The Mysterious PlanetBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

'The Trial of a Time Lord' Episodes One to Four, which I'm going to refer to by the novelisation title of 'The Mysterious Planet' for ease of reference, immediately grabs the attention for several reasons. For one thing, it has a memorably impressive opening shot of the TARDIS being plucked out of time and dragged to a Time Lord space station where the Doctor is subjected to an inquiry into his activities, which soon becomes a fully-fledged trial. This opening effects sequence is often accused of using up far more than its fair share of the season's budget, which is possibly true, but it does have the benefit of immediately grabbing the viewer's attention. Unfortunately, it is preceded by Dominic Glynn's neutered arrangement of the theme tune, which is so utterly irritating that it probably persuaded some viewers to change channels before they even got to see the TARDIS being captured.

The actual idea of the trial appeals to me a great deal, and the tactic of using complete stories as evidence should theoretically prevent it from getting boring. It has been argued that the length of 'The Trial of a Time Lord' might have put off casual viewers, but this would also be true of the twelve part 'The Daleks' Master Plan', a story which is rarely subjected to the same criticism. Besides, this is not a criterion upon which I'm judging the story. The initial set-up of the trial therefore works rather well and acts as a hook; it quickly becomes clear that the Valeyard has an agenda of his own, thanks to Michael Jayston's excellent portrayal. The Valeyard positively seethes with repressed hatred throughout whenever he speaks to the Doctor, and foreknowledge of what is revealed in Episode Thirteen adds interesting significance to the sheer contempt in his voice when he tells the Doctor "smugness does not become you". The fact that the Doctor's trial is motivated by something more than spurious Time Lord justice is hinted at several times throughout 'The Mysterious Planet'; the excision of data from the evidence, something the Valeyard is expecting but that the Inquisitor is not, makes it clear that there is an underlying mystery here, and for anyone who doesn't pick up on this, the Doctor lists unanswered questions for Peri in a rather unsubtle piece of dialogue at the end of the segment. There is also the Doctor's thoughtful "so, you want me dead, do you?" to the Valeyard at the beginning of Episode Two, which is the first real suggestion that the Valeyard has personal reasons for wanting to see the Doctor prosecuted. It's all rather intriguing at this point, and sets the scene for the remainder of the trial. 

The trial scenes also work reasonable well at this stage because they are used sparingly; when the evidence is interrupted, the dynamic between the three main characters succeeds in keeping things interesting. The growing animosity between the Doctor and the Valeyard works well, thanks largely to the juxtaposition of Baker's bombastic Doctor and Jayston's icy Valeyard. The pair manages to suggest real emotion, as the two characters increasingly come to despise one another as events progress. Having said which, the Doctor's various acerbic "yard" puns on the Valeyard's title quickly grow tiresome. Linda Bellingham's aloof Inquisitor is effective enough at keeping order, although the stupid lace trimmed collar she is given to wear is a horrible piece of costume design. Which leads me neatly into 'The Mysterious Planet' proper…

Whilst I generally rather enjoyed 'The Mysterious Planet' on this viewing, I do have several criticisms of it, a few of which I'll get out of the way in one fell swoop. Firstly, it looks cheap. The location footage, something from which the series always benefits, helps to compensate, but the interiors of the huts and the corridors of Marb station look dreadful. Money clearly hasn't been spent on the costumes either; aside from Glitz and Dibber everyone is dressed in wardrobe cast-offs. The underground dwellers look especially stupid, with everyone wearing spray-painted BMX helmets, except for Balazar who wears an incredibly silly balaclava. Possibly the Immortal knitted it for him for Christmas, and he doesn't want to upset him. 

Secondly, bearing in mind that Robert Holmes is my favourite Doctor Who writer, there are several touches in 'The Mysterious Planet' that are very disappointing. The most obvious of these are Humker and Tandrell, who are presumably meant to provide comic relief, but are actually not remotely amusing (nor for that matter are the Doctor's facile puns on their names, as he calls them Handrail and Humbug amongst other things). Partly this is because Billy McColl and Sion Tudor Owen are rather wooden in their roles, but mostly it's because their scripted dialogue is weak. The only interesting aspect to the characters is that they have passed a selection process to find the brightest students from amongst a population controlled by an unseen being worshipped as a god, whom they are then sent to. It is widely believed amongst the underground dwellers that the Immortal intended to eat them, whereas in fact they effectively become his students. The point of all of this is of course that it takes the central premise of Holmes' 'The Krotons' and twists it round. 

