Saturday, February 8, 2020

The Trial of a Time Lord: The Mysterious Planet by: Robert Holmes directed by: Nicholas Mallett

The Mysterious Planet stars Colin Baker as the Doctor, Nicola Bryant as Peri, Michael Jayston as the Valeyard, and Linda Bellingham as the Inquisitor with Tony Selby as Sabalom Glitz and Joan Sims as Queen Katryca.  It was written by: Robert Holmes and directed by: Nicholas Mallett, with Eric Saward as Script Editor and John Nathan-Turner as Producer.  It was originally broadcast on Saturdays from 6 to 27 September 1986 on BBC1.

The end of Season 22 brought several changes to the regime of Doctor Who.  Colin Baker’s first season in the role had enjoyed an average of 7.2 million weekly viewers, which was on par with the previous two seasons, but several complaints to the BBC about the violence and sexual content of the season, as well as Michael Grade’s disdain for the program which led to an eighteen month hiatus.  This hiatus would be the first visible death knell for the program, which would only enjoy four more seasons before the eventual 1989 cancellation.  This hiatus came at an inopportune time for producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward who had already planned Season 23, now being forced to abandon plans for a new four-story season totaling 14 twenty-five minute episodes.  As the show was on trial with the higher ups at the BBC, and as the originally planned Season 23 would go against the direction higher ups wished the show to pursue, Nathan-Turner and Saward devised The Trial of a Time Lord, a fourteen episode season where the Doctor would once again be put on trial, with three four-part stories making up the trial, and a final two-part finale closed the season under an umbrella title.  The Mysterious Planet is name given to the serial’s first story and was handed to veteran writer Robert Holmes.

Robert Holmes is my absolute favorite writer for Doctor Who, and the opinion at the time agreed with me, penning such classics as The Caves of Androzani, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Spearhead from Space, and The Deadly Assassin among others.  He was already on contract to contribute a three-part, 45 minute episode story featuring the Master, the Rani, and the Autons for Season 23 tentatively titled Yellow Fever and How to Cure It for Season 23, but when asked for a different script, Holmes returned to previous work for inspiration.  The Mysterious Planet is a story whose script is made up of several aspects of other stories Holmes wrote or script edited.  The idea of a robotic intelligence selecting those of high intelligence is straight from The Krotons, the idea of an artificial intelligence with a god complex and two factions with opposing levels of technology are from The Face of Evil, Glitz and Dibber are clearly a double act straight out of The Talons of Weng-Chiang or The Ribos Operation, and the idea of a Time Lord secret being hidden is from The Deadly Assassin.  Running a story of greatest hits sadly does not help set this story arc apart from the others and The Mysterious Planet is not one of Holmes’s best.  Luckily, as Holmes’s best are often the best stories in the show’s history, being below average for Holmes has a tendency to be above average for several other writers.

The plot deals with the Doctor being placed on trial with the Valeyard, played by Michael Jayston, serving as prosecutor, as the constant interference is “behavior unbecoming of a Time Lord”.  The story is told through the Valeyard’s testimony, a Matrix extract dealing with the Doctor’s interference on the planet Ravalox, which should be a wasteland, but has two distinct civilizations (one above and one underground) and unravelling a secret.  The eventual reveal is that Ravalox is in fact the planet Earth, millions of years in the future and moved from its regular orbit.  Holmes implies that the Time Lords could have something to do with this state of Earth, setting up an intended story arc throughout the trial that the evidence is being manipulated.  There is still the usual wit to be found with any of Holmes’ script, allowing the story to balance both light-hearted and heavy subject matter as the destruction of Earth is a dark idea, and the climax builds to the robot Drathro ready to allow the universe to be destroyed.  This plot, however, is a pretty standard story that has been done before, though here it is elevated by some interesting characters.  Of particular note, Tony Selby and Glen Murphy as Sabalom Glitz and Dibber respectively are a classic Holmes double act.  Selby in particular has excellent chemistry with both Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant, shining through a plot where in his nature as a rouge, he is attempting to steal secret information hidden on Ravalox about why the Earth was given this fate.

It really is the trilogy of Glitz, the Doctor, and Peri which elevate the Ravalox story in my eyes.  Every other performer either is too over the top to take the script seriously, or are performing in too much of an understated manner to really make the story memorable.  There’s a second double act of characters from the planet who are supposed to be funny, but come across as annoying.  Colin Baker is excellent with Nicola Bryant as both indicate that the Doctor and Peri have been travelling with each other for a while and have sparkling chemistry.  Where the character of the Doctor fails is the scenes in the courtroom.  The opening shot and introduction of the trial as a plot device work well enough and director Nicholas Mallett should be commended on the model work, but the constant cutting back and forth just gets in the way.  The pacing is off because of the interruptions and while Mallett is great at directing the Ravalox plot, the courtrooms scenes are uninspired, especially in the cliffhanger zooms which feel like a decree from on high.  The Valeyard and the Inquisitor are the only two characters with the Doctor in the courtroom scenes and while Michael Jayston and Lynda Bellingham are enjoyable, they are one-note here.  The Valeyard is a stereotypical villain and the Inquisitor is really just there as a mediator.  These scenes feel as if Holmes hadn’t been given the trial scenario until the very last minute.  Overall, The Mysterious Planet feels like a rushed production script wise, with some great performances making it at least worth a watch.  It begins a story arc and John Nathan-Turner’s desperate attempts to save the show, which at least were a success for a few years despite the BBC going against him.  6/10.

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