No one knows what a Black Light Explosion could do - there's never been one! "There will be soon."
Ah, a lovely story. The Doctor decides to check out the planet of Ravalox which is eerily similar to Earth, but upon arrival Peri finds the landscape a bit too familiar for comfort. And she's right: Ravalox is Earth, devastated by a fireball 500 years previously, the regenerated world is deserted bar a handful of survivors lorded over by Drathro the Immortal. But all good things come to an end and enthusiastic entrepreneurs Glitz and Dibber have unintentionally triggered doomsday.
Robert Holmes wrote this story while seriously ill and with a bunch of stuffed shirts calling themselves BBC executives breathing down his neck. If I could write something this good under such circumstances, I'd be irrideemably smug. Maybe it's just the return to 25-minute episodes but this is the first story of the Sixth Doctor era where the plot doesn't feel upside down and inside out. OK, it's clearly rooted in Holmes other works: The Krotons (a hidden robotic god demanding the two cleverest youths join him in hiding); The Space Pirates (Glitz is the latest in a long line of Milo Clancy characters); The Ark in Space (humanity surviving the burning of Earth); The Deadly Assassin (a black monolith heralding the end of the entire universe); The Ribos Operation (a con job involving a planet of primatives). Give the guy a break - Rob Shearman rewrites the same story every Big Finish he does, you don't come down on him like a ton of bricks, do you?
Holmes treats the Sixth Doctor like he did the Fifth - ignore everything and write for Tom Baker. This is no slur on Colin; Holmes only wrote for Tom Baker. Look at Carnival of Monsters or The Space Pirates - how easy to have Tom Baker appear in them. It's just one of those things I suppose. But how did I miss the scene where the Doctor offers Humker and Tandrell jelly babies? Or when he calls for Sarah-Jane? And anyone stupid enough to say the Sixth Doctor was 'evil' or 'lost his principals', I refer you to the scene he breathlessly tells Peri they are charging into mortal danger: when Peri ridicules this decision, he stares at her in horror and says, "Peri, I can't just let people die if there's a chance of saving them!" before storming off.
Yep, that's the Doctor all right. Willing to risk it all to save a bunch of people he hardly knows and, like in The Caves of Androzani, they're all callous bastards. No. Look again. Glitz is usually shown as light comic relief, and watching the last three episodes of this story, you can hardly blame them. But look at episode one. This cheeky space-Arthur Daley plans to shoot the Doctor and Peri in the back of their heads for nothing more than sadistic pleasure, at the time regailing Dibber with tales of trying to kill the countless psychiatrists that tried to help him. Glitz is a bleeding psychopath! Maybe it was the rewrites that reduced him to the comic foil he becomes by part four, but he's still a hard case - cheerfully planning to wipe out 500 innocent people by gassing them like badgers, he may rarely get a chance to use his guns but if he did there's no doubt Katryca would be the first to die.
The rest of the cast aren't particularly nice. Drathro's the villain, but Merdeen is supposed to be a hero - though this hero is quite happy to cull the Doctor and dozens of others if he thinks he's being watched. Just because he sees its unecessary doesn't excuse he fact he does it. Grell's worse, not even seeing any problem with murdering friends and family. Katryca... well, she's just a nutter and its good that Joan Sims shows that off. Katryca's written as a wily old woman - as long as she's half-asleep staring into a fire. Beyond that, she goes crazy, makes speeces, and enjoys burning people in Wicker Men, only without the Wicker. The fact that Broken Tooth and the others let her push them around shows they aren't up to much either. The only remotely nice character is Balazar, who winds the Doctor up so much he calls him 'a pallid little swot' to his face, and also organizes fatal stonings.
There are a few problems with this story, I admit. For a start, the fact its working title is The Mysterious Planet. Odd how the mystery is solved five minutes into the first episode. It's Earth! Then, in the third. It's definitely Earth! Surely this should be a Planet of the Apes-style final episode revelation? And why is Peri so instantly tuned into the fact she's wandering around the United Kingdom and speak of it with nostalgia? She's not from there. Was Holmes thinking the campion might be English and recognize it? And Glitz seems well up on human culture for someone who's Andromedan (he knows of marriage, funerals, stamp collecting, charity workers and the Latin phrase Pater Familias). If Earth was destroyed two million years after the 1980s, why was Marble Arch station unchanged? Why do the train guards wear torch helmets when there's plenty of light to see? Why does Drathro only realize there is a village AFTER the L1 has left there? And if Drathro has studied human behaviour for 500 years... why's he so appallingly bad at it? (That may be the point, so I'll let it go.)
