Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord: The Mysterious Planet - Review

Looking back on it now, Series 23 of Doctor Who was a bit of a disaster. It was the culimation of bad decisions and bad luck, incompetence from the show runners, hositilites from the excecutives at the BBC, shockingly low budget even by Who standards, a sad and untimely death and probably a hex from some witch.

A whole series consisting of four individual stories linked by a central theme, the Doctor being put on trial by the Time Lords. The fourteen-part Trial of a Time Lord story was designed as a defense against the BBC to prove that it never should have been cancelled the year previously. Of course Doctor Who is worth watching. Hell, even this series is worth watching, it just is particularly interesting when bad people are making it. Evidently poorly planned from the very beginning, this series decended into chaos when script editor, Eric Saward quit half-way through. And it is surprising that the series wasn't cancelled outright there and then. Instead, Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor was horribly shoved out of the door and the show got three more years of life, each season finally picking up the show's former reputation before cancellation in 1989, just as the show was getting good again.

In the eyes of the BBC, the critics and the vast majority of the viewing public, the previous series had been a complete disaster. The series had mucked up completely its reinvention of itself in a darker tone. It took a nihilistic view on the nature of Doctor Who itself. And the centre was the Doctor himself, his new sixth incarnation was designed to be brash, tasteless, off putting and arrogant. Put him alongside a companion who was treated terribly not only by every story she was in but by the Doctor too, it made things feel like a misogynistic parody of the traditional Doctor/Companion team.

The Doctor, (Colin Baker), finds himself on trial, accused by the Valeyard, (Michael Jayston) and overseen by the Inquisitor, (Linda Bellingham).

This new view of the show could have been pulled off if the creators had actually had any vision and storytelling abilities. Instead, the show came away looking cheap, tawdry and Eric Saward and his writers opted to tell stories that were grim, bleak and very ugly. Doctor Who became too hard for many to watch and as a result more and more people each week, didn't bother. Of course, it didn't really come as a surprise to anyone when it was put on hold for a year.

While the show was off air, producer John Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward came up with the idea of telling a story that mirrored what was happening in real life and put the Doctor on trial. He was charged with meddling, the same thing as The War Games. The segments of the trial would link three seperate stories together with the final story wrapping things up and the Doctor taking up a battle with his accusser, a very sinister Time Lord called The Valeyard. Things didn't exactly go to plan as we will as we look back over the entirity of the season but lets look at The Mysterious Planet.

As the first story in this season, it had the hard job of laying everything out, introducing the Doctor's trial and intercutting these with clips from the main story proper, a more traditional story on the strange planet, Ravalox.

Nicola Bryant, (Peri) in her penulitmate outing.

In the opening few minutes there is enough to believe that The Mysterious Planet would have gotten Doctor Who back on track. The model shot of the courtroom was one of the most expensive things ever shown of television at that time and it still looks impressive. The writer was none other than Robert Holmes, who had recently given the show the finale for the Fifth Doctor, The Caves of Androzani. And Holmes possessed the same kind of sardonic humour that would have been perfect for a Sixth Doctor story. Unfortunately, Holmes turns in, possibly his least inspired script ever for the show as it seems to take things from previous stories, the two tribes appear to have been lifted straight from The Face of Evil. But Holmes was suffering from a liver disease he would sadly pass away from, shortly after completing this tale.

The Mysterious Planet just never takes off, it spends too much time running around in a forest and down corridors. And there is some terrible acting from some of the guest cast, particularly Joan Sims as Katryca, who looks acts like she has just escaped from a Shakespeare Amateur Group.

One thing that is a massive improvement is the relationship between the Doctor and Peri, thanks to the actors, Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant deliberatly going against what their dialogue was telling them. Though the Doctor is still arrogant, the opening scene between the two is surprisingly affectionate. If that was a direction that they could have kept going and we'll have to look at Mindwarp to see how all that came to an end. But the Doctor and Peri have arrived on Ravolox because it is in the completely wrong part of the galaxy. The planet intrigues the Doctor because of its similarities to Earth. And Ravolox is supposed to be lifeless thanks to a fiery catastrophy that happened centuries ago but they arrive in the middle of a forest. Eventually it is revealed that the planet is Earth and that only deepens the unanswered questions.

Drathro, the robot that always looks unsteady on his feet!

But there are other people on the planet and they aren't after the same scientific answers as the Doctor and Peri. Sabalom Glitz, an intergalatic mercenary and his bodyguard, Dibber are after secrets hidden underground, in a shelter which houses the only survivors of the accident that happened centuries ago. The underground city is ruled with the understandably steel grip of the robot, Drathro. To get there though, Glitz and Dibber have to sweet talk Katryca. But Katryca is savvier than she looks and isn't as easily fooled as Glitz had hoped. But the real danger lies with Drathro, who thinks of all humans as nothing more than work units that can be killed when they are no longer useful. His power source is also dangerously unstable and could cause another catastrophic explosion.

All of this is being viewed over on the space station by the Doctor and the Valeyard. The Valeyard seems convinced that his case is strong enough to get the Doctor executed but one finds it hard to believe why. It is a strange case to begin with if the Valeyard is trying to accuse the Doctor of meddling, since he saves the planet from of a black-light explosion and gets the people of the world out from under the rule of Drathro.

The trial segments are poorly written and because of this are badly staged and come out as a chore to watch. It is hard to escape the idea that whatever the Doctor is being accused off shouldn't be there. It is so vague and little of the dialogue is devoted to giving the trial any sense. Instead, we get a conversation about how there too much violence in the Ravolox scenes which is a painful reflection on the complaint for the previous series about there being too much violence. What doesn't help is that even the Doctor and the Inquisitor don't want to watch the Ravolox scenes, which does nothing but call to attention how boring and poorly done everything is. Even the fictional characters won't sit through this!

Sadly, this is her penulitmate story but Peri comes off quite well here. Part of this is thanks to the thaw between her and the Doctor but also because she has a few scenes which drive the story and she doesn't stand around passively or gets captured.

Despite the BBC's mandate to change things up, there is little change between series 22 and 23. Though there are some nice moments here and there, most of the humour is purile, particularly the annoying nicknames the Doctor gives the Valeyard. The Boatyard, The Scrapyard, The Knackers Yard, its like he's keeping points...