The Trial of a Time Lord

The Trial of a Time Lord
Doctor Who:
The Trial of a Time Lord
Trial of a Time Lord DVD cvr.jpg
Cover of the 2008 Region 2 DVD release.
Country of origin United Kingdom
No. of episodes 14
Original channel BBC One
Original run 6 September 1986 (1986-09-06) – 6 December 1986 (1986-12-06)
Home video release
DVD release
Region 1 7 October 2008
Region 2 29 September 2008
Region 4 2 January 2009
Series chronology
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The Trial of a Time Lord is a fourteen-part British science fiction serial of the long running BBC series Doctor Who. The serial, produced as the twenty-third season of the Doctor Who television series, aired in weekly episodes from 6 September to 6 December 1986. The only Doctor Who presentation of its kind, it contains four mini-adventures, The Mysterious Planet, Mindwarp, Terror of the Vervoids and The Ultimate Foe.

The idea for the serial stemmed from several production changes to Doctor Who, such as reduced screen time for the season and a request from BBC controller Michael Grade that the series contain less violence and more humour.[1] Several problems occurred during production, including the death of scriptwriter Robert Holmes, and the resignation of script editor Eric Saward.



In the serial, the Sixth Doctor is tried by the High Council of Time Lords for breaking several of the laws of Gallifrey, the Time Lords' home world, including interference with outside worlds and genocide. A mysterious character called the Valeyard acts as prosecutor. In the first two chapters (The Mysterious Planet and Mindwarp) events from the Doctor's past and present are submitted as evidence of his guilt. The third chapter (Terror of the Vervoids) presents future events in the Doctor's defence. In the concluding chapter (The Ultimate Foe) the Doctor's trial is halted, and the Doctor confronts the Valeyard and his old rival, the Master, in order to clear his name and to save the High Council.


The series remained at once-weekly Saturday broadcasts. All episodes were 25 minutes long. Although there were now 14 episodes in the season, the total running time was significantly reduced since the episodes were just over half as long.

Story No. Serial Title Directed by Written by UK viewers
Original air date Production
143 1–4 The Mysterious Planet Nicholas Mallett Robert Holmes 4.35[2] 6–27 September 1986 7A

The first episode begins with a motion-control special effect sequence depicting the Doctor's TARDIS being plucked out of time and space. The Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) is charged with breaking the First Law of Time—a law forbidding interference in alien worlds—by the High Council of Gallifrey. In his prosecution, the Valeyard (Michael Jayston) presents the transgressions in the style of flashbacks on a video screen, depicting the Doctor’s past adventures with companion Peri Brown (Nicola Bryant). As the trial progresses, the Doctor becomes suspicious about evidence being censored and his TARDIS being bugged.

In the first flashback presented by the Valeyard, the Doctor and Peri arrive on the tribal planet Ravolox, about two million years in the future. The Doctor notes a similarity between Ravolox and Earth, with objects from Earth − notably Marble Arch tube station and the novel Moby Dick − present on Ravolox. The only apparent astronomical difference between the two is Ravolox's position in the galaxy

Meanwhile, rogue Sabalom Glitz (Tony Selby) attempts to obtain hidden secrets and advanced technology that are guarded by a robot. The Doctor is forced to deactivate the robot’s unstable power supply to avoid a chain reaction that threatens the universe, but in the process the secrets are destroyed. As he leaves Ravolox, the Doctor wonders why Earth appears to have been moved several million light years from its original position. 
143 5–8 Mindwarp Ron Jones Philip Martin 5.08[3] 4–25 October 1986 7B

The Valeyard presents his second piece of evidence: The Doctor and Peri's activities on Thoros Beta immediately before the trial. The flashback shows the Doctor investigating arms sales, where he sees his old adversary Sil (Nabil Shaban). Sil's race, the Mentors, are revealed to have been supplying Yrcanos (Brian Blessed), the local king of a primitive culture, with advanced weaponry.

Meanwhile, a scientist, Crozier (Patrick Ryecart), is preparing for surgery on Kiv (Christopher Ryan), an influential Mentor whose brain is expanding. The Doctor is portrayed as self-serving and unconcerned with Peri’s welfare during the flashback, as he appears to help Crozier and the Mentors by betraying Peri and Yrcanos. This uncharacteristic behavior convinces the Doctor that the evidence has been altered.

When the Doctor learns that Peri has been chosen as the new host for Kiv’s brain, he allies with Yrcanos to kill the Mentors. However, before he can attack he is captured by the High Council, resulting in Peri's death. 
143 9–12 Terror of the Vervoids Chris Clough Pip and Jane Baker 4.88[4] 1–22 November 1986 7C

The Doctor is allowed to present evidence in his defence. He chooses events from the future, in hopes that it will prove he has reformed. During the presentation, some details appear altered from what the Doctor reviewed, furthering his suspicions that evidence is being tampered with. In the year 2986, the Doctor and his new companion Mel (Bonnie Langford) answer a distress call from the interstellar ship Hyperion III. The ship is sabotaged and people are dying at the hands of the Vervoids, plant-like humanoids whom the Doctor learns were genetically engineered to be slaves.

