Order in Court
Here’s my Timelash II stuff for ‘The Trial of a Time Lord’. Some extra bits and some rejigging here and there.
‘The Mysterious Planet’
Bob Holmes redoes ‘The Krotons’… which looks more acceptable now that we have a showrunner and head writer who, essentially, just does the same story again and again and again.
The production design comes to a high standard but belongs in a different story. It’s clear that Marb Station is supposed to be dark but it gleams with light. Holmes has the underground dwellers talk about “the train”, which is clearly supposed to be something that runs on the old underground rails, etc. Everything looks good but nothing looks right. The Tribe of the Free look like peasants in an authentic peasant village… but they should look like something out of Mad Max, with loads of decaying, retro-fitted, malfunctioning technology that they don’t understand and use for things like propping open doors. We need salvagepunk but we get re-enactment kitsch. As Richard Pilbeam put it: “It’s like doing ‘Talons’ in the style of a Quality St. ad”. Glitz and Dibber look… um, interesting… but they look as much like mercenary wideboys as Colonel Gaddafi looks like the lead singer of a boy band. The space station at the start is spectacular… but it hardly goes with the idea that the Doctor has been “taken out of time”. He should end up in a surreal nowhereplace, and the court room should look like Gallifreyan gothic or a grotty 19th century courtroom of the type that Mr Jaggers would’ve appeared in. The whole trial should take place in the Matrix, or something like it.
The story itself is a perfectly functional and occasionally witty riff on order vs chaos, with Drathro vs Katryca as the personifications… but, interestingly, they’re not polar opposites in a dichotomy because neither are quite what they seem. Drathro’s underground survival camp is absurd, perpetuated because he blindly follows orders. The society of the underground dwellers is built on the worship of texts whose original context and message is lost, on unnecessary rationing of water and on the ‘culling’, i.e. the ruthless and needless control of population numbers. Katryca, meanwhile, is a tyrant who rules idiotically over people she fatuously calls “the tribe of the free”. She’s a matriarch that rules a society which treats women as a social resource. So, it isn’t that Drathro is nasty old Order and Katryca is nice free Chaos… it’s that all rulers are useless and all social pyramids are nonsensical and backward. As I’ve said elsewhere, whether he knew it or not, Bob was an instinctive radical.
There are some great lines, some mythic resonances, an awareness of text and literature, and the script has plenty to say about the false opposition between ‘advanced’ and ‘primitive’, about social control through the control of resources and surplus, about hierarchy which becomes a false ideology of order hiding a reality of arbitrary, hidebound or chaotic rule. This order vs chaos theme will be picked up again and again in this season…
One thing: somebody really needed to question why the Valeyard would enter into evidence the scene where Glitz and Dibber discuss the details of the Time Lords’ plot, even with some words bleeped out. With conspirators like that, Gallifrey doesn’t need Wikileaks.
For quite a long time, if asked, I would’ve claimed that ‘Mindwarp’ was one of the very best Doctor Who stories ever made. I can’t quite run to that level of praise these days, but I still rate this very highly.
The political subtext is hardly subtle. Capitalists are (or can be) gangsters and slavers. This ain’t news, of course… but the key thing is that, in this story, they’re selling evil weapons and enslaving people and controlling their minds, etc. without doing anything that is, by their lights, unusual… or even illegal. To them, it’s business as usual. This is the same as in ‘Vengeance on Varos’, where Sil gets away with everything he’s been doing because nobody has any law they can use to hold him accountable. He’s just been doing business.
This is a million miles away from the usual depiction of capitalist perfidy as being about individual capitalists who engage in nefarious and illegal nastiness on the sly, i.e. the kind of dodgy big-businessmen who turn up in Bond films. In ‘Revelation of the Daleks’, which is hardly happy about capitalism, Davros and Kara are ‘up to no good’ by the standards of their society. Even ‘Androzani’ has the evil Morgus engaging in criminality and being hunted by the authorities. Now, no doubt, this happens… but the real problem with capitalism is that – cronyism and corruption to one side – it routinely engages in all sorts of exploitation, abuse, befouling of the environment, etc. that is perfectly legal, even encouraged… or which, even if is illegal, is winked at by the authorities and hardly ever punished.
