Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord: The Ultimate Foe - Review

So, this is how the Sixth Doctor bowed on television, not with a bang but with a whimper. And off screen, the show lost its script editor who was the driving force behind the more grim and gritty view for the series that the show took on in the eighties. It would also very soon loose its lead actor, Colin Baker was infamously fired from the role by the BBC in one of the worst moves they have ever made. The Trial of a Time Lord limped to its conclusion with its final segment, The Ultimate Foe.

Now, it shouldn't be very surprising that after a good number of episodes of mediocrity the season-long plot arc is brought to an unsatisfactory conclusion here. But when you take into consideration all the behind the scenes problems this season and the final two episodes had, it is a small miracle that it was concluded at all. Even under the best circumstances, a long season arc like this one would have been difficult to pull off and Doctor Who wasn't in the best place with the BBC at the time either. The production had just weathered an eighteen month hiatus where the BBC were considering cancelling it outright. That view was something they continued to make known for the rest of the eighties that famously came to its conclusion in 1989.

The Sixth Doctor, (Colin Baker) and the Inquisitor, (Linda Bellingham). 

John Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward had decided to mirror the real 'trial' for the show's life with one for the Doctor's life. It was devised that this would be a way to decide if Doctor Who deserved to continue and the Doctor came up against the shady Time Lord, The Valeyard. The season mixed past, present and future together and collectively formed the longest story the show had have ever attempted. It certainly was a bold move but it the end it unfortunately proved that all the skepticism was right.  The Ultimate Foe had serious problems, all of which I've mentioned above but now that the season was in its final stretch, it was clear that no one had a clear idea of where they wanted it to end. No one seemed to pay much attention to the courtroom plot, nor to mixture of past, present and future and the kind of paradoxes that would create. And there wasn't a compelling story whittled out at the end. The courtroom scenes are dull and static and lack any sense of threat. And the idea that someone or something has tampered with the Matrix seems to have been lifted straight from the Tom Baker story, The Deadly Assassin.

And then we have the Valeyard, who was the main villain for the season, left as a one-dimensional, undeveloped character who does naff all but hackle the Doctor, with repeatedly tiresome complaints. We've got no hints of who he is and what he is up to, so the final surprise falls rather flat, especially when the reveal happens too early on in the story. And that is a real shame because the reveal that this is a future version of the Doctor, somewhere between his Twelfth and final regeneration is a brilliant one that deserved so much more time spent on it. But that is the problem with big twists like this, you often can't tell the story because the twist is the story, or keeping the twist secret for as long as you can only holds you back from telling the tale you want to tell. The idea of a Doctor being so afraid of death that he sabotages his own past would have made a great story. Especially if the story had explored how the Doctor became so bitter and twisted that he became his exact opposite. But spinning this kind of tale would have meant that some hints needed dropping throughout the course of the series.

There was an unavoidable reason why The Ultimate Foe failed to follow through with its shocking revelations, the Valeyard having been the Doctor all along and that Ravalox from The Mysterious Planet was in fact Earth, having been moved millions of light years across space to cover up the Time Lord corruption. Original author, Robert Holmes sadly passed away having only written episode one and the treatment for episode two. This only provided the catalyst for a number of catastrophes to hit the Doctor Who world. The strained working relationship between script editor, Eric Saward and producer, John Nathan-Turner finally broke down and Saward walked out one day. For legal reasons the original treatment of the final episode had to be dropped and Turner brought in writers Pip and Jane Baker, who had just finished the previous story, to wrap everything up. But their way of writing was directly against everything that Saward had set it, it was obviously aimed for children and the final episode feels like it was aimed at children who aren't intelligent yet to fully get what is going on. As a result, what could have been a good enough story comes across as a disappointing mishmash.

The Doctor makes a deal with the Devil in the form of Mr. Popplewick, (Geoffrey Hughes).

How Holmes wanted to end the story is well known, grappling in a duel to the death, the Doctor and the Valeyard fall into an abyss. But because of Holmes' death, this never came to anything beyond hints and possibilities. And it is impossible to know if even he could have made it work due to his ill health.

But from what we get in Holmes' first episode, things are certainly intriguing. By the time this season came along, we had seen a large number of Gallifreyan enemies save the life of the Doctor because they can't bear the thought of anyone else killing him. But the Valeyard and his assistant Mr. Popplewick are the kinds of Time Lord villains we haven't seen before. They aren't forces of chaos but of stifling order.

The are the exact opposite of the Doctor. The Doctor usually lands in an unstable situation and through the power of chaos, brings the situation to a close. Look at The Caves of Androzani, the Doctor and Peri arrive in the middle of an uneasy stalemate between two power blocs who have been at each other's throats for years. The pair manage to unbalance that uneasy stalemate just enough for the entire corrupt structure to collapse, just as it should have done decades ago. This is a pattern that has followed the series virtually from its very beginnings. Reconstruction isn't the Doctor's job, he is the wrecker, he isn't a type of builder or mechanic but a force of nature whose waves of destruction happens to be on the side of the angels.

On the other hand, the Valeyard is a creature of rules and law and so is Mr. Popplewick. Perhaps the most effective moment in this story is when the Doctor pushes past Popplewick, opens a door to an office and finds an identical Popplewick sat behind a desk. This new version of Mr. Popplewick calls the other him a very junior Popplewick and it is heavily implied that there are a lot of versions of him in the matrix. While this isn't how we've seen Time Lords handle their regenerations, it does make sense, if the Doctor is a force of chaos, then why shouldn't there be a rule-maker, who values procedure above all else.

Maybe it might be too much to wish that had Robert Holmes not passed away, that The Ultimate Foe would have been a solid swansong for the Sixth Doctor, like he gave us for the Fifth Doctor in The Caves of Androzani. In that, Holmes found a way to tell a story that didn't shrink from that incarnation's weaknesses and showed us to tell a story with a flawed Doctor.

However, the flaws in the Sixth Doctor's incarnation, by design, where much, much more flamboyant and deeply corrosive to the character. It was always going to be a tough job to get him to work. Perhaps it was odd to make the Valeyard an evil version of the Doctor because that was what the Sixth incarnation already was. He was arrogant but incompetent and in stories like The Twin Dilemma and Vengeance on Varos, he often put Peri in danger and himself in a way that was deliberately meant to be a shock. The real problem with the Sixth Doctor being a bad Doctor wasn't that he was supposed to be a bad Doctor but that the production team never followed through on that idea. What would it have meant if he had lost his way? Why had he had this breakdown and what could he do to get back on track? The only way to deal with this version of the character was to find out what went wrong in the first place. But that never happened and this experimental version of the Doctor was doomed to fail as a result.

And what about episode 14? I don't know if there is much to say beyond that Pip and Jane Baker turned it into a rubbish Scooby-Doo knockoff, completed by the villain wearing a rubber mask for no reason. There are so many questions left unanswered. Why did the Valeyard call himself J.J. Chambers? Who lead the revolt on the High Council and why wasn't it a bigger part of the plot? I guess in the end it doesn't really matter. The trial was over and the Doctor was found innocent. But Eric Saward had walked out, the BBC only just renewed the show and the programme was in the need of a major change. The next series would find itself with a new script editor in the form of Andrew Cartmell and a new Doctor in the form of Sylvester McCoy. And it wasn't a moment too soon...