Although the Doctor and Mel are able to stop the Vervoids, he admits that none of the species survived the voyage. The Valeyard then charges the Doctor with genocide. 
143 13–14 The Ultimate Foe Chris Clough Robert Holmes (Part 13)
Pip and Jane Baker (Part 14)
5.0[5] 29 November–6 December 1986 7C

The Doctor claims that the Matrix has been altered, and the Keeper of the Matrix (James Bree) is called. Seconds later, the Master (Anthony Ainley) appears on the Matrix’s screen, proving that it can be infiltrated. Sabalom Glitz and Mel are called as witnesses to the Doctor's defence, and they inform the Doctor of the Council's actions.

The secrets Glitz sought had been stolen from the Time Lords, and Earth was ravaged and moved to preserve them. The Doctor was used as a scapegoat to hide the incident, and the Valeyard—an amalgam of the Doctor's evil personalities—was offered the Doctor's remaining regenerations. To ensure a guilty verdict from a neutral jury, the Valeyard falsified evidence.

The Valeyard escapes to the Matrix, followed by the Doctor and Glitz. The Doctor's attempts to prevent the Valeyard from killing the High Council are stopped by the Master, who wants to dispose of the Doctor and seize power. The Doctor thwarts the Valeyard by causing the destruction of the Matrix archive.

The Inquisitor (Lynda Bellingham) then clears the Doctor of all charges and offers him the Time Lord presidency, which he declines, suggesting that she run instead. After he leaves, she asks the Keeper of the Matrix to make repairs; the Keeper then turns to the camera, revealing his face to be that of the Valeyard. 


The serial was proposed in 1985, after executive producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward learned that the twenty-third season would be postponed from January 1986 to September 1986. In addition to the delay, the run-times of the episodes ordered were reduced from forty-five minutes to twenty-five.[1] Nathan-Turner and Saward realised that the new season would need a more creative format and scrapped planned serials, focusing instead on a trial story with an A Christmas Carol-inspired "past, present, and future" storyline, thereby stretching the length of the season. By July 1985, the characters of the Valeyard, the Inquisitor, and Mel were conceived.[1]

Robert Holmes was commissioned to write the first and final chapters of the serial. His draft of the first chapter, The Mysterious Planet, was criticised by BBC Head of Drama Jonathan Powell for its comedic content, contradicting the BBC controller’s request for a more humorous series.

The second chapter, Mindwarp, was written by Philip Martin. Martin's character Sil, introduced in Vengeance on Varos, was popular among the production team, who asked Martin to feature the character in another serial. Nathan-Turner asked Martin to include Sil in his chapter, and asked for Peri to be killed in accordance with Nicola Bryant’s wishes to leave the show.[6]

The third chapter was to be interlinked with the fourth. Holmes was originally asked to write it, but declined, citing a dislike of six-part serials. After rejecting submissions by Christopher H. Bidmead and PJ Hammond, Nathan-Turner approached husband-and-wife writing team Pip and Jane Baker to write a studio-based serial, Terror of the Vervoids.[7][8]

Holmes was unable to finish writing the fourth chapter, originally called Time Inc., before his death from liver failure on 24 May 1986.[7][9] Pip and Jane Baker were commissioned by Nathan-Turner at short notice to write a new version of the episode, after series script editor Eric Saward withdrew his permission for his original version of part fourteen to be used: the original ending would have featured a fight to the death in a time vent with both the Doctor and the Valeyard, which executive producer John Nathan-Turner did not want to use as such a downbeat ending would have provided an excuse for BBC management to cancel the show. Subsequently the title was later changed to The Ultimate Foe.[7][9]

Filming of the serial began on 7 April 1986 and ended on 14 August 1986.[1][6] For the opening sequence, Nathan-Turner commissioned a 45-second model shot that cost over GB£8,000, which at that time was the highest amount of money spent on a single special effects sequence in the history of the series. The outdoor sequences in The Mysterious Planet were filmed in mid-April in Queen Elizabeth Country Park, and studio work followed on 24 April and 10 May.[1] Studio work for Mindwarp took place from 27–29 May and 11–13 June, and location shots were filmed in Brighton from 15–16 June.[6] Terror of the Vervoids and The Ultimate Foe were produced simultaneously; production began with location filming for the latter in late June,[9] before returning to the studio to film scenes for both chapters on 16–17 July.[8][9] Terror of the Vervoids was the last chapter to be completed, with studio work taking place from 30 July–1 August and from 12–14 August.[8]

Reception and analysis

Public reaction to the season was mixed. Although the Audience Appreciation figures had improved since the previous season—the lowest figure was 66% for parts seven and nine[6][8] and the highest was 72% for parts one, four, and eight[1][6]— the viewing figures were lower.[9]


