The Trial Of A Time Lord (Segment Three)
aka Terror Of The Vervoids
Working Titles: The Ultimate Foe, The Vervoids.
Starring: Colin Baker (The Sixth Doctor), Bonnie Langford (Mel Bush).
It is the Doctor's turn to argue his case against the Time Lord's accusations of meddling at his trial. He presents an adventure from his future when he is travelling with an Earth computer programmer named Mel. Summoned for help by his old friend Captain Travers, it is up to the Doctor to solve a series of murders happening on board Travers' ship. Amidst a web of genetic manipulation and political maneuvering, the Doctor discovers that the botanical experiments of a scientific team on the ship has resulted in the creation of a new race of monsters, the Vervoids, who will stop at nothing to destroy all non-plant life.
Producer John Nathan-Turner was well aware that first episodes of serials were generally good ratings draws, but that an increased number of individual adventures also meant a greater strain on Doctor Who's budget. In devising the Doctor-on-trial format of the reenvisioned Season Twenty-Three, then, he and script editor Eric Saward sought to maximise the number of so-called "first nights" while limiting their economic impact. The first two serials would be typical four-part stories -- representing incidents from the Doctor's past and present. The last six episodes, on the other hand, would serve as three two-part adventures. The first two of these (comprising events in the Doctor's future) would be closely linked, using largely the same sets -- similar to the strategy used back in Season Twelve with The Ark In Space and Revenge Of The Cybermen. This would be made under the same production code, as Serial 7C. It was initially thought that the final two episodes, forming the trial's conclusion, would then be a separate Serial 7D, but it was later decided to include them under the 7C banner as well. (These two installments do essentially constitute a distinct story, however, and its production will be profiled separately.)
It was initially hoped that veteran writer Robert Holmes would handle both the first four and final six episodes of the season. Holmes, always uncomfortable with six-parters, asked that his involvement in the latter be limited to just the final two installments. In July 1985, then, Nathan-Turner and Saward approached Jack Trevor Story and David Halliwell about writing the two future-set two-parters. Part of their brief was to introduce the Doctor's new companion, Melanie "Mel" Bush, who was created by Nathan-Turner by the start of July. Saward, for his part, was unhappy with Mel, and this was one of a series of disagreements between producer and script editor which was beginning to take its toll on their working relationship. Unfortunately, problems with Story's contribution quickly became evident, as Saward became aware that the author had little idea of how to write for Doctor Who; Story's serial had essentially been abandoned by the early autumn.
Halliwell, meanwhile, had composed a storyline entitled Attack From The Mind. This was set on the planet Penelope, where the beautiful but weak natives are suffering attacks from the rat-like Freds (later renamed Trikes). It transpires that the Penelopeans are intentionally driving the Freds insane using mental hallucinations and feeding off their madness; in the end, the two races destroy each other, providing new fodder for the Valeyard to use against the Doctor. Despite further work on Attack From The Mind, Saward felt it was listless and finally rejected the storyline on October 18th.
With nothing now available for episodes nine through twelve of the new season and time beginning to grow short, Nathan-Turner and Saward agreed that the idea of two interlocking serials should be abandoned in favour of a more straightforward four-part story. They also concurred that only writers familiar with the series should be pursued, in order to save time. To this end, Saward contacted former script editor Christopher H Bidmead, who had last written Frontios for Season Twenty-One and whose In The Hollows Of Time was a strong contender for the original Season Twenty-Three. On October 29th, Bidmead was commissioned to produce an outline and draft script for The Last Adventure.
Meanwhile, Nathan-Turner was in the process of seeking out the actress it seems he'd had in mind all along for the part of Mel: Bonnie Langford. Langford was a well-known star since childhood, best known for the role of the shrill Violet Elizabeth Bott in adaptations of the Just William series of children's novels, and for appearances in numerous stage musicals. Langford saw Doctor Who as an excellent opportunity to broaden the scope of her resume, and in December signed a six-month contract for the final six episodes of Season Twenty-Three, with options on two further years. Langford's casting was revealed to the press on January 23rd, 1986, in the midst of her run as the title character in the stage production of Peter Pan. As disappointed as he had been in the character of Mel, Saward was even more aghast at Nathan-Turner's choice of actress.
