Thursday, December 30, 2010

Serial 146: The Ultimate Foe - The Trial of a Time Lord Part IV

Doctor: Colin Baker (6th Doctor)
Companion: Mel

Written by: Robert Holmes & Pip and Jane Baker
Directed by: Chris Clough

Background & Significance: If you count The Trial of a Time Lord as one giant serial of fourteen parts and disregard the four-story structure of it, Trial of a Time Lord is the longest Doctor Who story of all time and this last two parter is the thing that puts it over the edge.

I don't want to talk too much about the actual dynamics behind this story here because they work a little bit better as we get into it, but I can't really talk about the finale of this epicness without going into the gritty details of the behind-the-scenes, which I find terribly fascinating.

So as we mentioned back in "The Mysterious Planet", Trial of a Time Lord was the last thing Robert Holmes ever worked on. The first episode of these final two parts is the last thing Robert Holmes ever completed, and it is a MASTERPIECE. Seriously, I think it's one of my favourite single episodes of Doctor Who of all time. It's dark, elegant, creepy, and amazingly Holmesian in the best of ways. And it's as good as anything we've seen him do so far if you ask me.

Unfortunately, Holmes got incredibly sick and passed away before he could get past more than a rough outline of episode two, meaning Holmes's climactic part two is lost to us forever and we'll never get it back.

For long-time script editor Eric Saward, Holmes's death was the last straw he could take under Jonathan Nathan-Turner. He quit Doctor Who after editing "Mindwarp", but offered to write the final episode based on Holmes's original outline on the condition Nathan-Turner not make him to change anything from Holmes's original outline, which included the planned cliffhanger ending where The Doctor and The Valeyard grappled with each other and over a Time Vent and fell in. The vent closed behind them and the story ended with the fate of The Doctor left up in the air.

So Saward wrote the script and turned it in and then production on the end of Trial started. Locations were scouted, sets were built, actors entered rehearsals...

Then Nathan-Turner, for some reason, decided that the ending was too much of a downer and asked Saward to change the ending. And really, JNT. Why did you do this? You know how much Saward isn't messing around, you had agreed to the ending with enthusiasm, and everything is going good. What did you THINK would happen? Spoilers! Saward told you!

But no. Nathan-Turner did it anyways, and Saward got pissed, walked off the show for a second time, took the copyrighted script and outline with him, and refused to let Nathan-Turner use either for the final product.

So now, they're about to enter production and they have neither script nor outline on the last episode. All they have is list of locations and actors. THAT'S IT. I can't even imagine that day for JNT. Musta been awful.

With no other options, JNT (who couldn't even give the new writers any details about the original part two because of Saward's copyright) turned to Pip and Jane Baker, gave them a list of sets and locations, and asked them to write the episode. He could give them part one because it was done and turned in, but all of part two had to be their own extrapolation.

They turned around a draft in three days.

Now, after all this, did they pull it off? I mean, at this point, you gotta know if they did or not, right? You just gotta know...

So let's get to it!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Serial 145: Terror of the Vervoids - The Trial of a Time Lord Part III

Doctor: Colin Baker (6th Doctor)
Companion: Melanie Bush

Written by: Pip and Jane Baker
Directed by: Chris Clough

Background & Significance: Oh god, Pip and Jane.

That was my first thought upon finding out who happened to write this third segment of "Trial of a Time Lord", especially since the last Doctor Who encounter with them turned out to be less than satisfactory. Apparently Script Editor Saward thought so too, because he wasn't exactly keen on working with this team again, but due to a bunch of delays and unsuitable scripts to constitute the second to last segment of the Trial, they really had no choice--apparently these two churned out work like nobody's business, which is important for a TV show with a rapidly approaching production deadline.

But also important for a TV show is not only the speed with which the work gets turned in, but the quality... Which, all things considered, turned out to be surprisingly good with this serial. But I'll get into that in a bit.

Also notable is the first appearance of Melanie "Mel" Bush, the Doctor's new companion. Created by JNT and portrayed by Bonnie Langford (a well-known actress and musical theater star), she's always had something of a bad rep among fans, but I think she'll surprise you in this.

Unfortunately for the behind the scenes aspect of the show in production at the time, the character as well as the actress chosen to portray her further deepened the rift between producer and script editor, finally culminating in Saward's departure from the show. (But he's kind of an asshole anyway, so his loss.)

