Monday, December 27, 2010

Serial 145: Terror of the Vervoids - The Trial of a Time Lord Part III

Doctor: Colin Baker (6th Doctor)
Companion: Melanie Bush

Written by: Pip and Jane Baker
Directed by: Chris Clough

Background & Significance: Oh god, Pip and Jane.

That was my first thought upon finding out who happened to write this third segment of "Trial of a Time Lord", especially since the last Doctor Who encounter with them turned out to be less than satisfactory. Apparently Script Editor Saward thought so too, because he wasn't exactly keen on working with this team again, but due to a bunch of delays and unsuitable scripts to constitute the second to last segment of the Trial, they really had no choice--apparently these two churned out work like nobody's business, which is important for a TV show with a rapidly approaching production deadline.

But also important for a TV show is not only the speed with which the work gets turned in, but the quality... Which, all things considered, turned out to be surprisingly good with this serial. But I'll get into that in a bit.

Also notable is the first appearance of Melanie "Mel" Bush, the Doctor's new companion. Created by JNT and portrayed by Bonnie Langford (a well-known actress and musical theater star), she's always had something of a bad rep among fans, but I think she'll surprise you in this.

Unfortunately for the behind the scenes aspect of the show in production at the time, the character as well as the actress chosen to portray her further deepened the rift between producer and script editor, finally culminating in Saward's departure from the show. (But he's kind of an asshole anyway, so his loss.)

Enough about that, though. Let's take a closer look, shall we?


Part 1

Right, so, Pip and Jane Baker. Last time we encountered you, you were busy coming up with The Rani and then making her suck, which isn’t exactly a vote of confidence in my book. In fact, I was dreading this story for that very reason (and the introduction of Mel, but I’ll talk about her in a bit). But you’ve managed to surprise me so far, because this is a standard, decent, interesting part one we have here.

The first thing I want to talk about are the cutaways to the Trial. There are only two in this part, which is nice. Viewers by now should know that the Doctor’s standing trial for crimes against the Time Lord law of meddling. But even so, just in case (you know, maybe you stopped watching because it got too horrible or violent or whatever, and now you’re hearing buzz about it so you tune in again for the first time this season), part one opens with the Trial and nicely reintroduces the status quo. The Doctor is super devastated and conflicted about having just witnessed the loss of Peri, and Colin Baker makes sure it shows. In these courtroom scenes, he is nothing short of superb. There’s this great moment when the Inquisitor asks if he’s had ample time to collect himself and he just shoots her a look that’s all “of course not you stupid bimbo I just lost my friend”. It’s fantastic. I love Colin Baker.

As the first two serials in Trial have been all about The Valeyard making his case against the Doctor, “Terror of the Vervoids” is the Doctor making a case for the defense. So the thing I like about the limited number of cutaways is that it lets the story breathe and develop and lure us in and the evidence to speak for itself. That’s really strong, and exactly what Robert Holmes was doing with “Mysterious Planet”. So good on you, Pip and Jane.

This first part is relatively uninterrupted, except at the end when the Doctor says a line of dialogue in the story that is glaringly out of character and more than a little unwieldy to say, so we cutaway to the courtroom, where the Doctor again asserts that the Matrix has been definitely tampered with, fudging his evidence and therefore ruining the case for the defense. Fishy. Yet I don’t mind because it’s definitely necessary and important to the plots of both the Trial and the new adventure we’re witnessing.

Speaking of this new adventure, it’s set in the future; the Doctor’s personal future, at that. Which is the one thing I have a problem with so far? Supposedly the Doctor’s taken a gander into the Matrix to wrestle up a story to present as defense for his actions, to prove that he’s a changed man, but… Can the Matrix really do that? I know it’s all the compounded knowledge of everything, including Time Lords, but how can it know the Doctor’s future if he’s currently on Trial for his life and could die because of it? It’s an interesting concept for sure, and I like the whole Dickens Christmas Carol feel to it, but my brain gets all hung up thinking about it.

So this adventure is in the future, which means the Doctor and his new companion are en media res, which is an interesting and, quite frankly, a brilliant choice. Instead of wrassling up an origin story for Mel on top of dealing with the Trial storyline, we see her and the Doctor interacting with each other as familiar friends, which shows rather than tells a lot about her character and their relationship (good writing!).

