I started watching the Trial of a Time Lord season in a rather foul mood. But in fact, rather to my surprise, I found myself warming to The Mysterious Planet - in relative terms, of course; it's definitely in the lower third of Robert Holmes' stories, and has a number of plot elements recycled from his previous scripts when he did them better. But there is a sense that the show might be finding its feet again: back to the 25-minute format, and also embedding the season in a narrative arc (which was successful last time it was tried) in which Time Lords up to no good; the basics are actually there, and I think it is the production values that let it down as much as anything. (Though I should admit that the plot is also a bit confusing and over-filled.) The Mysterious Planet is a little dull but it's not actively bad, unlike most of the previous season.
I hold the unfashionable view that Mindwarp is much the best Sixth Doctor story. Unlike The Mysterious Planet, it is perhaps a little padded rather than crammed, but the performances make up for it - particularly Nabil Shaban and Chris Ryan, with Brian Blessed doing some excellent shouting. Also the framing narrative comes into its own here, with the Doctor as puzzled as we viewers are in some cases.
I was able to forgive many of the flaws of Earthshock because of the killing off of Adric. The destruction of Peri's brain is a great shock moment which lifts Mindwarp from merely being good to being classic. We are building up to something shocking throughout the story, and it actually delivers; dramatically, this is not just the high point of the season, it's the high point of the Colin Baker era.
So farewell to poor Peri. Having been listening to her excellent extended adventures courtesy of Big Finish over the last few years (where Nicola Bryant has now started directing stories as well as appearing in them), it's rather a shock to return to how poorly she was served in the original scripts. The Peri/Six dynamic never comes quite right, and she bears all the hallmarks of being trapped in an abusive bullying relationship. Nicola Bryant is very pleasant to watch, but the same cannot be said for what is done to her character. (Apart, as stated above, from her dramatic demise. Up until the start of this year, my personal fanon was that Peri actually does die, and the story with King Hyrcanos is made up to make the Doctor feel better; but Big Finish's Peri and the Piscon Paradox has persuaded me that there is more than one satisfactory way to answer that question.)
Apart from the Vervoids themselves, Terror of the Vervoids isn't all that bad. There are good guest appearances (Honor Blackman being the most remarkable), Mel is a welcome change of tone if somewhat abruptly added to the show, and the plot is a decent claustrophobia / paranoia / base under siege combination. The Vervoids are unfortunately dull, obviously zipped into their suits and not very plant-like, but again they are not the worst of the monsters of Who. Where the story goes off the rails is the framing narrative, where it simply becomes confusing as to how the Doctor has access to future adventures, why he should be on trial now for something he hasn't done yet, and why we should be particularly outraged if the Matrix has been hacked.
And then The Ultimate Foe is a poor farewell to a misused Doctor. There is little good to be said of it - Eric Saward's original script for the second episode makes more sense than Pip and Jane Baker's version as broadcast, but that is not saying much. The Valeyard's role does become clear, and actually interesting, but the back-story of Time Lord politics simply becomes confusing and the means and motivation of the Master, crucial to what passes for a plot, are even less comprehensible than usual. (And we have the cop-out of Peri's faked death, which kills the drama of the only interesting development of the entire season.)
When I started this rewatch, Colin Baker was firmly at the bottom of my list of favourite Doctors; I'm afraid he is still there, at least as far as his TV performance goes. The character is simply an unattractive one, and Baker is not able to invest him with sufficient heroism to overcome this (cf Pertwee, who for similar reasons is second last in my ranking, but was able to turn on the charm a bit more often). It's far from being all Baker's fault; the decision to have him assault Peri in his very first episode is a disastrous one which taints that story and most subsequent ones for me; the bizarre way in which the camera habitually zooms in on him pulling a funny face as the closing music rolls becomes very tedious very fast; and even what we thought we knew about the Doctor's background in Time Lord continuity is undermined for no terribly good reason (I think Six has proportionally more stories with fellow time lords than any other Doctor, including One and Four who actually had Gallifreyan companions). Part of this is the mis-writing of the Peri/Doctor dynamic, but then things actually deteriorate in terms of production values and coherence once she has been killed off.
Having said that, Baker does rather well in the Big Finish audios - it's a cliche, I know, but I do recommend Peri and the Piscon Paradox, Bloodtide, The Doomwood Curse, Brotherhood of the Daleks, Paper Cuts, Jubilee, and The Wormery. I also recommend, if you can find it, Colin Baker's continuation of Peri's story, The Age of Chaos.
And suddenly we have a new Doctor, as well as a new companion. Time and the Rani is widely excoriated as the worst of the Seventh Doctor era (coming bottom of the poll I ran a few years back and third last in the DWM Mighty 200 poll) but I don't quite see that (granted, I have a couple of other heterodox views on this period of the programme). It's a bit unexciting - the Rani's evil plan consists more of exposition than action, and the Tetraps are not well executed - but at least one can understand what is going on, and most of the cast seem to want to do it well.
And McCoy's Doctor is rather a breath of fresh air - once again I find I am watching the show because I want to see what he will do or say next, a feeling I haven't really had since Tom Baker's departure. I still don't think that Time and the Rani is terribly good, but it seems to me unfarily underrated.
And suddenly we seem to have a complete step change with Paradise Towers, a glorious story which merges comedy and horror - Richard Briers dressed up as a Hitler-like bureaucrat; girl gangs with extraordinary slogans; cannibalistic little old ladies; a hero who isn't terribly heroic; an evil architect and a swimming pool. I don't know what it is, but there is a sudden injection of energy and confidence into the show at this point that, in my view, lasts for most of the rest of Old Who's run. The Doctor may not have much of a clue as to what is going on, but we are urging him to work it out and we get there at much the same time as he does. My daily watching of the old episodes has become a pleasure again, rather than a chore.
So, farewell to Six, but ending on a more optimistic note than I have done for a while. Also feeling slightly elegiac in that I know there will be only two more of these posts.
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