Part 3: The Nature of Earth to Gallifrey
In the course of Holmes’s mad recycling of the past, however, Holmes fires off one of the most fascinatingly problematic concepts in the history of Doctor Who, namely the idea that the Time Lords eventually yank Earth and its “constellation” out of place in the galaxy and plop it down elsewhere.
The use of the word constellation is interesting. It’s a chronic foible of Holmes that he seems to use the word as a synonym for “solar system,” but the error is almost the perfect Holmesian error. The nature of a constellation, after all, is that it makes sense only from a set physical vantage point. The constellations of one solar system are not the constellations of another. And yet the Doctor routinely identifies Gallifrey with reference to its constellation.
Tellingly, though, the constellation he names – Kasterborous – cannot be a Gallifreyan one, since constellations are merely happenstance arrangements of stars in the sky of a given planet, and thus one cannot see a constellation that one is a part of. So when Gallifrey is said to be in the constellation of Kasterborous, what can this possibly mean?
Clearly, and this ties in alarmingly well with Gallifrey as we understood it back in The Deadly Assassin, the Time Lords’ understanding of themselves is defined primarily by reference to an external observer. They are, after all, seemingly a race governed not by the recorded facts of history but by the material memory of history. Their entire civilization is based around the Matrix, known to be a collection of memories. So it’s not a surprise that even the location of their planet is defined in terms of an external perspective. The only question is whose.
By far the most sensible answer, within Doctor Who, is Earth’s. Yes, there’s a sort of dreary cliche to the idea that the Time Lords are future versions of humanity, but it’s also difficult to avoid the fact that it makes a lot of sense. Not, as Miles and Woods sneer, because the sorts of people who like this idea are the sorts of people who want the Doctor to be Anakin Skywalker’s father, but because some version of this is already true. The series is hopeless at making up its mind whether the Time Lords consider Earth an obscure backwater or whether they see it as a vitally important planet, but it’s difficult not to observe that Earth has been the obsession of every single renegade Time Lord in the series from the Monk on.
Part of this may simply be geopolitical. Clearly there comes a point where Earth is the dominant force in the galaxy. In that regard, the Time Lords would, in any conception of them, have a lot of investment there. But the Time Lords seem almost wholly unconcerned with, say, Draconia. None of the other vast conquering species besides the Daleks raise much of an eyebrow. The Time Lord fascination with Earth exceeds mere local politics. After all, we remain at least somewhat committed to the idea of the Time Lords as guardians of the arc of history. But if pressed on whose history, exactly, we’d be forced to confess that we are ourselves the most likely suspects here. This is inevitable – after all, its humans writing the series, and so a human conception of history that drives things. And indeed, if we really want to be particular about it, this is inevitable simply because its true. The Time Lords really do exist and understand themselves only through our eyes.
But let’s pull this thread a little further. The Time Lords at large seem at best marginally aware of Earth (again as evidenced by The Deadly Assassin), which is strange given that their politics are flagrantly a reenactment of the Kennedy assassination in that story. But renegade Time Lords are all obsessed with the place. Something about renegade status, in other words, seems to involve an awareness of the fact that the Time Lords are inherently linked to human perspective. (If we take the meta-fictional truth of this seriously then it is perhaps telling that The Mind Robber, along with implying that the Doctor is an exile from the Land of Fiction, inadvertently gestures forward and implies the Master’s presence there as well.) But on Gallifrey itself this seems to be more secret knowledge.
But let’s return to Trial specifically. Of the many bits of dodgy explanation to be offered in the course of Trial, the Time Lords’ supposed logic in moving Earth around is by far the strangest. Surely options less extreme and scandalous existed to deal with the seemingly minor problem they were actually facing. Moving a planet in lieu of chasing down some thieves you know where are is just strange.
Here it’s worth thinking again about the fact that Earth’s entire constellation is moved. In other words, the shape of it within the Gallifreyan sky is maintained with a seemingly slight positional change. But from an Earthbound perspective the difference is more significant – the entire sky would change. And the Earthbound perspective is how the location of Gallifrey is understood. In other words, moving Earth’s constellation would be nothing short of a covert redefinition of the entirety of Time Lord culture – the most fundamental social revolution imaginable, done as a complete secret. No wonder the coverup was such a big deal.
Part 2: The Story That Didn’t Happen?
Indeed, in the end the only escape the story can muster from its own critique is the idea that it never happened. This is emphasized twice over. First of all, we’re told throughout the story that the Doctor’s actions are being misrepresented. Second, we’re told at the end of the Trial as a whole that the story’s grand crescendo, Peri’s death, was all a fabrication and that Peri is fine. (Well. Ish. But that’s for later in the entry.) What we’re left with is an oddity in Doctor Who – a story defined primarily by the fact that it never happened.