Enough about that, though. Let's take a closer look, shall we?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Serial 144: Mindwarp - The Trial of a Time Lord Part II

Doctor: Colin Baker (6th Doctor)
Companion: Peri Brown

Written by: Phillip Martin
Directed by: Chris Clough

Background & Significance: "Mindwarp" is a bit of a hard thing to talk about. Thinking about it now, it's hard for me to elucidate on all the things I have to think about without going too much into them. Maybe that's because I've changed my mind on what, exactly, I think about it since my initial viewing.

The first time I watched Mindwarp, I checked out mentally halfway through episode one when we have the re-appearance of "supposedly fan-favourite" alien Sil. Really, once you add him, the story becomes something I'm not interested in. Sil, whom you might remember from the insanely controversial "Vengeance on Varos" back in the infamous Season 22 (Colin Baker's premiere season), was a little annoying slithering alien who laughed and was "funny" and gross and... yeah. I've decided that I don't like weird alien slugs. Just don't like them. I can think of ONE time when they were used well in Doctor Who, and even then, I didn't have to look at them.

"Mindwarp" is written by "Varos" writer Phillip Martin, who was asked to contribute a story to Colin Baker's second season to bring back Sil as a returning villain (because of the popularity?) for what would have been Colin Baker's second season had the hiatus and Trial not happened, but when that season was scrapped in the face of Trial of a Time Lord, that planned story got dead. But apparently Sil was so popular they brought Martin back in for Trial with the explicit request to bring Sil back.

Martin, I find, is interested in wholly different things than I'm interested in. By my count he's done only three Doctor Who stories (the third being a Big Finish audio called "Creed of the Kromon") and all three seem to share similar qualities and interests as they relate to Martin. Unfortunately, I can't say I tend to agree with them. All three stories share forced genetic mutation (and all three to a female companion no less), suffer from stories that feel overly long, weak dialogue, and weird alien characters who are obsessed with money and capitalism.

That was my problem with this in the initial. Now, it's not so much, but there's... a reason for that. Which I will explain as we go through it.

This serial is also significant for being the final work Eric Saward contributed to the series. After this story, he quit due to "creative differences" and "hatred of JNT" and Robert Holmes's recent illness which would prove to be fatal in just a short time. The interesting thing is that most people tend to look at this era and blame JNT and while I don't think JNT is without blame... But man. I don't think that's the case.

Know how I know? Eric Saward showed his hand here. And we're going to talk about it. I recently finished watching all of Colin Baker's run in its entirety earlier this month, and I've come to a "Wow you messed up things" place when it comes to him. We'll talk about it a LOT more next year as we talk about him in the rest of Colin Baker's run, but really. In a lot of ways, this is his swansong and before reading this, I would like to remind you who it is we're dealing with. Check out his infamous post-departure interview he gave. That is Saward.

And oh boy do I just want to talk about him a bit.

If "The Mysterious Planet" explored a story from The Doctor's past, "Mindwarp" explores a story from The Doctor's immediate[ish] present. So let's... yeah. Let's go through this story. It's a doozy and a long one, but I think it gives rise to some solid discussion. Hope you like it.

So let's get to it!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Serial 143: The Mysterious Planet - The Trial of a Time Lord Part I

Doctor: Colin Baker (6th Doctor)
Companion: Peri Brown

Written by: Robert Holmes
Directed by: Nicholas Mallett

Background & Significance: I like ending things with a nice flourish. There's nothing so wrong with some cool events. This past summer it was The Key to Time. For the holiday break, we get to talk about another significant event-story in Doctor Who history. So for the next two weeks (that's two posts a week for y'all. Happy Winter indeed) we're going to talk about a highly debated and strangely controversial Doctor Who story: The Trial of a Time Lord. But first! A little background:

At the end of Colin Baker’s controversial first season, BBC head honcho guy Michael Grade leveled his sights at Doctor Who and took the first shot he could at a show that had fallen considerably in the ratings in the previous several years. He thought the show was silly and stupid and started talking about cancelling it.

The start of this, we’ll talk about more when we get to Colin Baker’s first story “The Twin Dilemma” sometime later next year, but after a full season of odd choices including making The Doctor wantonly unlikeable (which I find a plus because it’s a bold, bold move), moving the tone into a noticeably darker and more-typical-of-the-80s sadistic nihilism (see "Vengeance on Varos" and others), and changing the format into something no one knew how to handle, it’s not hard to see why people started jumping ship. The show had gotten weak and weird and strange and was a far cry (in the span of a season, no less) from the rollicking adventures of Peter Davison just a year earlier and Tom Baker just a few before that.

