Saturday, 22 August 2015

The Ultimate Foe

Chapter The Tenth, in which Sisyphus jumps out of the way of a catharsis of spurious morality. Eww!

The Doctor is on trial for his lives. Accused of naughty meddling and also genocide, he faces prosecutor The Valeyard after having delivered the evidence for his defence. That evidence seems to have been tampered with, but luckily the Doctor's oldest and deadliest enemy The Master sends him two witnesses in Glitz and Mel. They reveal that, though the genocide thing was 100% accurate, the meddling charge is a bit trumped up. The Timelord High Council were covering up that Andromedean hackers had stolen secrets from big Timelord server, The Matrix. Their violent action dealing with these hackers resulted in some collateral damage, almost wiping out the people of Earth. Almost wiping them out, note: only attempted genocide was committed by the High Council bad guys.

The Valeyard turns out to be an amalgamation of the darker sides of The Doctor's nature, somewhere between his twelfth and final incarnation (so, between new series episodes Journey's End and The Eleventh Hour, fact fans). His plan is to blow up the jury of the Doctor's trial. So, you know, he'll kill twelve old guys. Not commit genocide, which his so-called nicer version has already done. The Doctor enters the dreamscape of the Matrix and tussles with The Valeyard. The Master and Glitz and Mel follow to help and/or hinder. Off-screen, the corrupt High Council is deposed, but whether that's part of anyone's plan or just a coincidence is never made clear. The Doctor defeats The Valeyard and saves the day. They let him off the genocide thing.

A watch of the DVD by the whole family in the early Sunday evening Songs of Praise zone. We all liked Dominic Glynn's version of the theme - the kids sang and danced along to it. The younger children (boy of 5 years old, girl of 3) were suitably chilled by the Matrix scenes, everyone jumping when the hands reached out of the water barrel to grab the Doctor. We all thought the cliffhanger of the Doctor sinking into Camber Sands was great (though I saw properly for the first time the T-shirt of one of the visual FX assistants sticking their arms out of the sand, which spoilt it a bit).

First-time round:
The Trial of a Timelord season was the first Doctor Who broadcast that I taped on home VHS (the family having purchased a VCR for Christmas 1985). As such, it has a special place in my affections because I watched it over and over. At least, I did for the first three of the four sub-stories within it. Episode 13 was set to record while I was visiting relatives who didn't have a recorder. I watched it live and thought it was very exciting, but either I mis-set the timer, or the schedule was changed, and I didn't get the episode on tape. I later dragged our VCR round to my friend Boyd's house as he had been more successful in recording it. We then tried to do the tape-to-tape copying that was the mainstay of distributing pirated Doctor Whos at the time and for many years thereafter. But we didn't have a vital cable, and I got the episode without any sound.

All this is to say that I had a pristine copy of the longest epic Doctor Who story ever made, but with the key revelatory episode mute. And it stayed that way for seven years until they released the story in a nice tin to buy. For a particular kind of Doctor Who fan (this kind) that's a living hell.


The long wait to see and hear this two-parter again probably enhanced its standing with me. Like one of those long-lost episodes returned to the archives, it gets points added just because it was finally available to experience in full. Due to the season's structure, though, these two episodes were always going to have more momentum: after three months of watching people watching stories on a big telly, this is the point where the plot actually moves into the here and now, and actually moves. In a nice bit of writing, this formal change happens simultaneously with a key story reversal (the Valeyard is the Doctor) and a major geographical shift - they finally leave the trial room.

It's this trial room set that hurts the stories, more than any script issues (not that there aren't those too). I can see the logic of creating something grand - particularly if you can spread the cost over 14 episodes - but what we end up with is an empty, echoing space where there are challenges capturing sound and interesting camera angles. It leaves the only real performance option to boom everything out to the back row, upping the stagey feel that the last few years of the programme have been trying to get away from in favour of a more cinematic feel (budget allowing, obviously). Recording location work on video doesn't help on that score either, but the night shoot takes the edge off, and the locations themselves are interesting.