Here. I liked Mel’s introduction so much that I’ve decided to youtube it for you.

And the character that Pip and Jane have presented here is one I happen to really enjoy. She’s plucky, athletic, intelligent, curious, and actually has interest and initiative in the mysterious events that are unfolding on this starliner. She’s a pretty strong female character (I absolutely adore those), I think she makes a great foil and match for Colin Baker’s Doctor, and she’s not just another completely useless companion—which is something that I wasn’t expecting at all. Mel’s fairly infamous among fans of the Classic series, and I’ve heard her described as one of the worst Doctor Who companions ever, so I was trepidatious about meeting her finally. But you know what? She’s quite great in this, so haters can suck it. And I like the whole carrot juice thing.

I’ll give them one thing, though: chick can scream.

As for the story? It’s a fairly standard Doctor Who adventure that is starting to unfold like a murder mystery (and who doesn’t love murder mysteries?) and has me interested in finding out what happens next. So, onward ho!

Part 2
This episode continues in the vein of being a fairly standard Doctor Who adventure, but that’s exactly the sort of thing that the show needed this season, especially after something like last time. So when I say standard, it’s not derogatory; rather, fairly unremarkable in terms of mind-blowingly awesome plot points or concepts, but still quite interesting. Again, murder mystery and intrigue on a space ship, what’s not to like?

And this episode, while making not crazy leaps or bounds, does exactly what it’s supposed to do and keep the story chugging along. More murders happen, mysterious disappearances; Mel is implicated, then cleared; the mystery of the hydroponics center and what was in the pods; the reveal of what exactly is in the isolation room at the end, all interspersed with some lovely moments from the Doctor and Mel (as well as a hilarious bit where two aliens are playing Galaga in the lounge). Watching this I’m not at all bored, and the ‘whodunnit’ format, while done before, is a tried and true one, and thus retains interest... All sticking points and good storytelling strategies that not only constitute a pretty solid episode two, but keeps people watching, both of which are important.

But honestly, does Mel really need to scream again at the end of the episode with the icky-face reveal? Come on. I know she’s got some pipes, but come on.

Speaking of Mel, though, her character development both as an individual and with the Doctor is quite good. Watching through it again, I’m finding that these two are my favorite part of this by far. They really do work together as a team, their dynamic is fun and light and new and interesting, and both are giving solid performances. Colin Baker’s at the top of his game, and Bonnie Langford is not too far behind; I find her terribly charming. Any time these two show up together, I sit up straighter and pay more attention, because it’s just plain fun watching them muck about and try to figure out who’s murdering people on the ship. Not like the story is boring or anything, but nothing in particular about the auxiliary characters or the plot really shines out quite like these two—which is fitting, I think, considering that while it’s not really an origin story for Mel, it’s still her debut, and it’s important that the audience is able to invest themselves in her character and role as the new companion.

The Trial cutaways are limited here too. I would say they continue to make good use of them, except for one that is a bit unnecessary, but not to the degree the cutaways were in “Mindwarp”, which is so nice. I mean, I love the courtroom cutaways, but they need to serve some purpose other than the Doctor and the Valeyard blustering at each other.

Which, with a couple exceptions, is all they’re really doing at this point, and if you really get right down to it, that’s all they can do til the endgame. Now, I really really really love The Valeyard. He’s a badass character, intriguing, and when I first watched Trial I desperately wanted to know what his deal was and why he was so intent on haranguing the Doctor out of the rest of his regenerations. But, like Matt’s said before with the two previous stories, the longer the trial goes on, the longer the endgame and ultimate reveal is delayed, which really diminishes some of his power as the big bad guy, and it’s really starting to show here. I love that the Doctor gets to make a case for himself, but that leaves the Valeyard with no other option than to pick his case apart insistent and annoying like, since he’s so intent on destroying the Doctor’s case. But he’s still fantastic, so I forgive him. And I’m sure you will too, once you know more about him (tease tease tease).

Part 3
So, as per standard format, nothing really… happens in this episode, but they do a pretty good job ramping up for the last part, so before we get there, I suppose I should talk about the plot a little more.

