Probic Vent Ood For Thought

1Nov/160

Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of The Trial of a Timelord

With just a few days to go until the animated, restored and thoroughly rejuvenated Power of the Daleks is released, 50 years to the day since it was shown on BBC1 - probably after the football scores and accompanied by egg and chips and a pea-souper at the door. It's a wonderfully evocative thought - and offers a pleasingly circularity to the autistic instincts of Doctor Who fans.

There's something else that's interesting about time here. 2016 will be the sixth year when there's new Doctor Who on television, albeit only once and at the very end of the year this time around when Peter Capaldi will be joined by Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas in time for another sherry-soaked romp (ugh).

This year we have an anniversary treat (sort of) in the shape of Power of the Daleks, a story whose reputation has comfortably eclipsed Evil of the Daleks (fingers crossed that one will come along later if sales of Power... are promising).

There are good reasons for choosing Patrick Troughton's first story. As the introduction of the Second Doctor, forming a companion piece with the newly-restored The Tenth Planet, it has a cache beyond most lost stories, especially following the welcome recovery of The Web Of Fear. And on its own anniversary there's a ready-made story of its release.

However there's more. Every ten years after Power of the Daleks' original broadcast - give or take a few days, weeks or months - there has been new Doctor Who. And tracking the changes over those decades is a fascinating way of tracking Doctor Who's varying fortunes, contemporary television styles and trends, and the development of what is now undeniably a pillar of television history.

While Power doesn't suggest a radical change of the template from the previous three years, the paradigm shift to episode four of The Deadly Assassin is startling. 11 million people watched as Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor overcame Goth and the wizened new Master.

It's a violent, surreal and often horrifying story - shot in colour, frequently on location and film. For the first time the Doctor travels without a recognised companion and Tom Baker - at the absolute height of his powers - along with Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes is turning Doctor Who into must-watch television. It's an era rightly recognised as probably the best in the series' 50-year history.

Fast-forward 20 years later and there's another scouse Doctor at the TARDIS controls. Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor fights yet another version of The Master (and American TV executives) in millennial San Francisco, following a seven-year hiatus. Perhaps the most obvious influence on the TV Movie is The X-Files, but the prevailing idiom is apparent in Buffy The Vampire Slayer too.

In all honesty it's a wretched piece of television and a scarcely-recognisable bit of Doctor Who. The idea of a resulting series is fairly grisly in retrospect. Don't believe me? Try, if you can, to read the Leekley Bible without weeping.

Another ten years later and Doctor Who is back on TV screens feeling as confident as it had 30 years before. The Runaway Bride holds little interest for me but there's no doubt The Tenth Doctor's Christmas romp (ugh) has a very strong sense of what it is doing. A scene where the TARDIS barrels down a motorway to rescue a bride (played by perhaps the most popular comedian of the day) being kidnapped on her wedding day by evil robot Santas is practically the perfect evocation for Russell T Davies' Doctor Who.

Perhaps the most intriguing update in this ten-year cycle though is The Trial Of A Timelord. It's also the first of these stories I ever saw, coming at a time when I had abandoned Doctor Who for daring to kill off my Doctor (the Fifth) and present me with probably the worst run of stories in Doctor Who's history.

I still devoured Doctor Who in Target form but Colin's abrasive Sixth Doctor and a dysfunctional production office had ensured television Doctor Who lost me for several years, bar a chance (and chilling) encounter with the first episode cliffhanger of Terror Of The Vervoids.

A recent rewatch of the entire boxset has confirmed that The Trial of a Timelord remains intriguing in Doctor Who history, albeit flawed - in different ways but to similar degrees - to the preceding season. Colin Baker has clearly mellowed his performance from the previous year and it's noticeable that the first time we see Peri and The Doctor they're conversing like normal people. Both leads have lovely moments together and the folly of the fractious relationship in Season 22 is immediately clear. There's also the single-most impressive special effect in the series' history as we see the Gallifreyan space station capturing the TARDIS.

