Saturday, 29 June 2013

Terror of the Vervoids written by Pip and Jane Baker and directed by Chris Clough

This story in a nutshell: Murder on the Hyperion III...

Softer Six: As charming as Colin Baker would have liked to have played the part for many years to come, his performance in this adventure is about as good as it gets, buoyed up by a Pip’n’Jane script that places him centre stage which is exactly where he likes to be. I would happily spend more time with this representation of the sixth Doctor (in fact I have in the prolific number of Big Finish adventures he has now starred in) because he is extremely at ease with his surroundings and has developed beyond that irascible nasty that he embodied when he began this incarnation into somebody who is much more fun to beyond. Just like the McCoy era, as soon as they are getting somewhere interesting and agreeable with the Doctor he is given the chop. He shows appropriate remorse over the death of Peri, some time passing between the trial scenes at the end of Mindwarp and the beginning of Terror and he is still having difficulty getting his head around the idea that she is gone (until the great pink heart incident of The Ultimate Foe). He’s such a cheeky thing in this story, pretending to be working out when Mel’s back is turned and pulling flowers out of his jacket to charm Janet. It is suggested in the BBC Novel Instruments of Darkness (Gary Russell once again attempting to plug every gap in continuity) that the previous instance the Doctor met up with ‘Tonker’ Travers was with Evelyn by his side and the two of them developed feelings for one another to the point where he even proposed to her. This would make sense of his bad attitude when they are reunited, bringing back raw feelings. Travers might give him a tough time but he knows the Doctor will cut through this mystery in no time if he keeps him on board. He’s subject to whims (so he’s told). He’s met his match in Honor Blackman’s Professor Laskey, a woman who thinks he is a complete fool (well look how he’s dressed!) and wont let him get a word in edgeways (I secretly wish they could have travelled together for a bit). There is something about the sixth Doctor’s era that likes introducing us to characters that we have never seen before but the Doctor has a history with (Azmael, his previous trip to Karfel, Travers, Hallet). What a public menace, setting off the fire alarm and tripping into theatrics about lives in danger in the passenger lounge! The Doctor deserves the Valeyard’s disgust for suggesting that he showed a decent amount of restraint during his nemesis’ evidence. There’s a lovely moment during Rudge’s hijack when all the pretence strips away and the Doctor and Travers discuss the problem at hand with real gravity. That’s where you see the real relationship between these two characters. The Bakers might have their faults as writers but they know how to make the Doctor look good and the sequence where he has apparently walked into a trap of his making (being held at gunpoint at the mercy of the killer) but has actually thought the whole thing through is worthy of Troughton. I’m pleased that the Doctor can see things from the point of view of the Vervoids, his ability to rationalise their slaughter of the crew highlights his alien perspective. How he comforts Mel after the mass murder they have committed is rather lovely and reminds me of a similar moment in Fires of Pompeii between the Doctor and Donna.

Energetic Exercise Freak: Whilst Ian Levine might have spontaneously combusted when he heard the news of Bonnie Langford’s casting (but I gather he does this on a weekly basis and has all the kings horses and all the kings men put him back together again), I found her to be something of a breath of fresh air. It’s not that I didn’t like Tegan (okay that’s a lie, I really didn’t like Tegan) or Peri (who showed great promise and often managed to surprise me despite scripts that would often sideline or patronise the very good Nicola Bryant) but it is lovely to finally enjoy a companion who seems to want to be with the Doctor and enjoy his company. The enforced tension between the TARDIS crew has gone on for too long now and it is time to benefit from a more relaxed, amiable chemistry. Mind you introducing Melanie in a fit of exercise pique might not have been the best approach, confirming Bonnie’s detractors worse fears. Mel is up for solving the mystery of who sent the mayday call and eggs the Doctor into action – it really is great to see somebody who is so willingly engaged with the story instead of trying to jump back to the TARDIS every five minutes. She can be seen bouncing around the corridors (it’s the dancer in her) of the Hyperion III and poking her nose in where it isn’t wanted. She might not have much of a character to grasp hold of but Bonnie is doing exactly what is required of her, to show a relaxed relationship with the Doctor after much travelling together. Mel’s reaction to the Vervoid compost heap is very real, she bursts into tears at the sight of bodies piled randomly on top of each other and seeks comfort from the Doctor.

