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Recap / Doctor Who S23 E1 "The Mysterious Planet"

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The Trial of a Time Lord, Part 1: The Mysterious Planet
"Tell the truth: are you worried about my interference in other civilizations or just jealous of my coat?"
Written by Robert Holmes
Directed by Nicholas Mallett
Production code: 7A
Air dates: 6 - 27 September 1986
Number of episodes: 4

"Oh! Why'd you stop it at the best bit? I was rather enjoying that."
The Sixth Doctor after footage of his adventure is cut, which might as well be him commenting on the ending of Colin Baker's reign as the Doctor.

The one where the stakes were at their peak.

In 1986, Doctor Who was being targeted by The BBC Controller of the time, Michael Grade. He did not like the way the show's production values had been outdone by the more breathtaking visuals of Hollywood's theatrical sci-fi films (apparently ignoring the stringently limited budget the series was given) and felt that the increasingly violent and cynical direction the show had been taking was making the show unsuitable for British airwaves. Grade threatened to cancel the series, screening the infamous karate-kicking scene from the earlier Fifth Doctor serial "Warriors of the Deep" to other BBC execs to demonstrate why he felt the show deserved to be axed, and outright pulled it from the air after the unprecedented amount of carnage in "Revelation of the Daleks" made him draw the line. However, with some negotiation the intended cancellation was reduced to an 18-month hiatus (twice the length of a standard between-season gap), after which the show resumed regular airing.

The original plans for Season 23 were shelved — the stories that would have been made received varying fates; scrapped before anything was known about them, never made because the writers passed on without divulging much of their plans for a story before taking them into their tombsnote , turned into Doctor Who Novelisations (the Target Missing Episodes line) or picked up decades later as Big Finish Doctor Who episodes (the "Lost Stories" line, which initially focused on the cancelled Season 23 before expanding to other eras' What Could Have Been stories). What the viewers got instead were four stories that cast a reflection of the show's own shaky terms on the air, "on trial" as it were, kitted into one overarching season. So began The Trial of a Time Lord, a season-long serial broken into four smaller sub-stories and totaling at 14 parts.note 

As story one of The Trial of a Time Lord, "The Mysterious Planet" is Doctor Who writer Robert Holmes's last complete story script. His actual final script, "The Ultimate Foe", was never finished before his death, and only his material for the first part was used; the second and final one was rewritten from scratch following Holmes' death due to legal difficulties.

Episode One opens with a sweeping motion-controlled shot of the Time Lords' space station. The Doctor stumbles out of his TARDIS and enters a courtroom, where he is informed that an Inquiry has been set up to examine his actions. Very quickly the old "I'm the Lord President" escape clause is revoked when the Inquisitor tells the Doctor he was deposed after the events of "The Five Doctors" because he never showed up.

And so the trial begins, which basically consists of the Doctor and the court watching Doctor Who episodes.

The prosecutor, a Time Lord known as the Valeyard, starts the Trial with footage from the Matrix of the Doctor's interference on the planet Ravalox, a planet with the same mass, angle of tilt and period of rotation of the planet Earth, which it is. Ravalox also was supposedly ravaged by a solar fireball. We learn most of these facts as the Doctor and Peri are walking through a forest. We can also see that the Doctor/Peri relationship has elevated past the bickering of the previous season - they're actually getting along now that they're settled and used to one another. Unknown to them, they're being watched by Mr. Sabalom Glitz and his assistant Dibber, two somewhat likable criminal types. Glitz has the Doctor in the sights of his gun, but at the last possible second the Doctor ducks down.

Peri discovers the remains of a building, grabbing the attention of the Doctor. The Doctor soon discovers the entrance and they enter a tunnel network. Peri makes a startling discovery. She discovers that they are actually in The London Underground at Marble Arch Station. This puts the "is this Earth?" plot to bed and starts the "how can this be Earth" plot, seeing as Ravalox is several light years from Earth's solar system. The Doctor finds a door and theorizes that there may be some inhabitants alive in the tunnel network. Peri declines the offer to explore and waits at the entrance and is promptly captured.

