Doctor Who: The Ultimate Foe
The Trial of a Time Lord, Parts XIII-XIV
(2 episodes, s23e13-e14, 1986)
It’s time for closing statements.
Picking up at the Doctor’s inadvertent admission of genocide, the Doctor charges that the Matrix has been tampered with so the Inquisitor calls upon the Keeper of the Matrix to testify. The Keeper denies the possibility on grounds that the Key of Rassilon is required to enter the database, and only senior Time Lords have access to the keys. Neither the Valeyard nor the Inquisitor is swayed.
Something sounded fishy here, so I waded back into the archives. The Invasion of Time calls out the Great Key of Rassilon, the literal key to ultimate Time Lord knowledge. So are all of these senior Time Lords holding Lesser Keys of Rassilon, and if so, what is the difference if they all lead to the same Matrix, arguably the source of all Time Lord knowledge?
Outside the station, two pods arrive and travel down the fancy corridor of light. They open to reveal Sabalom Glitz and Mel – though neither knows how they arrived at the station – and they barge into the courtroom to offer a defense for the Doctor. On cue, their mysterious benefactor is revealed as the Master, communicating to them from the depths of the Matrix.
First, this whole arc just got a lot more deus ex machina.
Second, it turns out that a Key of Rassilon can be duplicated. Looking back on The Invasion of Time and the (admittedly assumed) purpose of the Great Key and the “lesser” keys, this really makes me wonder about the Artifacts of Rassilon. Possession of the Sash, the Key, and the Rod could lead to absolute power and a Time Lord dictatorship, and if the keys are so easily duplicated then why hasn’t someone attempted a coup with a Gallifreyan 3-D printer?
The Time Lords in attendance do not recognize the Master (which is surprising given how often the High Council has interacted with the Master and/or sent the Doctor to stop him), but the Master seems to have a deep interest in the Valeyard and a strong desire to see him lose. The Inquisitor allows Glitz to testify and the rogue reveals that the mysterious box he was searching for contained secrets of the Time Lords. The sleepers – the inhabitants of Ravalox, then known as Earth – somehow gained access to the Matrix and were siphoning secrets into the box for later use, and the Gallifreyan High Council drew Earth out of orbit, initiated the fireball, and renamed the planet to protect the information.
Yikes. The Doctor’s enemy in this story is own people?
The Master reveals that the Valeyard was charged to tamper with the trial evidence in exchange for the rest of the Doctor’s regenerations. You see, the Valeyard is the Doctor… or rather the amalgamation of the Doctor’s darker impulses from somewhere between his twelfth and final incarnations.
The Doctor’s real enemy is himself.
The Inquisitor agrees that the trial must consider this new evidence, and the Valeyard flees into the Matrix. The Doctor and Glitz pursue him, landing in a warped recreation of Victorian-era London. The Doctor is attacked by a rain barrel, but he is saved by Glitz. The rouge hands the Time Lord a note from the Master pointing them toward a place called The Fantasy Factory. As they approach, Glitz takes a harpoon to the chest.
The Matrix is a place where logic has no hold, and we’re back to The Deadly Assassin.
In the courtroom, the Master testifies to the court that everything they saw was true with minor adjustments to cast doubt on the Doctor. He also reveals that Peri’s fate in Mindwarp was a lie. She is serving as a queen at the side of King Yrcanos, thus providing a great sigh of relief from your humble reviewer. The Master hopes that the Valeyard and the Doctor will destroy each other and leave him free to pillage the universe, and he suggests that the High Council be made to answer for their crimes.
In the Matrix, we find that the Valeyard’s attack didn’t roll high enough to defeat Glitz’s armor class, and the rogue is convinced to help the Doctor and escape the computer. They enter The Fantasy Factory and meet Mr. Popplewick, a rather stuffy bureaucrat who loves his red tape. The Doctor rushes past the front desk to the proprietor’s office only to find a more officious version of Popplewick. The procedure is sacrosanct!
Before the Doctor is allowed to proceed, he is forced to sign over his remaining regenerations to Mr. J. J. Chambers – the Valeyard – in the event of his “untimely” death. Within moments, he is whisked away to a bleak beach where hands attack from beneath the sand and draw him down, reminiscent of the quicksand traps that permeated much of ’80s television and film adventures. Glitz adopts the role of reliable sidekick and tries to rescue him, but the Doctor overcomes the trap by sheer willpower, pretty much invalidating any amount of physical peril going forward. After a round of taunting from the Valeyard, the evil Time Lord forces the Doctor and Glitz into a nearby hut with a cloud of nerve gas.
