The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The Land Of Make Believe

So now I have finally watched all of Doctor Who. Every existing episode, and the soundtracks, off-screen photos and novelisations of every missing one. Now that I’ve finished I can finally move on to something else. Let’s hope they don’t do something insane like bring it back.

My ‘last’ story was The Trial Of A Time Lord parts thirteen and fourteen, or as it is also known, Time Inc. Or The Ultimate Foe, though this is a Bad Fact. I’d seen most of it, but the second half of episode thirteen had always been a grey blur, thanks to weather interference in the Points West region. Until now.

Have to say, I wasn’t impressed. It’s the last episode written by Doctor Who legend Robert Holmes, shortly before his death, but you can tell his heart really isn’t in it, because it’s a complete mess. The first half takes place almost entirely on one set, if it weren’t for one cut-away it would all be one continuous scene. Which isn’t a problem in itself, except the dialogue hasn’t been thought through – there’s no progression, it goes around in circles, re-iterates the same points needlessly. There’s no real sense of drama at all, it’s all just posturing and nostril-flaring.

On the plus side, the Master turns up, enjoying himself enormously. I love Anthony Ainley’s master. I love the way he speaks in musical scales, up five notes and down five notes. Try it. What-makes-you-think-I-want-your-forgive-ness? Why meeeeee? Chancellor Flaviour! He’s brilliant. As camp as hell, but he pitches it perfectly. And he’s given lots of fun lines to deliver.

Unlike Bonnie Langford. Mel is written so badly. There’s that hilarious line about being ‘as truthful, honest, and about as boring as they come’. Truthful and honest? No! But she has worse lines. ‘How utterly evil’ In the out-takes, she even says ‘You beast!’. Poor Bonnie. She tries, bless her, but all the hands-on-hips acting isn’t going to excuse that dialogue. And it’s by Robert Holmes! Incredible. And heartbreaking.

The plot revelations come fast and thick. Apparently the Time Lords decided to cover up their plan to move Earth and rename in Ravalox... by using the plan as evidence for the prosecution in a court case. Eh? The Valeyard is a future incarnation of the Doctor – sort-of – according to a third party in a thrown-away piece of dialogue. What is the Master’s plan? (It gets even more confusing in part fourteen, where the Master seems to want to control Gallifrey via the Matrix, but also wants to steal the secrets from the Matrix for personal gain) There’s a long, tedious discussion about who has access to the Matrix – via the Key of Rassilon – only for it to turn out that the Master has a key, the Valeyard has a key, and the doorway to the Matrix is left open and is a short walk down the corridor anyway so that people can come and go as they please.

Oh, and apparently Peri did not die. Brilliant. Undermine the best dramatic moment this year, why don’t you?

Anyway, after about fifteen minutes of this, the Valeyard runs out of the courtroom, behind the Doctor’s back – oh, this is blocked-out so badly, despite Chris Clough’s best efforts to edit around it – and it’s up to the Doctor to chase him in there, taking Glitz with him so he has someone to talk to.

And from now on it’s all new to me.

Location filming. At night! Bloody hell.

Not sure about the scene where the Doctor looks in the barrel. So contrived. And the whole ‘it’s an illusion, it can’t hurt you’ thing just undercuts the jeopardy.

Love the Victorian atmos. And what-the-fuck, someone’s chucked a spear at Glitz. Never knew that happened!

I thought there was someone business with the exploding feathers in this episode, but no, that must’ve been made up by Pip and Jane Baker for part fourteen. Cool idea.

Although the cod-Dickens stuff is all rather fun, and quite surreal and sinister, I also get a sense that Robert Holmes had run out of plot, and like Dame Sally Markham had said ‘How many pages?’ before just copying out scenes from Bleak House and the stuff with the Circumlocution Office from Little Dorrit. It’s fine – and I loved the bit with the two Mr Popplewicks, never knew about that – but it is egregious time-filling.

Why does the Doctor sign away his regenerations? Don’t get it at all. Clunky, oh-this-will-have-to-do writing.

And then the Doctor opens a doorway and finds himself on a beach. Now, for some reason I’d always assumed this moment would’ve involved an effect. Either we see a beach through a doorway, or the Doctor emerges from a doorway on the beach, like in, oh, that old schools’ programme where that happened. But no, it’s just a cut. Bit of a disappointment.

And that’s about it. Some hands appear from beneath the ground and drag the Doctor under the sand. Doesn’t matter though, as we already know it’s an illusion.

Part fourteen... and time for some controversial opinions. It suddenly gets a lot, lot better! Episode thirteen is tired, perfunctory, padded, indulgent, muddled and dull. Episode fourteen is total fucking insane gibbering nonsense, but at least it’s exciting.