But on the whole, it's fine. The Doctor and Peri are the best of friends, with the former worried around the latter enough to delay his exploration and the latter willing to run into a shootout to rescue the former. The humor level is turned up and... I like it. OK, some of it's not sophisticated ('I did it.''I think you'll find that I did it.''I did it.''I DID IT!!'), but I laughed anyway. The Doctor deliberately getting people's names wrong, carrying a teddy bear, Glitz and Dibber discussing their childhoods, Balazar getting a face full of green slime... I laughed. It's feel good stuff. And after the relentless, plotless grittiness of Revelation of the Daleks, a breath of fresh air - this is a story where all the characters get a purpose before dying horribly. In Season 22, Humker and Tandrell would have been brutally shot down (stop cheering!) but here they escape, they reach the outside world... and they are so amazed by it they stop arguing, totally absorbed by it. Katryca learns fatally not to push it and that shouting she's in charge won't impress anyone. For all Drathro's talk of logic, he falls for Glitz's ploy hook, line and sinker. Balazar goes from annoying nerd to... well, he's still an annoying nerd but he'll never stone someone to death again. And Dibber continually proves he's smarter (and fitter) than his boss. It's a happy ending.
And that's Rob Holmes' genius. How the hell does he make these happy endings after such implicitely grim storyline? When I recently watched The Sun Makers with the eyes of a grown-up, I found it utterly terrifying. All of humanity was screwed by the Usaurians and then worked and taxes to death for centuries. The Doctor stops it in one afternoon, but what about the years and years of hopeless horror that Cordo and his ancestors suffered? Not only does this story show all human civilization burnt off the face of the Earth, the five hundred survivors are kept at that number by routine cullings. For five hundred years. Five hundred years. But somehow, even knowing that, it still feels right that the Doctor and Peri walk away from it exchanging witty insults. I wonder how Warriors of the Deep would have ended if Holmes had had a hand in it - it sure wouldn't have concluded with the Doctor croaking there should have been another way.
But it isn't just levity. The Doctor's passionate speech to Drathro is exactly the sort of stuff he should have had right in the beginning - he speaks of life with such awe as if even discussing it is not his place. No bombastic shouting or sulks, and it is a revelation to see the Sixth Doctor face an enemy he cannot sweettalk or defeat. As Glitz says, "Don't knock low cunning,". Seeing the Doctor only win the day by being defeated by a bunch of wandering cooks is a nice throwback to the Peter Davison days as well.The Mysterious Planet is a great story, and bar Peri's hairstyle, I think fandom would have engineered its replacement of Timelash without a second thought. It is only when I look at the story as Doctor Who's last, desperate bid to win the ratings war do I think it's in any way lacking. Where's the returning monster, the new villain, the companion departure, the event that stops a story being a disposable one? Where's the thing that makes you desperate to see what happens next? As a Doctor Who story, it's great, but as a television gambit, this is as far from target as its possible to get.
'The Trial of a Time Lord' Episodes One to Four, which I'm going to refer to by the novelisation title of 'The Mysterious Planet' for ease of reference, immediately grabs the attention for several reasons. For one thing, it has a memorably impressive opening shot of the TARDIS being plucked out of time and dragged to a Time Lord space station where the Doctor is subjected to an inquiry into his activities, which soon becomes a fully-fledged trial. This opening effects sequence is often accused of using up far more than its fair share of the season's budget, which is possibly true, but it does have the benefit of immediately grabbing the viewer's attention. Unfortunately, it is preceded by Dominic Glynn's neutered arrangement of the theme tune, which is so utterly irritating that it probably persuaded some viewers to change channels before they even got to see the TARDIS being captured.
