Next up in 'The Trial Of A Time Lord' DVD box set is Mindwarp, a story I’ve watched a couple of times in the last two decades and the one I remember as being the best of the bunch. Which it is.
It’s a sequel to ''Vengance On Varos', and shares not only a Doctor, companion, villain, writer and director, but it also its strange peculiarities of plotting. The story wanders all over the place; we switch from scene to scene seemingly at random, nobody has a plan, and stuff just happens without any reason or dramatic consequence. People get captured and escape, but without any development of character or plot along the way. At least 'Mindwarp' builds to a climax, where 'Vengance On Varos' just grinds to halt.
I think the problem is that it’s a ‘regime change’ story – Doctor Who arrives to find the villains in charge, and so the ‘plot’ is a matter of the Doctor chatting to assorted rebels while the antagonists... just sit there. The baddies don’t have any particular evil plan with a deadline, they don’t need one, but it means there isn’t much impetus to the plot; it’s just a lot of ‘The rebels have escaped, my lord!’ ‘Them find them, you fool!’ It’s exactly the sort of predictable set-up that was parodied in The Lenny Henry Show sketch. ‘Regime change’ stories never work, because villains should have more to do than just skulking about in a control room watching ten closed-circuit televisions at once.
Both stories are a mixture of inventive ideas and corny cliches. They both include a ‘framing narrative’ of people watching the story unfold on television, complaining when scenes are dull, confusing or irrelevant. And both contain a curious admixture of delicious, witty, well-written lines, and heart-sinking non-sequiturs of overwrought construction and clunky cod-Shakespearean formality.
The same applies to the characters; in each story, you have three or four memorable, clearly-motivated, original characters – Sil, Crozier, Kiv, Yrcanos – and three or four dull, under-developed characters – Tuza, Matrona, Frax. The actors do their best but unfortunately the fact that they have been asked to inhabit such hackneyed ciphers means they end up coming across as awkward and wooden. What is Matrona’s job? Half the time she’s a brain surgeon, the other half she’s in charge of serving drinks!
But none of these quibbles matter, because of two things. Firstly, Colin Baker is great in it, he’s particularly hilarious when he’s playing ‘concussed’, and even his gigantic hair and Picasso-quilt coat don’t detract; he’s great at both heroic and unhinged. And Brian Blessed, Patrick Ryecart, Nabil Shaban and Nicola Bryant are all excellent.
And secondly, the ending, which has probably the best twist the series had ever done up to that point, and climaxes with a scene which is both terrifying and heartbreaking.