Doctor Who complete reviews: The Mysterious Planet
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
The Doctor is on trial - again. And so is Doctor Who. Again...
"The Trial Of A Time Lord" - Part 1
After what seemed like an eternity, Doctor Who was finally back on TV in September 1986. The 18-month hiatus had not been welcomed by viewers and fans, after the likes of Grade and Powell saw fit to ‘rest’ the show which they felt had become stale and violent.
So not anything like EastEnders then.
Season 23 was awaited with bated breath - but was it worth the wait? Hmmm, the jury’s out on that one - literally, since the end product was, of course, the notorious Trial Of A Time Lord.
The Trial Of A Time Lord is the show’s longest story - a 14-part epic that’s generally regarded as three four-part stories and a two-parter to tie up the loose ends. Given that the fans were really looking forward to this new run of stories, you can imagine the sighs of disappointment echoing across the globe at what they actually got.
The story does exactly what it says on the tin. The Doctor is put on trial - yet again- by the Time Lords. Now this is a clever move in one way; it’s a sly wink to the fact that Doctor Who, despite its return, was still effectively on trial. The decade of the 1980s was the first to use ratings as a yardstick that could make or break a programme. These days, if your new TV show doesn’t get x-million viewers, it’s dead on the spot. So think of poor old Doctor Who struggling to worm its way back into the affections of both the viewers and the BBC controllers - the trial framework with its crafty digs such as “Can’t we have the edited highlights?” was a neat parody of how the programme was regarded in the real world.
But generally, the trial setup did the show no favours whatsoever. Sly winks to the audience are all well and good, but at what price? The problem is twofold. On the one hand, the trial idea is staggeringly unoriginal. The Doctor’s been put in the dock by his own race before in The War Games, The Deadly Assassin and Arc Of Infinity. That means that this is the fourth time that we get this hoary old plot device. With all that time to plan a great big comeback, surely JNT and Eric Saward could have opted for something a bit more innovative and punchy than this?
The second problem is that the whole trial setup is boring. I’m probably not the best man to offer an impartial comment since I hate courtroom dramas. But even the diehard courtroom saga aficionado will be tearing their hair out at the frustrating tedium of it all. Courtroom stories do not allow for good drama, it’s as simple as that - instead you’re relying on static shots, petty point-scoring and non-stop bickering. And sure enough, you get all three of these in abundance during Trial, and by god, it’s a chore to wade through. What’s worse is that just when you’re getting into the three stories, the bloomin’ trial scenes come along and intrude. One minute you’re going with the flow of the story, the next, you’re dragged kicking and screaming into the petty sniping between The Doctor and his shifty prosecutor, The Valeyard.
There’s a whole host of other problems with the setup of the trial. As we’ll see in the concluding parts, the motives of the Valeyard make no sense whatsoever, and mean that the whole thing’s pointless in the first place. Another overriding factor is that you need to pay attention to what’s going on, since events in the first four parts are not tied up until the concluding two-parter. You need to remember key pieces of information so as to know what’s going on in The Ultimate Foe - but what if you’re just a casual viewer? It’ll be trickier to decode than a Japanese instruction manual for a toaster.
Looking at Trial again, it’s curiously one of the earlier attempts at what’s nowadays known as the season Arc, a method of storytelling that I’ve never really liked much, for the precise reasons that this 14-parter is so flawed: the arc themes intrude on the actual stories, and what’s worse is that viewers who like to dip in from time to time won’t really be able to follow the story. Season arcs are par for the course in Who these days, whether they concern Bad Wolf, Mr Saxon or The Crack. I just wish the current Who teams would forget about all this season arc stuff and get on with telling good, stand-alone stories. The latest season didn’t even resolve the 'Silence Will Fall' strand, meaning that it’ll take at least two seasons to resolve. Planning at its sloppiest from Moffat.
But anyway, that’s another grumble for another time. Back to the trial, and things get off to a shaky start with the rubbish new arrangement of the theme. Quite why the funky Howell arrangement wasn’t kept is a good question, especially when the new one sounds like a tinny mobile phone ringtone. Things start to yo-yo a bit as we then get a breathtaking model shot of the court space station, dragging the TARDIS into its lair like a giant, metallic spider pulling a fly into its web. It’s a brilliantly realised effect, and is probably one of the best of the original series. But when the TARDIS actually lands inside, The Doctor staggers out onto what looks like the set for Galloping Galaxies.
So this queasy upping and downing sets the pace for both the story and the season as a whole. Even if the sets are a bit plastic, and the courtroom interior looks too small and underwhelming, at least, you’ve got some good performances to savour. The formidable double act of The Inquisitor and The Valeyard are superbly brought to life by Lynda Bellingham and Michael Jayston. Bellingham has a nice line in snooty putdown and disdainful expressions, which stands her in good stead, despite some uncertain scripting over the course of the season. Jayston though, threatens to steal the show out of the guest actors. The Valeyard is possibly the angriest man in the universe, a perpetually scowling killjoy who delights in taking down The Doctor a peg or thousand at every opportunity. Even his dress sense is doomy, a black robe and skull cap which, coupled with his long face, makes him look a bit like a futuristic version of the grim reaper. All he needed was a Time Lord scythe, and the picture would have been complete.
