Doctor Who (Classic): “The Trial Of A Time Lord, Part 3: Terror Of The Vervoids”
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Doctor Who (Classic): “The Trial Of A Time Lord, Part 3: Terror Of The Vervoids”

“Terror Of The Vervoids” (Season 23, episodes 9-12. Originally broadcast Nov. 1-22, 1986.)

My first car was a 1989 Toyota Corolla, an old rattletrap held together by rust and chicken wire and duct tape. I knew even less about auto maintenance than I do now, which is really saying something, so I kept on driving the thing even though it sent up red flag after red flag—the engine light, the black smoke coming out of the exhaust, what sounded like mystical chanting coming out of the carburetor, all the usual signs. Eventually the thing went kaput while I was on the freeway, stranding me in traffic, and I had to fork over a thousand bucks to have a hunk of metal and plastic the size of a human heart replaced. It was something to do with the oil. Apparently cars need oil. Who knew? It was a pretty traumatic experience, but once it was over I was a little wiser and had a car that could take me around town again. It was still a piece of junk that I needed to replace as soon as I could afford to, but that one change at least helped the car run properly, sort of.

Which was sort of what was happening at this point in season 23 on Doctor Who. By killing off Peri, “Mindwarp” kickstarted the painful process of ripping parts from the engine of the Sixth Doctor era in hopes of fixing Doctor Who, and “Terror Of The Vervoids” accelerated it. Two key personnel changes drastically changed the tone of the show. In: a new companion, Mel, played by Bonnie Langford. Out: longtime script editor Eric Saward. These two changes didn’t actually fix the show so much as create a set of new problems, making a bad series bad in a different way, but it was a start. It set the stage for the age of Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor in seasons 24 to 26—which had its own problems, but at last brought the show much-needed new focus and sense of purpose. To quote the Sixth Doctor’s first words, it was change, my dear, and not a moment too soon.

The behind-the-scenes happenings during the last half of season 23 get a little complicated, but they’re essential to understanding why “Trial Of A Time Lord” ends up the way it does. The “Trial” season had been thought up by Saward and producer John Nathan-Turner in part as a defense of the embattled series against its detractors, some of whom were in a position to have it cancelled. In the end, the pressures of producing exacerbated tensions between Saward and JNT and made Saward frustrated enough to quit, which he did acrimoniously while working on the fourth and final part of “Trial.” He also refused to touch the third segment, “Terror Of The Vervoids,” at all, hating JNT’s concept for Mel and unimpressed by what scriptwriters Pip and Jane Baker had done so far with the story. 

And indeed, the Bakers’ chief virtue appears to be that they wrote quickly and to the specs the production required—in this case, a murder mystery on a spaceliner that would be entirely shot in the studio to save money. (Nathan-Turner had also used them for the earlier “Mark Of The Rani,” and would bring them back for the Seventh Doctor’s debut “Time Of The Rani.”) Whether what they wrote was good was less of a consideration. Since Saward refused to edit their script, Nathan-Turner did it without credit, and I suspect that he did very little considering all the clunky, needlessly repetitive, and illogical material that remains in the finished product. Still, if nothing else it’s interesting because along with “Time And The Rani” it forms an odd little transitional gap between the most dominant writing voices of 1980s Doctor Who, Saward and the Seventh Doctor’s script editor Andrew Cartmel, the only serials for a six-year period not shaped by either of their very distinct approaches.   

“Terror Of The Vervoids” begins by checking in on the Doctor and his opponent the Valeyard in the increasingly tedious and banal obligatory courtroom scenes. There’s a token farewell to Peri, killed off in the preceding serial “Mindwarp.” And then it’s on to the defense phase of the trial, and the Doctor chooses, weirdly, to present an adventure that hasn’t happened to him yet—it takes place in his own future, and he discovered it searching through the Time Lords’ all-knowing database, the Matrix. This could have been a really interesting twist, but the idea of a future adventure seems to have been decided on by the production team because it sounded cool, not because they had any interest in or clue about exploring the ramifications of that kind of timey-wimey stuff. (There’s a feint at it to gloss over Mel’s asynchronous debut, but that’s it.) I could see how  interacting with one’s own future might be a fairly common occurence for Time Lords, and that their society might have adopted ways of dealing with paradoxes and causality problems, and even integrating it into their legal system as the Doctor does here. But I don’t get the impression that anyone working on the scripts stopped and said, for instance, “Hey, wait a minute—according to what we’ve just written, Time Lord law apparently allows a person to be charged for a crime they have not yet committed. How would that work exactly?”

