The Ultimate Foe, by James Cooray Smith (and Robert Holmes, Eric Saward and Pip and Jane Baker)

The fourteenth in the Black Archive sequence of analyses of Doctor Who, this takes the sensitive topic of the two-part story that ended Colin Baker’s time as the Sixth Doctor – billed on TV at the time as “Trial of a Time Lord” episodes 13 and 14, but generally known now as The Ultimate Foe. When I first watched it in 2006, I was not forgiving.

Sadly, there is nothing to be said in favour of the last segment of the Trial of a Time Lord, two episodes credited to three writers [Robert Holmes for the first – though it turns out that Eric Saward, then the script editor, rewrote a large chunk of it – and Pip and Jane Baker for the second], a botched farrago of half-baked Time Lord lore, where we find out that the Valeyard is a projection of the Doctor’s future self, and he and the Master take it in turns to do the evil cackle. The Time Lords have forgotten who the Master is, despite what happened in The Deadly Assassin and their summoning of his aid in The Five Doctors. The means available to the Master and the Valeyard are conveniently immense and yet just not quite immense enough to destroy the Doctor. I am even a bit dubious about Peri’s survival, which rather critically undermines the drama of her death (and the chemistry between her and King Yrcanos was as absent as that between Leela and Andred – at least SusanVicki and Jo got decent parting romances.) It’s a shame that after delivering so many classics Robert Holmes’ final contribution is such a dud, and the Sixth Doctor, having won his trial, then gets regenerated anyway. The miracle is that the show was allowed another three years after this awful closure to an over-ambitious season.

Rewatching it in 2011, I had not mellowed:

And then The Ultimate Foe is a poor farewell to a misused Doctor. There is little good to be said of it – Eric Saward’s original script for the second episode makes more sense than Pip and Jane Baker’s version as broadcast, but that is not saying much. The Valeyard’s role does become clear, and actually interesting, but the back-story of Time Lord politics simply becomes confusing and the means and motivation of the Master, crucial to what passes for a plot, are even less comprehensible than usual. (And we have the cop-out of Peri’s faked death, which kills the drama of the only interesting development of the entire season.)

Rewatching it again, I felt exactly the same. The first episode is not bad, but it is let down by the second episode. As my brother put it, “this story is not just boring and not just stupid: it is boring AND stupid.”

There are of course good reasons why the whole thing ended up in such a mess, and James Cooray Smith takes us through them; but before we get there, let’s briefly look at the novelisation by Pip and Jane Baker. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

His [the Master’s] brooding eyes surveyed the scene below him. ‘By me, Madam,’ he repeated, enjoying the consternation his intrusion had caused.

When I read it in 2008, I wrote:

Alas, it doesn’t matter how many exclamation marks you add, this remains an incoherent story; and while the Bakers valiantly attempt to fill it out with extra detail, it is basically beyond salvation from the start.

What I did not know was that the “extra detail” was all in the original script that the Bakers had submitted to the BBC, and excised because at 38 minutes it was far too long for a 25-minute slot.

Rereading, I actually felt that the writing was OK at first, but by the end I still got annoyed by the incoherent plot. Completists will want it anyway, and you can get it here.

From this pig’s ear of source material, James Cooray Smith has produced a surprisingly silky purse. The history of how the TV story was made (or not made) is much more interesting than the TV story itself, and that is what Cooray Smith has chosen to tell.

  • The account begins with the early 1986 attempt by Michael Grade to cancel Old Who (for which he has been called to account on the floor of the House of Lords) and the consequent disruption to production schedules and procedures. Cooray Smith is not charitable to either Grade or his Director of Programmes, Jonathan Powell.
  • He then looks at the writing of the original Robert Holmes script of the first episode, about half of which ended up on screen. The half that did not survive is very dark indeed. The fact is that Holmes was dying at the time, and indeed died before starting on the second episode, and Cooray Smith convincingly argues that this is subconsciously present in the script.
  • The third chapter looks at the uncredited revisions to Robert Holmes’ script carried out by Eric Saward, again including about half of what appeared on screen. Per my usual procedure, here is the second paragraph of the third chapter, along with the quote which it introduces:

Saward revised Part 13 in his capacity as Doctor Who’s Script Editor, and therefore there are no records of exactly when he began or completed his work on it, or when he moved onto writing his version of Part 14. His work on Part 13, though, must have been completed before he resigned from the BBC on 13 April 1986. Saward had been under pressure for at least a year, the production team had literally written off as many scripts as they’d accepted for the 1986 series of Doctor Who, and Holmes’ illness had taken a huge emotional toll on the younger writer:
  ‘I said ultimately to John [Nathan-Turner]… “I feel I can’t serve this any more, I’ve given so much to it already.” John was sort of understanding, I think he was also terrified that he might be left to finish the series on his own, which he ultimately was.”

  • A brief “intermission” asks who the Valeyard actually is.
  • The fourth full chapter looks at the unproduced script for the second episode by Eric Saward, whose rejection by John Nathan-Turner provoked his resignation from the show, taking the script with him. The killer point of dispute with Nathan-Turner was the question of how it should end. Saward insisted on a literal cliff-hanger; Nathan-Turner vetoed the idea; Saward could not take any more, and left. (This was only a few days after Holmes’ death, which had deeply upset both of them.)
  • The fifth and last full chapter tells the story of how Pip and Jane Baker were commissioned to write the new second episode with a three-day deadline, forbidden to use any of the ideas from Saward’s script which he had taken with him.
  • The sixth and last chapter pulls all the threads together and finds some degree of sympathy for all involved (except Grade and Powell). Certainly I have to admit that I still don’t like what Pip and Jane Baker wrote, but I am much more sympathetic to their travails now that I have read about them in detail.
  • A really intriguing footnote here tells a story that I did not know. Michael Grade asked Sydney Newman, the original creator of Doctor Who, what he would do with the show; and Newman responded that he would bring back Patrick Troughton for two years, and then regenerate the Doctor into a woman. He also had some rather odd thoughts about child companions, and wanted his own name in the credits as creator of the series. Troughton of course died only a few months later; but it’s fascinating to think what might have been. The source given is Newman’s 2017 memoirs, though I find it in the Daily Telegraph in 2010 and have been told that it was first published in 1996.
  • An appendix looks briefly at the question of what the title of the story actually is. Cooray Smith hints that he would actually have preferred to call the book “Trial of a Time Lord, episodes 13 and 14” but that he “bows to convention” “in deference to [the] DVD release”.
  • A second appendix asks how you can resolve the question of Melanie Bush’s first meeting with the Doctor. Cooray Smith doesn’t seem to be aware of the 2013 Big Finish play The Wrong Doctors, which addresses this issue rather amusingly.
  • A third and final appendix gives the scene breakdowns for the Holmes and Saward scripts of the first episode.

Cooray Smith’s previous Black Archive contribution was on the lost First Doctor story The Massacre, where he similarly converted a complex production history into a compelling narrative. But this is really superb, and it’s the first Black Archive volume that I have liked much more than the story it is covering. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | Full Circle (15)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8)
6th Doctor: The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25)
Other: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The God Complex (9)
12th Doctor: Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)

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