hopefully rehabilitate, the season's reputation, with new extras that pretty candidly look at what went wrong, and director's cuts of every single episode. It also includes two director's cuts of one of the story arcs, Terror of the Vervoids, one of which is a standalone re-edit removed from the season's overarching story. With all this new evidence, can the re-trial of The Trial of a Time Lord cast this most-maligned season in a better light?

The Trial of a Time Lord is very interesting and unique in concept. As mentioned earlier, the structure of a classic-series Doctor Who season was typically a chain of four-to-six-part serials which more or less stand on their own apart from one another, with minimal overarching story to the larger season; a structure very friendly to syndication, especially since BBC's biggest foreign importer of the show, PBS, showed each arc as a single movie-length edit, similar to the movies-as-TV-episodes format of Sherlock. There were only four times in Doctor Who's 26 seasons when the show employed full-season (or most-of-a-season) story arcs that bridged multiple serials: The Key to Time Saga starring Tom Baker, which occupied the entire six-story-arc season 16, The E-Space Trilogy starring Tom Baker, which occupied half of his final season, The Black Guardian Trilogy starring Peter Davison, which was a 20th-anniversary-season special event, and The Trial of a Time Lord.

The concept of the season reflects the state that the show itself was in at the time: after its hiatus and the demand that John Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward get the show back on track or face cancellation, Doctor Who itself was very much on trial. As such, the arc they attempted saw The Doctor himself on trial, for breaking the laws of time. The courtroom arguments in a space-station courthouse above Gallifrey form the narrative wraparound for the entire season, with three individual story arcs presented as evidence from The Doctor's past, present, and future, and the court proceedings themselves eventually turning into the fourth story arc. It's an interesting concept; the problem from the beginning is that (aside from a genuinely impressive and probably very expensive opening effects shot of the TARDIS being pulled into the massive space station) the trial scenes just are not very good. They're clunky, cumbersome, filled with a lethal combination of sci-fi technobabble and Gallifreyan law jargon, and just don't work particularly well as a narrative device. Repeatedly coming back from the individual stories to courtroom commentary and bickering tends to harm the momentum of the stories themselves, and the use of future events as evidence doesn't make a whole lot of sense, even in the context of a time-travel show. It's an interesting gamble, but breaking the stories up in this way just wasn't a very good idea; it would have been better if the episodes started and ended with courtroom material, but the flashbacks/flashforwards to the stories themselves could have been uninterrupted in the bodies of the episodes. Looking past the inherently not-that-good nature of the wraparound story, however, the three individual arcs that make up the bulk of the season range from pretty effective to very good, even if two of them are a bit too familiar. In this two-part review series we'll examine the new director's cuts of all four stories (two in each installment), and see how this most divisive season holds up in its new format.

The Mysterious Planet, by Robert Holmes:

Robert Holmes was a long-time writer on the series, going all the way back to the 1968 Second Doctor serial The Krotons. He created two fan-favorite recurring monsters, the Autons and the Sontarans, and he formed half of arguably the most iconic team of showrunners in the history of the classic series with Philip Hinchcliffe. The Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, with Fourth Doctor Tom Baker, was known for its blend of sci-fi, gothic horror, and dark fantasy elements, with fan-favorites like the Lovecraftian The Pyramids of Mars, the Mary Shelley-inspired The Brain of Morbius, and the Sherlock-Holmes-meets-Jack-the-Ripper-meets-H.P.-Lovecraft genre mash-up The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Robert Holmes continued to write for the show for the remainder of his career even after he stepped down as co-showrunner, writing some of the most well-regarded episodes of the series, including the brilliant finale to the Fifth Doctor Peter Davison era, The Caves of Androzani. But by the time The Trial of a Time Lord rolled around, Holmes was getting older and growing ill, and that kind of shows in his opening arc, The Mysterious Planet.

This is by no means a bad arc; far from it. It has a lot of very strong points, chiefly a great premise, an intriguing villain, some interesting supporting characters, and a very fun antihero co-star. The story finds The Doctor and Peri investigating a Mysterious Planet that has suspiciously similar properties to Earth, and they quickly realize that it in fact IS Earth; a far-future Earth that has somehow been stolen and moved to a totally different place in the universe, amid some sort of cataclysmic event that has split the remnants of humanity into two very different and isolated dystopian societies. As they try to solve the mystery of how and why this happened, they become embroiled in a conflict between the quasi-Medieval feudal society that half of humanity has devolved into, and a hyper-intelligent robot which rules the planet from beneath with a human slave force that makes up the other half, but whose AI consciousness has literally gone insane. And they also must contend with a cruel but comic outer-space bounty-hunter who also has mysterious reasons to be there. It's a solid premise based around a strong central mystery, the concept of an insane AI makes for a very intriguing (if sometimes rather silly) villain, and the roguish, double-dealing bounty hunter Sabalom Glitz adds some welcome comedy to the proceedings. The problem with it, and the key indicator that Holmes was struggling to produce new material in his sickly state, is that it is very, very similar to several scripts that Holmes worked on in the past. In particular, it strongly recalls elements of four of the six story arcs from The Key to Time Saga – The Ribos Operation, The Pirate Planet, The Androids of Tara, and The Power of Kroll. Holmes wrote two of those, but was involved enough with the writer's room during that season that he likely had a hand in all four. In varying ways they all involve sci-fi stories set in future (or alien) societies that nonetheless show hallmarks of Medieval, feudal, or pirate-plagued past eras of humanity. Even in The Key to Time these stories start to feel a tad repetitious, even if individually they are all very good; that The Mysterious Planet feels like The Key to Time greatest-hits compilation is both telling of that fact, and revealing of just how much Holmes was recycling past material rather than coming up with new material. This isn't a death blow to the story; it's still very effective in its own right, a lot of fun, and probably better if you haven't seen that past season. It has some truly inspired moments, like the members of its two-million-years-in-the-future human society mistaking a recovered copy of Moby Dick for a long-lost religious text like the Dead Sea Scrolls (“Mow By Dick – it tells of an ancient water diety!”). It's just the kind of story that has been done better elsewhere in Doctor Who, including by its own writer.

