After the hiatus of 1985, Doctor Who arrived back in 1986 with the distinct threat of doom hanging over the show – so it is appropriate that The Mysterious Planet, the first story within The Trial of a Timelord begins with a bell tolling ominously and little indication as to why the Doctor has arrived without his companion Peri. Whatever misgivings Script Editor Eric Saward may have had about using the trial analogy to compare the idea of Doctor Who being on trial in real life, I thought the concept overall worked rather well.
When considering The Mysterious Planet however, I find on the whole it is best to ignore the overall story-arc, which has the bare minimum of impact upon these episodes, except to introduce trial. As a standalone story the first four episodes bear up remarkably well – it is a striking comparison to Attack of the Cybermen in terms of how to do a season opener, and I would go so far as to say that if Season 22 had begun with this story (less of course the trial) then Colin Baker would have started out on a much stronger foot as the Doctor.
Arriving on a planet supposedly called “Ravalox” the Doctor discovers that it is in fact Earth moved thousands of years across time and space and apparently desolated by a solar storm; although we do not discover until The Ultimate Foe that this was by secret order of the Timelords! The story centres around four distinct groups – a research robot who lives in an underground bunker, aims to return to Andromeda with stolen secrets, and holds a captive human population as his slaves; a rebel leader within this population who releases select members to the surface rather than culling them as requested; the tribe of survivors on the surface led by a rather mad Boudicca-like Queen; and lastly the lovable rogue Sabalom Glitz, who with his accomplice Dibber is planning to steal the stolen secrets from the robot. The secrets we later discover are stolen from Gallifrey, hence why the planet was moved across the universe – but we leave episode 4 with the mystery unresolved.
In short – it’s a typical Doctor Who story but reinvented for the 1980s – conflict and confusion, and the Doctor and his companion caught in the middle. It gives a frustrating glimpse of what might have been – Baker remains bombastic but is much more likable, and the chemistry between himself and Peri is significantly improved on Season 22. Every character is believable and engaging, even if somewhat overacted, and the production values bear up surprisingly well. In contrast to the naysayers, I actually really enjoy the Trial theme – the idea that the Doctor is put on trial to cover up the Timelords own complicity in sacrificing the earth to protect their technology from being stolen. In contrast to some of Steven Moffat’s recent story-arcs, this one is pretty good – and the chemistry between the Doctor, the Valeyard and the Inquisitor in the trial scenes is highly enjoyable. It’s only a pity it took the threat of cancellation before the BBC started to get the best out of Colin Baker …