Can you believe it’s 30 years since ‘The Trial of a Time-Lord’ aired?
We take a look back at Colin Baker’s epic 14-part Doctor Who serial, which formed his second full season as the Sixth Doctor in late 1986.
The Doctor is summoned by the Time Lords and placed on trial for meddling in the affairs of lesser species, placing him in a deadly fight for his life against the merciless prosecutor known as the Valeyard, a mysterious figure who will stop at nothing to have the Doctor executed.
Part One opens with one of the greatest shots in the show’s history, as the camera does a 180 degree sweep across the huge and detailed space station model, climaxing with the TARDIS being caught in the station’s tractor beam. Often effect shots in classic Doctor Who fail to stand up, but this single moment is impressive even by today’s standards.
The Doctor discovers the terrible fate of his missing companion Peri – her mind replaced with the mind of the evil Mentor Lord Kiv, killed in a hail of violent gunfire. A terrible gut-wrenching twist.
The Doctor believes he has succeeded in making a solid case for his defence, by showing the court how he defeated the monstrous Vervoids and saved humanity. But the Valeyard turns things to his advantage and accuses the Doctor of genocide!
The Master arrives at the trial, and reveals the terrible truth: the Valeyard is the Doctor (albeit a distillation of his darker side, created between his twelfth and thirteenth regenerations).
Originally, Robert Holmes was to have written both the two final episodes, but sadly died before he could finish them. Script editor Eric Saward finished the second episode from Holmes’s notes, but the original plan to end the story, and the 23rd season, on a cliffhanger was rejected by John Nathan-Turner. This led to a falling out between Saward and Nathan-Turner, and Saward resigned his position as script editor. Nathan-Turner commissioned Pip and Jane Baker on short notice to compose a concluding episode.
‘The Trial of a Time-Lord’ also marks the final appearance of the Time Lords in the classic series. They would all be killed off (off-screen) when the show returned in 2005, though they did later return in David Tennant’s swan song, ‘The End of Time’.
The opening model shot of the story features the final sequence to be shot on film for the original run of Doctor Who, until the 1996 TV Movie ten years later.
The Doctor: [To the Time Lords] “In all my travellings throughout the universe, I have battled against evil, against power-mad conspirators. I should have stayed here! The oldest civilisation, decadent, degenerate and rotten to the core! Power-mad conspirators, Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen – they’re still in the nursery compared to us! Ten million years of absolute power – that’s what it takes to be really corrupt!”
Glitz: “Whereas yours is a simple case of sociopathy, Dibber, my malaise is much more complex. A deep-rooted maladjustment, my psychiatrist said, brought on by an infantile inability to come to terms with the more pertinent, concrete aspects of life”.
Dibber: “That sounds more like an insult than a diagnosis, Mr Glitz”.
Glitz: “You’re right there, my lad. Mind you, I had just attempted to kill him”.
Kiv: “Where will you be then, eh? Dead! No, worse than that – poor!”
Controversial and divisive even today, ‘The Trial of a Time-Lord’ is an audacious and ambitious piece of storytelling (and also the longest Doctor Who story ever made, running for a grand total of 14 episodes, albeit divided into four mini-adventures); one that perhaps comes in for more flak then it really deserves.
Commissioned after the show’s forced 18-month hiatus, ‘Trial’ is a perfect example of the long-running show trying something new and enterprising.
Despite a slightly weak opening and some occasionally intrusive courtroom scenes, ‘Trial’ is truly epic and completely unafraid to try something different – from the mysterious absence of regular companion Peri at the beginning of the story to the altogether unique introduction of future companion Mel (a timey-wimey event in itself which Steven Moffat surely wishes he could have done first).
‘Trial’ isn’t concerned with following tropes and clichés, instead subverting narrative expectations whilst delivering a complex and sprawling story that would lay clues and red herrings for viewers to notice and keep for later in the adventure.
Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor is nicely toned down, still slightly arrogant and proud, but a damn sight more likeable then his first season originally painted him. Baker is a marvel here, a masterful actor with complete and utter conviction in every line he utters.
Michael Jayston as the Valeyard is wonderfully icy as the mysterious villain, whilst the guest turns from the likes of Lynda Bellingham, Anthony Ainley, Patrick Ryecart, Christopher Ryan, Honor Blackman and Geoffrey Hughes are equally superb.
‘The Trial of a Time-Lord’ is a big and powerful adventure, complete with a huge scale story-arc that boasts many mind-blowing shocks and revelations, as well as some bloody great cliffhangers. It’s a bold experiment in terms of Doctor Who storytelling and boasts perhaps Colin Baker’s best performance as the Doctor.
If ever there was a Doctor Who story in desperate need of positive revaluation, it’s most definitely this underrated epic.
What’s your favourite Sixth Doctor story? Let us know below…