Re-Tried With New Evidence, Part 2 – Doctor Who: The Trial Of A Time Lord – The Blu-Ray Director's Cuts, Reviewed

When the court took recess at the end of part one of this review, we had just examined the director's cut of Mindwarp, which I had always thought of as the high point of (the broadcast version of) the Trial of a Time Lord season: an ambitious and unique, if still flawed, story with some interesting ideas, strong set-pieces, and possibly the darkest ending in all of classic Doctor Who. It was enhanced in some important ways by almost ten minutes of deleted and extended scenes, improving an already very good story, but it wasn't fundamentally changed, since it's the one story in this season that actually uses the trial wraparound arc in a meaningful way, and couldn't exist without it. The extended cuts of both Mindwarp and The Mysterious Planet, paired with the blu-ray set's new (upscaled) HD remaster and special features, make a strong case for season 23 being a pretty good (at least somewhat more than decent) season that's certainly better than it usually gets credit for, but there's no getting around the fact that the trial storyline itself is - let's be honest - bad. The writing is clunky, the trial scenes usually feel like nothing more than unwelcome interruptions that have very little to do with the stories themselves, and outside of certain elements of Mindwarp they really don't do much to justify their own existence. Which is why it's such a welcome surprise that the third story arc in the season, Terror of the Vervoids, has been given an alternate, trial-free director's cut, which finally presents it as a fully standalone story.

Terror of the Vervoids: Special Edition:

In the season as broadcast, and previously seen on VHS and DVD, Terror of the Vervoids was Trial of a Time Lord's second-best story, after Mindwarp: a solid outer-space murder mystery with monsters, which works quite well in its own right, but like The Mysterious Planet has the problem of feeling too familiar for its own good. It basically feels like a loose remake of the Tom Baker classic The Robots of Death, which used the exact same "Agatha Christy In Space" conceit. If one can watch it on its own terms, and not just think of how similar it is to that other much-loved story arc, it really is quite a good tale, but also like The Mysterious Planet it was always held back by the trial story; even more so in this case, since the interruptions from the courtroom break the tension of what is clearly meant to be a claustrophobic mystery. Unlike Mindwarp, the trial scenes don't have much bearing on the events at hand; yes, this story arc continues to develop the plot thread of evidence being manipulated and falsified by The Valeyard to make The Doctor look guilty, but this isn't any information that Mindwarp didn't already establish. The couple of unreliable-narrator scenes added to the narrative feel wholly out of place (they are cut from the trial-free version altogether without anything feeling missing), and Vervoids' trial scenes don't really bring anything else new to the table. I had always figured that this story would have been much better as a standalone tale, so I am very happy indeed that this blu-ray set at last gives it to us that way. In this new form (dubbed Terror of the Vervoids: Special Edition, and found under the special features on the story arc's main disc), it may just usurp Mindwarp as the season's best story arc.

The Doctor and Mel (we're in the future all of a sudden, so we have no idea how they met - she's just here now. I know, it's questionable, even for a time-travel show) intercept a distress call from a luxury space-liner, and show up to find that there has just been a murder, a robbery, and a guard knocked unconscious. There's a shipment of precious metals on-board, and a shady botanist (Honor Blackman from Goldfinger - one of Doctor Who's bigger guest-stars) who appears to be up to some mad scientist stuff - in other words, a whole host of motives and suspects. The Doctor sets out to play Hercule Poirot - but he hasn't counted on an army of sentient and very angry plant-monsters running around trying to eradicate their natural enemy, "animal kind." It's a delightfully crazy genre hodge-podge, especially with as good a character actor as Honor Blackman raising the caliber of the whole thing. The story arc leans hard into the Agatha Christy pastiche - right down to the postmodern nod of showing Blackman reading a copy of Murder on the Orient Express - and it actually does it quite well. The way in which the different characters' shady motivations and dubious intentions play into the script is very effective, and the story splinters off pleasantly into several intersecting plots, with some good twists. Removing the clunky and distracting interruptions of the trial scenes, we can better appreciate that Terror of the Vervoids genuinely has a pretty clever and sharp script which isn't simply going back to The Robots of Death formula, but understands and appreciates Agatha Christy-style mystery storytelling. Even when it shifts gears and becomes more of a monsters-on-the-loose episode, the schemes and double-crosses of the humans still drive the plot. The initial murder mystery itself becomes much less consequential as the monsters build up a much larger body-count and events spiral out of control, but the whole thing is a lot of fun. The removal of the trial interruptions also allows the Murder on the Orient Express-ish claustrophobic setting to work much more effectively also: now that the story truly never leaves the ship, the feeling of being trapped with these characters in a very confined and very dangerous situation is much more palpable.

