TRIAL OF A TIME LORD PART TWO (MINDWARP)

"Why is this taking so long?"

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Ah yes, Mindwarp. Commonly thought amongst fans to be the worst of the worst when it comes to Trial Of A Time Lord. And even we, tireless champions of the Sixth Doctor that we are, can see it has some major, major problems.

So why did we have such a good time watching it?

No, really, we did. And that's rarely a given. The memory of sundry Fifth Doctor stories where after aeons had rolled past it was still only Episode Three still makes us wake up screaming. And the new series doesn't get off any more lightly: that's not guaranteed to hit it out of the park either. But despite its multiple faults, Mindwarp never failed to entertain us.

Because? First of all, and this always gets a giant tick from us, it's bloody funny. We might despise Michael Grade for his naked loathing of Doctor Who (and we do), but we have to hand it to him: his command to dial up the humour pays off in spades.

'"An attitude I must approve." "Well, you would, wouldn't you?"

"Iím more concerned I might clash with what lives in it."

"I think it just winked at Peri."

"The Doctor wonít mind donating his sanity to the advancement of science."

"We'll pile the heads of our enemies before us like melons in a heap!"

"The pleasure of your company is of course infinite..."

"Everyone has a point nowadays!"

"Does he always go on like that?"

'"Thank you." "For your life? It was nothing." "No. For not shouting."'

Fantastic, primo stuff. And it's not just the script: it's who they get to play it. How can any story featuring Brian Blessed at full volume fail to be other than compulsively watchable? He (and his lungs) are magnificently hilarious. And Peri plays off him amazingly as well.

Oh, Peri. One of the most underappreciated companions of all time, in our not very humble opinion, and Mindwarp gives her a sendoff that's absolutely worthy of her. Yes, we know John Nathan-Turner got cold feet and cravenly retconned her death into a marriage sillier than Lisa Marie Presley and Michael Jackson's, but that's obviously just nonsense. It never happened. Peri dies here, and what a death it is. Grade might have succeeded in getting them to bump up the humour, but when it came to toning down the violence he struck out. We can't think of a darker ending for a companion than this. In her last moments Peri not only has to face the horror of her impending loss of identity, but also - in some ways even more shocking - her betrayal by the Doctor she not only trusts but has clearly become close to. For her to die thinking the Doctor is callously indifferent to her fate is, arguably, even worse than if the Doctor had killed her with his own hands. Brr.

It's not just the death, either: these are pretty good episodes for Peri all around, notwithstanding the regulation dose of screaming. Her warmer - and calmer - relationship with the Doctor at the beginning is just as enchanting as in The Mysterious Planet, and we like her intelligent guess that the weird tides are related to the planet on the horizon (which is a hell of a lot likelier than the Doctor's wild leap about a...mechanical tide controller? Had he nipped over to Thoros Beta on the quiet to suss it out so he could impress Peri later?) And while all that subplot about Yrcanos is actually pretty pointless, she is a hilarious foil to Yrcanos's booming. She even takes the initiative and does Crozier a nasty injury before running away. There's a brief low point when they force her into a hideous pregnancy smock and bile-coloured veil, but that's offset by the chill of her growing realisation, here and on the beach, that there's something very wrong with the Doctor. And her death scene (in which she still manages to look stunningly beautiful even bald) is, like we said, simply harrowing. It's sad to see her go, but what an exit.

What else is good? Well, much to our surprise, and please don't throw things, we found we actually liked the trial scenes this time. While in The Mysterious Planet they were an annoying and distancing interruption to the action, here they add rather than detract. This is, of course, vastly helped in our case by our immediate and total lust for Michael Jayston's Valeyard, so we appreciate that if you unaccountably fail to share our fascination, your mileage may vary. (Does anyone remember a long-ago fantastic piece about the Valeyard that has, tragically, now disappeared off the internet? "Sex, drugs and rock and roll are his watchwords." Oh, they so got it.) He's just as charismatic in this as he was in Mysterious Planet, and we particularly love the way he flirts with the Inquisitor. Woof!

Ahem. What we were saying? Oh, yes, the trial scenes. While the Doctor was mostly annoyingly (if Sixth Doctorly) bumptious in them in The Mysterious Planet, here they're absolutely laced with pathos. The Doctor's shock and bewilderment, and his fear for Peri, are (in contrast with his behaviour on Thoros Beta) wonderfully underplayed. And the Doctor's protests that things weren't quite as they're portrayed lends some interesting intrigue to the proceedings (yes, yes, we know. We'll get to that later.)

What else? We love the psychedelic beginning, with the astonishing colour scheme and the TARDIS landing in the water. Kewl. As one of us said: "There's more high concept here in two minutes than some of the new episodes manage in 45." And she's right: it's easy as fans to see the flaws in classic episodes, but it's important to recognise how much they did achieve. Strange planets. Alien races. SFy concepts like mind transfer. None of these are trivial achievements of imagination, and the classic series always chucks them in as a matter of course. How we miss that.

