The Confusion of a Time Line

Review of Terror of the Vervoids (#143c)
DVD Release Date: 10 Oct 08
Original Air Date: 01 - 22 Nov 1986
Doctor/Companion: Six, Melanie "Mel" Bush
Stars: Colin Baker, Bonnie Langford
Preceding Story: Mindwarp (Six, Peri)
Succeeding Story: The Ultimate Foe (Six, Mel)

Let me begin by acknowledging what a ridiculously suggestive (nigh pornographic) creature design this serial has. Wowzers. How that got past the censors/BBC high muckety-mucks/whoever screens this stuff, I'll never understand. And now that that's out of the way, we can talk about the rest of it.

While Terror of the Vervoids has never ranked high in my personal preference list of Doctor Who stories, it does have one particularly intriguing aspect that sets it apart from most other pre-Hiatus serials: it's wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey.

Sadly this aspect isn't pervasive; it only shows up when we cut back to the courtroom for the scenes that remind us the Doctor is on trial for his life. In order to find evidence to defend himself, though, the Doctor has had to dip into his own future, as recorded by the Matrix. Thus we get a bigger hiccup in his timeline than usual, which has an interesting and slightly maddening side effect: we never get a formal introduction to his next Companion.

We join the Doctor and Mel with their travels already in progress. There's a distinct sense of familiarity between them that comes of a prolonged association with each other. In one way, I'm delighted by the cheekiness of this writing decision. We have just learned (along with the Doctor, because (a) his memory's messed up and (b) he got pulled out of time before the events reputedly happened) that his previous Companion Peri has died due to his actions/inaction. Normally we'd expect an adventure where he meets a new friend and invites (in this case) her to travel with him.

However, we're in middle of a season-long Time Lord trial. Each adventure serves as evidence, not mere interesting vignettes in the Doctor's travels. There's no time here for a "meet cute" serial wherein the Doctor decides this brilliant, talented, curious person is someone he wants to take on board the TARDIS. Instead, not only are the origins of their time together willfully discarded, but they are deliberately obfuscated.

Here's where I find Pip & Jane Baker's writing choices somewhat more irritating than endearing (as is often the case). While I can appreciate the cleverness of bringing up audience questions (like how long Mel has traveled with the Doctor) on-screen and then deliberately glossing over them, it's also a little frustrating for the viewer to be thwarted as thoroughly as the shipboard authorities who are questioning the TARDIS team. I suppose I can't complain too much, as it has allowed for Big Finish to write their meeting (among other adventures), but from a purely televisual standpoint, it's jarring.

As for the rest of the situation with which the Doctor hopes to defend himself, the adventure combines elements of a Murder on the Orient Express-type of mystery (a group of apparent strangers embark on a voyage aboard a transport that effectively traps them together in a small space, and deaths occur) with a sort of commentary about the interplay of ethics and ambition in science—one of Pip & Jane's favorite themes (see also: the Rani).

There are a few tricksy twists and turns, bad dialog abounds, and we are exposed several times to one of the main reasons Bonnie Langford (previously well-known to British audiences as a child actress) was hired for the role: her screaming. I counted three times in this serial that Mel screams her head off, and two of them are at episode cliffhangers.

The biggest cliffhanger of all, though, comes at the very end of this story (Part Twelve of The Trial of a Time Lord). I won't spoil it for anyone who's not yet seen it and would like to (and, despite the flaws of the various stories, I do recommend TToaTL to folks, if only for the glorious performance of Michael Jayston as the Valeyard), but it's fairly dramatic in terms of the trial.

I can't honestly say that these episodes fared any better upon re-watch than I had remembered, but they have a few cool moments and hold a unique place in Doctor Who history due to the way they introduce Mel. Especially due to its role as one piece of a series-long arc, I wouldn't recommend this as a story to seek out on its own, but nor would I suggest it be avoided if it's being viewed in a broader context. It ranks a solid "meh" from me.

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Comments

Hindsight is such a useful tool.

So in 1985 the BBC said the Production team were stale and the show needed refreshing. So why on earth would you continue with the same team?

The umbrella theme had some merit but it was always going to challenge the casual viewers to watch all 14 episodes.

So we started with a heavily rewritten 1st story, after orders by BBC bosses to increase the humour; we then had the over rated Sil and regrettably the over acting Brian Blessed (I say that with a heavy heart as I have met him once and he was a delight), and then we get to the future installment which typically for P &J Baker had a nice premise but what unnecessarily high prose they scribe. Words should be used to express not impress and Robert Holmes always did it so much better.

So after getting Mel to scream in F# at the cliff hangers we get the highly signposted use of Vionesium to speed the Vervoids through their lifecycle. OK I'll buy that, but then they chuck in the ridiculous charge of genocide as a cliffhanger.

At the time I fumed "So how is that different from the Timelord mission in Genesis of the Daleks." And I still do.

Thank goodness you didn't ask for reviews of Part 14

By Wholahoop
mrfranklin's picture

Oh, it's coming. Next month I'm scheduled to review The Ultimate Foe (all two episodes)! ;)

By mrfranklin

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