1. The Mysterious Planet
2. Mindwarp
3. Terror of the Vervoids
4. The Ultimate Foe
The Trial of a Time Lord
The Story Arc of Season Twenty-Three

Episodes 14 The Valeyard
Story No#'s 144-147
Production Code 7A-7C
Season 23
Dates Sept. 6, 1986 -
Dec. 6, 1986

With Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, Bonnie Langford.
Produced by John-Nathan Turner.

Synopsis: The Doctor is taken out of time in order to be tried for his continuing interference, only to discover that the trial itself has been rigged.

Back to page one (the first twenty reviews)


A Review by Emily Monaghan 13/11/08

I bloody love Trial of a Time Lord.

Yes, really. I think it's wonderful. Last night, I screeched to the end of Ultimate Foe, beaming all the way through, hiding behind a cushion in excitement and swearing under my breath. And that was but the last hour of a month I've spent in similar fashion, getting increasingly more excited from, oh, Mindwarp onwards.

I've put my cards on the table, and I can safely assume you disagree. One of the reasons I've taken to haunting here rather than the archived Gallifrey 1 reviews is that I've never seen a positive one there; all are so critical, I wonder what it is they even like about the show. If overanalysed, this does look pretty ropey. Even I can't defend Mel; the individual adventures are desperately generic; the court scenes in Mysterious Planet are pointless; and the Valeyard could surely have found episodes to air which show the Doctor in a worse light. It's very hard to refute half the charges found on this page.

But the final product is far greater than the sum of its parts; and I'm not making a critical judgement, I'm making an emotional one. A lot of people can't detangle the episode from the era and judge it on its merits without the intrigue (stop me if this all sounds familiar; I'll be telling you my reviews have been manipulated next!) But I wasn't there then - and taken out of its original timezone, it's a fine piece of work.

Criticising Colin Baker has long been out of fashion; personally, I never saw why it was in. He's pretty much everything a Doctor should be, just wonderful in every way. Watching his interplay with the Valeyard is priceless. The key to their double act is that the Doctor changes, and the Valeyard doesn't. He's always calmly malevolent - while the Doctor passes from arrogant, to worried, self righteous, passionate defence, angry, upset, and back to arrogant confidence again as the situation changes. Most tellingly, when the situation gets worse, he suddenly remembers the Valeyard's name - and then in Ultimate Foe, when he starts regaining his confidence, he's back to calling him Railyard again.

The Valeyard is scarily implacable, only just revealing his anger, an immovable object. One wonders which bits of the Doctor he got, for him to be able to sit so still and quietly (two qualities no Doctor has had). He's everything the Doctor isn't. Still, calm, capable of staying in the same place for more than half a minute. Cold and unemotional - pick your favourite Doctor rant on the values of love and compassion, any of them will do. I'm sure the Valeyard has no more appreciation for a well cooked meal than the Cybermen do. Evil, of course. But also a Gallifreyan toady - happy to abide by their rules, and agreeing with their way of doing things. At the same time, little touches - like the Hamlet, or the fact his Matrix is pinched straight from Dickens - prove he's still our guy. That he presents a genuine threat to the Doctor helps: Trial-Doctor is completely powerless to influence the events on screen, producing a sense of helpless onlooking the entire way through, like watching the ship crash in Earthshock, or the TARDIS fry in Journey's End, but worse, because it's already happened. The threat of a council of Time Lords is also far scarier than any number of armed opponents. There's no way he can talk his way out of this one, make a quick escape, happen upon a ventilation duct or make a break for it. The immediate danger is less - but there's no point at which he is entirely safe.

The Valeyard manages to actually reduce the Doctor to a stunned silence for most of Mindwarp; the number of people who've ever succeeded in shutting him up this completely can surely be counted on the fingers of one hand. And Six is meant to be the belligerent one. The Valeyard knows more than the Doctor too, another unusual situation. His true identity, for one thing; all the Gallifrey background; what's really going on in the Matrix. The revelation in Ultimate Foe makes it all twice as bad: the endless fun of multi-Doctor squabbling takes on a sinister turn, as the Valeyard looks on his former self with icy distaste, and knows exactly how to make him bleed. Peri is a case in point. And after 90 minutes of "I have to save Peri!" in Caves, the Doctor's total indifference and declaration that he values his own life over hers becomes very hard to watch (incidentally, Mindwarp along with Curse of Fenric, Dalek, Two Doctors etc are eligible for the Planet of Fire award: when good Doctors turn evil).

