The Trial of a Time Lord *

Brian Blessed, Joan Sims, Honor Blackman, Bonnie Langford... It's showtime!! What more could you ask for? Well, quite a lot actually...

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Doctor Who story guide
Patrick Mulkern
Patrick Mulkern
The Trial of a Time Lord *

Season 23 – Story 143

“It’s a farce. A farrago of trumped-up charges” – the Doctor

Storyline
The Tardis is drawn into a vast space station where, once again, the Doctor finds himself on trial by the Time Lords for meddling on other worlds. A Madam Inquisitor presides, the Doctor defends himself and it soon becomes clear that the chief prosecutor, the Valeyard, would like the Doctor executed. Evidence is presented in the form of adventures from the Doctor’s timeline recorded by the Time Lord Matrix.

First, he and Peri arrive on Ravolox, a desolate future Earth where they help the remnants of mankind overcome their robotic oppressor, Drathro. Next, the Valeyard presents the Doctor’s most recent adventure. On Sil’s home planet Thoros-Beta, scientist Crozier is perfecting a brain transplant for Kiv, the mutating ruler of the reptilian Mentors. The Time Lords intervene, but not before Kiv’s mind is transferred into Peri’s brain, effectively ending her life.

Distraught, and sure the Matrix had been tampered with, the Doctor mounts his defence. In his own future, with new companion Mel, he solves a murder mystery aboard interplanetary liner Hyperion III and wipes out some marauding plant monsters, Vervoids.

The Valeyard raises the trial charge to genocide, but the Master intervenes via the Matrix and reveals that the Valeyard is in fact a malign future aspect of the Doctor. Their battle moves to the virtual reality of the Matrix, where the Doctor eventually triumphs. All charges are dropped. The Inquisitor informs him that Peri survived and has become a warrior queen. The Doctor sets off for new adventures with Mel.

First transmissions
Part 1 – Saturday 6 September 1986
Part 2 – Saturday 13 September 1986
Part 3 – Saturday 20 September 1986
Part 4 – Saturday 27 September 1986
Part 5 – Saturday 4 October 1986
Part 6 – Saturday 11 October 1986
Part 7 – Saturday 18 October 1986
Part 8 – Saturday 25 October 1986
Part 9 – Saturday 1 November 1986
Part 10 – Saturday 8 November 1986
Part 11 – Saturday 15 November 1986
Part 12 – Saturday 22 November 1986
Part 13 – Saturday 29 November 1986
Part 14 – Saturday 6 December 1986

Production
OB recording
Parts 1-3: April 1986 at Queen Elizabeth Country Park and Butser Ancient Farm, Hampshire
Parts 5 & 6: June 1986 at Telscombe Cliffs, Peacehaven, West Sussex
Parts 13 & 14: June 1986 at Camber Sands, East Sussex and Gladstone Pottery Museum, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire
Studio recording
Parts 1-4: April 1986 in TC6 and May 1986 in TC3
Parts 5-8: May 1986 in TC1 and June 1986 in TC6
Parts 9-12: July/August in TC1 and TC3

Parts 13 & 14: July 1986 in TC1


Regular cast
The Doctor - Colin Baker
Peri Brown - Nicola Bryant (parts 1-8)
Melanie - Bonnie Langford (parts 9-14)
The Valeyard - Michael Jayston
The Inquisitor - Lynda Bellingham

Guest cast
Parts 1-4
Katryca - Joan Sims
Sabalom Glitz - Tony Selby
Dibber - Glen Murphy
Merdeen - Tom Chadbon
Drathro - Roger Brierley
Broken Tooth - David Rodigan
Balazar - Adam Blackwood
Humker - Billy McColl
Tandrell - Sion Tudor Owen
Grell - Timothy Walker

Parts 5-8
King Yrcanos - Brian Blessed
Sil - Nabil Shaban
Lord Kiv - Christopher Ryan
Crozier - Patrick Ryecart
Matrona Kani - Alibe Parsons
Frax - Trevor Laird
Tuza - Gordon Warnecke
The Lukoser - Thomas Branch
Mentor - Richard Henry

