Part 4: How to Stage an Intervention
But if this explains the real reason for hastily convening a trial to dispose of the Doctor it does little to make sense of the ostensible reason for the trial. The Doctor is, as usual, accused of meddling and interfering – and it’s explicitly stated that the accusation is the same as the one from The War Games. But we have to ask, at this point, what the hell the Time Lords actually mean by this.
Obviously some level of hypocrisy is in play in the course of the trial given the Time Lord’s own actions, especially in this and the next story. Mindwarp is actually a particularly telling example, in that it clearly establishes that the Time Lords are still very much concerned with the natural order of things. Indeed, they seem more horrified by the fact that Crozier’s experiments derail the course of evolution than they are by the prospect of an explosion that might destroy the entire universe. This is telling. The idea that the universe might be destroyed, fine. That had to happen eventually anyway, one figures. But the idea of evolution being disrupted – and Doctor Who has more than once dabbled in the idea that evolutionary and historical processes are related – that’s a huge issue.
(It is of course worth discussing what the Time Lords do or don’t actually do about Crozier, but that’s another entry.)
But more broadly, obviously the Time Lords are broadly in favor of intervention in a number of circumstances. They intervene and interfere with Crozier’s experiments, which seem to have happened with no help from them. (The Doctor’s contributions to them seem minor at best, so we have to assume that Crozier gets there on his own) And, more obviously, they interfere like mad with Earth. There is hypocrisy and corruption at play here, but it’s more complex than “they say they oppose interference while doing it anyway.”
Indeed, even in their condemnation of the Doctor they seem to object more to the cavalierness of his interference than to the basic existence of it. The Valeyard faults him on Ravalox because people died, even though he saved the universe. (Though obviously, due to the nature of Ravalox, he does stress the idea that the Doctor should never have been there more than quite makes superficial sense, and this is meant to be a clue to something or other.) In other words, it’s not that he interfered, but that he did so in a dangerous and careless manner.
There is, in other words, a cruel tautology at the heart of Time Lord law. Interference is defined as intervention outside of the rules – as intervention that is not careful. In other words, it’s only interference when it’s not done from within the existing structures of authority. The morality of this is of course abhorrent – hence the belief that moving Earth is somehow an acceptable interference. But equally, there’s a consistency to it. It’s part and parcel of the idea of lords of time – the combination of the Time Lords’ conception as the guardians of the arc of history and the cynicism that history is written by the victors. This is exceedingly Robert Holmesy, of course. In the end, it almost doesn’t matter what the Doctor does. His real problem is that he’s not one of the people who’s in authority, and this alone puts him in perpetual danger. (In this regard it’s telling that one of the disjunctions between the Holmes and the Baker halves of The Ultimate Foe is that Holmes plays up the Valeyard’s obsession with rules and bureaucracy in the form of Mr. Popplewick, a thematic thread that the Bakers drop.) The biggest problem, Holmes seems to suggest, is the fact that the Doctor can never escape the existence of authority and rules. Taken in the context of the Trial being a metaphor for the program’s tribulations within the BBC the implication is clear and chilling.
|Good Lord, what is this, a Wonder Woman comic?|
Part 1: Bad Doctor, No Cookie!
It’s October 4th, 1986. The Communards are still alarmed about being left this way, but are unseated one week later by Madonna with “True Blue.” The next week is Nick Berry with “Every Loser Wins,” and he actually manages to stay there for two weeks. Paul Simon, A-Ha, The Pet Shop Boys, The Bangles, and Midnight Star also chart.
While in real news, Phantom of the Opera opens on the West End. The Independent begins publication. 1500 people die in an earthquake in El Salvador. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev meet in Reykjavik for disarmament talks, which end in failure. The Metrocentre, the largest shopping center in the UK and at the time the largest in Europe, opens in Gateshead. The president of Mozambique, Samora Machel, dies in a plane crash. And the day after this story concludes bus deregulation goes into effect in most of the UK.
