Doctor Who - The Trial of a Time Lord: Terror of the Vervoids

The courtroom is called to order as our witnesses for the defence of the 30th Anniversary of the Classic Doctor Who series The Trial of a Time Lord are sworn in to give testimony. Now, called to testify on the anniversary of the end of the third story Terror of the Vervoids, is Ian Ham...

*Placing right hand solemnly on one of my copies of ‘Peter Davison’s Book of Alien Monsters’ and hoping that this review is a better tie-in to the series than that book was*

‘We, Barnaby Eaton-Jones, Ian Ham and Robert Barton-Ancliffe, do hereby swear that the reviews we are about to give shall be the truth, mixed with some opinion, humour, and inevitably, some terrible puns. Furthermore, we will endeavour to present an honest appraisal of ‘The Trial of a Time Lord’ which will, where possible, judge the finished story on its own merits, delving into scandalous rumour, hearsay and conjecture where directly relevant to the matter at hand, or if it’s a particularly juicy anecdote.’

So we come to the third segment of our mammoth Trial of a Time Lord recap. By now you will have read Robert reminiscing about a horny robot, and Barnaby waxing lyrical about a slug on a box. Now it’s my turn to scribble about part three, the Agatha Christie in Space. Ten Little Vervoids, if you will.

You young whippersnappers. You pretty young things. You Millenials with your skinny jeans,your slip on shoes and manscaping. Yes, I may be shuffling about in my early forties, moaning about the youth of today, questioning if music has always been this loud and forgetting why I go into rooms, but at least I can remember the good old days of classic Doctor Who. When I were a small lad we had an actor playing a very grumpy Doctor who had been in the role a couple of years following the youngest actor to play the role. This older actor had played a small role in the series a couple of years before, and it was about to experience an extended period off the air. Oh, wait, I can see a couple of similarities here.

In the intervening thirty years there have been a couple of minor changes to the series here and there. For example, the BBC seem to be treating it with slightly less contempt, they seem to be feeding it with a much healthier budget and this current eighteen month hiatus seems to have a planned in order to rejuvenate the programme and hand over to a nice shiny new showrunner.

And as a bonus, there’s been no charity record.

Another change for the positive is that we now have double the amount of screen time (we had to make do with less than seven hours of Doctor Who a year IF WE WERE LUCKY.)

This entire series of Doctor Who holds fond memories for me. I recall various episodes of the series before that. Several nightmare inducing images come to mind. But Trial was the first series that I watched from start to finish. As a twelve year old, it was pretty much the first complete series I’d watched of anything. To this day, three images from the series have stuck with me; (1) the Doctor sinking into the sand, (2) the hands coming out of the barrel (both from a story yet to come), and (3) pretty much the entirety of the Vervoid segment. The others sections I couldn’t remember very well, but the ideas and visuals of that series for some reason stayed with me. And *that* cliffhanger too…

Trial of a Time Lord Part 9

Once the now slightly tiresome introductory Trial scene is out of the way, the scene is set aboard the space liner Hyperion III. The Doctor is now presenting his defence, and chooses an adventure from his own future. We are introduced to a bunch of characters that are to be bumped off one by one, Ten Little Indians style. Professor Lasky (Honor Blackman), along with her colleagues Bruchner (David Allister) and Doland (Malcolm Tierney) suspect the alarmingly acted Grenville (Tony Scoggo) of being a spy sent in to investigate their experiments.

An unseen hand incapacitates Edwards (Simon Slater), the communication officer, and sends an SOS to the TARDIS that just happens to be ambling by. The Doctor and Mel receive the call and land in the cargo hold to investigate. They are seized upon by guards who take them to their leader, who in this case is Commodore Travers (Michael Craig) whom the Doctor has encountered before in an unseen adventure. Travers immediately gives the Doctor and Mel carte blanche to wander the ship and Not Get Into Trouble™.

All sorts of high jinks then ensue, resulting in Mel and Edwards investigating Laskey’s mysterious Hydroponics centre. Edwards tries to open the centre and is shockingly immediately electrocuted. Mel screams in the key of F which segues nicely into the Doctor Who theme tune.

Trial of a Time Lord Part 10

Doland and Bruchner arrive at the Hydroponics centres to discover that their strangely man-sized pods are empty.

Commodore Travers decides that things are starting to get too hairy and plots a quicker path back to Earth, nipping in quite close to the Black hole of Tartarus in the process. Some of the Mogarians on board express reservations about this. One of the Mogarians collapses, only to be revealed to be Grenville in disguise.

After further high jinks, the Doctor and Mel observe Lasky leaving a suspicious looking Isolation Room. They enter the room and discovered a half plant half human mutant in a box that caused a twelve year old in Chipping Norton to wet the bed for a week.

