5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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TRIAL OF A TIME LORD PART THREE (TERROR OF THE VERVOIDS)
“I don’t think you’ll find enjoyment’s on the agenda.”
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It was all going so well. An entertaining Robert Holmes script and a great Doctor and companion in The Mysterious Planet, hilarious dialogue and a brilliant sendoff for Peri in Mindwarp, and the Valeyard (yum) in both. Why is it that everybody hates Trial Of A Time Lord Again?
Then we watched Terror Of The Vervoids. Oh. Now we get it.
We talked about it, we racked our brains, but we couldn't do it. Think of a script with worse writing than this, that is. Doctor Who's had duller episodes (The Web Planet) and it's had stupider episodes (The Sound Of Drums/Last Of The Time Lords), but we honestly believe that this must be the script with the most appalling writing. Ever.
And that poisons the whole shebang. It's impossible to judge, for example, whether the acting's as bad as it looks, because what were the poor bastards supposed to do with lines like this?
With you standing there in your divine state of innocence…
I expected the Professor to grasp the enormity of our folly!
Fire alarms are not playthings for irresponsible buffoons!
You’re nothing but a squalid criminal!
We think we've figured it out. "Pip and Jane Baker" is in fact an elaborate alias for a bunch of Romanians who wrote the script backwards, in the dark, then passed it through a machine translation. That's the only explanation for dialogue so outlandish and wooden.
It's a shame, because it doesn't start that badly at all. We love the Doctor's touching and underplayed sorrow at Peri's death, and the Death On The Nile-alike setting of the main story, complete with reference to grey cells, promises to be quite intriguing. Honor Blackman's in it, even if she does seem to be mentally lying on a beach in the Bahamas spending her Doctor Who fee on gin slings, and Michael Craig as the Commodore is really very good indeed.
Then Mel appears and the thing veers wildly and rapidly downhill, fetching up in the rancid badlands of terrible writing, terrible plotting, terrible characters and some very, very terrible acting. And stays there.
It's not that bringing in a companion we haven't been introduced to's a bad idea in itself. It worked really well in Silence In The Library. And Mel herself isn't that bad a character: screamy, yes, but also reasonably smart and proactive. None of those things, however, can rescue her from being one of the most teeth-grittingly, fingernail-scrapingly annoying companions in the history of the series.
So what is it? Some of it's her maddening 80s fitness obsession (and the endless yammering about the gym and their workouts from the other characters doesn't help this either). Some of it's the lack of context: since we haven't got a clue who she is, Pip 'n' Jane drop in sophisticated, seamlessly integrated exposition like "A far cry from the carefree life of Pease Pottage, eh Mel?", but despite these earnestly clunky efforts, we just don't get her, because we're not allowed to get to know her. Some of it's that fantastically irritating anime-ready squeak. And some (sorry, Bonnie) is her spectacularly bad acting. Granted, the material she was given would tax a BAFTA winner, but nevertheless, her line readings on top of Pip 'n' Jane's writing give the thing an almost Kafkaesque air of the surreal. Not in a good way, either.
And it's not as if she's just one bad character which the rest of it can survive. The companion, and her or his relationship to the Doctor, has the potential to either float or sink a story, and that's what happens here. No wonder Doctor Who was in so much trouble at this time: Mel plunges a knife into its heart(s) up to the hilt.
Not that there's exactly oceans of stuff they could have used as ballast against Mel sinking the good ship Who. As well as the awe-inspiringly terrible dialogue, the story's an oozing mess of plotlines which are riddled with inconsistencies. Taking potshots at it's like aiming a howitzer at a snail, but we never said we were fair. Soooo....
There's a lot of fuss about the Mogarians and their translators, none of which makes a morsel of sense. They make a big ta-da about pointing out that the third Mogarian didn't have his translating light on, for a start: we weren't exactly glued to the screen, but even we could hardly have missed it. A bigger mystery as far as we're concerned is how Hallet is managing to breathe in that Mogarian suit, which is designed to keep out oxygen. (And just what's Hallet there for, anyway?) Also, if the real Mogarians don't have their translators on, how do they understand when good ol' Tonker asks them to switch them on?
There's plenty of other stuff, too. How come Lasky knows her luggage isn't in Cabin 6 when her key is for Cabin 9? Why does the Doctor scamper away when Lasky starts giving the lab assistant gas? Why do they shred their laundry and fling it into space? After years of stripmining, what's the big deal for the Mogarians about taking this single shipload back? How is a bridge where they leave the door open and everybody down to the ship's cat strolls in and out hijack-proof? Why does the Doctor triumphantly conclude that Doland must be the murderer because Lasky is a hostage as a result of the Mogarians being killed when anyone could have killed them? How come the intense light and carbon dioxide generated by the (snicker) vionesium bomb didn't blind and asphyxiate the humans?