Sil and the Mentors are clearly a going concern, out for profit. It’s rather odd that Kiv is depicted as frowning on “speculation”, given how clearly the story is trying to reflect the Thatcherite 80s. Still, this is obviously business… and they’re not trying to hide anything they do. Peri asks why she and the Doctor have to investigate the weapons sales to Thordon. “Who else is there?” asks the Doctor, rhetorically. Nobody, clearly. This is later picked-up on by the Valeyard as a sign of the Doctor’s incipient hubris (and he has a point) but it also stands as an indictment of a system that doesn’t investigate or punish the trade in weapons of torture and death. At this point I could start talking about how much vile equipment of torture and murderBritish arms companies have sold – with the full compliance, connivance and massive financial assistance of the British state – to skull-crushing regimes in ex-President Mubarak’s Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Indonesia, etc… If you’re a UK taxpayer, by the way, then you subsidise the corrupt UK arms trade industry with your taxes. The ideology of self reliance and the invisible hand of the free market suddenly becomes very flexible when the death-peddling capitalists want government handouts.
Anyway, this refusal to reduce the Mentors to criminals is all the more surprising and admirable coming from Philip Martin, who is disposed to write about crime and gangsterism… but then his original, sublimely bemusing and fascinatingly offensive series Gangsters often sought to depict that capitalistic impulse inherent in all organised crime.
The other thing about Gangsters is the way it constantly sought to represent and investigate race and racism in unexpected ways, which translates into something about the way ethnicity is used in ‘Mindwarp’. The Mentors appear to be the masters of a planet where the native humanoids are black, while the native Alphans appear Asian… but the Mentors themselves have ethnic diversity, with Kiv’s replacement body being a light brown hue rather than green. The story doesn’t really seem to do very much with this, but it makes for fascinating detail.
Physical diversity is also expressed in terms of how bodies are changed. Taking its cue from H.G. Wells’ terrifying masterpiece The Island of Dr Moreau, this story harps on about transformation, using animals as a touchstone. The Mentors are “mutations and hybrids” apparently… the Raak is an ‘upgraded’ sea creature… Dorf has been partly transformed into a dog as a punishment and, it would seem, a sick joke. Moreau is, partly, a gloomy novel about the failure of the Enlightenment project. It is the story of how, even with the best attempt to guide and control the process (in contrast to, say, Frankenstein, where the process is carelessly neglected), science has lead to the unintended consequence, to the animal in man being unleashed in ever more destructive ways, to the chaos of modernity. ‘Mindwarp’ hooks into this, but also bucks it by presenting Dorf in a positive, even heroic light…
…but like Orcini in ‘Revelation’, Dorf and Yrcanos are refugees from a pre-bourgeois culture, from a feudal world of battling warlords. They might want to fight, but they simply don’t understand the calculating, cold, legal, technological brutality of the capitalist age, personified by the Mentors. Meanwhile, the Mentors (who are about as savage as they come, but in an organised and commercial and technological way) have the audacity to view the Thordons and the Alphans as ‘primitives’… and thus as raw material, as commodities, as new markets to be brutally invaded (through trade) and controlled.
Yrcanos and Tuza unite against the Mentors and Yrcanos learns a new definition of glory from the Doctor: he becomes a liberator. But perhaps his greatest act of liberation is his little chat with Peri before she is taken away. He and Dorf appear startled by Peri’s definition of love as caring for something or someone “more than yourself”, but Yrcanos’ feudal spiritualism leads him to find common ground with her. It may be based on warlordism and kingship and superstition, but it gives Peri the fortitude to resist the depradations of Crozier, at least in her brave attitude.
