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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord

(BBC; US DVD: 7 Oct 2008)

Fans of classic Doctor Who may gripe about certain things: which actor made for the best Doctor, what his greatest adventures were, who the best villain was, and which special effects sequence was the most laughably bad.  Yet one thing is virtually unanimous amidst the Who community: when it comes to who gave the worst portrayal of the Doctor, Colin Baker pretty much takes the cake.


Oh sure, his acting was a bit more forced and stilted than Doctors past, but really, most of the fault for the Colin Baker years falls squarely on the production staff, which worked with increasingly ridiculous scripts, surprisingly cheap production values, and yes, those famously bad special effects sequences.  During this time, the show stopped focusing on the moral conundrums that the world’s favorite non-violent space traveler would ever have to deal with, instead opting for fantastical plots in far-off locations, each subsequent story stretching the believability of the show just a little farther each time.


The Trial of a Time Lord, however, is one shining, glorious exception.


This epic, 14-episode, five hour season (packaged here as one complete DVD box set)—though somewhat unfocused at times—tackles one of the key issues that exists in the Who universe: how, when, and if the Doctor ever accepts responsibility for his actions, which, is often argued, tend to result in unusually high body counts.  The obvious moral counter-argument is always the same, however: though some may die in the course of the Doctor’s travels, the sacrifices that these individuals make are often for the greater good, this sole selfless act inevitably saves thousands (if not millions) more lives. 


Yet the Valeyard (Michael Jayston) doesn’t see it that way.  During The Mysterious Planet (the first “act” out of four), the Doctor’s TARDIS is pulled into his home planet of Gallifrey, in which the Doctor is forced to stand trial to the High Council; the Time Lord elders wanting to see if, in fact, the Doctor has transgressed the First Law of Time, which states that no Time Lord can ever interfere with outside species and the events of their fixed time frames (why he’s accused of it now, during his Sixth incarnation, is somewhat inexplicable).  Using the Matrix (the Gallifreyan computer that records and replays the actions of all traveling Time Lords), the Valeyard (serving as the mysterious prosecuting attorney) presents two particularly damning exploits of the Doctor, all in hopes that the High Council will find him guilty and, as a result, effectively end his life.


The first clip that the Valeyard shows is that of the Doctor traveling with Peri (Nicola Bryant, in her last season) to the planet Ravalox, a wooded, primal place that exists somewhere millions of years in the future.  It is here that the Doctor meets two distinct warring factions: there’s a tribe of native humans who worship a strange obelisk (which, in a parallel plot, is being lusted after by two renegade assassins), and there’s the futuristic society build underneath the obelisk who obey the command of the Immortal, a creature who is never seen, but—as it turns out—is in fact a gigantic robot.  The obelisk in question is actually a device that converts Black Light (an ethereal substance) into energy for the Immortal. 


The Immortal, as it turns out, is also the keeper of some of the greatest secrets of the universe, which, of course, interests the renegade assassins Sabalom and Dibber, who can see themselves making quite a pretty penny off of the sale of those secrets.  Unfortunately, the Immortal’s Black Light converter is highly unstable, and if it continues operating in its fractured way, it will eventually set off an explosion, destroying the planet and everyone on it.  And, as usual, it’s the Doctor who comes in to save the day. 


In many ways, The Mysterious Planet is a “typical” Who narrative, as it shows the Doctor meddling with events and eventually getting wrapped up in the middle of them, forced to save the planet from complete destruction and so on and so forth.  The unfortunate aspect here is that from a moral and philosophical standpoint, there is very little being brought to the table.  When the Immortal (looking like an evil garden trowel) begins debating with the Doctor over the purpose of human existence, the Immortal argues that he’s completely self-sustaining, and that now that he is working properly, human life means nothing to him.  The Doctor retorts that the Immortal wouldn’t even exist were it not for humans building him in the first place, but the Immortal, being as ego-centric as he is, falls back on the argument that since he’s already built, why does it even matter who built him? 


Though this debate can be dissected and used in an effective “chicken or the egg” debate, this sudden philosophical banter comes, quite literally, out of nowhere, resulting in a scene that feels ham-fisted and overwrought with a “message”.  This is then followed by a series of explosions and electrocutions, somewhat diminishing the impact of what otherwise could have been a semi-effective meditation on existence.


During the course of this (and the storylines that follow), the Doctor and the Valeyard interrupt the proceedings to argue about the relevance of these clips in regards the accusations being levied against the Doctor, the Valeyard in this case insisting that the Doctor’s presence resulted in the deaths of several tribesmen, the Doctor claming that with the Black Light converter already on its last legs, the resulting explosion would have killed countless more.  It is here, again, that the moral high ground that the Doctor so often takes is pulled into question, the Philip K. Dick-ian argument being that his current behavior will result in the deaths of dozens more, the counter-argument being that without his actions, the universe as we know it would cease to exist.


