Wednesday, June 6, 2012

I Was Beginning To Fear You Had Lost Yourself (The Mysterious Planet)

Voted "Doctor Who screenshot most likely to become an
image macro."
Part 1: How To Write Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant

It's September 6th, 1986. Boris Gardiner is at number one with "I Want to Wake Up With You." A week later, The Communards replace them with "Don't Leave Me This Way," and stay there for the remaining three weeks of this story.  Janet Jackson, The Human League, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Run DMC/Aerosmyth, the Eurythmics, and Cutting Crew also chart, while on the album charts its the True Blue period for Madonna and the release of Paul Simon's Graceland.

In real news, and moving very quickly through the eighteen month gap (which was really only seventeen months), the New Coke debacle happens and the ozone hole is discovered. The Heysel Disaster takes place, leading to a five year ban from European competition for English clubs. A year later is the Hand of God goal, so really, almost as crappy a time to be an English football fan as it was to be a Doctor Who fan. The Nintendo Entertainment System and Calvin and Hobbes both debut. And finally, the Challenger disaster happens, as does Chernobyl.

Whereas during this story, Desmond Tutu becomes a bishop and the Oprah Winfrey show debuts. Casualty debuts on television. Ann the Colwich rail crash happens, killing two and injuring a hundred more.

While on television we begin Trial of a Time Lord with the segment of the story commonly referred to as The Mysterious Planet. But already we're in choppy waters as we hit the "how many stories does Trial of a Time Lord count as?" Given that I've already argued that An Unearthly Child and 100,000 BC should be thought of as two stories and that The Daleks' Masterplan should be thought of as at least three, I'm obviously unlikely to suggest that a run of episodes with four writers and three production codes should be treated as one story just because of the part numbering. And while there's a unity to the season that was missing from the previous season-long arc, as mentioned last time there's also a massive disunity to this season. So let's say not only four stories, but four very confused stories.

Within this mess there's a lot to talk about. But the trial-specific material will mostly benefit from being taken in the context of the end, so we'll save the bulk of it for the Ultimate Foe entry. Instead I want to start with the most visibly rebooted aspect of the series, namely the relationship between Baker's Doctor and Peri.

The intended structure of Trial of a Time Lord was based on A Christmas Carol, with the three stories shown as evidence representing the past, present, and future. And so The Mysterious Planet is intended to represent the past. Off the bat this is a little strange - it is, after all, an adventure with the then-current TARDIS crew seemingly set after the most recent televised adventure. The distinction between it and the succeeding story in terms of time is almost completely arbitrary.

Except that the present of Trial of a Time Lord is presumed to be the courtroom, and thus Peri's departure has already happened somewhere within the Seasonish. And so this story goes back to a past, yes, but to an erased past that never was.

It's not a new observation to read Trial of a Time Lord as a metaphor for the show's production difficulties in this time period. The Doctor on trial serves as a proxy for the show being on trial, with a demand that it prove itself worthy of being on the air. In which case this "past" section serves first and foremost as a representation of the show that was put on hiatus.

Given this, its rampant revisionism is understandable. After all, aesthetically speaking Season 22 had been a bit of a disaster, and so representing what the show was as having been better than it was is a sound part of making the overall case that the show deserved to exist. But what's interesting is that this revisionism really focuses on a relatively narrow issue. The biggest visible change in the program, quite frankly, is that the Doctor and Peri get along much better.

Their opening scene wandering Ravalox is a small but distinct thing - the Doctor leaves Peri to make deductions, and praises her when she figures it out. When she accuses him of patronizing her, he reiterates his praise and confidence in her. And when he makes an egotistical joke in response to her asking about intelligent life on the planet ("apart from me, you mean?") it is with a smile that Peri returns. It's true that the tensions between them had cooled down by the time Revelation of the Daleks rolled around, but there's still a real difference in their relationship.

By and large this is an extremely positive thing. The spectre of abuse that has hung over the Doctor/Peri relationship since the debacle that was The Twin Dilemma is a strong contender for "most toxic aspect of the Baker era." But more to the point, Baker and Bryant are really quite good at this sort of warmth. It's the first time we've had a straightforward Doctor/Companion pair that got along since the fleeting few episodes of the Doctor and Nyssa, and the first time we've had it as the apparent status quo since the long lost days of Lala Ward.

And to be clear, it's not that Holmes has simply jettisoned all tension. The sequence where Peri realizes that Ravalox is Earth and the Doctor is at once understanding of her emotions but unwilling to humor them at length may be the last great thing that Robert Holmes ever wrote. The combination of the Doctor's clear and genuine affection for Peri with his alien detachment from the emotions he understands but does not share is perfectly pitched, and what Baker's Doctor should have been pitched at all along.


Part 4: The Unspeakable Screwedness of Nicola Bryant

But more on the particulars of the Doctor's acquittal next entry. For now, let's wrap this entry up with the traditional "farewell to" portion for a departing companion. Because it's entirely possible that nobody has ever been screwed quite as thoroughly as Nicola Bryant got screwed. Let's first of all note that Nicola Bryant is quite a good actress. Her Peri can be awkward, but then again, putting Brits in American accents is almost but not quite as disastrous as putting Americans in British ones. And on top of that, anybody in that role would be awkward. It's a god-awful role.

The problem, at its core, is that Peri is clearly conceived of purely in terms of "let's go back to the good old-fashioned girl companion." Her only character trait that goes beyond "generic girl" is that she's American, and they didn't actually bother to cast someone American for her. The problem is that the generic girl companion, as we observed back with Tegan, is largely an invention. At this point there had been exactly two solo Earth girls to travel with the Doctor - Jo and Sarah Jane. And both worked because they were extremely distinctive characters who were strong enough to carry the job of being 50% of the regular cast. The last thing they could reasonably be taken for being were generic paradigms of the companion role.