The actual idea of the trial appeals to me a great deal, and the tactic of using complete stories as evidence should theoretically prevent it from getting boring. It has been argued that the length of 'The Trial of a Time Lord' might have put off casual viewers, but this would also be true of the twelve part 'The Daleks' Master Plan', a story which is rarely subjected to the same criticism. Besides, this is not a criterion upon which I'm judging the story. The initial set-up of the trial therefore works rather well and acts as a hook; it quickly becomes clear that the Valeyard has an agenda of his own, thanks to Michael Jayston's excellent portrayal. The Valeyard positively seethes with repressed hatred throughout whenever he speaks to the Doctor, and foreknowledge of what is revealed in Episode Thirteen adds interesting significance to the sheer contempt in his voice when he tells the Doctor "smugness does not become you". The fact that the Doctor's trial is motivated by something more than spurious Time Lord justice is hinted at several times throughout 'The Mysterious Planet'; the excision of data from the evidence, something the Valeyard is expecting but that the Inquisitor is not, makes it clear that there is an underlying mystery here, and for anyone who doesn't pick up on this, the Doctor lists unanswered questions for Peri in a rather unsubtle piece of dialogue at the end of the segment. There is also the Doctor's thoughtful "so, you want me dead, do you?" to the Valeyard at the beginning of Episode Two, which is the first real suggestion that the Valeyard has personal reasons for wanting to see the Doctor prosecuted. It's all rather intriguing at this point, and sets the scene for the remainder of the trial.
The trial scenes also work reasonable well at this stage because they are used sparingly; when the evidence is interrupted, the dynamic between the three main characters succeeds in keeping things interesting. The growing animosity between the Doctor and the Valeyard works well, thanks largely to the juxtaposition of Baker's bombastic Doctor and Jayston's icy Valeyard. The pair manages to suggest real emotion, as the two characters increasingly come to despise one another as events progress. Having said which, the Doctor's various acerbic "yard" puns on the Valeyard's title quickly grow tiresome. Linda Bellingham's aloof Inquisitor is effective enough at keeping order, although the stupid lace trimmed collar she is given to wear is a horrible piece of costume design. Which leads me neatly into 'The Mysterious Planet' proper…
Whilst I generally rather enjoyed 'The Mysterious Planet' on this viewing, I do have several criticisms of it, a few of which I'll get out of the way in one fell swoop. Firstly, it looks cheap. The location footage, something from which the series always benefits, helps to compensate, but the interiors of the huts and the corridors of Marb station look dreadful. Money clearly hasn't been spent on the costumes either; aside from Glitz and Dibber everyone is dressed in wardrobe cast-offs. The underground dwellers look especially stupid, with everyone wearing spray-painted BMX helmets, except for Balazar who wears an incredibly silly balaclava. Possibly the Immortal knitted it for him for Christmas, and he doesn't want to upset him.
Secondly, bearing in mind that Robert Holmes is my favourite Doctor Who writer, there are several touches in 'The Mysterious Planet' that are very disappointing. The most obvious of these are Humker and Tandrell, who are presumably meant to provide comic relief, but are actually not remotely amusing (nor for that matter are the Doctor's facile puns on their names, as he calls them Handrail and Humbug amongst other things). Partly this is because Billy McColl and Sion Tudor Owen are rather wooden in their roles, but mostly it's because their scripted dialogue is weak. The only interesting aspect to the characters is that they have passed a selection process to find the brightest students from amongst a population controlled by an unseen being worshipped as a god, whom they are then sent to. It is widely believed amongst the underground dwellers that the Immortal intended to eat them, whereas in fact they effectively become his students. The point of all of this is of course that it takes the central premise of Holmes' 'The Krotons' and twists it round.
The other rather crap aspect of the script that I find disappointing is the subject of Black Light. Holmes used technobabble throughout his Doctor Who career, but never does it feel less convincing than it does here. The only purpose that the Black Light gibberish serves is that it ups the stakes from the deaths of everyone on Ravalox to possibly the destruction of the whole universe, and it just feels forced, since all it really does is facilitate the Doctor's smug gloating to the court that his supposed interference actually saved the universe.
