Review [DW]: “Paradise Towers”

24×2. Paradise Towers
Writer: Stephen Wyatt
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Director: Nicholas Mallett
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor and Melanie arrive at Paradise Towers, a would-be luxury apartment building that has fallen into disrepair, and find themselves under threat from the bureaucratic “Caretakers,” cannibalistic “Rezzies,” and a mysterious presence in the tower basement that turns out to be Kroagnon, the Towers’ misanthropic designer.

Review: The creative team behind “Paradise Towers” certainly deserve credit for creating a unique setting – there are few scenes in this serial that could be mistaken for another Doctor Who installment. The Kangs, Pex, the Caretakers, and the Rezzies form an effective ensemble cast, and even if most of them aren’t the most complex characters ever to have graced the screen, their idiosyncratic slang and differing agendas add up to a compelling picture of a decaying society that has long since stopped playing by what most of us would consider sensible or civilized rules. The Doctor’s role, as the one who sorts out the various conflicts and rallies the inhabitants together to stop Kroagnon’s murders, is perhaps predictable but nonetheless effective: a relatively conventional narrative isn’t necessarily a bad thing when we’re still getting to know this new incarnation, and the script thankfully dispenses with the misquoted aphorisms that quickly wore out their welcome in “Time and the Rani.” Where the serial isn’t so successful is in explaining exactly how this bizarre situation arose in the first place; all we learn that the children and elderly were sent to the Towers when a war broke out and that Pex fled there to avoid the hostilities. But why did the Chief Caretaker continue “feeding” people to Kroagnon for so long, and what made him think that Kroagnon was some sort of “pet” who needed to be appeased? Couldn’t he and the other Caretakers – or anyone else – just walk out the door, or are they somehow trapped in the Towers? For that matter, just who or what *is* Kroagnon? He’s presumably at least somewhat intelligent, and yet he’s portrayed as a dehumanized monster, at first appearing as a voice that only bellows “hungry!” before taking over the Chief Caretaker’s body, and the Doctor never seems to consider trying to reason with him before deciding to lure him into a death trap. This is an imaginative serial, but its slim backstory and underdeveloped character motivations prevent it from being an entirely successful one.

Rating: **1/2 (out of four)

Review [DW]: “Time and the Rani”

24×1. Time and the Rani
Writers: Pip and Jane Baker
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Director: Andrew Morgan
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Rani diverts the TARDIS to Lakertya, where she has kidnapped prominent scientists to force them to collaborate in creating a time manipulator that would give her universal power. The Doctor, who has regenerated during the attack on the TARDIS, and Mel collaborate with members of the local population to end her control over the planet.

Review: The Sylvester McCoy era gets off to a disappointingly mediocre start with “Time and the Rani.” This isn’t as bad as, say, “Timelash,” nor is it as frustrating as “The Ultimate Foe” or “The Two Doctors,” and the return of the Rani as an enemy who can hold her own with the Doctor intellectually is a plus, but otherwise it just seems to be going through the motions. There’s some mild interest in the character of Beyus, a prominent Lakertyan who seems to have concluded that collaborating with the Rani is the best option for his people, but it’s undercut by the fact that we never learn how the Rani arrived on Lakertya or gained the upper hand over its native population in the first place. I also have to take issue with the scene at the end when, after the Doctor has devised an antidote to the venom of some killer insects that have plagued the Lakertyans, another Lakertyan named Ikona promptly pours it on the ground in the name of self-reliance – the implied message here seems bizarrely short-sighted and at odds with almost every other serial in which the Doctor somehow aids a beleaguered population. As for the new Doctor, we see some typical post-regenerative confusion for the first couple of episodes, and McCoy’s performance is competent enough, but his habit of misquoting famous aphorisms quickly grows tiresome, and I certainly hope that we’ll see less of it in the coming serials.

Rating: ** (out of four)

Review [DW]: “The Ultimate Foe”

23×4. The Ultimate Foe
Writers: Robert Holmes, Pip and Jane Baker
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Director: Chris Clough
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor’s trial concludes with the revelation of a conspiracy within the High Council of the Time Lords and the unmasking of the Valeyard as the Doctor’s evil side, leading to a confrontation within the Time Lord Matrix while the Master, Melanie, and Sabalom Glitz join the fray.