Unfortunately, that's exactly how they got used in terms of Peri, who is the first companion since Victoria to be designed entirely and exclusively as a peril monkey. By all appearances they took Terrence Dicks at face value when he joked about creating Jo because the Doctor needed a dumb companion who would get rescued a lot. (And for all of Dicks's feminism problems, I think this clearly is a joke simply because Jo was always, from her first appearance, more than that.) Almost all Peri gets to do is scream and be rescued.

And for a few brief and shining moments in the course of Mindwarp, it looks like she's going to get to redeem that. First of all, Peri finally gets to do things over the course of the story because the plot requires the Doctor to be sidelined, meaning that several Doctorish jobs shift over to Peri. And, unsurprisingly, Nicola Bryant is quite good at it. Then she gets to, for a few lines, have her wish of playing a villain, and she's absolutely bone-chilling. The bald cap goes a long way, but Nicola Bryant absolutely nails it and is by far the most disturbing "possessed companion" to date.

And on top of that we get the tragic conclusion to her arc - a point bitter and cynical enough to almost redeem it. Because if you're going to have a character who exists only to get in trouble, frankly, you may as well kill her. It's at least honest. If Peri is going to embody rape culture as well as she does then this really is the right end for her - having her body completely taken over by a creepy old man. Given how often the series has gone out of its way to treat Nicola Bryant as a piece of meat, wringing tragic consequences out of it is the least it can do. It's not good. It's not nice. But given the disaster that Peri has been turned into it is, at least, the best available ending - one that at last acknowledges just how nasty and unpleasant the series has been. And she goes out showing how good Nicola Bryant was, at least, and how wasted she was on this part.

Except we don't even get that. In the single trashiest and laziest retcon in the series history we get the pink-haze "she's a warrior queen of King Ycranos." To which the Doctor sighs happily and leaves her. Note that this is not a voluntary companion departure so far as we can tell. The fact that the Doctor is kidnapped from Thoros Beta never gets retconned. By all appearances the Doctor gets kidnapped and never goes back for her, leaving her to Ycranos. With whom she never particularly got along, and who is a raging misogynist with violent tendencies.

Combined with her battered wife syndrome when it comes to the Doctor himself, this paints an astonishingly ugly picture, especially given the series' apparent approval of the pairing. Peri is a helpless woman who not only is constantly left to the at times openly sadistic devices of men, that is, apparently, all she ever wants to be. And the series backs off making any critique of this, instead treating it as a happy ending. It is, moreso even than Ben, Polly, Dodo, or Leela, the single worst and most offensive companion departure in the whole of Doctor Who. And it's deeply depressing that all fandom ever wants to talk about is how screwed Colin Baker was by the handling of his character and era. Nicola Bryant was far, far more screwed. She deserved so much better.


Part 2: Why on Earth Was This Made?

This brings us around to the larger disaster of Trial of a  Time Lord, which is the ludicrous dropping of the ball involved in its ending. To some extent there's a litany of excuses we need to trot out here. Yes, Eric Saward walking off the job and taking his script for the final episode with him didn't help matters (regardless of how well it was or wasn't justified). But on the other hand, one has to wonder how something this messy made it out in the first place. With an extra year of planning time and the Trial format supposedly agreed upon early in the process, how is it that a clear plot arc for the season didn't exist by the time they were making it? How did they get themselves thrown into such chaos in the first place?

This is something that none of the myriad of words spilled on the production of this season actually manage to get at. Yes, there was a ton of chaos at the end of the process, but the beginning of it - the actual conceptualization of the season - remains maddeningly obscure. Here they are doing a massive plot arc based on the model of a mystery/conspiracy thriller with tons of twists and turns and revelations, and by all appearances nobody at any point actually sat down and wrote an outline for the frame story. Yes, Robert Holmes's death was obviously a major blow, but for God's sake, how do you make it a year into working on a season long plot arc and not have the ending worked out yet?

Because nothing about Trial of a Time Lord looks planned. And tempting as it is to blame this on Pip and Jane Baker, the fact of the matter is that Terror of the Vervoids is just where the season's flaws become readily apparent, not where they're introduced. (The absurdities of Mindwarp not being visible until later, as discussed) The entire concept is misbegotten. It's not that doing a fourteen week "event" season is a bad idea - finite run stories are, after all, a common thing on the BBC. Fourteen weeks is a bit long, but no longer than, say, Knights of God, which was made a year before Trial and aired a year after. (And which we'll talk about in a few weeks) But again, if you're going to d something like that, you start from your big plot and work down. Instead it seems they had the vague idea of past/present/future/wrap it all up, and treated each of those elements as individual parts such that the "wrap it all up" story was going to be improvised. Even under Robert Holmes's original plans one doesn't get the sense that there was much of an actual idea underlying the season.

Throughout these entries I've been stressing the fact that the Trial was in part a metaphor for the series' own tribulations. (Something made clear from the opening few lines) In which case there's something almost, but not quite, charmingly apropos about this awkwardness. "What's the reason why Doctor Who should survive its trial? We don't know either!" But the humor masks the fact that these were real questions. Other than "let's open with a really good model shot," there were seemingly no ideas on what to do next. It goes well beyond Robert Holmes's retreat to his old standards as well.

