The Trial of a Time Lord - Parts 9-12:

Terror of the Vervoids

Region 1
in a 4-story box set

Region 2
4-story box set
VHS Video
4-story box set
(Doctor Who Story No. 146, starring Colin Baker)
  • written by Pip and Jane Baker
  • directed by Chris Clough
  • produced by John Nathan-Turner
  • music by Malcolm Clarke
  • 4 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: The Doctor's defence goes awry when evidence is tampered with, and his heroic attempts to save a space cruiser en route from Mogar to Earth is challenged by both a murder mystery and the unscheduled unleashing of experimental Vervoid plant creatures.

DVD Extras include:

  • Full length audio commentary by Colin Baker (The Doctor), Michael Craig (Commodore Travers),
    writers Pip and Jane Baker, and director Chris Clough.
  • "The Making of Terror of the Vervoids" featurette (19 min.) adding Malcolm Tierney (Doland) and script editor Eric Saward.
  • Interview of Bonnie Langford (Melanie) on the Saturday Picture Show (7 min.)
  • Deleted & Extended Scenes (14 min.)
  • Photo Gallery Music Montage (6 min.)
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles by Richard Molesworth
  • "Now, Get Out of That" featurette on cliffhangers in Doctor Who (28 min.)
  • "The Lost Season" featurette (11 min.) on the stories that were being developed for the original cancelled season 23.

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide to Season 23 - The Trial of a Time Lord instead.

So many story ideas were attempted and rejected for the "Parts 9-12" slot of this season, that its eventual occupant can't help but be a bit of a rushed job. Known for their speed, writers Pip and Jane Baker are asked to fall back on tried and true formulae for a combination whodunit/monster adventure. The end result is probably the fastest-paced and most tightly plotted story in the whole of Colin Baker's era, and might even have been declared his greatest success.... IF only it didn't have to fit in with "The Trial of a Time Lord". Despite a valiant attempt to bring a lot of cool visuals to the screen, both continuity and character problems will take its toll on this tale, and without a strong theme or point to the adventure, it may yet have a tough time in the rankings.

Early portions are notable for more lavish visuals than usual, as the Hyperion III space freighter is established and time is found to glance at and bounce over dozens of details of life aboard ship and what may lie ahead on this particular voyage. No doubt tons of clues and red herrings surrounding the mystery are being paraded in front of the viewer as well.

While the characters are believable enough during these short scene snippets, the story seems to get into trouble in the early segments whenever it tries to take time to give a scene of great length. Somehow, the writers seem to be trying too hard to make their dialogue sound natural, and succeed rather badly. Perhaps too many half-sentences are strung together, taking complete thoughts and splitting them between too many characters. However, in a scene with just one line, there isn't space for the problem to crop up. Perhaps also, too much of the truth is being held back about each character in the early segments, and the writers are tip-toeing on eggshells trying to find information that they can tell us.

Although Colin Baker's Doctor will get plenty of good scenes and good stuff to do before the adventure is over, his early material seems a bit disappointing. He often seems to get a bit too moody in the beginning, and with there being something just out of sync between him and his unintroduced new companion, it takes a while for him to get on form. But he gets better and better stuff to do as the story progresses, and eventually he becomes very good in this one.

The biggest character disappointment is the cheeseball fashion in which the Doctor's new traveling companion Melanie is thrust upon the viewer. Even after accepting that she has no proper introduction, and that she is meant to treat this adventure as just another outing with the Doctor, this story also manages to gives us a very artificial rapport between the two. While most other characters get their due later in the story, the viewer remains at a bit of a loss as to why the Doctor and Mel are together, who Melanie is, or what she is really all about. Her supposed computer skills are nowhere in evidence, and don't even get a passing mention in this tale. And even though we may know better, the lasting impression is that she is indigenous to the time and society we see on screen during this adventure. All the talk of "Pea's Pottage" as the place she came from just encourages a misconception, for those of us who aren't familiar with obscure areas of England, as it sounds like she originated in a salad bowl along with the Vervoids.

