Doctor Who’s fall from grace in the mid 1980’s was dramatic and sudden. In 1983 the series celebrated its 20th Anniversary and still seemed to be regarded as one of the nation’s favourties. But by 1985 the series was tagged as old fashioned, violent and dropping in popularity.
Doctor Who needed friends in high places, but it was sadly out of luck. Previously, executives and programme controllers had both enjoyed the series as well as recognising its importance in the BBC1 schedules. But by the mid 1980’s a new breed was in place – Michael Grade and Jonathan Powell disliked the show and their dislike became public knowledge.
Therefore, in 1986 it was clear that the series was in trouble. Initial omens for S23 weren’t good. The episode count was slashed to fourteen 25 minute episodes, film was replaced by VT for exterior shots and there was a general feeling that the budget was much tighter than before. If the reduced episode count had ensured that more money was spent on each story then that would have been understandable, but apart from the odd impressive FX shot the series looked as cheap as it had for a long time. Foreign filming (a regular occurrence during the previous three seasons) now seemed to be a thing of the past.
With only fourteen episodes, the programme needed to make an instant impact, but it’s fair to say that the most calamitous decision was to have an overall umbrella theme of the Doctor on trial. Given that the series was fighting for its life with the BBC executives, it clearly struck JNT and Eric Saward as a witty idea to have the Doctor do the same.
As it stands, the Trial sequences slow each story down, as periodically the action is paused for the Doctor, the Valeyard (Michael Jayston) and the Inquisitor (the late Lynda Bellingham) to debate what we’ve all been watching. The Trial only really comes into its own in the last two episodes, but at the start of the series that’s three months away. How many people would stick with it throughout all fourteen episodes and remember the plot threads from this first story which are only answered three months later? The ratings tell their story on that one.
The Trial starts with The Mysterious Planet which was Robert Holmes’ final complete script for the series. Holmes died whilst writing the first of the two episodes designed to wrap the season up and it’s long been regarded that his illness played a factor in the slightly underwhelming nature of this story.
The Mysterious Planet feels like a first draft and although there are familiar Holmesian traits (such as the roguish Sabalom Glitz) there’s a certain lack of sparkle. It’s a perfectly serviceable story (although it draws heavily on Holmes’ own back-catalogue) but after being off-air for 18 months, Doctor Who needed to come back with a bang and this was a little disappointing, It’s certainly no Caves of Androzani, that’s for sure.
Whilst looking for inspiration, Holmes seems to have drawn upon his debut Doctor Who script, The Krotons. Drathro, like the Krotons, remains unseen by the population and regularly takes the two most intelligent work-units to live with him. Although Drathro actually puts their genius to some use, unlike the Krotons.
While the story is a little underpowered, there’s still plenty of good moments. The relationship between the Doctor and Peri has noticeably softened since S22 and therefore it’s a shame that Nicola Bryant’s days were numbered, particularly since this is the last story where she has decent interaction with the Doctor. And as with The Two Doctors Colin Baker benefits from having Robert Holmes write his dialogue.
DOCTOR: I know how you feel.
PERI: Do you?
DOCTOR: Of course I do. You’ve been traveling with me long enough to know that none of this really matters. Not to you. Your world is safe.
PERI: This is still my world, whatever the period, and I care about it. And all you do is talk about it as though we’re in a planetarium.
DOCTOR: I’m sorry. But look at it this way. Planets come and go, stars perish. Matter disperses, coalesces, reforms into other patterns, other worlds. Nothing can be eternal.
Tony Selby seems to be enjoying himself as Sabalom Glitz. Glitz is derived from other Holmes creations, such as Garron, but there’s a slightly harder edge to Glitz (at least in this story).
GLITZ: You know, Dibber, I’m the product of a broken home.
DIBBER: You have mentioned it on occasions, Mister Glitz.
GLITZ: Which sort of unbalanced me. Made me selfish to the point where I cannot stand competition.
DIBBER: Know the feeling only too well, Mister Glitz.
GLITZ: Where as yours is a simple case of sociopathy, Dibber, my malaise is much more complex. A deep-rooted maladjustment, my psychiatrist said. Brought on by an infantile inability to come to terms with the more pertinent, concrete aspects of life.
DIBBER: That sounds more like an insult than a diagnosis, Mister Glitz.
GLITZ: You’re right there, my lad. Mind you, I had just attempted to kill him. Oh, I do hate prison psychiatrists, don’t you? I mean, they do nothing for you. I must have seen dozens of them, and I still hate competition.
The core of the story (a group of primitives who treat various technological devices as items for worship) is a very familiar one and Joan Sims is, at best, merely acceptable as Katryca. We’ve seen far too many similar civilizations in previous Doctor Who stories for the Tribe of the Free to make any particular impression, sadly.
But although The Mysterious Planet is uninspired, it’s not particularly bad. On it’s own merits it’s perfectly watchable and would have slotted in very comfortably mid-season to many a series of Doctor Who. As a season-opener for what looked like a make-or-break year, it falls somewhat short though.