Shows - Review
Doctor Who (1963-1989)
Episode: The Ultimate Foe (Part 1)
Review by: Michael Hickerson
After 12 episodes of build-up, we come to what should be the epic conclusion to The Trial of A TimeLord with The Ultimate Foe. But instead of a sweeping story that actually concludes the epic storyline on a high note, we get a rather pedestrian and disappointing affair. The final two episodes of the Trial are disjointed and lack a sense of cohesiveness--which shouldn't really be surprising since they are written by two very different sets of writers.
One of the great "what ifs" of Doctor Who fandom is the wondering -- what if Robert Holmes had survived long enough to write the conclusion he envisioned for the Trial. Or better yet -- what if Eric Saward hadn't left the series in a huff and take not only his storyline for the conclusion of the Trial with him, but many of the notes and/or ideas that Holmes had created for the conclusion to the epic storyline. Instead, we get the Bakers, who do a decent enough job under the circumstances (the stories have it that they literally sat in a room with John Nathan-Turner and as they came up with ideas to finish were told they could or could not do certain things. Also, another telling story -- the Bakers had literally no idea where the Trial had been or where it was going -- to the point they asked Terrance Dicks, who was writing the novel of Mysterious Planet, for help, but he had no idea either). The bringing together of two separate writing styles is so jarring that it's almost easier to review the each episode individually. Episode 13, from the pen of Robert Holmes is full of dramatic revelations, eloquent speeches and a sense of continuity to the series past. It's interesting to see Holmes use the Master as part of the denouncement as to the real purpose of the Trial since he helped created the Doctor's nemesis so many years early with Terror of the Autons. As with Mysterious Planet, there's a sense of something greater at work here, just below the surface. Colin Baker's performance returns to the heights of greatness that we saw earlier in the season and Mel is kept to a minimum, which is a good thing. The scene with the revelation that the Valeyard is the Doctor's dark side is a superb and interesting revelation and one that makes the viewer sit up on the edge of their seat, wondering just how all this might turn out. Indeed, this could be the ultimate battle between good and evil as our hero wrestles literally with himself. (Indeed, the original storyline for episode 14 ended with the Doctor and the Valeyard locked in combat, being expelled from the TARDIS into the vortex).
Along the way, there are some brilliant Holmes creations -- we see the return of Sabalom Glitz, who is in fine form. We also meet Mr. Popplewick, who is a distillation of every bad beauracrat we've ever seen on Who. Holmes was no fan of the beauracracy, as seen time and again in his classic Who stories and that is shown here to the extreme -- the Mr. Popplewick who won't let anyone by even if they have an appointment is an especially clever and interesting use of the character.
Then we get to the cliffhanger, which like a lot of the cliffhangers from the season seems to come from out of left field. I understand that this is Doctor Who and we must have some type of cliffhanger to end each story. But even here, it seems a bit much.
And then, episode 14 begins and the entire tone shifts. No longer are there the sweeping sense of events that we got in part 13. The Valeyard is revealed that instead of merely seeking the Doctor's final lives, he instead wants to destroy all the TimeLords in the trial room. He has made a secret deal with the High Council, that once word of it leaks out sends TimeLord society into revolution (apparently a short lived one since by the end of the episode, you get the idea that the High Council is overthrown, but that elections for a new one will soon take place... huh? Why overthrow a ruling body only to just replace it with the exact same thing!) The Valeyard descends from an interesting threat to a cheap knock-off of the Master -- cackling with glee at the Doctor's attempts to defeat him, using disguises that the Doctor quickly sees through and appearing to die only to crop up yet again at the end. The change in tone from part 13 to 14 is quite dramatic and despite there being five minutes added to wrap things up, it never comes together in any meaningful way.
Indeed, because the Doctor saves Gallifrey yet again, he is exonerated of all charges. He is then allowed to continue his meddling ways. The dropping of all charges seems like it's hastily tacked on -- almost as if the Bakers suddenly remembered -- we've got to wrap up this whole trial thing and do it quickly.
The other unsatisfying ending is that we find out that instead of meeting her horrible death, Peri is somehow saved and living with King Yrcanos as his queen. As I've said before -- huh? Not only does this rob some of the dramatic power of the death of Peri and its impact on the Trial, but it makes no sense. Peri did not seem like she was attracted to Yrcanos in any way and the idea of her being a warrior queen is too unbelievable. (Philip Martin obviously knew this since he famously changed it in the novelization of the story to be Peri becoming Yracnos' wrestling manager...(yes, you read that right!)..an idea that makes even less sense!)
In the end, The Ultimate Foe ends up being a microcosm of the Trial itself -- a story that is full of good ideas but ends up being so disjointed that it loses focus. It wants to be the thrilling conclusion to an epic story, but instead it ends up being a disjointed affair that raises a lot more questions than it answers.
Last Updated: 10/25/2006
Other Reviews by Michael Hickerson
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