The Ultimate FoeBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 4 May 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

After twelve episodes, 'The Trial of a Time Lord' finally concludes with Episodes Thirteen and Fourteen, also known as 'The Ultimate Foe'. Finally, the real reasons for the Doctor being placed trial, hinted at throughout, are revealed, as is the Valeyard's motivation for wanting him dead. And considering the production nightmare that plagued this finale, the fact that it works reasonably well is frankly astonishing…

Robert Holmes' final episode for Doctor Who doesn't quite achieve the classic status of much of his work, but is still nevertheless a worthy departure, albeit one cut short by his tragic death. The various hints that the Time Lords had ulterior motives for taking the Doctor out of time and placing him on trial bear fruit, as it is revealed that the corrupt High Council are seeking to cover up an atrocity committed in order to protect their own interests; dragging Earth light years across space and renaming it Ravalox in order to conceal secrets stolen from the Matrix by the Andromedans and almost wiping out the planet's inhabitants in the process. Finally, the censorship of segments of the evidence in 'The Mysterious Planet' and the Doctor's assertion that other evidence has been distorted makes sense, as Holmes' revisits his version of the Time Lord society from 'The Deadly Assassin', revealing that "the oldest civilization" is "decadent, degenerate, and rotten to the core", a collection of corrupt politicians who will stop at nothing to safeguard their own power base. 

More dramatically however, we also finally discover the true motivation behind the Valeyard's obvious desire to see the Doctor dead. The revelation that he is a distillation of all that is evil in the Doctor, and that he wants take the Doctor's remaining lives so that he can gain independent corporeal existence free from his better side is a startling development and one which is undoubtedly memorable with both fans who like the idea and those who do not. The concept of a "dark Doctor" would be revisited during Sylvester McCoy's tenure in the role, again more obviously during the New Adventures, and yet again more recently in Big Finish's Doctor Who Unbound series, but it is worth remembering that this is the first time the concept was really explored since the First Doctor gradually shook off the trappings of an anti-hero back in Season One. Jayston's performance makes it work especially well, and the script makes it work too; the choice of the Doctor's dark side as an ally in their attempt to dispose of the Doctor and thus reduce the chances of the Ravalox affair being discovered by the High Council makes sense given the Doctor's resourcefulness, since they are in effect recruiting the Doctor to defeat himself. And it nearly works, but for an unlikely intervention in Episode Thirteen.

'The Ultimate Foe' is the third and final time that Robert Holmes would write for the Master, and the only occasion on which he would write for the Anthony Ainley incarnation. Although Ainley tends to ham up the role (allegedly on instructions from John Nathan-Turner), watching the series in order has forced me to accept the fact that I'm usually pleased to see him in spite of this, or perhaps even because of it. I rather like the idea that the Doctor is facing a death sentence with no means of escape until his arch-enemy reveals himself in order to put a spanner in the works, and I love his reasons for doing so; the fact that the Master is unprepared to countenance a rival in his long running feud with the Doctor harks back to the Pertwee era, and the master's seeming need to impress his old foe. Perhaps more significant is the implication in Episode Fourteen however that the Master really has cause to fear a version of the Doctor unfettered by moral scruples; the Doctor has after all defeated the Master on numerous occasions and occasionally spared or saved his life in the process, but the Valeyard would hardly be so generous… Despite as usually grinning like a Cheshire Cat on numerous occasions, Ainley is quite good here, conveying the impression that the Master is genuinely flattered when Mel describes him as "utterly evil", which is deeply silly but an amusing nod to the character's essential shallowness. 

With the Valeyard's true nature thus exposed, the story changes gear as the Doctor pursues him into the Matrix, and Holmes' revisits the surreal dreamscape concept of 'The Deadly Assassin' to good effect, with nothing as it seems. There is a surreal creepiness to proceedings, such as the eerie singing of children in the background, and the cliffhanger ending to Episode Thirteen as the Doctor is pulled into the sand by clutching hands is a memorable image, for once justifying a close-up of Baker's face. Dominic Glynn's incidental score helps considerably in creating this atmosphere. Holmes' old skill at characterisation also becomes evident one final time in the shape of Mr. Popplewick. Geoffrey Hughes is perfectly cast as this pompous, stuffy living embodiment of bureaucracy, and he provides an opportunity for some amusing lines that poke fun at such bureaucracy, such as "The holy writ of order is procedure" and his defense of absurd regulations, as typified by his conversation with Glitz in Episode Thirteen. Having explained "the junior Mr. Popplewick is not permitted to expect anyone", his indignant reaction Glitz's entirely reasonable question "Why didn't you put him in the picture?" is of course, "And upset the procedure!?".

