Friday, September 13, 2013

The Mysterious Planet (Trial of a Time Lord, 1-4)

Dear Gary—
“By order of the High Council, this is an impartial inquiry into the behavior of the accused person, known as the Doctor, who is charged that he, on diverse occasions, has been guilty of conduct unbecoming a Time Lord.”
Thus begins the ill-conceived Trial of a Time Lord. This is an idea that could have worked if done properly rather than used as a gimmick. But then, getting any trial conducted by the illustrious Time Lords to work properly is nigh on impossible. The show barely gives any pretense of justice to the proceedings. The Inquisitor tries to keep some semblance of order but in reality has very little control. Charges are never clearly stated and seem to change at the whim of the prosecutor, or the Valeyard. The purpose of the gathering is similarly fluid, going from a mere inquiry to a full-fledged trial part way through and again at the Valeyard’s caprice. As for the monkey gallery of Time Lords, their sole function is to swivel back and forth between the Matrix screen and the three principals while desperately trying to stay awake.
It would help if the first story, The Mysterious Planet (Trial of a Time Lord, Parts 1-4) submitted by the Valeyard as evidence had any relevance to the charges. Ironically, this particular tale has one of the lowest body counts of Colin Baker’s tenure. Additionally, as the Doctor pointedly notes at the conclusion of the viewing, he not only freed the underground slaves but also saved the universe. The argument that the Bobbsey Twins Humker and Tandrell might have averted the black light explosion on their own is spurious—they had long since hightailed it out to the surface at the first hint of danger. Perhaps Katryca and Broken Tooth might not have been killed by Drathro if the Doctor had not gone to Ravolox, but that is academic because then they just would have died in the explosion.
The choice of The Mysterious Planet to open his case also strikes me as the height of stupidity, full as it is of glaring red flags leading directly to the fact that the Matrix has been tampered with. And if he was going to edit the evidence, wouldn’t the Valeyard have cut the damning scenes entirely rather than merely bleeping out the crucial lines, especially since anyone can clearly lip read the key word, if not gather from context? It almost seems as though the Valeyard is sabotaging his own case (and given the subsequent revelation about the Valeyard, perhaps it is a subconscious attempt to do so; this would have made a much more intriguing development if embellished).
Having said that, The Mysterious Planet as a story is really quite good (if only it wasn’t continually interrupted by the courtroom sequences). The action is straight forward, but the strength of the script lies in its characterizations. For starters, the Doctor and Peri are actually quite chummy for a change. Peri is much less annoying when she is being pleasant. The Doctor, too, is much more positively engaged in the action. “I can’t let people die if there’s a chance of saving them” is a sentiment we haven’t heard much from the Doctor of late. And it is nice to see his good old fashioned curiosity: “There’s a mystery here; questions to which I must have an answer.”
Also helping are several well defined roles played by some solid guest actors. Chief among these are Glitz and Dibber, a Robert Holmes trademark double act. Sabalom Glitz (another Holmes trademark—the fantastic character name) is remarkable in his own right, but for my money it is Dibber who adds the perfect deadpan touch to make this one of the all time great duos of Doctor Who.
Glitz: “My malaise is much more complex. A deep-rooted maladjustment, my psychiatrist said, brought on by an infantile inability to come to terms with the more pertinent, concrete aspects of life.”
Dibber: “That sounds more like an insult than a diagnosis, Mr. Glitz.”
Wonderful dialogue like that with just the right delivery has been sorely missing for quite a while now.
Or how about this:
Glitz: “Don’t I look like a philanthropist?”
Dibber: “Well, how do I know? I’ve never seen one.”
Glitz: “A philanthropist, my son, is someone who gives away all their grotzits out of the simple goodness of their heart.”
Dibber: “Oh, you mean they’re stupid. Oh, yeah, you probably do look like one then.”
Balazar is another good character. This “reader of the books” is a gentle soul despite the stoning, and he plays well against the Doctor, or “old one” as Balazar calls him. The revelation that the only three books to survive are Moby (Mo Bi) Dick, The Water Babies, and The UK Habitats of the Canadian Goose by HM Stationary Office is one of those delightfully whimsical touches that always add so much to Doctor Who. (I do have to wonder, though, why, if water is such a precious commodity, it is left sitting out and vulnerable.)
Next we have Drathro, the robot in charge and guardian of the ‘secrets’ that Glitz and Dibber are after. Drathro is impressive looking for a Doctor Who robot, and his philosophical exchange with the Doctor over the value of ‘organics’ is extraordinary and something that has been sadly absent during most of Colin Baker’s run. The script for The Mysterious Planet is the first in a long time to offer some character depth and interaction for the Doctor. For me this is the Sixth Doctor at his best, and it makes me wonder even more why the Valeyard chose this particular section of the Matrix to start his case against the Doctor.
The rest of the guest roles are adequate if not of the same caliber as Dibber, Glitz, Balazar and Drathro, and I’m not certain if it is a letdown of the script or of the portrayals; perhaps a bit of both. Humker and Trandrell are annoying more than anything and certainly don’t represent the best and brightest of the underground society in the best or brightest light. This is a Holmes double act that doesn’t quite work. They are introduced as characters who finish each other’s sentences and come up with sampler quotes between them, and then become a means for providing exposition, and then turn into a bickering duo. There is no consistency in the pair.
Katryca is another example of a wasted character. This warrior queen is a lot of bluster with no real substance. Her only purpose seems to be to keep Dibber, Glitz, and Peri separated from the underground action (although she does allow for Peri to consider the possibility of taking on multiple husbands).
Merdeen is the best of this second tier. He has a complexity of character, acting as Drathro’s chief henchman but secretly helping slaves to escape to the surface, and then having to kill his protégé who was set to betray his underground operation. However there is a subtlety missing; his seems more a role of convenience, and again I’m not sure if it is a failure of the script or of the portrayal. (I have to admit, too, that I keep expecting Merdeen to break out in a little Duggan thumping ala Tom Chadbon’s earlier turn at Doctor Who in City of Death.)
The Mysterious Planet might not be the most effective story for the Valeyard to begin his case with, but it does introduce the necessary elements to set up the season long arc, mainly that Ravolox is really Earth only a couple of light years out of its own space, and that there is something suspicious going on with the Matrix and so-called evidence that the Valeyard is presenting. It also provides some much needed sympathy for both the Doctor and Peri, preparing us nicely for developments to come.
“Five rounds rapid should do the trick,” Glitz tells Dibber; an inside reference to the Brigadier of old. The Mysterious Planet is just such a welcome echo of the past, of Doctor Who at its best. It might not be the best, but it reminds us and keeps us invested in the show.
I remain, as ever Gary, invested . . .

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