Trial of a Time Lord

I was asked a little while ago if I could write something about Doctor Who season twenty-three, the Trial of a Time Lord season. This is an interesting, and frankly difficult, request for me, because of all the Doctor Who I watched as a child, this is the one of which I have the strongest memories. I remember Peri’s mind being overwritten by Kiv’s, I remember recognising Honor Blackman from articles I’d read about her time as Cathy Gale in The Avengers (I was an odd child, and did actually read stuff about TV series from long before I was born for fun), I remember recognising Lynda Bellingham as the Oxo mum, and I remember noting the names of the writers, Pip and Jane Baker, and wondering if they were any relation to Tom or Colin. I remember learning the word “genocide” from the Doctor killing the Vervoids.

I remember, in short, watching this series from the perspective of a rather strange little boy, and that perspective is still with me when I rewatch it now. And in particular that means that I don’t see this in the fannish way, as three and a bit separate stories with a linking narrative, but as one long story called The Trial of a Time Lord.

That is, when I watch this series, what I pay attention to is the linking narrative or framing story. The things it’s framing are, for me, merely pieces of evidence in the trial, rather than stories in their own right, simply because that’s how I perceived the story when I was tiny. There’s no “The Mysterious Planet” or “Mindwarp” or “Terror of the Vervoids”, at least not in my mind while I’m watching it.

Now, this is of course a naive way to watch the story. There are three separate credited writers or writing teams on the season — Robert Holmes, Philip Martin, and Pip and Jane Baker — and on top of that there’s quite a bit of material written by script editor Eric Saward. The difference in writing teams is, of course, noticeable at the start of each episode. But at the same time, the framing sequences do make it appear that what matters is not the individual stories but the framing sequences — almost every cliffhanger, for example, is a shot of Colin Baker’s face as the trial reaches a turning point.

So when watching the series these days… well, firstly, I don’t watch it all that often because I feel compelled to watch the whole thing, and it takes nearly seven hours to get through. I know that classic Doctor Who was broadcast as a serial, but I still always watch whole stories, and I very rarely have that much time in a block to watch a story in.

But when I do watch it, there’s a weird dual vision about it that I don’t have with other stories, because my perception as an adult is very different from my perception as a child, and both are present.

But then, that’s appropriate for a series like this, where much of the story is told by an unreliable narrator, where two of the Doctor are present (one vastly older than the other, and seeing things from a very different perspective), where history is rewritten and where we have flashbacks from the future, and where that multiplicity of perspectives and histories is reflected in the production of the series.

Trial of a Time Lord is one of the few Doctor Who stories where the story of its production actually adds more to the story on screen. In part that’s because parts of the story itself are fairly weak — though nowhere near as weak as the story’s low reputation would suggest — but it’s also because when you decide to create a series that actually dramatises the situation in which the series found itself, and then get extremely intelligent writers like Robert Holmes and Philip Martin, both of whom deal in the metatextual on a regular basis, to write big chunks of it, you end up getting something very strange indeed, and something with resonances with the situation that weren’t actually intended.

Put simply, Trial of a Time Lord is a story that was intended to put the case for the defence for Doctor Who itself. The show had been on hiatus for eighteen months, and everyone involved with the series knew it was on borrowed time. There had been talk of it being cancelled altogether, and there’s a lot of evidence that it essentially was cancelled — when it came back it was only fourteen twenty-five minute episodes, rather than the thirteen fifty minute episodes of the previous season, and there have been claims that this was because the children’s SF series The Tripods, which had been based on a trilogy of books, was cancelled after the dramatisation of the second book — it would appear that there had been a budget and time-slot allocated for an SF series, the one they wanted to put on was cancelled, and so they fitted Doctor Who in because they had no other options.

So of course the programme makers (primarily producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward) decided that since the show itself was on trial they would put that trial on screen — the Doctor was put on trial, with a format that was borrowed from A Christmas Carol, and he had to defend his actions in the past, the present, and the future.