Things pick up a bit with Mindwarp, the second piece of the Valeyard’s evidence, in which the Doctor’s old worm-like nemesis Sil (Nabil Shaban) is working with a team of scientists to ensure that his master Kiv (Christopher Ryan) gets his brain transferred into the body of another, as Kiv’s current brain is expanding against his skull at an alarming rate—something that will result in an instant fatality if not handled properly.  After failing to convert a brain on the now-renegade King Yrcanos (Brian Blessed, scenery sticking out between his teeth as per usual), the Doctor gets his brain forcibly altered against his will so that he now has no choice but to help Sil and Kiv work out the kinks of the mind-transference machine, all while Yrcanos teams up with Peri to lead a servant rebellion against Sil & Kiv, resulting in a surprising climax that (slight spoiler, dear reader) leads to the demise of Peri.


Because of his temporary brain-alteration, the Doctor (in the present) has forgotten the events that are being played before him on the Matrix, and watching Peri’s death comes as a shocking surprise.  The Valeyard brings up a valid point: even those that are close to the Doctor end up in peril despite the Doctor’s assurances of safety, all as if the Doctor’s inclination towards good will inevitably hurl others into danger and sometimes even death.  Looking at the Doctor Who episodes that both precede and follow these events, there is much truth to the Valeyard’s accusations.  Unfortunately, Trial doesn’t fully answer these moral queries.


In fact, when the Doctor presents his own evidence from the Matrix, he chooses an event from the future, here known as The Terror of the Vervoids, in which—for absolutely no reason whatsoever—we are introduced to his new companion: the perky young Mel (Bonnie Langford).  She has no backstory to speak of, but her cute figure and can-do spirit show that she doesn’t deviate from the “companion formula” too much.  She’s lucky, however, to be introduced during Vervoids, which easily proves to the best of the three “Trial tales” here, as it turns out to be a sci-fi murder mystery (an early shot of a passenger reading Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express makes for clever foreshadowing).


Aboard a seemingly-innocent passenger flight through space, a small group of scientists are working on some devious experiments involving plant life on the lower levels of the ship.  Once passengers begin dying in unexpected ways (and certain dead aliens turn out to actually be certain dead humans), the Doctor and Mel begin investigating these strange occurrences, resulting in the discovery of the scientist’s new creations: the anthropomorphic Vervoid race.  As the Vervoids begin violently wrangling control away from their creators, drastic measures must be taken, and it isn’t long before the Doctor is forced to dispose of an entire army of Vervoids in a somewhat unsavory way.  Upon seeing this, the Valeyard calls on the High Council to add a new item to the Doctor’s charges: genocide.


This all leads up to The Ultimate Foe, one of the best (and sadly overlooked) season-ending climaxes in Who history.  It is here that much is revealed, including why the trial is being held in the first place, who is behind this inquisition, and—in one of its juiciest caveats—who the Valeyard really is.  Old friends are brought back, the Doctor enters the reality-bending world of the Matrix, and the Doctor confronts, in essence, the darker aspects of his own self, in the end even discovering what really happened to Peri at the end of Mindwarp.


Though the DVD special features are generous as usual (multiple commentaries, the remarkably-bad music video for the “Doctor in Distress” charity single), the overall meaning of Trial is not to be missed: the Doctor does face his share of regrets and laments, but he soldiers on, mending the injustices of the universe even if it results in some collateral damage being taken into account.  Friends make sacrifices for the greater good, and their selfless gestures rarely go un-thanked. 


There are still many questions left unanswered about the moral qualms that make up the universe of Doctor Who at the end of Trial, but at least one thing remains abundantly clear: the comical, fantastic, and dangerous journey to get there has rarely been so satisfying.

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Evan Sawdey started contributing to PopMatters in late 2005, and has also had his work featured in publications such as SLUG Magazine, The Metro (U.K.), Soundvenue Magazine (Denmark), the Daily Dot, and multiple national newspapers. Evan has been a guest on WNYC's Soundcheck (an NPR affiliate), was the Executive Producer for the Good With Words: A Tribute to Benjamin Durdle album (available for free at GoodWithWordsAlbum.com), and wrote the liner notes for the 2011 re-release of Andre Cymone's hit 1985 album A.C. (Big Break Records), the 2012 re-release of 'Til Tuesday's 1985 debut Voices Carry, and many others. He is a current member of The Recording Academy and resides in Chicago, Illinois. You can follow him @SawdEye should you be so inclined.


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