Someone on this page suggested it would have been interesting for them to have had a 5th episode for the first piece of evidence, and a Future Doctor for the future segment. It's a wonderful idea (if I had been the Valeyard, I could have convicted him on Caves of Androzani alone - in which he is singlehandedly responsible for causing everything, just by his arrival, and with his companion in ludicrous amounts of danger too). But it contradicts the way I believe Time Lords think about different regenerations, as seperate people in a way. I feel that a Time Lord would see it as unfair to prosecute Six for something any other Doctor had done. It'd certainly explain why the Master doesn't try and get revenge on the Sixth Doctor for Planet of Fire; indeed, why the Fifth Doctor doesn't seem to take the fact the Master killed his predecessor and blew up Traken all that personally, because it all happened to someone else. I was rather upset recently when they included Jabe and Lynda in the 10th Doctor's guilt montage, for blowing my theory out of the water (and, it must be said, for not making the exception for a particular Alzarian who I feel deserved to be included if they were going outside of his Tenth incarnation.) Anyway, very off topic now.

The Doctor's relationship with both companions is just too cute. Particularly with Mel. Now, I wasn't that fond of her either, but I did like what she represented. I've always seen the Doctor's lives as different parts of one extended life: Three's the schoolboy whose tree-climbing antics are curtailed by his parents and teachers; Four is the adolescent, all confidence and self-belief; Five is something of a mid-life crisis, unable to strike the same balance in his actions that he always took for granted. Which brings us around to Mel and Future-Six. Usually, it's the Doctor's job to protect his companion. But with her doing the investigating and being loudly proactive about his rescue, I get the impression she's taking care of him. Look at him in Terror of the Vervoids: very mellow, not looking for trouble, with her taking the lead with the mystery and making sure he stays fit. I think he's earned it: some semi-retirement, with Mel taking on a wifely role (not romantically, I hasten to add, just in terms of the sense of equality they have.)

But not even I, Adricfan, can exonerate her completely - and my admiration is based entirely on my thoughts about the character, not on exactly what was on screen. Her voice grates through my nerves; give me a Dalek any day. It probably would have been better for posterity to have her as a one-off character in Vervoids, and not bring her back for Ultimate Foe. The BBC rightly list all her lines from that episode as "dialogue clunkers" on their episode guide - at that point, all we want is resolution, and the companion becomes even more a dull extra than normal.

The Doctor and Peri have their moments too, but particularly his reaction to Peri's apparent death is terribly moving. I actually found it more so than Earthshock, and anyone who was with me on the drinking binge that occurred an hour after finishing the episode will know I was pretty upset (I hasten to add that I didn't go out to get drunk purely because of that episode - it was a friend's 18th - but it did help) Even with the knowledge that she would be fine, the Doc's reaction is a real emotional kick. Going out in public after watching Colin Baker has proved to be a bizarre experience on more than one occasion; he's that wonderful, yet also that unpopular that I feel I'm the possessor of a wonderful secret nobody else knows.

Hell, I even loved the Master's involvement. Again, my minority opinion is that Mr Ainley's performance as the Master has never been better than here. As a Master-centric episode, I still prefer King's Demons (yes, really), but here he demonstrates the kind of cool, amused menace that really make the character great. At times, he's even scary. And that's not a word I tend to apply to the Master outside of Utopia. I like his motivation too: the last thing he wants is a Doctor, with all his ingenuity and dislike of him, freed from those moral scruples. I'm also amused that Glitz's greed is so deeply ingrained that it breaks the Master's hypnosis.

If we look at the individual adventures, Mysterious Planet was my least favourite of the three. I liked the individual ideas, of course - Drathro's two blonde buddies were cool, the underground set was very eerie and the Doctor had some lovely lines. Particularly "Is there any intelligent life here?" "Apart from me?" - but it had very little momentum and accordingly, I had little difficulty waiting between episodes. I actually watched other stuff between Mindwarp 1 and Mindwarp 2; the reappearance of Sil didn't make me all that excited, because I hadn't seen his first episode. But this was also the point at which it got scary.