There are some nice supporting characters apart from Yrcanos here, too. Seeing Sil again is a great bonus, and the Young Ones' Christopher Ryan (later to appear in the new series as Staal) is just as good. As a fawning minion Sil's lost the menace he employed so effectively in Vengeance On Varos, but what the hey, he's so smirksome we're more than willing to forgive him. We've seen Patrick Ryecart's performance as Crozier described as wooden, but we totally disagree - he plays it flat, but that grounds the whole thing nicely, as his detachment makes it clear it's just a job to him. That's much more chilling than if he were gleefully rubbing his hands together and capering round the room at the prospect of offing his subjects. And that sip of tea before he starts CPRing Kiv is a touch of unalloyed genius. The one time Ryecart is out of his depth is when he's required to get a bit panto, with the horribly delivered line about the fish-faced monster: the rest of the time, he lends the proceedings some much-needed gravitas.

See? Tons and tons of good stuff.

And the bits that aren't quite so stellar? The major thing, of course, is the murky plot. Why is the Doctor behaving as he does? We think we can safely rule out the Doctor genuinely deciding to throw in a life of philanthropy, because that would just be stupid, and you know it. So is it because of the mind machine thingy? Is he just pretending all the way through? Or did it not happen at all, thanks to the Valeyard twiddling the Matrix? Colin Baker famously tells the story of asking all and sundry what the real story was only to find that nobody knew, but with all due respect, we think it must be more complicated than that. Take a close look at the scene where the Doctor samples one of Sil's marsh minnows: it's pretty clear by his reaction that he's not just in a trance of gourmet delight. The intention looks to us to have been that the mind machine's effects were neutralised by the marsh minnow and that everything after that is the Doctor faking it, or what would be the point of the minnow and the lingering reaction shot? That doesn't explain why the Doctor's so lackadaisical about finding Peri and making sure she's out of danger, but hey, this Doctor was never all that good at that. Half the time it's been Peri saving him instead of the other way around. His faith in Peri to get herself (and often him) out of trouble is, we suppose, a backhanded compliment, although to be honest if we were Peri it's one we'd prefer to manage without.

True, none of that explains the dark hints artfully scattered around about how the version we're seeing isn't how things really were. But so what? This isn't a self-contained story, after all. We're prepared to live with a little uncertainty. Nevertheless, it can't be denied that this plot fuzziness weakens the impact of the story.

The other majorly bad thing? Um, yes. How can we put this? In his tenure as the Doctor, Colin Baker had a lot of fine moments, but there are long stretches of this story that aren't among them. Let's make no bones about it: the scenes of Doctor under the influence of the mind machine are wincingly bad. It's a particular shame that Colin Baker shot so wildly over the top in these particular episodes, because let's face it, there isn't an actor born who could take on Brian Blessed in a hamming contest and win. Instead of Brian's glorious excess, the Doctor instead looks like an escapee from a particularly dire amdram. It's a real pity and, we must point out, very uncharacteristic of Colin Baker's overall performances as the Doctor.

So those are the heavyweight drawbacks. There's other stuff, too, of course: the mostly-wooden other supporting characters, the pointless corridor-running, the rather too amusing Dorf ("Stay!")... All of these should probably have mattered more to us than they did, but since they didn't get in the way of us having a great time we can't say we care too much about them.

Give it another go. Honestly, it's worth it.

MORAL: Fish is good for the brain.

OUTTAKES

DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE

Anyone labouring under the misapprehension that the Doctor might really have decided to turn to the dark side need only pay attention to his: "Oh, I see! Well, we canít have that!". That's the Doctor.

IRRESISTIBLE FORCE/IMMOVABLE OBJECT

Colin Baker and Brian Blessed? However did they fit those two egos into the same studio without some massive cosmic explosion?

SCUSE ME

Just after Crozier says "I must redesign the behaviour modifier before I transfer the brain of Lord Kiv", he starts to leave, but unexpectedly has to change direction and swerve around the guy standing behind.

THEY REMIND ME OF CORRIDORS

"All these tunnels look the same to me." Nice. Very nice.

BE REASONABLE

We like the Inquisitor's fairmindedness as she wants to pause the trial because of the Doctor's memory loss. It's a great contrast to her emotionless explanation of why they let Peri die.

BREATHING ROOM

While Sil is saying "Why is the Lord talking of such things?", a gap at the edge of his mask on his left side behind his facial frill is visible.

STOP THE PRESSES

Can you imagine the pandemonium the Valeyard's line "You have strong feelings for the woman?" would cause in the new series? Here, the Doctor simply agrees.

DO NOT WANT

Brian Blessed is exemplary throughout, but we would be remiss if we didn't point out his truly spectacular "Nooooooo!" at the end.

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