Sadly it doesn't last. Robert Holmes' last complete story is every bit as dull as his first. The Mysterious Planet is limp, ponderous, confusing. It's immediately clear that Doctor Who hasn't made a glorious return. Later in the series we get an enjoyable potboiler in the shape of Pip and Jane Barker's Agatha Christie pastiche and more strong work from Colin, at last the Doctor we know and love from Big Finish, where he delivers easily the best performances of all the Doctors. But it's clear that this story is not the programme's resurrection.

It's only in Mindwarp in Trial of a Timelord where Doctor Who suggests that there's a viable, exciting vision for the show. This is unsurprising as it comes from the only person who could be described as an auteur working on the show at this time. Philip Martin's track record of playing with narrative and convention may not completely translate here, but Mindwarp's unreliable narrator, state-of-the-art effects and tonal shifts between high camp and brutality are, at least, novel.

Colin Baker's prickly Sixth Doctor feels more at home here and the character comes into his own. And the radical tone feel vitals in the prevailing political and economic situation at the time - a convincing example of science-fiction as satire. Mindwarp is thrilling, funny, weird - and shockingly powerful. Needless to say, Martin never wrote for Doctor Who again.

And then there's The Ultimate Foe (the aborted Time, Inc). The loss of this story is small beer in relation to Robert Holmes' premature death, but it does deny us his final vision for the programme he will be forever remembered for. And what a vision it offers. If modern Doctor Who is all about revelation, story arcs and narrative twists, this is where it all starts.

The Trial of a Timelord roughly mirrors the modern show's quarter-year run and its season-long story arc. It also builds to a stunning revelation the series has probably never - and could never better. The Doctor's arch foe, who has spent the previous 12 episodes demanding his life, turns out to be... himself. That this news is delivered by The Master, who has also turned up just in time for the climax of this epic story, accentuates the sense that what we're seeing is something very special. Just image the social networks lighting up at twist upon twist that The Ultimate Foe throws at he audience.

It never really turns out like that, as the story devolves into a confusing runaround. Quite what Holmes' vision was we can never know. Eric Saward's patch-up job at least attempts the kind of pay-off - the Doctor and the Valeyard tumbling the Matrix in mortal combat - the set-up demands but it's understandable than John Nathan-Turner was skittish about leaving the story unresolved, lest Jonathan Powell see an opportunity to close the door on his own bete noir for good.

In The Trial of a Timelord there's an unwitting echo of the template that would become familiar in the 2005 series onward. And it sets off one of the most fascinating narratives in the show's massive 53-year universe.

The story of the Valeyard - created by the Timelords as an amalgamation of the Doctor's darker instincts - is never really resolved but the phenomenon creates space for successive writers in audio stories and original novels to explore. The Seventh Doctor is haunted by the Valeyard and the space created by the Sixth Doctor's unresolved television adventures have created a whole sub-universe to explore this facet of the Doctor's consciousness.

Colin Baker's personal misfortune nevertheless creates one of the most bizarre and compelling strands of the expanding Whoniverse. It's something of a microcosm for the Trial of a Timelord which, although largely unsuccessful, has remained interesting in a way that superior stories arguably have not.

This may or may not excite you but it clearly stayed with Steven Moffat, who essentially re-ran the storyline in the excellent Day of the Doctor 27 years later. I believe there's something interesting to be said about almost all Doctor Who. Even when it fails it often does so brilliantly. Doctor Who fails on its own terms.

We're about to get one of the most superior stories in the show's history returned to us on its 50th anniversary. But we're also 40 years on from one of the show's finest hours, with its most recognisable Doctor. The TV movie is an odd landmark, but a landmark all the same; The Runaway Bride is modern Doctor Who perhaps at the apex of its mainstream popularity. Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor has been an undoubted triumph, with Steve Moffat on a victory lap: Doctor Who on Christmas Day is as much of a tradition in the modern age as the Queen's speech.

The Trial of a Timelord doctor who valeyard

But let's not forget The Trial of a Timelord. Mark Gatiss once said that Reece Shearsmith had become obsessed with it. It's not hard to see why it holds a peculiar fascination. It's rare that such a mainstream programme is so odd, so ill-judged has been commissioned - the trial framework hobbles any attempts to make the show more dynamic, saps its pace and undermines its drama. Yet Trial of a Timelord flickers and sparkles with moments of brilliance and a conclusion that has attracted writers like moths to a flame ever since.

