Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord

There are many moral qualms left open at the end of Trial, but the comical, fantastic, and dangerous journey has rarely been so satisfying.

Doctor Who

Distributor: BBC Warner
Cast: Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, Bonnie Langford, Michael Jayston, Anthony Ainley
Network: BBC
US Release Date: 2008-10-07

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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Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

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