Of course, it absolutely has its flaws. The production can tend to be very cheesy and camp, with the broad comedy of Mel's insistence that The Doctor get in shape, among other things, rather distracting from the darker potential of the story. It certainly doesn't have Philip Hinchcliffe's Gothic horror sensibilities that helped make The Robots of Death so great. There are also elements of the mystery that really don't make a ton of sense when put to too much scrutiny, although that ends up being forgivable since it all works well enough in the moment. Then there's the design of the Vervoids, which is conceptually pretty cool, but extremely cheesy in execution; they look a bit Power Rangers-ish with their very bright colors. And as many fans have remarked over the years, their faces look rather like genitals. They're easy monsters to laugh at, visually at least, but the story written around them is quite effective, so if you can suspend your disbelief and keep your mind out of the gutter they work well enough; they're no creepy dead-eyed robots though.

While it might work against Terror of the Vervoids (at least in the minds of some viewers) that it is so strongly reminiscent of a particular Tom Baker-era classic, it actually turns out to be a strength that the arc, in a broader sense, feels very much like the Tom Baker-era (particularly in the producer Graham Williams years) in terms of storytelling style and sensibility; it allows Colin Baker's Doctor to take a vacation from the baggage of his own era (and let's be honest, his era has a lot of baggage) and go on an adventure that feels much more like the show in its prime. Perhaps more than any other Colin Baker-era episode, then, this one really shows that he genuinely can be a classic-style Doctor, and proves that his era's idiosyncrasies and often cynical tone were not his fault. He actually flourishes in this more fun and exciting, Tom Baker-esque story, and feels very much in his element. This feeling is amplified in this new cut that removes the story from the trial wraparound, and completes its transformation into a slice of old-school Who.

The new edit works very well - for the most part. There is no doubt that the tone of the story, and the whole narrative sensibility, works much better in this standalone context: the mystery was clearly always meant to capture the trapped-in-a-confined-space-with-a-killer claustrophobia of Death on the Nile or Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None, and now it actually does, without the season arc rudely pulling the viewer out of the atmosphere. The suspense works much better, the storytelling feels much more consistent and appropriate, the tension builds more effectively, and in general this cut really does feel like how the story was meant to be told. Judging from how much better this cut works, one would guess that the script was written on its own first, and the trial scenes were added in later once the rest was done.

But unfortunately those scenes were added in, and the script was reworked in places to accommodate them, and as such some moments of awkwardness remain, usually in the pacing. There are several places, especially in parts one and two, when scenes were clearly written to be separated by material from the trial, and now they feel awkward when pushed together. For instance, at one point in episode one Mel makes reference to the hydroponics center than she keeps telling The Doctor they should check out, presumably during the time when, in the broadcast version, a trial interlude denoted time having passed within the story. With the trial scene gone, no time has been shown to have passed, so we are left wondering when Mel possibly could have repeatedly told The Doctor this, as we were basically with them the whole time. A couple other moments similarly feel abrupt or oddly placed. Then there's the third-person narration by The Doctor which starts off the whole story, which is certainly needed to establish the tone, but now comes from absolutely nowhere, while in the broadcast version it came from his opening courtroom argument.