Through the end of 1985 and the start of 1986, Bidmead continued working on The Last Adventure, in the process giving it the new title of Pinacotheca. Finally, however, Saward decided to abandon the storyline on February 7th, telling Bidmead he felt Pinacotheca lacked sufficient substance. At this stage, Ian Levine -- who had acted as the programme's unofficial fan adviser throughout the Eighties -- suggested Saward get in touch with PJ Hammond, who had created the science-fiction series Sapphire And Steel a decade earlier. On February 10th, Hammond was commissioned to pen a draft script for End Of Term, which was shortly thereafter renamed Paradise Five. This adventure concerned the Doctor and Mel investigating a holiday planet which actually served as a front for unscrupulous businessmen, their work being hampered by the appearance of ghost-like creatures called Angels. This time it was Nathan-Turner who was unhappy with the idea, and Paradise Five was rejected around the end of February.
Finally, at Nathan-Turner's instigation, Saward turned to husband-and-wife team Pip and Jane Baker, who had written The Mark Of The Rani for Season Twenty-Two and had briefly been commissioned to write Gallifrey in between the original postponement of Season Twenty-Three and the decision to proceed forward with the trial format. Saward was not particularly keen on working with the Bakers again, but knew that they could produce scripts quickly -- an increasingly vital ability at this late stage. Saward asked the Bakers to produce a studio-bound story, even suggesting a mystery-in-space scenario. On March 6th, the Bakers were commissioned to write The Ultimate Foe -- later retitled The Vervoids -- despite the fact that they had been given very little information about the trial itself from which to work.
Saward was no more impressed with The Vervoids than he had been with previous efforts for the slot, and in mid-April left Doctor Who (although at this point he had not formally resigned). Even after Saward agreed to return to finish off the final two episodes of the season, he indicated that he was not interested in script-editing the Bakers' story, and so Nathan-Turner assumed Saward's responsibilities in this regard; it was decided that the completed episodes would bear no script editor credit. Eventually, Saward would indeed depart Doctor Who permanently.
The director assigned to the entirety of Serial 7C (both The Vervoids and the two concluding episodes, called Time Inc.) was Chris Clough, whose previous television work included episodes of the soap operas Brookside and EastEnders. Because The Vervoids and Time Inc. were be treated as a single production, the location material for Time Inc. would actually be taped first. Then the two stories would share a two-day studio block beginning on Wednesday, July 16th. After this, all the necessary footage for Time Inc. would be completed, allowing two three-day studio sessions -- from Wednesday, July 30th and Tuesday, August 12th -- to be devoted entirely to The Vervoids. By this time, it was known that the entire season would be broadcast under the umbrella title of The Trial Of A Time Lord.
Amusingly, during recording of the episode nine cliffhanger on July 31st, Nathan-Turner asked that Bonnie Langford scream in the key of F. This would provide a perfect segue into the closing theme music. The only significant incident during recording came on August 12th, when the tube with which the Vervoid actors were "exhaling" marsh gas accidentally dropped down inside one performer's mask, threatening to choke him. Fortunately, others present managed to remove the mask in time and, after being cleared by the medical staff, the actor was able to return to work.
A considerably more disruptive event occurred on August 13th. The September 1986 edition of the science-fiction magazine Starburst, published that day, included an interview with Saward which described the circumstances behind his decision to quit Doctor Who in considerable detail. Saward's harshest criticisms were reserved for Nathan-Turner, sending the producer into paroxysms of fury; the on-set atmosphere was correspondingly significantly muted. Matters were only made worse when the press seized on the article as well. It was the first time such behind-the-scenes dirty laundry had been so publicly aired, and it made Nathan-Turner all the happier that August 14th -- the final day of production on both the third Trial segment and Season Twenty-Three as a whole -- would likely be, for all intents and purposes, his last as Doctor Who's producer.