Shows - Review
Doctor Who (1963-1989)
Episode: The Mysterious Planet (Part 1)
Review by: Michael Hickerson
Michael Grade never knew what hit him when he had the audacity to cancel Dr. Who. After 18 months of world-wide outrage and probably more hate-mail than he'd ever received, Grade allowed Dr. Who to return to our screens, but at a price--a shorter season and the episodes would go back to 25-minute each segments. Grade gave the series 14-episodes to win back new fans and prove that Dr. Who was still a viable show and worthy of production.
To start off a new era of Who, producer John Nathan Turner turned to the cream of the crop of Doctor Who writers, Robert Holmes. Holmes, Nathan-Turner and script-editor Eric Saward came up with a radical idea to bring back the show and win the fans--a season long story arc, featuring the Doctor on trail for his very life against the Time Lords. It would, in a lot of ways, reflect the behind the scenes drama that was going on for the series, as Doctor Who literally fought for its life and its continued survival.
Thankfully enough, Robert Holmes delivered a good story to start the season. It's not up to his usual standards of excellence and it's certainly nowhere near the instant classic status of Caves of Androzani or even Two Doctors. But it's still a solid offering--even if you get the feeling that Holmes' untimely death left the story not as polished or as re-written as it could have or should have been.
I can remember my initial excitement as the day neared when my PBS station was going to run the entire Trial over two Thursday nights. I remember tuning in with excitement at what I was sure would be an epic, entertaining and exciting Doctor Who adventure. It's hard to remember now, having seen every available Who story, how exciting the sheer prospect of new Doctor Who could be.
And it starts off well. The new opening theme is catchy and fun (I know a lot of fandom hates it, but I love it). The opening zoom into the space-station is spectacular. I remember thinking -- boy, a lot of time and money was spent on this. If they're going into this much detail for the visuals, I can only hope they put as much craftsmanship and love into the story.
And then, the Mysterious Planet starts.
The Doctor is on trial for the crime of meddling. I guess Gallifrey doesn't have the concept of double jeopardy down, since the Doctor has stood trial for this before and been found guilty of it. But this time, he must defend himself or lose all his remaining lives. His chief nemesis is the Valeyard (superbly played by Michael Jayston, who is the real stand-out of the whole Trial) and the trial is watched over the Inquisitor. The prosecution goes first, presenting us with the affairs of the Doctor on the planet Ravalox.
The events on Ravalox are pretty much your standard Doctor Who storyline -- there's a tyrannical government that rules over the society, stifling growth and a wacky but loveable group of rebels who the Doctor will eventually side with to overthrow the government. In this case, the government is a megalomaniac robot named Drathro, who has kept his people enslaved and ignorant for hundreds of years. He gives them enough knowledge to serve him and keep his Black Light device that he uses to power himself running and not much else. In a lot of ways, the Drathro plot reminds me of Robert Holmes' The Krotons with Drathro living behind closed doors and misunderstood by his people, who think he eats his enemies.
But what really saves the entire affair from being a re-hash of The Krotons or even, to a lesser extend, The Sunmakers is a lot of really great Robert Holmes characters. We meet the scene-stealing Glitz and Dibber, the duo who serve Drathro (and come up with corollaries for everything) and we have such characters as Katrycka (who is like the female Brian Blessed) and Broken Tooth. Holmes gives each one a few minutes to shine and creates some great character moment for them -- the most memorable being Broken Tooth's worship of the lost texts and Katrycka's over the top hysterics at defeating the robot and, therefore, Drathro must be dead. Yes, Katrycka goes way over the top at times, but it's over the top in a funny way, though I will admit it's pretty cringe inducing at times.
Along the way, we have the not-so-subtle seeds sown that there is more going on here than meets the eye (the bleeping of Glitz's comments from the Matrix are a bit obvious). We are also left wondering -- just what happened to Peri? Why is she not with the Doctor? It's easy to see that Holmes had an idea of just where things would end up and that's why I say it's a shame he passed away and couldn't have written a follow-up and conclusion that is as strong as the seeds he's sown. (Again, the entire behind-the-scenes drama ruins the entire end of the Trial, but that is another review).
But the real strength of this one is Colin Baker, who has grown a bit and matured into the role of the Doctor. The scenes with the Doctor and Peri have a sense of wonder and magic... a calm friendship and respect that works a lot better than the sixth Doctor's constant yelling and carrying on from a season before. Colin seems far more suited to the role he plays here and it really does make me wish we'd seen more of this sixth Doctor than we saw in, say, TimeLash.
The trial sequences are handled well enough to be in the back of your mind, but not too obtrusive (one of my many complaints about MindWarp).
One thing that makes Mysterious Planet stand out so much in my mind is the use of video tape instead of film for location shooting. Visually, the entire story -- and really every story from here out -- looks so much better filmed on video. The scenes in the woods especially stand out. And it also seems as though the sets and designs are just as vibrant and alive as Colin's infamous jacket.
Overall, it's hard for me to separate how my feelings for Mysterious Planet from my overall disappointment at how less than spectacular the Trial as a whole turns out to be. Watching it this time around, I tried to make myself sit back and re-capture the wonder and excitement I felt when I first tuned in, not knowing how it would all play out. For the most part, I have to say it worked as I think my enjoyment of the story went up quite a few notches by not thinking about what was coming next.
Mysterious Planet is a good start. It's bitter-sweet since it is the last full Robert Holmes story we get in the Who canon. It's not great, but it's still fun and definitely worth another look.
Last Updated: 10/25/2006
Other Reviews by Michael Hickerson
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