Doctor Who Review: Terror of the Vervoids (1986)

Previously on Doctor Who: The Doctor was accused of…something and put on trial by the Time Lords in a sort of Trial of a Time Lord, leading to the season 23 arc, known as The Trial of a Time Lord.

TrialDVD
(Image links to Amazon)

Basics:
Doctor: Sixth (Colin Baker)
Companion: Mel (Bonnie Langford)
Writer: Pip and Jane Baker
Aired: November 1-22, 1986

Need to Know:
The third segment of the Trial of a Time Lord, composed of parts 9-12, has been titled Terror of the Vervoids by fans, so I’ll go with that. It’s the second to last story of the season and probably second best so far that I’ve seen.

It’s also an introduction for new companion Mel, and a rather good story for Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor, though the continued intrusion of the Trial framework means that some of the potential is again lost in the overall piece.

As usual, BRACE FOR SPOILERS!

Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor gets back to a likable place within the evidence segments and his rapport with companion Mel is really something fun to watch, nowhere near the anger and spitefulness of the early Six/Peri stories. It’s a welcome change from the Doctor shown in the previous story, but the fiddling with the Matrix means that there’s still a bit of meanness to him at certain points in the story.

In the evidence segments, he’s finally become all-serious and it’s a welcome change too. Trial really shows the range Baker is able to play and is evidence (pardon the pun) that the Colin Baker era really could have been something if he’d had superior scripts backing him up through the work. The seriousness of the courtroom Doctor is slightly undercut by the fact that the evidence he’s presenting is a less-than-excellent story. It’s easy to see, however, that (as said in some of the behind-the-scenes material) Baker was having a great time shooting this story and it’s clearly true.

Mel(played by Bonnie Langford) is easily one of the lesser companions of the ’80s era. She starts as a nice enough character, but at the end of episode one, when faced with the cliffhanger, she literally freezes, hands to her cheeks, and screams, as if the cliffhanger is a scene from Home Alone. That alone took my optimism and shoved it into a shredder (which I imagine makes the same noise as her incredibly shrill terror scream).

Mel is hardly the worst character ever, as she’s been made out to be by some fans, but she’s hardly the greatest companion either. She’s no Peri, but she’s not meant to be. The fact that we meet her well into her adventures with the Doctor doesn’t help establish her character either. We just have to accept that she’s the Doctor’s companion without any of the building of friendship necessary when introducing such a figure. It’s another misstep in a season filled with them, really, and nowhere near the fault of Bonnie Langford, who puts in a really admirable performance of hitting the ground running.

Now, the Vervoids aren’t really a villain, more one of those misunderstood monsters that Doctor Who traffics in quite regularly, but they are the main threat of the story and the titular terror-makers. They’re a great threat to the ship and crew, but hardly a legendary Doctor Who monster in the making. If they’d been allowed to be a larger part of the story, instead of merely a background threat for the majority of the serial, they could easily be a dynamic monster to be remembered. There’s a great sense of terror in the way the Vervoids are filmed and they are handled very well but, again, they seem wasted in a story focusing more on political intrigue than on monster-related thrills or scares.

It doesn’t make the Valeyard more of a threat when he misses something rather obvious in the plot, especially considering who he is in relation to the Doctor. Jayston continues to make an excellent go at playing the Valeyard, but I still can’t help but think that he’s terribly wasted playing such a passive enemy for the Doctor. I’d love to have seen the Valeyard play a more direct threat to the Doctor, which the next story should solve, but it’s a real shame to have him for a full season and to not use him in a similar vein to the Master’s introductory season.

I’m starting to get as tired as the Inquisitor at the proceedings of the Trial of a Time Lord and again, there’s a reference to another story preceding the one we see that I’d likely prefer to see than the one we’re given. The set design, costuming, and effects work are all improved from stories of the past, continuing the apparent theme of stellar work from all departments except for (in my opinion) the most important: writing. Trial of a Time Lord remains a bit of a jumbled mess in terms of story. I really wish that this season had just been a straightforward group of adventures, but the interfering and purposefully-muddled-for-plot-purposes Trial arc intrudes on what could be interesting tales of the Doctor.

Here’s to the hope that the final two-part story of Trial of a Time Lord, The Ultimate Foe, can save this adventure, but seeing how Colin Baker’s abrupt end was so abrupt, I’m not going to be holding out too much of that hope…

Should You Watch It:
If you’ve gotten this far, don’t stop now. You’ll be rewarded by the cool twist ending in the next segment.

I give this segment two shrill terror-screams out of five.

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