Continuing our four-part review of the BBC’s forthcoming Trial Of A Time Lord DVD release, which constitutes the complete 23rd season of Doctor Who in 1986…
3: Terror Of The Vervoids (eps. 9-12)Director: Chris Cloughwriters: Jane and Pip BakerPlotAfter a recess to permit the Doctor to mourn Peri and to research his defence in the Matrix, the trial resumes. The Valeyard has done his worst – for now. It’s time for the Doctor to present evidence, and he chooses an adventure with a future assistant that he has not actually met yet…
The Doctor and new gal Mel (Bonnie Langford) land the TARDIS in the year 2986 on the interstellar ship Hyperion III in response to a distress signal which indicated the importance of identifying a ‘traitor’ before the ship reaches its scheduled destination – Earth. But the ship is already under way; the assorted passengers and crew are already casting suspicious looks at one another, and no-one has even been killed yet!
Returning research scientist professor Lasky (Honor Blackman) and colleagues Bruchner (David Allister) and Doland (Malcolm Tierney) look around them with apprehension for signs of undercover security officers on their trail – and well they might, for they are bringing back to Earth a plant-based alien race known as the Vervoids, the nasty secret in the ‘plant husks’ they have entered into the hold and the cargo manifest.
In the meantime the Doctor and Mel have been brought before the ship’s captain, Commodore Travers (Michael Craig), an old acquaintance of the Doctor’s from another (unknown) adventure. Travers denies sending the signal but tacitly lets the Doctor roam the ship, Poirot-style, to sound out the passengers and the situation and find out who sent the signal before sabotaging the Hyperion III‘s communications – isolating the ship from other help than the Doctor’s.
It’s not looking good for our suspicious scientists, since Grenville (Tony Scoggo), the man they suspected of tracking them, has apparently been thrown into the refuse incinerator. In the meantime someone has broken into the hydroponics centre and stolen some of the ‘Demeter seeds’ which are part of the life-cycle of the now-dormant alien creatures.
Caught whilst doing a little snooping round the compromised hydroponics centre, Mel persuades communications officer Edwardes (Simon Slater) to show her the plant pods. An accident upon entering the restricted area causes electricity to surge through the dormant pods. A feeler thrusts through the green casing – the murderous Vervoids are loose!…
OpinionIf you have an appetite for the whodunit scenario, you’ll appreciate the extra work that Pip and Jane Baker put into creating genuine clues which will stand a re-watch; there are mysteries to solve here and you do get a fair crack at solving them. That said, if – like me – you’d rather sandpaper your inner eyelids than watch Agatha Christie, you’ll be aching for them to get on with the attack of the Vervoids.
In addition to having a name that sounds like a nasty proctological complaint, the Vervoids themselves, like many plant-forms, have an unfortunately sexual design. One country even insisted that they be removed from a VHS release of this tale as obscene!
Having liberally – and rather effectively – plundered several of the key elements of Alien, the Vervoids might have been more effective monsters if Pip and Jane had made them less chatty. As it is, they conspire amongst themselves in the traditional husky whispers made famous in Who canon by Derek Deadman in The Invasion Of Time. That said, the creature design is excellent, if poorly-finished, and these homicidal plant-forms might even be worth a second look in series 5 of new Who with a decent budget behind them.
Much as I’ve re-appraised Colin Baker’s Doctor whilst watching Trial Of A Time Lord, I have no particular problem with the oft-criticised Mel. Langford does what she can – her assistant has the least background story of any of them, and the set-up of Vervoids is inevitably going to be bogged down with exposition and plot-pushing rather than character development. Her obsession with gym workouts and health-food is as rooted in the 1980s as the geometrical designs adorning the sets of the Hyperion III. The retro-stylings of the interiors are a good excuse to save money on expensive spaceship doors by substituting them with hinged doors and doorknobs, but this reads as a laughable economy.
The Christie connection continues with the spaceship’s exterior, as the craft has an agreeably art-deco styling. Sadly the model-work on Vervoids would be sub-standard even if Trial‘s amazing motion-control opener had not raised the bar for SFX in Who. The ‘black hole’ effect is a risible video fudge and the ship itself seems to ‘move’ in space by camera-zooms rather than any real motion half the time.
Honor Blackman remains a formidable presence here – this is not a woman you cast ‘weak’, but the only other acting presence that makes itself felt is Michael Craig, already a veteran captain from the disastrous Triangle 4 years earlier. The spark he has with Baker makes you wish their previous adventure had been written and filmed.
