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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord – Terror of the Vervoids (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Trial of a Time Lord originally aired in 1986.

Mmm. This is a situation that requires tact and finesse. Fortunately, I am blessed with both.

– the Sixth Doctor

Okay, so the “past” and “present” sections of The Trial of a Time Lord haven’t been blow-outs. The Mysterious Planet demonstrated that maybe, once upon a time, Doctor Who had been decidedly average, constructed of a checklist of familiar and inoffensive tropes. Mindwarp demonstrated that Colin Baker’s Doctor was the kind of character who you could probably imagine chaining his companion to a rock on the beach, before leaving her to die… or marry Brian Blessed… or something. But, hey, there was some social commentary! If The Trial of a Time Lord is constructed as a defence by the show to avoid being sentenced to the bleak nether-realms of cancellation, I have to confess that I’m not convinced. And I like the show to begin with.

Still, it’s not a total failure. I mean, whatever the show was or is, it can always be something better, right? And so, this final story, Terror of the Vervoids, could easily prove that the show has a very clear idea of where it’s going next? The future will be better tomorrow, and all that?

Cue incredibly lame "Pussy Galore" joke...

Cue incredibly lame “Pussy Galore” joke…

Sadly, no. The Trial of a Time Lord had managed to barely avoid condemning itself in the opening two stories. Hardly a solid position from which to mount a sterling defence. However, the season-long arc reaches the one crucial point where it is absolutely and pivotally important that it must not screw up… and it produces Terror of the Vervoids.

Far from demonstrating that the show had a clear plan to improve in the future, it also makes it abundantly clear that it has no idea how to end this arc. As in, the one we’re watching now. The one that is vitally important not to screw up. The season-long arc that is designed to serve as a thoughtful and insightful defence of a programme that had been coming under heavy fire from all quarters. The fourteen-episode story that – due to a foiled cancellation attempt by the BBC – you had a year and a half to prepare for. Viewers probably had a suspicion that The Trial of a Time Lord may have been flying by the seat of its pants, but Terror of the Vervoids makes us wonder if the show is actually wearing any pants.

My brain, my precious brain!

My brain, my precious brain!

To be fair, it was probably already too late to save Doctor Who at this point. The damage had been done. The audience was just watching the long, slow and painful death of a once-beloved television show drawn out across years. Andrew Cartmel’s efforts couldn’t save the show starting from the following year, so I think it’s unfair to place the blame for the second cancellation of the show squarely on The Trial of a Time Lord.

However, it might have made a significant difference, even if the show’s prognosis was ultimately terminal. It may have bought us another year or two of the classic show. It might have vindicate Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant, both of whom were unfairly maligned for behind-the-scenes difficulties. Most effectively of all, however, it might have proven the BBC wrong. It was unlikely ever to convince Michael Grade, but it might have stood as proof of the show’s potential – a demonstration of the best possible past, present and future for the character that would have at least won back the crowd in a way that some of the later Sylvester McCoy stories did.

He's a plant!

He’s a plant!

Unfortunately, The Trial of a Time Lord instead feels like an indictment. The most consistent story of the extended arc, The Mysterious Planet, is mediocre at best. The best serial in the season, Mindwarp, is bipolar and undermined by the show’s own lack of faith in itself. And the serial that is clearly meant to promise a bold and brighter future, Terror of the Vervoids, is just a shallow and half-hearted attempt to recycle familiar plot devices in a manner that is at best tedious.

After all, The Mysterious Planet and Mindwarp were apparently evidence for the prosecution. Of course, Doctor Who didn’t actively want to be cancelled at this point – against all evidence to the contrary – so the criticisms of the format were all shallow and intended to be unconvincing. It’s just unfortunate that the ambiguity of Mindwarp serves to illustrate the problems with the Sixth Doctor as a central character in a show like this. We’re told that some elements of the story were fabricated in order to excuse our lead, but it’s not too big a stretch to imagine a significant amount of truth in its portrayal of the Doctor as a failed hero.

No comment.