Meanwhile Glitz and Dibber approach the local savages in the hope of destroying a "Magnum Mark VII Light converter", which the savages are using as a Totem Pole, and salvaging the valuable material it's made from. They are taken to meet the Queen of the tribe.

The Doctor has found his way into some form of underground habitation and gets himself arrested for stealing water, the punishment for which is a stoning. At the same time the leader of the underground habitation is revealed to be called "The Immortal" and is then shown to be an L3 robot who we later find out is called Drathro.

Glitz and Dibber are having an audience with the Queen of the tribe and blame the fireball on the Light converter. The Queen informs them that every time a stranger has come to the village they each made up a different reason to take down the light converter. Glitz and Dibber are taken prisoner. She takes their guns and makes plans to attack "The Immortal".

Back in the tunnels, the Doctor is learning about the world he has arrived in from "Balazar, the Reader of the Books". Apparently, three Books have survived from times past. They are:

Back at Marble Station, the stoning is ready and the Doctor stands ready. As the stoning begins he opens his umbrella and begins deflecting the stones, but one hits him and he drops to the ground.

We jump back into the courtroom where the Valeyard quickly demands that the Inquiry escalates into a Trial, a trial that, if the Doctor loses will end in his execution. Parallelling what the actual show was going through at this time. Not getting sufficient "Grades". (Sorry!) It turns out the Doctor is unconscious, not dead. A guard is about to kill him when Drathro orders that the Doctor is brought to him.

Peri is dragged into the savages' village and taken before the Queen who wants to marry her off to several men. Back underground we discover that Drathro orders his two helpers, Tandrell and Humker, to activate the service robot "in case they need it".

Peri is placed under Guard with Glitz and Dibber who have an Oh, Crap! moment when they learn that the Doctor is a Time Lord. Glitz is then sentenced to death for being a "star traveller".

Drathro orders the Doctor to fix the circuits connected to the Black Light converter, but the Doctor soon escapes by shocking Drathro and fooling the Service robot.

Glitz, Dibber and Peri escape, Glitz and Peri try and reach Marble Arch and Dibber stays behind to destroy the light converter. Drathro sends the service robot after the Doctor. Meanwhile Merdeen, the head Guard, tells Balazar how to leave the tunnels so that he can join the savages on the surface — unaware that Grell, one of the guards, is spying on them.

Back on the surface Dibber blows up the Light Converter and joins Peri and Glitz in escaping to the underground. The Doctor, Balazar, Peri, Glitz, and Dibber all meet at the tunnel entrance but are forced to flee back underground by the chasing savages. When they reach Marble Arch they find that the service robot is waiting for them and now they're trapped between that and the savages. The Doctor and the others drop to the floor as the savages fire at the robot with the guns they took from Glitz and Dibber, disabling it. The Doctor is less than happy when he discovers that Dibber blew up the light converter. He tells them that it could set off a chain reaction.They are all then taken to the Savage's village.

Back underground Grell confronts Merdeen about his actions. Merdeen is saved by Drathro who orders him to search for Balazar. Tandrell and Humker manage to re-activate the Service Robot.

The Doctor, Peri, Glitz and Dibber are placed under guard. At this point it is confirmed that they are on Earth. But the service robot smashes through a wall, knocks unconscious and kidnaps the Doctor. The savages shoot the robot and disable it for good, and think that they have killed "The Immortal" and move to attack the underground settlement. The Doctor regains consciousness and rushes off to warn the savages. He explains to Peri that if he doesn't deactivate the black light system it will implode, destroying the tunnels.

