Part 2: Recycling the Future
The Mysterious Planet, of course, embodies the “past” idea in more ways than one. The story is an unrepentant “greatest hits” reel for Robert Holmes. Both stories that he wrote and stories that he script edited are plundered and reworked over the course of it. The underlying premise is The Face of Evil, with bits of The Krotons grafted on around Drathro. Glitz and Dibbler are, of course, just Garron and Unstoffe redone. The underlying notion of a Time Lord conspiracy is straight out of The Deadly Assassin. The notion of restoring a post-apocalyptic Earth is a reworking of The Ark in Space. Hints of The Time Warrior surround the Tribe of the Free, while the people in the tunnels feel, as much by set design as writerly intention, rather like The Sun Makers.
Of course, reckless plundering of the past has been the calling card of the series for some time now. But there’s something very different about The Mysterious Planet compared to recent attempts to “do it like it was before” such as Timelash, The Two Doctors, and Attack of the Cybermen. Those were all concerned with plundering the actual signifiers of the past. But The Mysterious Planet takes a very different tack, instead repeating the techniques of the past.
This is part of a general refocusing that goes on in the midst of the hiatus. Ian Levine’s tenure as the unofficial continuity advisor comes to an end in this period. By his account, at least, it’s the hiring of Bonnie Langford as Mel that was the last straw. Given this, then, it’s interesting to note that the spaceship in Langford’s first story, Terror of the Vervoids, is named the Hyperion. The first piece of concrete influence Levine had on the series was back in State of Decay, where he got the name of the ship changed from Hyperion to Hydrax on the grounds that the Hyperion had already been used back in 1972 for The Mutants. So the act of using the name again in the story that supposedly drove Ian Levine away seems almost a deliberate provocation, or, more charitably, a conscious break with Levine’s particular relationship with the past.
Certainly it’s true that from this point on the past will be engaged with very differently. It’s not that continuity is dead – post-Trial a solid six of the twelve remaining stories of Doctor Who are going to feature returns of past concepts or characters. But there’s a marked change in the nature of it. Even in Trial of a Time Lord the Time Lords aren’t brought back in the increasingly stale portrayal that has been crusting over them since The Invasion of Time. From here on out there’s a change to bringing specific concepts back in order to reevaluate and reconceptualize them.
But in the midst of that transition we get this, a story that is in its own way more fetishistic towards the past than anything Levine ever involved himself in. To some extent this is just inevitability. We have here a production team ordered to reinvent the series for the third time for the script editor, the fourth for the producer, and the sixth for the actual writer. These are not the right people to be heading an attempt to salvage the series, and that one of the three will be involved in getting it right in a year is a small miracle. There was little this group could be expected to do but to turn to the past in a desperate attempt to redo what had worked before.
Where this is saddest is, of course, Robert Holmes, for whom this set of issues must have been depressingly familiar. When he quit the series under Graham Williams it was during a period when the show was being bounced back and forth between Mary Whitehouse-inspired directives to tone down the violence and objections that it was too silly, with his breaking point being the assignment to write the terribly serious Power of Kroll. Now he finds himself in the exact same issue, given conflicting instructions to make it more and less funny from Jonathan Powell.
It’s not that Holmes’s effort to salvage the series is anything less than sincere at this stage. Rather, it’s that we’ve finally reached the limits of what he can do. With nowhere to go, Holmes turns to the past and simply dredges up everything he’d ever done before. It’s a road that had to be attempted, really. Especially post-Levine, someone had to just knuckle down and attempt a straight-up “go back to how it was done before” (as distinct from nostalgia). But what the program ends up finding is that the past isn’t the future. Holmes’s old tricks are just that – old tricks.
There’s a way of looking at the program in terms of the shredding of its past – at what point do the creative personnel from past eras disappear. Tom Baker is the last Doctor to have stories written by people who worked on the Hartnell era. Colin Baker, on the other hand, is the last Doctor to have stories written by people who worked on the Troughton, Pertwee, Tom Baker, or Davison eras. And Sylvester McCoy does away with stories written by Colin Baker holdovers after his first script. Robert Holmes was the last real holdout of the long history of the series. And before the future proper could be moved into there had to be this – a last, desperate firing on all thrusters of the tried and true techniques. They failed, as I think even Holmes knew they would. And so the program moved on.
Part 3: Who’s In Charge Here?
This disintegration of the Trial’s coherence as a narrative is not limited merely to Mindwarp’s ambiguous reality either. This is also where it really becomes difficult to make heads or tails of what the actual legal proceeding here is. We’ll save large scale observations and conjectures about the nature of the trial for two entries’ time, but let’s try for the moment to figure out what role the Inquisitor and the Jury have in this process.