And there's a real incoherence to it as well. We should talk at some point about the infamous Open Air segment in which a trio of fans, including future series writer Chris Chibnall, gang up on Pip and Jane Baker and complain that their work was cliched and unintelligible. Much of the focus these days goes on Chris Chibnall, who looks like the geeky teenager he is, and the supposed irony of him going after Pip and Jane Baker given his own scripts. (While I think Chibnall is one of the weakest writers of the new series, the idea that he can somehow be equated to the Bakers seems to me farcical.) This ignores, of course, the fact that the fans are largely right here. They complain that the Trial storyline lacked payoff and was a confusing and incoherent mess. Which it was. And not in a wonky "it violates what we know about Gallifrey" way, but in a "none of this actually coheres" way. But let's look instead at the Bakers, who are, I think, far more disturbingly revealing.

They make two arguments that seem on the surface to be contradictory. On the one hand they insist that they don't want to patronize the audience and want to leave things for them to figure out. On the other, when Chibnall complains that the story was cliched monsters and corridors stuff, Jane Baker rather icily notes that she thought Doctor Who fans liked traditional stuff. There's something really unsettling about this. It's difficult to see how feeding Doctor Who fans a steady diet of generic and traditional adventures could be called challenging. Indeed, "here's the same thing you've been enjoying for decades done with no changes" seems the very definition of patronizing television.

When compared with the Bakers' scripts, these comments become even more depressing. The festivals of hackneyed plot twists, cookie cutter characters, and bloviating dialogue that they pen clearly assume a barely sentient audience. The monsters are generic. The human villains' logic waffles between generic and incoherent. It's a mystery where no effort has even been made to secure basic facts and character motivations. It feels by and large like dumbed down Pertwee. They're writing for children and, worse, doing the thing that no good children's entertainment ever does - talking down to them. This would be one thing if the show were written for children, but the Bakers also clearly think the program is written for people who love classic Doctor Who.

And these are Nathan-Turner's favorite writers of this period. Yes, to his credit he clearly figures out that the ship needs to change course soon after this and doesn't force them on Cartmel beyond what they'd already been commissioned for, but Jesus Christ. Is this really what the show thinks of its audience now? Does it really treat them with such staggering, mind-wrenching contempt as to think that they're overgrown children that mistakenly believe themselves to be clever?

It's really, in all of this, the fact that the show is still so overtly going for a cult audience here with its big, sprawling epic. Even the name - The Trial of a Time Lord - plays overtly to fans with an investment in the series' mythology. To do that while so obviously disdaining cult audiences and their tastes is deeply, deeply ugly. (As, let's be honest, is the alternative explanation - that the Bakers really think they wrote a challenging and intelligent script.) For all that we talked back in the Mysterious Planet entry about Trial being part of a transition towards a better model for the series, it remains firmly rooted in the ugliness of the past few seasons.


Part 4: Requiem for Robert Holmes

A narrative collapse, then. As ever, it's avoided - instead the program begins a creative renaissance, painfully tentatively at first, but very, very quickly after that. And as ever, there's a price. In this case, we can define it cynically and not even feel bad about it. Trial of a Time Lord: the story so bad it killed Robert Holmes.

If one were to make a list of writers most responsible for creating what Doctor Who is then almost the entire soul of Doctor Who could be accounted for with three writers. David Whitaker, obviously, is the first. And these days it's clear that Russell T Davies must be there. But between them, responsible for much of the work of taking the show that David Whitaker created and developing it into a world-beater that could truly never run out of things to say, comes Robert Holmes.

It is not just that Holmes is wickedly, beautifully brilliant. It is not just the sheer number of concepts he introduced. It is not the diversity of stories he wrote, with outright comedies alongside some of the scariest and darkest moments of the series. First and foremost it is that he developed the true heart of Doctor Who. It may be Whitaker who made the Doctor a mercurial anarchist, but it is Holmes who took that to the next step and defined what the Doctor is opposed to. Whitaker may have created the idealism of the Doctor, but it is Holmes who created the raw fire of the character. It is Holmes who showed us what it is that drives the Doctor to fight.

There were always many possible answers to that question. Most of them were dumb and boring. If the matter had been left to Terry Nation the answer would have essentially been "Nazis," assuming he wasn't lazy and didn't say "space monsters." Terrence Dicks, for all his adventuring charm, would have picked a very generic sense of evil. Far too many writers would have picked something like "ignorance" or "superstition." But not Robert Holmes. Oh no.

Robert Holmes picked bureaucracy. He set the Doctor against rules for their own sake. He set the Doctor against bullies and boredom and everything drab and banal. Robert Holmes decided that the mercurial hero who is the Doctor should, first and foremost, fight against the banality of evil. There are many things that are brilliant about Doctor Who - the likability of a clever and unpredictable hero, the flexibility of the format, several of the monsters and concepts. But in the end, this is, I think, what made the show great. The fact that it is a profoundly delightful blow against the cruelty of "the way things are."

So it's at once ironic and fitting that Holmes goes down in the midst of a story that looks the rules of Doctor Who in the face and then suddenly throws them out. Trial of a Time Lord, if nothing else, turns out to have been the pragmatic death blow to the Whoniverse. It is the story that breaks almost any attempt to create a unitary narrative of Doctor Who. And more to the point, it's the story that marks the point where the television show abandons all thought of having one in favor of simply doing interesting things. It marks another passing of the alchemical baton, and the next generation of Doctor Who writers take it and begin doing wildly and fascinatingly new things with the series - things that, even if they went out to a tiny and obscure audience, proved the cornerstone of the entire future of the series.

One of the things that is very clear about the next stable of writers is that they are people who grew up on Doctor Who but who are not, by and large, fans. And those that are proper fanboys are one who still made their bones in other professional writing before coming to Doctor Who. And for every single great writer who works on the series after this point, one thing is going to be very, very obvious: whatever it is they think Doctor Who is, they learned from Robert Holmes.