The bulk of the story, though, takes place on the spaceliner Hyperion in the 2900s, where the Doctor and Mel arrive after receiving a mysterious mayday call. Soon enough, they’re embroiled in a murder mystery reminiscent of Agatha Christie. In case you might miss that homage, there are no less than three shots of the novel Murder On The Orient Express. I think there would have been a fourth if they could have figured out a way to actually hit you on the head with the book.

As in any good Christie story, nearly every secondary character on the Hyperion has a secret agenda of his or her own. Besides the apparent murder of an undercover cop that kicks the whole thing off—he’s later murdered again for real when he’s discovered in another disguise—there are disgruntled aliens angry at Earth for stealing their resources, an incompetent security chief nursing a chip on his shoulder, and three shifty scientists led by Lasky (Honor Blackman, famous for The Avengers) who are hiding something in an ominously-named Isolation Room, as well as a half-dozen giant green pods in the cargo bay. These are the obligatory monsters: Homicidal plants called Vervoids that have been genetically engineered as slave labor and aren’t too happy about it. Eventually, they get loose and run rampant on the ship killing all the humans, as monsters do. 

Besides being a Christie homage, “Terror Of The Vervoids” is a deliberate attempt to recapture the spirit of older Doctor Who mystery-heavy serials—the situation on the Hyperion is similar to the starship-based investigation the Fourth Doctor gets into in “The Nightmare Of Eden,” and Mel and the Sixth Doctor’s dynamic is highly reminiscent of the Third Doctor and Jo’s “The Curse Of Peladon.” 

But whatever success it might have had is utterly undone by the script’s opacity and awful dialogue (“It is because on the previous occasion that the Doctor's path crossed mine, I found myself involved in a web of mayhem and intrigue”), not to mention the uninspired and, frankly, lazy production. The worst has got to be the murder of the Mogarians: Scripted as death by oxygen, which the aliens can’t breathe, instead somebody offscreen simply throws a glass of water at them. And the actors fall down screaming. 

Pip and Jane Baker, meanwhile, seem to have no idea how a murder mystery is actually constructed, or how a murder investigation would be carried out. Repeatedly, the importance of a clue is brought to our attention without any actual forward progress of the story happening because of the discovery. The Doctor looks over the passenger manifest for suspicious names, then simply gives up when he doesn’t recognize anybody. Hercule Poirot would sneer at him for that. 

Bizarrely, once the Vervoids start massacring, the Bakers keep going with the murder-mystery plot even while everyone is fighting for their lives. It makes as much sense as if you were out at the grocery store and suddenly a herd of elephants trampled everyone in the produce section, and you just kept right on shopping. 

Rather than spend a lot of time dissecting the plot, which in this case just gives me a headache, here’s a rundown of just a few of the plot holes and other inanities created by Pip and Jane’s poorly thought-out script: 

How did Hallet get away with hiding among the Mogarians when there were only two Mogarians to begin with? Why does the Doctor make such a fuss about refusing to kill the Vervoids because it’s immoral when his alternate plan is to age them past the end of their lifecycles, thus killing them? What is the fascination with having so many scenes centered around aerobics and exercise equipment? What was Hallett’s secret mission anyway? Why isn’t Commodore Travers notified immediately that the Vervoids are roaming around through his ship killing all the humans they can find? How does Mel scream when she’s wearing a breathing mask? What kind of a spaceship is “designed to be hijack-proof” in such a way that when it is hijacked, the crew is prevented from cutting off power to the bridge and taking the ship back? How can the Doctor be so insistent that “the Vervoids are not psychopaths” when he’s never even seen one yet? Why is it impossible to coexist peacefully with the Vervoids just because humans eat plants? We can coexist with dogs even though we eat cows. Maybe if we ate Vervoids it would be an issue. How does Doland intend to use the Vervoids as slaves when they’re so implacably lethal? And since they’re genetically engineered in a lab, why did they bother to give them a deadly poison sting? And why do the Vervoids look so much like, er, let’s say Georgia O’Keeffe paintings?

