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28 September 2012 @ 02:40 pm
The Randomizer: The Ultimate Foe  
Hell's Teeth that was terrible!

Mostly, when classic Who is bad, it is just kind of dull. The pace is slow; the story is repetitive; and the actors look bored. The Ultimate Foe is almost the direct opposite of that kind of bad. It is bad in a frenetic, brash, showy, shouty fashion.

It isn't helped by an exceedingly troubled production history, nor the fact that it is, really, only the close of a longer story. The Ultimate Foe forms the final two episodes of A Trial of a Time Lord, in which the Doctor is put on trial by the time lords. This acts as a framing device for three fairly standard four episode affairs and then the whole is rounded off by The Ultimate Foe, so the story essentially starts as we move into the trial's climax. Secondly, the first episode of The Ultimate Foe was co-written by Robert Holmes with Eric Saward (then script editor). Holmes sadly died before the episode was complete. Saward fell out with the show's producer and left in high dudgeon taking with him the second episode. Pip and Jane Baker (sort of the Chris Chibnall's of the 1980s) were drafted in to write a new second episode based on the first episode alone with no idea of what the original intended ending had been. With that background, The Ultimate Foe is almost a triumph... but still, very, very bad.

In the immediate aftermath of A Trial of a Time Lord, there was a tendency to proclaim episode 1 of The Ultimate Foe as Robert Holmes' final masterpiece, ruined by the ham-fisted incompetence of the Bakers. Watching the two episodes, a quarter of a century later, it is hard to think particularly highly of either. However, I am somewhat impressed that the Bakers managed to craft some kind of coherent conclusion to the massive car crash of seemingly random shiny that they had to work with.

Some of the things that go wrong. Despite television's fondness for courtroom drama, they are difficult things to pull off well relying, as they do, on a lot of talking and relatively little action. The Ultimate Foe starts with a lot of talking in which the Doctor pontificates a lot and does himself no favours with either the courtroom or the audience. The Master turns up, and it says much that Anthony Ainley's performance here appears restrained. Mel, the companion, is summoned and I take back every single word I ever said in defence of Bonnie Langford as an actress. Then, in an ill-advised move, events move to the virtual reality matrix. The problem with the matrix, and with virtual reality based plots in general, is that the absence of a clear rhyme or reason to events is rarely a surrealist masterpiece and often just an incoherent mess (guess which we have here). There is a great deal of grandiloquence. A lot of scenery is chewed. Long scenes of exposition are relieved only by scenes in which people run around in imaginary settings to little effect. It is over-lit (as, to be fair, is 90% of 1980s Doctor Who). The best thing about it is the fact it stops after two episodes when the Doctor is suddenly let off the (actually pretty serious and entirely justified) charges against him because he's saved the courtroom from some technobabble.

I tried to list some good points, but even these come out damning. Tony Selby, as "loveable rogue" Sabalom Glitz, works hard to undercut the general pomposity of everything but in the end, the character is too much of an afterthought and he fails. The idea of the Valeyard as an evil version of the Doctor "caught between his twelth and thirteenth regenerations" (whatever that means) isn't an automatically bad idea. But the story already has one arch-nemisis for the Doctor in it (the Master) and two simply makes it crowded. It doesn't help that his plan is convoluted, and doesn't really make sense even within the technobabble of the show itself. In terms of dress and behaviour the Valeyard is difficult to distinguish from the Master so, really, what is the point? The character has re-appeared once or twice in spin-off fiction but sufficiently rarely that it's clear that people find it difficult to work with the concept. Lynda Bellingham carries off her part as the Inquisator with enough grace, dignity and humanity to make her performance pretty much the highlight of the episode. But it isn't good when your star turn is coming from the Mum in the Oxo adverts.

At the end of the day, The Ultimate Foe, is a poorly thought out mess. Avoid!

