Tuesday 15 December 2015

Story 143c - The Trial of a Time Lord (Parts 9 - 12)

Terror of the Vervoids.
In which the Doctor gets the chance to present his defence - showing the court a Matrix segment from his own future. It is 2986, and the starliner Hyperion III is about to leave orbit around the planet Mogar. As the passengers come aboard, an old man named Kimber recognises another man as Mr Hallett, an investigator. The man denies this, and disappears soon after. The captain, Commodore Travers, is told by Security Chief Rudge that it looks as if he has been pushed into the waste disposal unit. The Doctor is traveling with a new companion - Melanie Bush, known as Mel. She is a computer programmer from 1980's Earth. The TARDIS picks up a message which brings it to the spaceship. The Doctor knows Travers from a previous encounter. He also knows Hallett, and assumes that the message came from him. The Doctor starts to investigate the other passengers, which include a team of agronomists. They are led by Professor Lasky, who is accompanied by fellow scientists Doland and Bruchner. They have another colleague named Ruth with them, who is being kept in isolation in her cabin. Also on board are a trio of Mogarians. They wear protective suits and masks, as they find the human atmosphere toxic. Many Mogarians are angry that their planet's resources are being plundered by Earth people. One of the Mogarians dies, and the Doctor reveals that it is the missing Hallett in disguise. He knew this as he had failed to use his translator device.

Mel is curious about the cargo of huge vegetable pods which Lasky's team have brought on board. An officer named Edwardes takes her to see them. When he touches the fence around them he is electrocuted. Mel runs off, and doesn't see the pods burst open and bipedal plant creatures emerge. They conceal themselves in the air ducts. Crew members begin to disappear. When the Doctor breaks into Ruth's cabin, he finds that she has been infected. She is starting to turn into one of the plant creatures. Mel is knocked out and almost ends up in the waste disposal system. Mr Kimber vanishes from his cabin. Bruchner goes mad, and takes over the bridge - intent on plunging the Hyperion III into the Black Hole of Tartarus. The creatures in the air ducts generate a poisonous gas akin to methane which kills the hijacker. The Mogarians are able to enter the bridge and get the ship back on its course. Soon after, they are murdered when someone throws water into their face plates.

The plant creatures are Vervoids. They were created by Lasky and her team, and she intends to use them as a slave labour force. Ruth became infected by one of their spores. Bruchner had feared that they will destroy all life on Earth should they have reached the planet, and so tried to destroy the spaceship. The Doctor agrees that they pose a threat to all mammalian life. It transpires that Rudge, about to be retired against his wishes, had been in league with the Mogarians to steal the valuable minerals stored on board. Rudge is killed by the Vervoids, who add his corpse to their human compost heap which they are building in the air ducts. Lasky is also killed. Doland is revealed as the murderer - intent on making his fortune from the Vervoids. The creatures kill him as well. One of the minerals held in cargo is vionesium, which burns with an intense light. The Doctor uses it to advance the Vervoids' photosynthesis processes - rapidly burning up their life span.
In the court, the Doctor points out that he was specifically called in by Hallett to investigate what was going on, and he saved Earth as the arrival of the Vervoids would have meant the destruction of all human and animal life. The Valeyard points out the the creatures were a unique species, which the Doctor destroyed totally. He suddenly finds himself accused of genocide, for which the penalty is death...

This four part segment of  Season 23 was written by Pip & Jane Baker, and was broadcast between 1st and 22nd November, 1986. It marks the debut of Bonnie Langford as new companion Mel.
Terror of the Vervoids is the most commonly accepted name for this section of The Trial of a Time Lord, but it has also been known under the title of "The Ultimate Foe". Others use this as the title for the concluding two episodes of the season.
As new writers dropped out of the plans for this season, and existing writers' work was also discarded, producer John Nathan-Turner turned to the veteran husband and wife team of the Bakers as he had become firm friends with them after the production of Mark of the Rani, and he felt they could write quickly with little need for rewrites. JNT's relationship with script editor Eric Saward was as good as dead by this point, following the death of Robert Holmes, and JNT's concerns about his final set of scripts.
The Bakers took their inspiration from whodunnit stories such as Agatha Christie's - especially Murder on the Orient Express (which Prof. Lasky is seen to be reading at one point), and Ten Little Indians. In keeping with the "Christmas Carol" set-up of the season, this would be the future storyline. The Doctor would already be traveling with the new companion, and it was felt that it did not have to be Mel's introductory story. She would simply be there - trying vainly to get the Sixth Doctor into shape with exercise bikes and carrot juice.
There was huge fan outrage at the time of Langford's casting - feeling that the producer's love of light entertainment (and publicity) had gone too far, and that she was not a good enough actress. The former can be said to be true - but certainly not the latter, as she has proved time again since.

