Friday, 9 March 2018

Terror of the Vervoids

Chapter The 80th, where Agatha Christie meets John Wyndham meets a Thesaurus.

The Doctor's on trial for his life because of something or other - best to skip over all that, really - and is presenting his defence, a precognitive projection of an event in his future. This is a bit tricky, legally-speaking: how can one defend against a capital punishment with a potential future which won't happen if one gets executed for one's previous crimes? Is it even a defence if the good behaviour hasn't happened yet, so can't refute any accusations made about one's past? Anyway, this is all admissible, because everything seems to be permitted according to Gallifreyan law, it's bonkers - anything goes. Also, it's mandatory in a Time Lord courtroom to use myriad polysyllabic verbiage, which can make it difficult to follow what's being adumbrated.

The defence concerns an incident aboard a spaceship, the Hyperion III, with a murder mystery or three, an attempted hijack, espionage, and a minor conspiracy to cover-up some dubious scientific experiments. These experiments created walking vegetable creatures, the Vervoids, who escape from the hold and kill pretty much everyone in the ship that hasn't been killed already. It sounds exciting doesn't it? And it is, except when it gets interrupted to bang on about the Doctor's trial. In this future tale, the Doctor and Mel (a friend he hasn't met yet) solve the mystery and destroy the Vervoids. This lands the Doctor in even more trouble in the courtroom, as he's committed genocide, which makes it even more likely that he'll get executed. Except, he hasn't done the genocide yet, that's in his future; and, if he gets executed for the genocide, he won't actually commit the genocide. My brain hurts.

Watched with the whole family (the Better Half and three kids, two boys aged 11 and 8 and a girl aged 5) from the DVD over a brace of nights, two episodes by two. It went down well, with mostly hushed viewing, and each cliffhanger garnered excited cries of "Next ep, next ep". Both the middle child and the B.H. separately moaned about the frequency (both in terms of pitch and number of instances) of Mel's screaming. The eldest described the Vervoids, amusingly and I suppose somewhat aptly, as being "made of food" (the Vervoids have been victims of worse visual comparisons over the years).

First-time round:
The one thing that leapt to mind about watching this for the first time (on its debut BBC1 broadcast in November 1986) was that my sister saw the final episode before me. This did not happen very often, as she usually didn't watch Doctor Who at all. I'd been out somewhere for Saturday afternoon, probably to do DJ or fund-raising duties at Worthing Hospital Radio, which I was involved with around this time; she was at home, and must have been bored. When I got back, she told me it was the guy from Brookside who done it before I could even cue up the video recording. Luckily, I remained unspoilered despite this slightly unkind divulgence. This was due to a misunderstanding on behalf of myself or Doctor Who Magazine's previewer: the preview for the third part of the Trial narrative (in DWM 118, fact fans) covered all the final six episodes as if they were one lump.

This is not as surprising as it might seem: the numbering of the Trial episodes suggests it's all one story, so there's no rule as to how and where or even if you split it up; the now standard division into four, and their unofficial titles, had not quite been established then. The final six episodes were made as one block, identified with a single production code, with the same director. The action between the fourth and fifth episodes of the six is continuous. Why wouldn't someone think they were all one piece? Unless one had actually seen them, of course, but it's very possible the previewer hadn't. Anyway, the only clue in the magazine (from memory - all the back issues of that vintage are in a cupboard somewhere that I'm not going to search through just to check) was a comment that the story took a different turn towards the end, and the last two episodes included Anthony Ainley's Master. I was expecting six episodes set on the Hyperion III, with a big reveal of the true villain two thirds of the way through. As such, I brushed off my sibling's comments as only part of the picture: I knew it was Beard-Face who was really behind it all. It only dawned on me what was actually going on at the point when it was supposed to dawn on me. Sometimes two wrongs do make a right.

In 1986, the twenty-third production run of Doctor Who episodes was presented as one story of fourteen episodes. This has made a lot of people very angry and was widely seen as a bad move. The show had almost been cancelled altogether the previous year before getting at least one more series as a reprieve; coming back with the biggest ever story in Doctor Who's history, a story where the character - like the show - was being put on trial, must have seemed like a good idea. It is the sort of momentarily seductive brainstorming session idea that everyone rapidly drops. Only they didn't drop it. Drawing attention to the show's dicey position was a risky move indeed, and the biggest ever story in Doctor Who's history doesn't sound so hot if you call it the longest ever story in Doctor Who's history. Anyway, it's not really one story - it's three tales with a framing narrative, followed by a two episode wrap-up. It could so easily have been rewritten, even at a late moment, to lose the over-arching plotting, and re-titled with individual headings (it's nearly universally referred to by four different titles as it is), and it might have seemed like less of a slog. Only, they didn't do this.

Luckily, this didn't kill off the series, but it felt at the time like it was a close thing.  With some distance from the pain of those bad old days (and I know it's not much to be proud of that it meant so much at the time that Doctor Who survived, but it did to me and many others) it's easier to see the positive points. To start with: Bonnie Langford. I mean it. The character of Mel as written and performed is a breath of fresh air after a number of years of more adversarial and bickering companion / Doctor relationships; the Doctor and Mel get on well with one another, and have a natural rapport. Mel also gets enthusiastically involved in the adventure throughout rather than whinging about wanting to get back to the TARDIS. It's a shame the characterisation is one note: this was the first time a companion actor needed a more defined role to put distance between the character and existing audience perception, but alas she didn't get more than "keep fit enthusiast" with which to work. Also, Bonnie is encouraged to scream all the time. Hers is a wonderful scream, the best in the business, but it does get overused very quickly.

