“The Trial Of A Time Lord, part 2: Mindwarp” (Season 23, episodes 5-8. Originally broadcast Oct. 4-25, 1986.)
Whether or not you think “Mindwarp” is a good story, you have to agree that it’s a disjointed mess. It’s meant to be. That’s the point: The truth of what’s being shown to us is suspect, and the narrative itself is untrustworthy. Is the Doctor pretending to be evil to trick his enemies, or was he turned psychotic by a mad scientist’s brain experiment? And is his companion Peri dead as a result of his negligence? Or because he was prevented from saving her? Or is she really dead at all?
The four episodes of “Mindwarp” form the second segment of the overarching trial of the Sixth Doctor that forms the entirety of season 23, and like “The Mysterious Planet” it is split into two timelines. One part, set on the planet Thoros Beta, features the Doctor and Peri facing off against their old adversary Sil the slug, first seen on “Vengeance On Varos.” (Both were written by Philip Martin and directed by Ron Jones, so there’s a continuity of tone between the two serials, both of which hit hard on the idea of capitalism as a predatory, destructive force that the Doctor should, when he’s in his right mind at least, oppose.) The second part is set some time in the future on a Gallifreyan space station where the Doctor’s trial is being held, and essentially consists of the Doctor, his prosecuting ateorney the Valeyard, and his judge the Inquisitor watching the Thoros Beta segments as if they were videotapes of Doctor Who itself, pausing every so often to argue about something in the other plotline. The Thoros Beta segments are part of the Valeyard’s evidence against the Doctor, who insists that what’s on the screen isn’t actually what happened. Which may be true. But the Doctor also can’t remember what really happened—so there’s no reason that his version of events should be believed either. And as the story progresses, this fog only gets thicker.
It’s difficult to decide on what’s really happening in “Mindwarp” because Martin and script editor Eric Saward have spun several overlapping layers of ambiguity here, from individual character motivations to the overarching notion that the entire narrative may be a lie. And in the final episode, the Thoros Beta and courtroom timelines merge violently as the Time Lords essentially hijack the other narrative, cutting off its ending and forcing us to wait for answers that should come in the third and fourth parts of the season.
But it’s also difficult to decide what’s happening in “Mindwarp” because, well, it’s just not very well-made, and some significant portion of confusion in the storyline is there by accident, not design. There’s an infamous story that Colin Baker asked Saward what the Doctor’s real motivation was, so that he could actually play the part correctly, and Saward admitted that he didn’t know. That’s not a minor problem. There’s a real sense here that the writers lost track of, or never knew, what they actually wanted to say with “Mindwarp.” Of course, the story is designed to invite us to draw our own conclusions, but there’s a big difference between “Mindwarp” and, say, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, a sprawling, tangent-ridden shaggy beast of a movie that nevertheless has an underlying structure and meaning that you can puzzle out if you put your mind to it. The most interesting aspect of “Mindwarp” is the fact that some or all of it is a lie, but we’ll never be able to know what the truth is—that question is never answered during “Mindwarp” itself, and partly because of the behind-the-scenes chaos during the last half of season 23, it’s never brought up again later on either.
Either way, the unreliability of what we’re watching is a major theme from nearly the first scene of the story. The Doctor and Peri land on Thoros Beta, a planet of impressively garish pink seas, midway through a larger, unfilmed storyline that we are only given hints of. They’re here to track down and put a stop to an illegal trade in advanced weaponry to primitive cultures—and so, oddly enough, the prosecutor’s evidence against the Doctor in his trial for interfering in history begins with the Doctor trying to prevent a similar, more pernicious, kind of interference. It’s the sort of thing that Captains Kirk and Picard routinely dealt with on Star Trek, but on this show, as the Doctor points out, there’s no organization like Starfleet to prevent that kind of thing. There’s only him. (Of course, the Time Lords later show that they take a more active role in shaping history than they admit, but that’s something we’ll have to come back to in future weeks.) The gunrunning business turns out to be run by Sil and his boss Kiv, a fact which the Doctor apparently already knew but opted to keep quiet about—lying to Peri about it until they were already there and it was too late to turn back.
That in itself is pretty much par for the course between Peri and the Doctor. The little grace notes in their relationship that we saw in “The Mysterious Planet” that signaled a growing sense of friendship and mutual respect are basically gone again here, and we’re back to the same ugly power dynamic between them—abusive boss and put-upon assistant—that was the hallmark of “The Twin Dilemma” and season 22.
