Season 23 saw a complete overhaul of Doctor Who. Well, less of an overhaul and the brutal mutilation of the show. In its action of killing off Peri, the mutilation had begun in earnest and Terror of the Vervoids only proved to continue that. Two key factors hammered that home. The first was the introduction of the new companion, Melanie Bush, played by Bonnie Langford and the exit of the script editor, Eric Saward. These two factors didn't really improve the show but it gave it a new set of problems to try and overcome, making an already bad season bad for a different reason. Really, this was the kick start for the Sylvester McCoy era, an era which had problems of its own but brought with it a new sense of self and much needed new focus.
Looking at the behind the scenes problems of Trial of a Time Lord can be a little confusing but it is essential to understand why it ended up as bad as it did. The idea for a season like this had been a joint effort between script editor, Eric Saward and producer John Nathan-Turner as a defence against those in power at the BBC who could have cancelled the show outright. In the end however, the pressures of working in the company at that time caused too much a rift between Saward and Turner and Saward left the show, walking out during the making of The Ultimate Foe. He also infamously refused to work on Terror of the Vervoids as he hated the character of Mel and what Pip and Jane Baker had written.
Colin Baker, (The Sixth Doctor) on the set of Terror of the Vervoids.
Really, the Bakers should be praised, maybe not for their storytelling quality but the fact that they could give us a story as quickly as they did, in this case an Agatha Christie like murder mystery aboard an interstellar cruiser that was the be shot entirely in the studios to save money. Now, whether what they wrote was actually an good is another matter but since Saward refused to work on the title, Nathan-Turner did without any credit and it really shows as we still have clunky dialogue, repetitive scenes and very illogical material that remained in the final product.
Terror of the Vervoids begins with the Doctor and the Valeyard butting heads once again in the tedious but obligatory courtroom scenes. There is a nice little farewell mention Peri and then it is business as usual. The Doctor acting as the defence oddly chooses to look at an adventure that hasn't happened for him at that point in time but something he discovered when searching through the Time Lord's all knowing Matrix. This could have been a really interesting idea but the notion of picking a future adventure only happened because the production team thought it sounded cool and not because they had any intent to explore the ramifications of what that might mean.
However, the bulk of the story takes place on board the Hyperion 3 in the 2900s, where the Doctor and Mel arrive having answered a distress call. Soon enough, they find themselves embroiled in a murder mystery and in case you missed the homage to Agatha Christie, one character is seen reading Murder on the Orient Express at one point!
Mel, (Bonnie Langford), prepares to hit the gym.
As with any good Christie novel, all the secondary characters have motives to be the murderer. We've got a man who fakes being killed only to be killed later on, aliens who dislike humans because of the mining of their resources, an incompetent security chief with a major chip on his shoulder and three shady scientists lead by Professor Lasky, played be Honor Blackman, famous from the role of Cathy Gale in The Avengers. The scientists are hiding something in the Isolation Room, as well as some large green pods in the cargo bay. And then there the obligatory monsters, homicidal plants called Vervoids who have been engineered for slave labour and aren't too happy about it. Of course, they get loose and start killing people off as monsters generally do.
But the homage to Christie isn't the only thing this story has elements off. It also has elements of previous Doctor Who stories, the murder on board a spaceship is similar to the Fourth Doctor story, Nightmare of Eden and the relationship between the Doctor and Mel is similar to that of the Third Doctor and Jo in The Curse of Peladon.
Whatever success the story might have had however is undone by the opacity of the script and the awful dialogue. And that's not even mention the uninspired and lazy look of the production. But the worst bit of this story has to be the aliens, The Mogarians. They can't breathe oxygen as it will kill them, so they were masks. Later on in story, someone throws a little glass of water at them and they all fall down screaming!
Pip and Jane Baker clearly have no idea of how a murder mystery is supposed to be constructed, or how an actual murder investigation might be carried out! More than once the importance of a clue is brought to our attention and nothing is done about it. The Doctor looks over a list of passenger names for anyone suspicious, doesn't see anyone and then gives up about it. I'm sure Hercule Poirot would do more than sneer at him for that.
Even more odd is that once the Vervoids start murdering people, the Bakers keep the murder mystery plot going for as long as possible, even while people are fighting for their lives against alien aggressors. It makes about must sense as people being trampled by a herd of elephants and you continue your shopping. But rather than dissecting the plot, which will give you a headache, lets instead focus on the plot holes and other problems in the script.
Lasky,(Honor Blackman), faces off against her creations, the Vervoids.
How did Hallet get away with hiding in the Mogarians when there was only two of them to begin with? Why does the Doctor make such a fuss about killing the Vervoids when his plan to get rid of them is to age them past their life cycles - thus killing them? What the fascination about having so many scenes take place around exercise equipment? Why isn't the captain informed when it is discovered that the Vervoids are killing everyone? How can Mel scream when she wearing a face mask? What kind of ship can claim to be hijack proof but is hijacked and the crew is prevented from cutting power off to the bridge when they try to retake the ship? How could the Doctor be so insistent that the Vervoids aren't psychopaths when he hasn't even seen them? Why is it impossible for humans and Vervoids to live to together just because humans eat plants, should it be impossible for humans and animals to live together in that case? Maybe if we ate the Vervoids then we would have a problem! How did the scientists intend to use the Vervoids as servants when they have engineered killers and why bother to give them lethal stingers?
Now, Eric Saward much preferred a more nihilistic view at Doctor Who and without him, Terror of the Vervoids is much lighter than anything the show had done in the past. That is largely because when they were left to their own devices, Pip and Jane Baker thought of Doctor Who as children's entertainment and they wrote it that way. It doesn't matter how many bodies the Vervoids pile up on their literal human-compost heap, it didn't have the same dystopian view as Saward would have injected into it. The most significant part of this story is that it is a plucky young woman solving the crime. A plucky young woman her eccentric friend. Really this is Nancy Drew on a spaceship and it is little wonder that Eric Saward hated Mel.
And there were certainly a lot of fans who hated Mel when she first appeared and possibly, they were right. She is as an energetic as a squirrel on an expresso, screams far too much and tries too hard to show us why she is supposed to be so wonderful. But all this is the fault of the writers not the way that Bonnie Langford plays the part. She does the best she can with the material she has been given and in fact, she brings the same sort of energy as Katy Manning did back in the Third Doctor's era. Alright, I'll agree Mel can be annoying, though Big Finish has done a lot to improve her character over the years, but it is so much nicer to watch a Doctor and companion working together because they actually like each other.
If only her debut story could have been handled better and her characterisation completely reworked, then she might not languish at the worst end of the companion spectrum. And surely I can't be the only one to see the similarities between Mel and River Song. Its almost as if Stephen Moffat wrote River to show us how Mel could have been done right!
But no matter how you look at Mel, she was exactly what the show needed at that point, even if it was for just a while. The switch between Peri and Mel feels like someone grabbing the steering wheel and violently changing direction. It is very rare that the introduction of a character can change the whole production to such an extent. And the arrogant and abrasive Sixth Doctor needed someone to stand up to him, which Mel did, she wasn't afraid to knock him down a peg or two when she needed to and the script goes aways to showing us that even an arrogant Doctor can be charming, when he pulls flowers out of his sleeve in a magicians trick. But the time was running out for Colin Baker who would soon be forced to hand the reigns over to Sylvester McCoy in one of the dirtiest tricks the BBC has ever been responsible for...