59 comments:

  1. Are you going to be covering "Peri And The Piscon Paradox" and what it tells us about her character and her fate(s)?

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    1. One of them belongs to Mindwarp. The other belongs to either The Mysterious Planet or possibly the Ultimate Foe: it would be too tidy if it's The Ultimate Foe.

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    2. Part 1
      Part 8
      Part 14
      Part 4?

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  3. Robert Holmes wrote Jo's first story. And he basically used one of the standard formulas for introducing a new character, which is 'new character appears useless and then turns out competent after all'. Whether it was Letts/Dicks' idea or just Holmes to do that I suppose we don't know. And then Holmes makes the skill Jo turns out to have escapology, which must be the single most useful skill a companion could have, a symbol of how Jo works in the series, and a headache for all other Doctor Who writers trying to be lazy.
    Peri, sadly, had none of that. And given that Holmes was there at her second story, and first as a recognised companion, he could have done something about it.

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  4. Is it me, or does this entry seem like a mixed-up jumble of bits from all the Trial entries? You refer back to the Mysterious Planet entry . . . in the Mysterious Planet entry.

    And then the next question is . . . is this deliberate?

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    1. I'm sure it's deliberate. Phil's written an entry as chronologically confused as the story he's analysing. Makes me look forward to seeing what he comes up with next year, when we get to Moffat...

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    2. Will we get to Moffat, though? Phil's been surprisingly ambivalent on whether he wants to cover this up to the new series... :-/

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    3. No I've not! My plan has always been to stop when I catch up with the series. That is, when there are no episodes of Doctor Who left to cover, I will end the blog then. So as of right now, the end point would be Good as Gold. Though as I've now got a post schedule out to January (The TV Movie is set to be covered on Boxing Day) in practice we can safely assume that I'll cover at least to the 50th anniversary episode.

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    4. Oh, good! :-)

      (And how appropriate that the TV Movie's being covered on Box-ing Day? ;-) )

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    5. Phil's been surprisingly ambivalent on whether he wants to cover this up to the new series...

      I think you must be thinking of Wifeinspace (where she wants to go through the new series and he doesn't).

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    6. in practice we can safely assume that I'll cover at least to the 50th anniversary episode.

      Which seems appropriate ,,,,

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  5. I mean, jumping back and forth between past, present, and future fits Trial nicely, but it wasn't half confusing to read :)

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  6. I'm going to second the comment on Peri And The Piscon Paradox. You simply *NEED* to cover this story -- at the very least in the book version -- for what it does with the issues Peri's character raises.

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  7. "but for God's sake, how do you make it a year into working on a season long plot arc and not have the ending worked out yet?"

    Ask Steven Moffat ;)

    Just kiddin'. But I agree. And I love your analysis of this story. Bob-on.

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    1. I maintain that The Wedding of River Song was absolutely in the spirit of Doctor Who. Think back to the recurring themes of how the show gets out of narrative collapse (And what bigger narrative collapse of the show can there be but the death of its protagonist, the one with his name on the title?). A narrative collapse is an event that forces the show into a choice, where all the choices set before it will destroy the means by which it exists: the rules of the situation themselves dictate inevitable destruction. And one of the central characteristics of the Doctor is that he doesn't play by the rules.

      Just like what Phil writes here: the Doctor is opposed to rules for the sake of rules. Where rules lead you only to destruction, you break them. That's what the Doctor does in The Wedding of River Song: he plays a trick, and breaks the rules.

      Of course it feels like a cheat. That's because it is! It's the nature of the Doctor to cheat when playing by the rules leads to destruction. Think of the chess game with Fenric coming up later. It's ridiculous for the pawns to team up against their own kings. It's ridiculous in chess, but it's just the sort of thing to work in real life. And remember The Ribos Operation. Of the three analogues of the Doctor in the story — Romana, Garron, and Binro — Binro the heretic is the most genuine. Romana reflects his arrogance and ego, Garron his mercurial anarchism, albeit without direction, and Binro his kindness, dedication, and opposition to useless, backward, unjustifiable rules. Any rule that leads to your own destruction is pretty unjustifiable if you ask me.

      That's the spirit of Doctor Who and Robert Holmes both.

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    2. If you tried submitting a screenplay or novel which ended with "and he wasn't dead, he was a robot all along" it would hit the rubbish bin so fast it'd probably catch fire on the way down.

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    3. But it was set up at the midway point! Unless you missed the season half-mark, that's a very poor analogy...

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    4. Any screenplay at all yes, but this is Doctor Who, and so gets weirdly meta-textual. The Doctor wasn't just cheating his friends, the Silence, and the recorders of the universe's history. He was cheating the viewers' expectations of how a television show itself would go. The whole season was seeded with images of duplicates, clones, and doppelgängers that the fakeout was subtly foreshadowed. But the Doctor being a robot duplicate he was controlling himself was such an old bait-and-switch for anyone with any televisual literacy that it would have been unexpected. It was so stupid, we didn't expect it coming from someone as clever as Steven Moffatt. So Moffatt was clever enough to do something we never would have expected him to do: the most stupid cop-out imaginable.

      Granted, it does leave Moffatt in danger of vanishing so far up the rectum of self-reflexivity that it risks becoming intensely dangerous for the show itself. I remember Phil discussing how he saw some tendencies in the Moffatt era that could become serious problems in the future. And I think this was one of them.

      Also, Moffatt only had to submit the script to himself, so the chances of it actually going in the bun were slightly lower than average.

