Friday, October 29, 2010

7C2 - The Trial of a Time Lord 10

Some of the flaws of this segment of Trial start to manifest in this episode. The characters are very broadly drawn out in this story, and we get to know one of them, Professor Lasky, a great deal more than we wanted to. Lasky is brash, but no one is that brash. It's like writers Pip and Jane Baker have gone well out of their way to show how rude and belligerent she is. It's an approach the writers take to most of the characters, setting them so far apart from each other on the basis of their motives that everyone's bound to not get along on the voyage. It seems contrived.

The Bakers (all three of them including Colin) are also quite smug about a pointless sequence where The Doctor deciphers that one of the Mogarians isn't a Mogarian at all. It takes several minutes for The Doctor to get to the point, after which he almost seems to rest his defence on his brilliant skills of detection. I'm with the Valeyard on this one, who's unimpressed expression matched my own after witnessing these events go by. Twice. The Doctor's been much more clever in the past, and with much more expedition and subtlety.

Most of all, this is probably the tackiest looking four episodes of Doctor Who in the series' long history. And, yes, that includes The Claws of Axos. Everything has a thick coat of 80s gloss applied to it, from the fashions to the sets to the music. Especially the music. Malcolm Clarke opened the book on full Radiophonic Workshop scores in 1972 with some bold and experimental work for The Sea Devils, and closes that book with the Workshop's last ever score here. This is undoubtedly Clarke's worst score of his career. In fact, for years, I was almost under the assumption that it was supposed to be bad, but I just wasn't clever enough to work out the irony. Some of Clarke's work in the Peter Davison era was some of the most iconic music heard in Doctor Who (his Cybermen theme is still the benchmark for such character themes to be measured by), and it's sad to see him go out like this.

But, then, as I've said before, it was 1986, a year when the decade long civil war between art and good taste was at an all time low...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

7C1 - The Trial of a Time Lord 9

As mentioned already, The Trial of a Time Lord season can be seen as a metaphor for what was really going on at the time in the show's real life history and how it was on trial in both the eyes of the BBC head office and those of a more cynical viewing public. Brought into evidence first was the Ravalox tale, a story written by long time stalwart Robert Holmes which is just dripping in classic Who nostalgia that if you were take away the modern day trappings of OB location work and pastel clothing, you could slot this story in anywhere from the Patrick Troughton era through into the later Tom Baker days. The verdict at the end of that adventure: The Doctor wins, and even the Valeyard can only boast that further damning is too come.

Parts 5-8 contains everything critical that has been leveled at the show over the years, particularly in the 1980s: violence, gore, and questionable actions from the lead character. In fact, the conflicting motives of The Doctor aren't just referenced, they're an actual aspect of the plot itself. Just when everything is at it's most mental, The Doctor is "put on hiatus" (taken out of time) - he may as well have been about to say "Blackpool" as he was rushing down that corridor to Crozier's laboratory. The Time Lords wipe out everything after that, starting The Doctor (and the programme) on a clean slate.

Parts 9-12 start off by lingering only slightly on the death of Peri at the end of the previous episode, then barrels into a bright, new adventure as part of The Doctor's defence. This is supposedly the envisioning of what new Doctor Who will be all about, a modern retelling of a classic murder mystery. Even the new companion, Mel, can be seen as a breath of fresh air. Say what you will about Mel, but she's the first companion in a good few years who actually seems happy to be traveling in the TARDIS. She wants to explore and is keen to find adventure, and even the relatively unromantic locale of a cargo hold on a cruise ship is going to dampen her enthusiasm. Mel is a 180° turnaround from Peri. As a standalone companion, she's one of the more headstrong companions The Doctor has ever known. After a long line of complainers like Adric, Tegan, Turlough, and Peri, yeah, Mel can be downright obnoxious...

This episode is a good start to the story, though, as it mainly serves to outline all the main character's motives and intentions while the murders start to pile up. It's also noteworthy (as you can tell from the picture at the beginning of this review) that this is one of three cliffhangers in The Trial of a Time Lord not to feature a close-up of Colin Baker's dramatic facial expression, and the first one to not even have him in the same scene...