But soon enough there’s a new wrinkle, as the two of them are captured by Kiv’s brain specialist, Crozier, who’s been working on a way to transplant the dying Kiv’s brain into a new host body. During the first-episode cliffhanger, the Doctor is strapped to Crozier’s table and zapped—only to be rescued by Crozier’s previous test subject, the barbarian King Yrcanos. But after that, the Doctor’s behavior changes in odd ways. He betrays Yrcanos and Peri and takes up with Sil, who’s just as loathsome as he was in “Vengeance On Varos,” a money-grubbing, obsequious slimeball who the Doctor should hate—and who, after all, he’s here to confront. But over the rest of the story, the Doctor appears to turn evil, repeatedly taking actions that are seemingly against his better nature. He works with Crozier to help perfect his brain-transfer technique even though it uses unwilling test subjects and appears to be part of the brainwashing technique that’s allowed Sil’s fellow slug creatures to amass a huge number of docile slaves from the people of Thoros Alpha and Beta. And the time-traveler gives Sil information about wars that haven’t happened yet in order to make them both a tidy profit.
Confronted with this by the Valeyard during the courtroom scenes, the Doctor claims he was simply fooling Sil in order to put a stop to his schemes. I suspect that may even have been his real plan during episode one. But who knows? It’s an incredibly weak argument considering that during the trial, he also has near-total amnesia about the entire Thoros Beta incident. (And the fact that the Inquisitor allows the trial to continue when the defendant is clearly non compos mentis suggests that the Time Lords had never intended to give him a fair trial in the first place—but I think that’s a plot development to catch up on in future weeks as well.)
Things aren’t as simple as the Doctor suggests. For one thing, Crozier’s machine seems to cause insanity in everyone he tests it on: After getting the body of a former drowning victim, Kiv becomes obsessed with fish and his species’ version of hell, and although we only meet Yrcanos after he’s been brain-zapped, he seems far too manic and simple-minded, with no ability to think past the immediate moment, to have been the successful conquering warrior he claims he used to be. Neither seems to have any idea that they’re not behaving as they once did.
And then there’s the problem of the Time Lords’ involvement, a subplot that kicks in during the final stretch of “Mindwarp” and takes over the story during the rest of season 23. We’ve already been given good reason to suspect that the Valeyard is tampering with the evidence he’s showing, essentially re-editing Doctor Who to show the Doctor in a bad light. But the Time Lords’ highest authority, the High Council, also steps into the action of “Mindwarp” to stop Crozier’s brain transfers, during which they also arrest the Doctor and bring him to the Inquisitor’s space-station—an act which interrupts everything and makes it impossible to tell what the Doctor was really trying to accomplish, which seems like bad planning since that’s what they’ve been trying to find out during the trial. There’s also just a hint that the Time Lords are ruthlessly trying to protect their own interests and acting hypocritically in slaughtering Crozier and company, since the discovery of mind transfer might mean an end to their own monopoly on eternal life through bodily regeneration.
There is no real reason to believe the Doctor, and this is one of the problems with a story that tries to make the Sixth Doctor “go bad”: The Sixth Doctor is already the bad Doctor. It’s not exactly shocking that this particular Doctor would betray his principles, since he tried to murder Peri during a psychotic post-regeneration break in his very first appearance. And although his later serials toned him down, no real effort was ever put into rehabilitating the character. The show wanted to have it both ways: while taking pains to point out that the Sixth Doctor was deeply flawed and even dangerously incompetent, it still insisted that he was the hero and, somehow, deserved respect for it. I don’t think this was ever well thought-out or planned for—the issue at the heart of Colin Baker’s tenure should have been how he confronted and, one hopes, overcame his flaws, but there’s no suggestion at any point during the Sixth Doctor era that the production team realized what a rotten apple they’d created. So when the Doctor claims in “Mindwarp” that he’s only pretending to be a bad guy but darn it all, he just can’t remember for sure, there isn’t the incentive to give him the benefit of the doubt that you’d give to any of the previous Doctors. Patrick Troughton or Tom Baker might be tricksters, but we know they’re good at heart. It is all too easy to believe that the Sixth Doctor might snap and begin committing atrocities.
Whatever it is that the Doctor’s doing and why, the effect of it on Peri turns out to be devastating: Without the Doctor to rush in and save her, Peri becomes Crozier and Kiv’s ultimate victim, losing her own body and having her brain taken over by a giant predatory slug. It’s deliberately shocking and upsetting, and it genuinely is one of the most powerful and memorable moments of late-1980s Doctor Who, crystallizing in one stark image much of what the production team was trying to do with the series at the time.