Glitz explains to Dibber not to tell the Doctor that what they're after is [INFORMATION FOR THE EYES OF THE HIGH COUNCIL ONLY]. Literally what is said is bleeped out. The Valeyard says that that part of the evidence has been removed by order of the High Council. The Inquisitor is not pleased, pointing out that the trial was ordered by the High Council (Foreshadowing!), and that it is her job to decide what is relevant evidence. The Valeyard says the the evidence was "against the public interest", and that she alone can watch the uncensored version.

The Doctor and Peri are hurrying through the tunnels when Merdeen steps out from behind them and points a gun at the Doctor. Merdeen fires the gun and hits who he was aiming at — Grell, who really was going to shoot the Doctor. Tandrell and Humker, knowing that the Black light system will implode, open the door to escape and let the savages in. Drathro kills the Queen of the savages and one other savage. He then tells the rest to stand outside the door and wait for their death, which they bizarrely do.

Glitz meanwhile is telling Dibber what they're after, which is secrets from "the [CONFIDENTIAL], the biggest net of information in the Universe". The Doctor is furious that yet another bit has been bleeped out; again the Valeyard states that that piece of evidence is for the Inquisitor only.

Realizing that the black light power system is dangerously close to blowing up, the Doctor suddenly claims that when it does so, it will very likely destroy the entire universe. Not entirely surprisingly, Drathro doesn't buy this, and uses a big helping of Insane Troll Logic to justify letting the impending explosion blow everyone to kingdom come.

Merdeen, Peri, Glitz and Dibber try and Sneak into Drathro's room via the food preparation system. Drathro activates the system, nearly slicing them with lasers. Dibber blasts away out through one of the walls into Drathro's room. Glitz sweet-talks Drathro into leaving with them and bringing the secrets with him. Drathro tells Giltz to tie the Doctor up. Glitz ties him with a slip knot. The Doctor contains the explosion to Drathro's room. Drathro dies and and the secrets melt. The Doctor muses over a few unanswered questions like "Who moved Earth out of the solar system?" and "what were Glitz and Dibber after?".

Back in court the Doctor points out that the Valeyard's evidence actually helps him and states that it is his turn to produce evidence. The Inquisitor tells him that the Valeyard has not finished.

The Doctor states "Wake me when it's over."

The Valeyard announces that "The most damning is still to come".

Cue a very dramatic zoom-in on the Doctor's "shocked" face...


