Review of Doctor Who – The Trial of a Time Lord: ‘The Mysterious Planet’ (Series 23)
In the run up to the 50th anniversary of ‘Doctor Who’ in November 2013, Neela Debnath with the help of BBC DVD, will be reviewing one story from each of the previous 31 series of the show. Each review will offer readers a snapshot from every series of ‘Doctor Who’ and celebrate the longest-running science fiction television programme in the world.
This was perhaps one of the darkest moments in Doctor Who history. The Trial of a Time Lord not only put the Doctor on trial but Colin Baker and the show itself.
In 1985 Doctor Who took an 18-month hiatus in between series 22 and 23, with rumours that the show was going to get cancelled. The fear of losing such a well-loved British institution caused national outcry. The Sun ran a front page story and there was even a charity single called Doctor in Distress that featured Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant among others. The proceeds went to cancer research.
When the show did return, viewers were presented with a series-long story arc that saw the Doctor (Colin Baker) put on trial by the Time Lords for meddling with time and space. It is something of a clip show except we haven’t yet seen the clips. Each adventure played out over several episodes and served as ‘evidence’ of the Doctor’s interference.
The first adventure in this series was The Mysterious Planet and saw the Doctor and Peri (Nicola Bryant) land on a world they think is Ravalox. They end up getting caught in the middle of a conflict between a megalomaniacal robot called Drathro, a human tribe and a pair of intergalactic conmen Sabalom Glitz (Tony Selby) and Dibber (Glen Murphy).
This is the last complete story to be written by Robert Holmes before his death and this script is quite comical and self-referential. It’s not a story to be taken too seriously. The initial exchange between Glitz and Dibber plays out like EastEnders meets Pride and Prejudice meets Doctor Who.
There is some wonderful comedy in this story but the constant return to the courtroom becomes tedious. The adventure is interesting in itself without the farce of the trial. The overarching plot seems unnecessary and gimmicky – a change for the sake of it rather than serving the series.
The capture and escape element adds to the tedium – the use of this technique to maintain tension feels outdated by the time we get to the Eighties. The pace of television had changed by this point and Doctor Who failed to catch up.
In my mind if Doctor Who wanted to carry on into the Nineties, the format needed to be changed drastically. Each adventure should have taken place over a single episode or two episodes at most. Look at the success of The X-Files or Star Trek: The Next Generation or even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, these television shows had self-contained episodes. Yes, there were overarching stories but they did not interfere with the series so much.
Then there are the production values of Doctor Who. The show has not been invested in and looks outdated and shoddy, and this even before we get to the sartorial decisions. While Peri has been given more sensible clothes, the Doctor has gone the other way. The sixth incarnation continues to sport a coat that would give Joseph and his Technicolor dream coat a run for their money. This patchwork coat is paired with some striped yellow trousers, a checked waistcoat and a blue cravat with white polka dots. It would be difficult to take anyone seriously as the Doctor in that getup.
Peri also looks a more mature than before. Maybe it’s the hair and new clothes but she now looks more like Sarah Jane Smith – something which is not lost on Holmes, who references the similarity in his script. She seems smarter than we are accustomed to, telling the Doctor not to patronise her. But Peri has not completely grown up. She also keeps hurting herself and getting kidnapped. Perhaps Peri was really short for perilous.
Colin Baker’s incarnation has been criticised for being too harsh but that’s only because his companion is weedy in comparison. The companion should serve as a foil to the Doctor, challenging him and bringing out the best in him. Peri lacks any of these qualities.
Baker’s Time Lord is no more bombastic than his predecessors. Unfortunately, Baker has received much flak for his tenure as the Doctor. It’s a shame because he is not a bad Doctor. There were other failings, such as production values and an outdated format that were running the series into the ground. Sadly, the show’s star became the focal point of the ire.
To summarise, The Mysterious Planet should be watched with a pinch of salt and regarded as a science fiction comedy. When the sacred texts of a planet are Moby Dick, The Water Babies and UK Habitats of the Canadian Goose, any viewer knows that this is an adventure to be enjoyed for its absurdity and knowingness.
DVD & image credit: BBCTagged in: Colin Baker, doctor who, Doctor Who 50th anniversary, The Trial of a Time Lord
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