Fantastical Dialogue: This story is packed to the gills full of Pip and Jane gems. I don’t know if I would call them sparkling but they are certainly memorable!
‘If I seem to lack gratitude young woman it is because on the previous occasions the Doctor’s path crossed mine I found myself involved in a web of mayhem and intruige!’ – a line so stilted it almost threatens to trip Malcolm Tierney up.
‘My dear Melanie if you wish to pursue this completely arbitrary course, pray, hurry along to the Hydroponics Centre and leave me to my static and solitary peregrinations’ – try saying that drunk.
‘Now I’ll go first. We don’t want you breaking your neck, at least not until…’ – what was Edwards going to say at the end of that sentence?
‘I don’t think you’ll find enjoyment’s on the agenda!’ – you have to be careful with lines like that…they are the bread and butter of reviewers.
‘The crimes we’re committing in the name of science will make us infamous!’ – go on, say that out loud. I promise it will make you smile.
‘Never mind the Just-so stories - that guard looks trigger happy to me!’
‘Are we to be subjected to more chicanery, Sagacity?’
‘Had even a leaf survived and fall on fertile soil, a Vervoid would have grown…’ – it’s hardly Chaucer, is it?

The Good:

  • Isn’t it wonderful how the Doctor informs us that this is going to be both a base under siege and Earth in danger tale before getting on with telling his story? It’s almost a warning to those who haven’t been enamoured with the series so far – don’t worry folks this one is going to be as traditional as it gets! Even more brilliant is the input of the Valeyard and the Inquisitor, commenting on the murder mystery plot as though they are husband and wife watching a Sunday evening Marple with their slippers on.
  • Despite some primitive direction, I rather like the introduction to the suspects on the Hyperion III with the Doctor’s deliriously enjoyable melodramatic voiceover. Bizarrely everybody seems to be hanging around the lounge at the same time (seriously take a look, practically the entire cast is there sipping drinks, trying to look nonchalant and overhearing everybody’s conversations) but that just gives me a good chance to check them all out. My money was on Janet the stewardess from the start. She’s just too nice. What stands out immediately is the extreme 80sness of the lounge and a cast of charismatic actors who are about to chew on Pip’n’Jane’s florid dialogue and have a great time doing so.
  • Let’s take a look at our suspects… You have the stalwart Tonker Travers, batty scientist Professor Lasky, her assistant on the verge of a breakdown Bruchner, lily white Stewardess Janet, a tired old fart of a security officer Mr Rudge, the rather charming lackey Edwards (although he is disposed of quite early on), the blank faced Mogarians who revealing nothing beneath their sinister visors, icy cool Doland, sweet old git Mr Kimber, the gun toting guard that doesn’t even get a name…and of course the Doctor and Mel looking as though they have come dressed for a kids birthday party! I have to confess I am something of a Christie buff and whilst Robots of Death does follow her conventions to a degree, this is the story that I feel most captures her style by offering a range of personalities, masses of plot complications and an impressive wrap up that ties up all the loose threads at the climax. The not-so subtle addition of Murder on the Orient Express leads you to believe that everybody is going to be responsible (I would add a spoiler warning but if you haven’t read the book yet then serves you right) and at one point in the story suspicion is thrown on all the cast like all good Christies (even the Doctor, seen brandishing an axe in the communications room).
  • Honor Blackman is playing it straight but given her lines she cannot help but slide into high camp at times (‘If you’ve finished with my tracksuit!’), Malcolm Tierney offers a convincing Travers and even smaller parts such as Edwards and Janet are well cast and believably portrayed. By all accounts the rehearsals were riotous and you can tell the actors are having a great time bringing this larger than life story to the screen.
  • On the whole the sets are very impressive in this story, shot with care and lit well. Setting the entire story on a space liner is a great excuse to excise location filming and gives the murder mystery a terrific claustrophobic atmosphere. Nobody can escape and everybody is at the mercy of the killer. The split level hold set is especially impressive and gives the director lots of interesting places to shoot and waste disposal is dramatically lit and provides a great place to toss the odd Vervoid in later episodes. Clough even goes to the lengths of adding a star field effect to the gymnasium set (this is clearly a retro 80s liner).
  • This isn’t simply a case of the cliffhangers being praised because they are dramatic zooms up Colin Baker’s nose, the climax of episodes one and two are genuinely fantastic Doctor Who moments. Explosions, electrocution, monsters bursting out of seed pods and screams seaguing seamlessly into the theme music create one of the finest set pieces of the year. As good as that is I think I prefer the climax to episode two, the Doctor pulling back the rubber sheeting to reveal Ruth, half Vervoid with pulsing veins bulging from her face. It is out of left field it genuinely shocks. Bruchner aiming the Hyperion III into the eye of the black hole of Tartarus probably looked much better on paper than it transfers to on screen but it is still not a time wasting cliffhanger but a moment of genuine peril that is built into the story. Weirdly the special effects seem to suggest that the ship is seconds from disappearing down the plughole in space but when it is diverted off course at the last minute it apparently had plenty of time to tear free of the terrifying triangles.
  • Whatever way you look at it the Vervoid tossing their victims on a compost heap is pretty chilling. I’m not sure if Eric Saward had anything to do with script editing this story or not but if so it would prove fitting as one last massacre before he left. How the designers thought they could get away with something as risqué as the Vervoid masks is beyond me but Doctor Who long triumphed sexually themed monsters and has not discriminated against them for their absurd appearance, If Alpha Centuri has a place on the show then so do the Vervoids although imagining a union between the two is enough to make your eyes water (add Erato to the mix and we’re heading into disturbing territory). However I do like how the actors are playing against their ludicrous appearance; offering a twitchy, awkward moment as they surround people in the cramped corridors of the liner. It’s almost enough to make you forget about how they look as they stab their victims in the neck with their poisonous stings. Although it might have been more sinister if they had remained mute rather than spouting the Bakers’ regurgitated thesaurus dialogue with a Liverpudlian lilt.
  • Episode four is a genuinely great half an hour of Doctor Who with so much going on it is better to just go with the flow rather than digest it all as it is playing out. There’s Rudge’s pathetic hijack, the communications system has been wrecked so nobody can call for outside help, the Mogarians ruthlessly slaughtered, Ruth Baxter meeting her end tied down and screaming, the Doctor feeling the need to carry a gun (‘exceptional circumstances require exceptional measures…’) and drawing the killer out into the open, the mass murder of the crew as the Vervoids attack en masse, Doland reveals his plan to turn the Vervoids into a slave labour force, the guest cast is whittled down one by one, Mel stumbles on the garbage heap of humans and of course the Doctor’s brilliant solution to the problem, to enforce the Vervoid life cycle by using the vienesium (dropped into the script several times) in the hold. Packed with memorable moments, blessed with a good pace and crossing every t and dotting every I, this is a very satisfying ending to a well told tale. Even if the Valeyard is making up his charges as he goes along, the final cliffhanging sting in the tale where the Doctor is charged with genocide really packs a punch. I still wanted that final scene outside the TARDIS to turn out to be a final twist though, with the Doctor suddenly revealing Janet’s involvement in the whole affair and revealing her to be the mastermind behind the whole caper. That would have been awesome.