No comment.

In contrast, Terror of the Vervoids is supposed to be the show’s defense. It’s supposed to be the response to the “must do better” criticism that it has attracted for a considerable length of time. As The Trial of a Time Lord mirrors A Christmas Carol, this is supposed to represent the bold new “future” of the show, promising massive improvement if only it can be afforded a brief reprieve from the threat of cancellation.

Of course, Terror of the Vervoids didn’t wind up representing the future of the show particularly accurately, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. Writers Pip and Jane Baker are credited on the scripts for this story, the final story of this season and the first story of the next season. John Nathan-Turner was fond of the duo, probably for their speed and their adherence to formula. I am no fan of their writing, but I can see why a producer might favour working with them.

Trial and mostly error...

Trial and mostly error…

Writing both Colin Baker’s last story and Sylvester McCoy’s first adventure, it’s not too difficult to imagine an alternate world where Pip and Jane Baker would have left a sizable fingerprint on the last few years of the show. Based on the evidence presented in Terror of the Vervoids (and their subsequent work), we should really be grateful for Andrew Cartmel’s concerted effort to curb their influence on the series. It’s a shame that the Sylvester McCoy era had to end so abruptly, but imagining three years of stories influenced by Pip and Jane Baker is truly too horrible to fathom.

The problem with Terror of the Vervoids as a representation of the show’s future is that it’s just a collection of bits and pieces gathered together from the show’s history and a selection of iconic science-fiction, cobbled into a four-part story. To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with recycling in order to produce a Doctor Who story. After all, the Hinchcliffe era produced a number of classics that might affectionately be called “homages” to particular pulp fiction. The problem is that Terror of the Vervoids doesn’t put these pieces together with any skill. If you want to show us the potential future for the series, don’t half-heartedly knit it together out of tired and worn-out plot elements.

It's pretty far from sterile...

It’s pretty far from sterile…

The very name of the serial calls to mind Terror of the Autons, the classic Pertwee story. Mel is cast very much as a traditional companion, even more-so than Peri. The bubbly tone of the episode and the combination of strange aliens seems designed to serve as a conscious callback to the show under producer John Nathan-Turner’s predecessor, Graham Williams. As such, Terror of the Vervoids seems less like a new direction for the show and more like a patronising attempt to pull together some classic ingredients. (Which, incidentally, The Mysterious Planet did much better – if still not exceptionally.)

The serial borrows heavily from sources outside of Doctor Who as well. Again, this isn’t inherently a fatal flaw. The problem is that these are old and familiar ideas that seem to have been pulled randomly from popular pulp fiction with little insight about how to use them well. The eponymous monsters, which have their problems, seem clearly modeled on the monsters from Day of the Triffids. Of course, any sentient killer plants are going to remind viewers of those monsters, but there is plenty of overlap, including the fatal stinger.

Turning over a new leaf?

Turning over a new leaf?

There’s also a very clear influence from Alien on the adventure, which would have been grand had Alien been a relatively recent film. Indeed, Doctor Who did a much better version of Alien before the movie was even released with The Ark in Space. These monsters stalk the humans on a space ship mostly used to transport cargo, laying eggs in the cargo bay and even using humans for reproduction. Again, this sort of set-up is perfect for the Hinchcliffe era, but it feels strange, then, that the show seems to tell the story in the style of the lighter and bubblier Graham Williams period.

Of course, the Vervoids themselves are a fairly crap alien race. Their design is fairly easy to mock, something of a Freudian nightmare. They even spray white dust from their heads! However, that’s not the only problem with the monsters. As with so many monsters at this period in the show’s history, the effect is somewhat undermined by the use of bright lighting. Although they are apparently plants, to the point where the suits have flowers at the end of their arms, the actors still move their hands like regular people.

Lording it over the Doctor...