Review: With “The Ultimate Foe,” the whole “Trial of a Time Lord” saga ends in a bit of a muddle. There are a few promising ideas here – the Valeyard as the distillation of the Doctor’s darker side could work in theory, the corruption of the High Council dovetails with some of the fragility and venality that we’ve seen from the Gallifreyan political establishment in previous serials, and the Doctor gets a chance to deliver a memorable denunciation of the Time Lords in court. But too much of the logic just doesn’t hold up. Take, for example, the notion that the whole trial was an attempt to scapegoat the Doctor and cover up the Time Lords’ interference in Earth’s history – as far as I could tell, nobody was aware of their interference in the first place, so why risk calling attention to it through a bogus trial? Why exactly does the Master see the Valeyard as such a threat to his interests that he sides temporarily with the Doctor? Why does the Doctor ask the thoroughly untrustworthy Glitz to follow him into the Matrix? Speaking of which, the problem with settings like the Matrix, i.e. alternate realities where illusions abound and anything can happen, is that, well, anything can happen, such that the circumstances can change simply by writer fiat and the characters’ choices don’t really mean much.

In addition to these lapses in logic, many of the more compelling ideas are left underdeveloped. The Valeyard is explained as having emerged from the Doctor’s final regeneration, but nothing about his behavior really marks him as the Doctor’s dark side in particular rather than just a generic scheming villain – while the Doctor’s character doesn’t lend itself to the same kind of analysis and exploration as a more conventional dramatic protagonist, this still seems like something of a missed opportunity. And even if you put aside the questionable nature of the Time Lords’ conspiracy, something as dramatic as the collapse of the High Council feels like the sort of thing we should actually see on-screen rather than having it reported via expository dialogue in the trial chamber. And while I was somewhat pleased to learn that Peri had survived the events of “Mindwarp,” I can’t muster much to say about the idea that she’s now a “warrior queen” alongside Yrcanos other than “uh…no.” It was implied at least once that she intended to return to her life on Earth eventually, and nothing in her personality suggested that she’d be especially happy alongisde Yrcanos.

“The Trial of a Time Lord” is at least an improvement over the frequently cynical and disjointed efforts of Season 22, but it needed a better ending than the rushed, confusing, and underdeveloped effort that is “The Ultimate Foe.”

Rating: ** (out of four)

Review [DW]: “Terror of the Vervoids”

23×3. Terror of the Vervoids
Writers: Pip and Jane Baker
Director: Chris Clough
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor mounts his defense by displaying an adventure from the future, in which he and new companion Mel Bush arrive on board the space liner Hyperion, only to become involved in a murder mystery as they discover that the scientist Doland is scheming to sell a plant-race known as Vervoids into slavery.

Review: At the level of a whodunit in space, “Terror of the Vervoids” mostly works, though it does get a bit overcomplicated in the final episode. The writers assemble a worthwhile cast of characters and slowly increase the stakes as the body count rises and the Doctor and Mel discover that some of the passengers are keeping secrets. The Vervoids don’t have much personality, but they are still portrayed with something of a tragic air, attacking based on their instinctively hostile view of animal life, and the Doctor clearly regrets that he wasn’t able to find a nonlethal way to stop their attacks. This is also Mel’s first serial, and while her fixation on physical fitness can feel gimmicky, she’s also appealingly proactive, even entering the fray without the Doctor on occasion. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well in the context of the trial setup. For starters, I have to object to the entire notion of the Doctor using evidence from the future. Do the Time Lords normally access information on their own futures using the Matrix, and shouldn’t that have some pretty major effects on their civilization if they do? Wouldn’t the fact that the Doctor *has* a future point towards an acquittal or at least a more lenient sentence, given that the Valeyard has been pressing for execution? Will the Doctor remember having seen this when it actually happens in the future, and wouldn’t that potentially alter the course of events? In general, this seems like a misguided “wouldn’t it be cool if…” idea that should have been nixed before the script even got off the ground. Second, the Doctor suggests that the evidence will show that he “improves” and makes a point of the fact that he was explicitly asked for help by the Hyperion’s crew. The implication here would seem to be (though I suspect it won’t be borne out in future serials) that the Doctor will actually be taking a more reticent and conservative approach in the future, whereas I’d have preferred to see him defend a more proactive approach and argue that the Time Lords’ standards are too restrictive. As a “defense” to the metatextual trial taking place, this is actually a pretty weak and uninspiring argument.