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/77774.html.
wellinghallwellinghall on September 28th, 2012 01:50 pm (UTC)
You are clearly a very dedicated Doctor Who reviewer, to sit through such tripe.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on September 28th, 2012 01:55 pm (UTC)
There are only two episodes of it! Even himself sat through it mostly saying things like "it's a shame Glitz isn't a better actor, he might have worked". TBH he found The Smugglers more of an effort even though it is mostly inoffensive rather than actively bad like this was - but it was much harder work given the quality of the sound track and the still images that came with it.
wellinghallwellinghall on September 28th, 2012 01:57 pm (UTC)
Do you have Every Episode Evah on DVD?
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on September 28th, 2012 02:01 pm (UTC)
No we don't! We do have all of the 4th Doctor (which is a definite start) and most of the New Series. We've been relying on YouTube for the still images+soundtrack versions. So far I've only had to buy one new DVD (a box set of the first Matt Smith season) just so we could watch it for the Randomizer. I actually bought the Trial of a Time Lord box set a while back because I'd heard it had an excellent documentary on the season's trouble production history on it. Needless to say, I've never actually go around to watching the documentary!
wellinghallwellinghall on September 28th, 2012 02:06 pm (UTC)
We've been relying on YouTube for the still images+soundtrack versions.

Ah, that makes sense of the "still images + soundtrack" bit of your original post.

Needless to say, I've never actually go around to watching the documentary!

Of course!
parrot_knight: ArgueMainlyparrot_knight on September 28th, 2012 02:00 pm (UTC)
I love the irony of your describing the Bakers as the Chris Chibnalls of the 1980s.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on September 28th, 2012 02:08 pm (UTC)
They seem to have the same quality of delivering reliable scripts which are often pretty strong (I'd argue that the Bakers' scripts in A Trial of a Time Lord are the best of the bunch and The Mark of the Rani is also one of the stronger scripts in its season), but ultimately the story appears workmanlike rather than particularly inspired or crafted. Clearly popular with the production team (possibly because they can get the basics right at short notice and don't cause trouble) but mostly derided by the fans - though it looks like Chibnall may have created a new narrative for himself after last week.
parrot_knight: ArgueMainlyparrot_knight on September 28th, 2012 02:12 pm (UTC)
I was thinking more in terms of this encounter, on Open Air in 1986, where Pip and Jane meet Chris from Liverpool...

I think you are right, though - the Bakers knew what was produceable in BBC studio conditions, and Chibnall knows how to write to the brief now, always difficult with Doctor Who.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on September 28th, 2012 03:08 pm (UTC)
I have a feeling I knew that Chibnall was one of the viewers in the Open Air thing, but I'd completely forgotten the fact. Yes, very ironic, because I do think there are strong similarities between them.
philmophlegm: cyberleaderphilmophlegm on September 28th, 2012 02:08 pm (UTC)
One day I'm going to force myself to watch TToaTL again, something I haven't done in entirety since first broadcast. I think DocSoc showed Terror of the Vervoids once.

My memory from the original broadcast is that the Ultimae Foe episodes are the best. So I hope for the sake of your sanity that the randomiser gives you some classic stuff on the next few dice rolls.

And how could you manage to review this without once mentioning the true horror of this series - worse than Bonnie Langford even - Colin Baker's bigger-than-usual blond perm.

louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on September 28th, 2012 02:11 pm (UTC)
My memory is that Vervoids is best, with Mindwarp picking up points for being an interesting failure.

Colin Bakers frequently looks like some kind of toy rather than a real person. I've never managed to put my finger on quite why his appearance in Who makes me feel like that, but it does. Possibly its the general sense that even eccentrics rarely dress much like the 6th Doctor.
daniel_saunders: Eleventh Doctordaniel_saunders on September 28th, 2012 02:30 pm (UTC)
I went to my GP recently. There was a big telly in the waiting room (grr...) showing medical-related adverts, including one to give up smoking staring Colin Baker. I think he was wearing a white t-shirt, waistcoat and plastic crocs and brandishing a three-foot long fake cigarette. I think I've lost the point of this anecdote, but I'm going to post it anyway, because it amuses me no end.
parrot_knight: DavidIconparrot_knight on September 28th, 2012 02:22 pm (UTC)
In recent years DocSoc have taken to watching Trial as an endurance test, with some occasionally being driven to consume lots of alcohol to numb the pain.
daniel_saunders: Eleventh Doctordaniel_saunders on September 28th, 2012 02:33 pm (UTC)
Isn't there a Trial drinking game? Shots for zooms on Colin's face etc.
parrot_knight: ArgueMainlyparrot_knight on September 28th, 2012 02:34 pm (UTC)
I believe there is, yes!
philmophlegm: cyberleaderphilmophlegm on September 28th, 2012 02:12 pm (UTC)
Fans of C. Baker era Who should look out for the current Nurofen Express advert...
daniel_saunders: Eleventh Doctordaniel_saunders on September 28th, 2012 02:25 pm (UTC)
I was going to comment, but instead I shall adduce an epistopic interface from the spectrum (whoops, that's Trial part 1), to whit, my review of this from 2008 when I was watching/reviewing all of Who in order:

