Thursday, July 29, 2010

7A4 - The Trial of a Time Lord 4

Robert Holmes has, quite rightly, been praised up and down over the years for many of his hallmarks: witty dialogue, double acts, satirical elements, and so on. What's not as often mentioned is Holmes's pitch perfect understanding of the importance of pacing. Some of the more successful Holmes stories really rattle on, particularly in the concluding episode. The Caves of Androzani is the most recent example of this (Episode 4 of that story starts at 11 and only increases in intensity over the next 24 minutes), but the last of his initial four episodes of Trial is right up there in building excitement.

There are several different storylines and character threads building to a conclusion in Episode 4. Can The Doctor get into Drathro's main control room? Can he make the robot see reason? Can Merdeen, Peri, and Balazar save the inhabitants of UK Habitat? What's behind the motivations of Glitz and Dibber? Why is dialogue between the two being excised from the versions of events shown as evidence in The Doctor's trial? It all makes for a riveting watch, and while a great deal of credit can be given to Colin Baker and director Nicholas Mallett (the latter making his Doctor Who debut in this), Holmes's immense talent is at the backbone of this story's success.

It's insulting that the higher ups at the BBC had the gall to pick apart Holmes first crack at this story. Even though he was, sadly, in the last year of his life, Robert Holmes still showed that he was at the top of his game. From great dialogue that mirrored the programme's tenuous standing within the BBC at the time, to a couple of his all time great "double acts" in Glitz and Dibber and Humker and Tandrell, this is one of Robert Holmes's finest stories (even if the basic plot is remarkably similar to that of his 1968 debut story, The Krotons).

I loved these four episodes (fine, I'll call it The Mysterious Planet) when I first saw them in my youth, and I still love the story today. It gets the massively ambitious Trial season off to a roaring and running start, creating such a great sense of optimism and excitement that hadn't been seen in Doctor Who to this extent for years.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

7A3 - The Trial of a Time Lord 3

The relaunch of Doctor Who after the hiatus was not only evident in the visual presentation, but it was also enhanced in the audio department, as well. Dominic Glynn made his debut on Doctor Who by providing the incidental music for the first four parts of The Trial of a Time Lord. Being the first composer not a member of the Radiophonic Workshop, be it directly or indirectly, since the end of Season 17, Glynn's music is a breath of fresh air.

Not that the work of Peter Howell, Roger Limb, Paddy Kingsland, et al were of an inferior nature, but Glynn's output has an entirely different feel compared to the music of the first five years of the John Nathan-Turner era. For instance, Glynn uses basic drum beats to underscore his music in some scenes. It seems like a minor point to make, but only Paddy Kingsland's rock and roll score for Mawdryn Undead seemed current, for lack of a better word, in relation to what was being listened to at the time. Glynn's score uses a lot of sounds heard in pop music, if not the melodies and rhythms, for the first time, really, in the show's long history. For Doctor Who, a pulsating hi-hat rhythm was the programme's first tentative olive branch to the hear and now.

In addition to the incidental score, of course, Glynn provided the series with only its third markedly different version of the iconic theme tune. Glynn's new version is as shocking a change from its predecessor as Peter Howell's rendition was to Delia Derbyshire's original work. Glynn's version sparkles with a brightness that characterizes all of his work during this story, but there's a certain darkness to it that rises the theme above the rushed nature of its production. At the time, it was my favourite version; now, it's probably dropped a couple notches but still remains a memorable take on the best theme tune ever written.

Monday, July 19, 2010

7A2 - The Trial of a Time Lord 2

I mentioned recently (well, the last post, which was over two months ago!) about Doctor Who's permanent switch to videotape for location shooting. Many have decried this as making the entire series look cheap, as opposed to just the studio sequences, in relation to the crisp(!) 16mm film location footage that we've been treated to for most of the programme's history up until this point.

I disagree. Yes, videotape does seem to lack a certain depth in picture quality, but at least now the outside sequences look similar to the ones shot indoors. It not only makes for a much more polished and consistent visual product, but it also makes it less obvious where certain scenes were shot. For instance, there are a couple of sets seen in this episode, namely Katryca's hut and the smaller hut that serves as a prison for Glitz, Dibber, and Peri, that I'm still unsure whether they're studio sets are mockups/alterations made on location. Frankly, I don't want to know - television is about fostering an illusion and with wall-to-wall videotape, it's much less obvious where certain scenes are shot. If something looks cheap now, don't necessarily blame the designer. It must look that cheap in real life.

Another quality of using videotape for location sequences is that these scenes could now be shot using a multi-camera setup as opposed to the single camera technique used in the film days (although some single camera stuff was still evident). Whereas this now gave the actors and directors less control over each individual aspect of a particular scene, it allowed the natural rhythm of the actors to be captured in one single take. With a script written by Robert Holmes, still, even in these, his last days, one of the snappiest writers on Doctor Who, not having to rely on editing to capture the pace of a scene can only be seen as a benefit.

Speaking of benefiting from a new approach, I'll start my praise of Colin Baker now, only to warn you that it will continue for the rest of his all-too-brief tenure, as well. Baker is absolutely delightful in this episode and in this whole season, in general. It was a conscious decision on the the parts of Baker and Nicola Bryant to smooth over their tempestuous onscreen relationship, and it was a move that was long overdue. This relation is even at variance with the scripts. Look at what would have been a normal, spiteful conversation between the two in Episode One in their opening scene together. Both Baker and Bryant play against the vindictiveness of the dialogue and turn it into a rather playful exchange. One gets the impression that the Season 23 Doctor is the one that Baker had wanted to play all along. Baker's natural effervescence is now finally matched the scripts that he's given. Look at how Baker interacts with Merdeen and the train guards in this episode, and (especially) with Drathro and his two minions. He's sharp, witty, charming, funny - everything you want in a Doctor, and everything that Baker wasn't allowed to be in his first year in the role.

This is probably the same Colin Baker that John Nathan-Turner saw holding court at a wedding in 1983 enough for the producer to offer Baker the role of The Doctor. Seeing Baker in this, it's easy to see why JNT made that decision. I'd rank the Season 23 Colin Baker Doctor right up there with the best. As this season (his last) continues, it will become more and more apparent how much of a missed opportunity this characterization of the Sixth Doctor was.