There are three things going on with the Doctor's behaviour in Mindwarp. His brain has been fried by the bad guys, and he is acting evily accordingly. He's deliberately deceiving everyone (shades of the coming Seventh?) to get to the bottom of the plot, as he suggests in the trial. And meddling in the Matrix is twisting the evidence to show him in the worst light. But which is where is anyone's guess; a mixture of all three? It's scary at the time, because you're not sure what he's up to. It remains unsettling because it's never explained. His treatment of Peri is, accordingly, tragic, cruel or incorrect. It's still hard to watch. They actually pull the "a companion's been killed! But not really..." trick twice in a row here, but it worked on me both times.

Much like Mysterious Planet, I can see that Mindwarp is a bad episode. An unrealistic, manufactured society, bad locations, a plot that consists of running around and getting lost. But it too had highpoints: the opening scene on the beach with the pink sea was wonderful, the dog-man effect was unpleasant, and I really liked some of the music cues. In addition, it appears that Trial of a Time Lord was the career move of choice for morally ambiguous blonde scientists: there's another one in Mindwarp, and I like him even more than the first two. Without the trial trappings - if these two episodes were presented as regular adventure - I don't think I would have enjoyed them so much.

Terror of the Vervoids is also pretty good. Again, the physical effects were really quite unpleasant. I like the captain appearing as the Doc's old friend; there must be people like that all over the galaxy. It's a pity that we never got another Six series, because then we could have seen the episode where they meet. I particularly enjoyed the scene at the end where they blow the Vervoids up, which is wonderfully played by everyone. Even though my views on Who-shipping swing wildly, I always think there should be companion hugging. Both Mel and the Doctor's reaction is adorable, and the image of the Vervoids going through a speeded up autumn, winter and rotting to nothing was smart, quite unpleasant and weirdly moving.

Of course, the best thing about Terror is that while all that stuff on the ship is going on, the courtroom is getting to the apex of tension. The Valeyard's arguments are starting to hit home: in Mysterious Planet, they were roundly unconvincing, but from the suggestion in Mindwarp that "companions are statistically in danger twice as often as the Doctor", he starts getting scary.

Accordingly, the best episode of ToaTL is actually the trial itself. One of the key problems of DW is you rarely believe the Doctor is in danger. How can you? They ain't gonna kill him, not permanently; at the end of the episode, you know he's going to go trudging back to the TARDIS. The best episodes allow you to forget this, whether through the character's performances or sheer direness of the situation. As a framing device, the trial heightens tension by putting the Doc in danger the whole while.

The Time Lords have always been a scary bunch, but never moreso than here. Normally, the sense of power, dignity and callous practicality is let down by actually getting to see the council: inevitably dull, squabbling and a game of spot the traitor. Neil Gaiman is right when he suggests they should be "distant and unknowable". Their behaviour in this one really takes the biscuit: manipulating Yrcanos for their own ends, letting Peri become collateral damage (sort of), destroying the Earth for a coverup, and making the Doctor a scapegoat for interference and genocide like their hands are whiter than white. The worst part is, none of it is hard to believe, and their physical absence makes it all the more sinister (it's similarly effective in Brain of Morbius, when they simply dump the Doctor on Karn with no explanation)

Of course, these days the Valeyard's identity will come as no surprise, but I can still admire the skill with which the reveal is done: the Master's utterly casual, sans melodrama delivery of such an important fact, blink and you'd miss it entirely, and then that straight cut to the Valeyard just sitting there. I'm currently writing a mini essay about the Master, and it's nice to know that part of the Doctor's subconscious is given to wearing black, cackling and saying "my dear" after all.

I did like the revelation about Peri though. It's taken a lot of flak, but for me, this isn't just another unlikely companion romance. There's something sinisterly tragic at work too. You're a normal Earth girl, who finds herself suddenly stranded in the future. Your only friend has vanished, and hasn't come back for a long time now, and he was acting very strangely before anyway. Someone wants to marry you and give you a home in this world you don't understand. What the hell else was she supposed to do? Say no, because she doesn't fancy Brian Blessed, and then do what? She can't fly spaceships, she has no currency, no idea of how the system works on that planet or any other. It's not a situation in which a girl can be picky.

