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12 July 2014 @ 09:38 pm
The Randomizer: Terror of the Vervoids  
We rather enjoyed Terror of the Vervoids which caused me to pause and reconsider Pip and Jane Baker's reputation in Who fan circles.

For the uninitiated, Pip and Jane Baker wrote three and half stories for Doctor Who during John Nathan-Turner's time as producer. In fan circles they have become something of a shorthand representing what was wrong with the era. However, on viewing this, it was difficult to see quite why they attract such opprobrium and I then recalled thinking fairly highly of their first story Mark of the Rani. Of their other contributions, The Ultimate Foe is a hideous mess, but that is not entirely (or even mostly) their fault and they only wrote half of it. Memory suggests Time and the Rani is also pretty dire - we will have to see what I think when it comes around again. But assuming Terror of the Vervoids is representative of their first two stories then one feels that their major crime was to write unambitious successes. Given the season in which this story appears consists of, (again if memory serves), a dull failure (The Mysterious Planet), an ambitious failure (Mindwarp), Terror of the Vervoids and the aforementioned hideous mess I'm tempted to suggest that this is really the only competent offering the season has.

Of course, being aware of the ensuing 25 years or so of criticism, I was conscious of the somewhat odd dialogue the Bakers write. At one point it had tame layman googling a phrase, and there is definitely a tendency for the Bakers to use slightly unusual expressions and idioms which all the characters appear to understand even though the audience have not necessarily come across them before. Similarly a lot of the Doctor and Mel's dialogue consists of rather lame jokes passing as banter. It's a nice (and I believe deliberate) change from the more acerbic relationship between the Doctor and Peri, but it would have worked better if the banter had actually been funny as opposed to a bit forced.

Bonnie Langford, as Mel, is better here than she was in The Ultimate Foe and I can sort of see why I was impressed by her performance back in the day (because it could have been a lot worse), but she still looks more like the stage actress she was and is, rather than a television actress. In fact this story has more than the usual number of familiar faces, the most famous being Honor Blackman, turning up to do their bit as hapless passengers and crew, and the level of acting competence helps the story as well. The monster design for the vervoids isn't bad either, though it suffers as so many Who costumes from being less impressive below the shoulders (rather obviously a green jumpsuit with leaves stuck on it) and sadly the director didn't have the wisdom to limit them to head shots as much as possible.

The story itself follows the form of a whodunnit, something Doctor Who attempts surprisingly rarely since it seems like quite a natural fit for the show. The Baker's provide the requisite trail of clues, a smattering of red herrings, and motivations which (if a little perfunctory) more or less make sense. It falls apart somewhat in the last episode when the monster element comes to the fore and most of the characters, including the murderer, are summarily bumped off but even so the whole thing remains an example of competent plotting, that keeps things moving along and keeps the audience guessing. Into all of this the framing device of the Doctor being put on trial by the Time Lords intrudes like a dead weight pulling the story down. In the middle of the murder mystery the audience (or at least this audience member) really isn't interested in watching the Doctor and Valeyard trade rather laboured barbs. The fact that the Baker's also appear to have been lumbered with the requirement to suggest some of the footage has been altered also adds an element of the ridiculous into the whole thing. While the murder mystery story holds together fairly well, by the end of the story there is pretty clear evidence that the matrix has indeed been tampered with, something the Time Lords conveniently forget.

I found Terror of the Vervoids surprisingly watchable, given its reputation, and I can absolutely see why Pip and Jane Baker were considered a safe pair of hands by the production team. The dialogue may be a little odd and leaden, and they may fail to rise above some of the elements imposed upon them (the trial, Mel's obsession with fitness), but the story hangs together, keeps moving and retains the viewers' interest. Compared to a lot of other stories of that era, this level of basic competence is a welcome change.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/121394.html.
daniel_saunders: Leekleydaniel_saunders on July 13th, 2014 02:24 pm (UTC)
No time for a long comment, but I agree this is better than its reputation. Although Tat Wood is right to suggest that all the characters are suffering from "OEDema: an unnatural swelling of the lexicon." It wouldn't be so bad if, as I seem to recall, not the long words are quite being used correctly and are certainly not naturalistic.
louisedennislouisedennis on July 14th, 2014 09:32 am (UTC)
There's a fanfic author I sometimes interact with whose characters all have a tendency to share, in detail, the author's own knowledge and expertise and, as a result, have conversations based on unstated assumptions and vocabulary which the reader has to deduce or look up. Terror of the Vervoids somewhat reminded me of this.

I suspect, to an extent, all authors struggle not to have their characters speak and think as they do, but some are better at compensating than others. I assume that the Bakers, in real life, have a fondness for ornate vocabulary and expressions which is bleeding through into the mouths of their characters. I didn't spot any misuses, but the dialogue certainly came across as rather odd in places.