This is the story arc that benefits the least from a director's cut; Holmes knew what he was doing by this point, and he wrote his scripts to the specifications of four half-hour episodes very well. Nothing had to be cut for content, and only a small handful of short scenes were cut for time, mostly in the first episode where some of his material was trimmed to allow time for the introduction of the trial wraparound. Granted, I hadn't seen this episode in several years, but I can honestly say that I did not notice any of the restored scenes until I watched them isolated in the special features. It also really does not fit within the trial context very well; one assumes that Holmes wrote it as a standalone story first and retrofitted the trial stuff in, sometimes awkwardly. Multiple times during each episode either The Doctor or the judge ask why scenes are relevant to the court proceedings, and why the court is being shown this at all; the villainous prosecutor The Valeyard merely says some variation of “it will become apparent” every time. The audience can't help but agree, though: there is no good reason why this whole story would be submitted as evidence, and most of it is wholly irrelevant to the trial concept. Of course, we aren't asking why we are being shown the story; we are asking why the story is being interrupted by these dry trial scenes that fully admit their own irrelevancy. It's a shame that this story didn't get a standalone, trial-free director's cut like Terror of the Vervoids; it probably would be better that way.


Mindwarp, by Philip Martin:

By a wide margin, the best story arc of the entire Colin Baker era is season 22's Vengeance on Varos, a brilliant, scathing, decades-ahead-of-its-time extra-dark social satire about a cruel society where torture and execution are broadcast as reality television, and the loser of presidential elections is killed on-air when the votes are tallied up. Colin got at least a handful of good story arcs, but Varos is the one that manages to be truly great, and worthy of ranking among the show's best; I would put it in my top 5 classic Doctor Who stories. So it is no surprise that the best story arc in The Trial of a Time Lord (as broadcast, anyway – we'll soon see if the trial-less director's cut of Terror of the Vervoids changes this) is a semi-sequel to Varos penned by the same writer, Philip Martin. Unlike the overly familiar and derivative Mysterious Planet, Mindwarp is a very original tale, and is also the only one of the three primary story arcs from this season to do anything particularly interesting with the trial wraparound story, using the villainous Valeyard as a (possibly) unreliable narrator. It is a very divisive love-it-or-hate-it story arc, because it goes to some very dark places that the show usually does not – not least of which is turning The Doctor into something of a villain – but I'm firmly in the “love it” category, despite a few flaws that can still be found; the risks it takes pay off in a very memorable tale.

The Doctor and Peri travel to the sinister homeworld of Sil, the slimy (literally as well as figuratively – he's a slug) war-profiteering corporate villain from Vengeance on Varos, because it has come to their attention that Sil's unscrupulous corporation is up to their old sleazy tricks meddling in the civilizations of other planets. There they find Sil spearheading a mad-scientist plot involving brainwashing and mind-transplants, with the dual aims of enslaving other civilizations while making their own people immortal. But when The Doctor ends up strapped in to the brainwashing machine himself, he is turned into a sociopathic villain much like Sil, trapping Peri in a nightmare as her friend becomes another enemy.

This is a most unusual Doctor Who story (maybe even a one-of-a-kind) in that it has two unreliable narrators, and the audience has no way of knowing what is actually true. From early on in the story, The Doctor insists that the evidence is being tampered with and falsified by The Valeyard in order to frame The Doctor into looking like the villain of the piece. This is without a doubt true, at least to a degree, but we have no way of knowing exactly how much has been falsified. The Doctor is surely right that at least some of what we see didn't actually happen (or at least, not in this way), but it's hard to know where that ends and the other unreliable narrator begins. From the time he falls victim to Sil's mind-alteration machine, The Doctor does in fact start behaving like a villain, and is clearly not himself for most of the story. In the courtroom he doesn't even remember most of these events as a result of his brain being scrambled by the titular mindwarp. So how much of what we see is the brainwashed Doctor genuinely being a villain, and how much is the manipulation of The Valeyard? That is largely for us to decide, since only The Valeyard knows, and he certainly isn't telling.