It's not evident on screen that there are massive backstage shenanigans going on with the production of Who at this point; and this is in no small part because of the true heroes of 1986 Doctor Who, Pip and Jane Baker. They delivered a satisfying and dramatic final episode from a blank page over a long weekend, seamlessly linking to what went before, but without being able to ever know the planned plot for legal reasons. Script Editor Eric Saward - in the Trials and Tribulations documentary on the Foe DVD - is very sniffy about their contributions on his watch, while admitting that other writers he'd brought in, who he thought were more interesting, crashed and burned. Saward's successor is also very derogatory whenever he talks about the Bakers. But why? Their dialogue could be appalling, but rewrite it or let it go, because they're reliable, and could write solid Doctor Who to order. As every previous script editor of Doctor Who knew - you need pros like that, or you risk ending up with the test card on BBC1 for 25 minutes of a Saturday.

Both stories start from a cliffhanger in the previous episode. Themes of justice and punishment feature heavily, and both are far too tied up in the show's ongoing mythology for their own good.
Deeper Thoughts:
Six's Hex: At the time of writing, the current Doctor Who Magazine has it's entire three-page letter section given over to discussion about Colin Baker; this is a reaction to last month's interview with that actor. In this, he revealed that he had declined to give the magazine an interview previously since their decision in 2009 to do a poll of all the stories broadcast to date and print the full results. Colin's problem was that in carrying the poll beyond the top 10 or 50 all the way to the bottom means some poor story has to be the loser. Which is tough on the people who have sweated to make that story. Which is The Twin Dilemma, Colin's debut. They did the same kind of poll last year, and - though Colin seems to have missed it - in 1998, too. The Twin Dilemma came bottom every time.

It would be easy to take this as the main reason why Colin is upset. But I can see his point, and see that he's making that point in general, rather than specifically about himself. It is a kick in the nuts to come last in anything, and making TV drama is not sport or politics, so there shouldn't actually have to be a loser at all. It's done now, though, three times over, and the people have spoken consistently. Colin shouldn't worry for himself, though, as he is the one Doctor who is immune from judgement regarding the quality of the show during his tenure. Completely immune. This is because his era was cursed never to be stable enough to take a reliable benchmark. There literally was no control.

Just look at the list of risky, questionable or downright wrong decisions made in the short period of time he had the title role: the decision to show his debut story tacked on to the end of the previous guy's final season, after a big swansong; the inappropriate costume; the decision to make the character unpredictable and even unlikeable, meaning to gradually soften him as time went by; the change of the programme's format to double the length of episodes only to change it back again; the script editor's pushing the programme into more explicitly violent and amoral territory, and his regular sidelining of the supposed hero of the show; incorporating an old Doctor so soon into Baker's tenure; the decision from the high-ups to take the show off air for an extended period after Baker had only done one season; the extensive publicity - correctly or incorrectly - telling the country that the threat of cancellation hung over the show at that point; the reduction in the length of the subsequent seasons; the lack of direction or additional budget from the high-ups when the show finally came back; the decision to make the comeback season one long story, and one that mirrored the real life situation of the show being on trial; the death of one and resignation of the other of the two main architects of that story before it was finished; the background of an increasingly hostile reaction to the producer from a vocal minority of the show's fans.

That's not even an exhaustive list. Yes, they've been thoroughly picked over for years, but it's worth listing them just to see the sheer number. Was there a week when the Colin Baker era could be said to have bedded in? Sometime around the point when they announced they were taking it off the air for 18 months, perhaps? It's amazing that the show managed to get made at all, let alone as the entertaining and fun adventure it more or less always was. None of what was happening was within Colin's influence; a lot of it was not controllable by anyone. It stemmed for the most part seemingly from the deteriorating working relationship between the producer and the script editor. It's just a shame that when that had resolved itself, in the most explosive way possible, Colin didn't get to enjoy any subsequent calm or stability, as he was promptly sacked. Cruel coincidence dictated that his was the name above the title for the exact duration of the shitstorm, and at the time and since he's taken the blame in a lot of people's eyes. He'd be forgiven for bitterness, but he has clearly managed to come through with but a little regret and a lot of compassion for all of life's last-placers. For that alone, he deserves our accolades.

In Summary:
It's a great little story with lots of nice moments, if you're into Gallifreyan mythology, Timelord conspiracies and the like, which - as a 14-year old, and now - I am. But, though it pains me to say it, and it's no single person's fault, certainly not Colin Baker's, it's also the end of an error.

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