7B4 - The Trial of a Time Lord 8

Part 8 just might be the most calamitous episode of Doctor Who ever made. Absolutely nothing goes right for The Doctor: at variance to reason, which is what The Doctor would have preferred, everything and everyone is destroyed by the Time Lords, with the results swept under the carpet, The Doctor taken out of time and space, and Peri killed in order for everything to sort of come out in a draw. The Armageddon Factor (sorry, I've always wanted to try and work the end of that Tom Baker speech into a sentence).

The build-up to the end is almost tragic. Sure, there's a revolution going on, Yrcanos seems happy to be at war, and it looks like all the right people will stay alive while the appropriate bad guys will have their day, as per a usual Part 4 of a four-part story. But it's the fate of Peri that ramps up the tension, thanks to the fact that Crozier doesn't waste any time in making decisions. Despite promising that if The Doctor can come up with a different person to be used for the brain transplant operation with Kiv, once Crozier realizes that Peri is the perfect fit, he starts to work immediately. Promises be damned. Yet it's not malice that drives Crozier's actions in this instance or, indeed, this entire story. Crozier is there purely to advance the cause of science, no matter how dodgy that particular stream of science is.

Because of Crozier's drive for the perfect brain operation, Peri is in more danger than she has ever been. If Sil or Kiv had been the one holding her prisoner, it wouldn't be worrying in the least because you know they wouldn't have done anything. Crozier isn't evil. He's driven, and thus terrifying because he can't be reasoned with. Each scene Peri has with Crozier increases in tension by the end, to the point that Peri's last scene in Doctor Who is of her head about to be shaved. With other villains, they would threaten to shave her head, slowly move the razor closer, seemingly almost waiting and expecting to be interrupted. Crozier doesn't waste any time, and Peri dies as a result. She has the brain of an alien in her head the next time we see her.

Colin Baker, though, is the tour de force in this episode. His Doctor might just be the best at righteous anger. You can almost see and hear him choke back the tears at the realization of Peri's death, which then turn to pure focused fury as the episode ends. The Trial season has often been seen as a mirror to the behind the scenes fracas that the programme itself was in the midst of at the time, but those final scenes of Part 8 make one realize that it wasn't just Doctor Who that was on trial, but Colin Baker's Doctor himself. It wasn't Baker's actions that caused a ton of death and violence on the screen in front of him, but there he is, standing alone in the middle of a court of his supposed peers, being berated and judged by The Inquisitor (Jonathan Powell) and the Valeyard (Michael Grade) alike, and being forced to answer for something that he never wanted to happen in the first place, yet still determined to do what's right and try and find out why things are turning out the way they are.

Sadly, in the years since his 1986 sacking, Colin Baker still hasn't found out why things were the way they were, and we are all the worse for it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

7B3 - The Trial of a Time Lord 7

There seems to be a tradition in Doctor Who where a companion actor/actress who is appearing in his/her swansong story gets a large chunk of the action (with Dodo being the very remarkable exception to this rule). This tradition continues in this story, Nicola Bryant's last, as Peri is finally given something more to do than just persistently whine while working her cleavage into as many camera shots as possible.

The results are impressive, mostly because The Doctor and Peri are split up for most of the story, thus allowing Peri the room to breathe a bit as a character, but also by pairing her up with the fiery Yrcanos. One may scoff at what could be seen as an overused motif, that of two wildly opposite characters clashing before suddenly falling for each other, but while that scenario starts off like that here, it doesn't veer too far into cliche afterwards. For the most part, the burgeoning romance is a one-sided affair: Yrcanos is the first to let his guard down and seems quite taken with The Doctor's companion, and while Peri isn't rejecting him, she does at least respect the warrior king and realizes that she needs his help to defeat the Mentors so everyone can live happily ever after. She's not even thinking of whether she'd leave with The Doctor or form a new bond with Yrcanos. She just wants to be safe and away from the unpleasantness on Thoros Beta. If she happens to fall in love with someone, then so be it: self preservation is still at the top of her list of priorities.

