A Series of Unfortunate Events

Review of The Ultimate Foe (#143d)
DVD Release Date: 10 Oct 08
Original Air Date: 29 Nov - 06 Dec 1986
Doctor/Companion: Six, Melanie "Mel" Bush
Stars: Colin Baker, Bonnie Langford
Preceding Story: Terror of the Vervoids (Six, Mel)
Succeeding Story: Time and the Rani (Seven, Mel)

The final (one might even say "ultimate") story of the Sixth Doctor's tenure was riddled with unfortunate circumstances. Perhaps most blatantly, writer Robert Holmes—widely considered one of the best of the Classic era, and the one who penned Episodes 1-4 of The Trial of a Time Lord (TToaTL)—took ill and died before completing Episode 13, forcing Script Editor Eric Saward to finish it off.

Making matters worse, BBC executives still weren't seeing eye-to-eye with the Doctor Who team. The show had been put "on hiatus" between Season 22 and TToaTL (Season 23), and things were not really looking up despite the renewal. With producer John Nathan-Turner (JNT) also at odds with his script editor, it's amazing anything ended up on screen at all.

Saward had agreed to write Episode 14 as well as finishing its predecessor, but things with JNT deteriorated enough that Saward eventually walked out, leaving JNT to do Saward's script editing job while Pip and Jane Baker, who had written Episodes 9-12, stepped in to complete the season. No matter how many notes a writer leaves, no other writer can produce something that looks just like what the original creator had in their head. And to be blunt, Pip and Jane Baker are no Robert Holmes. The resulting episode is uninspiring at best.

When one adds in all this context regarding the production to the retrospective knowledge that Colin Baker would be forced out of the lead role before the next season, the overall effect while watching The Ultimate Foe is like of standing outside Pompeii with the TARDIS on Volcano Day. One feels pity for the poor souls trapped in this hopeless situation, knowing just how it ends and that you can do nothing to save them—and that doesn't make it any prettier to watch.

As the Trial moves into its final phase, there is no more evidence to be viewed from the Matrix. Instead, all the action focuses on the courtroom drama itself. Until, of course, something goes sideways. The Master has had a hand in all this business, and he reveals not only himself (by providing the Doctor with defense witnesses in the form of Sabalom Glitz and Mel), but the true identity of the Valeyard.

I won't spoil the surprise here, but I feel sure this detail was one of Holmes's, and it's a personal favorite twist. When the Valeyard escapes into the Matrix, the Doctor follows, and from this point onward, we get certifiable Weird Shit™—especially as we enter the final episode. Parts of it make for a fun brainteaser, but mostly it's unintelligible.

The only thing that makes it worth watching at all is the clash of three truly titanic egos. When you put the Doctor (particularly the Sixth), the Master, and the every-bit-as-self-satisfied Valeyard all in one place, working against one another, that part is magic.

Especially in the context of this most recent series, watching the Master bounce off the Doctor and hate on the Valeyard (Six: [The Master]'d see me dead tomorrow. Master: Gladly, Doctor. But I'm not prepared to countenance a rival.) is almost as delightful as watching the Valeyard sneer at the Master's ineffectual ploys ("You really are a second-rate adversary!").

Whenever I think back on TToaTL as a whole, it's the Valeyard who comes immediately to mind. The rest has melted into a meaningless jumble of impressions (Sabalom Glitz and some dialog being obscured; a bald Peri and a very loud Brian Blessed Yrcanos; ridiculous plant monsters and Mel screaming; and a dark, funhouse-like trek through the Matrix itself).

Even trying hard to take notes for the purposes of writing this review, I found the ending of the whole affair to be nigh impossible to follow. All I know for certain is, I quite enjoy the character of the Valeyard, and I'm bummed that Colin Baker never got any better scripts. It makes for a ignominious ending for a beleaguered Doctor, and Ol' Sixie really did deserve better.

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Comments

This story set the template for all season arcs that were to come ever after forevermore, where the penultimate episode is excellent (given what has come before), but the finale is absolutely dreadful.

At least they didn't have an aged Colin Baker in a bird-cage while the Time-Lords of Gallifrey wished him back to health, although that would actually make more sense...

By binky (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

HA! An excellent point. Though I think in this case it was due to death of a writer, whereas the other cases you mention were more, um... questionable writing choices made by the original writer.

By mrfranklin

Agreed, but when it comes to slicing up the Trial season into sections to review, more than anything else, I really wish that episodes 13 and 14 were split - they also have different writers. Attach 13 to 1-4 and 14 to 9-12 if necessary, but they are better of treated individually.

With the exception of comparing 5-8 to anything else, it being so bad - and such a negative script for any actor playing the lead in the series - that I'm still fairly certain it killed Colin Baker's chances to return, episodes 13 and 14 are the most different from each other in quality across the entire season. 1-4 felt like Robert Holmes treading water with some nice character dialog. 9-12 felt like a pair of hacks churning out an Agatha Christie by numbers script in space with totally unnatural dialog and 2D characters. 13 felt like it had some depth and was going somewhere and gave Colin Baker some real material to work with for once in his television portrayal, before Big Finish rescued his era. Episode 14 is just a total mess of ill-conceived nonsense and a "megabyte modem", which even then was not that unknown a concept that it might have made any sense.

And whatever happened to being found guilty of genocide anyway? Apparently, 2 episodes later without anything done to address it, nobody cared.

By binky (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

Yeah, the whole thing turned into a real mess. Some interesting concepts and a few good moments, but overall, it didn't work.

By mrfranklin

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