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    5. IMO, the genius of the WoRS resolution was that the idea of the shapeshifting, time-traveling Tessalecta had been staring at us with a big smirk ever since "Let's Kill Hitler," and no one saw it because we were all distracted by the shiny red herring of the Doctor's ganger-clone from "The Rebel Flesh." My only complaint about the resolution was that it undermines "The Waters of Mars" if the Doctor could have just rescued everyone, deposited them 1000 years in the future with fake IDs, and said "never tell anyone who you are or the universe will implode." Still, I can almost forgive it by Dorian's suggestion that it wasn't really a "fixed point" in time but just a "still point" that the Silence was trying to make into a "fixed point," and that gives me just enough wriggle room to let it pass. We'll see how it plays out going forward.

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    6. My problem is by the time of WoRS I just didn’t care. I knew that the Doctor wasn’t going to die, so I guess it didn’t really matter “how clever” Moffat is perceived to have been in get around the Doctor’s death.
      I think his whole “timey, wimey” thing is a way to get out of dead ends his plots sometimes head down. The way the Doctor’s death was resolved was just more of the same.
      I guess just like Series 5, my favorite stories of Series 6 were the ones less “arc heavy” like The Girl Who Waited.

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    7. See, for me that's the basic justification of it. Yes, of course the Doctor isn't going to die. The entire question of "how will he escape death" is little more than technobabble. He'll escape death by doing something clever, same as he always does. The season was, I think, specifically about the non-interestingness of the question of how the Doctor was going to escape.

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    8. "...the non-interestingness of the question of how the Doctor was going to escape."

      I also enjoyed Season 6, much more than Season 5, whose standalone episodes don't stand alone very well. But I have to wonder: if the story's about the fact that "How-will-the-Doctor-escape" isn't an interesting question anymore, then what's left? I mean, there are some obvious things--mercurial anarchy--but this has been a part of the show since the beginning, hasn't it? "Will the Doctor escape?" has always been boring, but if the way in which he's going to do it is closed off, where do we make cliffhangers? Arcs? Plots?

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    9. My argument would be you actually don't: My feeling has always been cliffhangers, especially later on in the show, tend to feel like little more than cheap moments of peril shoehorned in because a cliffhanger is traditional. It's never made a ton of narrative sense to me.

      Granted there are certainly ways to use cliffhangers to ratchet up drama, usually by introducing an unforeseen plot twist of some kind, but writers so rarely seem to use them that way.

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    10. My only complaint about the resolution was that it undermines "The Waters of Mars" if the Doctor could have just rescued everyone, deposited them 1000 years in the future with fake IDs, and said "never tell anyone who you are or the universe will implode."

      Wasn't this possibility already established in "Fires of Pompeii"?

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    11. if the story's about the fact that "How-will-the-Doctor-escape" isn't an interesting question anymore, then what's left?

      Well, it's not as though there weren't other interesting things happening during series 6.

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    12. Wasn't this possibility already established in "Fires of Pompeii"?

      He could save "little people" like Caecilius and his family and like Yuri and Mia from "Waters of Mars." But he could not prevent the destruction of Pompeii and the death of most of the people without triggering the sort of event we see in the start of "Wedding." Or at least, that was my understanding.

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    13. "IMO, the genius of the WoRS resolution was that the idea of the shapeshifting, time-traveling Tessalecta had been staring at us with a big smirk ever since "Let's Kill Hitler," and no one saw it because we were all distracted by the shiny red herring of the Doctor's ganger-clone from "The Rebel Flesh." "

      It might also be because the Doctor we saw executed at the beginning of Series 6 actually emoted and showed joy at the sight of his companions and reacted with visible sadness and panic at his death, and didn't act or sound anything like the autonomous, lifeless robot we were presented with in Let's Kill Hitler, which couldn't show realistic human facial expressions with a whole crew operating it, and yet we're expected to believe it could act in all the human, emotional ways with just the Doctor as sole operator.

      Perhaps no-one saw it coming, because deep down they knew it would make no sense, and it still doesn't.

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    14. It's quibbling fannitude, I know, but it makes sense to me that the Doctor would pilot the Tesselecta robot better than the dudes themselves. His interest was delivering a convincing fake to maintain all the movements that his friends saw and were in people's historical records, when all the Tesselecta were interested in on their own were getting close enough to torture whatever dictator was their target of the week.

      I've come to think of this fixed-still-flexible points in spacetime as set by the participants' knowledge of them. Adelaide Brooke's death was a fixed point because she had become such a Neil Armstrong figure, a singular inspiration in the spread of humanity through the galaxy, which is pretty important to a lot of the Doctor's own past, and the lives of most of his companions and friends and enemies. Pompeii ended up being fixed because the Doctor turned out to be responsible for the eruption. Whereas the Doctor's death at Silencio turned out to be only still because the event was witnessed and the result presumed, but there was enough wiggle room in the actual event to preserve people's memories and records of what was seen, while what they believed happened really didn't. In this case, memory got cheated.

      I'm intrigued to see Phil's reading of this arc next year, though. I was actually very interested in it at the time. Not because I actually thought he would die — again, it's silly to think the show would actually kill its protagonist when it's not going to be cancelled forever (and the idea that when Doctor Who is cancelled again it'll be forever no longer makes sense).

      I was interested in how he was going to weasel out of it. But I was most interested in what I thought was the most profound narrative collapse in my whole memory of the show. The Doctor himself spends an entire season coming to question the reason for his existence, whether the good he does in the world ever outweighs the harm. He's thought that way about some situations before, but never about his whole life. That's what The God Complex is about: He isn't a hero, and he expects life with him to be worse than life without him. Considering what Phil says in the requiem, series six questioned the moral validity of Holmes' vision: If the collateral damage of the fight that flows from your morality is too great to justify fighting anymore, then it's no longer worth existing.

