Doctor Who #659: Terror of the Vervoids Part 1

"Far cry from the carefree life of Pease Pottage, eh, Mel?"
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired Nov.1 1986 as The Trial of a Time Lord Part 9.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor presents evidence from the future, including new companion Mel.

REVIEW: The episode starts strong, with the Doctor returning from a recess still grief-stricken after Peri's apparent demise. It's not quite there in the dialog, but the way Colin Baker plays it, his face tight, the long pauses before he speaks, that's the restrained and pained performance the moment needs. And then we're plunged into the increasingly ludicrous trial as the Doctor puts on a defense based on a story that hasn't happened yet. How does that work exactly? How do the Time Lords justify letting someone view their own future - and the Doctor must've watched a lot more of his future adventures to choose the one that best showed the point he wanted to make - even if they do have a policy of erasing the minds of those it kidnaps from time? And doesn't the existence of this record prove the Doctor isn't found guilty and stripped of his life and regenerations? It's pretty hypocritical for the Time Lords to charge the Doctor with meddling when they're ready to unravel all the adventures that must have happened between the Doctor's present and their objective present. So the courtroom stuff continues to be the worst part of the season, with interruptions that make no legal sense and the idea that the Matrix is lying, thus making the whole thing somewhat irrelevant.

The story itself is far more entertaining. The cruise liner's cast is set up as an Agatha Christie murder mystery, the sets are storied and add a lot of production value, Honor Blackman (from the Avengers and Goldfinger) is the stunt casting of the month, and then there's a new companion... Poor Mel. I really like her in this first outing, a contrast to Peri in that she wants to barge in where angels fear to tread, and it's the Doctor who's cautious. She's perky and WANTS to get involved, and though the Doctor tries to protect her from her own impulsiveness, it makes them much better partners than Peri's "let's go back to the TARDIS" attitude. They have good chemistry right from the get-go. And yet, if we could accuse Peri of being a generic companion to the point of being a non-character - she was American because JNT wanted to tap the American market, she was sexy because he wanted the dads to watch, that wasn't much a person for Bryant to play - Mel could very well outdo her in genericness. Famously chosen because she could scream in the key of the Doctor Who cliffhanger sting, Bonnie Langford still manages to bring a fun, child-like personality to her performance, but the way the story is told, Melanie Bush won't even get an origin story. At no point will she be seen living a normal life, and over the course of her 1½ seasons, she'll use her computer programming skills even less than Peri did botany. Who was this girl before the Doctor picked her up? The program doesn't say. She's the in medias res companion, a character built to be that and nothing else. She's interested in fitness, hers and the Doctor's, which seems a very 80s Olivia Newton John kind of thing, but that's it as far as foreground goes.

As for the Doctor, he HAS changed. He's more careful, he's mellowed, none of that shouting business. He even flirts with Janet to get information, showing a charm not so obvious in previous stories. Since the 7th Doctor, who also travels with Mel, says he's 953 at one point, and the 6th estimated his age at 900, she wasn't his very next companion after Peri, though Peri's fate may well have informed his cautiousness. Fans of the Big Finish audios will know a little of those missing decades, in which this Doctor lived his best adventures, accompanied by people like Evelyn, Charlotte, Mila, Brewster, Flip, and (borrowed from the comics) the shape-shifting penguin Frobisher. Sadly, the production didn't spring for a new costume for the future sequences. It would have been an excellent sign that things had changed, that he had become more mature and restrained. But on a production level, things have NOT really changed. The suit is garish, the sets too brightly lit, the music just AWFUL, and the TARDIS scenes largely unbearable due to a combination of these factors.

VERSIONS:
Deleted scenes on the DVD feature an extra court interruption in which the Doctor and Valeyard have another go at each other (we're happier without it), a brief joke about the Doctor's color blindness as Mel motions to one of his vests (which should have been left in), and twice as much screaming before we go to end credits to show off Langford indefatigable vocal chords.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - On the one hand, the premise of showing a future story, while clever, is just more nonsense to lay at the Trial's feet and proves harmful to the new companion. On the other, it's a perfectly good start to a murder mystery story and I quite like the relationship between the Doctor and Mel.

9 comments:

Madeley said...

I like the idea of using a future adventure as evidence, but it would have to be framed as a potential future to make sense. Or at least, with a token throw away timey-wimey excuse.

Speaking of Frobisher, I listened to The Holy Terror the other day, and it's both brilliant and uncomfortably dark. Some of the best Who episodes ever are in the audio range. Are you likely to do reviews of them as well?

Siskoid said...

I've done capsule reviews of most of them in This Week in Geek over the years, but currently no plans to do the whole range in this format. Which doesn't mean it won't happen after I'm done with the televised stuff (which now looks like next Spring).

Calamity Jon said...

In deference to your affection for Mel, I won't repeat Noel Coward's alleged comment about her as a young actor ... except to say that it always brings me a little guilty delight.

Siskoid said...

Affection may be a big word. I'm enjoying the contrast with Peri, but the only companion of the 80s I really like is Ace.

Rex Kidd said...

I think the pic up top there is actually from the Golden Girls.

Siskoid said...

Thank you for being a friend...

Bill Doughty said...

This is my favorite story of the Trial cycle. "Agatha Christie... IN OUTER SPAAAAAAAACE!" is a trope that Doctor Who does well, I think. Unsurprisingly, one of my favorite 4th Doctor stories is The Robots of Death. That story does it better, of course, but I still like how it all comes off here, particularly the hints at unseen adventures in which the Doctor has met a few of these characters before.

Jeremy Patrick said...

"I think the pic up top there is actually from the Golden Girls"

Ha! I honestly thought the *exact* same thing when I first glimpsed the photo--must be the color palatte, the chairs, her pantsuit, etc.

Though now I'm wondering which of the Girls would make the best companion for the Doctor . . .

Siskoid said...

Bea Arthur would make a great Donna Noble type.

 

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