“Into the Matrix, where the only logic is that there isn’t any logic.” – The Doctor
And so we arrive at the end of the long arc of the Trial of a Timelord, a final adventure that should have capped off the season in an amazing fashion. Unfortunately, the unexpected death of Doctor Who’s greatest writer Robert Holmes and the angry departure of the show’s head script editor all but destroyed what could and should have been a great wrap up to all the hints and allegations in the trial scenes as well as the mystery of the accusations against the Doctor. Instead, we get a hastily patched together couple of episodes that have some of the same elements and revelations but are entirely underwhelming.
The first episode was supposedly drawn from a rough draft by Holmes. The ideas a therefore full of intrigue—we learn that Earth was destroyed by the Time Lords themselves trying to hide their stolen secrets and the entire trial was a ruse to make sure the Doctor didn’t stumble upon and reveal this even bigger transgression. Yet we just learn of this in two minutes of boring exposition by Sabalom Glitz and then it’s done; surely had Holmes lived he would have eventually heightened the tension and surprise of such a big revelation culminating the season? It does lead to a wonderful speech, one of the Sixth Doctor’s best and often highlighted monologues:
“In all my travellings throughout the universe I have battled against evil, against power-mad conspirators. I should have stayed here. The oldest civilisation, decadent, degenerate and rotten to the core. Ha! Power-mad conspirators, Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen, they’re still in the nursery compared to us. Ten million years of absolute power, that’s what it takes to be really corrupt.”
A bigger revelation via the surprise appearance of the Master is that the Valeyard is actually the Doctor, or at least the essence of his dark side, from the future. This too seems like it should have been explored and explained more because unfortunately it starts to fall apart when you try to make sense of it.
The story then suddenly shifts gears to become a run around in the Matrix. As in the past, it’s a surreal world where anything can happen. For some reason (the Valeyard’s preference?) it becomes a dark Victorian street with Dickensian clerks all around. This allows for some jabs at the absurdity of bureaucracy (clear remains of Holmes being his favorite topic) and moments of the Doctor trying to outsmart the Valeyard based on some rules that are not well explained. It may have been meant to lead to something exciting, but sadly the second and final episode—a quick patch job by other writers—goes nowhere.
There are a few nice moments. The exploding quill pens of the Popplewick are neat and the Valeyard’s confrontation with the Doctor in the Matrix desert is well done. There are a couple of clever twists like having the Doctor escape and re-enter the trial room to finish the trial only for the camera to pull back and show the people in the real trial room watching all of this on the Matrix screen. (The acting doesn’t quite make us believe the Doctor is fooled by all of this however which makes the revelation that he knew all along not as cool as it should be.) You also can’t help but laugh when the Master tries to hypnotize Glitz with a swinging jewel and comes to realize that his slack-jawed stare is not from being mesmerized but instead greedy pondering about what the thing is worth! Unfortunately, there are lots of other silly run-around ‘surprises’ and the whole thing wraps up with the Doctor discovering and dismantling a device used by the Valeyard and it all suddenly resolves at the last second. Largely disappointing.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
The Doctor being dragged down by the hands in the sand is kind of creepy. (And had they been able to do the effect just a little better, his sudden reappearance up from the depths would have looked really cool.)
This is one of those episodes where everybody wonders what might have been if things had gone as planned. As the story itself stands, I wish things could have been presented with just a little different emphasis and subtlety and more time given to the ending. And while I didn’t wish Peri to die, it’s also a shame that they reverse her dramatic death in such a silly fashion with the absurd idea that she would have chucked everything and gone to live with Yrcanos on his planet.