"Colin Baker remains the one constant of the season, running the whole gamut of emotions through the next four stories"
The most gratifying performance of the season though goes to Colin Baker. It’s kind of sad in a way; we’re well on the way to seeing how the Bad Guy Turns Good storyline pans out, and yet after this season, that ambition is cruelly cut short by the powers that be. The 6th Doctor is still an arrogant loudmouth, but he’s evidently mellowed into a far more likeable, compassionate figure. And Baker remains the one constant of the season, running the whole gamut of emotions through the next four stories.
An added bonus is that finally, The Doctor and Peri are - gasp! - nice to each other. The non-stop bickering of the last season is a thing of the past, as The Doctor and Peri are now genuinely enjoying each other’s company. Even when Peri starts to moan and whine, The Doctor doesn’t fly off the handle, instead he chooses to comfort her as best as he can. When she laments the destruction of Earth, The Doctor consoles her, while pointing out that “Nothing can be eternal”. A great rapport between Baker and Nicola Bryant is well established here, and nicely jars with odd sequence in which The Doctor finds that he’s minus his friend in the Time Lord court. Spooky…
So, The Mysterious Planet itself - pretentiously established as the first of two typical instances from separate epistopic interfaces of the spectrum (eh?). Clearly, Robert Holmes had been talking to Pip and Jane Baker on the day that he wrote this one. For a season opener, it’s curiously low-key, a small-scale tale that looks to The Krotons for inspiration, with a clunky robot looking for the best brains in the land - pickings are pretty slim with the likes of The Tribe Of The Free stomping about. Meanwhile, a pair of shifty con merchants called Glitz and Dibber are trying to snaffle some mysterious secrets from the robot called Drathro, which have been suspiciously bleeped out during the Matrix playback.
Actually, The Mysterious Planet is quite entertaining, and after his recent over-complicated Two Doctors, Robert Holmes turns in a refreshingly simple tale. The only mysteries left hanging in the air are the wrong location of Earth (which now goes by the name of Ravolox) and the intriguing secrets that have been blanked - but that‘s a fault of the overriding story arc. But for a season opener, it should have had some great big hook to draw the viewers in, and while it‘s well scripted and made, The Mysterious Planet just lacks that all-important vitality.
"The great Holmesian lines luckily flow freely in The Mysterious Planet."
Still, it‘s fun to savour the usual Holmesian trademarks - the celebrated double act this time around is Glitz and Dibber, a pair of beardy small-time crooks, who as usual, are too busy arguing amongst themselves. Glitz, in particular, could be a long-lost ancestor of Garron or Jago, with his somewhat over-flowery turn of phrase and cowardly nature. Tony Selby is very good as the ebullient conman, and was popular enough to return to the show twice. Glen Murphy isn‘t quite in the same league, but then his character Dibber really only functions as Glitz’s Yes Man.
And at least these two are much more successful than the other double act, Humker and Tandrell, two annoying gimps, who serve no purpose but to annoy everyone with their one-note, smart-arse banter. The acting’s pretty ropey too from Billy McColl and Sion Tudor Owen. What Humker and Tandrell possess in brains, they seriously lack in likeability.
The great Holmesian lines luckily flow freely in The Mysterious Planet. Especially amusing are Balazar’s constant references to The Doctor as “Old One”, a turn of phrase that’s understandably met with disgust by the man himself. God alone knows what Balazar would have made of Hartnell’s Doctor - maybe Balazar’s odd choice of headgear is somehow affecting his cerebral cortex, and it definitely makes him look a bit of a prat. Elsewhere you have great lines like “That sounds more like an insult than a diagnosis, Mr Glitz!” or “Somehow I always feel foolish saying this - Take me to your leader!” Holmes still hadn’t lost the knack for writing great dialogue, even in his final years, and this talent comes through loud and clear in The Mysterious Planet.
Oddly though, The Mysterious Planet is a lot less violent, although given that violence levels needed to be toned down after the last one, this is no big shock. That said, there is one brilliantly icky scene, and that’s when shrill she-warrior Katryca (leader of the Tribe Of The Free) and her hippy second banana Broken Tooth are fried alive by Drathro. The scorched make-up and blood look very effective and convincing, and at least it gets rid of the annoying Katryca - Joan Sims seems a bit ill at ease with the character, and really does little apart from strut around shouting with what appears to be Cuddles The Monkey on her angry bonce.
Production-wise, The Mysterious Planet stands up quite well, although some of the deficiencies are glaringly obvious. Drathro’s pet spy camera robot doesn’t seem to want to run at more than two miles per hour, and for some odd reason, is always accompanied by what sounds like the theme from Inspector Gadget. Fans of film will no doubt lament the switch to uniform OB filming, although I don’t actually mind it - the OB cameras do at least allow for more hand-held camerawork, which always looks good. Overall, Nicholas Mallett does a good job with his first story - the direction isn’t anything startlingly out of the ordinary, but it’s competent enough and tells the story at a good pace.
Is The Mysterious Planet enough of a comeback though? Judging by the viewing figures, maybe not. Whereas in the past, Saturday nights were the place to be, by 1986, the ratings were alarmingly small, at around the three or four million mark. Clearly, the show was still very much on trial - would it take a shock ending to help turn things around?
To be continued…
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.
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