The BBC science fiction series Doctor Who is a powerhouse legend in television. It initially ran almost continuously from 1963 - 1989. That's 26 years! After a lengthy hiatus (filled by a plethora of novels and Big Finish full-cast audio productions), the series recently returned to production with great success. David Tennant is a splendid Doctor. It can be seen on the Sci-Fi Channel here in the States, and, of course, on DVD.
My first experience with Doctor Who came in the 1980s, when WVIZ, channel 25, a PBS station in Cleveland, aired the show each Saturday night. I grew up with the Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Doctors, and the program remains close to me as it was an important component to my childhood imagination.
For the uninitiated, Doctor Who follows the exploits of an alien Time Lord named the Doctor as he travels through time and space in a cavernous vehicle called the TARDIS. Typically, he goes on adventures with companions - often from Earth. His ability to regenerate when facing death allows for a new actor to assume the role, perhaps in part explaining why the series has been able to last for 45 years. Thus, each new actor becomes a numbered Doctor. David Tennant is the tenth actor to assume the role, for example, so he is the Tenth Doctor.
Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord was produced during a stormy time for the program. The Sixth Doctor played by Colin Baker had become a controversial figure, and the previous season's experiment in lengthening episodes from their traditional 25 minutes to 45 minutes was abandoned. This season of Doctor Who was a shortened 14 25 minute episodes and had an overriding story arc, much like the Key To Time season of the Fourth Doctor played by Tom Baker. The basic premise of this season involved the Sixth Doctor being plucked out of time and space by his race, the Time Lords, and placed on trial for his renegade meddling in the timestream. The 14 episodes were divided into 4 main stories, with the trial being the narrative device that interconnected them. Each "storyline" is given its own DVD in this set, and each will be briefly reviewed below.
Parts 1-4: The Mysterious Planet (**)
Having been pulled out of time and space, a slightly amnesiac Sixth Doctor finds himself in a courtroom presided over by the Inquisitor and a jury of fellow Time Lords. Turning down her offer for a counselor, the Sixth Doctor tells the Inquisitor that he will defend himself from the prosecutor, the Valeyard. The Valeyard lays charges of wanton interference in the natural events of places the Sixth Doctor has traveled to and tells the court that he will present them with two recorded instances from the Sixth Doctor's recent past. The Mysterious Planet is the first of these two instances. This story involves the Sixth Doctor and his traveling companion, Peri, arriving on a planet called Ravolox, which is really Earth moved light years away from its original position. They get caught up in a conflict between simple peasants on the surface and technologically sophisticated workers who live in tunnels underneath ruled over by a centuries-old robot. Two itinerant con men by the names of Glitz and Dibber are also present and seek information held by the robot.
As the lengthy description above would suggest, this story is plot-heavy. The machinations of the trial are laid out, and though set-bound, it's more interesting (if uneven in its dialogue) than the narrative involving the titular "mysterious planet." That half of the storyline is fairly run-of-the-mill Doctor Who stuff that fails to engage. The efforts to make characters as bizarre as possible seem forced and the cheesy special effects and bad acting just seem cheesy and bad without the B-level charm of other Doctor Who programs from the classic series. One notable exception, however, is the character of Sabalom Glitz (Tony Selby), a wisecracking gangster-type who would prove popular enough not only to return at the end of the season but also in the subsequent season of Doctor Who, in a Seventh Doctor story titled Dragonfire.
Parts 5 - 8: Mindwarp (**)
The Valeyard presents another adventure from the Sixth Doctor's recent past that's meant to indict him for crimes against the timestream. Here, the Sixth Doctor and Peri arrive on Thoras Beta, an alien world home to Sil, a conniving alien first introduced in the previous season's adventure Vengeance on Varos. Sil has employed a scientist named Crozier, who is advancing brain surgery to the point where he intends to transfer the mental essence of an individual from one brain to another - something desirable for Sil's mentor, Kiv, as he suffers from an acute brain disorder. Crozier has done some immoral procedures, and the Sixth Doctor and Peri come upon some of the results and also meet a warrior king named Yrcanos.
As with the previous adventure, the trial itself proves more interesting than the second run-of-the-mill story in a row. This adventure sets up the specter of the Valeyard and / or the Time Lords themselves manipulating evidence in an attempt to frame the Sixth Doctor - and this hint of conspiracy promises more events to follow in the story arc. The Mindwarp storyline itself is okay. There's lots of running about corridors and caverns - and Brian Blessed (a long-time character actor) is overbearing and over-the-top in his performance as King Yrcanos, as expected. If it weren't for the fact that this story proved to be the swan song of the Sixth Doctor's companion Peri, it would be unremarkable.
Parts 9 - 12: Terror of the Vervoids (****)
With the Valeyard's case presented, the Sixth Doctor chooses to turn to his future for evidence of his innocence. This strategy, of course, makes for a dizzying paradox - If the Doctor can turn to his future for evidence, doesn't that suggest that his trial is resolved without his death? Paradox or not, the Sixth Doctor and his new companion, Mel, answer a distress call on the space liner Hyperion III. There, they become involved in an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery replete with aliens, immoral scientists, suspicious crew members, and a small gathering of killer plant creatures.