The final scene between her and the Doctor is actually the second cliffhanger, when she prevents Yrchanos from killing him, at the point when the Doctor is still being properly evil. No Green Death/Doomsday/Hand of Fear style sentimental farewell for Peri. In Mysterious Planet, she doesn't like the idea of marrying a space-savage at all. In Mindwarp, she keeps expressing a desire to go home. You just know that the Doctor never went back to see how she and Yrchanos were getting on, because he never does (Sarah Jane?!); and if he had done, I bet she would have told him to get her home at once. As such, I think of it as one of the more interesting companion departures, not one of the "then she gets married" ones, because her future is uncertain, dangerous and not necessarily all that happy. As a comparison, even though Hand of Fear is very sad, and the new series has taken her life in a depressing direction, the final shot of Sarah Jane is uplifting and optimistic.

By the time we got to the denouement of Ultimate Foe, I barely cared that yes, the ending was rushed, because I was just having so much fun. Final shot = priceless. The best thing about Trial is its length; by the time you get to the end, you're almost ready to watch it all over again. I certainly am.

I've always been happy to have controversial opinions, and I'm always pleased to discover many of them aren't that controversial any more. There is a healthy base of Adric fans, for example; nor is King's Demons as universally hated as you might think. Trial of a Time Lord is the exception: it's still hated. And I can see why, but it would be a colossal St. Peter to even try and rationalise my reaction in light of other opinions.

I'm not an apologist. I'm not a lone defender. Maybe I'm not a defender at all. I just genuinely loved this piece of television.

Something between a classic and disaster by Yeaton Clifton 14/2/13

Thoughts on how to enjoy season 23

The last episode of season 22, Revelation of the Daleks, was a classic and Time and the Rani, the first episode of season 24, was a disaster. Trial of a Time Lord, which encompasses all of season 23, is something in between. Trial may break down into four shorter stories: The Mysterious Planet, Mindwarp, Terror of the Vervoids, and The Ultimate Foe. I am giving a brief discussion of why I enjoy the season as a whole, and referring the reader to analysis of the separate stories, but I want to make it clear I enjoy the story as a whole.

I can spot several flaws in Trial of a Time Lord, because I have watched the story many times. I watched the story repeatedly because I like Colin Baker's performance more each time. Although Baker's given several bad lines, he puts a lot of emotion into acting. I am aware that script editor Eric Saward quit during the production of Trial of a Time Lord and he then made some scathing comments about how it was a mistake to cast Baker in the role. Actually, given the scripts he was handed, Baker did what a great actor would do: he brought the character to life. The sixth Doctor was an unlikeable character, and Baker made you feel he was a real person, and you hate him. The scripts that Baker was given may not have been a good idea, but Saward is partly responsible for that. Saward is a great writer - witness Earthshock and Revelation of the Daleks. Nevertheless, he ought to realize that an unlikeable Doctor would go badly with fans, and he ought have modified the scripts to make the sixth Doctor likeable.

Saward also takes responsibility for the idea of creating an epic story that is formatted in flashbacks and flashforwards from a courtroom drama. The idea was supposed to breath new life into Doctor Who, attracting new viewers, but the product is very confusing (flashbacks and flashforwards are not easy to follow), and it is tedious (interrupting stories with courtroom debate makes the stories dull). It probably repelled more viewers than it attracted. Saward also takes credit for a lot of the courtroom banter, which is badly written dialog. Saward may be a great writer, but this story is a terrible idea, and he should bear the blame for failure rather than Colin Baker. I do not mean it is a terrible story: given the premise, it is very good. I am saying Baker is one who made it worth watching.

6/10. Recommended with qualifications. I would not suggest fans start viewing the sixth Doctor era with Trial of a Time Lord. First watch The Two Doctors and Revelation of the Daleks. If you develop an interest in the character, then watch Trial. For a story in the sixth Doctor era, Trial is above average quality. Further, it is nearly a third of the sixth Doctor era.

The Executioner's Song by Joe Briggs-Ritchie 2/4/15

In Doctor Who terms, The Trial of a Time Lord is the epic to end all epics, at least with regard to its length anyway. In terms of quality... Well it's variable. It is very much an experiment and experiments are, by their very nature, risky. They offer no guarantee of success and the rewards can be scant, if any. I wonder if perhaps the experimental nature of The Trial of a Time Lord was done as an attempt to save the show? It was taken off the air before being reinstated and I do have a sneaking suspicion that to attempt something so radically different was an act of desperation to try and save the show from Michael Grade's axe, to push it into new areas in the hope that it would be more favourably received. It didn't work, however. The show was on the slide and its ultimate cancellation was inevitable, at least with Michael Grade as controller. But whether or not the end result is a success is somewhat beside the point; they had the guts to try something different in such a huge way and for that The Trial of a Time Lord deserves at least some respect, even if it is grudgingly given. It is somewhat a case of art imitating life with the Valeyard representing Grade, putting the series on trial for its very existence. However, if you're a Doctor Who fan, then you'll probably find the Valeyard to be the infinitely more likeable of the two...

