Perdition, permission and Terror of the Vervoids (1986)

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On trial for his many lives, the Doctor (Colin Baker) is, by Part Nine of the epic The Trial of a Time Lord, allowed to deliver his defence. This is his chance to show himself in the very best light, to showcase his intelligence, bravery and ingenuity. He has access to every adventure he’s every embarked upon, past and future. Which will he choose? Which is the story so compelling it will convince these stuffed shirts and half eaten biscuit collars to acquit him unreservedly and send him on his way? Surely one of the all-time classics? Androzani? Tomb? Genesis of the Daleks?

The answer, apparently, is Terror of the Vervoids. That’s the clincher. That’s the one which will do the trick. Well, if nothing else, it’s a bold and colourful choice, so it does seem appropriate for our vibrant Sixth Doctor.

Throughout his trial, the Doctor claims that the evidence has been tampered with; that someone with access to the key to the Matrix and a bootleg version of Final Cut Pro has distorted the evidence, making him appear more culpable than he is. But to be fair, the Doctor’s made some questionable editing choices himself. Why, for instance, include the unflattering spectacle of himself labouring on an exercise bike, while being harangued by new and energetic companion Melanie (Bonnie Langford)? Why include being nagged into denying himself a chocolate biscuit? How do those little moments help his case?

But to be fair, this is the one segment of The Trial of a Time Lord that feels the most independent from its story arc. The Mysterious Planet uses the trial to gently critique Doctor Who itself, and Mindwarp interweaves the trial and its own story to dramatic effect. Terror of the Vervoids feels the most like its own story, with the trial being secondary to proceedings aboard this space version of the Orient Express. Japes with exercise bikes and chocolate biscuits are indicative of this lack of concern with matters judicial, which are just getting in the way of the murder mystery writers Pip & Jane Baker are trying to tell.

They do include some justification for this being the story to “improve the Doctor’s defence”, although it’s far from convincing. The Doctor, you’ll no doubt recall, is accused with meddling in the affairs of other peoples and planets. P&J’s defence is a little arcane and quibblesome.

It comes late in the story when Commodore Tonka Travers (Michael Craig) asks for the Doctor’s commitment to helping him rid his ship of the murderous Vervoids. This allows the Doctor to play his big legal card; he stands up proudly in court and says he wasn’t meddling, he was asked to help! Well that’s OK then. Play havoc with as many alien cultures as you like, as long as someone gives you a permission slip.

It’s a nonsense excuse anyway, because it pretends that the Doctor’s been refusing to involve himself in the mystery for the last three episodes. Travers’ request is, the Doctor says, “the reason he could no longer stay on the sidelines.” Except he’s been anything but staying on the sidelines. He’s been investigating and snooping and deducting and setting off fire alarms with the best of them. He’s embroiled. Sidelines, my spat covered foot.

But let’s give up trying to make sense of the trial scenes; there’s not much sense to be made and besides, they are all the same. Except for a cute section in Part Ten, when the Bakers indulge in a little audience participation. Onscreen, we’ve seen three masked aliens, the Mogarians, talk with old Tonka about a nearby black hole. Court prosecutor the Valeyard (Michael Jayston) gets bored and interrupts, causing the Doctor to rebuke him, saying a vital clue had just been revealed and someone is about to die. And in a shout out to those of us playing along at home, he points out:

DOCTOR: If you had been watching, you would know who was the intended victim!

Suddenly, it’s like we’re watching Blue Peter. I can see everyone in the trial room holding their poses awkwardly while one of the presenters strolls on.

JANET ELLIS: Well the plot thickens! I do hope you were watching carefully. Do you know which member of the passengers is next to bite the dust? I wonder if you spotted the clue Doctor Who was referring to. Let’s go back and have another look.

It turns out one of the Mogarians is bogus and did not turn on his translator, as the Doctor demonstrates through an action replay. For a moment, it’s like we’re watching an adaptation of Doctor Who Brain Teasers and Mind Benders. Spot the ten differences between these two pictures! Look at these three Mogarians; can you tell which is actually a human in disguise?

And we get a sense that this story embodies Pip & Jane’s vision for Doctor Who, untempered by the influence of script editor Eric Saward, who’d recently quit the show. And that vision is of a children’s program with pretensions towards education. In their next story, they’d attempt to include a section retelling the story of King Solomon, only for new script editor Andrew Cartmel to point out its tangential relevance to the story.

But still, this story, bright, strange and spangly, has the feel of something traditional about it. It’s no mistake that its plot is reminiscent of The Robots of Death. This is, at least in part, an attempt to recreate some of Doctor Who’s classic old scares. Or as Steven Moffat would say, to Hinchcliffe the shit out of it. And in the story’s latter stages, as the Vervoids rampage through the ship, killing indiscriminately, director Chris Clough does manage to evoke some of that creeping menace of old.

The problem is it’s too often undercut by tinkly music, convoluted dialogue and garish design, making the whole thing an inconsistent experience. This tendency to mix the creepy with the silly extends to the genitally faced Vervoids (which gender’s genitals have always been the subject of debate). They start off as a shadowy, silent presence, but then suddenly they begin to talk. And talk floridly. “We are doing splendidly!” one of them crows. “Congratulations must be delayed!” another responds.

With dialogue like this, it’s no wonder the Doctor’s driven to wipe them all out. But in a hastily contrived plot twist, he finds that this action lands him in even greater strife, with his charge upgraded to genocide. Terror of the Vervoids turns out not to be hero story he needed after all. If only someone had just asked him to commit genocide. All in all, he really should have chosen Genesis of the Daleks.

LINK TO: Sleep No More. Misguided scientists creating monsters running amok in spaceships.

NEXT TIME… Demons run when A Good Man Goes to War.

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