The opening credits are a good index of what's afoot. There's a very self-congratulatory interview on the first DVD with the creator of the Trial-era theme tune, in which he speaks of completely re-inventing it and trying to give it a 'timeless' feel. But the truth is that it is terrible - still beholden to the previous version (which I already disliked), and weighed down with the very dated-ness which he was trying so hard to avoid. Where at its centre there was once a living, pulsing bass-line, now we have some sort of inept flapping sound. Meanwhile the star-field visuals (which I really liked when they were introduced at the beginning of the JNT era) have now been distorted to the extent that they seem more like a spectacle of tasteless bling than a glimpse into the majestic mysteries of the Universe. People in all areas of the programme were obviously trying hard to up the ante, but too often they seem to have been directing their efforts in exactly the wrong direction.
Sixth Doctor: The Mysterious Planet
The first story opens with some strikingly-good special effects, and indeed an obvious hike in production values is a clear strength for the entire season. The device of literally putting the Doctor on trial is interesting, and the way that the precise nature of the trial is only gradually revealed to the viewer helps to sustain that interest up for as long as possible. Lynda Bellingham is especially good value as the Inquisitor - but I was very surprised to see her appearing in a Wogan interview amongst the DVD extras, effectively saying that her character was incredibly boring and she couldn't think why anyone would want to watch her scenes. I suppose it's another sign of how incompetent the Doctor Who administration was at this time that no-one seems to have been taking an overview of these sorts of media appearances in order to ensure positive publicity for the programme.
I also thought there were some missed opportunities in the way the trial footage was used. For the first time ever in Doctor Who, we get to see the Doctor observing his own adventures (just like us) as well as participating in them, and this could have been used to add extra layers to our understanding of how he operates. We could have been treated to insights into his internal world of the kind which aren't normally revealed through dialogue with the companion: comments like "Of course, I knew more than I said to Peri at the time" or similar. What we get instead is a fairly face-value commentary on what we can already see going on on the screen - although I'm aware that matters become more complex in the next two stories as the reliability of the Matrix record is called into question.
The story itself is solid stuff, as should be expected from Robert Holmes. The archaeologist in me was particularly tickled by the idea of Peri and the Doctor walking through the future ruins of the London Underground, while the fangirl in me LOVED the moment when the Doctor announced his intention to stay there and write a thesis entitled 'Ancient Life on Ravolox by Doctor...', only to be interrupted by Peri before he could get as far as unveiling the perpetual mystery of his name. The secondary characters are generally good - especially Joan Simms as Queen Katryca and Tony Selby as Sabalom Glitz. And even Peri is suddenly a much stronger character than she was in the previous season - she notices things of her own accord (supported by a nice line in encouragement from the Doctor) and is gung-ho enough to seek out a way to get into the 'castle' and rescue him at the end of the story.
There are echoes of some recent stories, which isn't necessarily a bad thing under normal circumstances as it creates a sense of coherence and continuity, but again may not be the best idea when the programme is being pressed so hard to reinvent itself. The device of having primitive people living on the surface of the planet and more advanced ones underneath recalls H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, thus looking back at Timelash. Given that, though, there seems to me to be another missed opportunity - how neat it would be to have included a Wells book amongst the holy texts revered by the underground inhabitants of the planet, rather than the random selection of texts they do have (Moby Dick, The Water Babies and UK Habitats of the Canadian Goose) which don't seem to function as any kind of commentary on the main story. You can take that sort of thing too far, of course - but I'm pretty sure a more cleverly thought-out script would have selected books which added extra layers to the story.
And finally, the double-act of Sabalom Glitz and Dibbler reminded me rather of the two assassins in Revelation of the Daleks. I enjoyed watching them analysing their own sub-conscious urges towards violence in the first episode, which I take as having been intended to signal to the perpetual critics of this aspect of the programme that it is psychologically valid, and not simply mindless and gratuitous. Whether that convinces or not is another story.
Sixth Doctor: Mindwarp
YAY BRIAN BLESSED! is the first thing which must be said. We move forwards into another decently-solid story with interesting secondary characters. It's nice to see some black actors being used, although there are still limitations: they don't get to play the most prominent or powerful characters. Peri also continues to be much better than she was in season 22, managing to avoid would-be captors at least twice by stamping on their toes or firing at them, rather than just keeling over pathetically at the first sign of danger as she used to do. Poor old Nicola Bryant even finally gets the chance to prove that, actually, she can really act... in the closing moments of her final story. Pity that wasn't made use of earlier, really.
The trial story develops nicely - we see the Doctor directly responding to charges of violence from the Valeyard (who has a rather stronger case against him here than in The Mysterious Planet), and the question of whether or not the Matrix is a reliable witness begins to arise. For now, the answer to that remains ambiguous, as the Doctor's own memory is faulty as well - which of course leaves us asking the same questions about how much we can trust him that I enjoyed so much in the first couple of episodes of The Invasion of Time.
