“The Ultimate Foe” is a unique two-part story in that while it has its own plot, it exists primarily to wrap up the previous twelve episodes and cap off the entire Trial storyline. It succeeds, but the story definitely varies in quality depending on the author. This particular story has three authors due to various unpleasant circumstances. Robert Holmes died before completing the two episodes, so Eric Saward stepped in to finish the scripts. After a disagreement with John Nathan-Turner, Saward withdrew permission to use his script for part fourteen, so Pip and Jane Baker were asked to write it instead. Amazingly, it all works fairly well despite the musical authors.
The first half of episode thirteen, the half written by Robert Holmes, is one of the best Doctor Who episodes in a long time. The revelations come thick and fast as the evidence from the Matrix wraps up and the trial scenes take on a greater life of their own. The Doctor insists the evidence in the Matrix has been tampered with, while the Valeyard scoffs at the idea and the Inquisitor insists that the Matrix is infallible. Things are looking very bad for the Doctor until the Master appears and intervenes by sending Glitz and Mel as witnesses to events, and by appearing himself from within the Matrix. The truth of events on Ravalox is finally made clear, and the true identity of the Valeyard is also revealed.
Let me take a moment to discuss the Master’s involvement in the episode. He knows the truth about the Valeyard and exposes him while at the same time effectively saving the Doctor’s life. He also indirectly causes the overthrow of the High Council by exposing the Ravalox cover-up. It’s ironic that if not for his involvement, the High Council would have succeeded in eliminating the Doctor and covering up their crimes. The Doctor’s own arch-enemy saves his life. Anthony Ainley gives a great performance, as the character is clearly enjoying himself tremendously.
In many ways, the storyline of “Trial” draws on several past Robert Holmes stories. As the info text on the DVD points out, the destruction of the Earth by solar flares and the connection with Andromeda has ties with “The Ark in Space”, where Nerva had been set up as a survival chamber for humanity when they saw the coming destruction of Earth by solar flares. An expedition to Andromeda is mentioned by the Wirrn, and the sleepers in “The Mysterious Planet” were said to have come from Andromeda. The links may well have been deliberate given Holmes’ authorship of both serials, but regardless, the links to past storylines are a welcome and subtle bit of continuity. The conception of the Matrix owes much to “The Deadly Assassin”, another Holmes script. In fact, at the end of part thirteen the Doctor pretty much repeats himself when he says “I deny this reality”, a line lifted verbatim from “Assassin”. The portrayal of the Time Lords as a corrupt, inward-looking group who have grown stagnant and criminal is also consistent with that earlier story. It’s a pity that the overthrow of the High Council occurs offscreen, as political revolution on Gallifrey is a great concept that deserves further exploration. It’s very satisfying for the long-time fan that the events of “The Ultimate Foe” don’t occur in a vacuum, but draw on and build upon past story themes.
With the crimes of the High Council exposed by the Master, the story shifts to the revelation of who the Valeyard is. Once the Master exposes him, he makes a run for it and hides himself in the Matrix. The Doctor pursues him and drags Glitz along for the ride. The quality of the story from this point on isn’t as good as the Holmes-scripted material, but it’s sound enough. The Valeyard plays games with the Doctor’s head and attempts to kill him in various humiliating ways. Special mention should go to the “trial within a trial” segment, as well as the Master’s almost peripheral involvement in events as he seeks to capitalize on the Time Lords’ attempt to frame the Doctor.
In the end, the Doctor realizes that the attempt to kill him was far too elaborate. Why set up the charade of a trial when a bullet in the head from an assassin would have been far easier? The answer lies in a hit list that the Valeyard has rather conveniently created. The Valeyard intends to make a play for power and assassinate the jurists at the Doctor’s trial, the “supreme guardians of Gallifreyan law”. The Doctor is able to stop him and save everyone’s life. With the truth exposed, the Inquisitor drops all charges, leaving the Doctor free to resume his roaming of the universe. Presumably he returns Mel to her proper place in time, though the story seems to indicate that she simply resumes traveling with him, creating a paradox.
“The Ultimate Foe” ties up the entire “Trial of a Time Lord” storyline fairly well. The revelations in part thirteen form a strong payoff to the underlying story, but the remainder of parts thirteen and fourteen aren’t as strong as I’d have preferred. There’s a lot of running around in the Matrix which is entertaining, but doesn’t really advance the storyline so much as mark time until the end of part fourteen.