1985 was a weird year for Doctor Who. It went back to Saturday evenings, but in a longer, 45-minute version, meaning it had fewer episodes but an equal runtime. Colin Baker was also met with a bit of trepidation, due mostly to the poor and over-violent scripts and the increasingly hands-off approach to producing of John Nathan-Turner, who’d already been on the show for a number of years and was tiring of it.
The BBC, in its infinite wisdom, and because of new Controller Michael Grade, decided 22 seasons was plenty and the show should have a good long rest. However, fans were not satisfied and bombarded the Beeb with complaint letters demanding the show be brought back. There was even a (stupid and horrible) “star-studded” charity song called “Doctor in Distress” to try to keep it around. Eventually, after buckling under some of the pressure, Doctor Who returned on a probationary basis.
Season 23 – 6 September 1986 – 6 December 1986
It had been 18 months since the final episode of Season 22 aired, and things were changing again. Grade was giving Doctor Who 14 episodes, but they’d go back to the usual 25 minute length, making it the shortest season of the show ever (until the next three years, of course). The truncation of episode length made script editor Eric Saward have to completely revamp the way he’d have to tell the stories. He came up with a framing device to comment on the way the series was being forced to defend itself, and so had each of the stories in the season revolve around the idea of the Doctor being on trial.
It became known as The Trial of the Time Lord, and all 14 episodes would have this banner title (though split into four distinct stories with their own unofficial titles). In the framing device, which existed in all parts, the Doctor is plucked out of time by his people, the Time Lords, and, without memory of what just happened, placed on trial for putting lives at risk and causing wholesale death. The prosecutor in the case is the Valeyard (Michael Jayston), a mysterious Time Lord who seems to have a vendetta against the Doctor, who is representing himself, of course. The courtroom scenes mainly involve the Doctor berating the Valeyard and otherwise acting childish only to be castigated by the Inquisitor (Lynda Bellingham).
For the first eight episodes, the Valeyard presents his case of things that happened in the past which have caused great harm. The four episodes that followed present the Doctor’s rebuttal, using a thing he hadn’t done yet as evidence of his valor and peacekeeping abilities. The final two episodes reveal a nefarious plot to discredit and destroy the Doctor and the unlikely person to come to his aid.
The issue I have with this framing device is simple: while interesting, all it does is break the pace of the stories at hand and really doesn’t further anything. There’s only so many times I feel like listening to Colin Baker petulantly call his accuser names (the Railyard, the Junkyard, etc.) before I want to say, “all right, I get it.” It also doesn’t make any sense for the Doctor to use something he hasn’t done yet as an example of him being awesome. Surely, he could point to any number of his earlier exploits as reason enough of his innocence, or at least his good intentions. Also; every SINGLE episode of the season ends with the same cliffhanger: a zoom in on Colin Baker’s concerned face. The whole idea is flawed, really.
As for the individual stories themselves, they’re a real mixed bag. Saward developed the idea of the season with his new friend, the master of Doctor Who writers, Robert Holmes, and had him write the first story and the last. His first four parts, given the title The Mysterious Planet, take the Doctor and Peri (who’ve now been traveling together quite awhile and aren’t as snappish with one another) to the planet Ravalox, which they both recognize as being similar to Earth. They are spied upon by Glitz and Dibber, two mercenaries hired to destroy the “black light” generator on the planet that powers a robot thing underground. Peri gets kidnapped by a tribe, and it’s eventually learned that Ravalox IS Earth, just not where it ought to be.
This is the essentially the final story ever written by Robert Holmes, and because of that, it’s significant. It also introduces another patented Holmes double-act in the form of Glitz and Dibber, though Glitz definitely becomes the more important character as time goes on. I also really like the way Peri and the Doctor are written here, with much more importance placed on them being FRIENDS (novel idea) than them being always at each others’ throats. I mean, come on, guys. Other than that, this is sort of a forgettable story, I’m sorry to say. Not bad, but not particularly good.
The next four episodes comprise the story known as Mindwarp, written by Philip Martin with his second and final scripts for the series. On the planet of Thoros Beta, the Doctor and Peri investigate advanced weaponry available there. They almost immediately encounter Sil, the reptilian slug of an arms dealer they met previously on Varos. He has hired a scientist, Crozier, to perfect the surgical process of putting the brain of Kiv (Christopher Ryan) into that of another being to stave off Kiv’s impending death. The Doctor and Peri manage to escape with the loud warlord King Yrcanos (Brian Blessed).
