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The Trial Of A Time Lord Segment Three
(aka Terror Of The Vervoids)
As evidence for the defense at his trial, the Doctor presents an adventure from his future when he is travelling with a computer programmer named Mel. Answering a mysterious distress call from the space liner Hyperion III, they find that the passengers aboard include unscrupulous scientists, secret agents, saboteurs, thieves... and a murderer. And lurking in the shadows are the Vervoids, the product of sinister botanical experiments, who will stop at nothing to destroy all non-plant life.
After the original version of Season Twenty-Three was abandoned in early 1985, one of the key decisions made by producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward was that the reimagined version of the season would introduce a new companion for the Doctor. On July 5th, an outline for the character was disseminated. Redhaired Melanie “Mel” Bush would be a computer programmer from Pease Pottage, West Sussex. Inspired by the workout craze which had recently been popularised by celebrities such as Jane Fonda, Melanie would be a vocal proponent of fitness and healthy eating. Her demeanour would vacillate between being a strong feminist and a more traditional damsel in distress. The outline also noted that Mel would be the first British companion in many years -- indeed, the first since the departure of Sarah Jane Smith in 1976's The Hand Of Fear.
Nathan-Turner and Saward had decided that Season Twenty-Three would now consist of a yearlong story arc in which the Doctor is put on trial by the Time Lords. They envisioned the evidence as consisting of the Doctor's adventures, but patterned on Charles Dickens' 1846 novel A Christmas Carol -- emanating from his past, present and future. Melanie would be introduced as a “future” companion midway through the season. Consequently, the incident which brought her into the Doctor's orbit would never be depicted, although the outline posited that she had helped the Doctor prevent the Master from committing computer fraud on a worldwide scale.
Although the BBC had reduced Season Twenty-Three to just fourteen episodes, Nathan-Turner and Saward were keen to wring as many “first nights” as possible out of the schedule, since the initial episode of a story often provided a bump in the viewing figures. With this in mind, it was decided that the four episodes forming the “future” segment of the season would actually consist of two linked two-part serials, taking place in the same location and sharing many of the same sets (a strategy previously employed in Season Twelve with The Ark In Space and Revenge Of The Cybermen). The writers assigned to these episodes were David Halliwell and Jack Trevor Story.
Halliwell progressed quickly on his two scripts, which were entitled “Attack From The Mind”. However Story, who was commissioned to write “The Second Coming” on July 26th, struggled mightily. Despite meeting with Halliwell in order to ensure that their stories melded well, he appeared to have difficulty understanding how to write for Doctor Who. Saward also recalled that Story would become fixated on specific details, such as the image of a man playing a saxophone inside a gasometer. To make matters worse, Saward was growing disenchanted with “Attack From The Mind”, which he found listless; Halliwell's scripts were rejected on October 18th, and it was decided that the season's “future” segment should in fact be comprised of just a single four-part narrative.
Part of the challenge with “Attack From The Mind” and “The Second Coming” was that neither Halliwell nor Story had previously written for Doctor Who. Now the production team decided to turn to someone who was experienced in the programme's unique requirements, and approached former script editor Christopher H Bidmead. Bidmead had mostly recently contributed Frontios for Doctor Who's twenty-first season, although his “In The Hollows Of Time” was one of the casualties of the directive to start anew on Season Twenty-Three. On October 29th, Bidmead was commissioned to write “The Last Adventure”. Keen to avoid the issues which had plagued the development of Halliwell and Story's serials, Bidmead worked closely with Saward, submitting each script and soliciting feedback before proceeding to the next installment.
Meanwhile, Nathan-Turner was in the process of casting the role of Melanie Bush. Given her resemblance to the new companion's character outline, it may be that he hoped all along to attract actor, singer and dancer Bonnie Langford. Born Bonita Langford, she had first come to the attention of the public when she won the talent show Opportunity Knocks at the age of five. Her profile increased further as a presenter on Junior Showtime and in the role of the shrill Violet Elizabeth Bott in adaptations of the Just William series of children's novels. Langford also appeared in the film Bugsy Malone, the variety programme The Hot Shoe Show, and in numerous stage musicals on both sides of the Atlantic. Nathan-Turner was not confident that Langford would accept his offer to join the cast of Doctor Who, but his approach came at a time when the actress was hoping that a dramatic role would help her to take on more varied parts. In December, Langford signed a contract for the final six episodes of Season Twenty-Three, with options for two further years.