That the serial ends with a succession of real-life disasters has given it a meta quality. It's impossible to watch the last of the Sixth Doctor without associating it with Colin Baker's love/hate relationship with the show. Perhaps Colin is similarly ambivalent about his swansong.

In Robert Holmes' last episode we glimpse genius. The stunning nighttime location work; the Doctor at war with his future self; the return of The Master. And the knowledge, in retrospect, that the stakes were so high in fiction and in reality. It feels as if Doctor Who has stumbled across something it can do well, something important and daring. It doesn't last, in fact it's the calm before the storm, but alongside The Power of the Daleks it's right to look back on episode 13 of The Trial of a Timelord. We can reflect on what might have been, but we can cherish 20 stunning minutes of Doctor Who amid 14 weeks unlike any other.

2Nov/140

Ten Scariest Moments in Doctor Who

It being the season for such things I thought I'd round up some lesser-spotted scariest moments in Doctor Who. We'll take it as read that the Weeping Angels and Daleks are frightening and while most of the stories of the Hinchcliffe and Holmes eras are shrouded in horror tropes, I've chosen some moment and themes that have personally shaken me up over the years.

scariest moments in Doctor Who

The list is potentially massive; Doctor Who is acknowledged as a scary programme, perhaps before it's acknowledged as a science-fiction, a fantasy, a kids' or a family show: Think of the the iconic moments in the series' history - most are set up to be explicitly scary.

The expressionless dummies of Spearhead From Space and Terror of the Autons; the wonderful direction of Image of the Fendahl as the victims look in dread towards the camera as we share the view of the approaching Fendahleen; the dissonance of seeing Yeti shambling through London streets and Tube; the doom-laden ambiance of Graeme Harper's two contributions to the original series and Roger Limb's evocative scores; the body horror of The Ark In Space, Seeds of Doom and Frontios; the set - an actual set - in Planet of Evil; classic monster reveals such as The Sea Devils, Full Circle and Curse of Fenric; the Chief Clown in Greatest Show and androids from Earthshock. But I wanted to get away from the usual lists of Weeping Angels, Silents, Daleks and Cybermen. I've rooted out some that go under the radar or moments you may not have considered (or seen) before.

It's my belief that Doctor Who is at its best when it's frightening: it's what people remember and it's how people make those formative associations that translate into a lifetime of fond memories and nostalgia – the things that keep us watching.

That being the case, what better way to celebrate Doctor Who and the spookiest time of the year than with ten lip-tremblingly frightening moments? These are, in my opinion, the scariest moments in Doctor Who.

Scariest Moments in Doctor Who

Midnight - Repeating

"We must not look at goblin men..."

I'm not sure Russell T Davies is especially interested in scariness in Doctor Who. For example, every single moment that could be played dramatically in Rose is played for laughs – or just sort-of happens. The scene in restaurant with Auton Mickey and Rose, for example, flirts with being eerie but ends with the Doctor actively laughing at the threat and a lot of comedic sitcom actors screaming.

Davies' preference is much more for psychological horror but even this tends towards humour or just being glossed over. Ursula's rejuvenation as a paving slab, a fate surely worse than death, is mined for a blowjob joke in Love And Monsters. However in Midnight, Davies takes off the reins and constructs an unashamedly horrifying episode.

This reaches its apotheosis in the initial reveal of Sky Silvestri copying everyone's language. This is a fundamentally uncanny notion and the unspoken implications are even worse – all of the his fellow travellers sense it, but it's really only the Doctor himself who recognises exactly what the creature is doing. Somehow, through their language and mannerisms, it's assimilating their voice, their behaviour, their essence: their very being.

When the Doctor finally succumbs it's the sort of moment that make your hairs stand on end.

Inferno – The Primords

"The sound of the planet screaming out its rage!"