Still, these are ultimately small complaints; these few awkward artifacts remain, but on the whole this edit works much better. In a perfect world alternate or added scenes would exist to bridge those gaps in the pacing, but given the circumstances it's understandable that those scenes just don't exist; this cut does feature a decent amount of deleted scenes which help the pacing quite a bit, but none of them were meant to replace the trial footage. However, the trial scenes don't add any information that we need, and no information is missing due to their absence. You certainly don't need to have watched the Trial version to appreciate this cut, and if you have never seen Terror of the Vervoids before, you will probably like it better if you watch it this way. A few idiosyncrasies aside, this is unquestionably the better version. Also, congratulations are due to the BBC Video team for making a brand-new opening credits sequence just for this special edition, imagining the kind of treatment that the 6th Doctor may have gotten in his third season had he gotten one.

Overall, I think that this new cut of Terror of the Vervoids may have overtaken Mindwarp as my favorite story arc of the season, and thus my second-favorite Colin Baker story arc overall (after the only really great arc from season 22, Vengeance on Varos). The new cut genuinely might change some minds about this story and significantly increase its regard in the eyes of some viewers. It allows the strengths of the story arc to shine through without the trial scenes holding it back. Especially for those who really don't like the trial arc and have trouble seeing past it, this is a must-see.


The Ultimate Foe:

An inherently tricky truth about season-long TV story arcs is that they really are only as good as their ending. A half-hearted or generally just OK arc can be redeemed by a fantastic conclusion (IE, the excellent The Name of the Doctor more or less making up for new-series season 7 revolving around an underutilized villain and a very underdeveloped companion), but a mostly really good arc can also be undone by a bad conclusion that retroactively makes the rest of the season worse by its mediocrity. Doctor Who has learned this lesson the hard way at least a couple times; new-series season 6 ran afoul of this problem in a big way, with the fascinating (if very convoluted) Impossible Astronaut/Silence arc crumbling under the weight of its excessive ambition in a sloppy and illogical finale that made the whole season feel weaker and more questionable in retrospect, despite so much of what happened before being so good. When a season is trying for an ambitious long-term story arc, a heavy burden rests on the writer of the finale to follow through and prove to viewers that this whole season has been worth their investment. The Trial of a Time Lord found itself backed up against a wall by this problem, carrying a burden heavier than most: new-series season 6 stumbled despite the season in general being very good, but The Trial of a Time Lord had the even harder job of having to spin a satisfying finale out of a season-long story arc that frankly kind of sucked. The trial story was a mildly intriguing but overall pretty dull and repetitive plotline at the best of times (specifically and exclusively in Mindwarp), and an obnoxious distraction from the story arcs that we would rather be watching without interruption at the worst of times (Terror of the Vervoids and to a lesser degree The Mysterious Planet), so turning it into the show-stopping epic finale that producer John Nathan-Turner wanted was always going to be an uphill battle. And that was before a barrage of production problems hammered the season, culminating in the two-part The Ultimate Foe having probably the single most troubled production of any Doctor Who arc ever. Anything that could have gone wrong in the production of this story arc did go wrong, and the whole thing was basically screwed before the cameras even rolled.

If anyone could have turned The Trial of a Time Lord arc into a compelling season finale, surely it was Robert Holmes, one of the most respected and critically acclaimed of all Doctor Who writers. Holmes was half of arguably Doctor Who's most beloved showrunning duo, along with Philip Hinchcliffe, and the two were responsible for 4th Doctor Tom Baker's outstanding first three and a half seasons (Hinchcliffe left at the end of Baker's third season with the fan-favorite The Talons of Weng-Chiang, but Holmes stuck around for an additional half-season, bowing out with the wonderful slice of Lovecraftian-Gothic Image of the Fendahl). During that time, he significantly expanded the Time Lord mythology with classic arcs like The Brain of Morbius and The Deadly Assassin, and thus he seemed to perfectly fit the bill for the Gallifrey-bound finale that the Trial season required. But Holmes was struggling with serious health problems, leading to his previous contribution to this season, The Mysterious Planet, feeling like a somewhat phoned-in greatest-hits compilation. Holmes turned in his final script for The Ultimate Foe Part One, and had at least given script editor Eric Saward a decent synopsis of his plot for part two, when his health took a serious downturn, and he passed away with the finale unfinished. Holmes's sudden death was a personal tragedy that badly shook the production team, many of whom had known him for years and thought of him as a friend and colleague, but it also was a practical tragedy for the production: the writer of the season finale had died, with the finished form of the script still only existing in his head. Saward set out to finish the script, being as faithful to the spirit of Holmes's work as possible, but the other production problems plaguing the season soon struck.

