Doctor Who #664: The Ultimate Foe Part 2

"You cannot speak as though reality is a one-dimensional concept."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Dec.6 1986 as The Trial of a Time Lord Part 14.

IN THIS ONE... From inside the Matrix, the Doctor saves the entire courtroom. It's nevertheless Colin Baker's last television appearance as the Doctor.

REVIEW: I don't talk about what was going on behind the scenes a lot, but it may be helpful to know in this case, to understand why the Trial's finale is such a failure. Basically, Robert Holmes died in the hospital before he could complete more than an outline on the last episode. Script editor Eric Saward knew what he'd intended and wrote the finale to those specifications. Producer John Nathan-Turner didn't like the open-ended ending which would have had the Doctor and Valeyard struggling as they spun out into the void and asked for a definitive (and happy) ending instead. It was the straw that broke the camel's back for Saward and he quit over it, taking his script with him. Pip and Jane Baker were contracted to write a new script in three days without the benefit of any of Saward's or Holmes' notes, based on what had gone before. And obviously, no one knew this would the Colin Baker's last episode, or else his final words would not have been "Carrot juice! Carrot juice! Carrot juice!"

Given the state of things, it's actually something of an achievement in connecting the dots, and features a couple of very good moments, most notably, the false trial in the Matrix in which the Doctor, as a ruse, accepts his fate and makes a good case for the opposition that there always is a choice, and choices have consequences. The Valeyard's motivation is never explored - it seems wrong for it to suddenly be about killing Gallifrey's greatest jurists - but it could easily have resonated with that speech. I think the Valeyard would have been a much more effective character if his motive was to undo the Doctor's actions, specifically the various deaths that happened on his watch. As a mustache-twirling black hat, he's no use to me, especially in a story that already has the Master in it. Another good moment is Glitz not falling for the Master's hypnotic tricks, though that makes the latter into even more of a buffoon in my eyes. Is he even in control of the Matrix? Because it really looks like the Valeyard should be for this story to work. Of course, the moment is merely counterpoint to an earlier, more embarrassing scene in which Glitz prays to the god of thieves.

Whatever the case may be, the plot soon turns to technobabble, with the "megabyte modem" having aged particularly badly. The technical nonsense extends to whatever happens in the Master's TARDIS (how can it even be inside the Matrix?) and to the TV screen that can apparently act as a doorway into or out of the Matrix (THIS is why I hate 3D). Pip and Jane's other sin, though it's one that was apparently ordered, is the ending. That the High Council has been deposed is fine - it had to happen post-Ravaloxgate. Then the Doctor gets confirmation Peri is still alive and a warrior queen - whatever - and is told all charges have been dismissed (so easy). Then the Doctor is offered the presidency, which tells me Pip and Jane don't understand we're "out of time" and in the Doctor's future. He offers it back to the Inquisitor, because y'know, we haven't met anyone else that's still on the straight and narrow. And off he goes with Mel... but wait, she's from his future!!! Oops! (See Theories.) As for the Valeyard, he has a happy ending too, breaking the fourth wall and laughing at camera having absurdly taken the Keeper's place and costume. It's the JNT panto moment Saward quit over.

THEORIES:
The Mel Paradox is actually pretty easy to solve. The Target novelization just has the Doctor put her off the ship (see Versions). But if we want something more involved that explains away his being offered the Presidency and perhaps even the Master's presence, we might instead suppose that in viewing his future between Mindwarp and Terror of the Vervoids actually "updated" his timeline so that his "future" was now his "present", that through the magic of Time Lord science, the version of the Doctor "out of time" changes so that he's lived through the intervening years. When he sees Mel in The Ultimate Foe, he's her contemporary and remembers their adventures together. Consequently, if the courtroom is contemporary with his future self and Mel, he would be able to become President in this era, and the Master, who doesn't' appear until Ultimate Foe, would also be current with this era (and not Doc12). At the end, the Valeyard could actually be the only character "out of time", originating in even these Time Lords' future.

VERSIONS: The Target novelization adds an epilogue in which the Doctor drops Mel off somewhere so he can pick her up in Pease Pottage some time in his future.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - It's got its moments, but after the characters have been technobabbled and happy-ended, I can't call it a satisfying resolution.

STORY REWATCHABILITY: Medium - The Ultimate Foe is a fair Matrix story, but not one that respects past continuity. It has too many revelations and twists for its own good, and suffers from having two writing teams blind to each others' work.

TRIAL OF A TIME LORD TOTAL REWATCHABILITY: Medium-Low - Is it worth watch the season as a whole though? I'm going to say it isn't really. If Gallifreyan law and procedure made ANY sense, then perhaps the various interruptions would be tolerable or even interesting. It doesn't so they're not, and you're left with a framing tale that doesn't do the individual stories any favors.

7 comments:

snell said...

The big problem is that the Valeyard is too stupid for us to believe he was ever the Doctor (or part of him, or whatever). The whole plan of having The Trial makes no sense--he's constantly having to shift his premises, he's constantly surprised by information he should have already known--and when a mere Skype call from the Master can completely undo him, well, he's hardly an "ultimate" foe. He would have been better off just hooking up the Doctor the machine from Mawdryn Undead (hmmm...)

Siskoid said...

He's complete rubbish, I agree. The on the fence revelation that he's uhm... something in between two regenerations that we can't explain expect in vague metaphors... takes all the shock value out of it too.

Had he been, straight up, the Doctor gone bad, that might have offered some frisson. But JNT wasn't about taking risks (same thing with not ending on a cliffhanger), and I think his strategy of playing it safe got him exactly what such a strategy usually yields. Small returns on the short term, cancellation on the longer term.

Jeff R. said...

Ending on a cliffhanger would have gotten us a truly unresolvable Melanie paradox, though, so that was a good non-risk.

And the thing in between two regenerations is a Doctor. An incarnation. There's no in-between-ness about it; regenerations separate incarnations and vice versa. On the other hand, "between his 12th and final regeneration" covers a much wider range of possibilities now that the operative number is 507.

Part of the Melanie paradox is the fact that having watched Attack of the Vervoids in Matrix-vision can't easily not affect how it comes out when it happens, which makes the Mel on the TARDIS at the end one from a divergent/nonexistent timeline. (I don't think that future-spoiler-avoidant memory wipes are sufficiently selective to avoid all change and still leave the Doctor with enough information to put Mel in the right place.)

Siskoid said...

Jeff: Not necessarily, you just have the Time Lords send the witnesses back before or after the end. Mel wasn't spinning down the Vortex with them, so far as I know.

The Doctor's foreknowledge is an issue, but the Time Lords might wait for him to drop Mel off before wiping his memories of her. I bet it IS that selective.

Jeff R. said...

At the time, we didn't really have any sense of spoiler-avoidant-memory wiping going on. And since we know now that it happens without any Time Lord intervention at all, it's hard to assume that the Time Lords would be doing so much.

(And to my first point, you'd have ended up with a Mel story that happens in a future that can't happen, because if there had been a cliffhanger it would have had to have been resolved with an immediate regeneration..)

Bill Doughty said...

I love the bit on the DVD where we overhear commentary of Nicola Bryant (with Colin Baker) watching the end of The Ultimate Foe, allegedly for the first time.

I think she preferred the outcome where Peri died!

Siskoid said...

She did!

 

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