The Ultimate Foe
‘'There's nothing you can do to stop the catharsis of spurious morality': Popular line of dialogue spouted by the Valeyard in ‘The Trial of a Time Lord’ part fourteen. Roughly translated, it means ‘You can’t stop me from killing those Time Lords out there’. The Doctor, of course, was able to confound this prophecy by triggering ‘a ray-phase shift’. Strange how the casual viewer can rarely foresee such obvious resolutions.’ - Doctor Who: The Completely Useless Encyclopedia
At last, the trial has started to lean towards its resolution. Glitz and Mel arrive on the station, sent by none other than…the Master! It’s particularly nice to see him, if only because the Valeyard and the Inquisitor are both promptly taken down several notches by him.
It turns out that he’s speaking from within the Matrix, and it’s not so inviolable as they had insisted; naturally, this makes it clear that the Valeyard’s previous outbursts every time the Doctor questioned its veracity were because he knew it all along — and he edited it himself.
The Master also reveals that the Valeyard is none other than the Doctor, or at least a potential incarnation of the Doctor, somewhere between his twelfth and thirteenth selves. Somehow, the Valeyard has the idea that he can take into himself the Doctor’s remaining regenerations for himself, although the Master’s revelation more or less completely confounds that.
The fight goes into the Matrix, and the Doctor gets to show his cleverness accompanied by Glitz and later Mel. It’s some of the sixth Doctor’s finest and strongest moments, and it shows so beautifully how he is able to stand up to even the most formidable foe…oneself.
To be quite honest, if ‘The Ultimate Foe’ had been the last Doctor Who story, I would have regarded the series as having ended on a particularly strong and satisfying note. Although the ‘Trial of a Time Lord’ season was a bit uneven, and parts of it didn’t work, it makes for a satisfying finale.
I still do think that it would have been best if the previous three stories had been presented as stand-alone serials, with ‘The Ultimate Foe’ finishing off the season with the entirety of the trial proceedings. I think that would have been more enjoyable overall. But it was an experiment, and they had to find out themselves.
Although some are bizarrely agitated at the fact that Mel leaves with the Doctor, despite him not having technically met her yet, they neglect the fact that he glimpsed into his own future during ‘Terror of the Vervoids’ and knows who she is. They also seem to forget that, with the TARDIS, he can deposit Mel back where she was before being taken out of time by the Master, then continue on his travels with the assurance that he will, in time, meet her for the first, proper time. I think it makes things much more interesting that way; surely people cannot expect time travellers’ timelines to be so linear and straightforward, Time Lords least of all!
I’ve also read the original intended outline for this serial, the work mainly of Eric Saward, with some of Robert Holmes’s influence — it’s awful. While I think the Valeyard is an impressively imposing villain, Holmes and Saward’s attempted resolution was regrettable and saddled the series with too much inane nonsense. The Bakers, who stepped in at the last minute to compose ‘The Ultimate Foe’, did a splendid job of making the final confrontation into something formidable and impactful, far superior to the original idea.
It wouldn’t have been made anyway, which is what many who criticise don’t seem to understand — Nathan-Turner, in one of the only moves that I agree with in his entire career, refused to let it stand as Saward had written it. That’s one thing that led to Saward’s long-overdue sacking. Without Pip and Jane Baker, the entire storyline would have had no resolution whatsoever. And it was quite well-done, far more exciting and interesting than the Matrix sequences in ‘The Deadly Assassin’ in my opinion.
What I Especially Liked
I quite liked the scenes with the Doctor and the Valeyard; while the trial room had given them opportunity to bicker, it didn’t really give them the opportunity to fight. And a fight was now what it had become. The Doctor was essentially fighting against himself, and himself without any of his scruples or any of his positive qualities…a villain without scruples or ethics, formidable indeed when he shares your knowledge and understanding. And his theatrical way of speaking made it clear exactly who edited the Matrix, when you looked back at it…very clever scripting!
I also liked the fact that it left some things unsaid and also never quite cleared up whether or not the Valeyard’s existence had come about because of Crozier’s machine…it’s just conveniently-timed enough that it may well have been because of the machine disrupting the Doctor’s mind, creating the Valeyard as a separate, independent entity and setting him free to set up the entire trial…which was of course a mockery and entirely artificial and fraudulent.
Last but not least of all, I loved the fact that they resolved Peri’s story and informed the Doctor that she had survived. Though I didn’t find it particularly likely that she would just up and marry Yrcanos, it’s far better than the alternative. And, as some have mentioned, it probably was for utilitarian reasons anyway: she was getting tired of the endless streams of would-be suitors. And at least Peri and Yrcanos did have some great chemistry, which was one of the high points of ‘Mindwarp’. All in all, I think Peri and Yrcanos works well.
What I Didn’t Particularly Like
They didn’t have to make it clear that the Valeyard was still around, and it seems unlikely that no-one would notice his face after staring at it for literally days. It was a dramatic concession, yes, but I think it would have been best simply to leave it unanswered.
The Doctor nearly gets drowned by arms reaching out from a rainwater barrel. That was chilling. The Dickensian surroundings created in the Matrix are also tremendously unsettling, as is the grotesque Mr. Popplewick.
Most Charming Moment
The Doctor nobly rides a wagon through the ruined streets, to his inevitable execution. He’s humouring the Valeyard and playing along, fully aware that he’s in the Matrix. His bravado, as well as playing up the drama, are utterly charming and so perfectly indicative of the Doctor’s sixth incarnation.
Bits That Took Me Back
All of it! The first time I saw this was all at once, and it was about six hours of Doctor Who. When ‘The Ultimate Foe’, the last two episodes, settled in, that was it — you knew it was coming to a resolution. For something with twelve previous episodes of build-up, it’s quite thrilling to get to the end and have something as gripping, eerie, and exciting as the fight in and out of the Matrix.
This serial finishes the ‘Trial of a Time Lord’ season and storyline, and it’s quite an excellent ending to it. After the entertaining ‘Terror of the Vervoids’, ‘The Ultimate Foe’ keeps the high standard and takes it through the resolution. The Valeyard is a formidable and scary foe, the story is clever and tricky, with plenty of twists and questions along with the answers it gives, and the stars are all fantastic.
As I said earlier, if this had been the finale of the series, it would have ended on a high note. This could have tied it up very well, with the Doctor in perfect form, having defeated what can only be called his own ultimate foe: himself. The Valeyard really is a more interesting villain than I had previously considered him, although he does wear on the patience (as does the Inquisitor) during the cut-in trial scenes. However, I think it’s probably best that he’s appeared only once. Such villains tend to lose impact, the more they are used.
Overall, the ‘Trial of a Time Lord’ was quite good. If it had been kept more even, it might have been perfect. But it was an experiment, and like all experiments, there were things that were different than expected.
It was a truly entertaining experience. Beautifully orchestrated.