The serial received mixed reviews from Doctor Who critics. Paul Cornell, Martin Day, and Keith Topping, co-authors of The Discontinuity Guide, wrote that as a whole, the serial's plot "hangs together remarkably well".[10] David J. Howe and Stephen James Walker, authors of Doctor Who: The Television Companion, disagreed, arguing that the serial was a "monumental wasted opportunity".[11] They disapproved of the trial storyline, being unconvinced that a prosecutor "in any reasonable legal system" would be allowed to modify charges and court proceedings mid-trial.[12] They did find the meta-humour of "the Doctor effectively sitting down to watch Doctor Who for fourteen weeks" amusing if repetitive however, and praised Baker’s acting.[13] Both reviews found that the trial scenes detracted from the chapter story arcs.[14][15]

Reviews of the individual chapters were also mixed. Although appreciative of Brian Blessed’s acting, Cornell, Day, and Topping argued that the script for Mindwarp lacked focus, "[trying] to be comic, grotesque, straight, and farcical all at the same time".[16] Howe and Walker were more favourable towards the script, citing Sil’s re-appearance as positive, and hailing Peri’s death as "one of the most dramatic and impressive moments of the entire season" and Bryant's best scene since The Caves of Androzani.[17] Both reviews judged Terror of the Vervoids to be a well-written story, although Cornell, Day, and Topping criticised the dialogue, and Howe and Walker were unimpressed by Bonnie Langford's performance.[14][15]


DVD Release

All serials of The Trial of a Time Lord were released in a complete box set in 2008.


  • ^a Although the following serial Time and the Rani was the Sixth Doctor's final appearance, Baker declined an offer to return solely for a regeneration scene, and the part was instead portrayed by Sylvester McCoy wearing a blond wig.[18]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Sullivan, Shannon. "The Trial Of A Time Lord (Part One)". A Brief History of Time (Travel). Retrieved 2008-04-15. 
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b c d e Sullivan, Shannon. "The Trial Of A Time Lord (Part Two)". A Brief History of Time (Travel). Retrieved 2008-04-15. 
  7. ^ a b c Pixley, Andrew (1992). "Archive Feature Serial 7C The Ultimate Foe". Doctor Who Magazine (London: Marvel UK) (Winter Special 1992): 43–49. ISSN 0693-1275. 
  8. ^ a b c d Sullivan, Shannon. "The Trial Of A Time Lord (Part Three)". A Brief History of Time (Travel). Retrieved 2008-04-15. 
  9. ^ a b c d e Sullivan, Shannon. "The Trial Of A Time Lord (Part Four)". A Brief History of Time (Travel). Retrieved 2008-04-15. 
  10. ^ Cornell, Paul; Day, Martin; Topping, Keith (1995). "The Trial of a Time Lord 4" (reprinted on BBC Doctor Who website). The Discontinuity Guide. London: Virgin Books. p. 332. ISBN 0-426-20442-5. Retrieved 20 April 2009. 
  11. ^ Howe, David J.; Walker, Stephen James (1998). "The Trial of a Time Lord 4" (reprinted on BBC Doctor Who website). Doctor Who: The Television Companion (1st ed.). London: BBC Books. p. 497. ISBN 0-563-40588-0. Retrieved 20 April 2009. 
  12. ^ Howe, David J.; Walker, Stephen James (1998). "The Trial of a Time Lord 1" (reprinted on BBC Doctor Who website). Doctor Who: The Television Companion (1st ed.). London: BBC Books. p. 492. ISBN 0-563-40588-0. Retrieved 20 April 2009. 
  13. ^ Howe, David J.; Walker, Stephen James (1998). "The Trial of a Time Lord 1" (reprinted on BBC Doctor Who website). Doctor Who: The Television Companion (1st ed.). London: BBC Books. p. 493. ISBN 0-563-40588-0. Retrieved 20 April 2009. 
  14. ^ a b Cornell, Paul; Day, Martin; Topping, Keith (1995). "The Trial of a Time Lord 3" (reprinted on BBC Doctor Who website). The Discontinuity Guide. London: Virgin Books. p. 328. ISBN 0-426-20442-5. Retrieved 20 April 2009. 
  15. ^ a b Howe, David J.; Walker, Stephen James (1998). "The Trial of a Time Lord 3" (reprinted on BBC Doctor Who website). Doctor Who: The Television Companion (1st ed.). London: BBC Books. p. 496. ISBN 0-563-40588-0. Retrieved 20 April 2009. 
  16. ^ Cornell, Paul; Day, Martin; Topping, Keith (1995). "The Trial of a Time Lord 2" (reprinted on BBC Doctor Who website). The Discontinuity Guide. London: Virgin Books. pp. 325–326. ISBN 0-426-20442-5. Retrieved 20 April 2009. 
  17. ^ Howe, David J.; Walker, Stephen James (1998). "The Trial of a Time Lord 2" (reprinted on BBC Doctor Who website). Doctor Who: The Television Companion (1st ed.). London: BBC Books. pp. 495–496. ISBN 0-563-40588-0. Retrieved 20 April 2009. 
  18. ^ Sullivan, Shannon. "Time and the Rani". A Brief History of Time (Travel). Retrieved 2008-04-16. 

External links


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