The levels of taste and good judgement in the Doctor Who production office in the mid-1980s can be summed up in three words:

Doctor In Distress.

Band Aid had had a huge hit with the song Do They Know It’s Christmas?, bringing together a huge number of pop stars in order to raise money and awareness for the Ethiopian famine which was claiming a staggering number of lives.

So when Doctor Who was put on hiatus for eighteen months, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world was to release their own all-star charity record, three months after Band Aid, to raise awareness of the plight of Doctor Who fans who had to wait eighteen months for a new episode of their favourite TV show. Because nothing wins sympathy for a cause like making a comparison like that.

As you might have guessed already, Ian “Mr Perspective” Levine was the ‘mastermind’ behind this record, because he was a mildly successful record producer (he is one of the inventors of Hi-NRG music and later wrote a minor hit for Take That which Gary Barlow has described as “by a huge margin, the worst song of Take That’s and my career”), although even he now calls it “pathetic and bad and stupid”. Levine gathered together the dregs de les dregs of pop music, including the drummer from Ultravox, two ex-members of Matt Bianco, and Bobby G out of Bucks Fizz, along with Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant (who played Peri), Anthony Ainley (the Master) and Nick Courtney (the Brigadier), to chant along “Eighteen months is too long to wait/Bring back the Doctor, don’t hesitate!”

Unsurprisingly, it was around this time that the attitude of the BBC’s drama department towards Doctor Who went from apathy to a desire to kill off the show. When Doctor Who came back from the hiatus, the series was half the previous length, and was fighting for its life.

The 1986 series was to tell one fourteen-part story, with the Doctor on trial for his life, mirroring the state the show itself was in. The framing device was then to be used to tell a Christmas Carol story, with adventures from the Doctor’s past, present and future being used in evidence.

Everyone was going to pull together and deliver the best series ever. There were whizzy new special effects, a genuinely impressive cast, John Nathan-Turner was going to bring in a celebrity as the Doctor’s new companion, and with the smaller number of stories to deal with Eric Saward could rely on just the best writers he could find, and not have to deal with any third-rate scripts.

And there is much to love in the first half of the series. The performances are astounding, both from the guest cast (Nabil Shaban making a welcome return as Sil from Vengeance On Varos, Brian Blessed playing Brian Blessed as only Brian Blessed can) and from the regulars.

In fact we must pause here to give special praise to Colin Baker, here finally allowed to play the Doctor as he wished to, though even here he is fighting against scripts that want him to be misanthropic. Baker’s charm, and his rapport with Nicola Bryant, manages to turn what reads on the page as mean-spirited bickering into the kind of friendly ribbing that people who have known each other for years do.

Baker manages to make his Doctor seem witty, intelligent and humane even when the scripts have him being the exact opposite of this, and while he has (rightly) had acclaim recently for his performances in audio dramas, here he shows a mastery of physical performance, using body language and micro facial expressions to build a consistent characterisation where the scripts don’t provide him with one. Baker is absolutely stunning in this series, and he deserves far, far more respect than he gets.

And this built up to a wonderful climax in episode eight, where the Doctor is kidnapped by the Time Lords, leaving his assistant, Peri, to have her mind wiped and replaced with that of an evil alien. Peri dies, the Doctor can’t save her, and the last we see of her body it’s been possessed by a monstrous creature. It’s one of the greatest moments in Doctor Who.

And it’s totally undercut by the terrible decisions made in the next six episodes.

The original plan had been a great one. Get Robert Holmes, the best writer Doctor Who had ever had, Philip Martin, who had had an extremely successful career as a screenwriter and had written the best story of the previous series, and Jack Trevor Story, a hugely respected writer who hadn’t worked on Doctor Who before, each to write a four-part story, then have Holmes write a two-part epilogue to tie everything together.

And the first part works fine. Holmes turns in a competent script — very much Holmes-by-numbers, but he was ill at the time, and Holmes-by-numbers still works. Martin’s script is not perhaps as good as one would hope, but has a magnificent climax and allows plenty of room for Blessed and Shaban to do their turns, making for extremely watchable TV.

But then Jack Trevor Story’s script was apparently not up to standard, and he and Saward couldn’t work out a script between them that Saward considered usable, so Saward was forced to turn to Pip and Jane Baker, a writing team who had written the execrable story The Mark Of The Rani for the previous series. They were godawful writers, but they could churn out a more-or-less usable script, using a very small number of sets, in a very short time, and Saward knew he could just let them get on with it.

The story they turned in was a very weak whodunnit, and it introduced the new companion, Mel, played by Bonnie Langford, who would stick around for the next series.