Lording it over the Doctor…

Despite the fact that they are playing plants and a lot of their scenes feature the plants scheming with one another, the actors seem to spend most of their time bobbing around and flexing – creating a weird sense of constant movement that doesn’t evoke plant-life at all. Instead, the creatures look (and sound) like a bunch of thugs in jungle camouflage just spoiling for a fight. It’s not really that convincing, and I’d argue that it’s these elements that make the Vervoids a terrible foe for this story, more than any sexual explicit aspect of their appearance.

There’s a sense that Terror of the Vervoids is attempting to do a mystery story set in outer space. After all, Lasky is seen reading Murder on the Orient Express, and there is an investigation plot running parallel to the threat posed by these creatures. The problem is that – quite clearly – Pip and Jane Baker have absolutely no idea how to write a mystery. Quite simply, the story does not work as what it sets out to be, a more fundamental problem than the clumsy use of cobbled-together imagery pilfered from better writers.

Cutting edge special effects...

Cutting edge special effects…

Indeed, the resolution to absolutely everything hinges on the fact that the ship is apparently carrying around a huge supply of a fictitious mineral that is so highly valued that it would prompt a hijacking. That’s hardly fair game. After all, if we don’t know that such a mineral exists in the universe, we are very unlikely to figure out that it is on the ship. This plotting problem also stems into the Vervoid plot, as saving the Earth hinges on pointless technobabble concerning this “Vionesium”, which is first mentioned in the last ten minutes of the adventure. There are no hints or foreshadowing.

This isn’t a problem unique to Terror of the Vervoids, but it is one that stands out in this adventure because this story should be about putting your best foot forward. There is no way that the script should have made it to screen, even given all the trouble going on behind-the-scenes. And that’s before we get to the whole “genocide” thing that the script treats so casually, until it makes an issue of it and then handily drops it immediately.

I think it's a fungal infection...

I think it’s a fungal infection…

“We are unique, the only members of the Vervoid species,” the Vervoids explain. “If he succeeds in eliminating us, Vervoids will cease to exist.” It’s easy to understand why they want to reach Earth, even if the consequences are dire. “Had a single Vervoid reached Earth, the human race would have been eliminated!” he protests in his defense. However, this doesn’t make the Vervoids inherently evil, something that the Doctor himself recognises, arguing, “The Vervoids are not psychopaths.”

This is the same character who refused to use genocide against the Daleks in Genesis of the Daleks. His later iterations in the revived series would soften a bit, and would wipe out many last survivors of dying races – but they would also make a point to offer their opponents a choice. You could imagine that the Doctor would work hard to find an alternative – to exhaust his options, to try to negotiate with the Vervoids. Of course, he’d never choose them over humanity, but we’d at least expect him to try.

An undergrowth movement...

An undergrowth movement…

Instead, the Sixth Doctor suggests the Vervoids can’t be considered to be alive due to their nature as plants. Mel reinforces this view handily for the audience, “Doctor, if you’re right, then coexistence with the Vervoids is an impossibility.” Travers agrees, “It’s a question of self-preservation. Kill or be killed.” In a way, this feels quite similar to the Sixth Doctor’s smug dismissal of the idea that Drathro might have an inherent right to exist in The Mysterious Planet. It feels like an ill-judged moment.

And, to be fair, the show calls the Doctor on this. However, given that the Valeyard changes the charge in the middle of the trial and is currently one shade shy of pantomime villainy, we’re clearly meant to side with the Doctor in this debate. The show handily drops the argument in the next episode, ignoring them for the conclusion of The Trial of a Time Lord. Those monsters were not like us at all, so his extermination of them must have been perfectly justified, right?

The hole of time and space...

The hole of time and space…

The show has always had a bit of difficulty with recognising that just because something looks monstrous doesn’t mean it is somehow less than us. That is one advantage that I think Star Trek always had over classic Doctor Who, the ability to recognise that ugly and evil are not inherently synonymous. Terror of the Vervoids just pushes this to the point where we are meant to root for the Doctor wiping out a race of sentient creatures, and not minding that genocide because they are different from us. Oh, and because he ages them to death or something, which is apparently technically different from murdering them or something.