The show was already in hot water with hostile BBC management who were looking for any excuse to give it the axe, and the controversially dark and violent ending to Mindwarp already had them flustered, and had producer John Nathan-Turner running scared. The working relationship between JNT and Eric Saward had been increasingly tense and toxic for some time, but Holmes's death paired with JNT's desire to not do anything remotely controversial was the last straw: with Holmes's considerable clout now out of the picture, Turner demanded heavy changes to Saward's script, to water down the season's more controversial elements, undo the ending of Mindwarp, and close the season on a safe note that would placate BBC management. Saward saw these requests as a violation of his integrity, and he instead quit on the spot, and refused to sign over permission for any of his script for The Ultimate Foe Part Two to be used. And thus, with just a short time before photography began, John Nathan-Turner had no season finale, no idea how to wrap up the story with a complete lack of any intellectual property to work from, and no script editor to oversee the process. In desperation he turned to Terror of the Vervoids writers Pip and Jane Baker, and basically requested that they pull a finale out of thin air with no plot information, almost no time, but the same string of requests and specifications that he gave Saward. They did it, hammering out a script in just three days, but between the time constraints and the lack of a script editor, it was wildly over length. To say that it was not an ideal way to end an already highly-scrutinized season would be an understatement; it was the worst case scenario for season 23. Nathan-Turner convinced BBC to let the episode run long, clocking in at 30 minutes instead of the usual 25, but even to get to that required a lot of material to be cut from the script before shooting, and almost three minutes to be cut from the episode itself. Another two minutes were cut from episode one before it aired. Those nearly five minutes of deleted scenes have been restored for the blu-ray extended versions, and while they mainly just serve to expand upon some dialogue and improve the pacing, The Ultimate Foe is such an overcrowded story that every moment helps.

Episode one is solely credited to Robert Holmes as screenwriter, but since the rewrites that John Nathan-Turner demanded - including one that Eric Saward had refused to make - are already represented in the first episode, it's hard to say how much of Holmes's script actually made it to the screen, and how much was rewritten. And among the rewrites, it's hard to say how much was Eric Saward, who completed the intended broadcast script before he quit, and how much were later revisions from Nathan-Turner and Pip and Jane Baker. However, at least some of the episode is clearly Robert Holmes, and that stuff (though for the most part, ONLY that stuff) is really good. The more interesting mysteries introduced by the trial segments from The Mysterious Planet and Mindwarp are built upon in a pretty effective and satisfying way, involving a Time Lord conspiracy and the manipulation of the court. In particular, after a couple appropriately shocking revelations about corruption in Gallifrey's corridors of power, The Doctor gets two excellent show-stopping speeches which give Colin Baker some of the best acting moments in his entire era. These speeches and the political intrigue that leads up to them are pure Robert Holmes, reminiscent of his thematically similar The Deadly Assassin, and are the best glimpses we get of the better Ultimate Foe that might have been. However, even so, it is clear that Holmes was given a thankless task in wrapping up all of these plot threads in just two episodes. The beginning of the episode feels like it is in fast-motion, with the sudden appearances of Mel, Sabalom Glitz, and The Master happening way too fast and conveniently, and feeling like a complete deus ex machina (which is what it clearly is, but the script is very blatant about it). Holmes was probably backed into a corner by the two-episode restriction, and his poor health probably didn't help, but the rapid introduction of these characters who are basically swooping in at the last minute to save the day feels pretty lazy and contrived. At least Glitz, though clumisly reintroduced, makes a logical witness to summon out of time for the trial, considering that he was in The Mysterious Planet to witness the secret at the heart of the duplicitousness at work on Gallifrey.

