5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE TRIAL OF A TIME LORD PART ONE (THE MYSTERIOUS PLANET)
"Wake me when it's finished."
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Since we'd somehow acquired the vague notion that Pip and Jane Baker wrote all of Trial Of A Time Lord, we weren't exactly looking forward to this. And we were too busy moaning about the theme music as the opening credits rolled to notice the writer's credit.
Then it started. There was an amazing model shot that made us sit up straighter on the sofas. Then the dialogue started unspooling. Actually quite good dialogue. In fact, bloody excellent dialogue. Could this really be Pip and Jane?
Then we heard the line "The exhilarating smell of a freshly laundered forest". Ohh! Robert Holmes! Gloom vanishing, we settled down and prepared to have a good time. And that's precisely what we had.
Which is not to say that The Mysterious Planet is one of the primo Robert Holmes classics. There's a lot wrong with it, and fret not, we'll get to that. But we want to lay it out right up front that despite all the crap stuff, we like The Mysterious Planet.
For a start, there's the Doctor: this is another fantastic performance from Colin Baker. It really spans the gamut. From his irritating (yet Doctorly) smugness and childishness in the trial scenes to his dedication to saving lives on Ravolox it's all believably the Sixth Doctor and nicely shows off the complexity of his character.
And then there's his enchantingly warm and friendly relationship with Peri: the scenes of them walking along with her hand tucked into his arm make us quite melty. He's still the Sixth Doctor, of course, yanking the umbrella away from her with scant regard for the deleterious effects of the rain on her fancy hair (she looks like she spent hours in the TARDIS with the hot rollers), but despite that they've never shown their regard for each other more obviously. His protests at the trial at having to watch her being upset underline that even more.
And the capper is the beautifully written scene in which he consoles her about the changes to Earth. At the beginning of their relationship, he probably would have told her to stop whining and get a grip: now he does his best to make her feel better. (What's more, his take on it ("Planets come and go, stars perish. Matter coalesces, reforms, into other patterns, other worlds. Nothing can be eternal") reminds us of his perspective on time. He's not human, after all. And that's a good thing.)
It's not just the Doctor, either. True, we've seen most of these plot elements before. Some of them, like the post-holocaust planet, are your standard SF schwee. Some of them, like "primitives" worshipping what turns out to be lumps of tech, are your standard Doctor Who schwee. Some of them, like the double-acts, are business as usual for Robert Holmes. And some of them, like the hidden god who's a robot and the two smartest youfs selected to work for him, are outrageous wholesale steals from Holmes's previous work. But yanno what? It doesn't matter, because we were entertained all the way through. It was fun. And you can't say that about all Doctor Who stories, can you?
And it's not just the dusty plot devices The Mysterious Planet manages to rise above, either. It's got a massive strike against it from the start: the trial. Yes, there's that frisson of irony about the trial reflecting the status of the show itself, but big whoop, and otherwise, it's a massively moronic idea. What that kind of framing device does, far too efficiently, is yank you by the hair out of the story just when things are getting good and remove you a safe (and boring) distance from the action. There you are, up to your elbows in peril, and the next thing you know you're slapped back down amongst a bunch of Time Lords. Now Time Lords are scarcely a byword for thrills and action at the best of times, but get 'em arguing about points of legal procedure and they're tedium squared. The only elements that rescue these scenes are a nice performance from Lynda Bellingham as the Inquisitor and, of course, a blistering turn by Michael Jayston as the Valeyard. He not only manages to invest his lines with something approaching menace and conviction, but he does it, Mutoid hat notwithstanding, looking really quite cute. And that's a combination we thoroughly approve of.
The rest of the characters are a mixed bunch. Glitz and Dibber have promise, but are a long way from reaching the heights other Holmesian double acts have scaled: this isn't helped by Glitz's character seesawing alarmingly from psychopath to practically cuddly, or by the fact that Glen Murphy can't act. There's no ambiguity about Tendril and Hubcap, on the other hand: they're just appalling. (Wonder what it is about the selection process that turns out the winners with identical platinum bleach jobs?) The only relief you can extract from their apparently intended comic relief is the one you feel when their scenes are over.
And the others? Drathro is just too Lost In Spaceish for us to take him seriously, despite Roger Brierley's excellent voice acting. Tom Chadbon, back again after his outing in City Of Death, impresses with his determination to buck the system, although as with Glitz his character zooms about a bit. Katryca starts out well - just when you think she's going to be sucked in by Glitz's smooth line of patter she shows she's nobody's fool even if she worships a big steel thing - but it all ends up a bit Boadicea on acid. And Balazar, especially in his "old one" exchanges with the Doctor, is hilarious. We can almost even forgive him for the "H.M. Stationery-Office" joke (especially as his line "Perhaps at last we shall find the habitat of the Canadian goose!" made us laugh immoderately).
The Mysterious Planet is Robert Holmes's last full Doctor Who story. Although not his best work, it's entertaining enough, with enough of those characteristically Holmesian touches, to make it a credit to his memory. He died too young, and we miss him.
MORAL: If someone's insisting your planet's trashed, best to nip up and check.
WE'LL HAVE A GAY OLD TIME
"You seem to have a great talent for straying from the straight and narrow." Certainly a lot of fanfic writers and Russell T Davies seem to think so.
THE LITHPING PTHYCOPATH
"A simple case of sothiopathy."
BURN BABY BURN
We like Glitz and Dibber's fancy sideburns. It's a lot cheaper, but just as effective, way to achieve an SF look than Star Trek's bumpy forehead of the week.
It's a lovely moment when the Doctor says to Peri "You're absolutely right. We must find out what's going on here", thus completely contradicting what she's just said.
WE REGRET TO ANNOUNCE
No offence meant to the efficiency of London Transport, but are even the remains of Marble Arch tube station really likely to still exist two million years into the future?
A LEGACY OF GEMS
"Ah yes, the guns. They all had similar credentials."
Like we said, how we miss Robert Holmes.
RESPECT THE SWEETIE
The Doctor's all with the rushing in to rescue people and stuff, which is lovely, but we're a bit puzzled by his unthinking assumption that organics are more important than robots. How about sentient robots? Mind you, Drathro's just as bad: if his logic, that robots are more advanced than humans because humans created them, is correct, that means humans are less advanced than jellybeans. Which, while we could make a case for it in the instance of some particular individuals, in general can't really be said to hold water.
Good God, what was that with Balazar and the goo in the face? Unspeakable, as is the Doctor's line "I think dinner's on him".
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