Saward, who was already unhappy with Melanie as a character, was aghast at Nathan-Turner's choice of actress. The relationship between the two men had already been gradually deteriorating, but Nathan-Turner's decision to cast Langford exacerbated the situation, playing into Saward's frustration with what he saw as the producer's predilection for inviting “light entertainment” actors onto Doctor Who. Saward soon began working from home as much as possible, rather than venturing into the Doctor Who production office. Nonetheless, Langford was announced to the press as the new companion on January 23rd, 1986, in the midst of her run as the title character in the stage production of Peter Pan.
Bidmead, meanwhile, was still working on his scripts for Season Twenty-Three, which now bore the title “Pinacotheca”. He had submitted his most recent drafts on January 9th, and awaited Saward's response. Given the regular communication between the writer and the script editor, then, it came as a shock to both Bidmead and Nathan-Turner when, on February 2nd, Saward pronounced “Pinacotheca” boring and unusable.
Saward was not the only person whose rapport with Nathan-Turner had suffered. Longtime fan Ian Levine, who had acted as an adviser to the production office in recent years, had also fallen out with the producer over his creative decisions and the sentiment that Nathan-Turner had lied to him about developments over the past year. However, Levine remained in contact with Saward, and suggested that he approach veteran scriptwriter PJ Hammond, who had created the cult classic Sapphire & Steel, a sophisticated science-fiction series which had aired from 1979 to 1982. On February 10th, Hammond was commissioned to write “End Of Term”, which soon became known as “Paradise Five”. This time it was Nathan-Turner who was unhappy with the resulting work, and “Paradise Five” was abandoned towards the end of February.
Then, on March 1st, Nathan-Turner ran into writers Pip and Jane Baker in a lift at BBC Television Centre. The Bakers had written The Mark Of The Rani for Season Twenty-Two, and had briefly been tasked with a story entitled “Gallifrey” for the current season, before it was rendered defunct by the development of the trial storyline. The producer had apparently been trying to contact them regarding the “future” segment, but the Bakers had only just returned from a lengthy sojourn abroad. On the spot, Nathan-Turner explained the situation to them, and they agreed to meet with Saward immediately. The script editor was not enthusiastic about working with the Bakers, but they had a reputation for writing quickly and so he proposed that they develop a mystery in space.
Over the weekend, the Bakers formulated a potential storyline, together with a more detailed version of episode one. Taking up Saward's suggestion, they leaned on Agatha Christie's seminal 1934 novel Murder On The Orient Express, with passengers aboard a luxury transport (in this case, the space liner Hyperion III) being killed off one by one. The story's monsters would be the Vervoids, a plant/animal hybrid whose nature was suggested by research the Bakers had recently encountered concerning a hormone shared by both plant and animal life. The name for these beings came from the vervain, a genus of semi-woody flowering plants also known as the verbena.
With the Bakers' quick work proving acceptable, their outline was formally commissioned under the title “The Ultimate Foe” on March 6th, followed exactly one week later by the scripts. The Bakers later referred to their adventure as “The Vervoids” but, in April, Nathan-Turner decided that all fourteen episodes of Season Twenty-Three would be transmitted under the banner title The Trial Of A Time Lord. The Bakers' segment would consequently comprise parts nine to twelve. Like Bidmead, the Bakers worked closely with Saward to try to head off any major problems, but communication became poor as the script editor grew increasingly unhappy with their writing. Finally, on April 13th, Saward resigned from Doctor Who. Although he ultimately agreed to finish working on the two-part season finale, it would be left to Nathan-Turner to take over the script editing duties on the Bakers' episodes; Saward would receive no televised credit on the broadcast programmes.
Although the final six episodes of The Trial Of A Time Lord were essentially comprised of two separate stories -- the Bakers' four scripts, plus the two-part conclusion -- it was decided that they would be grouped together as Serial 7C for production purposes. As such, they would share largely the same crew, including director Chris Clough. An admirer of television since his youth, Clough had chosen to study English literature at Leeds University because the institution made a studio available to undergraduates. This led to a position as a researcher for Granada Television, which he eventually parlayed into a career as a director. His credits included episodes of Go With Noakes and Brookside, before he began working on EastEnders. There, Clough met Gary Downie, who had been a production manager on Doctor Who; it was Downie who introduced the director to Nathan-Turner.