  • Accidental Misnaming: The Doctor has to be reprimanded by the court in order to stop creating variants of the Valeyard. Not that the reprimand stops him, exactly... "Sorry, force of habit!"
  • After the End: The end of the story.
  • Ambulance Chaser: The Valeyard appeared to be this at first.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: "...and UK Habitats of the Canadian Goose by HM Stationery Office"
  • Art Shift: Due to a severely reduced budget, as well as problems with the film stocks during filming of "The Two Doctors", and the BBC's new Quantel Paintbox system (which opened up all sorts of new possibilities for effects) not playing nicely with film, from hereon out the series makes use of video for both location and studio sequences, a practice they had done five times before, four during the Tom Baker eranote  and once during the Peter Davison eranote .
  • Aww, Look! They Really Do Like Each Other: The story is generally held in higher regard than many Sixth Doctor stories in part because it's one of the few times where we see the Sixth Doctor and Peri actually enjoying each other's company for a change. It also becomes heartwarming in hindsight when you apply the extended universe stories that took place in-between Season 22 and Season 23 note , which allowed for Sixth and Peri's friendship to gradually improve.
  • Bait-and-Switch Gunshot: The cliffhanger for Episode 3 involves Merdeen firing a crossbow bolt at the Doctor and Peri after revealing he's hunting them. Episode 4 reveals that he hit his target — who was actually Greel, who was taking aim at them from behind and intending to actually shoot them.
  • Big Bad: Drathro.
  • Book Ends: To Robert Holmes' career as a Doctor Who writer. Though he'd finish part one of "The Ultimate Foe", this was his final completed script, and it repeats the plot of the very first serial he wrote, "The Krotons".
  • Call-Back: After coming to from having been knocked out (one of the times, any way) the Doctor calls Peri Sarah Jane instead.
  • Camp Gay: Humker and Tandrell, Drathro's current flunkies, have overtones of this.
  • Character Development: The Sixth Doctor and Peri's relationship has improved dramatically compared to the last season. The two are much more cordial to each other now, with Six being a lot more well-adjusted and mentoring to Peri. He still makes a boastful crack about himself ("Is there any intelligent life here?" "Apart from me, you mean?), but Peri is used to it now and actually laughs at the jest.
  • Clip Show: Subverted, only new footage is used.
  • Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: The Doctor and the Valeyard.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • The Sixth Doctor temporarily reverts to the Fourth Doctor's personality after coming round from being knocked out.
    • The trial depicted in "The War Games" is referenced here by the Inquisitor as the Doctor having "been on trial already for offences of this nature". In response, the Valeyard contends that the High Council were "too lenient" with the sentence that resulted from that trial.
  • Continuity Porn: After being knocked out, the Doctor reverts to his fourth personality for a little while until snapping out of it.
  • Covered in Gunge: Balazar gets a face full of green mash in Episode 4.
  • Crazy Enough to Work: Lampshaded by the Doctor, who complains that his lengthy attempts to honestly reason with Drathro ended in failure, while Glitz was able to use Blatant Lies to win him over in seconds.
  • Distressed Dude: Seriously, the Doctor gets tied up THREE TIMES alone in this serial.
  • Earth All Along: It wasn't the ending, per se, but this story does feature the discovery (due to a Tube sign) that Ravalox is actually Earth and that it had been shoved light years from its usual place.
  • Enemy Without: The Valeyard. More on him later.
  • Epic Tracking Shot: The opening shot, where the camera gets remarkably close to the space station model without wrecking the illusion.
  • Five Rounds Rapid: Glitz says this in episode 4.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The first thing Peri comments about Ravalox is how much it reminds her of back on Earth.
    • A conversation between Glitz and Dibber about who moved Ravalox is bluntly censored at one point by the High Council of the Time Lords. Little surprise who the culprits turn out to be...
    • When the discussion of Peri comes up in the trial, the Doctor suddenly becomes aware of her absence and is told that she's right where he left her, which he cannot seem to remember.
  • Framing Device: The Trial scenes
  • From Cataclysm to Myth: Played for laughs. The underground colony of survivors on a far-future Earth renamed Ravalox, which has been ravaged by a fireball, refer to three sacred texts that are the only few surviving books they have, which govern their lives and their views of the world before the apocalypse, and which are trusted to learned scholars to unpack their meanings. They are, however, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies, and a guide to the UK Habitats of the Canadian Goose by 'HM Stationery Office', which is apparently the most mysterious. The Doctor is not impressed.
  • Future Imperfect: In this future the Three Books of Knowledge are The Water Babies, a British children's book; Moby-Dick; and a UK public information volume about geese.
  • It's All About Me: The Doctor explains that if Drathro isn't shut down, a black light explosion will destroy the planet, and possibly the galaxy. Drathro doesn't understand why, if he is to die either way, others should continue to exist without him.