Mindwarp poses an interesting problem in the context of Trial of a Time Lord. We’ll deal with its overt narrative eccentricities later in the entry, but for now I want to look at its most basic issue, the question of whether or not the Doctor, or at least Colin Baker’s version of him, is any good. This is, after all, the story in which the Doctor most obviously errs and in which the Valeyard’s criticism seems most applicable.
We are, of course, told that many of the events that we see are partially fraudulent. But as Tat Wood points out, there’s not actually that much of the Doctor’s behavior here that needs to be explained away. The explanation he gives – that it was all a ruse – largely holds. The usual story told about this story – that Baker couldn’t get an answer out of anybody on what parts of the script were real and what parts were fabrication – speaks volumes simply because it is, in fact, so ambiguous. But in a story that’s set up to establish how disastrous the Doctor’s actions are this raises some significant problems (even if the nature of the disaster is… confused).
All of this raises a question that has been elided throughout this era – how much of the problem is just this version of the Doctor? To what extent is it just that Baker’s Doctor is fatally flawed or miscast? As mentioned, the audios do suggest that Baker is, in fact a skilled actor and that his Doctor can work, but then again, audio is a different medium. And it is, after all, Baker who was seemingly the biggest proponent of the Mr. Darcy/peel back the onion approach.
And in the end, that approach is what lies behind Mindwarp’s portrayal of the Doctor as potentially fatally flawed. So much effort was put into making Baker’s Doctor unlikable that, well, it succeeded to a real extent. Even if the eventual redemption had played out the fact remains that Baker’s Doctor was always designed as being a bit dodgy and flawed. No amount of redemption, it should be noted, would have undone this. The idea that this Doctor was fatally flawed was written into the basic concept of the character. Even after a seven season arc of redemption Baker’s Doctor would still be defined as the one that might have been bad.
It’s revealing, in this regard, to compare the flawed nature of Baker’s Doctor with the flawed nature of Davison’s Doctor – something that was also stressed to tragic consequences, and, indeed, to tragic consequences that actually happened as opposed to ones that were retconned out a few episodes later. In the case of Davison’s Doctor, though, the death of Adric was never pinned on his version of the Doctor. It was a critique of the Doctor in the general case that happened on Davison’s watch, not a critique of Davison specifically. Indeed, Davison’s Doctor is consistently treated as an unambiguous good guy no matter how much he screws up. Whatever critiques one might make of him as the ineffective Doctor the narrative sides with him consistently.
Whereas here the apparent death of Peri serves as a completion of an arc begun with The Twin Dilemma. Baker’s Doctor’s flaw was first defined by his utter callousness towards Peri. It’s not merely that Baker’s Doctor is shown to be flawed, it’s that he’s shown to be flawed first and foremost in terms of Peri. And so the idea that his flaws lead to Peri’s demise is particularly stinging. It’s a critique that cuts very deep, hitting the whole of his tenure.
But it also gets at another way in which the untrustworthy conception of the Doctor was a bad idea in practice. Simply put, it’s difficult to imagine any Doctor other than Baker’s in this situation to begin with. It’s telling that throughout the trial the Doctor’s sole defense tends to be to yell about the injustice of it all. He never actually goes about saying any of the sensible things like “you do realize that if I hadn’t gone to Ravalox we’d probably all be dead” or “well if you wanted Crozier’s experiments stopped why, exactly, did you pull me from Thoros Bea when I was about to stop them and get my companion killed?” Instead he just blusters on about the Matrix being tampered with (on the quite tentative grounds that he wouldn’t do that) and objects to the entire idea of his being on trial. His reaction is defined by is egotism, and this sort of egotism is a trait unique to Baker’s Doctor.
The cliche is that Baker’s Doctor is in many ways a self-portrait of John Nathan-Turner. This is, I think, a bit strong, but there’s a strong sense in which, in Trial, he’s an inadvertent stand-in for the series itself. Conceived in the afterglow of Longleat, he is a fatally flawed idea too arrogant to admit to the possibility of his failings even enough to defend himself. That only Baker’s Doctor could be in this story is, in some sense, the point.