Because the location days for Serial 7C were first on the production schedule, and were dedicated solely to The Trial Of A Time Lord (Segment Four), Clough decided to record virtually of the material for these episodes before starting work on the Bakers' scripts. This also meant that Lynda Bellingham (the Inquisitor) and Michael Jayston (the Valeyard) could wrap up their obligations to Doctor Who: the pair featured heavily in the season's final two episodes, but only in cut-ins from the Time Lord courtroom in parts nine to twelve. Consequently, these were the first scenes taped for the Vervoid adventure, on Wednesday, July 16th in BBC Television Centre Studio 1.
The first studio block dedicated entirely to the Bakers' scripts spanned three days beginning on Wednesday, July 30th in TC3. The first two days saw material recorded in the air duct and some of the passengers' cabins (all of which were redressed versions of the same set). The 30th also dealt with scenes in the gymnasium, and the 31st with those in the TARDIS. July 31st and August 1st then both involved recording of material in the hydroponic centre, the work hut and the cargo hold. While taping the cliffhanger for episode nine, Nathan-Turner asked Langford to scream in the key of F specifically -- since this would segue perfectly into the closing theme music.
Clough's team reassembled for three more days in TC3 starting on Tuesday, August 12th. A minor emergency occurred on this day when the tube with which Vervoid actor Peppi Borza was “exhaling” marsh gas accidentally dropped down inside his 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. The primary focus on the 12th and 13th was the Hyperion III lounge; in addition, the cabin set was redressed as Janet's compartment on the first day, while cameras also rolled on the bridge and in the air duct on the second day. Finally, August 14th saw the completion of various corridor scenes, as well as those in the waste disposal unit, the communications room and the isolation cabin. This brought production on Season Twenty-Three to a close, albeit amidst growing concern that the final episodes of Doctor Who might now be in the can.
Exacerbating this sense of pessimism was the release on August 13th of the September 1986 edition of the science-fiction magazine Starburst. In an interview with Saward, the former script editor described the circumstances behind his decision to quit Doctor Who in considerable detail, and reserved his harshest criticisms for Nathan-Turner. Matters were only made worse when the press seized on the article as well. It was the first time that such behind-the-scenes dirty laundry had been so publicly aired, and it made Nathan-Turner all the more relieved that -- one way or another -- he had likely produced his last Doctor Who serial.
Fortunately, on August 19th, the BBC announced that Doctor Who would indeed be returning for its twenty-fourth season in 1987. However, the winds of change were already blowing. On July 16th, former Head of Drama Sydney Newman had written to the BBC to enquire as to whether a credit might appear on Doctor Who in the future identifying him as the programme's creator. Although the BBC rejected this request on September 3rd, the communication led to a meeting between Newman and BBC1 Controller Michael Grade, in which the prospect of completely revamping Doctor Who was discussed.
On October 6th, Newman submitted a formal proposal to Grade's office. He suggested bringing back the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, to replace Colin Baker, with long-term plans of eventually regenerating the Doctor into a female form. The new companions would be a 12-year-old trumpet player (whose instrument could be used as a weapon, or to signal the Doctor) and her 18-year-old brother, a graffiti artist who thinks the Doctor is out of touch. The Doctor would once again be unable to control the TARDIS, but Newman proposed that the programme rely less on adventures in outer space, and more on Earthbound stories. Amongst his proposals were stories set aboard a NASA space shuttle or a Polaris submarine, an encounter with Christopher Columbus, and one in which the time travellers are miniaturised (either in an adventure similar to Season Two's Planet Of Giants which would examine the threat of DDT, or else fighting cancer cells in the body of a young patient). Grade then arranged a meeting between Newman and Head of Series and Serials Jonathan Powell. However, this went badly, and no further action was taken.
Nonetheless, one aspect of Newman's proposal was taken up: by late October, Grade had decided to fire Colin Baker from Doctor Who. In a meeting with Nathan-Turner, Grade and Powell informed him that they felt three years was enough for a Doctor -- even though Baker had only completed two full seasons, and had harboured aspirations of breaking Tom Baker's seven-season record. Nathan-Turner objected to this decision, but he was told that he would be moved off Doctor Who at the end of November if he agreed to break the news to Baker that the option on his contract was not being taken up. And so it was that, on October 29th -- three days before the third segment of The Trial Of A Time Lord began airing -- Baker learned that the Sixth Doctor was no more.
|Updated 18th July 2015|
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