It goes without saying that the Valeyard is corrupt and acting for his own purposes. It also appears to be the case that the Inquisitor has no knowledge of this prior to The Ultimate Foe. On the other hand, the end of Mindwarp suggests strongly that the entire courtroom knew about the Thoros Beta incident. After all, the Valeyard implies a thoroughly reasoned intervention on the part of the Time Lords regarding Crozier and his experiments. The Inquisitor goes along with this, whereas she at other times does overrule the Valeyard. And on top of that we know that the psychic energy of the Jury was used to summon the Doctor. We’ll trace the big implication of that next entry, but surely if they’re pulling the Doctor from a specific point in space and time they have to know something about what’s going on at that moment in time.
Except that we’re eventually told that what they see on the screen is complete bull. And yet they buy it. It’s tempting to suggest that all of them are in on the Valeyard’s conspiracy, but The Inquisitor’s later actions seem to completely disprove this. This is a real pity, because it would provide this sequence with a much needed dose of making a damn bit of sense. As previously noted, the Time Lords seem to go out of their way to screw things up here, including preventing the Doctor from stopping Crozier while simultaneously blaming him for it. Similarly, the accusation that the Doctor abandoned Peri when they apparently kidnapped him away from saving her is simply bewildering.
And though we previously took the potential danger of Crozier seriously, it does have to be noted that all Crozier is doing is something that would put him in the same league as the Wirrin, Sutekh, Solon, and a host of other Doctor Who villains. I mean, seriously, mind transference is now a threat that requires drastic intervention? This is utterly unconvincing. Given all of this, it would be so much easier to simply believe that the Inquisitor and the Jury are in on the conspiracy and know that this is a misrepresentation of the Doctor’s actions simply because it would save us the trouble of figuring out how on Earth they’re supposed to believe any of this or take it seriously.
The easiest explanation is that they’re partial stooges who were picked because they could be trusted to arrive at the correct conclusion regardless of the evidence. That is, they know that the story they’re being given makes no sense, but they have enough loyalty to the High Council to do their job and arrive at the result expected of them. This is a particularly bleak portrait of post-Revolutionary Gallifrey, but it does seem the simplest explanation by some margin.
But this, in turn, opens a different can of worms. After all, the flagrantly false account of how they summoned the Doctor is not what jolts them or the Inquisitor into acquitting the Doctor. Something in The Ultimate Foe is – and it’s never entirely made clear what – eventually flips them out of their designated roles as party stooges.
|It’s the ultimate Doctor Who monster, really: it’s a giant
penis and a giant vagina at the same time.
Part 1: Mel: Huh?
It’s November 1st, 1986. Nick Berry remains at number one with “Every Loser Wins.” A week later Berlin’s love theme for Top Gun, “Take My Breath Away,” unseats him. Cliff Richard and Sarah Brightman, the Pretenders, Duran Duran, Europe, Bon Jovi, and Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush also chart.
In real news, the US begins having a whole lot of fun with the Iran-Contra affair. The deadliest civilian helicopter crash in history happens just east of Sumburgh Airport in Scotland. Efforts begin to find two further bodies from the Moors Murders, which you may remember from twenty years ago on this blog. Sir Alex Ferguson, then only Alex Ferguson, takes over at Manchester United, which is rather a thing.
While on television the Trial goes irretrievably off the rails. The final six episodes are 83% Pip and Jane Baker, and ow. There’s a lot of ways in here, but let’s start with the big one, which is the spectacular mislaunch of Bonnie Langford as Mel.
As legendarily hatable as Mel is, and she is one of the most roundly mocked characters in all of Doctor Who, she’s not nearly as misbegotten as all of that. We’ll talk in a moment about the strange decision making behind Doctor Who’s Trial relaunch, but the logic behind it is not entirely unsound. Bonnie Langford was a big name. As a former child star viewed as being a bit overly precious she was not, strictly speaking, a well loved name, but it was attention getting casting.
On top of that, she actually turned out to be quite good. She was never given very much to work with, saddled continually with scripts that condescended to her character. The oft-told story that she was instructed to scream at a particular pitch so as to lead into the theme music better for the cliffhanger at the end of her first episode is instructive. On the one hand, there’s a real and charming level of professionalism in that, and the effect is about the only good part of that cliffhanger. On the other hand, it seems to have been all the production team thought Langford capable of.
But as poor as much of the writing for Mel is (and it does improve considerably when it’s not the Bakers writing for her), the larger problem is that she’s a companion with a strangely swallowed origin. John Nathan-Turner quasi-famously wrote an origin story for her in his book on the Companions that had her teaming up with the Doctor to stop the Master from an audacious computer hacking attack on the world’s banks, which, let’s be honest, probably would have been terrible. But it’s still preferable to what we got.