This is a pity, as what’s actually going on in Mindwarp is quite good. Philip Martin, predictably, brings the politics, and Mindwarp ends up being, among other things, a pleasant bit of anti-capitalism (or, at least, anti-the capitalism of the 1980s). In terms of its own storytelling its far and away the highlight of Season 23. (Of course, in another sense the idea that the Colin Baker era would render one of its best stories non-canon is almost too fitting.)
But what’s really interesting here is the idea of a story that is on the one hand televised Doctor Who (and thus “canonical” by even the strictest of definitions not to be willfully silly) that never happened. Doctor Who has not previously engaged in the idea of an unreliable narrator like this, and it won’t again until the Silence start complicating matters.
This requires some thought about the narration of the program in general. Tat Wood has what is probably his most unfortunate essay on this subject, in which he proceeds to try to posit some actual diegetic reason why the actions of a Time Lord are being sent to the BBC for transmission. But even if this take is overly silly, it’s worth noting in the general case that the psychic impressions taken by the TARDIS of events around it are edited with careful choice of camera angles and cuts. And the implication is that this is not simply the Valeyard making choices, as the Doctor’s objections in Terror of the Vervoids are merely to the truth of the evidence. Had he served as film editor in preparing his defense one imagines his objections taking a very different phrasing. Similarly, the fact that the Doctor struggles for an explanation for the idea that the emphasis of the evidence in Mindwarp is wonky suggests that he hasn’t thought about editing. If nothing else, the fact that the Doctor is not allowed to review any sort of master tape from which this edited evidence is extracted suggests that, no, the Matrix really is recording information as though it’s a television program. (Recall that in The Deadly Assassin we posited that the camera and the Panopticon are fundamentally related concepts)
But by and large this fits with our larger understanding of the Time Lords. Of course their sense of events are narratively constructed. How else could they possibly see the world? And even the Doctor doesn’t question this. Indeed, there’s something altogether consistent about this – remember that the Doctor’s mental impressions of The Evil of the Daleks were also edited like a television program. Not for the first time it appears that the Time Lords have no conception of events except as narrative. Indeed, even the Matrix is just a collection of stories. (Perhaps explaining how something that is apparently just a collection of Time Lord brains is capable of providing nightmarish virtual reality to entrap people – it’s just fragments of the narratives contained within it.)
Above all, however, it is fitting that this happens in the segment of the story designated as the “present.” Trial of a Time Lord exists in place of the Seasonish, and the one story that ostensibly exists within its timeframe is itself ished and left ambiguous as to its very existence. This is, in short, the point where the Trial begins to fall apart as a coherent narrative.
Part 3: What Is The Future?
Even as Terror of the Vervoids descends into incoherent mess, however, there are interesting interpretations to be made of it. The biggest bit of intensive wonkiness to come out of Terror of the Vervoids is the idea of the Doctor reviewing the events of a future adventure. But as bits of head-scratching incoherence in Doctor Who go, there are few bits more generative of strange implications.
Let’s start big here with predestination. Doctor Who has typically been pretty strongly pro-free will. Even in the new series, when things get intensively timey-wimey, the show constantly stresses the ability to change and reshape the wime. So given that, it’s difficult to even begin to make headway into the idea of the Doctor casually reviewing his future adventures. And presumably he did have to review a decent number – I mean, one doubts he just plunged into his future, grabbed an adventure at random, and said “oh, this will do.” So how, exactly, can this be squared away with the series more general embrace of free will? I mean, it’s one thing for the Doctor to know vaguely what his future incarnations look like and one of his adventures. It’s another to systematically peruse them.
But wait, there’s a bigger issue here. The Matrix contains the minds of past Time Lords. We’ve been told repeatedly that we’re watching the psychic impressions of the TARDIS. So why the heck does the Matrix have access to this adventure in the first place? Short of completely abandoning the idea that Time Lords have any sense of the present – a viewpoint that is irreconcilable with everything else we’ve ever seen of them – there’s no way to figure out how this would work.
Unless, of course, these aren’t the Doctor’s Time Lords. After all, the presence of the Valeyard does necessitate that the Doctor is out of his own personal timeline here. The question is purely whether the Valeyard is meddling with the past of Gallifrey or whether the Doctor is being yanked around by a future Gallifrey. The fact that the Doctor’s future adventures are known to these Time Lords suggests very strongly that it’s the latter – that this is a Gallifrey from several incarnations in the Doctor’s future.
Indeed, future events in the series even make it fairly easy to peg when in the future it is. We’re jumping the gun a little bit here, but one thing we’ll notice when we get around to the new series is that the Time War is in part a metaphor for the program’s cancellation and the resulting loss of a unified or master text. Given this, and given the Trial’s necessary engagement with the Seasonish, there’s every reason to treat Trial as an early echo of the Time War.