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    15. I think the non-interesting nature of "how will the Doctor escape" is also dependent on the situation. Because it's so abstracted. "The Doctor will die! How will he escape?" I mean, as phrased it's actually just the general form of the cliffhanger. All the actual action is around it - both in "why is the Doctor going to die" (since we know he's complicit with it) and "how is everyone going to handle this?" The central concept - I'm almost tempted to say the central joke - is that the actual avoiding death bit is a piddling detail in a season that is about everything surrounding that question instead of the question itself.

      Likewise, you don't really think we're going to get the answer to the question "Doctor Who?" do you? Of course not. We're going to get an exploration of the concepts anchored by that question. With the real question dating back to Forest of the Dead: what is the one circumstance in which the Doctor could tell someone his name?

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    16. I'd be hideously disappointed if they do answer that question. When I first heard Dorium shouting it at the end of the last season, I couldn't stop laughing. It's a brilliant arc going into the 50th anniversary too. The actual story arc of the season, the meta-text of the relation between the show and the viewers, the para-text of how the viewers, actors, and production staff interact, and the whole history of the program can come together in some fascinating, wonderful, horrifying, and slightly arousing climax. In terms of an excess of sense, it's going to make Trial of a Time Lord look like The Ice Warriors in comparison. And I'm reasonably sure it'll be good this time, too.

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    17. However much one stresses the irrelevance of the question 'how will the doctor survive?', it is inescapably a central pillar of an arc built around The Doctor's death, a question the audience will be anticipating over the course of the season, indeed over the entire summer in which the show was paused to ratchet up tension.
      However clever it may be to settle for a simple answer, perhaps so as to hoodwink those who've been working on elaborate theories (something well within the puckish nature of the persona Moffatt cultivates), or perhaps to underline the irrelevance of the question in the first place, it's hard to see how the benefits of this honestly outweigh those of thinking up a solution that couldn't be, in the general case, described as point blank stupid.
      Or indeed an answer which doesn't make a farce of the emotional impact and philosophical issues we've been looking at as a result. what emotional conclusions does The Doctor reach, if after a season of looking at himself and seeing destruction everywhere he chooses not to bow out gracefully, but to pretend that's what he's doing? Why should we invest in his apparent humility? Let alone the damage this does to our ability to believe in or care about anything River says or does, how many of her emotions are real, and how many are facades in the name of causality.
      The story is clever, it is immensely self aware, and it is remarkably well produced, but in the end it may well be far too much of a mess.

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  8. Robert Holmes wrote 17 stories for the show - most of them are classics. He's a great loss to the Whoniverse.

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    1. One of the things Phil's been pointing out is that one of the big obstacles to constructing a coherent Whoniverse is that Robert Holmes seems to have taken a positive pleasure in ignoring continuity when it got in the way of a good story.

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  9. "Mysterious Planet" (the non-trial bits) is like a folk memory of what "old" Who was like, but with the life drained out of it. It's so damned joyless. It's the past of the show appearing as dessicated husks: Tom Chadbon---once a riotous piece of comic relief in "City of Death," now a dull, anemic-looking supporting character with utterly no internal life. Or the classic Holmes double-act reduced to a groaning, awful kids-morning-show skit: the irritating twits who help the robot.

    Trial is by far my least favorite Who season of all---it's the bungled suicide of the show, acted out in slow motion. The trial sequences in particular are like a form of un-art: they are appalling, witless, poorly acted, incomprehensible.

    that said, i'm greatly looking forward to the rest of your take on it.

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  10. While it's true that Jo and Sarah Jane were technically the only two single Earth females to travel alone with the Doctor prior to Peri, that analysis requires you to treat K-9 as a companion equivalent to Jamie or Ben instead of what he was: a talking Deus Ex Machina who existed to deliver plot exposition and shoot bad guys. Treat K-9 as a talking version of the sonic screwdriver instead of a true companion and the Doctor traveled with a single human (or humanoid) female continuously from Season 9 until Adric shows up. So the "single female" status quo isn't as unusual as you suggest from that point of view.

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    1. Certainly Leela and Romana were both females, but neither were culturally from Earth. Leela was anatomically human, but for all practical purposes alien. That's the main reason I don't count them as in the same category as Jo/Sarah Jane - neither is positioned as representing the audience's culture.

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    2. I think a far more interesting question to ask is why the single, nubile young female from contemporary Earth companion archetype got to the point where it was ever considered the default to begin with. Their merits as characters aside, why did the creators of characters like Peri and the New Series companions feel obligated to write them that way? What was so iconic and special about the "concept" of Jo and Sarah Jane (their tenures corresponding to exceedingly popular eras of the show and brilliant performances by their actors aside) that their character archetype became seen as the "norm" over all the others?

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    3. I suppose I never think about Jo and Sarah Jane as being "contemporary Earth girls" because when I actually watched those episodes, they were ten years or so out of date. Eleven could come in next season and start traveling with Jo's cousin Gertie and she would be an anachronism from the Groovy Seventies. I suppose the preference for contemporary characters is that they can drop topical references into the dialogue more easily. It's not like Leela or Romana would have ever thought to have referred to Morbius as "Lord Chop Suey." Likewise, I think there's probably a consensus that "one companion is better than two," that "contemporary Earth is better than alien," and that "pretty girl is better than guy in kilt." I'm not sure that consensus if right, but I imagine that's the calculus that JNT used. And honestly, if Arthur Darvill hadn't been the revelation he was, I imagine the Doctor and Amy would by flying around unchaperoned as we speak.