Those actions were to be stories in themselves, each written by some of the best writers working on the show. And certainly in two of the three stories, Saward achieved that aim. Robert Holmes, who wrote the first four episodes and the thirteenth, and was intended to write the fourteenth (but sadly died before he could — and see later for more on that) is widely regarded as the best writer Doctor Who ever had, and he’s certainly one of the three or four writers (with David Whitaker and Terrance Dicks, and arguably Terry Nation) who did more to define Doctor Who as a series and an aesthetic than anyone else. And Philip Martin, who wrote episodes five through eight, had only written one Doctor Who story previously, but he was by far the most acclaimed writer ever to come to work on the show (other writers such as Douglas Adams became more acclaimed after they left the series, but that’s a rather different thing, and I’m not here counting the prestige hires on the post-2005 series, as that series is so different that it’s not a useful comparison).

Unfortunately for Saward, his choices for the “future” segment all dropped out, and he was left with no choice but to turn to Pip and Jane Baker for that segment of the storyline. Pip and Jane Baker are not the most highly regarded of Doctor Who scriptwriters, and one of the reasons for the low general opinion of the Colin Baker and early McCoy stories is that they wrote one or more stories in both of Baker’s series and McCoy’s first, but they weren’t as terrible as their reputation suggests.

Which is not to say they were good, by any means. They had no sense for dialogue, in particular, and Doctor Who is always a highly verbal series that stands or falls on the quality of the characters’ dialogue (although they did a better job with Colin Baker’s Doctor than with other characters, as Baker’s mildly pompous, loquacious, version of the Doctor fits with the Bakers’ love for polysyllabic circumlocution). But they were competent at plot, structure, and cliffhangers, their ideas were perfectly good Doctor Who ideas, and most importantly from the perspective of the production staff they could turn in usable scripts quickly and without needing too much handholding or rewriting — they were, if not great writers, consummate professionals, and in the world of TV production it is often more important to have something that can be put in front of the camera by the necessary date than it is to have something that’s perfect, or even good.

But again, to switch back to the way tiny Andrew was viewing this, there wasn’t such an important distinction to make. I knew that the Agatha Christie-ish bit of Trial was perhaps not as exciting as the bit with Sil and Kiv and Brian Blessed, but it was still all part of the same story, and all exciting because of what was happening to the Doctor during his trial.

But in fact, Terror of the Vervoids is rather an outlier in terms of the season as a whole, because the first two stories, Holmes’ The Mysterious Planet and Martin’s Mindwarp, both have quite a lot of thematic material in common with each other and with the overall storyline (understandably, as Holmes and Martin, unlike the Bakers, had spent a great deal of time developing their ideas with Eric Saward and were part of the team that planned the whole Trial of a Time Lord storyline).

So both deal, in their own ways, with suppression of the truth, and with memories being wiped — in the case of Holmes’ story, with the movement of Earth’s solar system to cover up a massive crime, and in the case of Martin’s, with the actual wiping of Peri’s memory (that this turns out to be retconned later doesn’t make a difference to Martin’s story as it was experienced at the time.)

Neither are their writer’s best work, of course — in Holmes’ case, he was suffering from the illness that would shortly kill him, while in Martin’s there was simply a miscommunication between the different parts of the production team that meant that by the time the story was completed there was no consensus as to which parts of it were the work of an unreliable narrator, and within the story there was also the question of how much of the Doctor’s behaviour was real and how much was him putting on an act, which no-one involved could satisfactorily resolve. This means that for any given scene, there are at least four possible in-story explanations, even discounting the later retcons about Peri, putting the whole of Mindwarp into a superposition of states from which a single coherent story can’t possibly be resolved.

But still, Trial of a Timelord has an immense power, and that power comes almost entirely from the figure of the Valeyard. The Valeyard is, of course, the dark future version of the Doctor “between his twelfth and final incarnations” who acts as the prosecutor throughout the story. As a child, I got him confused with David Warner’s portrayal of the Devil in Time Bandits, and certainly the two characters seem very similar in demeanour and presence even today, with the result that the revelation that this character is the Doctor is still powerful today. It’s all too plausible that this dark but articulate legalistic figure could lie in the future of the sixth Doctor — a version of the character played by someone who himself had legal training, and who often seems to be a wannabe-barrister, making speeches and using his verbal ability to defeat opponents.