There is a great guest cast assembled. Professor Lasky is former Avengers and Bond girl Honor Blackman. She had been considered for a number of roles in the show in the past. Commodore "Tonker" Travers is Michael Craig, who was best known for Triangle at the time. He's the ship's captain in that, and plays this almost exactly  the same. Doland is Malcolm Tierney, who had once shared digs with a certain Tom Baker. (Check out You Tube for Tom's This Is Your Life). He was best known for playing a villain in the C4 soap Brookside. Also from that programme was Tony Scoggo, as Hallett. Mr Kimber is played by Arthur Hewlett - last seen in the series in State of Decay.
Episode endings are:
  1. Mel and Edwardes are looking around the cargo hold. He touches the fence around the strange vegetable pods and is electrocuted. Mel screams...
  2. The Doctor and Mel are in Ruth's cabin. They peel back the sheet covering the bed and see that she is half-Vervoid. Mel screams...
  3. Travers informs the Doctor that Bruchner is steering them directly towards the Black Hole of Tartarus. Mel doesn't scream, but the Doctor looks a bit upset...
  4. The Valeyard accuses the Doctor of committing genocide, which means a death penalty. The Doctor looks even more upset...

Overall, the weakest part of the season. That great guest cast is mostly underused. As a whodunnit it doesn't quite work - as the spaceship is too sparsely populated. Dreadfully over-lit, apart from the air ducts where the Vervoids do their lurking. The "futuristic" space crew costumes look naff. There is some of the most dreadful dialogue ever heard in the programme.
Things you might like to know:
  • This and the concluding two-parter were treated as a single production under director Chris Clough. As all the filming took place in advance of the studio work, Bonnie Langford had already done all of the Matrix scenes for The Ultimate Foe before she got to record this. This story has no filming.
  • The character brief prepared by JNT has Mel a computer programmer from the village of Pease Pottage. Mel never really gets to do anything with computers for her entire tenure aboard the TARDIS. Pease Pottage gets barely a mention, although Bonnie Langford did pose for a publicity picture beside the town's road sign.
  • The brief claimed that Mel first met the Doctor when she helped him foil an attempt by the Master to destroy the UK economy.
  • Langford was appearing as Peter Pan in panto at the Aldwych Theatre at the time her casting was announced, so Colin Baker went along to get his photos taken with her, uncomfortably flying in theatrical harness.
  • Rumours of Langford's casting had got out in advance, and Saward asked JNT if they were true. He categorically denied them.
  • During the recording of this story, JNT was informed of an interview that was about to be published in Starburst magazine. Eric Saward was going to dish the dirt on their working relationship, and set out all the things he thought JNT was getting wrong. JNT considered legal action, but his BBC bosses thought that this might lend credence to what Saward was saying.
  • JNT resigned, and this was accepted. When the BBC found that they couldn't get anyone to replace him, his resignation was unaccepted. He would stay on, but his star would not. It was during transmission of this story that Colin Baker was told that he had been sacked.
  • For the first episode's cliffhanger, Bonnie Langford's scream blends seamlessly into the end music.
  • This is the last time we see Colin Baker in the TARDIS console room.
  • Just how can the Doctor view something from his own future? The Matrix is only supposed to be able to predict future events, not relay their specific incidents. Doesn't the fact he has a future undermine the Valeyard's efforts to have him killed here? If the Doctor has viewed this adventure, how did he react when he got to experience it for real? One answer is that this story was only a possible future - so might possibly never have even happened.
  • Mel's first meeting with the Doctor finally saw light in one of the Virgin novels - Business Unusual. It's by Gary Russell - so is stuffed with pointless continuity references.
  • During his stint as editor of DWM, Clayton Hickman put a Vervoid on the front cover of one issue - prompting some complaints as it looked vaguely gynecological...

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