As such, Grade threatened cancellation and producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner took to the streets to drum up support for Doctor Who. You can’t cancel the thing. It’s been on the air for twenty two years. It’d be like cancelling a long running soap opera and staple of British TV. Fortunately, somehow, Nathan-Turner managed to stay the cancellation with a lot of help from the fans and turn it into an eighteen month hiatus.

It was a hiatus from which the show would never recover.

Now I'll be honest with you right up front. I think the concept for Trial is a bit melodramatic. The entire concept of the The Doctor on Trial comes directly from the current state of the show at the BBC because, in the mind of still-producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner, Doctor Who really was on trial. As such, I really do think it's a bit of a melodramatic concept to insert into the show. "Oh woe is us! Behold The Doctor's slow fall back to Earth as the once great show slowly falls from the graces of everyone" JNT cries, completely ignoring all the little things he did to help the show reach this point over the course of Colin Baker's run to this point (some of which we've touched upon earlier in this year, the rest of which we'll end up discussing in the coming one).

That said? Putting The Doctor on trial is a really awesome idea. As a concept, The Trial of a Time Lord has captured my imagination for quite a long time. Once I became aware of the classic series and started flipping through the collections in my local Best Buy, I remember seeing the boxsets for Trial and being completely obsessed with the concept of putting The Doctor on Trial for an entire season. And by The Time Lords no less. All of that was positively enthralling to me, but maybe that's because I love courtroom drama and never found it in my interest to avidly watch Law & Order.

But enough about my hang ups. What about the story itself?

Trial of a Time Lord is an interesting story to talk about. For one thing, it marks the dissolution of Nathan-Turner's since-first-season-of-Davison partnership with his script editor Eric Saward. It's also the swansong for the derided and notoriously unpopular Colin Baker. And it's also the last thing Robert Holmes ever worked on.

Now I know we've spent a lot of time here loving on the late great Robert Holmes (and there's plenty more opportunities to come), but it's interesting that this serial is not only the last thing Holmes ever completed for Doctor Who, but the last two episodes of Trial was the last thing Holmes ever worked on before his death. As such, it's a definite crux of the classic series if you ask me. After this, there would be a new Doctor, a new script editor, and one of the shining beacons of Doctor Who would be gone forever. Trial is the start of a four-year road to Doctor Who's inevitable cancellation in 1989 and represents a significant turning point for what was once a gem in the BBC's crown as, by this point, the show had become almost universally criticized and reviled.

Trial became everyone's attempt to re-capture the hearts and minds of every Doctor Who fan out there. Everyone on board needed to make a concerted effort to turn out the best show they possibly could. But could they really win over everyone? After an entire season of showing off a Doctor no one really enjoyed on some weird, dark, nightmarish perversion of such a beloved show, was it possible to turn the ship around and return Doctor Who to its glory days?

The simple answer? No. But I think that's... well... We'll talk about that as we go on because it's definitely important and meriting of discussion.

The story itself is split into four acts and based on the structure of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", with acts one, two, and three, relating stories from The Doctor's past, present, and future (respectively) and the final, fourth act functioning as an epilogue to wrap up The Doctor's current situation, the Trial, and what exactly is going on with the mysterious Time Lord prosecutor: The Valeyard.

All of that we'll cover as we look at this story extensively over the next two weeks, but for now, let's just relish in what we have and celebrate two truly remarkable elements of greatness lost as a result of this Trial storyline: Colin Baker and Robert Holmes.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Serial 82: The Pyramids of Mars

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companion: Sarah Jane Smith

Written by: Stephen Harris (a.k.a. Robert Holmes and Lewis Greifer)
Directed by: Paddy Russell

Background & Significance: Robert Holmes wanted Mummies.

If you trace this whole story back to where it started, Robert Holmes wanted a Doctor Who story with mummies in the vein of some god damn old school horror movies. He contracted Lewis Greifer to give him a story with Mummies and gods and stuff, but it wasn't enough and the Mummies weren't real mummies and the gods weren't real gods and The Doctor was written all weird, and Holmes didn't like it, so he kept the concept and rewrote the whole thing from scratch, keeping very little except the title.

And it's one of the best Doctor Who stories of all time.

Granted, that's a gimme, as this one comes in the middle of the very popular Gothic era. But still. It's not like everything in the era gets a pass. All that really matters is that great Doctor Who is great Doctor Who. When we get down to it, the eras don't really matter except to follow the path of tonal shifts over the life of an almost-fifty-year long television story. Eras themselves boil down to a particular producer's vision and how well they seemed to work in harmony with their script editor.