The final segment of The Trial of a Time Lord (parts thirteen to fourteen) contains some brilliant ideas. Unfortunately, none are put into practice well. It is a great twist that the Valeyard is a future incarnation of the Doctor, but the Doctor does not deduce this, he is simply told by the Master (of all people). The idea that the Matrix was raided by aliens and the Time Lords moved the Earth, with apocalyptic results is also intriguing, but again the Doctor does not find this out himself, he is told by Glitz and the Master. Likewise, the Doctor does not prove his claim that the Matrix has been tampered with, the Master does. Worse still, none of these ideas are explored adequately.

Indeed, it is not clear why the Master is in this story at all. Both the Master and the Valeyard are conceived as evil versions of the Doctor, but the Valeyard, as a genuine future Doctor, is more interesting. One villain is more than enough for fifty minutes of story (or fifty-five – not for the last time, Doctor Who has an extra-long season finale when it really needed brutal pruning) and Michael Jayston, who is very good with some poor material, ends up rather sidelined. I suppose I should count myself lucky that the Valeyard did not turn out to be the Master.

There are other little details that do not work either. Half the Doctor’s “absolute power” speech is delivered with his back to the camera, which is terrible direction. Peri marrying Yrcanos is unlikely and most of Mel’s dialogue is awful. Why does the Valeyard wear his robes under his Mr Popplewick disguise? And the Key of Rassilon has changed function yet again. What is the point of doing a continuity-heavy story to please the fans if you get the details wrong? The ending is also odd. What is being implied? That the Valeyard has killed the Keeper of the Matrix, or that he has stolen his future regenerations? If the latter, is he no longer a threat to the Doctor?

To be fair, one aspect of the story which does work is the scenes set in the Matrix, which are appropriately surreal and draw on Dickens (as is often stated) and Kafka (less often noted, but bureaucratic procedure, doubles and doors that lead to unlikely places are all Kafka hallmarks, although to make matters more confusing, Dickens was a big influence on Kafka).

Back to 2012 and all I have to add to my earlier self (part-way between my twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth incarnations) is that Trial is still better than most of the season before it and that if you want to see the sixth Doctor in a surreal story done well, go for the Voyager arc in the DWM comic strip ("Logic tells you that the world is round. But logic is a new toy.").
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on September 28th, 2012 03:17 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure I agree that the matrix sections work. They do look nice, but that means that some of the actors end up trying to compete with them. But again they make no real sense. I'll accept that a mind in control of the matrix is forced to impose some kind of order upon it (though this point is made in The Deadly Assassin and not in TToatL), and you could interpret the unmasking of Popplewick simply as the Doctor managing to focus his mental energy on revealing the controlling intelligence - except we already know the Valeyard is the controlling intelligence so... and then attempts at logic sort of break down. I've never really understood the point of the matrix bits, I think the Valeyard wants the Doctor to sign away his lives, and then kill the Doctor but he's not going about it terribly efficiently - The Deadly Assassin was much clearer and more focused about how the logic of the matrix parts is working and how they contribute to the Master's plans. And its all mixed up with this last minute plot to kill everyone in the courtroom. It seems as much of a mess as the rest of the story to be honest, to many ideas, not enough thought about how they all fit together.

Voyager is great though.
reggietatereggietate on September 28th, 2012 07:00 pm (UTC)
Has anyone ever dared to ask Eric Saward how he meant the thing to end originally? *g*
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on September 28th, 2012 07:08 pm (UTC)
I'm fairly sure I've seen the story outline published somewhere. Off the top of my head, all I can recall is the Doctor and the Valeyard locked together Holmes and Moriarty style...

... I really ought to watch that documentary on the DVD.
daniel_saunders: Eleventh Doctordaniel_saunders on September 29th, 2012 07:40 pm (UTC)
all I can recall is the Doctor and the Valeyard locked together Holmes and Moriarty style...

I believe so, and that was deemed too downbeat, especially as it was potentially the last ever episode. I think that's what prompted Saward to storm off (or at least was the final straw).
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on September 30th, 2012 08:59 am (UTC)
I finally watched the documentary in the Trial of a Time Lord DVD the other night. It makes a strong suggestion that Saward stormed off almost precisely because that was Holmes' ending, and he had been very close to Holmes' and felt very as if changing the ending was disrespectful to Holmes himself.