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Part 1: How To Write Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant
It’s September 6th, 1986. Boris Gardiner is at number one with “I Want to Wake Up With You.” A week later, The Communards replace them with “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” and stay there for the remaining three weeks of this story. Janet Jackson, The Human League, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Run DMC/Aerosmyth, the Eurythmics, and Cutting Crew also chart, while on the album charts its the True Blue period for Madonna and the release of Paul Simon’s Graceland.
In real news, and moving very quickly through the eighteen month gap (which was really only seventeen months), the New Coke debacle happens and the ozone hole is discovered. The Heysel Disaster takes place, leading to a five year ban from European competition for English clubs. A year later is the Hand of God goal, so really, almost as crappy a time to be an English football fan as it was to be a Doctor Who fan. The Nintendo Entertainment System and Calvin and Hobbes both debut. And finally, the Challenger disaster happens, as does Chernobyl.
Whereas during this story, Desmond Tutu becomes a bishop and the Oprah Winfrey show debuts. Casualty debuts on television. Ann the Colwich rail crash happens, killing two and injuring a hundred more.
While on television we begin Trial of a Time Lord with the segment of the story commonly referred to as The Mysterious Planet. But already we’re in choppy waters as we hit the “how many stories does Trial of a Time Lord count as?” Given that I’ve already argued that An Unearthly Child and 100,000 BC should be thought of as two stories and that The Daleks’ Masterplan should be thought of as at least three, I’m obviously unlikely to suggest that a run of episodes with four writers and three production codes should be treated as one story just because of the part numbering. And while there’s a unity to the season that was missing from the previous season-long arc, as mentioned last time there’s also a massive disunity to this season. So let’s say not only four stories, but four very confused stories.
Within this mess there’s a lot to talk about. But the trial-specific material will mostly benefit from being taken in the context of the end, so we’ll save the bulk of it for the Ultimate Foe entry. Instead I want to start with the most visibly rebooted aspect of the series, namely the relationship between Baker’s Doctor and Peri.
The intended structure of Trial of a Time Lord was based on A Christmas Carol, with the three stories shown as evidence representing the past, present, and future. And so The Mysterious Planet is intended to represent the past. Off the bat this is a little strange – it is, after all, an adventure with the then-current TARDIS crew seemingly set after the most recent televised adventure. The distinction between it and the succeeding story in terms of time is almost completely arbitrary.
Except that the present of Trial of a Time Lord is presumed to be the courtroom, and thus Peri’s departure has already happened somewhere within the Seasonish. And so this story goes back to a past, yes, but to an erased past that never was.
It’s not a new observation to read Trial of a Time Lord as a metaphor for the show’s production difficulties in this time period. The Doctor on trial serves as a proxy for the show being on trial, with a demand that it prove itself worthy of being on the air. In which case this “past” section serves first and foremost as a representation of the show that was put on hiatus.
Given this, its rampant revisionism is understandable. After all, aesthetically speaking Season 22 had been a bit of a disaster, and so representing what the show was as having been better than it was is a sound part of making the overall case that the show deserved to exist. But what’s interesting is that this revisionism really focuses on a relatively narrow issue. The biggest visible change in the program, quite frankly, is that the Doctor and Peri get along much better.
Their opening scene wandering Ravalox is a small but distinct thing – the Doctor leaves Peri to make deductions, and praises her when she figures it out. When she accuses him of patronizing her, he reiterates his praise and confidence in her. And when he makes an egotistical joke in response to her asking about intelligent life on the planet (“apart from me, you mean?”) it is with a smile that Peri returns. It’s true that the tensions between them had cooled down by the time Revelation of the Daleks rolled around, but there’s still a real difference in their relationship.
By and large this is an extremely positive thing. The spectre of abuse that has hung over the Doctor/Peri relationship since the debacle that was The Twin Dilemma is a strong contender for “most toxic aspect of the Baker era.” But more to the point, Baker and Bryant are really quite good at this sort of warmth. It’s the first time we’ve had a straightforward Doctor/Companion pair that got along since the fleeting few episodes of the Doctor and Nyssa, and the first time we’ve had it as the apparent status quo since the long lost days of Lala Ward.
