Terror of the VervoidsBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

After the ghastly 'Mindwarp, 'The Trial of a Time Lord' continues with a story commonly known as 'Terror of the Vervoids', by 'The Mark of the Rani' scribes Pip and Jane Baker. I must confess that, my mood considerably soured by the preceding four episodes, I was expecting to vent further spleen on 'Terror of the Vervoids', but although it is somewhat flawed, I nevertheless found it hugely entertaining on this occasion; for all of its faults, 'Terror of the Vervoids' is essentially fun.

Before I start on the story proper, I'll again consider the actual courtroom scenes. Here, they are once more rather less intrusive than in Episodes Five to Eight, and despite the Doctor's continued grief at Peri's apparent death, the mood is lightened somewhat as the ball enters the Doctor's court. It is often argued that the idea of the Doctor presenting evidence from his own future is nonsensical, although this is not strictly true; it is established back in 'Genesis of the Daleks' that the Time Lord's can make predictions of possible future timelines, and in retrospect the Matrix seems to be the most obvious tool for them to use. Thus, it is consistent with what we know about Time Lord technology that the Doctor could present evidence from his own possible future, even if he were to be executed at the end of his trial. Speaking of which, foreknowledge of what is to come adds rather deeper meaning to the Valeyard's line, "The future? Is it going to be the Doctor's defense that he improves? This I must see!"

In terms of the overall subplots seeded throughout 'The Trial of a Time Lord', 'Terror of the Vervoids' contributes rather less than its predecessors, although the fact that the evidence has been altered since the Doctor reviewed it whilst preparing his defense makes it even clearer that the Matrix has been tampered with. Ultimately of course, the greatest contribution of 'Terror of the Vervoids' to the trial is the fact that it causes the charge against the Doctor to be changed. I find it rather amusing that the Doctor is ham-fisted enough to provide evidence of himself committing genocide to an opponent as obviously keen to see him dead as the Valeyard is, although this bit really is nonsensical; since these events haven't happened yet, why doesn't he just promise to find an alternative solution to the Vervoid problem when he eventually encounters them?

And so on to the story itself. 'Terror of the Vervoids' suffers from several faults. For one thing, the direction by Chris Clough is competent for the most part, but let down by a few really poor moments, such as when the trainers worn by the actors playing the Vervoids become visible twice in Episode Twelve. The effects sequences used to depict the Black Hole of Tartarus are really bad, showing as they do a black hole picked out in bright red triangles; these sequences look even worse when the model of the Hyperion III is placed in them, as neither the shot nor the script provides a sense of perspective. Anyone with even the most basic knowledge of physics must surely realize how far away from the black hole the Hyperion III must actually be in order to pass near it in safety, but here it looks as though as it is literally missing it by a few feet. And yes, I know this probably wouldn't bother me if I weren't a scientist, but I am and it does. Whilst I'm on the subject of poor direction, the close-up of the Doctor's face at the end of Episode Ten is taking the piss even in the midst of Season Twenty-Three; provided with the more sensible option of keeping the camera on Ruth Baxter's face, Clough instead directs the camera straight up Baker's nose. 

In addition to these minor niggles with the direction, 'Terror of the Vervoids' has what might be generously termed eccentric scripting. The Bakers are notorious for overblown dialogue, and here it is evident throughout. The most memorable examples of appalling dialogue are delivered by Commodore Travers and include "On the previous occasion that the Doctor's path crossed mine, I found myself involved in a web of mayhem and intrigue" and of course the immortal "Whoever's been dumped in there has been pulverized into fragments and sent floating into space, and in my book that's murder!", as well as the less celebrated "Fire alarms are not playthings for irresponsible buffoons". Whilst I'm on the subject of eccentric scripting, there is a scene in Episode Nine which seems intended purely to establish that Professor Lasky is a bit of a battle axe, as she grills Janet the stewardess about her lost luggage. It transpires that she entered cabin six by mistake, when she should have entered cabin nine, because she was looking at her key ring upside down. The scene demonstrates that Lasky is short-tempered and quick to place blame on others, but more than this it ends up raising the question of why the Hyperion III has lockable cabin doors if the keys are interchangeable…

But despite these flaws, 'Terror of the Vervoids' is very entertaining. It is hugely derivative, inviting comparisons with the base-under-siege stories beloved of the Troughton era and of course 'The Robots of Death' to which it bears several similarities in terms of plot, and of course it is a blatant homage to Agatha Christie's Murder On the Orient Express, a copy of which Lasky reads at one point. This scene in fact typifies the slightly tongue-in-cheek approach that the Bakers take in their script, although this is far less obvious than in 'The Mark of the Rani'. As in their earlier stories, the Bakers seem to enjoy making use of the Doctor Who format, combining the elements of a traditional monster story with the cliché of a scheming megalomaniac (albeit one who is more banal than many in the series), all wrapped up in a fairly effective whodunit subplot. There is a certain knowing humour inherent in the story; the boots left by Hallet are clearly planted to suggest that the missing passenger has been thrown into the pulveriser, and it's so blindingly obvious that the Bakers have to be poking fun at the format of murder mystery stories. By the end of Episode Eleven and throughout Episode Twelve, numerous plot threads mature and within the space of about twenty-five minutes we are presented with two hijack attempts with entirely different motivations, the unmasking of a murderer, and the defeat of the obligatory monsters. It borders on the ludicrous, but it works because the script has a certain verve that belies its pompous and overblown dialogue. 