Langford gets a lot of stick from Doctor Who fans, most of it unfair — she was playing the part exactly as scripted, and exactly as anyone who cast her in the role would have expected her to. The problem is that nobody wanted to see Bonnie Langford in the role except John Nathan-Turner. (Note for Americans, Langford is a former child star of the relentlessly cheery, clean-cut, song-and-dance type. Think Shirley Temple, and you’ve got a rough idea).

But OK, you’ve got a weak third story, but here comes Bob Holmes riding in to save the day with the last two episodes, right?

Except Robert Holmes turned in a first draft of the first of his two episodes, which still needed extensive reworking, before he became too ill to continue. He died shortly afterwards.

Saward, who had been a close friend of Holmes in his latter years, was devastated, and also had to quickly write the last episode himself. Meanwhile, Saward’s relationship with Nathan-Turner was fast deteriorating, and he had begun to loathe his job. He wrote the script to fit the plot that he and Holmes had come up with, and handed in his notice on the job.

And this is where things really went wrong. Nathan-Turner hated the ending of the story (which would have had the Doctor and his evil future self falling to what looked like their doom…or was it?…Reichenbach style) because he thought it would give the BBC the perfect point at which to kill off the programme. He insisted that the ending be rewritten. Saward saw this as an insult to the memory of his dead friend, and refused to let the script be used at all. He then went to Starburst magazine and gave them a bitchy interview in which he insulted Nathan-Turner, Baker, Langford, and every director who had worked on the show in the 1980s except Graeme Harper and Peter Grimwade. Everything bad about the show was everyone else’s fault, apparently.

So Nathan-Turner had to get Pip and Jane back in and get them to write a new last episode, following on from Holmes’ penultimate one. At two days’ notice. Using only the sets, props, locations and actors they’d already sorted out for the Saward/Holmes episode.

And at the meeting with them he had to have a lawyer present to witness that he had given them no idea at all of how the story was meant to end.

The end result is, of course, a mess, full of hilariously wrong technical details (“A megabyte modem!”) , purple dialogue (“There’s nothing you can do to prevent the catharsis of spurious morality!”) and a ridiculous ending in which, amongst other things, it’s revealed that Peri didn’t die at all but got married to Brian Blessed and became a warrior queen instead.

Trial Of A Time Lord is nowhere near as bad as its reputation suggests. Its first half is really very good, and the second half often rises to competence, which given that nobody in the production office was talking to anyone else by the end is a minor miracle.

But the trajectory of the Trial storyline was clear — it had started with state-of-the-art special effects and a story by the best writer the programme had, and it had ended with Bonnie Langford, technobabble, and everyone deciding to let the Doctor off because he’s the protagonist. The ending was so pathetic that it obscured the good stuff in the first half.

The fans hated it — one Chris Chibnall being particularly scathing, verbally attacking Nathan-Turner and Pip’n'Jane over the quality of the writing on live TV. There is some schadenfreude to the fact that Chibnall now writes for Doctor Who himself, and is widely regarded as the least competent writer ever to work on the series.

So something needed to be done. A scapegoat needed to be found. Saward couldn’t be fired, because he’d already quit. Nathan-Turner couldn’t be fired because nobody else was willing to take up the poison chalice of the Doctor Who production role. So it had to be Colin Baker. The one member of the production team who had done his job well, in a professional manner, was unceremoniously sacked from his role in the gap between series, leaving his last words on the show as “carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice!”

He deserved better.

6 Responses to “Doctor Who: Fifty Stories For Fifty Years: 1986”

  1. New Doctor Who Post on Mindless Ones | Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] In which I look at Trial Of A Timelord, by way of Doctor In Distress. [...]

  2. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Incidentally, I’ve focused on Baker and not Bryant here for a reason, but that will have to wait til 2011…

  3. Kit Says:

    “wait til 2011…”

    Good choice!

  4. Andrew Hickey Says:

    I thought so ;)
    (Just so people know, this is meant to be a celebratory series, rather than anything else, and covering all media, not just TV, so when we get to the new series I will be covering some of the better episodes of that, but will also be covering audios and possibly at least one book.)

  5. Marc Burkhardt Says:

    If I remember correctly, Nicola Bryant herself wasn’t too thrilled that Peri was resurrected at the last instant. Having The Doctor & Valeyard plunge together into the void would have been a better ending. Could have even led to a more plausible regeneration into number 7 if Baker didn’t want to return.

  6. Scott Says:

    There’s a certain irony in the Doctor in Distress video being called the ‘best version’.

    As if such a thing exists.

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