Had Holmes survived to finish the script without John Nathan-Turner's interference, or had Eric Saward been around and been allowed to protect the script's integrity, the stronger qualities on display in the final version suggest that this would have been a good episode, which may start poorly, but which probably would have hit its stride and stayed pretty strong. As it is, the middle section involving the political intrigue, the corruption within Gallifrey, and The Doctor's big speeches is really good, but in the last act things once again get pretty shaky. It is at that point that the episode moves inside The Matrix, Gallifey's alternate-reality central computer. It's an intriguingly surreal sequence, but its total lack of any internal logic, or specifically any explanation of just why its reality looks like a Victorian era factory district, is very distracting and troublesome, and smacks of a writer who has been backed into a corner and doesn't know where to go next. This is where it becomes increasingly unclear how much - if any - of the material is still Robert Holmes, and how much are Eric Saward's under-pressure rewrites. From what I understand, Holmes's plot for the Matrix sequences was jettisoned almost entirely, and most of it feels like probable rewrites because it has a certain feeling of frantic desperation, and just isn't up to Holmes's usual quality. The trial scenes towards the end certainly had heavy rewrites - including one that was clearly either Nathan-Turner or Pip and Jane Baker, because it involves the notorious retconning of Peri's fate at the end of Mindwarp, which Eric Saward refused to do. This is a truly cringy, embarrassing moment, in which John Nathan-Turner is blatantly caving to the show's critics and taking the safe route at the expense of good storytelling, and both Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant are on record as saying that they absolutely hate it. Towards the end of episode one you can feel the story arc starting to fall apart at the seams, and it becomes increasingly clear that the overarching plot that the last twelve episodes were built around does not have a well thought-out conclusion, and probably isn't going to end well. Which brings us to episode 2, which was written solely by Pip and Jane Baker under that insane three-day time-crunch with no material from either Holmes or Saward to work from.

At the very least it must be said that the work Pip and Jane Baker do on The Ultimate Foe Part Two is not terrible. They at least manage to make the episode feel reasonably consistent with how part one ended, picking up the character and plot threads and running with them in a way that at least makes sense and is a plausible enough conclusion. It doesn't feel like the story takes a sudden sharp turn between the two episodes due to the change of writers, so at least that's something. But it's also kind of the problem: this is mostly little more than a utilitarian exercise in following the threads to their logical conclusion in a serviceable way, because that's really all they had time to do. Every plot thread feels like it takes the path of least resistance, and the most obvious thing that could happen following the set-up in part one is usually what happens. Nothing feels wrong or inconsistent, but nothing feels inspired either. They clearly didn't know where Robert Holmes was going (they legally were not allowed to know anything about his notes after Eric Saward walked away from the script), and they didn't have time to really come up with good twists of their own, so it feels like they just took their best guess at what they thought was probably going to happen, which usually means the most stereotypical route. The Master is his usual duplicitous self for very little discernible reason aside from just that that's what he does; in the first episode Holmes at least gave him some interesting motivations for helping The Doctor and double-crossing The Valeyard, but here he's just Master-by-numbers once again. The Valeyard, despite having a pretty interesting twist in part one, is now given the most obvious motivation possible, and nothing to do that really packs much surprise. The episode also has a bad case of Talking Villain Syndrome, wherein both The Master and The Valeyard monologue at great length about their evil plans, in a case of telling-not-showing that's so blatant it is cringe-inducing.

The episode does manage to pull off at least a couple good moments though: one fairly predictable misdirect that nonetheless works quite well because Colin Baker sells it with conviction and a good performance, a good scene or two between Doctor and Valeyard, and a scene when Baker gets another pretty good speech where he really gets to seem the hero. And while the material leaves something to be desired, Michael Jayston is very good as The Valeyard, finally getting to leave the courtroom and play a proper Big Bad in the surreal world of The Matrix. It's a shame that he didn't have Robert Holmes's script to work with; he probably would have been fantastic with material that matches the acting he is clearly capable of. As it is, for the most part this episode feels like the path of least resistance as its two screenwriters, deprived of sufficient time to come up with really good ideas of their own, basically just put a band-aid over Holmes and Saward's absences. The result is an episode that isn't bad, but is also rarely memorable; you could skip it entirely and simply imagine how you think it would probably end based on the end of part one, and the result would likely be about the same. When the best you can say about the finale of a fourteen-part saga is that it's okay, and at least managed to be coherent, the ending is clearly a letdown.

