Trials and Tribble-ations

Now that my desktop (which, confusingly, lives under the desk) seems to be back to reasonable health, I can catch up with watching too many videos instead of doing any work. I finally managed to finish watching the epic "Trial of a Time Lord" Doctor Who Series.

This was important to me for many reasons. The first Dr Who episode I can remember seeeing was "Warriors From the Deep" in 1984, when I would have been about 6 (actually, checking the chronology, the first I saw was actually The Five Doctors, which is a hell of a confusing way to begin seeing the program). It had a profound influence on me, although I can't work out how. But ToaTL came serveral years later, in 1986, when I would have been a much more mature 9. There had been a long break between this series and the previous one, and in the meantime I had been reading up through the target novelisations (completely out of order, of course, so many of the key long term plot issues were hopelessly confused to me, and still are). One thing that I knew was that I was fascinated by the concept of the timelords, and their culture and technology (I was much more interested in the inside of the tardis than all that messing about that took place outside it). And now came a series long arc in which the Doctor was being tried by a jury of his peers! [*]

[*] This entry contains spoilers, although how a programme that was shown nearly twenty years ago can be "spoiled" is a matter for you to work out. Oh yeah, and it turns out that it's a sledge.

As with all overblown ideas, the thing doesn't really work. It's hard to work out what is the biggest problem: the large number of changes and rewrites that took place between the original idea and getting it onto screen; the lumbering plot that never really makes any sense; or the introduction of Bonnie Langford as a companion. Throughout the prosecution's case, made by the sinister "Valeyard", the doctor constantly objects that the evidence presented by the Timelord's mysterious memory capturing "matrix" (see, that is what "the matrix" really is) has been warped and altered, an accuasation sternly denied by the mum from the Oxo adverts (of course, she later went on to play the second regeneration of a timelord exiled to earth to keep an eye on the doctor while he was masquerading as a vet in the dales [**]).

[**] No one on earth is going to work out that reference, so I'll explain that Lynda Bellingham was the second actress to play James Herriot's wife in All Creatures Great and Small, which also featured Peter Davison.

The climax of the third adventure, which I remember finding very exciting as a young child, came as the Doctor wrapped his evidence for the defence with an adventure from his future (which doesn't make sense! even with time travel!), where he defeated a mutant race of triffids by throwing weedkiller at them. In the course of this, he managed to wipe out every last one, thus raising the stakes from meddling too much to "genocide"! I'm not sure if this was the first time I'd heard the word, but I definitely found out what it meant pretty soon.

How on earth could the doctor get himself out of his predicament? The answer was to come in a two part story, entitled "The Ultimate Foe" that would close the series and wrap up the story. The situations looks pretty grim, but then the doctor's long-time adversary, the Master, pops up and announces that the Valeyard is actually a rogue fragment of the doctor's personality from his final regeneration. Um, OK. Actually, in an earlier draft the Valeyard was actually the Doctor's final, 12th regeneration, which would have made for some interesting implications. There's also the small matter of how or whether they are going to deal with the imminent using up of all the Doctor's regenerations: he's currently on 10 (or more, since it's always possible that the first doctor that we saw was not his first regeneration. One also wonders how he came to be about 900 years old without using up any of his lives, and then managed to get through the next ten in a space of about 40 years. Seems like he is getting increasingly careless in his old age).

The Valeyard, having been rumbled, then pegs it into the Matrix. The doctor gives chase, and enters a strange, dreamlike world in which nothing is quite real. He goes through a door in search of the Valeyard who is posing as "J.J. Chambers", Victorian factory owner, and finds himself up to his neck in quicksand on a beach and going under fast. Close up on Colin Baker's giant clown face, and roll credits...

So here we are, about to start part two. And this is where things get quite silly. The two part episode was meant to be written by Robert Holmes, a seasoned Doctor Who writer. But, unfortunately he died before the show could be completed. He left the script for part one, and notes for the second part. Writing team Pip and Jane Barker were brought in to finish it off in his stead, but for some complex copyright reason, they were not allowed to see the intended outline, and had to come up with something themselves. The result is a fairly muddled mess, in which the Doctor finally defeats the Valeyard and avoids the master's sinister plan, has the charges against him dropped on the grounds that no one can work out what's going on anymore, and saves the Universe (again).

In short, it makes no sense. Not really the fault of any of the writers, it seems impossible to put a satisfying conclusion to any of this mess, but a let down all the same. I was wondering what all this reminded me of, and then I realized that it is very reminiscent of "Restless", BtVS S4E22 -- the coda episode at the end of season four of Buffy. At the time, the publicity for this indicated that it would be an episode to put into perspective the preceding season that some (not me) had found disappointing when moving from a High School to University setting. Set almost entirely in dreams, there was a strange disconnected feel to the whole episode, and a (to me) mightily unsatisfying resolution. The promise of resolving so many unanswered questions about the characters' relationships was unfulfilled, and instead, just gives a completion to the story that is somewhat unsatisfying, and sets things up for the next season to try again.

Ah well. Somehow I never expected ToaTL to be good (perhaps I remembered this from seeing it the first time around as a child), and so it was more or less in line with my expectations. It does stand up to a contemporary viewing, although you happily do a crossword while it's on and not miss too much. It also impressed on me that many of these "fan produced" films on the internet, creating new adventures in the Star Wars or Star Trek universes are actually made with higher production values than the great BBC scif fi shows of the seventies and eighties. Ah well, just shows what you can dow ith computers these days.

I'll keep watching old episodes of Dr Who. I want to go back to Warriors From the Deep, and rewatch all the episodes from my childhood up to the end of Sly McCoy's stint, to see what is going on. There's a subtext to this, I realize. When I was a child, I loved watching Dr Who, but when I got in trouble, I would not be allowed to watch it as a punishment. And, this was before we got a VCR, before there were repeats, before BBC3 showing the episodes again the next week, or UKGold repeating entire seasons in a day. If you missed an episode, that was it, gone, forever. Not even a TWoP recap to let you know what had happened. It seems almost impossible these days, but that was it. So, now thanks to the wonders of technology and archiving, I can watch these old shows over again, how I want to and when I want to. I feel awfully indulgent in doing so. But I do it anyway.

1 comment:

Nick said...

Graham, you are me. My childhood punishment for bad behaviour was also missing (a certain number of minutes of) the week's episode of Doctor Who. Though I soon came up with a cunning plan whereby I took my allocation as a large number of 5 second periods, so I could still follow what was going on. I was also obsessed by the Tardis itself and felt disappointed that there weren't more episodes devoted to exploring all those parts of it you never see (arguably, this is down to my first episode being Castrovalva, where exactly that sort of thing happens).