There are people who act as though the Mel chronology is easily resolved. It’s true that there is a fairly entrenched bit of fanon that explains it all based around Mel being pulled from a moment where the Doctor has left her on vacation, but the idea that this fits well with what’s on screen is tenuous at best. The core problem comes from another thing well deal with in a moment, which is that Terror of the Vervoids is ostensibly a future story of the Doctor, so Mel is introduced as already traveling with the Doctor. Then, in The Ultimate Foe, she’s brought to the trial.
But look at her dialogue in The Ultimate Foe. She asks the Doctor what he’s been up to. The implication is that she hasn’t seen him in a while – i.e. that she’s brought from a time after she’s already left the Doctor. Two major problems with this exist, of course – she doesn’t recognize Glitz and she doesn’t think anything of the fact that the Doctor isn’t Sylvester McCoy. Then, when she and the Doctor depart at the end of The Ultimate Foe the clear implication is that they’re resuming their travels together – note that Mel is putting the Doctor back on his exercise routine, and the Doctor acts weary about the constant barrage of carrot juice. Everything about that final scene is keyed to look like the Doctor and Mel resuming a standard course of adventuring – not like the Doctor is going to return Mel to where she got plucked out of time so she can meet up with a later version of him.
Put another way, it’s clear that the show doesn’t care a jot about cleaning up Mel’s origins. They’re left to be utterly incoherent, and this seems, if not deliberate, at least acknowledged. But more to the point, any interpretation of how Mel meets up with the Doctor – especially if we take The Companions as part of her story (and much of fandom does, for some reason. Though to be fair, I have an enormous emotional attachment to the book – the fact that someone randomly gave it to me as a gift is what prompted me to start watching the show, since I had no reference point whatsoever for what the heck the book was) – is going to jar with something. We can reconcile the basic facts, but there’s no way to reconcile the larger story.
Part 2: Fucking Valeyards, How Do They Work?
Yes, at long last, it’s time to deal with the Valeyard. Considerable effort has been made to explain the Valeyard in various media, and we’ll deal with a major chunk of them in the next run of entries, but those in many ways have an ambiguous relationship with the actual story. Speaking strictly in terms of what we see on screen, then, what sense can we make of this character?
First and foremost, it is telling that Robert Holmes clearly writes the Valeyard’s obsession with law and order in the Trial itself as an actual trait of the character and not as an act. As previously noted, the fact that Popplewick goes on at such length about the importance of rules and bureaucracy makes it clear that the Valeyard is a creature of rules. And this is so utterly consistent with Robert Holmes’s larger ethos as to be, if not impossible to ignore, at least flagrantly unwise to ignore.
The larger arc of Robert Holmes’s career also implies an answer to the obvious question of how, exactly, the Valeyard is supposed to work in terms of the Doctor’s life and how regeneration works. That answer, of course, is “shut up, fanboy.” And really, fair enough. There’s not a lot about regeneration that’s clear enough to make any explanation of the logistics clear. Except… the claim is that the Valeyard exists somewhere between the Doctor’s twelfth and final incarnation.
Let’s pause and consider for a moment. The Valeyard exists right at the point where Robert Holmes idly cancelled the series back in 1976. In a story that openly begs to be read as a discussion of the series’ potential cancellation. From a writer who last season was loudly and openly denouncing the direction of the show in his script, with particular venom saved for continuity obsessives. And the evil side of the Doctor is shown to be defined primarily by an obsession with rules and law.
This all fits together too perfectly to ignore. The Valeyard is the desire to follow the rules of the series to the point of the series’ own destruction. Coming from a point where the series is, in fact, necessarily doomed he proposes to rewrite the remainder of the series so as to lead to that point. This makes far more sense than the alternative – that the Valeyard is seeking to extend his life – since presumably transferring regenerations from one’s past into one’s future would be difficult. It’s far more likely, I should think, that the Valeyard is seeking to secure the inevitability of his existence – to force the Doctor to become the creature of laws that he is. And his defeat constitutes a rejection of that logic.
But it’s also worth paralleling this story with The Deadly Assassin, especially given how much The Ultimate Foe overtly mirrors that story. The Valeyard serves as the reunification of the renegade with the rules. He is the Doctor, but he is the Doctor in a way that has completely reintegrated himself with the structures of authority. His primary concern is the rules. This even manages to carry through to the Bakers’ script through the absurd line about the catharsis of spurious morality. The choice of the word spurious is interesting, implying as it does an unnecessary or disingenuous morality that ought not be taken seriously. This is a contrast from the “your evil is my good” routine of, say, Sutekh or the Black Guardian. To the Valeyard, good and evil are wholly extraneous. There is only authority.
What the Valeyard threatens, in other words, is authority freed from concern for any morality. The law as something that exists entirely for its own sake, as an end in itself. Within Doctor Who terms this is, indeed, the ultimate foe – something sufficiently terrifying that even the Master would turn away from it. The only question, then, is how we could possibly say that this constitutes the evil portion of the Doctor.