There’s an irony here. The horror of what is happening to Peri lies in the theft of her body (the Mentors treat other people’s bodies as commodities all the way through the story) and the destruction of her individual personality… yet a cult of selfish individualism is at the root of the Mentors’ culture. Even Sil’s professed adoration of Kiv boils down to a desire to learn his secrets. When the Doctor – either through pretence or temporary madness – begins to integrate himself with their world, his credo becomes “I see my own interests; I place myself first”. Peri’s idea of love is the exact opposite of this callous Thatcherite narcissism… and by comparison with the Mentors, even the war-loving samurai is more humane.
And then we have the mythic resonance of the quest for immortality. In this story, the attempt to make Kiv immortal fits beautifully with the political themes, because it comes through the theft and abuse of bodies… through exploitation… and its amazing how often in folklore, myth, legend and tales of the uncanny, eternal life is something achieved through predation or vampirism… I was recently watching the BBC adaptation of M.R. James’ Lost Hearts, for instance…
Kiv and Sil want eternal life because they see their continued profitability invested in the person of Kiv… which may be a superstition, but which reveals their priorities… as does Sil’s reaction to the pandemonium that erupts when the Doctor and Yrcanos interrupt the Alphan’s mind control: “All they do is eat you out of house and home!” Sil’s attitude is the classic worry about how much the staff cost you, even as you life off the surplus they produce for you.
The crazed Alphan slaves are an image of chaos, which ties into this season’s ongoing interest in order vs. chaos… and like Bob Holmes in the previous story, Martin presents us with an ambiguous picture. Is the chaos unleashed by the Doctor any more sinister than the order represented by slavery and solid financial stability and eternal continuity (a virtue to which Sil fatuously lays claim)? In fact, isn’t the order on Thoros Beta a vast deception, imposed on an essentially chaotic system by a hierarchy of power?
And think of the chaos that eternal life and eternal continuity would bring to the universe. Even the Time Lords fear this, and they are the most static and etiolated people in the universe – I suppose it’s all right for them to have a monopoly on bodily regeneration and endless, decadent, unaccountable power. Another sign of their hypocrisy. As the Doctor says, they have no right to order expedient deaths to protect anything, let along their own position. He calls them “second rate gods”. Colin is thrilling at this moment, portraying the Doctor confronting his own people as cynical manipulators… and perhaps even feeling his own values confronting him as something hostile and alien.
This is not a morally simple text. And this is reflected in the difficulty in working out exactly what the Doctor did or did not do. Mind you, I don’t find this as hard or worrying as some. When he’s behaving like a cynical and callous bastard, he is either pretending or the Matrix has been altered. Does it really matter which? Of course, either way we can see the way his depicted behaviour meshes worryingly with the hubris of “who else is there?”. It makes the point. As do the goings on in the trial room.
The trial sequences are at both their best and worst here, constantly interrupting the action we want to see, possibly (via the Valeyard subplot) warping the actual story, but also managing to look like genuine and relevant reflections of what is going on on Thoros Beta.
Aside from all this we have some wonderful little character notes. The Mentor who just wants everyone to keep quiet… Crozier who takes a sip of tea before trying to resuscitate Kiv (The Discontinuity Guide is right to praise this)… the lovely way the Doctor and Peri talk in code in front of Frax… And then we have the excellent production design and music… and an apparently inspired Ron Jones who takes advantage of every opportunity for flickering blue lights, paintboxed beaches, shadows, etc. And most of all we have Nicola Bryant at top level again, given something interesting to do and jumping on the opportunity. She distinguishes herself all the way through, but especially in her chilling final scene. The impact of this scene is hard, harsh and resounding. Such a shame they bottled it and made that bit into one of the Valeyard’s lies.
‘Terror of the Vervoids’
Astonishingly enough, if you take out loads of the excess verbiage, stop the Vervoids from talking and remove all the ‘Trial’ scenes, there’s an acceptable script here.
