The Trial of a Time Lord – The Mysterious Planet

Posted in Episode by - February 03, 2016
The Trial of a Time Lord – The Mysterious Planet

Aired on: 6 – 27 September 1986

Doctor Who was in a precarious position when the aptly-titled The Trial of a Time Lord quietly came to screens following an eighteen-month absence after ‘Revelation of the Daleks.’ Attempting a season-long story arc with the Sixth Doctor’s life hanging in the balance as his own people put him on trial for his incessant meddling in the universe, everyone involved in the production was all too aware that the franchise was on the verge of cancellation as the episode order was reduced to fourteen and the length to thirty minutes each. Fortunately, despite the real-life drama that plagued the season’s production, including the death of legendary script writer Robert Holmes before his completion of the finale, the opening instalment, ‘The Mysterious Planet,’ is a strong opening that manages to hide many of the behind-the-scenes issues.

Doctor Who had, of course, attempted, a season-long arc before with The Key to Time, but those six stories remained remarkably distinct with the titular Key only a linking device rather than intrinsically vital to the individual plots. The Trial of a Time Lord, however, revels in its central conceit, often cutting away from the action to advance the talkative courtroom drama aspects of the narrative. Although this creates a somewhat disparate and uneven tone, the continuity set up and maintained as the story progresses works well and is- for better or for worse- the only real way in which a story with the Doctor on trial for as-yet-unseen events can unfold. The timing of such a storytelling device is, of course, questionable, as the programme needed to win back as many casual viewers as possible rather than continue to play to the more continuity-obsessed and hardcore fans, but it certainly proves that the franchise is willing to take extreme and lengthy risks with its traditional format no matter the stakes.

It’s quite noticeable that the characterization of the Sixth Doctor has changed quite substantially after the prolonged hiatus. While he is still certainly as flawed as ever, the Valeyard and the prosecution never manage to paint the Doctor in an egregiously terrible light, unsurprising even as the Doctor’s past is revisited since the programme clearly wouldn’t want to bring up the mistakes made with the character that so dampened and soured his initial public response. Instead, as ‘The Mysterious Planet’ evokes an overall tone of idealism despite the danger of the mystery at hand that would seem much more at home in the Fourth Doctor era, the Sixth Doctor is strikingly much more proactive and kind, and even Peri seems much more comfortable and at ease around this iteration of the titular Time Lord.

While this sort of homage to the past is a welcome reprieve after the violence of the previous series, it does suffer from a rather straightforward approach and casual pacing that never fully explore the ideas and philosophies at hand. Nonetheless, ‘The Mysterious Planet’ and L3 robot Drathro’s search for the best intellects of the land is quite enjoyable as a whole, helped by the presence of a great double act in the con artists Glitz and Dibber who also serve to provide necessary exposition. Though the courtroom’s assertions about unnecessary violence here seem somewhat unwarranted given the extremes reached in earlier stories, ‘The Mysterious Planet’ effectively sets the scene for the season to come while re-introducing much more likable versions of the leads in a decent story evoking the sentiments of the past, leaving the courtroom to wonder about the mysteriously misplaced Earth and the apparent editing of the Matrix which the Time Lords hold so dear.

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