Doctor Who: Terror of the Vervoids (1986) [DVD]

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1986 was a dark time for the Rebel Alliance. I’m sorry, I mean a dark time for Doctor Who fandom. The series was under searing attack from the higher echelons of the BBC who had recently put it on hiatus for 18 months and only grudgingly brought it back for season 23 because of fan pressure, warning that the show was very much on probation and taking up space in the last chance saloon. Added to that, long time series contributor Robert Holmes died suddenly while writing a key part of the season’s interconnected overarching storyline, other writers pulled out and story ideas fell through. On top of all that, producer John Nathan-Turner had a spectacular falling out with script editor Eric Saward who stormed out and gave a excoriating interview to a magazine which was particularly scathing about Nathan-Turner, the show’s star Colin Baker and pretty much the entire production team and show – which was pretty rich considering he’d been at the heart of it for four years, and Nathan-Turner had even put his own job on the line to keep Saward when the BBC hierarchy wanted his head over some perceived infraction or other.

vervoids-dvd-coverWith the show battling for survival, I’m afraid I was missing in action. I was having a far more interesting time at university and had put away such ‘childish things’ as I saw them back then. Besides, I’d never taken to the Sixth Doctor – even to this day, when asked what my favourite story from Colin Baker’s tenure in the Tardis is, I can’t actually offer an answer because none of them come up to an acceptable quality threshold in my eyes. And I feel bad about saying that because Baker himself is a lovely person and, as I later discovered, a rather wonderful actor. I saw him on stage a couple of years after he left Doctor Who, performing the central role of Sidney Bruhl in Ira Levin’s play Deathtrap at the York Theatre Royal opposite Anita Harris, and he was really outstanding. It’s clearly not Baker I have a problem with in Doctor Who but rather the way he was required to portray the part and the stories he was given. And of course that spectacularly God-awful costume.

Similarly I have to say I also had a rather long-standing massive aversion to Bonnie Langford having grown up during the time when she starred as the (intentionally) loathsome Violet Elizabeth Bott in a 1970s adaptation of Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories. It was hard for me then to separate child actor from fictional role, and apparently the Doctor Who production office had much the same problem when they cast Langford as the Doctor’s latest companion since they continually seem to envisage Melanie as little more than a grown-up Violet, equally grating as she harangues the Doctor into a get-fit exercise routine and vegetarian diet which is oh-so 1980s. Anyway, having seen more of her work over the intervening years together with interviews which show her to be a talented, creative, hard-working and intelligent performer all I can say is that I’m very sorry to have been so nasty, critical and dismissive of Ms Langford back then. But equally, I still can’t stand the roles she was playing at the time – she simply does ‘annoying’ and ‘irritating’ far too convincingly for her own good!

Not that to be honest I was watching Doctor Who at the time. I honestly can’t remember if I saw “Terror of the Vervoids” when it originally aired but I’m pretty sure I have never seen it since on UK Gold or any other satellite/cable channel, let alone viewed the DVD until now. Watching it this week is effectively a first viewing as far as I am concerned, and was sparked by a Twitter post from a writer of Doctor Who books and audio plays and books which asked, “Only 4 per cent of top Doctor Who fans can answer this question: who poisoned the Mogarians on the Hyperion III?” I had to confess I wasn’t one of the four per cent; indeed, I didn’t even have a clue as to what story it related to let alone what the actual answer was! That gap in my knowledge irked me, and so I felt that I had to delve further into the matter starting with identifying the classic-era serial in question.

“Terror of the Vervoids” is a story of murder and plant infestation on a commercial spaceliner in 2986AD. In point of fact that’s not a title that ever appears on screen; instead it’s the unofficial name given to episodes nine through 12 of “The Trial of a Time Lord” which is the proper form of address for the whole of the composite season 23 after Nathan-Turner and Saward rather wittily decided that they might as well make the fact the series was on trial in real life explicit on the screen. It’s a rather clever metatextual touch and the show has some other touches of Steven Moffat-esque timey-wimeyness going on, such as the character of Melanie making her first appearance as a seasoned companion even though her introduction had never been shown. If Colin Baker had stayed with the show longer then no doubt that would have been allowed to play out with an proper ‘introduction’ story down the line, but even though that never happened it’s rather nice to find that the show was capable of such out-of-the-box thinking like that long before the 21st century reboot came to pass.

The pleasant surprises continue into the first episode of “Terror of the Vervoids” (or episode nine of “The Trial of a Time Lord” if you prefer; oh, hang it, I’m sticking to the “Vervoids” designation for the rest of this blog post.) I always make the mistake of thinking that 1980s Doctor Who was full of overlit bland and flimsy sets with no atmosphere, but that’s not the case here – well, not entirely the case by any means. There’s a terrific multi-level set used for the cargo hold of the Hyperion III where much of the action takes place that looks impressively robust and industrial, and the lighting is really very well worked out daring to be quite dark and moody in places to allow the suspense to build. The director Chris Clough is also working hard to put in some nice stylistic touches which aren’t perhaps strictly necessary but nonetheless add immeasurably to the whole thing, with little moves and pans and crane shots making the whole thing just that bit higher quality.