The Bad:

  • If Dominic Glynn (an otherwise excellent musician) was aiming for a more mysterious and spooky version of the theme tune then we can sum up his efforts as an epic fail. If I’m honest it is my least favourite of all the theme tunes (oddly as time has gone on I have developed a massive crush on Keff McCulloch’s spangly McCoy version), proving unmemorable and lack the punch of the sixties and seventies versions.
  • Let’s try and get our heads around the idea of the Doctor offering evidence of his own personal future. Not only will he have to go through this entire adventure again pretending he hasn’t already seen every plot twist play out (and where is the fun of taking part in an Agatha Christie in space when you already know who the killer is?) but surely if the Doctor is on trial for his life (which seemed to be the suggestion in The Mysterious Planet and Mindwarp) then this proves that he manages to scrape a pass? Otherwise this fixed point in his future would never happen and the whole of time and space would be sucked down the toilet bowl and wind up in some alternate dimension where Trial of a Time Lord never took place (oi you at the back, stop cheering). The whole premise seems fundamentally flawed to me. Or perhaps I have thought about it too much.
  • Malcolm Clarke’s music is so inconsistent I simply don’t know what to make of him as a composer. He’s lauded for his experimental work on The Sea Devils but I find it sounds more like an army of cats being tortured and yet criticised for his synthesised madness in Attack of the Cybermen and yet parts of that story are highly atmospheric (only parts mind, I still haven’t quite forgiven him for the Steptoe and Son riff). If you take a look at the stories he is responsible for scoring it is such a bizarre mixture – Earthshock (the march of the Cybermen is a classic theme but otherwise he gets as many fart sounds out of the synthesiser as possible), Enlightenment (atmospheric, lyrical and gorgeous), Ressurection of the Daleks (pacy and gripping), The Twin Dilemma (more fart noises, b-movie style) and finally Terror of the Vervoids. Parts of the score for this story are hideously melodramatic (listen out for the moment when Lasky and cohorts march towards the Hydroponics centre) and yet others are creepy and set exactly the right tone (the POV shots of the Vervoids coming out of the pods).
  • It’s true that the Trial scenes are intrusive at this point, at least so far as there aren’t many of them so it is easy to get lured into the story and consequently it jars when we are suddenly, unexpectedly reminded that this is part of the Doctor’s evidence. Saying that I love the idea that Matrix has been tampered with by the Valeyard, using the Doctor’s evidence against him and the performances of Baker and Jayston have definitely stepped up a notch since Mindwarp and they provide some dramatic moments (‘Every instinct of which I am capable would have made me prevent her!’ ‘Yet you did not!’). The Valeyard is clearly rubbish at trying to point the finger at the Doctor, faking a bizarre moment when it appears that he has wrecked the communications equipment which would make sense if the rest of the story played out with the Doctor turning out to be the killer. Since it doesn’t (and the Valeyard clearly has the tools to ensure that it does) it’s just a random moment of guilt thrown in that has no connection with the rest of the story. Perhaps he was hoping this would be overlooked when the Doctor is seen to be committing genocide which, to be fair, it is. Then again the Doctor’s grasp of law is obviously pretty tenuous since he displays as his evidence a story where he is seen deliberately flouting the wishes of those in authority and being something of a maverick…where his commitment to the problem is only sought eight minutes before the climax of the story! Don’t let him stand as defence consul for me, please!
  • ‘It’s designed to be hijack proof!’ says the Commodore just after the command deck has been hijacked.