And to be clear, it’s not that Holmes has simply jettisoned all tension. The sequence where Peri realizes that Ravalox is Earth and the Doctor is at once understanding of her emotions but unwilling to humor them at length may be the last great thing that Robert Holmes ever wrote. The combination of the Doctor’s clear and genuine affection for Peri with his alien detachment from the emotions he understands but does not share is perfectly pitched, and what Baker’s Doctor should have been pitched at all along.
Part 4: The Unspeakable Screwedness of Nicola Bryant
But more on the particulars of the Doctor’s acquittal next entry. For now, let’s wrap this entry up with the traditional “farewell to” portion for a departing companion. Because it’s entirely possible that nobody has ever been screwed quite as thoroughly as Nicola Bryant got screwed. Let’s first of all note that Nicola Bryant is quite a good actress. Her Peri can be awkward, but then again, putting Brits in American accents is almost but not quite as disastrous as putting Americans in British ones. And on top of that, anybody in that role would be awkward. It’s a god-awful role.
The problem, at its core, is that Peri is clearly conceived of purely in terms of “let’s go back to the good old-fashioned girl companion.” Her only character trait that goes beyond “generic girl” is that she’s American, and they didn’t actually bother to cast someone American for her. The problem is that the generic girl companion, as we observed back with Tegan, is largely an invention. At this point there had been exactly two solo Earth girls to travel with the Doctor – Jo and Sarah Jane. And both worked because they were extremely distinctive characters who were strong enough to carry the job of being 50% of the regular cast. The last thing they could reasonably be taken for being were generic paradigms of the companion role.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly how they got used in terms of Peri, who is the first companion since Victoria to be designed entirely and exclusively as a peril monkey. By all appearances they took Terrence Dicks at face value when he joked about creating Jo because the Doctor needed a dumb companion who would get rescued a lot. (And for all of Dicks’s feminism problems, I think this clearly is a joke simply because Jo was always, from her first appearance, more than that.) Almost all Peri gets to do is scream and be rescued.
And for a few brief and shining moments in the course of Mindwarp, it looks like she’s going to get to redeem that. First of all, Peri finally gets to do things over the course of the story because the plot requires the Doctor to be sidelined, meaning that several Doctorish jobs shift over to Peri. And, unsurprisingly, Nicola Bryant is quite good at it. Then she gets to, for a few lines, have her wish of playing a villain, and she’s absolutely bone-chilling. The bald cap goes a long way, but Nicola Bryant absolutely nails it and is by far the most disturbing “possessed companion” to date.
And on top of that we get the tragic conclusion to her arc – a point bitter and cynical enough to almost redeem it. Because if you’re going to have a character who exists only to get in trouble, frankly, you may as well kill her. It’s at least honest. If Peri is going to embody rape culture as well as she does then this really is the right end for her – having her body completely taken over by a creepy old man. Given how often the series has gone out of its way to treat Nicola Bryant as a piece of meat, wringing tragic consequences out of it is the least it can do. It’s not good. It’s not nice. But given the disaster that Peri has been turned into it is, at least, the best available ending – one that at last acknowledges just how nasty and unpleasant the series has been. And she goes out showing how good Nicola Bryant was, at least, and how wasted she was on this part.
Except we don’t even get that. In the single trashiest and laziest retcon in the series history we get the pink-haze “she’s a warrior queen of King Ycranos.” To which the Doctor sighs happily and leaves her. Note that this is not a voluntary companion departure so far as we can tell. The fact that the Doctor is kidnapped from Thoros Beta never gets retconned. By all appearances the Doctor gets kidnapped and never goes back for her, leaving her to Ycranos. With whom she never particularly got along, and who is a raging misogynist with violent tendencies.
Combined with her battered wife syndrome when it comes to the Doctor himself, this paints an astonishingly ugly picture, especially given the series’ apparent approval of the pairing. Peri is a helpless woman who not only is constantly left to the at times openly sadistic devices of men, that is, apparently, all she ever wants to be. And the series backs off making any critique of this, instead treating it as a happy ending. It is, moreso even than Ben, Polly, Dodo, or Leela, the single worst and most offensive companion departure in the whole of Doctor Who. And it’s deeply depressing that all fandom ever wants to talk about is how screwed Colin Baker was by the handling of his character and era. Nicola Bryant was far, far more screwed. She deserved so much better.
Part 2: Why on Earth Was This Made?