The production values remain high - it may not be up to today's standards, but I found the early shots of the TARDIS landing on a psychedelic Thoros Beta rather beautiful. The ending, meanwhile, stands out as being genuinely shocking and surprising, as you sit there wondering whether Peri has really just been irreversibly transformed into a belligerent alien slug creature. Finally, New Who Watch notes that the Doctor's attempts to put a stop to Crozier's mind transfer experiments are given an extra urgency by a knowledge of the character of Cassandra, whose ability to project her consciousness from body to body may be seen as the ultimate result of the same work.
Sixth Doctor: Terror of the Vervoids
At this stage, the 'Trial' part of the story gets both weird and interesting. The weird bit is the Doctor being allowed to present evidence from his own future in his defence. That seems to me rather out of keeping with what I know about how the Time Lords operate, and also to mean that the outcome of the trial is pre-determined, as we know that the Doctor must survive to experience the events of this story. Judging by the DVD extras, the idea was to have the first three stories in the season representing the Doctor's Past, Present and Future, like in A Christmas Carol - but in Dickens, the function of the Future segment is quite different, acting as a warning to Scrooge of a fate which he can still avoid. I don't think a blind transfer of the idea to Trial... really works - not without recourse to vague 'timey-wimey' type explanations anyway.
The interesting bit is the further confirmation that the Matrix record is unreliable. This time, the Doctor is quite certain that it has been altered - and although he could still be lying or wrong about that, the established setup of the programme is that we can trust him on matters like this. It is, of course, yet another comment on the nature of television - and I loves me some of that.
The story itself is really not too bad, especially considering that it's a Pip 'n' Jane Baker effort. In fact, given my current obsession with Poirot, I was thrilled to find that it is essentially a take on the murder mystery genre. Indeed, Poirot specifically gets a couple of direct hat-tips - a reference by the Doctor to using 'grey cells' rather than muscle, and a copy of Murder on the Orient express lying on a table in the Hyperion III's passenger lounge. In this, of course, the story also looks back to Four's The Robots of Death - possibly an attempt to recapture some of the magic of the programme's golden years?
Things cool off a bit in the middle - there's perhaps rather too much running around without anything very significant actually happening. And, once again, I find myself annoyed by fake-continuity (the idea that the Doctor and Commodore Travers have met some time before), which the same writers were also guilty of in Mark of the Rani. But the first and last episodes are good, and the latter in particular brings the story to a nice, pacey climax, with lots of complex motivations emerging amongst the various characters, and some good debates about the morally correct course of action in the face of the catastrophe of the escaped and hostile Vervoids.
To my surprise, I also found that I really liked Mel. I was prepared for the absolute pits with her, as she is widely celebrated in fandom for being one of the most annoying companions ever. But what I saw was a vivacious, enthusiastic young woman who asked questions, was full of ideas and was eager to take the initiative. By comparison with Peri, she is a glorious breath of fresh air, eager for adventure and coming across as much more of a fellow-traveller to the Doctor. Peri always felt as though she had been dragged along against her will and was going to make sure the Doctor knew this by moaning and whining about it until she got to go home - but there is none of this with Mel, and I'm profoundly glad it's gone. Sure, so she can let off a corker of a scream when she wants to - but she doesn't do it gratuitously; only when (e.g.) someone is killed in front of her and there are massive explosions going off all around. Meanwhile, towards the end, she seems genuinely moved when she sees all the passengers who have been murdered by the Vervoids, in a way which is sympathetic and touching rather than hysterical or needy. I'm quite prepared to believe that her character development may head off the rails in later stories - but she's off to a good start with me.
Sixth Doctor: The Ultimate Foe
And so the grand climax approaches. Sort of.
It's good to have the Master on board, especially as Anthony Ainley's performance here is a huge improvement on Mark of the Rani. Mel continues to be bright, resourceful and likeable, and Colin Baker is perhaps on his best form ever as the Doctor, ranting gloriously against Time Lord corruption, and just generally showing off a great range and some lovely individual moments. He'll never be my favourite Doctor, and in fact will probably always be my least favourite - but I can find it in me to be sorry that this is his last story all the same.
Some earlier story-lines are satisfactorily resolved - for example, we finally understand what had been going on with the Earth in The Mysterious Planet, and hear a different story about Peri's fate from the one presented by the Matrix (although me, I prefer the Matrix version). And on average, the plot is pretty decent, with some fun moments like the hands pulling the Doctor down into the quicksand. But there is an obvious mis-match between part 1, credited to Robert Holmes, and part 2, credited to Pip and Jane Baker. It's an understandable result of the production circumstances, and all things considered it is to the Bakers' credit that they managed to produce as coherent an ending as they did. But the defeat of the Valeyard in particular feels a bit hand-wavey and, well, Russell T. Davies-ish.
And so that is me for season 23. What I am going to do now is polish matters off neatly by watching the only remaining Sixth Doctor story I haven't seen - Attack of the Cybermen - and then just leave this era of Doctor Who quietly behind...
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