Doctor Who complete reviews: The Ultimate Foe
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Final judgement for Trial Of A Time Lord – and Colin Baker's brief reign as The Doctor...
The proverbial has hit the fan in a big way for the 6th Doctor. Despite his good intentions with the Vervoid evidence, he's now on a charge of mass genocide, after he reduced the walking plants to a pile of leaves on a sunny Autumn day.
Naturally, this is fantastic news for the Valeyard, whose mania has reached red-faced proportions. It's becoming fast obvious that The Valeyard is up to no good – the black-clad buffoon has just revealed his real dastardly self by starting to laugh evilly at regular intervals. Yes, how to give the game away in one fell swoop – start to go “Bwa ha haah!” – after all that hard work building up a credible case against The Doctor, The Valeyard's just committed professional suicide.
But at least the trial's starting to finally get somewhere. Better still, The Doctor's managed to nab some help from the most unlikely source. His arch enemy The Master has sent him two star witnesses in the form of Mel and Glitz. Who would have thought that The Master would hold out some sort of well-needed lifeline? Ah, well, it's possible that he needs to occupy himself, given that he's eking out some sort of useless existence as a psychedelic Max Headroom on a scanner screen.
And this is where the story starts to get good. The first part of The Ultimate Foe is sadly the last to be penned by Robert Holmes, one of the show's greatest scribes. And after the relatively lukewarm Mysterious Planet, this is a great return to form. It's a heady combination of expository dialogue, witty lines (the line about Baron Münchhausen is just one of many) and macabre imagery – and Holmes weaves all the strands together with crystal-clear efficiency.
Take the revelation of the Time Lords being behind the mystery of Ravolox. What a great revelation – in order to preserve their secrets of the Matrix (which had been stolen by Sleepers), they used a dreaded device called a Magnetron to drag the Earth across the galaxy, and caused the disaster that left the planet as a barely habitable ruin. Now that's a clever bit of writing – nowadays, we've recently heard about the Time Lords and how brilliant they are etc, but The Ultimate Foe rams home the fact that The Doctor's race have always been a bit seedy when it comes to morals and ethics. This cynical concept is taken further by the fact that the High Council of Time Lords set up the whole trial by taking advantage of The Doctor's blundering on the planet of Ravolox – and who better to do a deal with than the Valeyard, who guess what? Turns out to be The Doctor himself!
Well, actually that's a bit of a sticky claim. In fact, the Valeyard's an amalgamation of the dark side of The Doctor, a kind of evil Watcher-style figure hovering between the Doc's 12th and 13th incarnations. Again, a brilliant twist, and what's great about this is the way in which the cat is let out of the bag in such an understated fashion. The Master just casually says “The Valeyard – or as I have always known him, The Doctor” and it takes The Doctor a few seconds to do a double take as the real implications of his nemesis hit home.
The problem with this though is that it makes the Valeyard's plan to get rid of The Doctor a bit suspect. If The Valeyard kills The Doctor once and for all, then he can't get The Doctor's regenerations – unless he's got some handy device that sucks out all his remaining lives like a lethal hoover, prior to death. Mind you, on the up side, given that the Valeyard survives, surely a rematch between The Doctor and his evil future self is long overdue? Unless The Dream Lord's stringing out his real identity for just a bit longer?
These scenes are the most effective of the trial, and there's some excellent acting on display from Anthony Ainley, Michael Jayston and Colin Baker – his impassioned rant at the Time Lords, in which he claims that his race are far worse than an army of Daleks, Sontarans and Cybermen (“They're still in the nursery compared to us!”) is one of his most memorable moments. About the only blip is James Bree, who's back to sounding like he's got a whole toffee apple wedged in his gob (see his odd turn as the Security Chief in The War Games for more details).
And the great scenes come thick and fast, as The Doctor goes head to head with The Valeyard in the Matrix. OK, so this is ripping off The Deadly Assassin a bit, but this time we're in a grotesque Dickensian locale instead of a jungle – a world where pompous pen pushers, disembodied hands in barrels and evil kiddie choirs hold court. As The Doctor strides determinedly along the streets, I half expect “There's No One Quite Like Grandma” to start ringing in his ears – well either that, or Murray's Pompous Choir have been at the helium.
The Matrix scenes are superbly shot by Chris Clough though – dark, psychological suspense is obviously his forte, and we get some very effective sequences. The Doctor almost being drowned by hands in a barrel full of water. The caricature of Popplewick, boasting a fine cameo from Geoffrey Hughes. And that excellent cliffhanger in which The Doctor is dragged to his doom in a pit of quicksand. All of these little set-pieces are directed with great flair and imagination by Clough, and top off what's the most consistent episode of the story.