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    4. @WGPJosh: I think it's simply and most likely a matter of dynamics and -- and, I know Phil doesn't exactly get on with this term, but it's commonly used by those involved, so -- audience identification. Essentially, there's a fairly simple, easy-to-invoke set of binary relationships that lend themselves nicely to the 'young nubile female companion' template -- ancient extraterrestrial time-travelling male, young human contemporary female, and so on.

      Plus, the whole 'exceedingly popular eras of the show and brilliant performances by their actors' thing probably isn't something they sniff at either.

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    5. That said - there is a lot to be said for having two companions; you can kidnap or incapacitate one of the regulars while the other two still banter.

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    6. Not that I am disregarding the popularity of the Letts/Dicks and Hinchcliffe eras or Katy Manning and Lis Sladen's performances, but I'm not sure that would explain why that character *archetype* was used as a template by further writers. Why did this "consensus", as Alan puts it, come to be in the first place? I don't see JNT coming up with Peri because Lis Sladen was a good actor.

      @Silent Hunter: I also like two or more companions, but not for that reason. I still feel kidnapping and incapacitating characters for no other purpose then to cheaply raise the stakes is a bit lazy. I think there are far more interesting ways to use a larger TARDIS team and the show in the 60s was actually pretty good at them (for the most part).

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    7. Josh - I'm not sure you can put the immense popularity of the Letts and Hinchcliffe eras aside, especially not once the nostalgia-focused period of Doctor Who begins. I think JNT's conception of Peri can be explained entirely in terms of "this is how it was when the show was popular," and the new series depends heavily on recreating the public's memory of what Doctor Who was. So they went for the format that characterized the best-remembered period of the show's history.

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    8. There's also the fact that the show had just come off an extended period of "the Doctor + THREE companions" and that, as we've all discussed, was frankly an ill-considered mess. There was never the time to develop any of them and in most episodes, one or two would be unconscious or lost in a ventilation duct or possessed by the Mara or (most hilariously) left standing around the buffet table stuffing his face. As I said, however you want to quantify it, "Doctor + one female" had arguably been the status quo since the Jo Grant era (I'm certain that JNT didn't consider K-9 to be a companion in the traditional sense). I think JNT just wanted to go back to a prior format that worked better without fully understanding exactly why it worked better.

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    9. Surely the issue is not the 'archetype companion' so much as the 'archetype TARDIS crew'. Thinking about the former, there's almost always been a youngish female companion around, usually from Earth, more often than not contemporaryish Earth. (Susan, Vicki, Katarina, Sara, Dodo, Polly, Victoria, Zoe, Liz, Jo, Sarah, (Leela, Romana, Nyssa,) Tegan, Peri, Mel, Ace, Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy, Clara.) The male lead archetype (Ian, Steven, Ben, Jamie) became redundant when Pertwee arrived (Turlough and Jack being exceptions proving the rule perhaps). Thinking of the latter, the TARDIS crew almost always includes that youngish female archetype, and although there are plenty of other crew archetypes, the one where the Doctor is paired solely with the youngish female (with or without K9) is the most common. Indeed it holds sway for 10 out of 11 seasons from its introduction in season 7 until JN-T (channelling the 60s) varies it for 4 seasons from mid-18 (Full Circle) to mid-21 (Planet of Fire), then returns for the remaining 4 seasons (22 to 26).

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  11. In the single trashiest and laziest retcon in the series history we get the pink-haze "she's a warrior queen of King Ycranos." To which the Doctor sighs happily and leaves her.

    In his defense, I just rewatched that bit and the Doctor was already inside the Matrix when the retcon was revealed by the Master. I don't think there was any point onscreen where the Doctor was told the truth, so as far as he knows, she did die as a result of the Time Lords' actions (who themselves were deposed in the last episode). So there wasn't really anything for him to do.

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    1. There's a second bit in Episode 14 in which The Inquisitor tells the Doctor. That's where the horrid pink-haze slow motion shot of Peri and Ycranos comes in. The Doctor sighs, says "Vroomnik" in a touched fashion, and never speaks of her again.

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    2. To be fair, the whole reason it's horrid is because JNT was script editor, by that point...

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    3. Ugh. Yeah, just went back and checked. I also came across footage of Colin at a convention explaining that he'd specifically asked for the question of "What about Peri?" to be answered one way or another (since the ending of Mindwarp was ambiguous), and the response from management was to shoehorn in that "warrior queen" nonsense. I wish he'd left well enough alone.

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    4. I can see Colin's point. If the Doctor isn't sure what's happened to Peri, that raises the question of why he doesn't go and try to find out. If she knows she's definitely dead (or, indeed, definitely married to the least objectionable man she's met on her travels who isn't dead) then we'll be happy to see the Doctor move on to travelling with a new companion. It's just a shame the answer they came up with wasn't better.

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  12. What multiple people pointed out at PageFillers was the insanity of The Valyard using "THE MYSTERIOUS PLANET" as evidence for the prosecution, when it clearly shows The Doctor doing good, while at the same time, drawing overwhelming attention to the very thing the High Council is trying to HIDE-- namely, Ravalox. The bleeped bits of dialogue only make it more obvious something's not right.

    Further, when not onle person involved in the making of "MINDWARP" (the actors, the writer, the story editor, the producer, the director) knew whether The Doctor's bad behavior was A)an act B)his brain scrambled by Crozier's machine or C)falsified Matrix testimony... you've got a real problem.

    It was suggested, and I had to agree, that the first 2 stories should have stood on their own, and the "TRIAL" only started after the end of the 2nd story. Had the entire "TRIAL" been done as the 3rd story, this would then have left room for a 4th story to properly introduce the new companion.

    In effect, trying to do "A CHRISTMAS CAROL" with this was never gonna work.

