Season 23 of Doctor Who is strikingly unique in the history of Doctor Who, featuring a notionally single story lasting across 14 episodes. Entitled The Trial of a Timelord, it properly consisted of three four-part stories, and a concluding two-part story to tie the story-arc together. The story and its name in part reflected the notion that the show had just been on hiatus and was on trial for its very existence – it turns out with hindsight that Seasons 23 through 26 were but a stay of execution. As it is, I count the four stories separately because they effectively are four different stories, although the one we review today arguably is not a standalone story, but the one that binds them together – rather like the One Ring only much less cool.
So let’s begin with the overarching theme – the Doctor is put on trial (again) for the crime of “actions unbecoming a Timelord.” Borrowing from the Christmas Carol tradition of past, present and future, evidence is presented in the form of three adventures featuring the Doctor. These adventures will be reviewed further along our countdown, but it suffices to say that by episode 13 the Doctor is now accused of the crime of genocide.
The last episode was named The Ultimate Foe in the production notes, and so this is what it has become popularly known as, including in the DVD release. It emerges that the court prosecutor, entitled ‘The Valeyard’ is in fact a projection of the Doctor’s darker side, existing “somewhere between his twelfth and final incarnation” – and who should reveal this? None other than the Master himself. It is revealed that the Timelords rigged the trial to cover up their own involvement and intervention in an earlier adventure (The Mysterious Planet, episodes 1 to 4) and used the Valeyard as an agent to adjust the evidence. In the meantime, the Valeyard has set up a base in the Matrix, the depository of all Timelord knowledge, and plans to stab the High Council of the Timelords in the back – while the Master himself plans to steal the Matrix.
If you are confused, it is for very good reason. This last story was originally written by Robert Holmes, but he took deep offence when asked by showrunner John Nathan Turner to rewrite the original ending, which featured the Doctor and the Valeyard falling into an abyss locked in a tussle in a quite literal cliffhanger ending to the season. With the show under threat, JNT felt this would give the BBC an easy way to write off the show. Holmes refused to re-write, and withdrew the second part of his story, necessitating Pip and Jane Baker to rewrite episode 14 to fit with episode 13, while ensure it did not reflect the original written by Holmes.
With all that in mind, it is remarkable that the story manages not only to hold together, but to tie together the loose ends of the story arc. Colin Baker is excellent, and his entire performance across Season 23 demonstrates the folly of the BBC to not give him a fair crack of the whip as the Doctor. In fact, there remains just two pities – the awful acting of Bonnie Langford as Mel, and the mushy rewriting of Peri’s back story – her apparent death in Mindwarp (episodes 5 to 8) tested very poorly, and so she was rewritten as being saved from her fate and marrying King Ycarnos – a highlight on the DVD is hearing Nicola Bryant’s less than impressed reaction as she sees this scene for the first time ever and reacts in horror!
I suspect I am in a minority – I really enjoyed Season 23 and liked the trial concept. Even if this is not the best story within the season arc, and even if the execution was somewhat flawed, I very much enjoyed the way everything came together, and even the verbal sparring with Mr Popplewick the petty bureaucrat. And while the cliffhanger of the Doctor sinking into the sand at the end of episode 13 is memorable and flawlessly executed, I still get goosebumps at the end of episode 14, when it transpires that the Valeyard is not dead as we assumed …