When the Primords go 'the full Levene' - all Frying Tonight werewolf hair and plastic teeth – they're ridiculous. But the feral, furious, ragged creatures roaming around the Stahlman complex, smashing people's heads in and emanating a terrible heat are terrifying.

Inferno plays on our fears of chemicals, science-gone-wrong. The idea of the green sludge being dredged up from the depths of the Earth, regressing anyone it touches to a brutish fury, is disturbing on a primal level. The idea that it screeches is similarly... weird.

But fundamentally it's the visuals and startling music concrete that do it. The picture on the front of the Target novelisation always stayed with me – that unthinking, inexorable fury of creatures like us, but unalike. Lurking around the corner. Shambling towards us with that grating, screeching breath... if they touch you, you become one of them, assuming they don't kill you first.

Inferno is Doctor Who doing zombies that run 30 years before anyone else thought to do it. In a parallel world gone wrong, full of fascistic avatars of familiar, comforting people it's utterly nightmarish.

The Deadly Assassin – The Matrix

"You were a fool, Doctor, to enter into my domain"

The Deadly Assassin isn't quite the sum of its parts, to me. But it does have one episode that's unlike anything that went before or has come since. The adrenaline-fuelled journey of The Doctor's duel with Goth in the Matrix looks stunning and sees Robert Holmes indulging every action-horror trope he can throw at us.

Amongst some wonky moments, the Matrix has moments of undiluted horror: the screech of some monstrous, unseen creature as the Doctor stands in an outsized egg; a clown's face appearing in a mirror the Doctor stares into; a dentist bearing down with an insistent drill and enormous syringe; a WWI soldier and horse clad in gasmasks stumbling across a battlefield. The new series could never - would never - do it and when we got a similar set-up for a universe of terrors in The God Complex it didn't even attempt to be scary.

The experience of episodes two and three of The Deadly Assassin is almost as disorientating and unpleasant for us as it is the Doctor. That it ends with a moment that made Mary Whitehouse have one of her recurring convulsions – and a ticking off for the production team – just feels like an inevitability given the horrors we've already experienced.

Survival - The Master

"I will be free of it..."

The reveal of Anthony Ainley's Master was, perhaps, Doctor Who's last ever unspoiled spoiler. For me, at least. It's simply impossible to avoid them these days if you dwell online, and the nature of the show's adoption of revelation as a routine shock tactic leads one to constantly second guess it.

But Ainley's reveal at the end of the the first electric episode of Survival is a huge treat. With the show enjoying a new lease of life it felt as it it had convincingly moved on from the first JN-T era that spans 1980-1987. And in the modern-day suburban mise-en-scene it just doesn't feel as if the Master could work.

But work he does, in a way that The Master is rarely intended to: openly insane and devolving into a creature that kills by instinct the Master, all yellow eyes and animal instincts, in a shabby flat in North-West London is the most giddily disturbing juxtaposition in all Doctor Who. It's so much more visceral than the traditional 'Yeti in Toothing Bec' scenario because it's Doctor Who moving out of a fictional space into something alarmingly everyday.

It's the same dissonance that makes stuff like Web Of Fear so good, but reprogrammed and given a kick up the arse. It's precisely this stuff that RTD borrows to great effect when the programme returns but I don't think it's ever done so well as Anthony Ainley staring into the mirror in Midge's flat or glaring through the window of a second-hand bike dealership; wrestling with contamination, subversion, regression. In Perivale.

Such is Survival's power that somehow Doctor Who has broken into the real world and this pantomime villain is now a real monster. Now fearful, atavistic and vicious - and now here to kill you.

The Leisure Hive - The Tachyon Generator

"He's terribly hurt."

The Leisure Hive is cherishably odd, with a distinctly Bidmeadish flavour. It's a form of Doctor Who very much out of fashion and much-derided at the moment, but I find a lot to enjoy in the funereal Season 18. It has a doom-laden atmosphere that's particularly evident in Warrior's Gate and the TARDIS scenes of Logopolis but there are also moments of extreme horror, such as the electrocution of Lazlo and Sagan in Warrior's Gate or the death of the Marsh Child and spider attacks in Full Circle.