Everyone is giving their all in the cast, in true Agatha Christie gang show fashion. Honor Blackman is the big star name, but her two assistants as played by Malcolm Tierney and David Allister are also good value; my personal favourite guest character, though, is Denys Hawthorne as Rudge, the weak man gone rogue. Colin Baker is as restrained and nuanced as he can be acting from inside a technicolour eyesore (they add a new waistcoat and cravat for this story that are even more garish than usual, if you can believe such a thing possible). And it's easy to overlook the sterling work put in by Lynda Bellingham and Michael Jayston, because whenever they appear the story grinds to a shuddering halt; poor things, it's hard not to associate them with the annoyance this causes. The trial framing device of which they are part works against the drama, as scenes set in the courtroom need to be inserted every so often to remind the viewer that what they're watching is actually not what they think they are watching, but is in fact some other people watching that stuff.

In the previous sub-stories it hasn't mattered quite so much as it does in episodes 9 to 12: in the first four episodes, the device was still a novelty; in the four after that, the script goes to the greatest lengths to integrate the action on the screen with the action of the court: Mindwarp is all about the veracity of the evidence, and without the Doctor, Inquisitor and Valeyard's final reactions, it doesn't really have an ending. The onboard action of the Hyperion III, though, stands on its own as a solid adventure, which makes the trial dull by comparison. The few call-back references to evidence tampering feel much more tacked on, and so aren't effective; they are just enough, though, to puncture and deflate at crucial moments. Without the trial sequences, I really think this would stand as Colin Baker's strongest individual adventure. Writers Pip and Jane Baker are terribly underrated and should be given a break. Their dialogue is not as awful as I remembered - although it is very wordy - and the plot and characters are all evidence of a fine job done within the constraints of this era.

Malcolm Clarke's music veers from beautiful, delicate melodies to noisy passages of percussive clunks and synth parps; this, however, is the challenge and genius of every Malcolm Clarke score, and I wouldn't want it any other way. The production design is day-glo, but there may not be any other option: as I understand the design thinking on this, Colin's coat would swamp any surrounding colour palettes if they were even slightly muted, so the saturation has to be turned up to 11 for other costumes, sets and props during his era. With the Olivia Newton-John style 'keep fit to music' action, and the idea that this floating hotel for the nouveau riche would throw towels into the waste disposal after only one use, it all adds up to a none-more-80s tale. Again, though, I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing.

Two stories on the trot featuring aggressive flora and a lead-in from the previous story.

Deeper Thoughts:
Who Knows. Even with the vast volume of Doctor Who reference works written over the years, there are still some questions that can never be answered even about the real world of the show's production (let alone the irreconcilable inconsistencies in the fictional universe of the Doctor, if you factor in those you'd be here until doomsday... or the end of time). These aren't just about obscure trivia either, but can be about the fundamentals, like how to refer to stuff. Until near the end of William Hartnell's time as the Doctor, each episode had an individual on-screen title, but the groups of episodes that formed a story - the one with the cavemen, say, or the first Dalek one, or the one where a switch breaks and all the clocks melt - didn't have any overall title, at least not one that was available to the viewers at home. There were various production documents which touched on group headings, and references in the Radio Times and programme synopses, but they were often inconsistent or plain wrong. This didn't matter too much until ten years or so later, when the first of those reference works was published, and it needed to include a story list. Doctor Who books do need to include story lists, it's a rule.

After that, and for many years to come, titles for those Hartnell stories were debated back and forth, suggestions were tried, countered, found favour, or fell out of use. Often, the name of the first episode was just used to refer to the lot, which only works if it is a vaguely representative handle. The worst candidate, you'd have thought, was that one about the cavemen. 'An Unearthly Child' doesn't have anything to do with three quarters of the story, but it's the name that's stuck. Doctor Who Magazine's style and content guides dictated for a while, though not sure whether they still do now, that it should be referred to by the never popular moniker '100,000 BC'; but, 'An Unearthly Child' is what's on the front of the video, the DVD, and the novelisation, and so I've followed that popular wisdom when covering it for the blog. The first Dalek story is known as The Daleks, which is appropriate if dull, but not a title that was ever used by the people making the thing. They may have called it 'The Mutants', but that's also now the name of a later Jon Pertwee story, so would be confusing. It may even have been called 'Beyond the Sun' at one point, but that twistily became applied to the following story too (the one with the melting clocks). That one has settled down more recently as 'The Edge of Destruction'  - it's opening episode title.

This chaos stops once the overall titles are on screen for all to see, until The Trial of a Time Lord. Trial has the opposite issue of those early Hartnell shows; the on-screen label is inadequate and the whole thing needs tags for its sub-segments. These quickly became established as 'The Mysterious Planet' (1-4), 'Mindwarp' (5-8), 'Terror of the Vervoids' (9-12) and 'The Ultimate Foe' (13-14). These are roughly based on working titles used in production, although 'The Ultimate Foe' was actually a working title for the Vervoids story, but somehow came to be associated with the final two-parter probably because it's a better description than 'Time Inc.' which was the other likely contender. Nobody ever calls it 'Time Inc.' even though 'The Ultimate Foe' is just as unofficial (sitting on the fence, BBC Worldwide labelled the DVD boxes just with the Trial title and episode numbers, but added a sticker to each box with the commonly used name).

We've come full circle since 2005, each episode has an individual title, no matter how many of those episodes form a wider story. As they are significantly less episodes than the Hartnell ones, two or at a push three parts only, it has been merely been necessary to have a slash. As in: The Sontaran Stratagem slash The Poison Sky, to pick a random example.

In Summary:
Terror of the Vervoids is great. The bits that are The Trial of a Time Lord episodes 9-12, not so much.

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