Saward favored a gritty, dark, even nihilistic approach to the show, and without him, “Terror Of The Vervoids” is lighter than anything Doctor Who had done in years. That’s partly because, left to their own devices, Pip and Jane Baker thought of Doctor Who as children’s entertainment and wrote it that way. Sure, it could be plenty violent, as the literal pile of dead bodies the Vervoids stack up proves, but it wasn’t the bleak dystopian worldview of Saward. A significant part of  “Terror Of The Vervoids” is just an adventure about a plucky girl detective who solves crimes with her eccentric friend. It’s Nancy Drew on a starship. No wonder Saward hated Mel.

And certainly, a lot of Doctor Who fans dislike Mel too, and I can see why. She’s perky as a squirrel on espresso, screams too much, and especially in her debut here, the series tries way too hard to insist on how terrific she is. “How I keep up with you is a constant source of amazement to me,” chirps the Doctor. But that’s a fault of the writing, mostly, not so much Langford’s performance in the role—she does the best she can with the material, and at her best she brings the same kind of vivaciousness that Katy Manning did as Jo Grant to the Third Doctor era. Yes, Mel is annoying, but I also can’t overstate how much more pleasant it is to watch a show about two people who like each other and are eager to travel the universe even though they keep getting in trouble, rather than a domineering bully and his miserable friend.

If only her debut had been written and produced less ham-handedly, Mel might not be so widely remembered as one of the most irritating companions in Doctor Who’s history. (And I’m not the only person who’s seen a similarity between Mel and River Song, as if Steven Moffat created River as a way to redo Mel in a way that actually worked.) 

Doctor Who needed someone like Mel, at least for a short time, to help clear the decks. The switch between Peri and Mel is like somebody grabbing hold of the steering wheel of a speeding car and wrenching it in the other direction. Rarely has a new character changed the overall mood of the series so drastically. The arrogant, abrasive Sixth Doctor was badly in need of someone who would push him back, and the fact that Mel talks back to the Doctor and even bosses him around helps ameliorate the worst aspects of his personality. It also helps that the story goes to some lengths to show that this most pompous of Doctors can also be charming when he tries to be, given to whimsical magician’s tricks like the flowers he pulls out of his sleeve. But at this point it was surely too little, too late for Colin Baker, who would be forced to hand over the TARDIS controls to Sylvester McCoy soon enough.

Stray observations

• I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be attending the Doctor Who convention CONsole Room, May 16-18 in Minneapolis, as one of their guest writers. Sophie Aldred (Seventh Doctor companion Ace) and Deborah Watling (Second Doctor companion Victoria) are the celebrity guests. If you happen to live in or near the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, stop by and say hi. Not sure yet what panels I will be on, but I’ll keep you posted. Pre-registration for the con closes on April 15. More details at http://console-room.mpls.cx/

• Man alive, the courtroom sequences are just death to any story momentum. The characters never move, the room design is awkward, and the same boring points are rehashed over and over. There is potential for the Trial itself to actually be interesting, since there’s clearly something fishy going on behind the scenes, but that would require that something dramatic actually happen. Why isn’t the Doctor actively investigating whether the Matrix was tampered with, for example? It would have been much better if some of that had been shown. Especially since all that ever happens is that the Valeyard complains about what’s happening onscreen. It’s like watching Doctor Who with someone who won’t let go of the remote control and keeps pausing it to castigate you about how you shouldn’t be watching it. 

• Apparently they still play Galaga in the 2900s, at least among Mogarians.

• R.I.P. Kate O’Mara, who played another Pip and Jane Baker creation, the villainous Rani.

• Upcoming schedule (biweekly on Saturdays at 2 p.m. Central): 

• April 19: The Second Doctor meets the Cybermen in the newly restored “The Moonbase.” 

• May 3: “Trial Of A Time Lord part 4: The Ultimate Foe”

• Coming up: A Seventh Doctor serial, to be determined. And the Fourth Doctor’s season-long “Key To Time” arc, in order, with stories from other seasons inbetween. I’ve already covered the first Key serial, “The Ribos Operation,” so we’ll start with “The Pirate Planet.” 

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