And the series did need to take Peri off the chessboard. Let’s face it, Peri was a terrible character, not merely an annoying and passive whiner, but consistently impeding the forward progress of any story she’s in. Peri wet-blankets, always complaining about her situation and never offering a constructive alternative—a far cry from Sarah Jane Smith or Jo Grant, and either a brutal satire of the stereotypical Doctor Who female companion or (more likely, I think) a misogynistic misunderstanding of what made characters like Sarah Jane and Jo work. It was an especially toxic combination with the blowhard Sixth Doctor: One charmless jackass in a loud coat, and one charmless inert lump. Six needed a strong companion who would stand up to him: Leela or Romana would have been excellent foils. Instead, he got the worst companion since Dodo, and probably the worst in series history.
But that doesn’t make her death any less stomach-turning. And the reason it bothers me isn’t just because of the horrifically violative nature of Crozier’s brain-transplant, but because it’s the culmination and twisted coup de grace of Peri’s singularly unpleasant journey as a companion. All through her time on Doctor Who, Peri was the target of creepy, often sexually threatening victimization at the hands of a series of villainous men—and, of course, the Sixth Doctor himself, whose relationship with her, even discounting the psychotic murder attempt in “The Twin Dilemma,” was often bullying and emotionally abusive. And while it’s true that the purpose of a Doctor Who companion in story terms is often to get into trouble, the perils of Peri were consistently nastier than anything any other female companion has been subjected to. And because of that pattern, it’s hard for me to see her fate here as what John Nathan-Turner and Saward probably intended—that it was a shocking betrayal by the Time Lords who prevented the Doctor from rescuing her. No, no. It’s not Sil and Kiv and Crozier that did this to Peri. It’s Nathan-Turner and Saward and Philip Martin —the people who made Doctor Who. Now, as we’ll see in the last installment of “Trial Of A Time Lord,” Peri’s death is going to be retconned into a marriage to Yrcanos, the seeds of which we see here. But the very fact that it was retconned suggests that they knew a line had been crossed.
Peri spends most of the story running around the corridors with Yrcanos, whose barbarian enthusiasm is actually well-countered by Peri’s constant wet-blanketing. Surprisingly, they make a decent pair, and I could actually see a future relationship between them making some sort of sense. She’s right to keep holding him back, because he’s a fool who always wants to rush in and get them all killed. But he’s also the only person in the story who seems to want to actively change things for the better. Even if he doesn’t know how to accomplish that, it still makes him the only person in the story who seems to be worth respecting, the Doctor included. When she’s with the Doctor, Peri is usually merely a victim of his hurricane-force personality. But although Yrcanos is, if anything, an even more larger-than-life personality, he and Peri work well together because a) he respects her judgement in ways the Sixth Doctor never seemed to, and so he actually listens to her, and b) she seems to provide him with a rational voice of caution that he otherwise lacks.
And one last thing: Brian Blessed pretty much singlehandedly made “Mindwarp” watchable for me, not in spite of but because of his scenery-chewing. He’s a respected Shakespearian actor, and you can really tell that he knows he’s slumming it here. But he’s also been in his share of schlock, like the 1980 Flash Gordon movie, and he knows that when you’re given a role as inherently hammy as Yrcanos, there’s no point in turning down the volume. If the story and the dialogue are going to be this bad, at least the actors should be having fun with it. And when it comes to scenery-chewing, Blessed is like a school of piranha—drop a script in the water, and there’s a sudden, bloody, violent flurry and then nothing left but the bones. So to him I say: Varoonik! Blood! Death! Terror! Kill! We’ll pile the heads of our enemies before us, like melons in a heap.
• Christopher Ryan, who plays Sil’s boss Kiv here, is most famous as Mike the Cool Guy from the punk-era sitcom The Young Ones, and of course as the new face of the Sontarans in the Tenth Doctor’s “The Sontaran Stratagem”/“The Poison Sky” and Eleven’s “The Pandorica Opens.”
• Upcoming schedule (biweekly on Saturdays at 2 p.m. Central):
• March 22: “The Edge Of Destruction”
• April 5: “Trial Of A Time Lord part 3: Terror Of The Vervoids”
• April 19: Seventh Doctor serial, to be determined.
• May 3: “Trial Of A Time Lord part 4: The Ultimate Foe”
• TBA: Patrick Troughton’s “The Moonbase.”