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July 26, 2008

Another Nice Mess

Trials and Tribulations - Featured in the Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord DVD boxset

Due to be Released: 18th August 2008

Produced by: 2 entertain

Colin It's a brave person who gets involved in the making of extras for Doctor Who DVDs nowadays. Even short bits of fluff on uncontroversial topics can be subjected to the kind of criticism the mainstream media would usually reserve for the paedophile wing of the mujahideen. As the range grows ever larger, content producers try desperately to think of new variations on the classic “making of” format while 2Entertain valiantly commission slightly left-field features which frequently involve humour.  It's very hard to get this right all of the time, and some extras have been rightly slated by all and sundry on the usual forums. Less explicably, even a top-notch, groundbreaking documentary like What Lies Beneath (Doctor Who's very own The Power of Nightmares) also had a significant number of people grumbling that the makers hadn't devoted enough time to the story with which it was nominally associated.  Which just shows that even when you produce an intelligent and original piece that extends beyond the world of Doctor Who, there will still be people who prefer to see Caroline Johns talking about what it was like in the studio just before the union turned the lights out at 10pm, despite there already being a shedload of such material out there gathering dust after a single viewing.

an hysterical, woozy and still traumatic time

So if it's hard enough for those working with uncontroversial material, then it requires balls to take on those truly pivotal moments in the show's history that can still cause incendiary arguments between fans that end with tears before bedtime. You can argue about what constitutes a pivotal moment, but to me it's about beginnings and endings. Richard Molesworth's Origins is arguably still up there as one of the best DVD extras yet, with A New Body at Last vying with it for the top slot along with Beneath the Surface. Whereas Endgame disappointed with its somewhat bashful tiptoeing around the subject of Philip Segal and a general failure to be as open about the end of the series as Origins was about the beginning.  Happily, the key documentary in The Trial of a Time Lord boxset is definitely up there with the best.  Trials and Tribulations covers a ripely controversial period in the show's history that can be seen as a kind of end but also as a potential beginning – an hysterical, woozy and still traumatic time that is now represented by a phrase that still gives the shudders to fans of a certain age. The Hiatus. Although the piece is an impeccable and balanced overview of that troubled time and a definitive picture of Colin Baker's curtailed era, it still won't end the arguments and is likely to stir up a frenzy on the forums once again. But that is not intended as a criticism.  It just goes with the territory.

Trials and Tribulations is the dream documentary about a nightmare era.

Trials is the dream documentary about a nightmare era. If you are old enough to remember 1985 in detail, then prepare to be catapulted back. The documentary is not narrated but relies on brilliantly edited talking-head interviews and clips from the period to tell the story, and it's so evocative that it even managed to bring back the terrible knot in the stomach that my sixteen year old self had throughout most of the crisis.  If you've ever wondered about that infamous wedding party where Colin Baker entertained his way into Doctor Who, then wonder no longer because Trials features actual photographs from the event thus immortalising probably the first and only time that Baker managed to entertain Eric Saward. In a flurry of clips we see the BBC News coverage of Baker's first press call, his appearance on Saturday Superstore and an almost heart-rending description from Nicola Bryant and Baker on how happy they were when they started filming Season 22. It's like watching a slowly unfolding car crash, which I suppose is as good a description of Season 22 as any.

PowellThe tale being told is already gripping enough, but the centrepiece of the documentary concerns the hiatus itself and Baker's eventual sacking. Star interviewee Jonathan Powell is there to put his side of the story, and although he doesn't exactly have any actual out-and-out "shock" revelations there are some important admissions which fans will find significant. The reasons behind the hiatus are illuminated, but it's acknowledged that there are still some aspects and motivations behind the subsequent sacking that are likely to remain a mystery. Almost as important an interviewee as Powell is David Reid, former Head of Series and Serials, who makes the very pertinent point that for the top brass at the BBC to intervene in casting (i.e. sacking Baker) was virtually unprecedented at the time. Sadly Michael Grade did not do a new interview for the show - this time he was dealing with the ITV hotline scandal when the documentary was made rather than off somewhere skiing - but an extract from TV Hell fits in nicely, and I personally doubt he'd have revealed all that much even if he'd been available.  On the hiatus possibly, but on the sacking - doubtful.