The Shallow Bit: I’m glad Mel has chained the Doctor to the exerciser. He’s clearly been scoffing down the rum babas lately. She should have at him with a pair of scissors too, that mop of his is mutated out of all proportion. With Mel on board, its perm palooza in the TARDIS.

Result: A ridiculously enjoyable Agatha Christie pastiche which errs on the side of the theatrical (it would probably transfer quite well to the stage with all the dialogue re-written to iron out the melodrama) but still manages to provide some decent chills and atmosphere when needs must. Pip and Jane Baker might not be the most sophisticated writers on Doctor Who (to put it gently) but this is probably their best script (actually it is probably best to say their best plot as the dialogue is frequently hideous), a story that joyfully indulges in complications to throw suspicion on every member of the guest cast but has been very well thought through so everybody is revealed to have a secret that has to be unearthed. The Bakers write very well for Colin’s Doctor and place him right in the heart of the action and let him shine and Mel’s debut, whilst characterised as fizzing like a glass of sarsaparilla, is strong in the sense that she shares a warm chemistry with the Doctor (a relief after so many discordant relationships in the TARDIS) and she infectiously tackles the mystery at hand. Terror of the Vervoids has an artificiality to it that comes with most studio bound Doctor Who adventures but it is packed full of treasures that make it bubble along very nicely; the multitude of suspects, some great cliffhangers, the rudest looking monsters since Erato the Typhonian Ambassador, some glorious set pieces (Mel nearly meeting her end in the pulverisor) and how everything goes to hell in a hand basket in the last episode as everybody is revealed to be guilty of something and the Vervoids attack en masse. Even the way the nasties are dispatched is satisfyingly handled, and injected with a little pathos. The Trial season is so often pointed at as the nadir of the classic series but I think that is a popular opinion of ignorance rather than a considered view and these episodes. Whilst not showcasing Doctor Who at its all time best, are nevertheless massively entertaining. Yes the dialogue is frequently abstruse enough to trip up the impressive guest cast and the design is a victim of the era it was made in but this is four episodes of Doctor Who packed with all the things that attracted me to the show in the first place; a great Doctor, a fun companion, twists, turns, imagination, excitement, icky monsters and even some embarrassing bits tossed in for good measure. I’m a big fan, rude shaped monsters and all: 8/10


Paolo said...

Cracking review and I didn't expect your review of this to come up with your recent reviews of the older stories. I think I have only seen this story twice, both times many years ago and maybe its time again - Big Finish do Colin Baker stories so well and I really love him as the Doctor - It was great to even see his cameo in The Name of the Doctor.

I watched The War Games yesterday based influenced partly on your review. A wonderful story and I just love the Security and War Chief pissing contests especially when they are both on the same side but with the Doctor thrown in the mix anything can happen :)

Early days, and I don't want to fall for possible hoaxes, but I soooo hope the rumour of 90 lost episodes being returned is true. Fingers crossed :)

Best wishes sir, and thank you for great reviews


Anthony Peterson said...

A fine review, and its just occurred to me - if the Doc had time to check out a whole adventure from his future then surely he would have thought to nip ahead and see the court's reaction to his evidence! Dear oh dear.

David Pirtle said...

Definitely the weakeast bit of the Trial story for me. This is a lamentably traditional tale featuring uneven writing, spotty casting, rubbish monsters, a Sixth Doctor who has completely lost his edge and a companion from out of nowhereto which the viewer has no connection. It isnt exactly bad, but the only reason I ever watch it is as part of the bigger story.