The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Murder Mystery

Next up as part of The Trial Of A Time lord, it’s the Vervoid story. The crap one, as the fan consensus would have it. That’s certainly how I remember it.

Except it’s perfectly fine. In fact, it’s a very well put-together story, loads of stuff going on, lots of intrigue, and dozens of clever twists. Best of all is that the Doctor is written extremely well, he is at the centre of the plot for once, he’s given the chance to be charming, to be courageous, and to be intelligent, always one step ahead of the game, like an intergalactic Hercule Poirot. There’s also a great little comedy scene where he’s failing to get a word in edgeways between Bonnie Langford and Honor Blackman.

The monsters aren’t too shoddy either. Okay, it’s never good when you have scenes of two guys in foam rubber chatting amongst themselves – ‘we are doing splendidly’ – but on the other hand, they’re built up extremely well before their first appearance, and they move well, characters seldom get out of a scene with them alive, and at the end of the story they die marvellously. Only problem is, they look like what a gay man might imagine a woman’s down-below rude bits to look like.

There’s lots of great death scenes, love all the stuff with the thorns being injected into people, and a couple of great cliff-hangers. Alright, so there was a rule at the time that each episode had to end into a crash-zoom of Colin Baker’s face as he was doing I’ve-just-smelled-a-fart acting, all nostrils, narrowed eyes, and the lowering of an eyebrow in righteous indignation.

The plot is great. Admittedly it doesn’t hang together if you think about it too hard – it’s very Agatha Christie in that respect. For instance, the plot hinges on a scene where a guy dressed as a Mogarian is poisoned. There’s a lovely reveal where it turns out the Doctor already knew the guy dressed as a Mogarian wasn’t really a Mogarian. But you’re also left slightly bemused that no-one thinks to wonder ‘who gave this guy the poison?’ Was it the villainous Janet, who also seems to be the one who kills the remaining two Mogarians in episode four (they seem to think their attacker intends to serve them drinks)? Either that or it’s Malcolm Tierney dressed as a space stewardess.

I'm also confused why the other two Mogarians didn't suddenly notice, and say, 'Hang on, there are three of us now, where did the other bugger come from?'

Watching the DVD bonus bollocks of deleted scenes, it’s interesting how much of the narrative was sorted out in the edit; the writers’ original intention was that the viewer would know all along that Grenville/one of the Mogarians was up to no good, always lurking around the hydroponic centre. All sensibly cut by Chris Clough.

So why don’t fans like it? Well, the special effects aren’t very special; even at the time, I remember thinking they weren’t up to the standard of what Doctor Who had been doing ten years previously, never mind Star Wars. And the sets are a bit stagy, the shoulder pads are enormous, and there’s that guy with the HUGE AMOUNT OF FACIAL HAIR who turns up at the end.

The dialogue comes in for a lot of criticism, and to be fair it is rather prolix and circumlocutory, if not sesquipedalian. grandiloquent and fusty. It’s very heightened, occasionally laughably so, but most of the time I think they get away with it. I can’t help feeling there is a double standard at work that fans slag off Pip and Jane Baker and yet praise Robert Holmes for whacking out nonsense like ‘I intend to adumbrate two typical instances from separate epistopic interfaces of the spectrum.’

Unlike a few stories from the following years, the dialogue is at least clear enough for the viewer to understand what is meant, what is going on and what people are up to. What’s irritating, though, aren’t so much the antediluvian references to ‘brown studies’, ‘Judas goats’ or the use of the word ‘bromide’ in its non-chemical sense, but the jokes – particularly that whole bewildering business with the ears, carrot and Neddy in the first TARDIS scene, in which dialogue, characterisation, incidental music and costume all compete to win the ‘who is the most insane this week’ award. (The rest of the time, when it’s not trying to underscore a humorous moment, the music’s actually very effective).

No, fans real problem with this story is that it introduces the character of Mel, as played by Bonnie Langford. Which was largely because of the showbiz baggage and associations that Bonnie Langford brought to the role; she’s a fine actress, but playing a super-perky health-food-and-exercise freak wasn’t exactly going to confound any preconceptions. The role was, apparently, created with her in mind, which is part of the problem; Mel might be a computer programmer from Pease Pottage, but really she is the type of girl who is only two minutes away from belting ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ and, by casting Bonnie Langford in the part, it didn’t give her an opportunity to demonstrate any acting ability, and it meant the character of Mel never really came across as an individual in her own right; it was all a bit too ‘nail on head’. Which is surprising, given how often the show was casting against type at the time. In retrospect, casting Bonnie Langford was fine; casting her to play a caricature of her on-screen persona was the mistake.

But if you can overlook that – which is easier, with the benefit of hindsight, with the distance of two decades, with the knowledge that Bonnie would not be the last famous face to be cast as a companion – if you can get past all that, ignore the context, then the character is great fun, she works really well with a more thoughtful sixth Doctor, and her performance is faultless and extremely likeable.

So I suppose I’m saying I’m a fan, and I really enjoyed the story. Next up is episode thirteen of the Trial, which I’ve never really seen properly before...

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