There’s some sufficiently strong concepts (vegetable monsters that think of us the way we think of weeds), a good dramatic hook (an evolutionary war of survival in a claustrophobic location), some decent characterisation amidst the cliches (Bruckner vs. Laskey; Rudge’s alliance with the Mogarians)… there’s even some not-entirely-dumb political content.
There are some good design concepts too, with the mutant make-up being very effective. Langford is very far from being ‘my can of tizer’, but she’s perfectly acceptable here (albeit playing a wispy-thin character). The direction manages some coups – all the cliffhangers are well done. And the cast are mostly good too!
However… the production design is dreadful – all 80s pastels and plastic plants. And the ‘Trial’ scenes just intrude… and make very little sense (how can the Doctor’s possible future actions form the basis for either a defence or a new charge?)… but, having said that, lets not employ double standards… it makes about as much sense as anything in, say, ‘Daleks Master Plan’ or ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’.
In the end, I have a problem with how much great swathes of this look and sound just like an 80s ‘business drama’, with people in gym clothes having brusque arguments about professional ethics, etc.
And the Doctor really should be more conflicted about wiping out the Vervoids… it would be interesting if he fought against the inexorable logic of ‘natural selection’ with the humans being all for it, and if this brutal evolutionary process were more explicitly related to, say, the ideology of the human empire that has ravaged Mogar, etc., or even Rudge’s career. Or something.
Oh, and this must be said… the attempt to ‘do a Giger’ backfired terribly. The Alien in Alien suggests rude bits and pieces, thus tying in to the whole Freudian vibe of the film. The Vervoids just look like dickheads.
‘The Ultimate Foe’
Well, it’s a lovely idea – the Doctor puts himself on trial for interference – that could have been done in a considerably more interesting style. The Valeyard shouldn’t have been the evil side of the Doctor – that’s just dull – he should have been a Doctor from the future whose morals and values have changed drastically, who now thinks that his past self was cowardly for not interfering enough, or that his past self was a hypocrite. Rather than the Doctor gone bad, he should’ve been the Doctor unbound… Imagine the 10th Doctor in his ‘Waters of Mars’ mode confronting the 1st Doctor during, say, ‘The Massacre’. He could say the things that Stephen says. And who would be right? The younger version (who looks older) who desperately wants to help but retains enough belief in the inevitability of history, or the older version (who looks younger) who would be calling him a coward for leaving Anne Chaplet to die. If the Doctor ever meets himself, that’s how it should be done… much more interesting than a slicked-back maniac with a diabolical laugh.
As the culmination of the A Christmas Carol thing (the Doctor is shown his past, present and future by judgemental forces that want to change his ways), ‘The Ultimate Foe’ should really have had the balls to show the Doctor accepting that he has made mistakes. Maybe they could have had him undertake to try non-interference… or reject his past behaviour as too mild! In the event, however, the Doctor simply asserts his moral superiority and then gets proved right. This is allowed by the cowardly way that ‘The Ultimate Foe’ goes back on the death of Peri. This still makes me angry, even now.
The Time Lords are finally revealed as the sneaky, corrupt, mass-murdering, conspiratorial, ultra-selfish bastards that Holmes always hinted they were… and the Doctor is given a powerful speech in which he accuses and repudiates them, beautifully played by Colin. Moreover, their moral turpitude is explicitly linked to their decadence and their millions of years of power. They’ve put the Doctor on trial for interference, yet they reveal themselves (in their own evidence against him!) to be the great, cynical meddlers of the cosmos. They’re happy to step in and destroy whole cultures in order to protect their hegemony, assuming that their power gives them the right to do so and to then feel pious about it. In other words, they have the true imperial attitude.
(Orwell was a colonial policeman in Burma and came back disgusted with empire. Bob Holmes was a soldier in Burma during the war, and a policeman when he returned to the UK. Just saying.)