But given what a deeply troubled production the episode had, the odds of The Ultimate Foe actually being really good were slim, so maybe it's a minor victory that it ended up being okay and not terrible. The director's cuts make a bit of a difference, but not much. Each episode is extended by between two and three minutes, which is definitely helpful given how frantic and over-packed both episodes feel, but it's hardly an earth-shattering change. Some plot moments are a bit better developed, though, and the pacing is certainly better in places, so it's definitely something; the larger issue here is that the episodes were deeply flawed straight from the page, and didn't get that way in the editing room.

It's a shame that the story was subject to such a troubled production, because it has enough intriguing elements, especially in part one, that one gets the distinct impression that if Holmes has lived long enough to finish both scripts, it might have been quite good. However, even if he had survived to do it right, two episodes was not enough time, and the story likely would have felt rushed either way. With how abbreviated everything is, The Ultimate Foe feels more like a perfunctory coda than a story arc in its own right, which is probably why people tend to think of The Trial of a Time Lord less as a four-story season, and more as a three-story season with some other wraparound stuff. Colin Baker deserved a better farewell; he deserved the kind of grand finale that John Nathan-Turner envisioned this to be, but that it was never going to be in a mere 50 minutes. As it is, as the conclusion to a Doctor's era, The Ultimate Foe is, in a word, underwhelming. Not the unmitigated disaster that it could have been under the circumstances, but underwhelming.


In the end, with these new extended/director's cuts to use for reevaluations, is The Trial of a Time Lord a better season than its generally terrible reputation suggests? Well, yes and no, but mostly yes. The three stories that make up the bulk of the season – The Mysterious Planet, Mindwarp, and Terror of the Vervoids – definitely are better than the season's reputation suggests. All three fall somewhere between pretty good and very good (or at least almost very good). The Mysterious Planet may be too familiar for its own good, feeling like a greatest-hits compilation of story beats from the middle Tom Baker years, but it's nonetheless a reasonably fun and effective story in its own right. Mindwarp has its flaws, but for the most part it's an ambitious and refreshingly different tale that actually uses the trial concept in an interesting way, and it's certainly the season's most unique arc. And Terror of the Vervoids is a solid murder-mystery-by-way-of-monster-movie which once again feels a bit too familiar, but overcomes that by doing what it does very well. All three are improved by their longer cuts, and Terror of the Vervoids is greatly improved by an alternate cut that frees it from the confines of the trial.

Because therein lies the problem with this season: the overarching trial storyline is every bit as bad as its reputation would have you believe. It's an interesting experiment, but it just doesn't work, and it sabotages itself time and time again with dull, samey writing that makes the fatal mistake of calling attention to its own irrelevance any time anyone questions what the interruptions have to do with the court proceedings. One can see what they were going for, and how it probably seemed like a good idea on paper, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

Still, this is not Doctor Who's low point by any stretch; if anything, this is a small peak of higher quality surrounded by the show's actual low points on both sides. With a few exceptions, season 22 is a dreary, cynical slog that betrays its production problems in most of its serials, and season 24 is a disorganized, sloppy, directionless mess which is the obvious result of the shambles the show was in after Eric Saward's sudden departure. This season at least has three pretty solid story arcs, even if they are wrapped up in a story that is ultimately a failure.

This season is absolutely worth a look, and in the end it isn't bad so much as it is just uneven. For those who have never seen this season before, these extended cuts – and especially the trial-free special edition of Terror of the Vervoids – are absolutely the way to go, as they will allow you to see a better version of the season than most fans first got to know. And for those who are fans of the season, this blu-ray set is a must-have, as the new transfers and wealth of new and old extras really allow viewers to better appreciate the strengths of the season even as the box set is very honest about the many weaknesses. While this at first seemed like an odd choice for BBC Video's blu-ray line, season 23 actually turned out to be a great candidate. The set is certainly recommended, although one does have to watch it with a somewhat forgiving eye and a sense of context.

- Christopher S. Jordan

Withholding evidence is a crime - please share this review!