Unfortunately it doesn’t last. Other sets get lit by arc light, such as the passenger lounge strewn with sub-B&Q garden furniture. Time and money soon starts to run out forcing Clough to focus on just getting the thing on tape without the trimmings; there’s one scene where he gathers the actors around a murder victim and the static tableau looks like something you’d get in an infant school nativity scene when everyone has to pose around the manger of the baby Jesus. The FX are also not a strong point – if anything, the BBC’s capacity for model work seems to have gone backward from its 1970s heyday despite the gradual introduction of increasingly sophisticated electronic tools, used here to create an odd but reasonably effective black hole for the episode 3 cliffhanger. But where things really fall down is in the creature design and execution. Thank goodness the Vervoids show up late because they’re painfully ineffective when they do: depending on the angle they’re shot from, the headpieces look alternately like a phallus or a vagina, while the rest of the creature’s body is literally an actor wearing a black tracksuit on which lots of leaves have been glued.

Still, the show has got away with worse plenty of times in the past, so long as it had a good script. Which is where we arrive at a discussion of Pip and Jane Baker, the husband-and-wife writing team behind this and three other instalments of the show. I have no wish to be nasty about the Bakers since they seem like really nice, pleasant people on the chatty if scattershot audio commentary that accompanies this DVD release. They’re the type of couple you would love to have as your next door neighbours since they would always be happy to greet you with big smiles on their faces and the offer a helping hand if you needed one. And as writers you have to credit them with showing up and delivering a story for the show when it really needed one and when apparently no one else in the UK was willing or able to do likewise. Neither is it a particularly bad piece of work – there’s a lot of interesting ideas and perfectly sound, professional craftsmanship on display in their scripts.

It’s just that … Oh dear, I can’t put it off any longer. Judging from this outing, Pip and Jane seem to have two big problems when it comes to producing scripts: one is character, and the other is structure – and these I think you’ll agree are pretty big problem areas for anyone writing drama. Underlying the former is a rather spectacular tin ear for naturalistic dialogue, with no one in “Vervoids” speaking like a human being or distinguishing themselves from anyone else in the guest cast. Pip ‘n’ Jane also delight in ransacking their thesaurus for every conceivable arcane multi-syllabic word that no one has ever in the history of the universe actually used in normal conversation with another human being, which only adds to the growing sense of artificiality. As for structure, there’s no sense of flow or development in this story. Scenes happen almost at random, so much so that one character is forced to flit from laboratory to passenger lounge to gymnasium every ten minutes with each scene in which she appears; she pays half a dozen visits to the gym in the course of a few hours suggesting that she has a serious addiction issue when it comes to exercise.

That character is Professor Lasky, played by The Avengers and Goldfinger star Honor Blackman, and the rest of the cast is similarly impressive with Michael Craig, Malcolm Tierney and Denys Hawthorne also involved in the “Vervoids” story while the separate “Trial” sequences feature the wonderful Lynda Bellingham and Michael Jayston as judge and prosecutor respectively. Unfortunately the dialogue they’re given by Pip ‘n’ Jane sounds like the sort of thing you’d get from the pen of a precocious seven-year-old protégé, and so the performers generally take their lead accordingly and work to that demographic resulting in some universally poor acting. It’s probably the worst performance I’ve seen from undoubted national treasure Honor Blackman, although such is her innate talent that she’s still by far the best thing about the “Vervoids” sequences. (Jayston continues to steal the show overall as the Valeyard.)

The worst thing about the script is that it’s trying to be a space-age “Murder on the Orient Express” style whodunnit; but whodunnits take a lot of discipline to write as they require precise attention to structure in order to set out the crime and lay out all the clues in a way that’s guessable but not too obvious. Unfortunately, Pip ‘n’ Jane are entirely the wrong people for that sort of project as they don’t really have the level of attention needed to pull it off successfully. Their idea of a whodunnit is to set up virtually everyone as being involved in some sort of dangerous deception, spray a load of suspicious events, murder and red herrings into the air and then choose a culprit seemingly out of a hat in the last five minutes for the Doctor to expose just before he and Mel head back to the Tardis so that they can leave before anyone asks him to explain.

There’s really no point to going into detail about all the plot holes, loose ends and glaring oversights, omissions and errors in the whodunnit plot. Better people than I have tried, and I dare say they all died of old age before the work could be completed because there’s just so much to unravel. Suffice to say that not only are there no actual clues pointing toward the character the Doctor accuses, but that it makes no sense for the character to have done what s/he supposedly did or when. Two very specific clues actively point to another person who isn’t even considered as a suspect by the writers but is the only person with the opportunity to poison an undercover investigator in episode two. or kill two Mogarian hijackers in episode four by throwing a glass of water over them (yes, really.)