One reason I hate whodunits is that they boil down in screen-form to a role-call of guest parts and bit parts where the characters have motivation but no depth; if much of Vervoids feels like a board-game, that’s largely the fault of the genre, in my opinion, rather than the writing.
The Doctor’s ongoing contention that the Matrix is re-writing the truth of the screened events will be addressed in Trial’s final adventure The Ultimate Foe, though it is destined to leave a lot of grey areas as to which bits of the preceding three adventures were ‘falsified’. There are also some causality issues in Terror Of The Vervoids: the Doctor’s presentation of a future episode in his life rather makes one wonder if he will be able to live it with any spontaneity when it finally comes to pass..?
Just as some of the weakest writing is found in the middle of any yarn, some of the weakest episodes are found in the middle of any series, and Vervoids only engages when the eponymous beasties are doing their worst.(add a star if you like whodunits)
– Commentary with Colin Baker, Pip and Jane Baker (no relation!), Michael Craig, Chris CloughOur commentators have some fun with the very low-tech technology they’re watching in Terror Of The Vervoids, whilst the ever-genial Baker continues to prod for interesting stories as well as coming up with several of his own. Craig also confesses that he was chided by the director for making his own sound-effects when he fired his ray-gun!
– The Making Of Terror Of The Vervoids (19.14)As in all archive releases, the principals involved are free to speak their minds on the product in question, making this documentary a typically lively and interesting peek behind the scenes of Vervoids. We hear from script editor Eric Saward on his search for usable writers for his ‘Agatha Christie’ story, and also from the writers he found, Who stalwarts Pip and Jane Baker, who unfortunately repeat a lot of the same stories in the commentary. Bonnie Langford, no doubt stung in the long-term by the harsh criticism fans ladled upon Mel, is as conspicuous by her absence here as in the commentary track. Also participating: Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, Who historians Chris Clough and Jim Sangster, writer Clayton Hickman, Michael Craig and Malcolm Tierney.
– Deleted and extended scenes (14.03)Unusually there seem to be some ‘missing’ SFX shots here. Special effects shots are costly enough to rarely hit the cutting floor in original Doctor Who, and the excised footage here is no better or worse than what remained in Terror Of The Vervoids. The BBC’s commitment to video over film was a boon for the location shoots but a ghastly loss for the special effects unit, which needs all the glamour of celluloid to pull off a cheap trick. The rest are the usual off-cuts.
– Trailers and continuity (3.13)A particularly uninspiring bunch of linking and trailer material this time.
– The Lost Season (10.58)The story of Doctor Who‘s first ‘practice’ hiatus preceding its 17-year absence from BBC schedules, narrated by Colin Baker but with interview snippets too. Here we find out in some detail about the six stories that constituted the originally planned 23rd season, including the return of the ‘celestial toymaker’ (a role Michael Gough had played in a Hartnell adventure in 1966) in the Blackpool-set Graham Williams script The Nightmare Fair. Amusingly this features some over-the-top Photoshop simulations of various actors in this unfilmed script; whoever did the Nicola Bryant ones is obviously a rabid fan! The Singapore-set Robert Holmes story ‘7c’ would have involved the most far-flung location shoot of any Who series – very optimistic given the draconian cuts being applied to the show. This mini-documentary is a gold-mine of many other lost stories from the ‘phantom’ 23rd series…
– InfotextMore great nuggets of Who info in a format that doesn’t work.
– Now Get Out Of That! (28.14)An epic and frank look at the history and practice of the end-of-episode cliff-hangers that hallmark Doctor Who. Here we look at some of the best and worst scream-moments, with a great insight from the contributors as to the methodology and tradition of shoe-horning a moment of suspense into a place in the script where it doesn’t necessarily belong. Features the least-impressive cliff-hanger ever – a tiled floor! And also one of the best, with a reverential tribute to the excellent nail-biter in the Hartnell adventure The Daleks. There’s a welcome contribution from Tom Baker, whilst others participating include: Sophie Aldred; Peter Davison; Nev Fountain; Nev Fountain; Joseph Lidster.
– Saturday Picture Show (7.26)Bonnie Langford makes an appearance on a kids show with DJ Gary Davies and Bucks Fizz singer and emergent presenter Cheryl Baker. Features extensive clips and promo for Trial Of A Time Lord.
– Photo Gallery (5.55)The usual bunch of production pics, this time from Terror Of The Vervoids.