And shovelled on top of that lot, like a particularly noxious fertiliser, are the Vervoids. They're good old-fashioned Doctor Who monsters, by which we mean that they're bad, old-fashioned Doctor Who monsters. Not only do they join the exalted ranks of the rubbery and unconvincing, they're members of that rarer but infinitely precious class of monsters, the eyebrow-raisingly X-rated-shaped.
Also, they're plants. Bad-tempered greenery is usually ill-advised at the best of times, but Doctor Who's survived it before. Mix it here, though, with their appearance and their own crop (ha!) of plot bloopers of extreme stupidity and they become a very bad idea indeed.
So they're slave veges, right? We must admit we were not paying our customary minute attention to these episodes, and indeed most of us had to be forcibly restrained from looking stupid things up on Wikipedia to pass the time as they unspooled, so we're not entirely clear on how the Vervoids came about. If we got it right, they were developed in the lab, right? By evil Cathy Gale and her merry band? If so, surely they saw them in their fully-developed form. So how come the ones they developed didn't start their anti-herbivore crusade as soon as they de-podded back on Mogar? And if they put them together, why did they design in a whole bunch of mechanisms lethal to humans?
And that's far from the end of it. How does switching the lights out on the ship make the Vervoids retreat to their (dark) lair? And we're not sure the ridiculous accelerating the life cycle insanity even deserves dissection. Worst of all, they finally get round to doing a plant episode the story after Peri the botanist leaves. Tchah.
It seems that even Pip 'n' Jane had their doubts about the Vervoids, because they packed another hundred or so plots around them to distract us. The clichéd security officer on his last cruise who joins a hierarchical organisation then resents it when people give him orders. The Mogarian rebellion. The mysterious investigator. The evil scientists. The hybrids. A hijack and a black hole. Then, having the cluttered the board so much we can't see over the pieces, they then proceed to clear it by murdering people right and left. And the Doctor wastes an entire species without a second's thought (Have I the right? Apparently, Doctor, you do). For something with so much plot, how come it seems like nothing happens?
And mixed in with all of this are the trial scenes. We've heard these described as an intrusion to the story, but as far as we're concerned the story's an intrusion to the trial scenes. Delicious as ever, the Valeyard held our rapt attention when nothing else did, and the Inquisitor's incisiveness and gravitas gives the erroneous impression that all of this has a point. What's more, this is where the real stuff is. The Doctor's continued reaction to Peri's death. His fight (such as it is, since he doesn't exactly go out of his way to defend himself) for his life. The intriguing weirdness with the Matrix. The Valeyard's entirely justified accusation of genocide. Sure, there are paradoxes aplenty (if the Doctor ends up being executed as a result of this trial, surely the future adventure on which he was convicted wouldn't exist?), but hey, we're sure the Time Lords have some explanation that all makes sense in the twelfth dimension or something. How about if we snip all the rest out and just keep the trial bits?
And the Doctor? To be honest, it's hard to tell because of the script car crash and the deadening poison of Mel, but there are some very nice moments in here all the same. His reined-back performance in the trial scenes is without doubt the highlight.
The Valeyard. The Doctor, here and there. Also, the Valeyard. Otherwise, this story should be sealed in titanium and buried under concrete.
MORAL: When you see "by Pip and Jane Baker", reach immediately for the remote.
THE THICK OF IT
Whose idea of a joke was it casting the absolutely tiny Bonnie Langford right when the Sixth Doctor had expanded to his fullest?
OH, HE'S DEAD? WHAT A SHAME
"You make delicious coffee, Janet." Patronising git.
NECK AND NECK
The Time Lords’ big collary things have never struck us as the ultimate in practicality, but we have to admit that when they all swivel round on their chairs they look very pretty.
Just in case we don't get it, they have Lasky ostentatiously toting round Murder On The Orient Express. Sigh.
IN THE KEY OF ARGH
We were happy to find out that Bonnie screaming in the same key as the end music was deliberate and not a product of our overheated imaginations. It almost - almost - makes the screaming tolerable.
“The answer’s simple enough. You’ve got a killer on board!” No shit, Sherlock.
WHAT'S THAT PONG?
So in a thousand years, the only improvement they've made to video games is to put Space Invaders on a big see-through screen. Talk about a failure of imagination.
Count yourself lucky that we didn't make any jokes about methane and the air being breathable. Or about "Reach into the Commodore’s pocket and take out the keys. Carefully!".
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