Parts 9-12
Professor Sarah Lasky - Honor Blackman
Commodore Tonker Travers - Michael Craig
Rudge - Denys Hawthorne
Janet - Yolande Palfrey
Doland - Malcolm Tierney
Bruchner - David Allister
Grenville/Enzu - Tony Scoggo
Kimber - Arthur Hewlett
Edwardes - Simon Slater
Atza - Sam Howard
Ortezo - Leon Davis
Duty officer - Mike Mungarvan
Mutant/Ruth Baxter - Barbara Ward
Vervoids - Peppi Borza, Bob Appleby
Guards - Hugh Beverton, Martin Weedon

Parts 13-14
The Master - Anthony Ainley
Sabalom Glitz - Tony Selby
Popplewick - Geoffrey Hughes
The Keeper of the Matrix - James Bree

Crew
Writers - Robert Holmes (parts 1-4 & 13), Philip Martin (5-8), Pip and Jane Baker (9-12 & 14)
Incidental music - Dominic Glynn (1-4, 13 & 14), Richard Hartley (5-8), Malcolm Clarke (9-12)
Designers - John Anderson (1-4), Andrew Howe-Davies (5-8), Dinah Walker (9-12), Michael Trevor (13 & 14)
Script editors - Eric Saward (1-8, 13), John Nathan-Turner (uncredited on 9-12, 14)
Producer - John Nathan-Turner
Directors - Nicholas Mallett (1-4), Ron Jones (5-8), Chris Clough (9-14)

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
Autumn 1986. Chastened by the threat of cancellation and 18 months off air, Doctor Who was back on BBC1. Season 23 promised to be bigger and better. In truth, it was smaller. Worse than ever before.

The running time was almost halved with episodes returned to a 25-minute timeslot. By way of paltry compensation, the season was trumpeted as one long story – at 14 parts the longest ever! In reality, The Trial of a Time Lord comprised various stories/productions lumped together under an ill-conceived, unpersuasive arc, retreading old ground. (The second Doctor had been on trial in 1969.)

Just after the cancellation crisis in 1985, producer John Nathan-Turner had told me, “One of the bonuses of this delay is that it gives us brainstorming time to achieve the best possible stories. Normally, scripts are coming in while we’re still making the previous season. It’s nice to have a period when we’re concentrating solely on the future rather than what’s in production.”

So what went wrong? What on earth were JN-T and script editor Eric Saward doing for a year and a half if The Trial of a Time Lord’s feeble constituents were “the best possible stories” they could come up with. The sad fact is they’d both run out of juice, plus their BBC superiors had lost the will to nurture Doctor Who, keeping this pair in their posts yet offering no guidance about past failings.

What had happened to all the talent and kudos Doctor Who had accumulated in its 1960s and 70s heyday? Fact is JN-T had jettisoned and sacrificed it all.

Indeed in 1986 the behind-the-scenes dramas put any of the televised shenanigans to shame, what with Doctor Who’s greatest writer Robert Holmes more or less dying on the job, and Saward falling out with JN-T – irrevocably and publicly. He aired a litany of woes in sci-fi magazine Starburst (published in September, just as Trial was starting on BBC1) and he withdrew his own script for the 14th and final episode.

Stung but not cowed, JN-T ended up acting as script editor, but John wouldn’t know a good story if Derek Jacobi sat at his bedside reading him Great Expectations.

A bit of a trial
On the BBC DVD of The Trial of a Time Lord even the programme’s star Colin Baker questions the wisdom of mirroring the programme’s troubles by putting its central character on trial. The courtroom scenes rapidly become overwrought and intrusive; as Baker says, “To stop the action repeatedly must only jar your involvement.” Besides, the rambling adventures chosen in evidence are barely worth presenting either in the Doctor’s favour or against him. Even by part two the Inquisitor has to ask, “Is this relevant testimony, Valeyard?”

With ever-changing parameters, from inquiry to trial, charges switching from galactic meddling to genocide, the Gallifreyan legal system seems the product of a particularly woolly mind. Why is the Valeyard even bothering with a trial? Surely, there’s an easier way to seize the Doctor’s future lives. And we’re never told why the Time Lords are conducting the trial on a spaceship. What else happens in this massive structure?

And as points of logic: How can the Doctor use evidence from his own future? If he’s fine and dandy then, why should we fret about his predicament now? How can the present Doctor depart at the story’s end with Mel who is from his future?