The Resequencing of Christmas Past

Further to her lack of introduction, continuity is completely messed up in "The Trial of a Time Lord", most obviously because the order that Melanie experiences her adventures in does not make sense. However, since the red flags only go off at the end of the next story "The Ultimate Foe", most fans that I have heard from have blamed it instead and suggest corrections to "Foe".

I suggest both the blame and the best fixes lie in "Terror of the Vervoids". It was a novel idea to include some evidence from the Doctor's future, but it just doesn't work here. It worked for Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" because it wasn't part of a trial, it was all about highlighting the consequences of a choice that had yet to be made, and had a nebulous ghostly/psychic origin. Similar origins of future evidence would later support the idea of preventative prosecution before the actual crime in the Steven Spielberg film "Minority Report", which took a good crack at examining the issue from several angles. "Vervoids" on the other hand would prefer to handle the case as a traditional done deal, and ignores all the ramifications of setting the adventure in the Doctor's future after the trial.... all except using this as an excuse to cop out of properly introducing Melanie.

Think about it: If the Doctor is on trial for his life and evidence of his future exists, it rather eliminates the possibility that he will be sentenced to death! Or, if it is only a possible future, slight variations must be expected each time it is viewed, and the Doctor can't blame these discrepancies on Matrix tampering, which is so crucial to the story. And how would the Matrix get this evidence by monitoring a TARDIS that hadn't been there yet?

The problems go the other way too. "Terror of the Vervoids" is essentially a murder mystery. If the Doctor first views the adventure in private on the Matrix while preparing his case, and then views it again while presenting it to the Inquisitor and the court, you'd think that by the time he actually arrives on the Hyperion III in person he would already know who the killer is! Let's face it: Future evidence isn't appropriate in the "Trial", and so "Vervoids" should have been slotted into the Doctor's past.

To try to jam Vervoids in just before the Doctor is brought to the Space-station Courtroom would have ruined the ending of "Mindwarp", so it'll have to go between "Mindwarp" and "Mysterious Planet" (in terms of the Doctor's travels, not the broadcast order). What about Peri's continuity? She doesn't have to appear in "Vervoids" if she's confined to her room in the TARDIS due to an illness (something akin to Nyssa's absence from "Kinda"). We might only hear her voice from a closed door in this adventure, if necessary reusing "canned" dialogue from previous stories. (Trust me; good stuff exists.)

What about Mel? Now she can be properly introduced in this story, as another passenger on Hyperion III. I think a computer expert from Earth's future is more interesting than one from the 20th century, don't you? (Providing, of course, that she doesn't end up as a clone of Zoe!) The complete trust between Mel and the Doctor would have to be earned rather than assumed, giving her a bit of an arc and making her character's interaction with the Doctor more believable and interesting. At the end of this adventure, the Doctor can leave Mel on Hyperion III, and proceed to Thorus Beta with the recovered Peri.

Now "star witness" Mel is in place to be beamed from Hyperion III into the next story as required, she and the Doctor have both been through "Vervoids", and the last segment of "The Trial of a Time Lord" can conclude as is without any horrendous continuity problems.

Mystery on the Hyperion Express

It must be noted that the story is a good television equivalent of a page-turner. The characters may not grab, but the multi-layered mystery does hold attention and fascinate quite well, while unknowns about a monster force new for Doctor Who mount as well. Eye-candy is also exceptionally high, from the design esthetic of the ship interior (even though certain elements like telephones and earphones are now much more dated than they were then), to some very well-produced model work for the ship exteriors, to all the computer graphic video effects by Danny Popkin seen throughout.

Part Eleven contains two serious disappointments though. One is the "square" look of the black hole visual, as it has too obviously been clumsily matted into the rest of each shot. Too bad it didn't get put in by one of the round soft-edged picture-in-picture mixes that Dave Chapman enjoyed using so profusely.

