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)