There are some interesting aspects of Terror of the Vervoids, even if they are eaten away by the crap surrounding them. The revelation that the Matrix allows the Doctor to view his future adventures, for example, is a fascinating concept – but one that the show isn’t nearly smart enough to play with at this point. It also raises some fundamentally questions about the way that Gallifrey operates and when exactly the trial is taking place.

"Um... Doctor, you haven't let any other companions die recently, have you?"

“Um… Doctor, you haven’t let any other companions die recently, have you?”

We know that the Sixth Doctor and the Valeyard are out of synch with one another. The tendency is to believe that the Valeyard has travelled back in time and is intruding on the Sixth Doctor’s present – but what if he hasn’t? What if the Valeyard and the Inquisitor come from the same timeframe? What if they are based in the Sixth Doctor’s future? And what if they’ve pinched him out of his present to bring him to his future to stand trial?

After all, the use of the Matrix to see the future would be a fairly handy skill with massive social implications on Gallifrey, right? Surely the trial could actually just look into the future in the Matrix to see how they sentence the Doctor and then sentence him using that as a guideline? The ability to see the future would make plots like The Invasion of Time seem even more ridiculous than they would otherwise be. Even The Deadly Assassin would be handily resolved if the Time Lords could look into the Matrix and see the Doctor solve the crime in the future.

On yer bike...

On yer bike…

So it doesn’t really make that much sense to believe that the Matrix should chart the future. Instead, it makes more sense that the Doctor has been pulled into his own future and is exploring this Matrix’s past – which just happens to be his future. Since nobody has really done that much with The Trial of a Time Lord, it doesn’t really matter, but it’s fun to speculate. Could you retroactively connect this hearing to the Last Great Time War? After all, that might explain why the trial is taking place on a station rather than Gallifrey, and why The Ultimate Foe reveals Gallifrey to be in turmoil.

From a meta-fictional point of view, given that the Last Great Time War serves as a handy explanation for both the mess of cancellation-related continuity, explaining how we can have so many Ninth Doctors, then it makes sense for The Trial of a Time Lord to be an early echo of that conflict. After all, if Russell T. Davies can retroactively incorporate Genesis of the Daleks into the Time War, then it makes just as much sense to contextualise The Trial of a Time Lord as part of it.

Sitting it out...

Sitting it out…

I also quite like the idea that the Sixth Doctor’s view of his own future may have informed the Seventh Doctor’s approach to pre-emptively dealing with threats. The Seventh Doctor is, after all, a master manipulator, and that knowledge could at least be informed by his exploration of his possible future. I know this is – like the Time War theory – pure fan speculation, but it is fun to think about.

Terror of the Vervoids also introduces Mel. I actually don’t mind Mel, despite the fact that she tends to attract a lot of scorn. Again, she’s a concept that could very easily have been something very clever, but ultimately The Trial of a Time Lord was not smart enough to pull off that sort of high-concept. Mel is essentially a companion from the Doctor’s future. They are out-of-synch with one another. It’s not to hard to believe that this basic idea may have somehow contributed to Steven Moffat’s ideas for River Song. He was just better at follow-through.

No Mel fides here...

No Mel fides here…

Indeed, in many respects, Mel is Moffat’s ideal companion. Moffat has argued that there are particular attributes that lend themselves to companions, effectively limiting the role of companion to healthy young women. I don’t buy that logic for a moment, but – if you accept the idea that a companion should match a particular profile – Mel is fairly close to that profile. Much is made of the fact that Bonnie Langford was asked to pitch her screams to match the theme song sting. It’s often treated somewhat dismissively, but that ignores the amount of skill that such an act involves. The problem is that this is a reductive interpretation of the companion’s role.

The companion has to scream, so Bonnie Langford is arguably the most proficient screamer ever to play a supporting role in Doctor Who. The companion has to be able to run, so Mel is written as a fitness freak. Much like Martha, Mel would score top marks on a “companion efficiency” scale. She is even designed to function efficiently. Even in comparison to other companions on the classic series, Mel comes without baggage. She doesn’t even get an origin story. There’s no clutter here. Mel is literally a plot function constructed to optimise efficiency and given flesh.

