Terror of the Vervoids
Trial of a Time Lord
Terror of the Vervoids
Blu-Ray special edition

Episodes 4 Killer plants
Story No# 146
Production Code 7C
Season 23
Dates Nov. 1, 1986 -
Nov. 22, 1986

With Colin Baker, Melanie Bush.
Written by Pip and Jane Baker. Script-edited by Eric Saward.
Directed by Chris Clough. Produced by John Nathan-Turner.

Synopsis: The Doctor presents his defense from his own future, as he and Mel (in her first appearance) encounter a hidden killer aboard a spaceliner.


What Seeds May Grow by Matthew Kresal 16/2/24

In the hot mess of a season that Trial of a Time Lord turned out to be, Terror of the Vervoids manages to stand out. Namely by how shoehorned in its trial sequences are, including over-explaining moments, reducing its status as a whodunnit that's not only telegraphed but utterly superfluous. Even so, having watched and suffered my way through viewings of it during watches of Trial, a part of me has always wondered what a version of it without those sequences might be like. Clearly, even sitting in faraway Alabama, I was not alone in having those thoughts, as the 2019 Blu-Ray release of the Trial season included just such a Special Edition version, revisiting the story and allowing us to see it anew.

In fact, it's new in more ways than one. From the opening title sequence, it's clear this is far more than just a simple editing out of the trial sequences. There's a new version of the opening title sequence, not just the cleaned-up and remastered one we're so used to by now, influenced by the titles of the time and Modern Who. From there, the serial opens not with a remorseful Sixth Doctor stalking into the courtroom or the rough visual effects shot of the Hyperion III space liner but a new CGI shot of the liner. Whatever else might be said, Terror of the Vervoids is going to look better than it ever has before.

Besides the trial sequences removal, the visual effects are the most notable difference on display. The shots of the Hyperion III and the Black Hole of Tartarus were among the nadirs of eighties Doctor Who, cementing how cheap looking it had become. Surprisingly, the new effects don't wander far off the original shots in terms of look, with the Black Hole of Tartarus still being a swirl of colors in space. What's changed is their quality, with the black hole still looking less like a real one but still less like Christmas lights swirled around on a coat hanger. It's an improvement, one sympathetically done.

Cosmetic changes only go so far, of course. Can this Special Edition redeem the script by Pip and Jane Baker? Surprisingly enough, it does to some extent. The narrative flow, no longer broken up by the trial sequences with their over-exposition and superfluous cutaways, improves. Parts of it feel more organic, even tense in places, including the penultimate installment's cliffhanger. How much of that was less their writing and either the direction of Chris Clough or the edits is unclear, but the Special Edition feels a more coherent version of the story Pip and Jane set out to tell.

The biggest surprise, which also stems from a couple of scenes portraying "unreal events" as revealed in The Ultimate Foe, is in the Sixth Doctor's characterization. Perhaps because of those "unreal events" and the trial cutaways, it's been easy to lump Vervoids in with the rest of this Doctor's era, portraying him as abrasive, arrogant and more besides. Stripped of those moments, the version of the Sixth Doctor here feels more in keeping with the one that warmed fan hearts in novels and especially when Colin Baker began reprising the role at Big Finish. He's eccentric, still pompous at times, but also friendly, even charming. That one or two of Baker's improvised one-liners didn't make this new cut also helps, yet seeing this performance, one I'd notionally seen several times across sixteen years, came as something of a revelation.

Not that this Special Edition can fix all of the problems the serial had in its original broadcast version. It may flow better as a narrative, but the whodunnit still isn't much of one, with Pip and Jane's telegraphing too much of that sub-plot, as does the actor's performance playing the culprit. Something obvious on a first VHS viewing in 2007 is even more so with Blu-Ray in 2023, having read more Agatha Christie in the meantime. Worse, with the inclusion of the Vervoids as monsters, there's no real reason to have a whodunnit. Improved flow also doesn't make the Vervoids any better, as they still lack a motive for their murder spree other than they're Doctor Who monsters. The writing, from the plotting to much of the characterizations and dialogue, remains rough, a reminder that Eric Saward had vacated the script editor's office and John Nathan-Turner let an underdeveloped script reach the studio floor. Nor can improved visual effects make the sets and costumes feel like a cut-price eighties version of what the future would look like. The roughness can only be taken back so much, given Classic Who's production method and budget.

Even so, this Special Edition has raised Terror of the Vervoids up, at least in my estimation. It's still not a classic, some lost gem from Classic Who's worst era, and Robots of Death's status as the best Christie-inspired Doctor Who story is still uncompromised. Yet, separated from the trial cutaways in this new edit and with its visual effects sequences revisited, there was potential for something better than what audiences first saw across an autumn in the mid-1980s.

Then again, isn't that true for so much of this era?