    Personally, because of the obviously fake evidence in "VERVOIDS", I never had any problem learning Peri's death had never really happened. Then again, as someone asked, WHY would they show such obviosly faked evidence within The Doctor's evidence, when doing so would make no sense (apart from allowing a cheap laugh)? He wouldn't have used such evidence if it was true, which therefore popints up that, yes, someone HAS been tampering with The Matrix. (sheesh)

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  13. I'm confused. Is this the trial all covered? I hope not. I was expecting a lot more.

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    1. I'm confused. Is this the trial all covered? I hope not. I was expecting a lot more.

      See above:

      "But more on the particulars of the Doctor's acquittal next entry."

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  14. From "Part 1: How To Write Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant"...

    "The intended structure of Trial of a Time Lord was based on A Christmas Carol, with the three stories shown as evidence representing the past, present, and future. And so The Mysterious Planet is intended to represent the past. Off the bat this is a little strange - it is, after all, an adventure with the then-current TARDIS crew seemingly set after the most recent televised adventure. The distinction between it and the succeeding story in terms of time is almost completely arbitrary.

    Except that the present of Trial of a Time Lord is presumed to be the courtroom, and thus Peri's departure has already happened somewhere within the Seasonish. And so this story goes back to a past, yes, but to an erased past that never was"


    During the first segment of the season, is it made clear that Peri has departed the TARDIS?

    Otherwise it could be assumed watching "Mysterious Planet", before "Mindwarp", that the Doctor is just temporarily away from his companion (which happens quite often).

    What I'm saying it, doesn't it only become clear that "Mysterious Planet" symbolises "The Past" until later, after the segment?

    Of all the four-episode runs of Doctor Who I have to say "The Mysterious Planet" is one of my favourites.

    So the second segment is the second segment...

    Of the third and fourth segments of this review I'm slightly confused as to which symbolises which segment of the season.

    The way I'm reading them either could be either!

    The fact that one segment of the season only has two episodes could be a clue, but will there be 16 segments to the four reviews? (Or 14 segments?)

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  15. How appropriately time-twisty that the very first scene of Colin Baker arriving and being put on trial was actually the last thing Robert Holmes wrote for the story? Not only that, but it wasn't even directed by "The Mysterious Planet"'s director OR shot in that block? Due to being a revision (as well as a kerfuffle involving the trial room screen), the scene was pushed back to the end of "Mindwarp"'s block, and was directed by Ron Jones.

    Also... I'm assuming you've already written all four parts, but will you mention the original Part 14, by Eric Saward? It's actually available online; I've read it, and... well, thought it has its moments, it's quite dire: http://homepage.ntlworld.com/thebatgranny/pdf/Time%20Inc.pdf

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  16. Lewis Christian:
    ""but for God's sake, how do you make it a year into working on a season long plot arc and not have the ending worked out yet?""

    Good question. A few years back, I spent about 14 months (off and on) working on a single story, but in my case, I came up with the ending FIRST --in fact, before I even decided to go ahead and write the story. My best friend asked me a question, what if THIS character met THAT character? And without batting an eye, I told him-- character "A" would blow character "B" completely to hell, and that would end that sickening series of misbegotten movies for all time. What happened was, the longer I thought about it, I got inspired to actually write the damned thing... but first, I had to come up with some reason for the two characters to cross paths with each other, and to do that, I also wound up having to go back and make sense of everything that led up to that point. Which was something the film-makers we were taking pot-shots at had never once bothered to do in any coherent fashion.

    I guess this is my way of saying that DOCTOR WHO is not by any means the only series that has flown totally off the rails over the years.

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  17. Your opening gambit, “Part 1: How To Write Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant”, is a major part of why I love this story – for, as the cliché goes, all its faults – and underscores my reply to Iain on the next post. They’re just great together, and you wish they’d been allowed to be this good all along. I just wish you hadn’t juxtaposed it with “Part 4: The Unspeakable Screwedness of Nicola Bryant”, where the sexual connotations may be being used deliberately to highlight the inherent sexism in Peri’s treatment, but still, the repeated “screwed” comes across as crass, unpleasant and sexist in itself.

    The sequence where Peri realizes that Ravalox is Earth and the Doctor is at once understanding of her emotions but unwilling to humor them at length may be the last great thing that Robert Holmes ever wrote.

    I do think that’s a great scene – undermined by being the point at which the Trial suddenly intercedes to say ‘It’s crap!’ and suggest the production team has lost all confidence in their fourteen-episode new start after fourteen minutes – but I think there’s a still greater one further into the story, where the Doctor makes a mistake in his personal relationship, realises it and immediately deals with it. If I were reading too much into it, I might even say that it’s a far better proxy for working out his problems with Peri and with Lytton.

    As I explored at length when I reviewed The Mysterious Planet, for me the best thing in this is the Doctor’s debate with Drathro, who he at first thinks is just a robot, without realising that the L3 is in fact deep in an existential crisis and that saying that is the thing most likely to wind it up. Which he does. Drathro’s a fascinating, many-layered character, and a brilliant piece of writing from Holmes. That no-one else has ever said this suggests I may, again, be reading too much into it, but I don’t think that’s a crime on here.

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  18. "He set the Doctor against rules for their own sake. He set the Doctor against bullies and boredom and everything drab and banal." It's hilarious to me, really, that you get this and yet missed the White Guardian's threat at the beginning of Key To Time: "And the Doctor visibly loathes him, even as he consents to the mission (if only because the White Guardian threatens to kill him)."

    Except the White Guardian doesn't. When the Doctor asks what will happen to him if he refuses the mission, the Guardian replies with "Nothing at all...ever." The Doctor isn't being threatened with death, he's being threatened with eternal boredom, a life free of excitement.

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