Recognize this specimen in the mad scientist's lab?
Either way this is one unusually dark story, with The Doctor behaving in ways that range from callously self-interested to downright evil, and Peri feeling deeply betrayed, and caught in a nightmarish situation. This kind of dark material is what writer Philip Martin excels at. The script is at its best when it is at its darkest, and when it is playing with the grim realities of its fascist-mad-scientist concept. This episode is also one that really gives Colin Baker a chance to show his range. His Doctor (particularly the TV version, as opposed to the Big Finish audio serials) is best known for being abrasive, arrogant, and kind of a dick, and while the plan was for him to gradually soften and find his "humanity" as his era went on (not unlike Peter Capaldi's Doctor), that transformation was cut short when Baker was fired before the third season of his contract as the scapegoat for the show's underperformance. While in this whole season we can see his efforts to soften and warm up his Doctor into a more likable character, since he clearly knew that the show was on thin ice and he had to make a strong case for his take on the role, Mindwarp is where we see the greatest contrast between the Doctor he was turning into and the Doctor that public perception saw him as. At the beginning and the end of the story, and in some key moments in the trial sequences, we get to see him as the kinder, gentler Sixth Doctor he was in the process of becoming, but the bulk of the story lets him take his Doctor's darker tendencies and turn them up to 11, while mixing in moments of outright villainy. Not only is it interesting to see him take viewers' biggest complaints about his Doctor and amplify them to create a dark, bizarro-world version of the character, but there is no denying that Colin Baker plays an antihero and even a villain very well. The story arc's famously dark ending, on the other hand, gives Baker some of his finest acting moments in his entire tenure. The last few minutes of Mindwarp part four should sell anyone on Colin's Sixth Doctor, as his brash facade falls away in one of The Doctor's most vulnerable moments. Returning villain Nabil Shaban as Sil is likewise once again very strong, as the despicable alien who represents the worst kind of capitalist human greed distorted into a monster. Nicola Bryant, who certainly was not always treated well by Doctor Who scripts, gets some very good material here also, getting to flex her dramatic muscles as she portrays Peri in the nightmare situation of being betrayed by her friend and hung out to dry on a very nasty alien world.

Unfortunately neither the script nor the acting is this uniformly strong across the board. The story arc had a troubled production, with a lot of tension between Philip Martin who, along with Eric Saward, wanted the arc to be as dark and troubling as Vengeance on Varos, and John Nathan-Turner and the BBC who wanted to soften the tone and interject more humor to avoid controversy. There are moments of levity added by Martin that genuinely work (a lazy and self-pitying security guard of Sil's species who is someone we have all worked with at some point in our careers), but there are others that stink of studio interference. The arc features a famously over-the-top, scenery-chewing, deliberately camp performance by Brian Blessed as a totally ridiculous warrior king with a fanatical martyr complex and the hots for Peri. From the perspective of silly '80s camp his performance is a total riot, and loads of scenery-devouring fun. But he seems like he is in a completely different story from everyone else, and his insane over-the-top antics heavily undercut the darker elements of the tale. Of course, that was literally John Nathan-Turner's idea, and I can't entirely say it's a bad thing because Blessed's King Yrcarnos is very fun in his own right, and steals every scene, but the decision to play him this way makes the whole arc much more tonally uneven than it would have been had the character been more restrained.

Still, if you can go with the flow and not be bothered by the tonal inconsistencies, Mindwarp is a very compelling, bold, and unique story arc, and it culminates in possibly the gutsiest and darkest down-note ending of any classic Doctor Who serial. It's a very brave and unique farewell to Peri, and certainly one of the most memorable departures of any companion. It was a very controversial one as well, after all the blowback that the show had received from parents during the violent seasons 21 and 22, and turned out to be an ending that John Nathan-Turner would soon walk back to avoid more controversy, as soon as Eric Saward stepped down as story editor and was no longer there to protect the integrity of the arc. But as Nicola Bryant and Colin Baker are both fond of saying, it's best to ignore that hasty end-of-season add-on and treat this as the true conclusion to Peri's time on the show.

Mindwarp is a story arc that benefits from a director's cut a bit more than its predecessor. Just less than ten minutes of extended scenes are added throughout, and they add some pretty valuable character and story development, as well as adding some extra attention to the tone, and providing a slightly more violent version of the story's notorious climax. The changes do not fundamentally change the story, but they do make it better, giving some elements room to breathe, and further developing both The Doctor's mindwarped villain persona and the idea that The Valeyard is manipulating all of this as an unreliable narrator. Given that last point, Mindwarp really needs the trial setting to work, and unfortunately couldn't get a standalone director's cut without it, even though it might be better that way, as the great majority of the trial material still just isn't very good, despite being more relevant. As such, this uncut version won't make a night-and-day difference and change anyone's mind about the story; if you're in the hate-it camp, you'll probably still hate it, but if you're in the love-it camp like I am, this version certainly makes it better.


Next time, though, we do get to see how one of the Trial stories works outside of the courtroom framing device, as Terror of the Vervoids makes its debut as a standalone director's cut...

- Christopher S. Jordan

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