Terror of the Vervoids is one of Colin Baker's best television stories. Writers Pip and Jane Baker capture the best aspects of the Sixth Doctor - he's witty and pleasant here. The enthusiastic Mel (Bonnie Langford) makes for a fun albeit traditional companion. The story also has a good cast, with longtime actress Honor Blackman most notable as the leader of the scientists responsible for the Vervoids. The Vervoids themselves are fun creatures in the classic Doctor Who tradition. In terms of the trial sequence, the conclusion cleverly adds a new wrinkle to the charges laid out against the Sixth Doctor.
Parts 13 - 14: The Ultimate Foe (***)
Terror of the Vervoids ends with the "surprise twist" of who the Valeyard really is. The Ultimate Foe, then, tries to resolve the Sixth Doctor's struggle with his titular ultimate foe. It's a story that returns Glitz from the first adventure of the season and also involves one of the Doctor's most notorious enemies, the Master (Anthony Ainley). Chaos erupts on the Doctor's homeworld of Gallifrey, as its ruling High Council is deposed because of behind-the-scenes manipulations occurring over the course of the trial.
One can't help but think The Ultimate Foe could have been a very compelling Doctor Who story had it been allowed to develop as a traditional 4 part story, especially given the momentous events of the plot. At two episodes, though, it seems rushed and incomplete - some great ideas not fully realized.
In sum, Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord is an uneven season of Doctor Who. Its premise is interesting - and buried in the middle is one of Colin Baker's best television stories - but its execution is uneven and its conclusion disappointing. Doctor Who fans, however, will find it worth watching, especially since it serves as the final Colin Baker adventure. The silver lining for Colin Baker fans is that he would revive the Sixth Doctor for a lengthy series of Big Finish Doctor Who full cast audios, and that these stories would rehabilitate the flaws in how his Doctor was developed in front of the cameras.
The episodes of Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord are presented in a full frame 4:3 aspect ratio that reflects its original television broadcast. The image looks as good as I've ever seen it with solid colors and okay detail - don't expect stellar blu-ray visual quality here, however, given the show's 1980s video production roots.
All 14 episodes of this Doctor Who season arrive with an English language Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track. Dialogue is always clear, and though the track is obviously limited by the television program's production values, the sound is fine throughout.
Subtitles are available in English for the hard of hearing.
DVD releases of episodes from the classic Doctor Who series have traditionally been generous with extras, and Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord is no exception. These four discs are loaded with commentaries, featurettes, and other goodies.
I find that commentary tracks typically make for the most significant extras. DVD releases of classic Doctor Who programs typically have interesting and fun commentary tracks from talent involved in their making. The commentary tracks appearing here are no exception. A random sampling suggests they are informative and entertaining. The Mysterious Planet has one full-length commentary track with actors Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, Tony Selby, and Adam Blackwood. It also has a commentary track on episode one only with script editor Eric Saward. For Mindwarp, actors Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant return for a full-length commentary track, this time joined by writer Philip Martin. Terror of the Vervoids has a full length commentary with actors Colin Baker and Michael Craig, writers Pip and Jane Baker, and director Chris Clough. Finally, the first episode of The Ultimate Foe has a track provided by script editor Eric Saward, while the second episode has a track provided by actors Colin Baker and Tony Selby with director Chris Clough and writers Pip and Jane Baker.
Perhaps the second most significant extras are a series of well-produced and informative "making of" documentaries on each episode arc of the series. These feature comments from various cast and crew and behind-the-scenes information. What's nice about these documentaries is that its participants feel comfortable about criticizing certain aspects of this season of Doctor Who. Often with more contemporary material, DVD extras tend to have their participants gush enthusiastically over every aspect of the program's creation. In any case, these documentaries are interesting and arrive in anamorphic widescreen. Runtimes are the following: The Making of the Mysterious Planet (25:01), The Making of Mindwarp (20:22), The Making of Terror of the Vervoids (19:15), and The Making of the Ultimate Foe (15:13).
A plethora of additional extras are scattered throughout these four DVDs. An exhaustive listing of such probably isn't necessary for this review. You'll find archival news items, music videos, deleted and extended scenes, text information subtitles, and other featurettes.
Two of these extras, however, I did want to draw some attention to. The first appears on the Terror of the Vervoids disc. Titled The Lost Season (10:58), it's a narrated (by Colin Baker himself, no less) account of the missing episodes that were not produced by the BBC involving the Sixth Doctor and Peri. Longtime Doctor Who fans may be familiar with three of the stories from their subsequent novelizations, but this is a nice overview of the plans for six total story arcs that were not produced. The artwork illustrating Baker's overview of these lost episodes is admittedly awkward, but any classic Doctor Who fan will enjoy this glimpse of what might have been. The second appears on the disc for The Ultimate Foe. Called Trials and Tribulations (55:04), this is a fascinating retrospective of Colin Baker's tenure on Doctor Who. Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, script editor Eric Saward, and others discuss the trials and tribulations of this rocky era of the long-running program, with heavy emphasis placed on producer John Nathan-Turner and his deteriorating working relationship with Saward.
Oh, and a trailer for the fourth season of the relaunched Doctor Who series is played before the main menu on each disc as well.
Whew! This 4 DVD set loaded with extras took a while to review! Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord is an uneven season of Doctor Who that finds the time traveler on trial for his life by his fellow Time Lords for his interference in the timestream. It comes recommended to fans. However, given the plethora of very good extras, I'll give the DVD set itself a "highly recommended" rating.