Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...
Day 680: The Ultimate Foe, Episode One (The Trial of a Time Lord, Episode Thirteen)
I don't think I've ever really understood the Matrix in Doctor Who. It seems to be too many different things all at once. It's a whole pocket universe. It's a virtual reality. It's the place where Time Lord consciousness is uploaded when they die. It's a communications network. For the last twelve days, it's been a DVD collection of the Doctor's adventures. In The Deadly Assassin and in this story, it's playing the part of a virtual reality that can be bent to the will of the strongest inhabitant… I just get lost in trying to keep up with it. Today adds an additional complication in that not everything is an illusion in the way the Doctor expects it to be - somethings, like the harpoon thrown at Glitz, are decidedly real!
I'm also confused about the way that you actually enter the Matrix. In this episode, we're introduced to 'the Keeper', who announces that you can only enter the Matrix with the Key of Rassilon, which is always kept in his possession (unlike the Key of Rassilon which featured in The Invasion of Time). He says that people are very rarely allowed to enter the Matrix, and it happens perhaps once a millennia with him blessing and the key. And yet, in The Deadly Assassin, the Doctor simply needed to be wired to a machine to enter the realm, as did Goth, whose equipment wasn't exactly up-to-scratch! We then enter the Matrix here through the 'Seventh Door', which happens to be on this space station (that I can buy, the High Council would have ensured it).
What's lost me about all this is… did the Valeyard actively go in to the Matrix to alter all the footage we've been watching? While the Doctor was off reviewing the events of Terror of the Vervoids, was the Valeyard skulking around in a Matrix-version of the Hyperion III, altering events behind the Doctor? And if you only need someone to physically enter the Matrix once every thousand years or so, then why do you need to have a minimum of seven doors? Surely that's just Inviting a leak of the contents?
Then we've got the revelation that the secrets Glitz was hunting in The Mysterious Planet were leaked scientific advancements from the Matrix itself. Right. Okay. So now, the Matrix is also a Dropbox file, where the Time Lords can store all their scientific information, when they're not slipping in to the pocket dimension to play a game of cat-and-mouse? Please tell me that I'm not the only one who can't quite wrap my head around all of this?
All that said, I do like the idea that Glitz is trading in Gallifreyan secrets. There's something about it which feels again as though it could fit quite neatly in to my vision of the Time War drawing closer, with the Daleks trying to hack in to the Time Lord's great big databank, and the 'lesser species' all flocking to the breach to try and swipe some of the secrets for themselves. I've mentioned before how much I enjoy these odd little hints of Gallifreyan mythology to seep in from time to time, and this is a perfect example. I also love that the current High Council is so utterly corrupt, and that they'd made a deal with the Valeyard to set up this whole trial, and to use the Doctor as a bit of a scapegoat.
It then raises the interesting question of which High Council this may be. Is it the current one, back on Gallifrey? I'm almost tempted to think of it as being a future High Council (possibly even the one we see in The End of Time, headed by Rassilon himself?), who have opted to come back in time and put the Doctor on trial in this particular incarnation because he's a) the most violent of all the Doctors up to the point where the Time War kicks off, and b) the next Doctor is the one who helps to kick it all off, when he blows up Skaro! There may be a bit of fudging to be done in the next episode, but I think it's a theory which can just about hang together, so I think I'll be accepting it into my own 'head canon' from now on!
Today is probably the best moment to actually discuss the Valeyard, too. There's been lots of talk about him within fandom in the last year or so, with it being revealed that the Matt Smith incarnation of the Doctor is the final one in his current life-cycle. The general topic that keeps being raised is that we should have therefore seen the Valeyard come in to being when David Tennant became Matt Smith, with some people actively suggesting that the Meta-crisis Doctor could well be the birth of the Valeyard, because it fits in with the timeline. Actually, it's simply that these people aren't listening to what's said in this episode! I saw lots of complaining that the Valeyard is supposed to appear between the Doctor's twelfth and thirteenth incarnations, but that's not what the Master actually says - he specifically describes it as being between the Doctor's 'twelfth and final' incarnations. Now, at the time, this was intended to mean between twelve and thirteen, but in hindsight, not knowing that the Doctor's life has been extended with a new regeneration cycle, it opens up one or two more interesting possibilities. For what it's worth, I don't think that we'll ever see the Valeyard in the programme again, but I don't think we've missed the boat recently in the way that some people seem to claim!
I really do love the way that the revelation of the Valeyard's origins comes about, too. It's not made a bit thing of, there's not massive reveal, it's simply slipped out in the middle of the Master's sentence, and then he carries on talking. That works so beautifully, because it leaves you almost not listening to the rest of the conversation - you're too busy trying to work out if you've understood what was said properly or not. The Doctor then picks up on it a moment later to help confirm your suspicions. It's very cleverly done, and I'm glad that in his final episode, Robert Holmes could slip in something as beautifully executed as that.
The Doctor himself is on fine form again today. During The Mysterious Planet, I picked out his speech about stars dying as a real highlight moment of his era, and I think that we've got another one today. It comes as he decrees the assembled Time Lords in the courtroom for their part in events on Ravalox;
In all my travellings throughout the universe I have battled against evil, against power-mad conspirators. I should have stayed here. The oldest civilisation, decadent, degenerate and rotten to the core. Ha! 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.
It's such a grand speech, and it works especially well for this most grandiose of Doctors - I think a few of the earlier incarnations could have pulled it off (Pertwee and Tom Baker especially), but it seems very fitting for the Sixth Doctor, and it gives Colin one more chance to shine before he bows out tomorrow…