The concept is sound enough, but the execution is distinctly hit and miss. It begins with one of Colin Baker's best stories but ends with a damp squib. But then the problem is one of sustainability; you need a good beginning to draw people in, you need a good middle section to keep them watching and you need a good ending to make them come back for more. Achieving all three isn't an easy task and Trial unfortunately doesn't pull it off. The Mysterious Planet is definitely the best of the season in terms of quality. It manages to be intriguing, mysterious and entertaining, balancing everything more successfully than any of the other stories. Mindwarp, on the other hand, is a tedious runaround, a dreary endurance test that never manages to come to the boil. Even Nabil Shaban's excellent turn as Sil can't save it. As with Philip Martin's other Doctor Who story, Vengeance on Varos, there is too much running around and too many bland sets.

Terror of the Vervoids has possibly the shoddiest production values, the worst acting, the shakiest sets (the cabins look like they would fall to bits if somebody sneezed) and the highest embarrassment factor... and yet it is the most entertaining of the four stories. It's got more than its fair share of supporters and there's a good reason for that: it's much more of a traditional Doctor Who story than the rest of Trial. It's a silly murder mystery on a spaceship with some ludicrous monsters, and after eight episodes of fairly serious Who, it comes as welcome light relief. It's by no means a classic of tasteful design or decent acting but it isn't trying to be. It is what it is. The Ultimate Foe, on its own terms, is passable but, as the culmination of the season, is a let down. With its foray into the Matrix, it attempts to tap into the glory days of the series, namely The Deadly Assassin but fails entirely. It seems tired and lacking inspiration, as if the well has by that point run dry.

The length of Trial may have something to do with its partial failure. Fourteen episodes is a huge amount of time to keep all the plates spinning and, as already stated, some things just aren't sustainable over that length of time. The bickering between the Doctor and the Valeyard starts of as amusing but eventually becomes repetitive and tiresome. The courtroom intrigue becomes a test of the attention span. We are presented with the Doctor's assertion that Time Lord society is corrupt, degenerate and rotten yet this is hardly news. Indeed, we've been presented with this impression on just about every visit to Gallifrey since The Deadly Assassin. I don't think matters are helped by the fact that we start off with Peri but halfway through move on to Mel, a character who is given no proper introduction and who, to be honest, isn't even particularly likeable. Her screaming is unbelievably shrill and so unnecessary. And the denouement of all this is a sudden, crowbarred-in appearance by the Master, possibly in an attempt to make the whole thing gel retroactively but failing.

Where it does succeed is in its endeavours in world-building. From Ravalox to Thoros Beta to the Hyperion III and all the denizens that dwell therein, Trial successfully paints a cosmos of places and characters and all of them pretty believable. To be honest, Doctor Who has always been pretty good at this, despite its budgetary limitations (or maybe because of them). Some of the special effects are also pretty good. The opening shot of the Time Lord space station is majestic, even today. Also worthy of mention is the landscape shot on Thoros Beta with the pink sky. I must also mention the triumvirate of the Doctor, the Valeyard and the Inquisitor who, between them, establish a somewhat bizarre angular chemistry and carry a great deal of the story between the three of them.

Colin Baker was never given a proper send off as the Doctor, so this is effectively his swansong. Whilst it may not have the emotional clout or sense of closure of a proper regeneration story, it does have sheer size and scope, a true epic with a huge cast of characters. In this sense at least, the Sixth Doctor is given a proper send off. At the time it must have seemed as if the show couldn't simply rest on its laurels as simple entertainment anymore, it was now fighting for its own existence. Today, with the distance of time and the resurrection of the show for modern viewers, this is no longer so much of an issue and Trial can be enjoyed on its own terms without the cancellation issue that must have dogged it at the time.

A fairly equal mix of the inspired and the insipid.