Part 4: Genocide and How to Cure It
But if this theory explains most of the idiosyncrasies of the Trial, one stubbornly remains, namely the wobbly ethos of Genocide. This goes well beyond the already discussed problems of intervention and of what the supposed goals of the Trial are. It’s made clear that the accusation of genocide is considered more or less absolute by the Time Lords. Indeed, even the fact that the genocide of the Vervoids was necessary to prevent a genocide of humanity is deemed wholly irrelevant to the judgment. And then a wholly unrelated matter – the Doctor chasing his own evil self into the Matrix – is deemed reason to just dismiss the charges. (And not, as one might think, reasons to just have him executed on the grounds that he was, after all, also the one who tried to kill them all – so much for his defense of “I improve in the future,” clearly.)
I am, in this case, not particularly interested in explaining away the moral reasoning behind this. We have, after all, already concluded that the court has no moral reasoning as such beyond a fealty to the regime that gets overthrown by the end of the story. (Though the fact that the Doctor just casually turns Gallifrey over to the Inquisitor is puzzling, given this assumption. One supposes that she showed more independence than anyone else involved in the trial, but surely someone who was actually involved in the popular uprising on Gallifrey would be preferable. Then again, perhaps the Doctor doesn’t seriously think that his off-Gallifrey endorsement is going to carry any weight and is simply trying to appease the Inquisitor’s obvious lust for power before slipping away from this nuthouse.) Rather, I’m interested in sorting out the larger question of what the show’s ethics on this subject are.
Obviously the show broadly sides with the Doctor. So the fact that he wiped out the Vervoids is clearly intended to be acceptable. But this stands in contrast with, really, almost everything else the Doctor has ever done. The most obvious thing to contrast it with is the legendary “have I the right” speech from Genesis of the Daleks. But here the Doctor seems to not even consider the question, both at the time and in presenting the evidence, where he seems blindsided by the accusation of genocide.
There are moments throughout the Saward-edited era in which the Doctor seems to tip over into ethical danger zones. But for the most part these are isolated moments in which the series takes the wrong tone – the inappropriate banter at the deaths of Shockeye or the guards in Vengeance on Varos, for instance. So it’s ironic that the moment after Saward’s departure is the point where the Doctor finally does just plow over the line.
Admittedly, buried deep in the script is something approaching a reasoning for why the Doctor is in the right. It’s stressed that both the Vervoids and the crew are acting on instinct, and before hatching his plan the Doctor suggests that this consists of a breaking of the cycle – that the Doctor’s plan constitutes not raw instinct but a different approach. His plan is explicitly positioned as giving the Vervoids their entire life cycle at top speed. In other words, it’s better than killing them because it’s a natural process. (This gels well with the Bakers’ love of the “science gone mad” theme.)
But even if the script seems to think this, the fact remains that it’s out of line with the reasoning of the rest of the series. Especially given how much the Doctor stresses his empathy for the Vervoids and how they’re only following instinct. Casual genocide is bad enough, but for him to engage in casual genocide a few lines after mounting a defense of the Vervoids is one of the most callous and distressing moments of the series.
Then again, let’s remember what future these events seem to come from – one where the Doctor does, in fact, become the Valeyard. Given that we don’t want to discard free will, we have to take this as a possible future for the Doctor. In which case there’s a compelling, if inadvertent sense to all of this. The Doctor is, going into the Trial, on track to become the Valeyard, as evidenced by his failure to realize the horror of what he does in Terror of the Vervoids. And the rewriting of time that occurs at the end of all of this constitutes a turning away from this future towards something better. This is, at last, the moment of exorcism.
Part 3: The First Law of Time
The First Law of Time is, we have been told, the prohibition on crossing your own timestream. Back in the Mysterious Planet the Valeyard accused the Doctor of transgressing this law. That line, as delivered, seemed to imply a different first law – the usual “meddling” accusation – but the line as written gives just enough wiggle room that it is worth entertaining the possibility of consistency with the past.