The best of the lot is the first cliffhanger in The Leisure Hive. Investigating a series of deaths, the Doctor enters the Tachyon Generator, a machine that is designed for the manipulation and rejuvenation of physical bodies. We've already seen the machine malfunction, tearing a luckless visitor apart limb from limb - in a grisly scene we even see a small pile of arms and legs - and, sure enough, we're building to a cliffhanger, skilfully directed by Lovett Bickford.

Romana watches in horror as the Doctor appears on a screen, only for his arms, legs and head to be pulled apart in different directions. The Doctor screams, actually screams in pain and the camera zooms into his face and mouth as the howl of the theme kicks in. Watching it 30 years later is still a WTF moment and while the effect of mixing a scream into the closing theme is later repeated in Terror of the Vervoids, it simply doesn't have the visceral power of this utterly astonishing moment.

Robots of Death - Borg's blood

"What do you want?"
"To kill you."

The remorseless, impassive visages of the Vocs in Robots of Death mine the uncanny valley - explicitly referenced as Robophobia or Grimwade's Syndrome here - that places them somewhere between living and dead people. There are two disturbing moments where a horrible realisation hits the crew of the sandminer: firstly when Chub realises that the robots he has walked among all his life are about to kill him; second when Poul discovers... well, we'll come to that in a second.

Despite the death toll, Robots of Death is all rather bloodless. That is until - as Poul discovers a deactivated robot's hand covered in what can only be Borg's brains - it stops being bloodless, quite literally.

The revelation precipitates a devastating nervous breakdown for Poul. To the viewer Dudley Simpson's accompanying synthesizer sting seems to represent the unravelling of Poul's sanity, but as an aesthetic accompaniment to the hideous sight on screen it works equally well.

That Borg's death takes place off-screen and clearly following a mighty battle makes the reveal all the more horrible - what did the robot have to do to him to finish him off? As ever, suggestion is far more hideous than anything that could have been shown on screen.

Horror of Fang Rock - The Doctor

"Leela, I've made a terrible mistake."

Terrance Dicks' exercise in horror writing has plenty of frights – the Rutan's possession of the gruff-but-avuncular Reuben allowing for some moments of genuine uncanny as he smiles horribly at his victims – and is expertly handled by Paddy Russell and most of the ensemble cast. Yet it's perhaps Tom Baker who really makes it.

In a famously bad mood during the filming of the story, Tom's sulk informs the Doctor's behaviour, where he's rude, offhand and - crucially - frightened.

It's the Doctor's fear that is most frightening in Horror of Fang Rock, as if the lonely island somehow works its magic on him. The Doctor has faced deadly threats before with a smile, a joke, a jelly baby.

Yet in Fang Rock's lighthouse he seems almost paralysed by fear, once when brooding on the nature of the threat that faces them while the others bicker - and again when he makes the terrible realisation that, far from saving everyone, he may have signed everyone's death warrant.

It all rather falls apart in the last episode, but for the majority of the story we genuinely feel the Doctor's disquiet - and it's infectious.

Fury From The Deep - Oak and Quill

"Is there something that you want?"

I have a soft spot for Fury From the Deep and devoured the novelisation again and again when young. The unknowable quality of the seaweed creature, despite its intelligence and apparent glee in the form of the possessed Mr Oak and Mr Quill, makes it rather intriguing. That very little is ever explained in the story makes it a fascinating mood piece that, in places, functions on an almost avant-garde level.

This scene in particular is instructive, being almost without any dialogue and employing a number of camera tricks to build to something disorientating and frightening. The unnerving smiles, the expressions on their faces and the fact that Mr Oak appears to be wearing lip liner all create a weird atmosphere. Set it against an eerie soundtrack and the heartbeat that denotes the seaweed beast's presence and it's reminiscent of The Haunting, no less.

Somehow the fact that we never really understand what the creature constitutes - or what it wants - makes it all the more disturbing.

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Terror of the Zygons - Harry tries to kill Sarah

"Harry?"