The twist: The hut is the Master’s TARDIS. The Master explains that the Valeyard has to be stopped because he has none of the Doctor’s morality, leaving him eviler, more powerful, and a huge threat. The Master tricks the Doctor by putting him in a catatonic state and leaving him as bait for the Valeyard. The Master’s Tissue Compression Eliminator proves useless against the Valeyard and the pair is forced to retreat. Meanwhile, Mel somehow arrives in the Matrix and escorts him out of the Matrix and back to the courtroom.
Mel testifies in the Doctor’s defense, offering footage from Terror of the Vervoids as evidence. The Inquisitor is not swayed, sentencing the Doctor to death. The Doctor accepts the verdict with surprising calm, and we find out that this is yet another Matrix illusion. Outside the Matrix, the real Mel is incensed, prompting her to steal the Key of Rassilon and enter the Matrix. She intercepts the Doctor, but he chides her because he knew it was a ruse based on her digital doppelgänger’s testimony. Together they enter the Fantasy Factory in pursuit of the Valeyard.
The Master charges Glitz, first via failed hypnosis then with a treasure chest, with finding the Ravalox Matrix box. Glitz finds the memory tapes and Mr. Popplewick while the Doctor discovers a list (in his own handwriting) of judges from his trial. Together, they force Popplewick to take them to the Valeyard, but Glitz trades the Doctor for the memory tapes, which he then passes to the Master.
The Doctor reveals Popplewick to be the Valeyard in disguise. He further discovers a maser device aimed at the courtroom, ready to kill the assembled Time Lords as a last resort. The list of names was a hit list. He dispatches Mel to evacuate the courtroom.
In the real world, Gallifrey is collapsing into chaos. The High Council has been deposed by a civilian revolt, and the Master takes the opportunity to seize control. The attempt is stymied when he loads the Ravalox drive into his TARDIS console and it freezes both the Master and Glitz in the Matrix.
Mel tries to evacuate the courtroom while the Doctor destroys the maser using a feedback loop. The surge strikes the Valeyard, knocking him down as the Fantasy Factory explodes. The Doctor returns to reality and learns of Peri’s true fate. The Inquisitor offers the presidency to the Doctor, but he declines, instead offering it to her. He also suggests that the Master should be punished but that Glitz can be reformed.
Leaving his fate up to the Time Lords means that the Master will be back. No doubt.
Mel and the Doctor depart with a quip, and the Doctor nearly abandons Mel at the hint of carrot juice in their future. Instead, they board the TARDIS and take off for points unknown. Meanwhile, the Inquisitor dissolves the court and orders the Keeper to repair and reinforce the Matrix.
Unbeknownst to anyone in attendance, the Keeper is the Valeyard in disguise.
As part of the Trial of a Time Lord arc, The Ultimate Foe provides a decent enough resolution, bolstered by the revelation that Peri survived and is living a good life. She did look a little sad, but I assume that it’s the weight of her role as leader. I can’t imagine that she actually missed the Sixth Doctor after all the abuse he has subjected her to, but she might miss the thrill of the adventure.
On its own, the story of The Ultimate Foe is fairly weak. The introduction of the Master weakens the power of the Valeyard and turns this “dark Doctor” into “Master Lite”. The disguises, the logical trickery, the drive to steal regenerations and kill the Doctor… all of it is just a rehash of the Master’s various machinations. The resolution also points out a massive plot hole: If the Sixth Doctor dies with regenerating, there can’t be a Twelfth Doctor or beyond. The Valeyard cannot exist unless he remains outside of time, and if he does stay outside of time then what is the point of all that power?
On a series continuity note, I did enjoy the call back to the Doctor’s dislike of the nickname “Doc”. We’ve seen it at least four times before: The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Time Meddler, The Five Doctors, and The Twin Dilemma.
On a project note, this is the first time that an incarnation’s finale doesn’t get the regeneration handicap. This wasn’t intended as the final story for Colin Baker, and he doesn’t even begin the regeneration process in this story.
Rating: 2/5 – “Mm? What’s that, my boy?”
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