The other rather crap aspect of the script that I find disappointing is the subject of Black Light. Holmes used technobabble throughout his Doctor Who career, but never does it feel less convincing than it does here. The only purpose that the Black Light gibberish serves is that it ups the stakes from the deaths of everyone on Ravalox to possibly the destruction of the whole universe, and it just feels forced, since all it really does is facilitate the Doctor's smug gloating to the court that his supposed interference actually saved the universe. 

Despite all of this, there is much to enjoy in 'The Mysterious Planet'. Holmes brings some nice touches to the post-apocalypse society of Ravalox, such as Balazar's pride in the Books of Knowledge, which turn out to be Moby Dick, The Water Babies, and UK Habitats of the Canadian Goose. The alternately naïve and pompous Balazar is also rather well characterised, and Adam Blackwood plays the part very well, successfully conveying Balazar's mixture of confusion and wonderment as the Doctor turns his world upside down. On the subject of characterisation, Glitz and Dibber are arguably the last real Holmesian double act, and they too are well characterised. Glitz has a real edge here; despite his considerable flamboyance, he is has no qualms about killing and is prepared to gas the underground in his pursuit of profit. He also has a string of prison sentences behind him and claims to be wanted on a dozen worlds. But the script also uses him and Dibber as comic relief, and unlike Tandrell and Humker they work well in this respect, such as when Glitz is cheerfully discussing his own social maladjustment. Unfortunately, whilst the script works well, the acting doesn't. It came as a huge disappointment to me watching 'The Mysterious Planet' again to see just how terribly stilted Tony Selby's delivery of his lines is; he sounds throughout as though he's just reading his lines throughout rather than actually acting and given my fond memories of the character this comes as quite a blow. 

Unfortunately, Selby isn't alone in the dodgy acting stakes. Joan Simms is not as bad as Katryca as her reputation would suggest, but she gets very hammy once the Tribe of the Free enter the underground, although considering that she gets lines such as "Am I to be surrounded by fools?" I suppose she isn't entirely to blame. In addition, the eighteen-month hiatus seems to have taken its toll on Nicola Bryant; she seems tired with the roll of Peri during this segment of the trial, and her accent fluctuates alarmingly in Episode One. It doesn't help that she gets very little to do here except run around in search of the Doctor. Baker's performance too has suffered; the lack of bickering between the Doctor and Peri is presumably a deliberate attempt to mellow the Sixth Doctor, but the void that is left by the lack of antagonism in his character is often filled with buffoonery. I still like him in the role, but he's a lot less commanding here than he was in Season Twenty-Two. He is, as noted, better during the actual trial scenes, although when the Doctor tells the court that he always likes to do the expected, he comes across as such an imbecile that I find myself siding with the Valeyard. 

The other major character of 'The Mysterious Planet' is of course Drathro, and although he's basically just another megalomaniac computer but on legs, I quite like him. His design is very striking, partly because of his sheer size and because of his huge sickle-shaped head, although in a certain light parts of his torso look suspiciously like cardboard. But he also works as a character, Holmes' compensating for his direct characterisation of the Immortal's assistants by making Drathro himself far more interesting. Despite his talk of logic, he's bad tempered and egotistical and it seems to me that after the destruction of his power source, he becomes increasingly desperate to justify the need for his own survival with ever-more spurious logic The Doctor's attempt to persuade Drathro to sacrifice himself so that the Doctor can save the "work units" is one of Baker's few really great scenes outside of the courtroom during these four episodes, and Drathro's stubbornness to accept the Doctor's arguments about the sanctity of organic life seems more like fear of dying without a struggle than any sort of logic. 

Nicholas Mallett competently directs 'The Mysterious Planet', and there are some nice point of view shots from the perspective of the service robot. Incidentally, although the service robot looks like the bastard love child of a Dalek and a JCB, I find it quite impressive that the production team makes it look as though its caterpillar tracks actually work, simply because it's not something I've ever seen in Doctor Who before. On the other hand, Mallett starts the trend of ending episodes with a close-up of Colin Baker's face, which increasingly seems like self-parody as the trial continues. And whilst I'm still moaning, Dominic Glynn's incidental music is very intrusive. Overall, 'The Mysterious Planet' is a promising start to the season, albeit one that is not as strong as it could, or indeed should have been.

FILTER: - Television - Sixth Doctor - Series 23