A Mysterious Plan

Review of The Mysterious Planet (#143a)
DVD Release Date: 10 Oct 08
Original Air Date: 06 - 27 Sep 1986
Doctor/Companion: Six, Perpugilliam "Peri" Brown
Stars: Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant
Preceding Story: Revelation of the Daleks (Six, Peri)
Succeeding Story: Mindwarp (Six, Peri)

Today I start a new review series, with an arc I've long avoided here. The Trial of a Time Lord (ToaTL) is, depending on who you ask, either a season-long, fourteen-part story or four, two- or four-part stories connected into a season arc. It comprises approximately half of the Sixth Doctors televised tenure in the role, and thus looms larger in my mental landscape than perhaps it should.

So because my reviews over the years have been particularly shy of Sixth Doctor adventures (at least the televised ones), I decided I'd finally tackle ToaTL for the first part of 2017 (with a Dalek breakaway—see what I did there?—for Power in February) before Series Ten begins.

As we begin this season, then, we see the TARDIS being pulled into a large structure in space, and the Doctor steps out—alone—into a darkened hallway. The room he enters is also darkened until, with some vaguely ominous words, someone eventually identified as "the Valeyard"—the person who is to become his major adversary over the coming episodes—reveals that they are in a Time Lord courtroom.

The Doctor is the subject of a hearing to determine whether or not he is truly guilty of "conduct unbecoming of a Time Lord." As part of his protest, the Doctor claims he can't be put on trial because he's Lord President of Gallifrey (Oh, Doctor... You sound unpleasantly like the new POTUS...), but is told that as a result of his neglect for his duties, he's been deposed.

When the trial proceeds, then, the court views evidence via the Matrix (the storehouse of Time Lord knowledge, as seen in the Fourth Doctor adventure The Deadly Assassin). Thus we are thrust into one of the Doctor's usual outings with a Companion, and we get to the "regular" part of the story.

Ol' Sixie and Peri have landed on a planet known as Ravalox, which has extremely Earth-like features. Despite having reportedly being destroyed in a fireball some five centuries prior, the surface of the planet is covered with vegetation. And when our heroes find their way into an underground tunnel, they discover it is, in fact, an Underground tunnel.

There is a group of people living beneath the surface, controlled by a being called The Immortal, who turns out to be an advanced L3 robot that calls itself Drathro. Unknown to Drathro or the majority of his human "work units," there are also humans living on the surface. The self-identified Tribe of the Free are led by Queen Katryca, a headwoman who has a surprising amount of experience with "star travelers."

Among those itinerants are a couple of con men named Sabalom Glitz and Dibber. These colorful characters want access to the black light generator (don't even get me started on the poor choice of nomenclature or horrendous faux science of that one) that the Tribe of the Free hold sacred as a symbol of their gods. The manner in which the four parties (the TARDIS team, the Immortal and his underground crew, the Tribe of the Free, and Glitz & Dibber) clash over their disparate goals forms the basis of the adventure.

However, the viewer is never left to forget that we are in the middle of court proceedings, as we periodically jump back to that POV during the course of the story. Questions about the relevance of the testimony crop up constantly, and the Doctor is openly contemptuous of the Valeyard (whom he calls by any number of silly things, from "Boatyard" to "Knacker's Yard"), who returns the sentiment with haughty confidence. By the end of this first sub-story, the Valeyard proclaims that further damning evidence to come will even be enough to justify ending the Doctor's life.

Although this is not a story—either the individual Mysterious Planet or the overarching ToaTL—that has ever really grabbed me, I still have to admire some of the storytelling. Fans of writer Robert Holmes (famous for penning such fan-favorites as Pyramids of MarsThe Brain of Morbius, and The Talons of Weng-Chiang) will probably already be aware that this is the final complete story he wrote; he died while still in the middle of writing The Ultimate Foe, which is Parts 13-14 of ToaTL.

Holmes had a good grasp of how to bring his audience along on the kind of weird ride that Doctor Who so often provides its viewers. He had a particular skill at lampshading things (pointing out questions that might threaten the audience's willing suspension of disbelief and then moving on). Occasionally he'd take it a step further and try to add a plausible explanation.

For example, when we cut back to the courtroom for the first time after joining the Doctor and Peri on Ravalox, the Doctor takes a moment to ask where Peri is. The audience has probably just realized, "Hey, Peri was on Ravalox with the Doctor, so why isn't she in court?" so it's reassuring to know the Doctor hasn't simply ignored her.

At another point, the question of how the evidence we are seeing—taken from the Matrix, which is made up of Time Lord experience and memory—can include scenes in which the Doctor himself was not present. Surely some astute viewers will have already considered that very point, so it's refreshing to have it addressed directly within the story context.

In the end, as with all good ongoing stories, we are left with a suitable resolution to the current chapter but a few niggling questions to mull over. What were Glitz and Dibber after? How did Earth end up lightyears out of its proper place and going by the name Ravalox? And why did the High Council of the Time Lords see fit to redact certain bits of the evidence?

The answers get revealed eventually, but you'll have to tune in to more of ToaTL to find out how.

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