June 25, 2012 by Aidan Brack
Title: The Ultimate Foe
Placement: Season 23, Serial 4
Broadcast Dates: 29 November 29 to 6 December, 1986
Writers: Robert Holmes and Pip and Jane Baker
Director: Chris Clough
Characters: Sixth Doctor, Mel
The Blurb: The Doctor is on trial for his life. Plucked out of time and space by the Time Lords, he is charged with transgressing the First Law of Time. He must defend himself against the prosecution led by the sinister Valeyard.
The Doctor has tried to prove his innocence, but the Valeyard is certain of his guilt and will stop at nothing to carry out a sentence of death. But there is a surprise witness waiting in the wings, one who knows the truth.
With the trial in disarray, the Doctor flees into the Matrix to confront his enemy, into a nightmarish world of torture and punishment. Trapped within, he will have to fight for his life against the ultimate foe.
(Summary taken from Region 1 DVD Cover)
Power mad conspirators, Daleks, Sontarans… Cybermen, they’re still in the nursery compared to us. Ten million years of absolute power. That’s what it takes to be really corrupt.
The Production: And so it all comes to a conclusion. After the previous twelve episodes dropped heavy hint after heavy hint that someone may have manipulated the Matrix, which we were told was impossible, we learn that someone has manipulated the Matrix. Perhaps not the most surprising of revelations but it does bring about a final adventure that takes place within the Matrix.
Do you have an appointment, sirs? Mr. Chambers only sees people by appointment. Most particular about appointments is our Mr. Chambers.
The first of the two parts, credited to Robert Holmes, plays out in several long scenes and teases out the Valeyard’s true identity and purpose as well as some of the hypocrisy of the Time Lords. These revelations come pretty quickly, yet there is something frustrating about the way we learn of them. Rather than being revealed as a result of some action of the Doctor’s, it is only thanks to the Master intervening that we end up learning any of this.
This is a frustrating development, if only because it makes the Sixth Doctor appear quite out of his depth. Certainly he pieces some of this together but there is that nagging feeling that if it weren’t for the Master’s intervention he would certainly have been executed.
Once the Valeyard flees to the Matrix however I think the story gains a little focus as the Doctor struggles to get to grips with the Matrix. The scenes in which a collection of hands reach out of a barrel of water and later some quicksand to try to pull the Doctor in are very spooky and atmospheric, being quite reminiscent of some of the Matrix-horror of The Deadly Assassin.
Unfortunately Robert Holmes’ death and a falling out between the script editor, Eric Saward, and producer, John Nathan-Turner, led to the second half of this story having to be completed at extremely short notice and without the benefit of Holmes’ notes.
This second part, penned by Pip and Jane Baker, does not quite match the style or tone of the first part, playing down some of the spooky imagery and mind-over-matter conflict while quickly bringing the Doctor and the Valeyard into direct contact with each other.
Given the enormous difficulties they were faced with in writing this script, it is somewhat remarkable that they managed to pull something this solid together in such a short time. Though I would hardly deem this a great slice of Doctor Who, I think it does at least manage to bring all of Holmes’ elements together while also giving the Valeyard a clear plan for the Doctor to try to stop.
Only by releasing myself from the misguided maxims that you nurture can I be free.
One aspect of the story that doesn’t quite work for me in either part are the revelations concerning the true nature of the Valeyard.
There is something appealing about the idea, as first stated by the Master, that the Valeyard is the Doctor, albeit an evil, ruthless incarnation. Unfortunately that simple idea is quickly diluted and, unfortunately, complicated as we are told that he is in fact a collection of all of the evil impulses of the Doctor’s between his twelfth and thirteen regenerations.
Quite how those evil impulses are given physical form never makes much sense to me. The idea that he could be a potential future Doctor is at least quite tangible – we have seen the Doctor’s personality change before and so it is at least conceivable that he might become more ruthless in later incarnations. The explanation we are given just seems confused to me.
Nor does his plan to steal the Doctor’s remaining lives seem particularly convincing. After all, when he dies he will regenerate and if he does then his personality would surely be just as likely to shift as the Doctor’s. Though the additional plan that the Valeyard is given by Pip and Jane Baker’s script seems to come from nowhere, it is at least a pretty straightforward idea to grasp and focuses the conflict between the Doctor and the Valeyard in that final episode.
You’re elevating futility to a fine art. There’s nothing you can do to prevent the catharsis of spurious morality!
While the plotting of these final two parts is a little jumbled and confused, what ultimately saves them for me are the spirited performances from the cast, particularly that of Michael Jayston.
Over the course of these two episodes the Valeyard is given some difficult, tongue-twisting lines to say which could easily seem quite wordy and ridiculous. Somehow Jayston manages to inject them with a venom and energy that brings them to life and which adds some tension to the final scenes.
The decision to include Anthony Ainley’s Master in these final two episodes also pays off quite nicely, emphasizing just how clever the Valeyard can be. The sequence in which the Master attempts to kill him with an obvious trap which the Valeyard easily overcomes is quite entertaining and makes him seem all the more formidable an opponent for the Doctor.
This should prove an irresistible bait for the Valeyard.
One unexpected treat is the return of Glitz who provides much of the serial’s humorous banter. Tony Selby’s performance is every bit as enjoyable here as it was in The Mysterious Planet, while the decision to pair him with the Master leads to some of the season’s most enjoyable exchanges, particularly the hypnotism sequence.
Unfortunately the new companion, Mel Bush, does not fare nearly as well however. That lively energy which I had enjoyed in the previous adventure feels quite out of place in the courtroom scenes here. She seems to serve little purpose in the story, not really doing much to contribute to the proceedings or to help the Doctor, and it does seem odd that she is participating in this adventure given that we were told in the previous story that the Doctor hadn’t met her yet.
With several different story ideas to resolve in this final part, not to mention the new ideas introduced by Pip and Jane Baker, the conclusion of the trial ends up feeling a little rushed and unsatisfying after so much build up. Adding to the frustration is the way the final scenes end up selling out Mindwarp’s shocking ending in just a few remarks and the utter confusion of its final scene which sees the Sixth Doctor going off in the TARDIS with a companion he has yet to meet.
In Review: What saves these episodes are the strong performances from the cast who seem to know their characters well and make the most of their time on screen, playing off each other nicely. Though the conclusion to the trial doesn’t really satisfy after twelve episodes of build-up, given the behind the scenes chaos when this was being made, it is far better than you might expect it to be.