On this evidence…
Parts one to four set on Ravolox represent a dismal last gasp from ailing writer Robert Holmes. The travails of the Saxon-like Tribe of the Free and whey-faced tunnel-dwellers are totally unengaging. Lifeless characters, clumsy robots, flimsy cliffhangers, zero peril… The Doctor sums up the first mini-adventure himself in part four: “Well, if the rest of [the Valeyard’s] presentation is as riveting as the first little epic, wake me when it’s finished.”

Parts five to eight see a small fillip and are director Ron Jones’s final and most ambitious work on Who. There’s another extraordinary turn from Nabil Shaban as slug-like Sil (even if his character is superfluous). The mutated Lukoser, a wolf-man who’s more like a rat-man, is a freaky make-up job. And Peri’s demise is truly shocking. All this segment lacks is a coherent story. Quite what has happened to the Doctor, why he threatens Peri and how much of the Matrix evidence is falsified is never made clear.

Part nine culminates in the most startling cliffhanger in years as a friendly crewman is electrocuted out of the blue, a creature emerges from a pod and Bonnie Langford shrieks her lungs out. Chris Clough’s direction is inventive, otherwise Pip and Jane Baker’s Agatha Christie-like murder mystery on a space liner fails to take off and the plant monster Vervoids look very silly, borderline obscene.

Part 13 packs most punch with several coups de théâtre: the Master suddenly appears, deposits Mel and space pirate Glitz into the courtroom and unmasks the Valeyard. The script, drafted by Holmes, polished by Saward, contains many of Holmes’s tropes: the rotten core of Gallifrey, the virtual reality of the Matrix, nightmare visions, Victoriana…

With Saward gone, part 14 saw Pip and Jane Baker hastily brought in to wrap up the trial. They don’t do a terrible job, but their finale clunks and grinds and leaves you thinking: is that it? After 14 weeks? However, anyone who can concoct the line “There’s nothing you can do to prevent the catharsis of spurious morality” deserves an award. Not from Bafta or the Writers’ Guild, mind.

What a production
JN-T has done flap all to improve the house style. That was immediately apparent to me when I watched this lengthy serial being recorded at TV Centre in spring/summer 1986. The same shoddy patina. The same arch delivery. Colin Baker still wearing that diabolical costume. John was always talking about “the show” or “my show” and didn’t care if the sets were floodlit, making Doctor Who look more like light entertainment than creepy, moody sci-fi.

The subterranean base from the first story was particularly nasty (see gallery below), however many sets were, oddly, more impressive in reality than they looked on TV. The trial room was terrifically atmospheric – at least during the dinner break when the studio lights were down. I walked up the Marb Station escalator from the first story, around Crozier’s lab (a domed canvas marquee), and the Hyperion III corridors and cabins, which were intricately detailed.

When I saw a preview of Part 1 I recall my jaw dropping twice. First, because the garish title sequence had been retained and coupled with a dreadful, plinky-plonky revamp of the theme tune. And second, because the opening scene was a gasp-inducingly cool, continuous model shot – a zoom into a vast space station around which the camera swirls, before the police box is caught in a blue ray and sucked down into the hull.

I was so impressed I arranged to meet visual fx man Mike Kelt for Doctor Who Magazine. In fact I interviewed all the fx guys who worked on this season (again, see the gallery).

JN-T’s all-stars
You have to hand it to JN-T for being adventurous with guest stars. Usually it pays off; sometimes it doesn’t. Lynda Bellingham brings a mumsy glamour – or faded 70s sexpot cachet – to the trial, playing the Inquisitor like an indulgent auntie chiding two petulant nephews. Michael Jayston is a big name to stoop to Who. He’s pursed, gleams with malice, but basically is landed with enlivening a sketchy villain in a silly hat.

Carry On stalwart Joan Sims should be having fun as Katryca, a kind of geriatric Boudicca. I recall her looking subdued in the studio so I wasn’t amazed to read later in her autobiography High Spirits, “I hated my one and only appearance in Doctor Who. I was well aware the programme had been a cult for decades but it left me cold.” Know how you feel, Joan.