Trial of a Time Lord Part 11

The Vervoids – the plant creations of Lasky et al are revealed to be on the loose – having been released when Edwards was electrocuted. They have been quietly killing people one by one around then ship and then concealing their bodies.

Bruchner goes Tonto and commandeers the ship attempting to destroy it and everything on board by piloting it into the heart of the Black Hole of Tartarus.

Trial of a Time Lord Part 12

(I think the Glasgow Herald TV Critic had given up on the puns by this point)

The Vervoids fill the bridge with marsh gas. The Mogarians (possessing handy breathing apparatus devices) enter the bridge a point the ship in a direction other than certain death in a black hole.

Now Security Officer Rudge (Denys Hawthorne) goes bananas decideing that he hasn’t been adequately remunerated over the course of his career, and has presumably calculated that his Security Officer state pension won’t cover all his expenditures before he shuffles off his mortal coil and also takes over the ship with the help of the Mogarians.

After yet more antics, Rudge is overcome and then killed by the Vervoids (a nasty way to go), Lasky learns the error of her ways and then also dispatched quickly by the man-plants.

The Doctor then handily accelerates the Vervoids lifecyle with a McGuffin, kills them all, and saves the day.

Back in the Trial courtroom, the Valeyard thinks that committing genocide isn’t nice, and updates the Doctor’s misdemeanour sheet accordingly.

This is the story that stands out for me when I remember watching Trial as a twelve year old. Before video recorders reached West Oxfordshire, I remember even resorting to taping some of the episodes on an old cassette recorder with a microphone jammed up against the TV. All recordings since lost unfortunately.

Unlike other stories under the Trial umbrella, the actual Trial sequences in this story are much less intrusive. All these episodes have proper cliff-hangers in their own right, and it is for that reason it would work very well as a standalone story. Of course the moment that sticks out for me in particular is the bed wetting end of part ten. The poor part-lady-part-plant stuck in a box that the Doctor and Mel disturb really stands out.

However, there are several aspects of this serial that are only sub-brilliant. As we have observed in the other articles about Trial of a Time Lord, if this had been produced on a huge budget this particular segment of the Trial could have looked absolutely amazing. I think that unfortunately, the chief culprit is probably the way the story is lit. I imagine that this is in no way the fault of Don Babbage (the man credited with flood lighting this story) but I still feel the need to cruelly single him out. I assume it was BBC policy at the time to light everything up like the Blackpool Illuminations, however I can’t help but think that nearly every scene could have been vastly improved by telling Don to slide the dimmer switch down a notch or two. If you take that aspect, and also increase the costume budget, you’d have something that wouldn’t look out of place in the modern series. Some of the dodgier special effects could have been masked this way too. Admittedly there are some questionable performances, but when you have Colin Baker, Michael Jayston, Michael Craig and Honor Blackman amongst your cast you should be able to paper over most of the cracks.

All stories in this season have long and convoluted histories, and this one is no exception. Although this block of episodes seems to have gone through more revisions than most. Writers for these four episodes included David Halliwell and Jack Trevor Story (writing two separate stories when it was originally two two-parters), former script editor Christopher H Bidmead, and finally PJ Hammond (Sapphire & Steel). All were dropped for various reasons in favour of Pip and Jane Baker.

The guest cast is reminiscent of a BBC murder mystery production. Honor Blackman and Michael Craig are both outstanding in their roles and both bring a little extra twinkle to their respective parts. It’s a shame we never saw Commodore Travers again as he would have made an excellent Brigadier-like occasional guest star. An honourable mention should also be made of Yolande Palfrey as the ever reliable Janet the Space Waitress. I doubt if this was ever a consideration, but she would have made an excellent understated companion.

Colin Baker is continuing to develop his mellower sixth Doctor by now, and is starting to show his softer more approachable side. It’s ironic then, that it was just before the airing of this story that Colin Baker learnt that his services were no longer required on the show, and that his contract was not being renewed by the BBC. This is a crying shame, as you can just start to see here how his character may have developed. Although with the quality of material from Season 24 to go on who knows how long he would have wanted to stay anyway. This Doctor’s paternal side seems to be brought out by the new character of Mel, played with typical, umm, gusto by Bonnie Langford. You can’t fault her formidable stage presence, but perhaps she was still finding her feet in the more intimate medium of TV.

With Mel’s stereotypical 80s character sketched out, and with Bonnie eventually lined up to play her, this was apparently the last straw for series Script Editor Eric Saward. He felt that Langford’s casting was a step too far (along with bringing back Pip and Jane Baker on writing duties), and as a result of this and several other factors, decided to walk out of the production entirely.

