It has been over 30 years since Colin Baker’s final series, The Trial of a Time Lord. The unusual format of this season means that, technically, it is one long 14-part story, framed as a trial conducted by the Time Lords to determine if the Doctor has broken the first law of time. Leading the prosecution is the mysterious Valeyard, who is essentially the Doctor’s nemesis throughout this season, and each individually named story is a piece of evidence brought forward by either the prosecution or the defence. At the time this series was allegedly poorly received – according to many of the contemporary reviews, audiences at the time regarded this season as a weak attempt at saving the show from its eventual cancellation. Today, reviewers may have been somewhat kinder to this season, but still regard it with a hint of distaste. However, 30 years later, how does this 14- part serial hold up? And did it save the show from an imminent cancellation in 1986?
Part 1 – The Mysterious Planet
As far as the opening to a 14-part series goes, The Mysterious Planet is not half bad. Despite many reviewers at the time calling this story ‘boring’, it seems in hindsight that they were wrong, as this story seems to embody everything that is inherently good about a Doctor Who story. For a start, it was written by the late Robert Holmes, one of the legends of the Classic Who era, and his mastery of making every supporting character interesting really shines here. Sabalom Glitz is a great example of this, and he has some great lines that are delivered brilliantly. The mystery that permeates throughout this story is an interesting one, and the Doctor is significantly less of a jerk which definitely helps, it seems that the writers and producers were really trying to pull out all the stops. An example of this is the impressive opening shot, a wide zoom towards the humongous Time Lord space station that is a fantastic use of model shots.
Part 2 – Mindwarp
This story is dark. Really, really dark. The story is a complex web of intrigue and deception, as the Doctor pretends to work for scientists attempting to use brain transplants to discover the secret of immortality, funded by Sil to save the Mentor leader Kiv from a painful death. But what really makes this story dark is that scene – particularly the Sixth Doctor’s reaction to it, and for those who have not seen this episode, it is well worth a watch just for one of the most memorable cliffhangers in Doctor Who history. As far as the actual episode goes, the characters are well-defined with clear motives, and there are some great performances here – particularly Brian Blessed as the over-the-top but oddly likeable King Yrcanos. The only real criticism of this story is the fact that most of it takes place in very similar-looking dirt tunnels, or the same few laboratory sets, meaning that there isn’t much visual variety aside from the occasional flashy costume. Still, the episode’s story feeds in well with the trial, scenes of which are still strong, and there is some genuine emotional weight to this story, making it perhaps one of the strongest of the season.
Part 3 – Terror of the Vervoids
Our first proper introduction to Mel as a companion is certainly a strange one – after all, this was before Big Finish came along to refine her character, meaning she does have a few high-pitched and prolonged screams in this episode, usually at the cliffhangers. Oddly enough, at the start of each episode when the repeat of last week’s cliffhanger plays, often her scream is edited out, meaning that if this serial were to be condensed into one long unbroken movie, most of her screams would be omitted. Even so, Terror of the Vervoids does have a few moments that are genuinely creepy – the scenes in the pod growth room are particularly creepy – but overall this story lacks realism, as the audience are somewhat disassociated from this adventure by the fact that it takes place in the Doctor’s future with a companion that has never been before seen. Also, the version of the Doctor who is on trial admits that the footage has been doctored, meaning that anything could essentially happen and it have no real consequence. Speaking of the trial, the framing device becomes increasingly tiresome the episode goes on but there are some good moments. Generally, however, Terror of the Vervoids is a significant step down from the episodes that preceded it, and the worst is yet to come…
Part 4 – The Ultimate Foe
Originally a two-part story written by Robert Holmes to tie together The Trial of a Time Lord, The Ultimate Foe was unfortunately left unfinished by the writer’s death in May 1986. Although Eric Saward was able to finish the script for episode 13 of the season, an argument with then-showrunner John-Nathan Turner over the ending caused Saward to quit, and Turner instead hired writers Pip and Jane Baker to write the final episode. In all honesty, this was a terrible mistake, as although part one of The Ultimate Foe establishes a creepy and sinister side to the Matrix and features the return of Sabalom Glitz, in the end that is all that is good about the story. The undoing of one of the greatest moments in the season coupled with the idea that the Valeyard is a future Doctor make this episode seem like glorified fan-fiction, and although Anthony Ainley’s Master features to stir up trouble, overall the episode seems a lacklustre conclusion to the season. The Valeyard himself is boring and predictable, the method by which he is defeated makes little sense, Mel and the Time Lords in the trial room do very little, and the infamous ending scene serves as a less-than-fitting sendoff to the Sixth Doctor.
Overall, whilst The Trial of a Time Lord has a strong opening, the quality wanes as the season progresses starting with Terror of the Vervoids, and the finale is disappointing and almost sad in retrospect. What makes this season particularly frustrating is that Big Finish were able to successfully redeem the Sixth Doctor in their audios, yet neither John-Nathan Turner or Eric Saward seemed capable of making Colin Baker appealing to audiences at the time, and the series was forced to undertake some radical changes following this season’s transmission. Still, both The Mysterious Planet and Mindwarp are worth a watch, and whilst Mel’s introduction as a companion is less than remarkable, she does go on to become more bearable during the Seventh Doctor’s tenure. The season is therefore worth a watch, it doesn’t hold up as well as one might like but it is still a significant turning point in the show’s history, and does help to contextualise a lot of the great Big Finish audios featuring the Sixth Doctor, Peri and Mel that were to come.