A bigger disappointment was the revelation of the Vervoids themselves. I had been looking forward to something more akin to the Krynoids from "The Seeds of Doom" (story no. 85) - plants that could just eat their enemies non-stop and continuously grow bigger as the cast grew smaller. Instead they turn out to be humanoids who can talk and reason. Not only is this disappointing in visuals and in plot, but it raises expectations for creating a dialogue and an effort at peaceful co-existence. The characters convince themselves that this is impossible after barely the clumsiest of attempts, but had safer/better circumstances presented themselves, it is an avenue worthy of exploration. Ultimately, the Vervoids get upstaged a little too completely by the need to resolve all the mysteries, and will not get ranked too favourably as antagonistic forces in Doctor Who's long history. One consolation is the design of their "hands" - this at least is very plant-like and would nicely disguise the humanoid nature of its operator.... if only the rest of the creature's look had been as creative.

But it isn't hard to accept these two minor shortcomings and get absorbed in the tale. Director Chris Clough impresses as the most visually creative director we've had this year, and does so while staying on story and keeping the audience involved in the adventure. Good stuff.

The story's music is handled by veteran Malcolm Clarke, who turns in another solid score, although far from his most definitive one. Sadly, the DVD's Photo Gallery music montage emphasizes the very cheesiest bits of his score as it opens and closes, and leaves out my favourite cue. Clarke's most definitive piece for this story is the penultimate cue of episode 10, as the Stewardess brings Mr. Kimber a warm drink, while the unseen, as-yet-unrevealed Vervoid presence stalks them. Right here, where the Vervoids are mostly musical - alien sweeps of sound punctuated by quick rolls of staccato wooden clicks, this is where the Vervoids succeed best, and are at their height of creepiness.

The Authority-Request Precedent

If this trial adds anything to the debate we often have concerning Star Trek's Prime Directive, it is probably in the Doctor's fabulous rebuttal: "And there you have it. The direct request. I did not meddle. My presence was most specifically requested, and not just by anyone, but by the man in whom authority was vested!" Nice and triumphant. If only Star Trek could have as good a moment as when this statement was declared. However, the situation on Hyperion III is quite contrived to produce this statement in the court, but still, we take these good bits where we can.

When it comes to the final flip, the trial might actually benefit by including the Star Trek Prime Directive's idea of considering a society or species' natural development in determining what kind of interference is appropriate.... because the Vervoids have no "natural" development outside of human experimentation. If there had been just one Vervoid instead of six, would anyone even have considered this a species in its own right, or just a one-off aberration/hybrid of other established species/specie, like a Frankenstein monster? And if it ultimately became determined to do away with pretty much every other animal form it came across, all animal forms are within their rights to claim their physical living space and do whatever they can in the moment to survive against the Vervoids. The Valeyard's final accusation here begins to sound like a lot of hot air and no substance....

"Vervoids" remains a good adventure, and like most of the rest of the "Trial" season, is easily better than over half of Colin Baker's stories from previous years, if not more. Ultimately, this is an enjoyable escalation in the "Trial" arc, catapulting viewers into the mind-boggling finale.....

International Titles:

Deutsch: "Das Urteil 9-12: Vervoid Terror"

Magyar: "Egy Idő Lord tárgyalása 9-12: A vervoidok terrorja"

Français: (Le jugement d'un Seigneur du Temps 9-12: La peur des Vervoids)

Русский: "Суд над Повелителем времени 9-12: Террор вервоидов"

This story is available on DVD and VHS video as the third adventure of the Trial of a Time Lord season box set.
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DVD NTSC Region 1
Season 23 - The Trial of a Time Lord
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada
DVD PAL Region 2
Season 23 - The Trial of a Time Lord
for the U.K.
VHS Video
Season 23 - The Trial of a Time Lord
NTSC in the U.S.
NTSC in Canada
PAL for the U.K.

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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "The Ultimate Foe"

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