This resulted in the odd situation of producer John Nathan Turner also acting as uncredited Script Editor for the rest of the series. Pip and Jane Baker have been probably fairly maligned over the years, but in this case, they produced EXACTLY what they were tasked with – a romping Who-dunit (hahahaha!) in space. They may have written extremely clunky dialogue (“A web of mayhem and intrigue!”), but they produced serviceable scripts as quickly as they were required. And as Colin Baker would later say – it was quite a good challenge of an actor to makes those lines sound convincing. As a twelve year old, it was an incredibly atmospheric set of episodes that scared me to death in parts. As a forty-two year old, I loved re-watching it again after a gap of thirty years, and it brought back happy memories of watching the episodes in my gran’s room with my little brother. Aside from the bright shiny light bulbs of course.

Of the remaining principal cast members, the late Linda Bellingham works wonders with minimal material, and Michael Jayston is superb as ever chewing the scenery as the Valeyard.

The episodes were directed efficiently and unobtrusively by Chris Clough – his first set of episodes for the series. He went on to direct a large amount of the rest of the classic series.

Overall, these four episodes are really good examples of mid-eighties Doctor Who. They may have been wrapped up with the ultimately ever so slightly unsatisfactory Trial of a Time Lord, but if viewed as a standalone story, they stack up fairly well. And given the sheer amount of problems that the production itself was going through, it’s amazing that these fourteen episodes ever got to air at all.

(And it never occurred to me for a second that the baddies in this story resembled private parts in any way at all).

So there are many parallels between 1986 Doctor Who and 2016 Doctor Who, but there are also many contrasts. 1986 Who was in its death throes (although nobody really knew it at the time), and 2016 Who is in full rude health. Despite reports, viewing figures are strong, and exports have never been higher. I’m pretty confident we won’t be in for a 16 year hiatus in 2019.

Robert Barton-Ancliffe

‘Terror of The Vervoids’, what can I say? I rather like the mystery throughout the story, famously styled after the works of Agatha Christie, a whodunit with sci-fi trappings and years before ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’ from David Tennant’s fourth series too, only a little more subtle in its homage. The space-liner setting is a wonderful departure from ‘Doctor Who’s well worn ‘base under siege’ trope - a little odd, but it works, and is another thing that predates RTD’s era, with ‘Voyage of the Damned’. The sets are impressively expansive too, if a little too bathed in lavender. That being said, it’s pretty consistent visually, and is no worse than the beige lounge like feel of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’. There’s a very good supporting cast too. Honor Blackman stays in the memory, perhaps simply because she was the most high profile of the supporting players, but Michael Craig is the stand out performance here as Travers who in a nice touch, is not only acquainted with the Doctor, but isn’t all that in awe of him.

The introduction of Bonnie Langford’s Mel is controversial, similar to the rumblings that greeted Billie Piper’s entrance in ‘Rose’, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the character and I appreciate the optimism she brings to proceedings. Her character is drawn as forthright and clever, a good foil for Baker’s erratic Doctor, despite bringing a scream that could shatter a Pyrex jug. Bonnie Langford’s later work on the audios has given her, as with Baker, scope to enrich the character, which she does in fine style.

The biggest impression this story left with me though were the Vervoids themselves, surprisingly well realised by makeup and costuming, all pulsing veins and ghoulish body horror. The cliff-hanger reveal is the stuff of nightmares, and left me with a genuine fear of pollen for years to come. Such concepts work wonders on impressionable young minds, and despite the beginning of Baker’s second series with a more light hearted tone, this one sits alongside the more grizzly examples of Baker’s era for me. Doctor Who, despite its struggles during this time, had lost none of its power to shock.

Barnaby Eaton-Jones

A good old-fashioned murder/mystery with a delicious science-fiction twist. When I watched this on first viewing, I absolutely loved it; not least because the monsters were rather convincing and there was that episode ending with the half-realised creature. Everyone always mentions the Agatha Christie vibe to it all and, like a lavish production of a Christie novel with famous actors forming an orderly queue to guest star, this story has splashed out on the celebrity faces too. There’s movie legend Michael Craig, kickass Bond girl and one-time Avenger Honor Blackman, and that smarmy posh bloke from Lovejoy that isn't Ian McShane. Unfortunately, the off-kilter introduction of a new, perky companion – in the form of Bonnie Langford’s computer programmer, Melanie Bush, unbalances the mood of the story. Her ‘Let’s Put On The Show Right Here’ style doesn’t mesh with the story (in the same way as the lighting that bathes everything in a bright glow could’ve done with being toned down a bit) and – though she fits in other stories she appears in during Sylvester McCoy’s comical beginnings as the Seventh Doctor, she just isn’t suited to the Sixth Doctor’s personality.

The Trial of a Time Lord will continue after a short recess, on 6th December. Court is adjourned until then.

Colin Baker – BBC DVD © 2008 BBC Worldwide Ltd
Newspaper cuttings – Glasgow Herald, Google News Archive
Vervoids – BBC America

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