It was the moment when fandom stopped being the onlooker and became part of the story

Ian Trials helps the viewer to find a path through the chaos of the time but relishes portraying that chaos as accurately as possible. There are some bravura sequences that had me roaring with laughter, peering through my fingers and fighting back the tears simultaneously. Which was certainly uncomfortable for the other passengers on the train that day. Special mention has to go to the clip of Ian Levine being questioned by Leonard Parkin (Lance's dad) on News at One which is followed fairly rapidly by an appalling clip of Doctor in Distress and Colin Baker's heartfelt regret at ever being involved with the (alleged) song. These moments, along with some well chosen covers from contemporary issues of DWB and Celestial Toyroom, illustrate another important aspect of the hiatus and its aftermath. It was the moment when fandom stopped being the onlooker and became part of the story with all of the good and bad that involved.

the accompanying sight of Martin's masterpiece Gangsters was enough on its own to warm my heart

Gangsters The fact that Trials necessarily covers fandom's role during the various hiatus crises will doubtless bring it criticism from some quarters. Lots of people are allergic to Ian Levine in theory, let alone when it comes to seeing him interviewed in all his glory, but it would be a poor documentary that didn't include him and, to a lesser extent, Gary Leigh as they are a vital part of the tale. Also heavily featured is Eric Saward, someone else who often gets it in the neck just because he has the audacity to be alive and interviewed when JNT is dead and unavailable for comment. To compensate, Trials features extracts from an old Bill Baggs interview with JN-T which is both sympathetic and informative, and effectively gives both sides of the story concerning Saward's departure and that Starburst interview.  There are also valuable contributions from Philip Martin, and the accompanying sight of the opening credits of Martin's masterpiece Gangsters was enough on its own to warm my heart but I got even more excited when David Halliwell's original notes for Trial appeared on screen with comments such as "Bob first 4, Phil second 4".  This combination of an entertaining, compelling narrative with a wealth of rare or previously unseen factual detail is one of the things that raises Trials to the very highest rank of extras released so far.

the show was a target because the BBC simply didn't think it was any good

I could quibble.  When Jonathan Powell mentions that the fate of Doctor Who was not uppermost in the minds of BBC executives, it would have been useful to have a bit of context.  The BBC were cutting programmes left, right and centre to save money for the new daytime schedule, and it doesn't seem an overly Marxist interpretation of events to consider that this economic climate made everything, including Doctor Who, more vulnerable than before.  But this is a minor concern, as it seems clear that the show was a target because the BBC simply didn't think it was any good.  The whole documentary can't help but set the counterfactuals spinning through your mind, and especially to ponder what might have happened if Peter Davison had stayed on for another year with the same production team in the same institutional context.  Fans will still be discussing the repercussions of the hiatus for many years to come, and this documentary will surely be an essential starting point for those debates, but in the midst of all the cut and thrust of BBC politics, the changing face of broadcasting and the clash of personalities it shouldn't be forgotten that somewhere along the line one man lost his job in the most public way possible.  It's another great strength of Trials that it manages to reflect the (retrospectively) humourous side of events, and the very real tensions that existed whilst maintaining a balanced and sympathetic approach to the notably candid protagonists.

buy it and fill your nostalgic boots

So well done to Ed Stradling and 2Entertain for a splendid piece of work.  I never thought I'd want to relive February 1985 and its aftermath again, but I couldn't have been more wrong. So when it comes out I recommend that fans buy it and fill their nostalgic boots.  Remember picking up your pen and writing to Bill Cotton and Points of View?  Watching every news bulletin and scouring DWB and Celestial Toyroom for information in a state of perpetual anxiety?  Well here it is again in all its cathartic glory.  And when you've finished you can make a start on The Trial of a Time Lord. You go ahead - I'll catch you up.  Honest.

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