Sadly, Holmes is saddled with Mel who is so 2 dimensional she might as well have been played by a standie (this is hardly Holmes’ fault because Mel is inherently generic with no real provenance or motivation… nor is it the fault of Langford, who just plays the script like a professional). Holmes’ has the Doctor ditch Mel at the first opportunity and Glitz becomes the Doctor’s temporary companion during Part One; a very wise decision since Glitz (even the less sinister and more comic version found here) is much more interesting.
Holmes then plunges the Doctor into a surreal dreamscape of twisted fairground Victoriana (which is apt enough given the underlying influence of Dickens). He then, wonderfully, has the pseudo-Dickens gradually morph into a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare about endless offices with endless functionaries spouting an intensely passive-aggressive philosophy that rhapsodizes absurd rules and regulations… again, apt enough given that Kafka wrote a book about a man subjected to an absurd ‘trial’, in which he is arrested by a nonsensical bureaucracy that subjects him to various pointless and humiliating ordeals. All of which I love. This is how the whole Trial should’ve been done. Surreal, gothic, weird – out of time, y’know?
Also, the Mr Popplewick stuff riffs on the underlying themes of the whole ‘Trial of a Time Lord’ story: order vs. chaos. All the stories in the sequence play with this opposition. Drathro tries to impose an insane order in his own little world while the Tribe of the Free live wild (but subject to the whims of an idiotic queen) above ground. The Mentors impose order by keeping their slaves mentally conditioned and trying to ensure continuity of leadership by making their leader immortal. The Vervoids manifest out-of-control nature as it encroaches upon technological civilisation and subjects humans to the Darwinian principle. Popplewick and the loopy internal structure of the Fantasy Factory (which is made up on a series of chambers, apt enough given the name of the proprietor) demonstrate the way crazy and sick minds often fantasize a vision of ultimate orderliness. Hitler, for example, imagined himself the leader of a regimented, efficient and disciplined nation… whereas the truth is the Nazism was possibly the most chaotic, absurd, inefficient and wasteful system of government ever attempted in modern times.
The other thing is that the Victoriana suggests the high point of the British Empire… which chimes with the imperialistic way the Time Lords have been carrying on. We begin to see the Valeyard’s Matrix as a shadowy reflection of Gallifrey. Bureaucracy, order, procedure, rules and regulations… all of it shoring up and hiding unseen power and authority… talking in self-righteous pieties… covering up a true nature that is cynical, amoral, self-involved, unscrupulous and imperialistic.
Sadly, all these interesting ideas are more or less immediately ditched once Pip and Jane take over. They pull the Doctor back out of the quagmire of his own making that he’s fallen into (both literally and metaphorically). They undermine the threat posed by the Matrix environment by insisting on it being harmless illusion. They bring the Valeyard in immediately to have a dull conversation with the Doctor in which he spouts dull villain cliches. They don’t bring back Mr Popplewick except as a fleeting disguise for the Valeyard.
Then they almost get good by having the Doctor return to a fake trial room… but this is almost immediately scrapped in favour of a silly scene in which the Valeyard turns out to be planning a boring mass-assasination with a boring bomb/laser beam thingy with silly flashing lights all over it.
It’s not all bad. They bring Shakespeare into it (always a good way to score points with me) and managed to pick up on the Order vs. Chaos theme enough to have the Master say that he’s imposing “order” when he attempts his coup. Oh, and they allude to the Industrial Revolution with the “pride in every cog and piston” scene, connecting this image of Victorian technological enterprise with the Valeyard’s murderous hostile takeover attempt. But then things end in confusion and irresolution, with the Doctor acquitted apparently for no reason.
But… well, it was the culmination of something I’d been following avidly for 14 weeks. And it was the first season I’d followed all the way through, and the first season I’d recorded on video, and I was 10… for all the flaws, it still works for me.