Doctor Who episode 657: The Trial of a Time Lord – Part Twelve (22/11/1986)
‘Whether or not the Doctor has proved himself innocent of meddling is no longer the cardinal issue before this court. He has proved himself guilty of a far greater crime.’ The titles of the Trial segments have been settled since the Target books were published in the late 1980s, but I think it’s telling that this one came out as Terror of the Vervoids rather than the working title The Ultimate Foe. The latter suggests a sort of Golden Age detective story – shades of The Final Problem or The Secret Adversary. The title it’s now known as promotes the generic Doctor Who monster plot above the detective element – which is entirely fitting because that’s exactly what the script does.
It’s wrapped up neatly enough without ever threatening to fulfil its promise as a genuine Agatha Christie in space. Instead, between Rudge’s hijack attempt, the Vervoids’ deadly rampage and the Valeyard’s accusation of genocide the actual murder plot is almost an afterthought. There’s no grand denouement as the Doctor gathers all the suspects in the lounge to dramatically reveal the truth – which is a shame, as I expect Colin Baker would have rather enjoyed that. Instead, it’s all handled in the cargo bay, and the killer is quickly bumped off in turn by the Vervoids. There are good moments – the Vervoids lit by red emergency lighting suddenly look about a thousand times scarier ands the eerie moaning that accompanies their Hammer Dracula style demise is haunting. Yes, this can work as a standalone story, but not a very good one.
Where it works best is in the treatment of the Doctor and Mel. The Doctor resorts to violence as a last resort, and, as in The Mark of the Rani, is avuncular rather than acerbic. He doesn’t carry guns – Mel makes a big thing about his uncharacteristic request for a phaser – and doesn’t angrily shout at her or anyone else. This is essentially the same character Baker has been playing for the last 20-odd years for Big Finish. There’s nothing problematic in the story, but nothing especially remarkable either. Had it been made five years earlier it’d be brushed past as a bit of harmless whimsy, albeit with a sense of vivid and comprehensible storytelling and a disinterest in navel-gazing continuity that some of its most vocal fan critics could have learned from.
I think the main issue with it is its failure to really add much to the Trial itself. The idea that the Doctor picks out as his defence one adventure where he’s appealed to by authority seems incredibly flimsy. The Inquisitor’s rush to accept the Doctor’s argument and claim, ‘Nor, Valeyard, can you refute it’ should have been greeted by the Valeyard waving his hand to the video shelf of all the other times (including on Ravolox and Thoros Beta) where that wasn’t the case. Still, I suppose if you’re going to get executed anyway it might as well be for genocide as time meddling.
Next episode: The Trial of a Time Lord – Part Thirteen