Love the bit with the Valeyard jumping all over the place. He reminds me of the witch from Chorlton and the Wheelies. Can’t follow the dialogue at all... it’s like he’s giving us a ‘story so far’ but without actually explaining it because nobody knows what the story so far is. Basically, all you need to know is that they’re in a dream world and its a duel to the death. Fair enough.

Marsh gas! But this is not illusory marsh gas, it’s real? How the hell does that work? Never mind – into the beach hut, which turns out to be the Master’s TARDIS.

The Master brainwashes the Doctor. Using the power of disco. Er... Not Colin Baker’s finest moment.

And then there’s a bit I really love. The Doctor is left in the courtyard of the pottery museum, only to be rescued by a ‘shadowy’ Mel figure, who leads him back to the courtroom, where the Inquisitor passes sentence of execution... only for this to turn out to be an illusion, because they’re still in the Matrix. This is brilliant, I don’t care what anyone says, it’s a terrifically cool twist. And what makes it even better is that we learn that the Doctor was never taken in by it. Knock Pip and Jane all you like, but they write the Doctor as an intelligent character, one step ahead of the opposition, and that counts for a lot.

The real Mel runs into the Matrix – oh, god, that whole business with the Keeper of the Matrix sticking his foot out to trip her, how dreadful – to rescue the Doctor from performing Sidney Carlton heroics. A line which left fandom bewildered for years; I’m surprised Pip and Jane didn’t spell out the reference, as they do so laboriously (and patronisingly) with the Hamlet line at the beginning of the episode.

Then there’s the marvellous bit with the exploding feathers. Great stuff. And a lovely scene where the Master fails to hypnotise Glitz. Okay, the dialogue is... first draft, but it’s a nice idea. Not sure about the Master’s chest of jewels, though. Looks like a load of tat painted gold.

There’s another great scene, with Glitz coming to an arrangement with Popplewick, delivering the Doctor in return for the ‘secrets’, only for Popplewick to attempt to turn the tables by pointing his gun at Glitz, only for Glitz to reveal he removed the bullets earlier. Okay, so it’s the same twist as in two episodes ago, but it’s still a good twist!

Then the Master plugs the secrets into his TARDIS console – ‘Moments like these must be savoured...’ and it all goes blurry and black and white. I thought that was just in the Points West region! Oh, when will villains learn, always check for booby-traps! Particularly the Master, who made exactly the same mistake in his last story, and the one before that, and the one before that, and the one before that. He’s a twat, really.

And a final confrontation between the Doctor and the Valeyard. Okay, so the list of Time Lords crossed out is an absurd, convenient contrivance. And the dialogue is as loopy as tin of hoops; Pip and Jane are basically trying to think of villainous things for the Valeyard to say, because they don’t have time to work out a plot-based discussion. The Valeyard’s ultimate weapon turns out to be a Megabyte Modem – with that, he could download pornography in a matter of DECADES – which looks rather like a mobile disco. But the Doctor blunders in, like an imbecile, and triggers a ray-phase shift, thus preventing the catharsis of spurious morality.

So the Valeyard wasn’t trying to kill the Doctor – or was he? Was it all a ruse to kill the Time Lords in the court room? I like the idea of the Trial screen being the weapon – a neat twist. It’s just that other moments, like the Doctor and Valeyard’s ‘climactic’ struggle, are so rushed and bungled. And, beyond a surreal face-off between good and evil, it never really begins to make any kind of sense.

But given the circumstances Pip and Jane were working under – three days to come up with a script, based only on the script of episode thirteen, with locations, sets and cast already committed –they did an extremely good job; it’s a massive improvement over Robert Holmes’ talky, lethargic final episode, and contains a hell of a lot more surprises and imaginative ideas.

Two more observations. The Doctor’s final scene, the ‘carrot juice’; the implication would seem to be that it leads directly into the first scene of the Vervoids story, with the Doctor drinking carrot juice and exercising. Which is a nice idea.

And finally, observation made by my better half – this episode, like nearly all the others from this year, also ends with the camera crash-zooming in on the Doctor’s face.

1 comment:

  1. Horrible final twist there when we realise you made her watch it with you.
    Nyuh huh huh huh...

    shwa shwa shww

    I'm sure fandom had heard of Sydney Carton- Brian Blessed had been on Roland Rat a few weeks earlier wanting to do the famous last thoughts as a speech in a lame sketch (thus undermining any fan delusion that Blessed coming on was some special honour- any old BBC 1 LE tat could get him), and as you know we always watched for at least twenty minutes before Who came on in case it started inexplicably early or another family member tried to turn over for a better look at Blockbusters or something.