Despite all of this, there is much to enjoy in 'The Mysterious Planet'. Holmes brings some nice touches to the post-apocalypse society of Ravalox, such as Balazar's pride in the Books of Knowledge, which turn out to be Moby Dick, The Water Babies, and UK Habitats of the Canadian Goose. The alternately naïve and pompous Balazar is also rather well characterised, and Adam Blackwood plays the part very well, successfully conveying Balazar's mixture of confusion and wonderment as the Doctor turns his world upside down. On the subject of characterisation, Glitz and Dibber are arguably the last real Holmesian double act, and they too are well characterised. Glitz has a real edge here; despite his considerable flamboyance, he is has no qualms about killing and is prepared to gas the underground in his pursuit of profit. He also has a string of prison sentences behind him and claims to be wanted on a dozen worlds. But the script also uses him and Dibber as comic relief, and unlike Tandrell and Humker they work well in this respect, such as when Glitz is cheerfully discussing his own social maladjustment. Unfortunately, whilst the script works well, the acting doesn't. It came as a huge disappointment to me watching 'The Mysterious Planet' again to see just how terribly stilted Tony Selby's delivery of his lines is; he sounds throughout as though he's just reading his lines throughout rather than actually acting and given my fond memories of the character this comes as quite a blow.
Unfortunately, Selby isn't alone in the dodgy acting stakes. Joan Simms is not as bad as Katryca as her reputation would suggest, but she gets very hammy once the Tribe of the Free enter the underground, although considering that she gets lines such as "Am I to be surrounded by fools?" I suppose she isn't entirely to blame. In addition, the eighteen-month hiatus seems to have taken its toll on Nicola Bryant; she seems tired with the roll of Peri during this segment of the trial, and her accent fluctuates alarmingly in Episode One. It doesn't help that she gets very little to do here except run around in search of the Doctor. Baker's performance too has suffered; the lack of bickering between the Doctor and Peri is presumably a deliberate attempt to mellow the Sixth Doctor, but the void that is left by the lack of antagonism in his character is often filled with buffoonery. I still like him in the role, but he's a lot less commanding here than he was in Season Twenty-Two. He is, as noted, better during the actual trial scenes, although when the Doctor tells the court that he always likes to do the expected, he comes across as such an imbecile that I find myself siding with the Valeyard.
The other major character of 'The Mysterious Planet' is of course Drathro, and although he's basically just another megalomaniac computer but on legs, I quite like him. His design is very striking, partly because of his sheer size and because of his huge sickle-shaped head, although in a certain light parts of his torso look suspiciously like cardboard. But he also works as a character, Holmes' compensating for his direct characterisation of the Immortal's assistants by making Drathro himself far more interesting. Despite his talk of logic, he's bad tempered and egotistical and it seems to me that after the destruction of his power source, he becomes increasingly desperate to justify the need for his own survival with ever-more spurious logic The Doctor's attempt to persuade Drathro to sacrifice himself so that the Doctor can save the "work units" is one of Baker's few really great scenes outside of the courtroom during these four episodes, and Drathro's stubbornness to accept the Doctor's arguments about the sanctity of organic life seems more like fear of dying without a struggle than any sort of logic.
Nicholas Mallett competently directs 'The Mysterious Planet', and there are some nice point of view shots from the perspective of the service robot. Incidentally, although the service robot looks like the bastard love child of a Dalek and a JCB, I find it quite impressive that the production team makes it look as though its caterpillar tracks actually work, simply because it's not something I've ever seen in Doctor Who before. On the other hand, Mallett starts the trend of ending episodes with a close-up of Colin Baker's face, which increasingly seems like self-parody as the trial continues. And whilst I'm still moaning, Dominic Glynn's incidental music is very intrusive. Overall, 'The Mysterious Planet' is a promising start to the season, albeit one that is not as strong as it could, or indeed should have been.
Although there was much to enjoy principally for the fans like myself, Colin Baker’s first full season was not well received generally. As well as being unfairly deemed excessively violent (e.g. certain scenes in ‘Attack of the Cybermen’ and ‘Vengeance on Varos’) the forty-five minute episodic format seemed unpopular. A rest and rethink was implanted leading to a much longer than usual eighteen month gap between seasons.
Returning in September 1986, a group of four separate adventure segments, linked by an overall fourteen episode single story entitled ‘The Trial of A Time Lord’ showed a season that certainly reflected a change of style. The opening adventure with the working title ‘The Mysterious Planet’ was the last complete four parter from highly regarded writer Robert Holmes. Having given the series such classics as ‘Caves of Androzani’, ‘The Ark In Space’ and ‘Talons of Weng-Chiang’ there are signs of his writing prowess in this segment of the Trial.
