December 10 2013 Latest news:
Thursday, September 19, 2013
What will your verdict be when it comes to Who’s trial stories?
THERE can be few examples of late-eighties Doctor Who which aren’t actually improved as a novel compared to their realisation on screen. The beauty of a book, and indeed audio version of same, is that we aren’t subjected to the Sixth Doctor’s garish costume, the budgetary shortfalls of the era, the poor choices in direction and lighting, and errors in casting and performance. This is pure fictional Who, where the emphasis is most assuredly on the story itself.
The two stories included here form part of the epic Trial storyline, broadcast after the programme returned from its unexpected hiatus following the influence of BBC boss Michael Grade, who loathed the show with a passion and wanted nothing more than to kill it off altogether. Both the Doctor and the series were therefore in the dock, and if you think that somehow translated on screen in a metafictional context then you haven’t seen the TV versions of these stories.
If you’re looking to save Doctor Who from cancellation then the last thing you want to do is bog your audience down in a pedestrian plot which stretches out for weeks, is full of contradictions and revisionism, and culminates in a resolution even the writers didn’t really understand. Yet that is exactly what producer John Nathan-Turner decided to do, almost as if he was sticking two fingers up at Grade and saying if I can’t make the show my way then this is what you’re going to be left with.
But let’s move away from the politics of the period and focus instead on the stories included here, and I will try to highlight the positives as well as the obvious shortcomings.
The entire Trial narrative features the Doctor brought to account for his actions before a jury of his peers, the Time Lords, on board a space station far from Gallifrey. Presiding over events is the Inquisitor, and acting for the prosecution, the Valeyard. Evidence from the Doctor’s past and future is presented from the Matrix, the repository of all Time Lord knowledge, on a video screen in the court room, which results in the different narratives being punctuated by commentary from the trial itself.
The first story, The Mysterious Planet, is almost Who-by-numbers, with a post-apocalyptic society eeking out a living in a desolate world which may or may not be Earth, with a powerful robot lurking behind the scenes and a duo of intergalactic conmen to provide a bit of colour. The fact that it was written by series legend Robert Holmes comes as something of a surprise, lacking as it does his usual flair, but when one learns that the great man was close to death at the time its shortcomings can be excused.
The second tale, Mindwarp, is a sequel to the popular Vengeance on Varos, by that story’s author Philip Martin, and features a return appearance by the slug-like capitalist Sil, this time caught up in a story about body-swapping and arms dealing. It is notable for featuring contradictory sequences of events, allegedly the result of interference in the Matrix, and the final appearance of companion Peri Brown.
Neither are fantastic stories, and in novelising them Martin and Target stalwart Terrance Dicks do their best with what they have, which to be fair isn’t much. Mindwarp in particular suffers from a concluding chapter full of whimsy and saccharin, in a vain attempt to make up for the failings of the original TV serial, whereas The Mysterious Planet is simply a perfunctory adaptation of a weak story.
Lynda Bellingham (The Inquisitor) and Colin Baker (the Sixth Doctor) are stand-out reading choices, and it’s almost a shame that their talents are wasted on these stories.
With more than 150 TV stories to choose from, the audio range of Target novelisations are never going to produce winners on every occasion, and unfortunately this release reflects the lacklustre direction of the show at the time.
Not Doctor Who’s finest hour by any stretch of the imagination.
* Available from www.audiogo.co.uk