The Valeyard has never been returned to in televised Doctor Who, although the Dream Lord in Amy’s Choice is a very similar character and may have been intended as a reference, and the “continuity nightmare” he caused was cited in the New Adventures writing guidelines as a reason to avoid him in the novels. As a result, he’s only appeared in one novel and three Big Finish audio adventures that I’m aware of in the thirty-plus years since this story — a shame, as the character has a lot of potential for use in further stories. An evil future incarnation of the Doctor is, after all, not far at all from the Master, and the Valeyard is arguably a better portrayal of the “evil Time Lord” idea than appears in any Master story after about Castrovalva (at least until Missy turns up, and even there she’s hampered by some fairly terrible writing).

The trial sequences do rather overshadow the rest of the story, at least in the memory — although rewatching it now, there’s far too much of things like the “knacker’s yard” semi-puns on the Valeyard’s name, which now remind me of nothing more than the terrible (but wonderful in their terribleness) jokes in A Touch of Cloth where characters keep saying things like “the entire department is losing face, cloth”. This story is, I think, more than any other where the cliche about the sixth Doctor being “a stupid person’s idea of a clever person” comes from — the Doctor is repeatedly not as witty or clever as he thinks he’s being, and presumably also as the writers of the linking sequences (one presumes mostly by Eric Saward) think he’s being.

Ah yes, Eric Saward. Here one gets to the real difficulty with Trial of a Time Lord, trying to parse who was responsible for what. There were major fallings out between members of the production team towards the end of Trial, many of which were played out in interviews for fan magazines and which led to permanent rifts between programme makers. To this day, Colin Baker is still not on speaking terms with Saward, which is perhaps understandable given the way that Saward insulted him both as an actor and as a person in an infamous interview after leaving the show.

Saward is a fascinating and somewhat tragic figure in Doctor Who, and one for whom I have a fair bit of empathy. He is someone who was overpromoted — a neophyte writer who had barely any experience before being put in charge of the scripts for the series (a position roughly equivalent to being a co-showrunner in today’s terminology, especially given the fact that John Nathan-Turner was the least writerly producer the series ever had). He had the unfortunately common liability among creative people of having far better taste than he had ability (this is something that nearly every creative person has until fairly late in their career — certainly it’s something that’s true of me) and much of his writing was attempts at copying the style of better writers — Slipback and his novelisation of The Twin Dilemma, for example, are both him trying to be Douglas Adams, while Revelation of the Daleks is him trying to be Evelyn Waugh and Robert Holmes simultaneously.

This meant that, even as his own writing was often substandard (with the exception of Revelation of the Daleks, which is really very good), he recognised quality in others, and his choices here of Robert Holmes and Philip Martin show that. Holmes was one of the two or three best actual writers ever to have worked on Doctor Who, and someone who even at his worst could always be relied on to turn in a script with an interesting premise and a few good lines of dialogue which could be brought in on budget and which could be broadcast without looking embarassing. At his best, he was as good a writer as anyone who was working in TV.

Philip Martin, on the other hand, was a respected writer of political plays and postmodernist TV drama, who had found that Doctor Who was just about the only place left on TV where one could do non-naturalistic drama. He was a properly heavyweight writer, and someone any script editor would jump at employing.

So Saward knew who could do a good job, and it was just unfortunate for him that he was stuck with Pip and Jane Baker for the last four-part substory of the season. But what was more unfortunate was Robert Holmes’ health, which was deteriorating rapidly.

The original plan had been that as well as writing the first four episodes, Holmes would also write the last two episodes, where the Trial concludes. He and Saward discussed his plans in great detail, and came up with what they thought was a satisfactory ending for the season.

Unfortunately, Holmes’ illness got much worse more quickly than anyone had expected, and so while he was able to turn in a draft script for the penultimate episode, which Saward had to rewrite quite heavily, he died before he was able to write the last episode. Saward wrote a script based around their plans, and then the producer, John Nathan-Turner, vetoed the ending, which he felt would give the BBC too great an opportunity to get rid of the show altogether.

Saward, who had been unhappy in the role for some time, quit, and would not allow Nathan-Turner to use his script. Nor would he allow him to use any of the story elements from his script, so Nathan-Turner was stuck with thirteen parts of a fourteen-part epic story, with no conclusion, and the last episode was to start filming in a short period of time. He needed a script, and it had to be something written by someone who had no idea of what had been done in Saward’s original script, it had to use the same locations and characters that had already been arranged, and it had to be written in almost no time at all.