The Doctor then betrays Yrcanos and the others who were planning an attack. When Peri disguises herself to try to get close to the Doctor, he turns her in and requests the chance to interrogate her himself. He then tells her he’s only pretending to betray them so he can learn more of Sil’s plan, which is now to use the Doctor’s body for Kiv’s mind. The bad guys then decide to use Peri’s body for Kiv’s mind and the Doctor frees Yrcanos so they can rescue her, but before they can, the Doctor is hypnotically drawn to the TARDIS and leaves. This was the Time Lords pulling him out of time for the trial. Yrcanos breaks in, but it’s too late: Peri is gone and Kiv resides inside her head. Yrcanos, full of rage and grief (cuz he was sweet on Peri) fires at Kiv, killing him/her. This is the last thing we see. The Doctor in the courtroom is shocked, saddened, and now even more convinced that the trial is rigged.
This is probably the best of any of the serials this season, and that’s sadly not saying a whole lot. Sil is great and just as sleazy and slimy as ever. Yrcanos is a very interesting, if ultimately buffoonish character that is made all the more bombastic by Blessed’s performance, which is suitably scenery-chewy. The story ends on one of the darkest notes in the whole of the series and the Doctor’s utter defeat, at the hands of his own people, really, is devastating and palpably felt in Baker’s portrayal. It is, however, sort of overturned by the end of the season, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Next, it’s the Doctor’s turn to give evidence, and for that he shows us something he hasn’t done yet, which we’re calling Terror of the Vervoids, written by Pip and Jane Baker. They aren’t very good writers, but at the time, Eric Saward was on his way out, after having a huge row with John Nathan-Turner, and so JNT asked Pip and Jane to do their best. The story has the Doctor and his new companion, Mel (Bonnie Langford), who neither we nor the Doctor had actually met yet (time and wime), get a mayday message from a starliner called Hyperion III. There are plant creatures on board called Vervoids, who look like leafy vagina monsters that are up to no good.
The Doctor claims in the courtroom that certain aspects of the events unfolding have been tampered with and that these events happened differently. The Valeyard, of course, says the Doctor’s just trying to save himself. He also accuses the Doctor of genocide, for the destruction of the Vervoids, even though they were a hostile threat. Something fishy’s going on here.
The final two episodes comprise a finale called The Ultimate Foe. Episode 13 was written by Robert Holmes and Episode 14 was meant to be as well, and, in fact, he’d written it. However, Holmes passed away after fighting an illness at the age of 60. JNT felt that the final episode, which ended on a cliffhanger, needed to be changed, giving closure to the season. Saward, even more reverent of his friend’s writing after his death, refused to change one word of it and eventually stepped down as script editor, leaving JNT in a bind for the final episode. He turned to Pip and Jane again, who managed to re-tool what Holmes had done and give the season and the story a definitive conclusion.
It’s revealed that the Valeyard is himself behind the plot against the Doctor, and he’s been tampering with the Matrix Archives. This news is brought to us by, of all people, the Master, who wants to see the Doctor get a fair trial (or so he says). Mel and Glitz have been brought to Gallifrey as character witnesses by this point as well. The Doctor has to go inside the Matrix to do battle with the Valeyard before he destroys everything, and erases the Doctor entirely. It turns out that the Valeyard is a potential future incarnation of the Doctor. He wants to ensure he will come into existence by changing things in the Doctor’s timeline. What? Anyway, his plan is foiled and we learn that Peri hasn’t actually died (that also was a falsehood by the Valeyard) and she’s living comfortably married to King Yrcanos. But the Valeyard isn’t actually destroyed. DUN DUN DUN!
It’s a very confusing and altogether rushed ending to the season that had good intentions from the start. Saward had an idea and things kept conspiring against him, though he also acted in the wrong. JNT was often away at conventions or meetings trying to gain sympathy and attention for the show, leaving his duties to the show as producer to no one, which is probably why, when he wanted to change Holmes’ script, Saward went so ballistic and walked out. Saward also never had anything particularly nice to say about Colin Baker, who really was the one short-shrifted by this whole thing.
Though the show was back, it only gathered a fraction of the viewers it once did and, despite the behind-the-scenes squabbling, the BBC and Michael Grade placed most of the blame on Colin Baker’s shoulders. They decided his 3 year contract had been fulfilled, saying the 18 month hiatus counted as a year, and he should be let go. JNT, meanwhile, who desperately wanted to leave the show, was told it would be canceled if he didn’t stay onboard. And so, the actor who possibly wanted to be the Doctor more than anyone and who wished to be the longest-serving in history was pushed out.
But the season didn’t end on a regeneration, so what would the show do in the premiere of the next one? We’ll discuss that, as well as the beginning of the three shortest seasons in Doctor Who history, next time.