Rating: **1/2 (out of four)

Review [DW]: “Mindwarp”

23×2. Mindwarp
Writer: Philip Martin
Director: Ron Jones
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The second part of the prosecution’s case against the Doctor concerns a visit to Thoros-Beta, where he and Peri discover their adversary Sil and one of his kinsmen, Kiv, who is attempting to have his mind transferred into a new body by the scientist Crozier. The Doctor challenges the legitimacy of the evidence when it seems to show him behaving in a self-serving and cruel manner while the boisterous King Yrcanos and Peri attempt to lead a rebellion.

Review: I’m wondering now if perhaps it was the wrong decision to review the four segments of “The Trial of a Time Lord” as if they were separate serials. While “The Mysterious Planet” could have stood on its own without the context of the trial, I’m not sure “Mindwarp” can. We’ve seen the Sixth Doctor behave in a callous manner in the past, but here he more or less allies himself with Sil, Kiv, and Crozier for the greater part of the proceedings, and it’s not entirely clear why. He appears disoriented after initially being subjected to Crozier’s machine, and there are hints that the whole thing is a ploy, but the script never establishes exactly what he might have feared would happen if he didn’t pretend to collaborate or what he hoped to achieve with this ploy that he couldn’t have by simply aiding the rebels from the start. Instead, we get numerous scenes of him interrupting the trial proceedings and suggesting that the evidence may have been fabricated. This is effective in building up the sense that there is something sinister underlying this trial, and Colin Baker ably portrays the Doctor’s own shock and dismay at what he’s seeing, especially at Peri’s apparent death, but it leaves the actual narrative of the events on Thoros-Beta somewhat incomplete because we’re left uncertain what did or didn’t actually happen. Speaking of which, this is a particularly bitter swan song for Peri, who doesn’t even get a heroic sacrifice along the lines of Adric and instead goes to her death with Kiv having taken over her body and believing that the Doctor has betrayed her (though for me, the impact is somewhat undermined by the fact that I know what’s going to be revealed by the end of “Trial”).

All that aside, “Mindwarp” has some problems that would preclude a full recommendation anyway. A fair amount of time is spent watching characters wander around and/or chase each other in caves, in scenes that never come off as much more than obligatory Doctor Who formula. As for characterization, Sil and Kiv are notable for being motivated more by money and profit than by a desire for power or grand megalomaniacal schemes, but Crozier is a surprisingly blank slate for such a key figure. It’s implied that he might have been brought to Thoros-Beta against his will, but if he has any ethical misgivings about his work, any intellectual curiosity about its outcome, or even any feelings towards Sil and Kiv in general, it certainly doesn’t come across in the writing or in Patrick Ryecart’s performance. On the topic of performances, I’d be neglectful not to mention that of BRIAN BLESSED as Yrcanos, about which not much needs to be said other than that, well, it’s BRIAN BLESSED – certainly memorable, and perhaps appropriate for the character, but a bit excessive in terms of the scenery-chewing at times, and his discussion with Peri about the nature of love borders on the cringey and isn’t helped by some melodramatic background music.

“Mindwarp” has some good ideas, and it’s important in moving the overall trial narrative along, but as a story it feels somewhat frustrating and incomplete. Whether it was reasonable to expect it to be otherwise, I’ll do my best to suspend judgment for the moment.