Honor Blackman, so fabulous in anything else, is as stiff as a board as Professor Lasky. Tony Selby struggles with space conman Glitz’s grandiloquent dialogue in parts one to four, but is fun in the finale, while Patrick Ryecart plays Nazi-like surgeon Crozier as if channelling Patrick Cargill on tranquillisers.

And I can stand any amount of bellowing and looning from Brian Blessed. As warrior King Yrcanos he adds laboratory-smashing, bizarre whistling, hissing and the expletive “Vroomnik” to his repertoire. The Thoros-Beta story would be a lot poorer without him.

Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant and Bonnie Langford
Now you need to imagine JN-T’s melodramatic drawl here: “I think Colin and Nicola-a-a as a duo are a duo to be reckoned with as a front for the show-w-w-w.” I had to stifle a snort when he made this assertion in 1985 in light of his duo’s lacklustre partnership throughout season 22.

But of anyone in the “team” returning after 18 months, JN-T’s lead actors were the only people to emerge with any credibility. They were determined to work against any sniping on the page, to convey the rapport they shared in reality, and it’s heartening to see the Doctor and Peri walking arm in arm, enjoying each other’s company.

A poorly served companion, Peri at least gets a memorable send-off. In part eight, she shares a poignant scene with Yrcanos (Blessed), discussing her homesickness “not so much for a place but a time. I just want to be back in my own time with people I love.” Moments later she dies magnificently, with a shaven head, as Crozier overwrites her mind with that of a slug. Oddly, this is Bryant and Peri’s finest moment in three years.

As new companion Mel, Bonnie makes a likeable addition to the series. Yes. I did just type that. Have I lost all my critical faculties? Possibly. But in a way she’s ideally suited to JN-T’s “It’s showtime!!” brand of Doctor Who and doesn’t look out of place alongside Colin Baker’s Coco the Clown Time Lord.

In a panto-large performance that wavers somewhere between atrocious and endearing, Langford is like a principal boy projecting not just to the back of the Palladium but to any punters loitering in the grand circle bar. Bonnie makes me feel like a benign drama teacher who can’t bring himself to give her a bad mark because she’s putting so much effort into it and because she’s the best this school’s got. 

The point is Mel is a toned down Bonnie Langford. In real life Bonnie is a bundle of energy, toothy grins and a ginger fright-wig almost giving off sparks as she cavorts. At least that’s how she was in August 1986 when, in one of my earliest RT assignments, I interviewed her at Danceworks near London’s Bond Street. (Not much was used in the magazine, so here are a few extra snippets.)

“This is me at my mad time,” she told me, still fizzing from a day of workouts, ballet and jazz dance classes, getting herself fit for a UK tour of Peter Pan (in which she was playing Peter). She’d just finished filming The Trial of a Time Lord. “We started off with the last two episodes so I didn’t really know where I was. I was chucked in at the deep end at the climax of the series. But it’s a nice kind of pressure. I love it.

“Melanie’s a real fitness fanatic. They’ve got this running gag that she’s put the Doctor on a diet, and makes him do keep-fit exercise because she thinks he’s too fat.” She explained that, as the story was set in the far future, “I know the Doctor very well, but you don’t ever find out how I got to travel with him. I just appear in the Tardis, skipping.”

Bonnie gets a bad press but I have to say I was won over that day by her vitality, exuberance and vulnerability. The series’s future was still uncertain when we spoke. Would there even be a 24th season? “Not sure,” said Bonnie. “But if there is, I’ll come back.”

Sadly, it wouldn’t be good news for Colin Baker. I believe he had the potential to be one of the most successful Doctors, certainly he had boundless enthusiasm for the role, but the sixth Doctor was mishandled from day one, and Baker himself was shamefully mistreated by the BBC, Michael Grade eventually ordering JN-T to sack him.

It’s to Baker’s credit that he’s remained positive about his troubled times on Doctor Who and loyal to his colleagues and fans.

- - -

Radio Times archive material

There was a feature introducing the season (the following page here) and later in the run an  interview with Bonnie Langford

The Trial of a Time Lord gallery: rare images from the RT archive and Patrick Mulkern's behind-the-scenes photos.

RT billings   Parts 1–4    Parts 5–8    Parts 9–12    Parts 13 & 14

[Available on BBC DVD]

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