(NOTICE: Skip the next paragraph if you’re avoiding spoilers.)

That has brought me full circle to the tweet that encouraged me to dig out the DVD of this story: “Who poisoned the Mogarians on the Hyperion III?” Apparently according to the script as written it’s all down to Lasky’s scientist colleague Doland (Tierney) who receives the blanket blame for all the deaths that aren’t down to the titular vegetative monsters of the week. But the fact that the Mogarians greet their killer with the bizarre line “We did not request refreshment” only makes even the slightest sense if it’s directed at the Hyperion III’s stewardess Janet (Yolande Palfrey) who coincidentally had earlier been seen in back of shot tampering with the drinks before they were handed to the soon-to-be-deceased undercover investigator. But apparently she’s still not the killer – unless the Doctor got it completely wrong. I’m guessing that the four per cent of Doctor Who fans credited with being able to answer the question posed in that tweet will say it was indeed Janet, although it comes to something when the audience needs to work this hard to dig the script writers out of a deep hole of their own confused making.

(Spoilers concluded.)

Actually the Doctor could very well have got it wrong, since Pip ‘n’ Jane are further encumbered by the unnecessarily convoluted and pace-killing extra layer of the overarching “Trial” framing sequences, in which it is specifically established that the testimony being viewed – the footage of the “Vervoids” story in other words – has been falsified and distorted so we can’t trust what we see. Any of it. There’s one sequence explicitly showing the Doctor destroying vital communications equipment, which he vehemently denies doing – but in yet another example of the black holes littering the script, no one else is ever revealed as having done it. Oh wait, is it supposed to be the same person the Doctor fingers as the overall guilty party at the end of the serial? Well yes, if he had any reason, motive or opportunity to do so then it just might …

Urgh. Enough is enough. You get the picture. And in fact, “Terror of the Vervoids” isn’t really all that bad or even actively terrible, it stands up perfectly well enough while you’re watching it. It’s only when you stop to think about the plot for longer than one second that the whole thing turns into a pile of dust on the floor. In other words, like so much of Doctor Who of the mid-80s, the show is an exercise in filling four 25 minute spots on the TV schedule and nothing more (and there really is a lot of padding in episode three in particular)

Small wonder that Nathan-Turner wanted out. The BBC top brass agreed he could finally leave the show, on condition that he was the one who delivered the news to Colin Baker that he was being fired as the Doctor. Nathan-Turner agreed and did the dirty work – at which point the management reneged on the deal and told Nathan-Turner he was going nowhere unless he quit the BBC. So there he stayed for another three years until Doctor Who finally came to a halt after season 26 at the end of 1989. Not wanting another fan backlash, the BBC never actually cancelled the show; they just never formally renewed it, not for another 16 years.

The irony is that by the time it was ‘not formally renewed’ the show was back on its feet and very much on an upward swing. There are some fantastic stories in those last three years including “Remembrance of the Daleks”, “Ghost Light” and “The Curse of Fenric” which ensured the show went out on a creative high. The renaissance started with Nathan-Turner’s appointment of Andrew Cartmel as Saward’s successor as script editor. Cartmel brought in fresh new talent that was well-suited to writing science fiction including Ben Aaronovitch, Marc Platt and Ian Briggs who were all strongly motivated to making Doctor Who burn brightly again.

As is very ably demonstrated by “Vervoids”, that’s exactly what was missing in the Sixth Doctor’s time – writers who understood the show. Saward himself never did. He famously despised the goodie-two-shoes character of the Doctor as portrayed by Peter Davison and wanted someone harder-edged, only to then loathe the Sixth Doctor who was supposed to deliver exactly that. Similarly, Pip ‘n’ Jane – lovely people, to be sure, and doubtless first to volunteer for the local church fete – also seemed to be under the misapprehension that they were writing a soap like Triangle rather than science fiction. But they tried, Gawd bless ’em, and you have to give them some modest credit and at least a small thank you and appreciative round of applause for helping to keep the programme afloat until more robust hands arrived to take up the strain.

Indeed, everyone who worked on “Terror of the Vervoids” surely deserves that same kindness and consideration for all the effort they put in. It’s just unfortunate that the end result of their labours is best left tucked out of sight and not thought about too much, other than as a warning to the future for what happens when great shows fall on hard times Let’s hope that it never again happens to Doctor Who and that we never have to endure any more such trials of a Time Lord.

“Terror of the Vervoids” is only available on DVD as part of “The Trial of a Time Lord” boxset, which was released in September 2008.

2 thoughts on “Doctor Who: Terror of the Vervoids (1986) [DVD]

    John Hood said:
    April 27, 2015 at 5:57 pm

    An apt quote from The Empire Strikes Back! 😉

      andrewlewin responded:
      April 27, 2015 at 6:18 pm

      I originally opened just with “1985 was a dark time for Doctor Who fans” and then realised the cross-franchise mash-up. It was just impossible not to lead with once I saw it!

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