So what we have is, in effect, the future of the series attempting to rewrite its past. Or, more accurately, its present. And by necessity, at least some of this rewriting takes. The Valeyard may be defeated at the end, but that doesn’t mean that the Doctor’s narrative doesn’t shift. Aside from handily resolving the mess of continuity errors introduced by the Trial, this has the exceedingly useful benefit of providing a diegetic reason for the increase in quality that (slowly but surely) begins after the Trial. The future goes to the weakest point in the program and demands that it justify itself. And in response, the program begins to retune itself towards that future.
|“Well this is…”|
“I don’t know, does that joke work before the Press Gang
Part 1: A Courtroom of Renegades
It’s November 29th, 1986. Berlin remain at number one, and are unseated for the final week of this story by Europe with The Final Countdown. Erasure and Debbie Harry also chart. Lower in the charts – we’ve not looked in some time, after all – are Genesis with “Land of Confusion,” A-ha, Eurythmics, Simple Minds, and The Damned. Which paints a rosy picture, but we could also have done that by saying Bucks Fizz, Kenny Loggins, and Rod Stewart were in the lower charts, so, you know, let’s not get carried away.
While in real news, the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or, as we cheerily call it, Mad Cow Disease is diagnosed in British cattle, and preparations are made to offer shares of British Gas as the British natural gas industry gets privatized.
While on television, Trial of a Time Lord finally wraps up. Throughout the preceding three entries we have been pursuing various theories as to what is actually going on in the Trial. And for the most part we’ve been relatively fortunate, in that the thematic implications of the Trial have managed to explain the on-screen events surprisingly well. The infelicities of Holmes’s cosmic terminology play off of our established understanding of the Time Lords perfectly to produce a political situation where the apparent malfeasance of the Trial makes sense. The implications of the Doctor perusing future adventures perfectly sets up the bizarre contradictions within the story. We’re clearly miles out of line with what anyone writing this intended, but we’re nevertheless finding ourselves with a fairly easy interpretation of the entire trial as belonging to some hypothetical future period of the show that is at least partially averted by the revamp of the show that occurs in the Trial’s wake.
What remains, then, is understanding what this future timeline is like. Given that it is a future timeline, my readership will forgive me for actively cross-checking it with future stories, since I try not to discuss stories I’ve not covered yet at length. In any case, very few details present themselves. The Master is in his Tremas skinsuit still, suggesting that it predates the McGann movie. But we’ve also posited that this could be as far forward as the Time War, in which we know the Master was brought back to life, so presumably any version of the Master could do there. A better clue comes from the Inquisitor’s claim that the Doctor was deposed as Lord President.
This clue is admittedly trickier. At first glance it seems to suggest that we are, in fact, in the Doctor’s present. But that is just about the only thing in the entire Trial that points towards that, so let’s instead suggest that it merely implies that the Doctor has been deposed by the time in Gallifreyan history that the trial is taking place. That tells us that it post-dates Remembrance of the Daleks. (This is, of course, assuming that time is not excessively rewritten by the events of the Trial – a topic we’ll come to shortly)
But past those vague guideposts we’re left without much mooring in terms of the when – which is, admittedly, unsurprising given that Gallifrey post-Five Doctors is a complex topic to say the least. But it’s sufficient to observe that the Trial seems to take place somewhere in the hiatus – a period that, as I’ve already remarked, necessarily coincides with the Time War.
Moving on from when, then, let’s look at what. The first and most obvious thing to point out is that the setting of the Trial is strange. On the one hand it is clearly aboard a space station distant from Gallifrey. On the other the space station is clearly a place important enough to be the location of the Seventh Door to the Matrix. To be blunt about the question, then, where the heck is this place?
The more interesting thing to point out, however, is that nobody on the station seems to have a name. Even the seeming representative of Gallifreyan authority, the Keeper of the Matrix, is a position we have never seen referred to before held by someone who lacks a name. We observed back in Mark of the Rani that there is an existent if inadvertent distinction within Time Lords between named exiles and nameless renegades. And so it is of considerable interest to note that the trial is comprised entirely of renegades.
What is strange about renegades (as opposed to any other group of Time Lords) is that they are at once the lowest and the most powerful sorts of Time Lords. On the one hand they are wholly separate from Gallifreyan society, on the other they are continually uniquely privileged within it. The fact that the Doctor is put on trial by renegades speaks volumes and is one of the most intriguing details of the story. Especially when one thinks about how the renegades are privileged. For one thing, the only people we have ever seen to have a TARDIS in all of Doctor Who are renegades. Now we see that a space station full of renegades has one of the doors to the Matrix. And let’s further note that in The Deadly Assassin entering the Matrix from Gallifrey is a dangerous and dodgy process involving machines. Similarly, communion with the Matrix in The Invasion of Time requires no end of danger and equipment. We’ve never seen anything like a door to the Matrix on Gallifrey, and prior to this story it was never viewed as one of the functions of the Key to Rassilon. The implication is that not only do the renegades have privileged access to the Matrix, they are in fact the true keepers of it.
To be a renegade, in other words, is to be in a position of true authority – to be the driver of the eye of the Panopticon. And the Trial consists of them turning the Panopticon and all of their authority onto the Doctor in what we now understand as an explicit attempt to rewrite his history. At this point, then, we must finally turn to the question of who’s doing this.