The Ultimate Study – ‘Black Archive: The Ultimate Foe’ reviewed

❉ The latest in the Black Archive series looks at perhaps the most turbulent time in the history of  Doctor Who.

In 1985, Doctor Who was thrown into turmoil. Michael Grade and Jonathan Powell tried their best to be rid of the show, but found somewhat to their surprise that neither producer John Nathan-Turner nor fandom were ready to let it go as easily as Grade and Powell hoped.  It’s the cancellation that sets in motion the events that ultimately lead to the creation of the Trial linking theme and the tumultuous last two episodes of The Trial of a Time Lord.

Cooray-Smith uses the cancellation as his starting point for this book, with a concise and clear look at the events of February and March 1985. This is probably the best ever look at those months, with interviews from the major figures concerned with it used very well to explain how it came about and the effects this had on both the production team and the BBC itself at the time.  What comes across is how unprecedented Grade and Powell’s cancellation of the show was, and how time and again their actions went beyond normal BBC protocol.  Indeed, many of Powell’s decisions seem to be motivated by a personal dislike of John Nathan-Turner more than a dislike of Doctor Who itself.

Out of this turmoil came a recommission of the series and The Trial of a Time Lord. Cooray-Smith takes a methodical look at how the season was created and pieces together a timeline that shows just how in disarray the creative processes behind the scenes were. Scripts were commissioned, then junked. Writers come and go and the reliance on Robert Holmes, who then falls ill and ultimately dies while creating the last two episodes of the season, places the season in jeopardy.

The book takes a look at the various versions of The Ultimate Foe that almost came to be. I can’t recall another book that has looked at this in so much detail, looking at unused versions and comparing them. Although I knew Eric Saward had written parts of Part Thirteen, what I hadn’t realized was just how much of it he wrote. The Matrix sections of the episode which fandom has always celebrated as the most Holmesian actually came from Saward. These replaced the rather gory and nasty Jack the Ripper storyline Robert Holmes had originally written, which while fascinating to read make you glad we had the episode that made it to screen.

This is then followed by a look at Part Fourteen, which had an even more convoluted route to the screen.  Saward’s episode is looked at in some detail and again it feels like the show had a lucky escape. While not actively bad, it has a strange sense of inertia, which Cooray-Smith postulates comes from Saward’s grief. Nathan-Turner’s decision to not make this episode feels justified. It wouldn’t have been a satisfying end to the season, particularly with the future of the show in such a precarious position.

Enter Pip and Jane Baker, the saviours of the season. Cooray-Smith’s observations on their work are astute. They’re the de facto creative force at this point in the show’s history, writing nine episodes in a row that ended one era and began the next. As he shows with his analysis of their episode, it stands as a bit of triumph. Written in a hurry and with few pointers, the Bakers came up with something that worked better than it had any right to do, considering the circumstances that brought about their involvement and just how quickly they came up with a script.  Again, Cooray-Smith’s analysis is great here, particularly when looking at just who is the Valeyard. The comparisons between the various scripts show just how muddled the character was, with none of the writers quite knowing whether he’s really a future Doctor or not. Even looking at the scripts, it’s not clear just who changed the concept of the Valeyard, and Cooray-Smith does his best to work this out.

James Cooray-Smith’s methodical approach to his research and his careful creation of the timeline that lead to these episodes being made makes this book such a success. So much has been written over the years about this period of Doctor Who, but I’m struggling to think of anywhere else where it has been pieced together so well and so clearly. Making sense of how these episodes were created from the chaos behind the scenes is something to be treasured.

Even if you’re not a fan of this era, this is more than worth a read. It is a brilliant book and yet another triumph for the Black Archive series.  They really are talking Doctor Who scholarship to a new and fantastic level.


❉ ‘The Black Archive #14: The Ultimate Foe’ by James Cooray-Smith is out now from Obverse Books, RRP £3.99 – £7.99. Click here to buy or for more information.

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