Walking through a fairly sparse leafy forest the colourfully attired sixth Doctor holds onto his trusty multicoloured umbrella, his companion, Peri, unlike previous seasons seems content to hold on his arm whilst sheltering under the umbrella. The more grown up, tasteful and stylish clothes (silver-grey slacks, gold coloured silk blouse and diagonally striped yellow blazer) and longer hair conveys a companion who has certainly developed since the previous ‘Revelation of the Daleks’ story. The interaction between her and the Doctor, as typified during their initial scenes, has also evolved which albeit being quite natural is certainly most welcome. The character of Peri has indeed developed since first appearing as virtually a screaming spoilt brat in ‘Planet of Fire’ (e.g. her scenes in that story with Professor Howard Foster).
Having located a hidden entrance the duo’s subsequent exploration inside and below ground are well handled, complemented with suitable lighting and incidental music. Of particular note is the conversation Peri has with the Doctor, following the discovery of the Marble Arch underground sign, where Peri conveys her emotions about realising that Ravolox is infact Earth. This leads to Peri’s initial reticence to explore further leading to the pair temporarily separating. For the most part I find the incidental music for this story to be mostly gloom and boom however there are a few instances where it is particularly noteworthy and memorable. One such example is the piece used whilst the Doctor initially explores the Marb station facility.
Now Robert Holmes is well known for character double acts throughout the scripts he has produced for the series and ‘The Mysterious Planet’ has certainly a few of note. First up, observing the Doctor and Peri, considering whether to kill them or not are the mercenary pair of Sabalon Glitz and his junior assistant Dibber. Tony Selby is certainly well cast as the shady trader and popular rouge, so much so that it is most welcome that he gains repeat appearances both later in the ‘Trial’ season and then again in the fairly forgettable ‘Dragonfire’ story from the following year. His assistant the fairly slow witted Dibber is less memorable although his questionable past seems to indicate that Glitz possibly freed him from a remand home for some minor criminal infringement that he perpetrated. Amongst their dialogue I was surprised to note the familiar ‘Brigadier’ phrase ‘five rounds rapid’ cropping up in the fourth episode as they clasped blasters which looked suspiciously as if they had been lifted from the ‘Red Dwarf’ series.
Assisting Drathro, the impressive looking robot controlling Marb station, are Humker and Tandrell, two prattling servants who engage in light hearted banter whilst going about their duties. Similarly dressed in scientist whites together with yellow shirts these almost identical twins seem to delight in attempting to put down each others attempts to serve Drathro and it is only the towering robotic figure that seems to keep them focused on their task. On encountering them it’s interesting to mention how the Doctor takes great pleasure throughout the story in mis-naming them (e.g. ‘Handrail and Tonker’ or ‘Humbug and Toenail’) whenever they meet. In fact the Doctor’s naturally upbeat humorous interaction with, in particular the inhabitants of Marb station is most enjoyable.
There is also a less subtle pairing between Marb Station’s patrol Chief Guard, Merdeen (marking the welcome return of Tom Chadbon (formerly seen in Tom Baker’s ‘City of Death’ story) and his deputy Grell. We are presented with a memorable scene between these two when Grell questions Merdeen’s motives and loyalty to Drathro. This eventually leads to the death of the young deputy and as Merdeen kneels over his fallen comrade he emotionally expresses his regrets in being forced to kill him and how he had originally helped him to join the guards. Whilst Timothy Walker’s Grell is decked out in the usual red and yellow guard’s uniform topped off with the often used helmets (e.g. cropping up in ‘Earthshock’ and ‘Delta and the Bannermen’) Merdeen, dressed in scaly black with a close fitting closefitting skull cap really conveys the appearance of an cold emotionless character in the service of Drathro which is largely confirmed during the story.
Living up on the surface we encounter ‘The Tribe of the Free’, a primitive but proud people apparently eking out an existence from the land around them, or so we are led to believe. I’m sorry but judging by the spotless nature of their albeit authentic looking clothes I find it difficult to grasp that these people are struggling to survive. Maybe if they had been a little bit more dirty with mud splattered costumes and faces I might have been convinced. We then come to the leader, Queen Katryca as portrayed by noted comedy actress, the late Joan Sims. Now I know it’s great to get big name stars to play parts they would not normally be associated with but despite Joan’s best efforts I remain unconvinced that she is the great ruler that she claims. The costume and the regal way in which she carries herself whether it be in her initial open air meeting with Sabalon Glitz or inside the great hall of their settlement certainly help but in the final analysis I remain, ultimately, unconvinced. As a final word on the Tribe’s Queen her ultimate demise, together with one of her closest advisers, Broken Tooth, at the hands of Drathro is, I feel is, despite being fairly brief, well handled.