Another plus here is the return of Sabalom Glitz. Whilst I criticized Tony Selby's performance in 'The Mysterious Planet', he seems more assured in the role here, which benefits the character. Without Dibber (or a gun) to back him up, Glitz loses his edge somewhat and stands exposed as a bit of a coward, albeit a rather likeable one, and his constant switching of allegiances is rather amusing. He agrees to help the Doctor in Episode Thirteen because he's worried that the Valeyard intends to dispose of any witnesses to what is taking place, then when the Master provides sanctuary from the nerve gas in Episode Fourteen he rejoins his old business associate. He even briefly tries to suck up to the Valeyard at the start of Episode Fourteen, getting dismissed as an "oaf" and a "microbe" for his pains. But he isn't merely a buffoon; his willingness to betray the Doctor to Popplewick in Episode Fourteen for the sake of his wallet is a reminder that Glitz is inherently untrustworthy, and the Master's inability to hypnotize him is not entirely unimpressive. This particular scene is especially entertaining, as Glitz is more interested in the value of the "bauble" that the Master uses to try and hypnotize him forcing the Master to resort to simply bribery since it is more likely to appeal to Glitz's "crass soul". 

But despite all of these good points to 'The Ultimate Foe', it doesn't work quite as well as it should do. There are numerous minor failings: Holmes returning to the Doctor's habit from 'The Mysterious Planet' of making crap insults based on the Valeyard's title, here calling him "the railyard", betrays the patchwork nature of what is ultimately a single fourteen-episode story. The revelation that Peri did not die at the end of 'Mindwarp' but instead has been set up as a warrior queen by King Yrcanos is a massive cop-out akin to revealing that Adric managed to survive 'Earthshock' after all. Although I like the Doctor's impassioned ranting at the Time Lord's in Episode Thirteen (his famous "In all my travellings throughout the universe, I have battled against evil, against power-mad conspirators. I should have stayed at home!" speech), there are also some truly appalling lines of dialogue. Mel gets more than her fair share from Holmes, including "That's it Doc, now we're getting at the dirt" and "How utterly evil!", and even more when Pip and Jane Baker take over for Episode Fourteen as she gets to spout drivel like "Never mind the Sidney Carton heroics". The Valeyard gets to join in as well, with the cringe worthy but strangely memorable "There's nothing you can do to prevent the catharsis of spurious morality". And I should also mention James Bree's performance as the Keeper of the Matrix, an exercise in wooden acting that proves that he hasn't honed his art since his diabolical performance as the Security Chief way back in 'The War Games'. 

In addition to this, I'm suddenly forced to realize exactly why so many fans dislike Mel. Whilst I liked her in 'Terror of the Vervoids', she's simply awful here, partly because of the horrid dialogue Langford is given and partly because, with circumstances meaning that the character has less opportunity to enjoy herself here, Mel suddenly becomes shrill and irritating. Also, Langford's acting suddenly takes a nose-dive, a fact that is especially obvious when she has to deliver the line "the Doctor's convinced he has to sacrifice himself… and you're content to let him!". 

But above all, 'The Ultimate Foe' leaves me with a feeling of anticlimax. Episode Fourteen is perfectly serviceable, in that it wraps up the story line as well as introducing further developments. The Valeyard's intention to wipe out the court is perfectly consistent with his motivation, since he would hardly want witnesses left alive had he succeeded in taking the Doctor's remaining lives. Likewise, the revelation that in addition to trying to get the Doctor and the Valeyard to eliminate each other the Master is also making a play for power on Gallifrey is perfectly in character. The concept of the trial within a trial as the Valeyard creates a duplicate of the courtroom in the Matrix to try and trick the Doctor is a novel idea and also worthy of mention, although Chris Clough's unsubtle direction rather spoils it; the sinister background noises and Langford's ever-so-slightly suspicious performance are unnecessary and alert the viewer to the fact that something is wrong before we find out for certain, thus spoiling the surprise. The main problem with Episode Fourteen is that it somehow feels like a by-the-numbers attempt to finish the story off and tidy up, and it all falls a but flat. The Valeyard suddenly becomes a Master clone at the end, laughing maniacal, gloating, and explaining his plan. There is too much technobabble, with a "megabyte modem", "particle disseminator", and "limbo atrophier" and it all ends with a big explosion. The ending feels particularly tacky; I can buy the idea of the Inquisitor throwing the case out after the events of the last two episodes, but the suggestion that the Doctor runs for President is as ghastly here as it was when Flavia suggested it at the end of 'The Five Doctors'. Ultimately, the conclusion to 'The Trial of a Time Lord' feels adequate, but I can't help wishing that it felt spectacular. 

The Completely Useless Encyclopedia has an entry that reads "Carrot juice, carrot juice, vworp-vworp, carrot juice", and defines it as "famous last words". It's an unfortunate fact that whether or not 'The Trial of a Time Lord' is any good, the controversial sacking of Colin Baker means that he gets a fairly ignoble final scene, as he departs, under threat of exercise, with a slightly paradoxical companion (for anyone who cares, the obvious explanation for resolving this can be read in Pip and Jane Baker's novelisation of 'The Ultimate Foe', or the Missing Adventure 'Time of Your Life'). His tenure in the lead role is arguably the most controversial of any of the seven Doctors that appeared in the main run of series, and he departed under ignominious circumstances, with fandom divided to this day about whether or not he ever managed to make a good Doctor. Thirteen years later however, and with the advent of Big Finish, the redemption of the Sixth Doctor would begin…

FILTER: - Television - Sixth Doctor - Series 23