As for the murder mystery itself, it is effectively handled; Malcolm Tierney's Doland is motivated by a desire to achieve financial glory by exploiting the Vervoids, which despite the science fiction trappings is a believably petty motivation. He shows no remorse whatsoever and keeps on killing victim after victim to protect his own interests, but whilst he's a clearly a psychopath, Tierney's quiet, banal performance makes Doland far more realistic than many of the raving lunatics seen inDoctor Who. In the style of such writers as Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell, all of the clues as to the identity of the killer are available to the viewer, making it easier and easier to work out who the murderer is as the story progresses. Indeed, the death of Hallet deliberately makes an example of the fact that clues are on screen for the attentive viewer to spot, as the Doctor smugly points out to the Valeyard; as a story point it is a nice detail which shows off the Doctor's deductive abilities (I confess I don't recall spotting the translator clue when this story was first broadcast, although I was only nine years old at the time…), but it also gently plays with the whodunit format. 

'Terror of the Vervoids' also benefits from decent characterisation. In part, this is a requirement of the format, as characters are given enough background to provide a number of suspects; David Allister's highly strung Bruchner is one such character, and eventually turns out not to be the murderer, but to be sufficiently horrified by the thought of the Vervoids reaching Earth to not only attempt suicide but to take everyone on board the Hyperion III with him. Of the other two scientists, I've already discussed Doland, but Honor Blackman is perfectly cast as the grouchy Professor Lasky, her initially foul tempered demeanor making her growing respect for the Doctor all the more effective. Meanwhile, Denys Hawthorne also puts in a good performance as Rudge, yet another potential suspect who turns out to have (or rather, develops) his own agenda, as the put-upon security guard decides to get some pay back for years of humiliation at the hands of his superiors. Both the script and Hawthorne effectively suggest that this perceived poor treatment is largely in Rudge's own insecure mind, and the Doctor's final dismissal of him as "just a little man" is cruelly ironic. The Mogarians, Rudge's fellow hijackers, are also potential murder suspects, as they continuously object to the exploitation of their planet's resources by humanity. And whilst I'm on the subject of the Mogarians, it is nice to see an alien race that doesn't speak English for once. 

Even those characters that never seem like potential suspects are well acted and characterised; Arthur Hewlett's Kimber serves primarily to necessitate Hallet changing his plans and adopting the guise of Enzu, but the few scenes that he is in are enough to render him sufficiently likeable that his death has some impact. As for the Commodore, Michael Craig does a frankly astonishing job of maintaining the character's dignity in light of the mouthfuls of awful dialogue that he is given, and the character's previous experience of the Doctor makes for an often amusing relationship between the two, that also showcases some painful insights into how the Doctor is often perceived, Travers noting that people tend to start to die whenever the Doctor is present. 

Such characterisation adds significantly to the air of intrigue that permeates Episode Nine, as questions are raised for the viewer about the pods, the Isolation Room, and Grenville's suspicious behaviour. Mention of the pods brings me to the Vervoids themselves. Whilst they are often derided for having heads that resemble female genitalia, as an attempt to create a hostile plant they really aren't bad. Whilst 'The Seeds of Doom' is rightly acclaimed as a classic by many fans, even the Krynoid looks dodgy at times, highlighting the fact that creating monstrous vegetation is no easy task. The Vervoids are well designed if a little rubbery in execution, and in terms of the story their instinctive antipathy towards all animal life makes a peaceful solution possible; the result is a rare attempt for the Sixth Doctor's era at a real monster story, and it is more than welcome. In addition, the means by which the Vervoids are defeated is rather ingenious, even if it is dependent on technobabble. 

Finally, there are the regulars. In keeping with his desire to prove to the court that he improves, the Sixth Doctor of the future is far more playful and whimsical than usual, and it works very well. Lines such as "More of a clown actually. Would you like to hear my rendering of "On With the Motley?" ", "This is a situation that requires tact and finesse. Fortunately, I am blessed with both" and "Wish I could get rid of my waste so easily" shows a more self-deprecating side to often arrogant Sixth Doctor, in part due to Baker's warmer delivery. In addition to this, his relationship with new companion Mel contrasts nicely with his often-spiky relationship with Peri, the pair indulging in much light-hearted banter and seeming genuinely close. It is hard to imagine Peri managing to persuade the Sixth Doctor to use an exercise bike for example, but it seems perfectly natural that Mel can do so. As for Mel herself, she is one of the least popular companions to appear in the series, but personally I rather like her. Both Bonnie Langford and Mel the character exude tremendous enthusiasm, and it's refreshing to see the Doctor accompanied by someone who is obviously enjoying the ride. True, Langford (and by extension Mel) can be too chirpy to he point that she becomes annoying, but the character's essential bravery and resourcefulness, coupled with an inquiring mind and tremendous curiosity, mean that she's ideal companion material. 

In summary then, 'Terror of the Vervoids' sees an improvement in the fortunes of 'The Trial of a Time Lord', and if nothing else is very entertaining. It also serves as a well-timed rest from the courtroom proceedings, which are less intrusive here, after the various issues that were raised during 'Mindwarp' and before all is revealed in the story's denouement…

FILTER: - Television - Series 23 - Sixth Doctor