Rating: **1/2 (out of four)

Review [DW]: “The Mysterious Planet”

23×1. The Mysterious Planet
Writer: Robert Holmes
Director: Nicholas Mallett
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor is summoned to Time Lord space station where he faces an investigation – which soon becomes a trial – over his alleged habit of interfering in the business of other species, with a Time Lord known only as the Valeyard serving as prosecutor. The first piece of evidence concerns a recent trip to Ravalox, where he and Peri encounter a small group of humans undeground under the rule of the robot Drathro and another above-ground living a relatively primitive existence – and discover that Ravalox is actually Earth.

Review: The twenty-third season of Doctor Who, aired entirely under the title of “The Trial of a Time Lord,” seems to have a checkered reputation, but it actually gets off to a solid start with “The Mysterious Planet” (for clarity’s sake, I’m going to be referring to each set of episodes by their informal titles). After the somewhat labored setup of many a Season 22 serial, we get some creative worldbuilding here, with the underground humans believing that the surface is still dangerous and honoring three randomly preserved texts as sacred scriptures, while treating Drathro as an “Immortal.” The mercenaries Sabalom Glitz and his somewhat simple-minded accomplice Dibber add an element of danger and unpredictability to the proceedings, their presence also hinting that the serial’s events are part of some larger conspiracy that the Valeyard does not want discussed in court. Meanwhile, the creative team have mercifully toned down the bickering that characterized much of last season’s interactions between the Doctor and Peri, with the Doctor himself playing a more conventionally heroic role. (The script also turns cleverly self-referential when the Inquisitor asks the Valeyard if it’s necessary to see the more violent scenes in court, and the whole notion of the Doctor standing trial dovetails with the fact that Doctor Who was itself on thin ice with the BBC at the time.) If there’s one drawback, it’s that the Doctor’s courtroom outbursts and namecalling towards the Valeyard (whom he calls “Barnyard” and “Scrapyard,” among other things) do start to seem a bit childish and petulant after a while. But overall, this is a nice return to form after a flawed and uneven preceding season.

Rating: *** (out of four)

Review [DW]: “Revelation of the Daleks”

22×6. Revelation of the Daleks
Writer: Eric Saward
Director: Graeme Harper
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor and Peri arrive on the planet Necros, where Davros has been exploiting an operation known as Tranquil Repose – ostensibly providing funeral services as well as cryogenic suspension – to create new Daleks and gain control over galactic food supplies, just as local businesswoman Kara has dispatched an assassin to kill Davros and rebel Daleks attempt to capture him.

Review: I’ll say this much: “Revelation of the Daleks” is not predictable. Whether that’s because it’s creative or because it’s just a mess, I’m still not entirely sure (actually, I think it’s probably both). I can’t off the top of my head recall another Doctor Who serial where a flamboyant DJ blows up Daleks by blasting rock-and-roll at them with a sonic transmitter, where said flamboyant DJ seems to have better surveillance capabilities than whatever passes for a security force, where a subplot revolves around a somewhat simple-minded assistant’s crush on her womanizing boss, where Davros has dialogue concerning financial fraud and deceives assassins with an illusion of his own head suspended in a vat, or where we discover that people have apparently been ground up for protein and secretly marketed as food. As you might expect from such a description, this one is all over the place tonally, veering from dark comedy to action/adventure to horror, while the various characters and their subplots randomly crash into each other and/or stick around just long enough to get killed (yes, this is yet another mid-’80s Doctor Who bloodbath). In fact, the Doctor and Peri take the entire first 45-minute episode meandering their way to where most of the action is taking place, and they don’t really drive the plot so much as just get carried along by it. Speaking of the plot, I should also mention that the Daleks are having some sort of civil war, and that Tranquil Repose can’t fulfill its promise because of overpopulation and scarce resources for would-be revivals, and that two other gun-toting renegades have broken into Tranquil Repose because one of them is looking for her father’s body, and that the Doctor becomes worried that he’ll never regenerate again when he finds a statute of himself with his current incarnation’s face…and that none of this really coheres into a satisfying whole as the script jumps around from one thing to another. While this is certainly an improvement over “The Two Doctors” and “Timelash,” it’s just too disjointed and contrived for me to give it a full recommendation.

Rating: **1/2 (out of four)