There's a terrible sense of doom shrouding Tulloch in Terror of the Zygons: a sadness, eerieness – a feeling that the place is haunted. Geoffrey Burgon's atmospheric incidental music has a lot to do with, as does Douglas Camfield's direction (it's no surprise that they come together again with similar success in The Seeds of Doom).

The loneliness of the moor, the forbidding Foregill Castle, the silent woods the Doctor, Harry and Sarah materialise in: everything is aligned towards a mournful ambiance. Angus MacRanald is even playing a lament for the dead on his pipes. In a way, Terror of the Zyons seems like a dry run for The Nightmare Man a few years later. Oddly enough it's more successful in nearly every regard too.

Perhaps the most unsettling moment in the serial takes place in a haybarn, when a Zygon duplicate of Harry tries to kill Sarah with a pitchfork. Ian Marter looks believably murderous as he jabs the weapon at Sarah's face and Camfield's point-of-view shot and low lighting accentuates the terror. Doctor Who makes surprisingly little use of the 'evil duplicate' conceit – unlike the Star Trek franchise – but it's pulled off with style here to create something genuinely nasty.

Other notable moments in the story include the terrific cliffhanger to the first episode when a Zygon attacks Sarah at the hospital, the duplicate Sister Lamont's eerie stillness and the eyes on The Fox Inn's mounted stag head swivelling horribly to observe the landlord - and his terrified reaction. Even Tom seems more alien, less familiar than usual.

There's something distinctly chilly about Terror of the Zygons; cruel even. And in those memorable moments it represents the apotheosis of what Hinchcliffe and Holmes were about.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang - Mr Sin

"It revels in carnage."

You get the feeling that Philip Hinchcliffe went all-out with Talons in a way he might not have, were he not leaving the show. There's much to admire – and fear – in his swansong. The Talons of Weng-Chiang dares to mine some of the depths of depravity that Litefoot alludes to in the Limehouse: sexual undertones, drugs, mutilation and even nudity – Louise Jamieson spends a whole scene in what amounts to a wet t-shirt at one point, with predictable results.

The most horrible thing in Talons is, however, Mr Sin. When Joseph Buller rounds a corner in a foggy, damp East end of London to see the homunculus shuffle towards him (and us), a cruel-looking knife in its hand, it's surely the most nakedly alarming moment in Doctor Who.

To later learn that the creature has the cerebral cortex of a pig and that it went haywire when its 'swinish instinct' overcame its programming is to lend another somehow unsavoury aspect to Mr Sin. When we see it laughing as it guns down its own men it's similarly disturbing.

The Peking Homunculus feels like a parting shot from the Holmes-Hinchcliffe axis. Throw it into any era of Doctor Who and, as a concept and in its realisation, it's profoundly nightmarish.

mr sin talons of weng chiang

Kinda - Teagan's Dream

"You will agree to believe in me sooner or later. This side of madness or the other."

The Fifth Doctor's era tends to shy away from explicit horror, favouring action and hard sci-fi tropes. But two of the era's best stories are mined for a kind of psychological horror not really seen elsewhere in Doctor Who.

Teagan's possession by the Mara is profoundly sexual, amounting to a kind of liberation and freedom of expression that doesn't seem to be in her repertoire otherwise. In a way she's liberated by her possession. That she drops apples on Aris as she tempts him, develops blood-red lips and has a snake tattoo on her arm is the sort of thing that probably has certain Doctor Who bloggers flexing their fingers in preparation for a 10,000-word treatise. It's hardly subtle.

But it is as powerful as it is obvious. Janet Fielding is wonderful as the possessed Teagan and seeing a companion behave as she does is uncanny in itself. But her dreamlike encounters with the various manifestations of the Mara are horrifying; her mental anguish hard to watch. Companions have been threatened before, even killed. But we've never really seen them psychologically tortured.

Kinda, along with Snakedance, mines a strand of horror that's at the outer reaches of what Doctor Who could realistically get away with. A psycho-sexual nightmare that is resolutely not for children - and hard to shake off. It's the most profoundly unsettling thing in all of Doctor Who.



• Disagree? Of course you do. Share your scariest moments in Doctor Who below...

   

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