There are a couple of passengers left on this starliner: a Professor Laske and her two colleagues that have everything to do with the hydroponics center in the cargo hold and the creepy giant alien plants who are now walking about the ship and killing people, but nobody really knows that yet; a couple of aliens called Mogarians who are pretty embittered against humans since their planet’s been subjugated; and of course, the Doctor and Mel, along with the crew members who haven’t gone missing or murdered yet (the Commodore, a security officer, and a stewardess are the important ones). Got all that? Good.

Oh, and there’s that chick in isolation who got infected by the plants and is now slowly mutating into one. Ew, gross.

So one of the scientists finally realizes that these alien plants that he’s partially responsible for spawning into existence are responsible for all the disappearances, so he revolts against Professor Laske and takes over the ship by force, steering it straight for a black hole (which is our cliffhanger. Nifty, no?).

Meanwhile, the Doctor and Mel are still trying to work out the identity of the culprit, finding clues that lead them closer to the discovery of the alien plants (Vervoids, get it now?) along the way. Someone is definitely intent on stopping them from discovering the truth though, which leads to this great moment where Mel is knocked unconscious by some unknown party while overhearing and recording the voices of the Vervoids in the ventilation system, and is almost tossed into the waste disposal unit before the Doctor comes to her speedy rescue. It’s a moment that I like, because it’s so very Doctor-y, and it resonates with me, especially so soon after “Mindwarp” and Peri’s death, almost like he’s trying to make up for all the losses he’s suffered and all the deaths and disappearances that are occurring on the starliner. It’s a wonderful boost to his defense cred.

However, the Doctor continues to notice that the Matrix, and subsequently his evidence, has been obviously tampered with, but of course the court doesn’t believe him, which the Valeyard makes sure of. It’s the Valeyard’s job to prosecute, of course, but seriously man? Why you gotta be such a dick about it? The Doctor even calls him on his apparent bloodlust in one of the cutaways to the courtroom, and I think it’s about time that somebody noticed something was going on with this guy… But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The thing I’m noticing about this story as I rewatch it is that the characters and story are so very average. It’s not The! Best! Story! Ever! and it’s not mind-numbingly horrid, which just places it in not-so-memorable territory. Which is a shame, because I’m continually loving Colin Baker’s performance as the Doctor, and his interactions with Mel. It really is great. Having seen a couple later Mel stories, it makes me sad that they stray so far from this original vision of her and turn her into another useless screaming damsel in distress companion. Because she’s not useless, she’s really not. There’s this great bit with her in the gym when she’s quick thinking and able to overhear and record what the Vervoids are saying in the vent system, a little vital something about killing everyone on board the ship. Of course, this gets her into trouble, but the Doctor is able to figure out what happened to her due to her recording, so in a way, she saves herself from certain death. I like that. They work well together. And while there is some banter, there’s never bickering, which is totally unnecessary with any companion/Doctor team-up anyway. (Seriously, whoever thought that was a good idea is stupid. I watch Doctor Who for the fun, and bickering is like the polar opposite of fun. It eats fun for breakfast and leaves you with shit. But I digress.)

Part 4
Yeah, wrap-up. Let’s do this.

The thing that I like about this episode is that it not only nicely solves the mystery aboard the starliner with lots of exciting action and reveals and mutiny and murder and all of that, but it also propels the Trial storyline into its final act, as we’ll be seeing come Thursday. It’s an interesting episode because where we should have a happy ending and the Doctor and Mel heading off into space and time for another adventure (and we do), we suddenly cut back to the courtroom where the dynamics there change because of the evidence presented, and we’re left with a devil of a cliffhanger, since the Doctor is almost certain to be sentenced to death based on this new charge: genocide.

“What?” you might be saying. “Where the hell did the Valeyard come up with genocide? This guy is a creep, yo. All the Doctor did was solve a mystery and help these people out. Seriously.”

True, but in order to save these people, the Doctor had to use the precious Mogarian metals in the vault to set off a chemical reaction that speeds up the photosynthesis of the Vervoids, reducing them to little more than a pile of dead leaves. And because the only Vervoids in existence were there on the ship, it’s technically genocide. Which, you know, Time Lords have laws against that sort of thing.