  • Kangaroo Court: An early sign that the Doctor's trial isn't exactly kosher appears when vital evidence appears heavily censored. Despite the Doctor's protests that he can hardly defend himself if he doesn't have the full evidence, the trial basically carries on regardless.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: Katryca is killed in the middle of a speech.
  • Mythology Gag: At one point the Doctor's being frisked, and one of his friskers finds a non-descript yellow bag. He steals it back, opens it and offers (without saying it) Jelly Babies to his captors.
  • Oh, Crap!: Glitz and Dibber have this reaction when they learn that the Doctor is a Time Lord.
  • Plot-Based Voice Cancellation: An in-universe version happens whenever Sabalom Glitz talks about the Matrix. It's the first clue that something is really fishy about this trial.
  • Rearrange the Song: This story debuted a new arrangement of the Doctor Who theme by Dominic Glynn, replacing the Peter Howell version which had been used for the previous five seasons, since "The Leisure Hive". While it retained the 80s synth aspect of the previous theme, it had softer, more mysterious sound than its predecessor. It would only remain in use for one season before being replaced again in "Time and the Rani", making it the shortest-lived version of the theme in the Classic show at just 14 episodes. It is, however, been firmly associated with the Sixth Doctor ever since, and Big Finish Doctor Who would prominently feature it as the theme for the Sixth Doctor stories.
  • Reassignment Backfire: Because the Doctor didn't show up to become president after "The Five Doctors", The High Council deposed him.
  • Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale: Probably the most spectacular example in is in this story, where Earth was apparently hidden by moving its entire solar system several million miles, which is the celestial equivalent of hiding from your date in an empty cinema by leaning an inch to the left. For scale, Mercury never comes within 28 million miles of our Sun, despite being its closest planet. The distance that the Time Lords moved Earth is later given in various Doctor Who literature as being "two light-years", which whilst slightly more plausible than several million miles, is still only less than half the distance to Alpha Centauri, our nearest neighbouring star. It would be equivalent to hiding from your date in an otherwise empty cinema by moving one seat to the left.
  • Self-Plagiarism: Robert Holmes rehashed the plot of his very first contribution to the show, "The Krotons".
  • Silence, You Fool!: Humker and Tandrell spend as much time bickering with each other as they do assisting Drathro, leading the exasperated robot to eventually bellow "SIII-LENCE!" at them.
  • Stab the Scorpion: The cliffhanger for Episode 3 involves Merdeen seemingly firing his crossbow at the Doctor. However, the reprise in Episode 4, reveals he was actually aiming at the traitor Grell, lurking behind the Doctor and Peri.
  • Stock Phrases:
  • Story Arc: The first in the season-long story arc, and the story most directly relevant to its eventual conclusion.
  • Take a Third Option: Upon seeing that the Doctor isn't making much headway persuading Drathro to willingly sacrifice itself, and no doubt failing to see the appeal of being blown up, Glitz comes up with his own solution to the problem: trick Drathro into leaving its castle with the (fake) promise of black light aboard Glitz's ship, allowing the Doctor to prevent Drathro's power system from causing mass-destruction when it explodes.
  • Those Two Guys: Drathro's servants Humker and Tandrell. Also, Glitz and Dibber, the last example of the Robert Holmes double act.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The Valeyard has tampered with the evidence in the Matrix, though not to as great an effect as he has in following stories.
  • The Unreveal: The Doctor muses about publishing "Ancient Life on Ravalox, by Dr...", but is interrupted before he can say his name.note 
  • Villains Blend in Better: Sabalom Glitz is convinced that with a few explosives and a machine gun, he'll easily impress the backwards locals on Ravalox that he's the guy who should be in charge and thus be able to dismantle a valuable technological gizmo they believe to be a sacred totem. Unfortunately, he didn't count on their queen being more savvy than her primitive lifestyles would suggest, or the fact that many other con-artists have had the same idea as he did and approached her giving multiple reasons why they should be allowed to dismantle the totem as well. He's soon captured and thrown in a dungeon, much to his bewilderment. However, ironically this still works to impede the Doctor; when he goes before the queen with the real reason that he needs to dismantle the totem (it's about to explode and rip a hole in the universe), the queen's so sick of hearing all these false stories that she locks the Doctor up as well.
  • Yet Another Christmas Carol: Producer John Nathan-Turner once explained that the plan for season 23, the "Trial of a Time Lord" season, was to reflect the series itself being on trial for its past behavior (too violent, too pantomime, too much humor, not enough humor, etc.) and its current crabby, unlikable version of the lead by having the Doctor go through a Christmas Carol analog and experience visions of his past, present, and future during which his ultimate fate would be determined according to his own choices.