Luckily, Pip and Jane Baker were available, and they already knew the trial premise, having written four episodes of the story, but they had no idea how it was meant to end because Saward hadn’t bothered to discuss that with them.

They managed to turn out something which, while it wasn’t in any way a good script (and lines like “it’s a megabyte modem!” only become funnier as time passes) did at least manage to tie together enough of the loose ends that it could be called an ending. It even managed to tie together loose ends that weren’t actually loose, like Peri’s death, which was retconned into her being safe and happy and living with Brian Blessed’s character King Yrcanos — a character with whom she had shown precisely no chemisty or affection whatsoever during the course of the story.

But this — and the other bits of the ending which confuse what was real and what was only a Matrix illusion — rather works in the story’s favour in an odd way. Thematically, everything is about unreliable narrators and about things that turn out to be untrue, and about people’s memories also being incorrect or altered, so it makes sense that on a deeper level even the writers don’t quite understand what story they’re telling themselves, and everyone on the production team was working from different basic assumptions.

In short, Trial of a Time Lord is not a story that anyone who was making it actually understood — not one single person making the series had a clear idea of what was meant to be real, what was meant to be false, and who in the story knew what when. That this happens to be reflected in the story’s themes of rewriting history is purely coincidental — the plotlines for the sub-stories were worked out long before the production crises that beset the series — but it works to the story’s advantage. This is perhaps the only Doctor Who story where the production chaos makes it something slightly better than it would otherwise have been, rather than something slightly worse.

This is not ever going to have a massive critical rehabilitation, which is a shame as it’s roughly a third of the on-screen time for a Doctor who had few enough stories as it is, but when looked at in that way, as a story that’s about the problems of creating a collaborative story, it does I think have a lot to offer.

And if you’re eight years old, it makes for fourteen weeks of truly gripping TV.

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4 Responses to Trial of a Time Lord

  1. Jackie says:

    And the DVD boxed set leaves us with the comedy gold of one very youthful Chris Chibnall in a jacket and yellow tie berating the Bakers for their lack of scriptwriting ability. That’s not going to rebound on him at all now he’s showrunner is it?

  2. “As a child, I got him confused with David Warner’s portrayal of the Devil in Time Bandits”

    OMG, me too.

    I am also incapable of turning off the reactions of Tiny!Jennie when watching this, even as adult Jennie cringes at some of the dialogue and the madness of the Peri retcon.

  3. po8crg says:

    I got so turned off Doctor Who as a small person by the first Colin Baker storyline that I didn’t watch again until McCoy took over, so my entire experience of Colin Baker is as an adult, which means I don’t really relate to having to fight the childhood perception. Unlike McCoy, where there is tiny!Richard just loving Ace all the time.

    I’ve found that I really liked Colin’s performance Six as an adult, but that the plot incoherence of Trial of a Time Lord means I’ve not rewatched it in more than a decade.

  4. vla22 says:

    The resolution of Trial of a Time Lord is pretty unsatisfying as someone who only watched Who as an adult. The three base stories are all good in different ways, and the set-up of the Trial of a Time Lord (and the series as a whole) is also good. The resolution is profoundly awful, apart from the Messrs Popplewick, which are a good concept wrapped up in something completely incomprehensible. I don’t mind us not getting a resolution of whether or not the Doctor was putting on an act when tormenting Peri in Mindwarp – that’s a reasonable thing to leave hanging, especially given the circumstances. I do mind the general incoherence of the whole thing, and I especially mind wrecking Peri’s departure, which is a genuinely shocking end for a companion, and retconning her into happily ever after with Yrcanos is Wrong. (I still find Peri + Yrcanos easier to appreciate as a pairing than Leela + Andred, the least charismatic Who couple of all time.)
    There’s one other big unsatisfactory thing, and that’s how Mel is introduced. We’re told she’s a computer programmer, but as far as one can tell in Terror of the Vervoids, she might as well be a fitness instructor. We get one tiny hint with that immortal line with the megabyte modem (awww, bless), but otherwise, the impression we get is Mel the Aerobics Annoyer. Which is a real waste, and I think it doesn’t help the tone of the end of the serial.
    I agree that one could get more mileage out of the Valeyard, and can only assume that some of that was a casualty of the circumstances in which the story was written.

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