This brings us around to the larger disaster of Trial of a Time Lord, which is the ludicrous dropping of the ball involved in its ending. To some extent there’s a litany of excuses we need to trot out here. Yes, Eric Saward walking off the job and taking his script for the final episode with him didn’t help matters (regardless of how well it was or wasn’t justified). But on the other hand, one has to wonder how something this messy made it out in the first place. With an extra year of planning time and the Trial format supposedly agreed upon early in the process, how is it that a clear plot arc for the season didn’t exist by the time they were making it? How did they get themselves thrown into such chaos in the first place?
This is something that none of the myriad of words spilled on the production of this season actually manage to get at. Yes, there was a ton of chaos at the end of the process, but the beginning of it – the actual conceptualization of the season – remains maddeningly obscure. Here they are doing a massive plot arc based on the model of a mystery/conspiracy thriller with tons of twists and turns and revelations, and by all appearances nobody at any point actually sat down and wrote an outline for the frame story. Yes, Robert Holmes’s death was obviously a major blow, but for God’s sake, how do you make it a year into working on a season long plot arc and not have the ending worked out yet?
Because nothing about Trial of a Time Lord looks planned. And tempting as it is to blame this on Pip and Jane Baker, the fact of the matter is that Terror of the Vervoids is just where the season’s flaws become readily apparent, not where they’re introduced. (The absurdities of Mindwarp not being visible until later, as discussed) The entire concept is misbegotten. It’s not that doing a fourteen week “event” season is a bad idea – finite run stories are, after all, a common thing on the BBC. Fourteen weeks is a bit long, but no longer than, say, Knights of God, which was made a year before Trial and aired a year after. (And which we’ll talk about in a few weeks) But again, if you’re going to d something like that, you start from your big plot and work down. Instead it seems they had the vague idea of past/present/future/wrap it all up, and treated each of those elements as individual parts such that the “wrap it all up” story was going to be improvised. Even under Robert Holmes’s original plans one doesn’t get the sense that there was much of an actual idea underlying the season.
Throughout these entries I’ve been stressing the fact that the Trial was in part a metaphor for the series’ own tribulations. (Something made clear from the opening few lines) In which case there’s something almost, but not quite, charmingly apropos about this awkwardness. “What’s the reason why Doctor Who should survive its trial? We don’t know either!” But the humor masks the fact that these were real questions. Other than “let’s open with a really good model shot,” there were seemingly no ideas on what to do next. It goes well beyond Robert Holmes’s retreat to his old standards as well.
And there’s a real incoherence to it as well. We should talk at some point about the infamous Open Air segment in which a trio of fans, including future series writer Chris Chibnall, gang up on Pip and Jane Baker and complain that their work was cliched and unintelligible. Much of the focus these days goes on Chris Chibnall, who looks like the geeky teenager he is, and the supposed irony of him going after Pip and Jane Baker given his own scripts. (While I think Chibnall is one of the weakest writers of the new series, the idea that he can somehow be equated to the Bakers seems to me farcical.) This ignores, of course, the fact that the fans are largely right here. They complain that the Trial storyline lacked payoff and was a confusing and incoherent mess. Which it was. And not in a wonky “it violates what we know about Gallifrey” way, but in a “none of this actually coheres” way. But let’s look instead at the Bakers, who are, I think, far more disturbingly revealing.
They make two arguments that seem on the surface to be contradictory. On the one hand they insist that they don’t want to patronize the audience and want to leave things for them to figure out. On the other, when Chibnall complains that the story was cliched monsters and corridors stuff, Jane Baker rather icily notes that she thought Doctor Who fans liked traditional stuff. There’s something really unsettling about this. It’s difficult to see how feeding Doctor Who fans a steady diet of generic and traditional adventures could be called challenging. Indeed, “here’s the same thing you’ve been enjoying for decades done with no changes” seems the very definition of patronizing television.
When compared with the Bakers’ scripts, these comments become even more depressing. The festivals of hackneyed plot twists, cookie cutter characters, and bloviating dialogue that they pen clearly assume a barely sentient audience. The monsters are generic. The human villains’ logic waffles between generic and incoherent. It’s a mystery where no effort has even been made to secure basic facts and character motivations. It feels by and large like dumbed down Pertwee. They’re writing for children and, worse, doing the thing that no good children’s entertainment ever does – talking down to them. This would be one thing if the show were written for children, but the Bakers also clearly think the program is written for people who love classic Doctor Who.
