“You are vassals. Outside the law, outside the plan. You have brought disorder where order reigned.” – Drathro
Put on a hiatus for about a year and half, the show tried to reinvent itself a bit at its return, partially in a gambit to justify its ongoing existence. It starts off well with an amazing establishing shot of the space station at the beginning, probably the best graphics shot of the entire length of the original series. More broadly, they decided to make the whole season one big story in a way, creating a mysterious trial of the Doctor in which his individual adventures are broadcast for the court (and the viewers). I think it is a great and interesting approach, but it wasn’t entirely successful because it added a layer of complication that most casual fans were not looking for. The producers also wisely decided to soften the contentious relationship between Peri and the Doctor quite a bit in the first episode. This is seen from the start not only in dialogue but in body language—as she leans on his arm in the rain, Peri seems much more happy and at ease with her friend. That and Peri’s new look makes it seem like a lot of time has passed.
I really like the start of the story because it is confusing and ominous. The Doctor has no idea what he’s walked into (or even how he got there we soon find) but he immediately assumes a casual but indignant posture, obviously putting on a show as he tries to assess the situation. It’s a totally fitting use of the Sixth Doctor’s personality. The Valeyard is intriguing and the Inquisitor is an amazing figure, striking in her high collar and sympathetic but profoundly in control despite the Doctor’s antics. The whole rigmarole with the Doctor claiming his presidency and being bluntly told he’d been disposed is a cool throwback to old stories. It’s also just funny as he casually throws around names like the Brickyard, the Barnyard, and such in reference to his accuser.
As for the storyline of the mysterious planet, I do have to admit that it really went past me as a kid. It’s a great Robert Holmes script but has a lot of subtleties in terms of the reveal of the planet’s actual origins and the hidden agenda that is hinted at. I especially did not understand the whole discussion of the edited sequences of the Matrix. I remember being very confused if I had or had not missed something I was supposed to know. Now I see it was setting up some good mystery that is (somewhat) paid off later. I like the bit of foreshadowing as the Doctor suddenly asks with a worried and furrowed brow where Peri is and simply does not get an answer. I also see how the writer uses the trial to address some real life criticisms of the show by defending the use of violence
What I did understand as a kid was the double act of Glitz and Dibber. They seem a bit dated now but the faux-Mad Max appearance was hugely popular in the 80s, so I think I found their appearance fairly unsurprising. Their quibbling banter and the preening personality of Glitz despite his shady appearance definitely stand out. Really, the story is chock full of varied interesting characters, from the other double act of the irritating lackeys Humker and Tandrell to the conflicted motivations of Balazar and Merdeen. Meanwhile, the robot Drathro is probably one of the best designed of the series. It’s also quite interesting how he seems to go from a standard robot working on faulty logic to a petulant child. I also really like the set and costumes for the Tribe of the Free which harkens to old Celtic clans. Katryca is well played—though obviously simple and easily outmaneuvered by the complexities of technology, I like how she easily figures out people and their greedy motivations. It’s sad when she’s killed.
It’s a particularly great device having the entire society revolve around three ‘sacred texts’ which we the audience know are just random books that escaped destruction and have no meaning. As Balazar quotes solemnly from the wisdom of UK Habitats of the Canadian Goose by HM Stationery Office, it is not only ridiculous but highlights just how much the real history and understanding of the human race has been destroyed. Little side bits like that really lift the story despite some other less effective props and costumes.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
When I did understand as a kid that Ravolox was a ruined Earth drug halfway across the galaxy, it was kind of upsetting. What happened to all the people? I remember feeling rather upset and discomfited, just like Peri seems too.
There are some low moments in the story like the ridiculous stoning scene or the attempt a juvenile humor when Balazar gets slimed by the food machine. I also which the bit of mystery of the Sleepers had been a bit more clearly stated to leave us wondering through the episodes to follow.