By Craig Owen Jones
Danny Nicol’s recent comments on Doctor Who’s twenty-second season, otherwise known as "The Trial Of A Time Lord" (1986) achieve a great deal in drawing attention to the season’s tendency to play fast and loose with the most basic principles of jurisprudence. As an adjunct to Nicol’s characterisation of its problems, there are some interesting precedents in British television prior to the season’s broadcast that may benefit from scrutiny.
|"The Trial of a Time Lord":|
The Inquisitor questions the Doctor
Many of the germane aspects of the trial depicted in this peculiar quartet of serials from the Colin Baker era receive their most compelling treatments not in British science fiction (Blake’s 7’s (1978-81) dalliances with the device of the courtroom trial during its second season notwithstanding), but in the realm of comedy. The television run of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-74) found the conduct of judges and policemen alike to be fertile ground. Both the death penalty and the rule against bias were satirised by a sketch in ‘The Spanish Inquisition’ (1970), in which a frustrated judge (Graham Chapman) rails against his inability to condemn the defendant in the light of the restrictions then recently placed on usage of the death penalty, asserting instead his imminent move to South Africa (‘England makes you sick!... I’m off, I’ve bought my ticket’), before declaring that, in a final fling before leaving, the defendant is sentenced to be burnt at the stake.
The question of reliability of police evidence, meanwhile, was mercilessly lampooned in the Monty Python’s Flying Circus episode ‘The Light Entertainment War’ (1974), in which a doltish police officer (Michael Palin) is in cahoots with Terry Jones’ judge, and (ineptly) gives evidence to implicate the defendant (Eric Idle) while reading from his notebook. The sketch was still considered sufficiently relevant in 1979 to warrant an airing during the Secret Policeman’s Ball, the series of occasional charity shows staged in aid of Amnesty International throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, this time with Graham Chapman as the policeman and Peter Cook as the defendant.
Cook provides another example that is relevant to the issues under study. On the penultimate evening of the 1979 show’s run, Cook – taking his cue from the outrageously partial summing-up of Sir Justice Cantley during the Thorpe trial which had ended the previous week – delivered a monologue that has since become known as ‘Here Comes The Judge’ that combined observations on class and political leanings to impugn the judge’s impartiality with devastating effect. The monologue, which brought the house down, was so successful that it was shortly released as a spoken-word record, and is now acknowledged as a masterpiece of British comedy. Cantley’s couching of his comments in the language of impartiality bring to mind nothing so much as Lynda Bellingham’s Inquisitor, whose behaviour becomes increasingly inscrutable as the season progresses.
|Satirising the police:|
Not The Nine O'Clock News
The late 1970s in particular seems to have provided a good deal of grist for the satirist’s mill in the way of improper conduct in both the courtroom and the police station. Arguably the most successful satirical programme of the period, Not The Nine O’Clock News (1979-82) was the originator of several sketches to criticise the conduct of the police, including an uproarious monologue by Griff Rhys Jones that begins with an extreme close-up of what we assume is a yob bragging about his exploits during a riot in which he assaulted several people – ‘I hate mush, cos they make me puke, right?...’ – only for the camera to slowly zoom out, revealing that Jones is in fact wearing a police uniform (but see below). The much-criticised ‘sus laws’ that resulted in the disproportionate stopping and searching of black people provided a focus for another sketch that saw Jones playing a policeman, this time one ‘Constable Savage’, who is pulled up by his superior (Rowan Atkinson) for repeatedly arresting the same man, one Winston Kodogo; the sketch ends with Atkinson deciding the best place for Savage to continue his career is with the Special Patrol Group. The SPG also received bad press in The Young Ones (1982-84), in which the police in general are routinely portrayed as needlessly heavy-handed. In one episode, Alexei Sayle plays a police inspector in the guise of Benito Mussolini; in another, Rick (Rik Mayall) starts to play some music during a party, only to have his record player destroyed – mere seconds later! – by a police officer who asserts that ‘the neighbours have been complaining’.
|Satirising the police interview video:|
Alas Smith and Jones
But the treatment of police officers that is most relevant in respect of Trial Of A Time Lord’s preoccupation with the admissibility of the evidence provided by the Matrix is found in Alas Smith And Jones (1984-98), the vehicle of NTNOCN alumni Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith. In a keenly-observed sketch set in the interview room of a police station, we see the interviewer (Jones) questioning a suspect (Smith). Smith’s character is clearly innocent, but Jones’ gleeful demeanour derives from his transparent attempts to tamper with the evidence – the video of the interview shows evidence of several clumsy edits, and in the final seconds of the video, Smith finally appears bloodied and bruised, implying his maltreatment in the cells. The sketch was broadcast in 1992, several years after the introduction of recorded interviews in 1984, but it is hard not to view it as a direct response to that policy. What it questions is not the principle of recording, but the fidelity to the truth of that which is recorded. When we hear the evidence of a witness as recorded in an interview room shorn of context, to what extent may it be relied upon?
Such depictions of the adversarial process play, of course, devil’s advocate. Smith and Jones do not seriously claim that the recording of police interviews should be dispensed with as useless or unreliable. But they do succeed in interrogating our understanding of such interviews as infallibly truthful sources of evidence. The police interview sketch takes the point to its furthest extreme; it is Kurosawa’s Rashomon played for laughs. But in its highlighting of the mutability of evidence presented at one remove, in videoed, taped, or written form, it asserts the centrality of authority, of ruling by the sword. After all, the Time Lords are more or less all-powerful; and there are several moments in Trial Of A Time Lord where the court gets perilously close to dispensing the cosmic equivalent of victor’s justice. Unlike the science fiction comedy Red Dwarf episode ‘Justice’ (1991), in which the crew enter a penal space station enveloped by a ‘justice field’ within which the consequences of an unjust act are instantly played out on the perpetrator – in Trial the gap between the act of interrogation of one’s actions and determining ways of dealing with them in a just fashion is improbably broad. As Nicol notes, the contradiction between the format of the trial and the outcome is never resolved – charges are summarily dropped, and the process is never properly concluded.
Given the preponderance of satirical commentaries on these issues noted above, it is tempting to view Trial in the same way, as a metatextual comment on the way in which Doctor Who was being treated by the BBC at the time. As is well known, season twenty-three’s story arc was occasioned by producer John Nathan-Turner’s conviction that the show was experiencing something akin to being on trial, with frequent changes to format and scheduling and near-constant criticism of its tone both within the BBC and from viewers irate at the gory, violent tenor of the programme under the editorship of Eric Saward. This seems on the face of it to be a legitimate rationale for the haphazard trial process that we see. After all, Doctor Who was not above satirising the British establishment in the 1980s – one thinks of The Happiness Patrol (1988), a trenchant comment on the Thatcher ministry. Showing a frustratingly Kafkaesque Gallifreyan system of jurisprudence could, in the right hands, have constituted a powerful riposte to the show’s treatment by the BBC.
The Doctor and the Valeyard