And these are Nathan-Turner’s favorite writers of this period. Yes, to his credit he clearly figures out that the ship needs to change course soon after this and doesn’t force them on Cartmel beyond what they’d already been commissioned for, but Jesus Christ. Is this really what the show thinks of its audience now? Does it really treat them with such staggering, mind-wrenching contempt as to think that they’re overgrown children that mistakenly believe themselves to be clever?
It’s really, in all of this, the fact that the show is still so overtly going for a cult audience here with its big, sprawling epic. Even the name – The Trial of a Time Lord – plays overtly to fans with an investment in the series’ mythology. To do that while so obviously disdaining cult audiences and their tastes is deeply, deeply ugly. (As, let’s be honest, is the alternative explanation – that the Bakers really think they wrote a challenging and intelligent script.) For all that we talked back in the Mysterious Planet entry about Trial being part of a transition towards a better model for the series, it remains firmly rooted in the ugliness of the past few seasons.
Part 4: Requiem for Robert Holmes
A narrative collapse, then. As ever, it’s avoided – instead the program begins a creative renaissance, painfully tentatively at first, but very, very quickly after that. And as ever, there’s a price. In this case, we can define it cynically and not even feel bad about it. Trial of a Time Lord: the story so bad it killed Robert Holmes.
If one were to make a list of writers most responsible for creating what Doctor Who is then almost the entire soul of Doctor Who could be accounted for with three writers. David Whitaker, obviously, is the first. And these days it’s clear that Russell T Davies must be there. But between them, responsible for much of the work of taking the show that David Whitaker created and developing it into a world-beater that could truly never run out of things to say, comes Robert Holmes.
It is not just that Holmes is wickedly, beautifully brilliant. It is not just the sheer number of concepts he introduced. It is not the diversity of stories he wrote, with outright comedies alongside some of the scariest and darkest moments of the series. First and foremost it is that he developed the true heart of Doctor Who. It may be Whitaker who made the Doctor a mercurial anarchist, but it is Holmes who took that to the next step and defined what the Doctor is opposed to. Whitaker may have created the idealism of the Doctor, but it is Holmes who created the raw fire of the character. It is Holmes who showed us what it is that drives the Doctor to fight.
There were always many possible answers to that question. Most of them were dumb and boring. If the matter had been left to Terry Nation the answer would have essentially been “Nazis,” assuming he wasn’t lazy and didn’t say “space monsters.” Terrence Dicks, for all his adventuring charm, would have picked a very generic sense of evil. Far too many writers would have picked something like “ignorance” or “superstition.” But not Robert Holmes. Oh no.
Robert Holmes picked bureaucracy. He set the Doctor against rules for their own sake. He set the Doctor against bullies and boredom and everything drab and banal. Robert Holmes decided that the mercurial hero who is the Doctor should, first and foremost, fight against the banality of evil. There are many things that are brilliant about Doctor Who – the likability of a clever and unpredictable hero, the flexibility of the format, several of the monsters and concepts. But in the end, this is, I think, what made the show great. The fact that it is a profoundly delightful blow against the cruelty of “the way things are.”
So it’s at once ironic and fitting that Holmes goes down in the midst of a story that looks the rules of Doctor Who in the face and then suddenly throws them out. Trial of a Time Lord, if nothing else, turns out to have been the pragmatic death blow to the Whoniverse. It is the story that breaks almost any attempt to create a unitary narrative of Doctor Who. And more to the point, it’s the story that marks the point where the television show abandons all thought of having one in favor of simply doing interesting things. It marks another passing of the alchemical baton, and the next generation of Doctor Who writers take it and begin doing wildly and fascinatingly new things with the series – things that, even if they went out to a tiny and obscure audience, proved the cornerstone of the entire future of the series.
One of the things that is very clear about the next stable of writers is that they are people who grew up on Doctor Who but who are not, by and large, fans. And those that are proper fanboys are one who still made their bones in other professional writing before coming to Doctor Who. And for every single great writer who works on the series after this point, one thing is going to be very, very obvious: whatever it is they think Doctor Who is, they learned from Robert Holmes.