A Bonnie lass...

A Bonnie lass…

I’m not generally a fan of that approach. I disagree with Steven Moffat on the requirements for a companion. I prefer a bit of variety, and a bit of novelty in the relationship between the Doctor and his companion. However, despite that, I am actually reasonably fond of Mel. She’s not one of my favourite companions, but I think she works much better than Peri. Peri seems like an attempt to construct an emotionally nuanced and fragile companion. Peri’s defining character traits were being abused and victimised by male characters, and freaking out.

She was especially high-strung, understandable since her main role was to be objectified by the villain of the week. The problem was the show wasn’t quite able to handle a companion like that, and the result was the disastrous combination of Peri and the Sixth Doctor. It seemed at times disturbingly like an abusive marriage. Indeed, sometimes it seemed like they only stayed together because the Sixth Doctor had convinced her that he was the kind and gentle man she ran away with, rather than convincing her to stick around based on the Sixth Doctor’s own merits.

A wash-out?

A wash-out?

Peri would have worked well with Peter Davison’s more gentle Doctor, but pairing her with Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor led to one of the most toxic dynamics in the history of the show. As a result, the more generic Mel works much better with the Sixth Doctor, because she doesn’t have any baggage that rubs against the Sixth Doctor’s sizable baggage. It helps that Mel isn’t objectified in her opening story. I wonder how much that shot of Nicola Bryant in a bikini set the tone for Peri’s time on the show.

More than that, though, Baker’s Doctor seems like a version of the character who needs somebody to keep him on the straight and narrow. He’s the most ethically fallible of the Doctors. Indeed, Mindwarp hinges on the fact that we really can’t rule out that sort of amoral and cowardly behaviour from his iteration. The sight of Mel forcing the Sixth Doctor on to an exercise bike and making him drink carrot juice is pretty much exactly what this version of the character needs – somebody to keep him in check.

It's just a shame they so quick deep-sixed Baker...

It’s just a shame they so quick deep-sixed Baker…

Indeed, the Sixth Doctor continues his trend towards toning himself down. His exchanges with Mel might not bring out the very occasional tenderness he reserved for Peri, but at least they don’t make him seem as callous and indifferent as most of his banter with his former companion:

Do you know, I’ve always envied you that?

I shall probably regret this, but go on, I’ll bite. Envied me what?

Your amazing ability for almost total recall.

Compliments. You are undergoing a change.

It is, at this point, too little too late, but – at least – Mel and the Doctor seem to have a fairly standard relationship. Which is a step up from the uncomfortable dynamic that existed only one adventure earlier.

Hardly the edge of his seat...

Hardly the edge of his seat…

Mel doesn’t really have a personality to speak of, but she is at least characterised as “goodie-goodie”, and it’s nice to have somebody like that around. Of course, she doesn’t stop the Doctor committing genocide, but I guess we can’t have it all. I should also concede that we’ve reached the point where I’m actually quite happy that the series has recruited a perfectly bland and average companion. That is how bleak things are at this point in the series, that Mel is something to get excited about.

I’m sorry, that sounds unfair. Bonnie Langford does some great work here. There is something to be said for the way that Langford good-naturedly goes along with all that is asked of her. To be entirely frank, Mel isn’t the most rewarding of roles, but I think Langford never phones it in, to her credit. In fact, she brings a certain level of technical proficiency that helps the show. She’s not the best actress to ever play a companion, but she can pitch her screams to match the show’s theme song sting. I can’t imagine too many others could do that.

Subtle!

Subtle!

Still, Terror of the Vervoids is a mess of an episode. Literally all I can say in its defense is that there’s some interesting fan theories to be formed and that the new companion is pleasingly bland. That’s not a good thing, and it doesn’t bode well for the show’s future.

You might be interested in our reviews of the rest of Colin Baker’s final season, “The Trial of a Time Lord”:

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