It's also totally, totally classic Holmesian Doctor Who. It's got the similar themes, recurring tropes, undeniable horror, bits of humour. It also establishes a new precedent in Doctor Who history and the moment where Sarah Jane urges The Doctor to pimp the frak out of there and just forget it because the world still exists in 1980 is a game changer, to say the least.

Really, when you get right down to it, this whole serial is just made of win and it's... well... Yeah. It's my favourite so far. Better than "War Games". And that's saying something cuz for the longest time War Games was the one to beat. But yeah. Now it's Pyramids. And the best part? Anyone who's a fan of the new series will love it. And anyone who's a fan of the classic series will love it. It's really got something for everyone. So good.

Seriously, go find it on Netflix or whatever and watch it before checking it out here. It's super awesome and it holds up, man. Totally totally. You'll love it.

Watched it yet? I can wait...

No really. I can.


Ready? Awesome.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Serial 151: Remembrance of the Daleks

Doctor: Sylvester McCoy (7th Doctor)
Companion: Ace

Written by: Ben Aaronovitch
Directed by: Andrew Morgan

Background & Significance: The Doctor has to face Daleks. Always. It's like a rule, and if it isn't, I'm of the opinion that it should be. That's not to say that I approve of Dalek overexposure. I don't. But at least once per Doctor (more possible if he's got a long run), methinks.

It's interesting to see how each Doctor handles the nefarious little buggers. Whenever I think about The Doctor facing off against The Daleks, I always think about that moment in "Doomsday" when The 10th Doctor strides into the room and starts dialoguing with the suddenly scared Cult of Skaro. More than anything, it just reinforces the notion that The Doctor is not your typical hero. Think about the heroes of other science fiction programmes (Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly or Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica) or even from a big-budget action movie/show (John McClane in the Die Hard movies or Jack Bauer in 24) and the difference is stark. That is not how any of them would handle The Cult of Skaro in that scene.

No. The Doctor's a guy who's all British and talky and can stride into the room full of the evilest creations in the universe and talk them out of shooting him. Not every Doctor handles them in that specific way (and oh boy will we see him act other ways), but the Doctor's approach to a solution to a problem is never the "I'm going to shoot them and blow them up"method (although remind me I said that next month). His response is always one of appealing to intelligence and arguing in favour of diplomacy and his reliance on his words and language. That's The Doctor's weapon. That's how he fights the evilest creations in the universe.

"Remembrance of the Daleks" is the 7th Doctor's turn to take them on.

Now, I know it's been quite a long time since we've done a McCoy story, but let's be honest. There's very little of him around (he out-serials Colin Baker by ONE story), and what there is hasn't been widely DVD'ed [yet]. And, because I really, really liked him when we talked about him last time and am all about delayed gratification, we're only doing two stories of him this year, and a "bunch" of him coming up on the other side of January.

But enough about blog politics! Let's focus on Dalek and Doctor Who politics! Much more interesting!

"Remembrance of the Daleks" is written by Ben Aaronovitch and came about because they wanted to give McCoy's Doctor a chance to go up against the Daleks. Producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner commissioned the story and then sent the drafts to Terry Nation to review for his approval. Nation was most pleased with the story, except for one element (which certainly merits discussion but we'll talk about that in part four) which he asked to be excised. Nathan-Turner "took his comments into consideration" and then politely never sent Nation another draft for perusal. The worst part is, "Mad Man" Terry Nation? He was... not wrong.

Ah, Jonathan Nathan-Turner. So consistently self-righteous. So disappointing.

"Remembrance of the Daleks" is considered one of the best McCoy stories and it shows a really nice Dalek vs. Dalek story with some pretty neat graphics and special effects. It's also a really great look at The Doctor and does a bit of a retcon of the first ever Doctor Who story, in a move that is.... questionable? Shall we say? And of course the ending to episode one is famous because it's uh... pretty frakkin badass. Even by today's standards.

Unfortunately, it suffers a bit from the poor storytelling that happened during the Jonathan Nathan-Turner years, but I'll overlook most of that in the light of other really great things about the story, which is thrilling and exciting and pretty damn solid. Also, Daleks vs. Daleks with The Doctor and Ace in the crossfire. What's not to love?

Well, there is that one choice at the end. But we'll talk about that later.

So let's get to it!