Certainly the irony of the Valeyard delivering that accusation is immense. Especially if we posit the First Law in the broader sense of being about the alteration of one’s personal history (that being the first law of time that was ever revealed to the audience). The Valeyard’s plan, after all, is nothing more than a massive rewriting of his own personal history. And we’ve already seen in reasonable detail how this can be spun as the seeming future of the show as it existed after Season 22 attempting to cannibalize the present to ensure its existence.
But to what extent is the Valeyard a meaningful future of the Doctor? This question becomes particularly vexed when he’s taken in concert with the Master, who is already defined as an evil version of the Doctor and who largely makes much more sense. The Valeyard, a creature of rules, is a harder fit with the Doctor simply because the mercurial and anarchic nature of the Doctor is so strongly defined. The Valeyard outright hates who the Doctor is, seeming to view every aspect of the Doctor as an affront. It’s difficult, throughout the story, to actually identify any common ground between the two or aspects of the Doctor that could be said to become the Valeyard.
Fan lore typically has it as the Doctor’s pride and anger that leads to the creation of the Valeyard in a very tiresome “we’ve been watching too much Star Wars” way, but there’s no sign of this whatsoever in the course of Trial of a Time Lord itself. The claim that the Valeyard is a composite of the Doctor’s every dark thought mostly seems to speak towards a terrible genericness in the Doctor’s dark thoughts. And anyway – that’s the Bakers’ neutering of the Valeyard. Holmes’s Valeyard – the creature of pure law – does not seem to extend from anything that can reasonably be described as the Doctor’s dark thoughts.
The series’ dark thoughts, on the other hand, might just work. The Valeyard is, as we’ve already discussed, the logical consequence of continuity fetishism. And if we treat him not as the Doctor’s dark side in a psychological sense but in a meta-fictional sense he does make a lot more sense. But we still run into a big problem – if we do embrace this rules-based vision of the Valeyard, why on Earth is he so cavalierly breaking the First Law of Time himself?
The usual interpretation is that he fears death, but that’s actively contradicted by the story itself. The Valeyard worships death as the ultimate reality. The Valeyard talks about obtaining his freedom, but there is no reason, for a Time Lord, that this freedom must be forward looking. It makes just as much sense for him to obtain his freedom by rewriting the past and existing not as a mere historical endpoint of the Doctor but as the Doctor as a living being. In other words, instead of becoming the teleology of the Doctor he wants to become the very historical process of the Doctor.
It is here that we should ask what the purpose of the First Law of Time is anyway. Is it anxiety over changing the past? Perhaps, but the law seems to be that one cannot even cross one’s timestream – not that one cannot change it. But there is a distinct change that happens when one crosses one’s own timestream. Let’s think about it in terms of The Two Doctors. Nowhere in the entire course of Patrick Troughton’s tenure on Doctor Who does it make sense to interpret the episode in light of the fact that Troughton will someday become Colin Baker. Troughton’s Doctor – like all Doctors – are unaffected by the weight of the series’ future. As all things are in the past. It is a fallacy to treat the present as a teleology that organizes the past.
But when one crosses one’s own timestream that gets violated. No matter what one does with The Two Doctors, no matter how faithful one tries to make it to the Troughton era, the one thing you cannot get away from is that it reconceives Troughton as an antecedent to the present – the one thing he could never possibly be in the 1960s themselves. A line from The Mind Robber is instructive here. “When someone writes about an incident after it’s happened, that’s history. But when the writing comes first, that’s fiction.” The First Law of Time, then, exists to prevent history from becoming fiction – to prevent history from simply writing the future. This is the freedom that the Valeyard seeks and is willing to break the First Law of Time for – to make all of Doctor Who lead to him. In a narrative such as Doctor Who, after all, this is what becoming real has to mean. The danger of the Valeyard isn’t his existence, its his potential fictionality.