As I’ve said before I am most impressed with the costume for Drathro, a marvellous creation which allows great flexibility of movement, however his wide horn shaped head is frankly a bit of a disappointing letdown. Drathro, clearly unwilling to venture out from his surveillance fortress, despatches an L3 robot in his attempt to recapture the Doctor. The L3, an obelisk shaped object mounted on twin caterpillar tracks equipped with top mounted video relay equipment seemed to present limited offensive capability (namely running into things). However I was pleasantly surprised when having located the Doctor, locked up in one of Katrica’s primitive cell buildings, unleashed electrically charged cables from it’s sides to incapacitate and then secure him ready for return to Drathro.
The subsequent rescue leads to another pleasing nod to the past, whether it be merely for fans or general viewers it is most welcome. With just the right amount of nasal inflection Colin Baker gives a fair interpretation of Jon Pertwee when, regaining consciousness at the base of the inert L3 robot, he says to Peri ‘My head hurts abominably Sarah Jane’. This follows nicely on from the previous season’s ‘Timelash’ stories appearance of a painting of the former Doctor. I also felt that the interaction between Drathro and the Doctor in the fourth episode was slightly reminiscent of Sarah Jane Smith’s persuasive conversation with the Giant Robot in Tom Baker’s debut.
Now with this particular adventure being part of the overall Trial story I should make some comment on those linking scenes. Well, yes the first scene where the TARDIS is dragged down to the space station and into the docking port is indeed impressive, certainly for the time it was made. I particularly like the slightly revised theme tune which I am delighted to say is currently being used by Big Finish in their Sixth Doctor releases. I feel Colin Baker did show potential in the television series and it is certainly heartening to find this vindicated in their releases. The way he stumbles out of the TARDIS, uncertain, how he got there, where here was and why Peri was missing does give way to a familiar sense of irritation on his first entering the Trial room and encountering the people he meets there. His interaction with the Valeyard (Michael Jayston) and the Inquisitor (Lynda Bellingham playing it very posh and upmarket) is typical of his character. I counted five mispronunciations of the Valeyard’s title spread throughout the story (episode two gave us ‘boatyard’ and ‘graveyard’, episode three weighed in with ‘farmyard’ and ‘scrapyard’ whilst episode four featured ‘knackersyard’). The final mispronunciation, that of ‘knackersyard’ was in amongst a particularly memorable blustering outburst directed mainly towards the Valeyard. This was entirely typical of this incarnation of the Time Lord but of course there was much more to come to raise his emotions higher in the subsequent segments of the trial…
In summing up ‘The Mysterious Planet’ whilst not obviously reaching the classic status of some of Robert Holmes’ previous stories does stand up fairly well on repeat viewings. Although obviously conveying a distinct change in style from the preceding years stories it is an enjoyable and welcome opening four episodes of what was, at the time, an important season for the series.
When I first saw this, in 1986, I thought it was pretty naff. I was eighteen at the time and trying to wean myself off doctor who, and it didn't help that my elder brother, a non dw fan, kept laughing at the programme. I suppose from a non fan's point of view, Drathro did look pretty lame, the scene where the green food drops on Balazah's face fairly cringe-worthy and the tribe of the free just a kiddies version of the Sevateem.
It must be remembered that we had grown up on stories such as Pyramid of Mars, Talons of Weng-Chiang, etc, and so were judging this story in comparason. I kept wishing for something dramatic to happen, like Peri dying or something , just to shut my brother up. Oh, my prophetic soul! For in the very next story, which of course my brother didn't see...
But now I watch this story and regard it as something of a classic. The excellant dialogue (the Canadian goose indeed!), Glitz, the Queen.....all of it is brilliant and fast moving. I can sit back from it now and see more than the lack of violence into the cleverness of the plot itself. I even love the look of Drathro! Most gripping stuff, and Colin Baker of course superb as the Doctor.