For a programme that has been at best a tad prudish during the 1980s when it comes to relationships, this, the first companion romance since Season 10's glorious The Green Death comes as a bit of a shock. (Yes, you heard me right - Season 10. I'm not even going to begin counting that faux-arranged marriage of an exit that Leela had in The Invasion of Time.) If it was known to the viewers at the time that Bryant was leaving the show after this story, then the seeds were being cleverly sown as to how the writing out of her character would be achieved. Little did they know what was really in store for her the following week...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

7B2 - The Trial of a Time Lord 6

Lying dormant for most of Part 5, apart from uttering one word ("Scum!"), Brian Blessed makes his bombastic debut in this episode by throwing scenery everywhere before promptly eating it. And why not? Yrcanos is a larger-than-life character. Who on Earth could you possibly imagine playing this role other than Blessed, and make the warrior king as complex a character as he does? I can think of only John Rhys-Davies, and only because he could only succeed in doing a passable impersonation of Brian Blessed, not Yrcanos.

As if Brian Blessed wasn't enough, Nabil Shaban makes his proper return to Doctor Who in this episode, too, with a much better looking headdress than the one he wore as Sil in Vengeance on Varos. Shaban has been lauded up an down in every review written about both Varos and this story, and I'm not one to stop that trend. Shaban is one of the great treasures of Doctor Who, and Sil one the programme's most biting character parodies. Sil is cut from the same sniveling capitalist cloth whence came The Sun Makers' The Collector, but with that extra bit of repulsion that makes him a perfect fit in the midst of Thatcher's Britain of the 80s. If The Happiness Patrol intended to bring down the Thatcher government, then Sil was the political cartoon that started it all.

So, with both Blessed and Shaban dominating this episode in alternating scenes (they rarely appear in the same shot), it's actually Colin Baker's post-mind scramble performance that I find most endearing and entertaining. Baker's Doctor has always been manic (most notably, and unfortunately, in The Twin Dilemma), but he's seldom been as manic as a happy drunk. Watch him slither down the wall for almost 30 seconds while Yrcanos and Peri carry on with their own conversation. Bakers' silly, giddy grin during that scene is infectious.

Colin Baker is perhaps the most generous of actors to play The Doctor in that he allows Blessed and Shaban more than ample space to ply their trade, yet knows when to make is own mark as the star of the programme. When you consider that, thanks to much indecision and indifference on the part of a soon-to-be-departing script editor Eric Saward, Baker had no idea what The Doctor's motivations in this story were once he underwent the brain alteration process, you begin to understand that Colin Baker is a consummate professional, and completely undeserving of the fate that was to befall him mere weeks after shooting this story.

7B1 - The Trial of a Time Lord 5

It's tough to view The Trial of a Time Lord as one complete story when the styles of each individual production block change so drastically. After the reused opening few seconds of the ludicrously expensive (and undeniably cool) effects shot of the Time Lord space station, the story jolts into a somewhat cold, flat wide shot of the trial room with The Doctor and The Valeyard engulfed in another argument that seems only slightly less witty and entertaining than those of the week previous.

Director Ron Jones is saddled with the job of opening a story that has already been going on for a few weeks and one that didn't necessarily end on a dramatic note in it's previous episode (no matter how dramatic a zoom the camera move into Colin Baker's face was). In fact, the opening episode of this installment seems to want to establish the fact that the main action that we're watching is merely evidence and testimony to what's really going on - the trial. In Parts 1-4, the action on Ravalox carried on for minutes at a time without trial room interruptions. The Thoros Beta storyline doesn't even get through it's first scene before The Doctor himself interjects. A sign of things to come...

Even more shocking, style wise, is the dreamy, ethereal score provided by Richard Hartley in his only outing in Doctor Who. It's a dramatic departure from Dominic Glynn's rock solid score from the previous story which helped anchor the events we were witness to. Part 5 seems as odd and disjointed as a dream, like the kind you get when you take expired Neo Citran before bedtime. Hartley's score aids in setting the mood, as well as setting this story as far apart from Parts 1-4 in terms of tone and feels as is humanly possible.

And then there's the beach scenes that, thanks to the wonders of Quantel and Paintbox, turn a normal looking Brighton beach into a wash of colour with white rocks, pink water, and a purple sky. Even more amazingly, the gaudy colours of Thoros Beta are even louder than the clothes that both Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant are wearing in this story. I get a headache every time I watch these scenes, but they are still a massive leap forward in what the BBC could do, visually, with Doctor Who.