But – I hate that word – there has to be a downside, and so it's a shame that that downside is nearly half an hour long, and has to tie up all the loose ends. One of the sad things about The Trial Of A Time Lord is that it's hampered by events that couldn't have been foreseen. The ending is a casualty of behind the scenes dramas – Robert Holmes very sadly passed away before he could complete the final part, and so the story goes that script editor Eric Saward had a crack at completing the tale instead. However, relations were apparently low between JNT and Saward, and matters weren't helped by the rejection of the planned last part – from what I remember, the trial was to have concluded in a far more downbeat cliffhanger ending with The Doctor and The Valeyard (now revealed to be a pitiful old man in Saward's script) tumbling into black infinity. A good cliffhanger maybe, but given the turbulent times, something far more positive was needed to sign off the show. So Saward withdrew his script, leaving a troubling hole that needed to be filled.
So with days to spare, JNT called on the services of Pip and Jane Baker, who dutifully submitted a script that tied everything up in one neat little package. With that in mind, it's little wonder that the end result isn't as good as it could have been. And even if the final product isn't quite up to scratch, kudos to the Bakers for assembling a conclusion in such a short space of time.
And there are still some one or two neat ideas – the trial within a trial as Mel and The Inquisitor watch The Doctor being sent down in a fake courtroom is nicely done. The end reveal of Popplewick as the Valeyard is obvious from a mile off, but it's still an effective reveal.
"It's a shame that the Valeyard's just been reduced to a stock pantomime villain – all that potential about the dark side of The Doctor has just been thrown away in favour of evil laughter and hammy dialogue"
But regrettably, the last part deteriorates into an unspectacular tussle between The Doctor and The Valeyard, who's now planning to destroy everyone with a barrage of blue BBC Micro snowflakes. It's a shame that the Valeyard's just been reduced to a stock pantomime villain – all that potential about the dark side of The Doctor has just been thrown away in favour of evil laughter and hammy dialogue. Michael Jayston is fortunately magnificent in the role, and adds a lot of gravitas, even when he's forced to say lines like “You are elevating futility to a high art!” or everyone's favourite, “There is nothing that you can do to stop the catharsis of spurious morality!”
Anyway, even with the Bakers' inexplicable penchant for overblown dialogue, most of the characters aren't that well catered for. The Master is – after a promising start – reduced to the level of the second-tier baddie (The Valeyard says as much himself). Calling on the services of Glitz is about as low as he can get, since the conman's biggest claim to fame is probably selling a dodgy motor to The Meddling Monk. The Master's even got a tacky treasure chest full of jewels and riches to tempt Glitz's “crass soul”. Evidently, the Master took a quick detour to the Tower Of London after escaping from the clutches of the Rani and her pet dinosaur.
Mel, too, doesn't come off quite so well. Actually, this isn't strictly down to the Bakers, since Holmes was presumably responsible for the hokey tosh of “How utterly evil!” in the previous episode. But she doesn't get much better material in the final part, the nadir of which is probably that awful angry speech that she has to deliver to the Time Lords. Bonnie Langford does so in an odd, croaky rasp that makes her sound like she's swallowed a bee.
Despite more good work from Chris Clough, the final part still feels like a letdown. The script, while well worked out, is still unexciting and clichéd, and made worse by the revelation that Peri's married to Yrcanos, one of the biggest cop-outs in the show's history. As I said, the conclusion was affected by matters outside anyone's control, a rather sad indictment of how Doctor Who stood in the mid-80s. As if to underline the show's run of bad luck, the end verdict of the trial in the real world was one of mixed fortunes. Doctor Who got to live another day, but Colin Baker's incarnation didn't.
"A few more years in the role, and Colin Baker might have gained a higher standing in those 'Favourite Doctor' polls today"
The 6th Doctor, while still prone to bouts of arrogance and smugness, had admittedly mellowed this season. Evidently, the production team were well on the way to making this incarnation into the finished article – someone that the viewers could go from initially despising through to liking. So it's too bad that this plan was cut short by the powers that be who still weren't convinced. It's even more of a shame, given that Colin Baker had found his groove this season, delivering consistently good performances. A few more years in the role, and he might have gained a higher standing in those 'Favourite Doctor' polls today.
As things go, the 6th Doctor waves an unassuming goodbye with the immortal words of “Carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice”. Not a great last speech, and there's no proper handover to Sylvester's Doctor – just a very obvious shot of Sylv in a curly blonde wig regenerating after falling from an exercise bike. Oh, the indignity.
A season full of opposites then. Way too many trial scenes, but some great little nuggets like the 13th part and Peri's death. OTT, hammy performances from some quarters but excellent ones from Baker, Bryant, Jayston and Bellingham. Superb model shots but occasionally cheap-looking sets and effects. In the end, the verdict from this reviewer is a cautionary Not Guilty – not quite as bad as some of the fans have claimed, but it could and should have been a great season rather than one that's just good in places.
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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