It’s interesting because there’s really no feasible way for the Doctor to get out of this one. He’s let the evidence speak for him, and, while it does provide the proof that he’s not a mere meddler (the Commodore explicitly asks for his assistance in saving the remaining passengers on the ship), it also condemns him.

As for the mystery bit, it wraps up pretty simply, as most mysteries do, but I like that they throw in a few last Red Herrings into the works before revealing the murderer, including a mutiny in which the Mogarians and the Security Officer hijack the ship, which neatly cleans up the whole we’re-heading-straight-for-a-huge-black-hole thing. Nicely done, Bakers.

My favorite part is still probably the very end in the courtroom, because of what it means for the Doctor; just when you think he’s in the clear because of his solid evidence, even in the face of the Matrix having been potentially tampered with, the genocide of the Vervoids actually happened because the Doctor sanctioned it. Which just drives the Valeyard’s point home further and almost absolves him from being a huge asshole out for the Doctor’s blood—if the Doctor hadn’t been there, this whole species of plant creatures would still be alive. (Granted, the human race would probably have been wiped out instead if they’d been left to carry on, but that happens.)

So, all in all, a strong, thought-provoking ending that helps to propel the Trial into its conclusion, and an episode that proves that Pip and Jane can actually deliver a satisfactory story. Awesome. There’s hope for them yet.

Final Thoughts: So I really like Mel.

There's not really a lot left for me to say about this serial without rehashing things I've already talked about. The story is not the strongest, but it holds up on repeat viewings, which is always a plus. The trial cutaways were few and helped rather than hindered the story, culminating in that final cliffhanger that leaves the Doctor in some serious uh-oh place.

But I think they made a really fantastic decision on just throwing Mel in there and standing back to see what happened instead of giving her a "proper" introduction. It just works. Bonnie Langford does a great job with the character, and she and Colin Baker just seem to sparkle onscreen together. So much unexpected depth is shown between the interactions of the two characters, and it really surprised me, especially on the rewatch. I liked Mel initially, but this just really cemented it for me. And much as I love Peri, I just wish they'd introduced Mel sooner (or, you know, given Colin Baker another season to give them more time together). Great performances from the two of them, and, in my mind, they totally made the serial what it is.

Next Time!: More Mel! Bureaucrats! The return of Sabalom Glitz! The true identity of the Valeyard revealed! And Robert Holmes' last story ever! Come back Thursday as Matt finishes up our run of Trial with "The Ultimate Foe"!


  1. I love Mel. Fans have been unkind to her.

    I also love the Sxith Doctor's new tie and waistcoat in this story. Okay, it clashes hideously, but there is something nicely tacky about the purple and yellow with the glittery stars.

  2. I totally forgot to talk about that! I love his new costume too, it's so delightful.

  3. I've always thought this was Mel's best story. It always seemed like she was a better match with the sixth Doctor. It's a shame they didn't get more stories together.

  4. I haven't seen most of her 7th Doctor work, but I think I would agree.

    If you want more Mel/6th, I'd recommend the Big Finish audioplays. She's actually really good (and so are the stories) for most of the ones she's in. I can't say enough good things about "The One Doctor" and "Flip Flop" and I really enjoyed "The Juggernauts" and "Catch-1782".

  5. Genocide as the cliffhanger was brilliant. It's good when the series explores morality. I'm glad you found Pip and Jane's story better here too. I've always thought they were underrated.

  6. Loved it - and great review, too. I was dreading Mel, having only seen her 7th Doc stuff, but she's SOOO much better here, the polar opposite of Peri! Instead of whining and sulking and only existing to ask questions so the Doctor can do the exposition-thing, Mel thinks for herself, investigates and concocts rescue plans by herself, all while remaining optimistic and cheery :) Great serial, great Doc, great companion, and overall good production values. 4&1/2 outta 5 :)

  7. Very underrated story in my opinion. The only real issue I have is that The Doctor chose an adventure from his future that could get him charged with genocide. Seeing my hero make such a painfully dumb mistake did tarnish an otherwise solid story.