June 23, 2012 by Aidan Brack
The Blurb: The Doctor is on trial for his life. Plucked out of time and space by the Time Lords, he is charged with transgressing the First Law of Time. He must defend himself against the prosecution led by the sinister Valeyard.
In a desperate bid to clear his name, the Doctor presents his defense to the charges laid against him. In the year 2986, the starliner Hyperion III makes its way to Earth… but all is not well. The Doctor and Mel arrive in response to a distress call, although not in time to prevent a murder.
And this will not be the only death: someone aboard will kill again and again to protect a secret. And while the murderer closes in above decks, in the Hydroponic Center, a terrifying new breed of creature is about to waken.
(Summary taken from Region 1 DVD Cover)
My submission concerns a crisis which threatens the lives not only of a group of people confined together with no means of escape, but would, if unresolved, threaten every mortal being on the planet Earth.
The Production: There is something quite wonderfully bizarre about the notion that the Doctor can present events from his own future as evidence in his defense. From a logical point of view it seems to make little sense, given that events in his future can always be changed (as might be the case if he were to lose the case in the final part and be executed, making the events we see impossible), yet it seems to make a bizarre sort of sense in the context of the bizarre legal machinations we have already seen in the Trial season.
What makes a little less sense is why the Sixth Doctor would feel the need to rely on those events to prove his point. Could he not think of one instance from any of his five previous incarnations that would be a more reliable proof of his character than something that has yet to happen and which may never take place? As legal strategies go, this does seem utterly ludicrous.
Far cry from the carefree life of Pease Pottage, eh, Mel?
One of the most significant aspects of this adventure is that it introduces us to a new companion for the Sixth Doctor. Or more accurately, it is the first televised story for the new companion.
In a strange decision that emphasizes the interchangeability of companions and that their main function in story terms is to ask the Doctor questions and be placed in peril, this story never really gives Mel a proper introduction. Certainly she has some defining interests and characteristics such as her being a fitness fanatic, yet it is hard to feel that we ever really know her because we never get to see how or why she began to travel with the Sixth Doctor.
While this presents problems as a way to introduce a new companion, I can see some of the attraction for the production team in doing this as by setting this story part-way through that relationship we can tell that some time has passed and that the Doctor has apparently mellowed. For those that were concerned about the violent, sometimes unpleasant version of the Sixth Doctor that had been presented in the previous season it is a glimpse of what a Season Twenty-Four version of the character would have been like – more mellow, caring and self-aware.
I think the pairing of the Sixth Doctor and Mel works quite well here as the characters contrast quite strongly with each other. Where the Sixth Doctor is seemingly laid back and aloof in his attitude towards the investigation, Mel has a much livelier attitude and a peppy, friendly personality that helps her get on with others.
It is quite a comfortable double act, appropriately reminiscent of the pompous detective Poirot and the much more personable Hastings. Though I think in later stories the character’s bubbly personality felt like too much on top of the Seventh Doctor’s almost manic style, here there is a pleasing contrast between Doctor and companion that has Mel making up for some of his shortcomings and pushing him to become more engaged in investigating the mystery. Though hardly a classic pairing in the manner of the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane or the Second Doctor and Jamie, Mel does at least work in the context of the Sixth Doctor even if it is only for the one adventure.
It’s not important. It’s just a whim. I’m subject to whims, so I’m told.
The story is set up to play out like an Agatha Christie murder mystery with a variety of suspects, each with their own possible motives, trapped inside a location while a sleuth tries to work out the killer’s identity. It is an entertaining premise and certainly there are some interesting elements at play, including some masked aliens, strange pods in the storage bay and something being held under lock and key in one of the guest quarters.
I did like that the process of detection allows the Sixth Doctor a few moments in which he could show off his deductive reasoning to good effect. There was a particularly nice moment in the middle of the story where the Doctor reveals how he knows someone is not who they appear to be that is played well by Baker, and I liked the calm and clever way he works his way into a room at the end of the second episode.
Unfortunately when judged purely as a mystery, the serial does suffer from having dispatching some of the suspects too early. Though the Bakers provide a number of characters for the Doctor to suspect and interact with, by the time of the third episode most can already be dismissed with the suspects pool essentially being limited to just three characters. I think if there had been another character to suspect in those final scenes the story would have had a better chance of springing a surprise when the big reveal comes. Still, the parts are well performed and the inclusion of Honor Blackman in the cast list does give the production a certain starry quality.
Now, I’ll go first. We don’t want you breaking your neck, at least not until… Yararaaaggghhh.
While the majority of the story plays out in the murder mystery format, the story also provides us with a marauding group of monsters, the plant-based Vervoids.
There is something intriguing and different about the idea of a free-moving plant, capable of manipulating its environment and communicating with each other to form strategies to attack the humans. Their motivation for doing so is quite interesting too and makes a sort of sense in the context of the humans’ actions.
Unfortunately that concept, while appealing to the imagination, is not brilliantly realized on the screen. When we do finally see them in full, the Vervoids look more silly than scary and certainly do not compare favorably with the much scarier hybrid creature that we see at the end of the second part.
Had the story been a straightforward monster tale which would have required them carrying the story, I would likely have been much more disappointed but as a secondary element to the main murder mystery plot they work well enough that their appearance did not derail the whole adventure for me.
Stop Laksy! Doctor, stop her! Stop her!
One of the elements of this story that really stands out to me is that in a season full of quite boring episode endings, this story boasts several that work really well.
I love the end of the first episode with its from-nowhere electrocution followed by a glorious quick pull back by the camera to reveal all hell breaking loose within the hold. It’s a wonderful moment, emphasizing the scale of the set and building a sense of dread about just what might be within those pods. Sadly, the story pace slows right down after the reprise but it certainly grabs the attention.
Similarly I think the reveal of the mutating woman at the end of the second episode is incredibly effective, making the most of what must be one of the best make-up jobs in the classic series. It is a genuinely disturbing moment and a very neat pointer to just what has been going on.
Unfortunately after those two smashing episode endings, the third part falls a little flat with a cliffhanger that actually requires explanation from the Doctor. It’s a shame because there is a reveal earlier in that episode that could have been a much more interesting way to lead into that final episode, if it could have been pushed back in the story.
Which brings me to the story’s concluding sequence in which the Doctor talks himself into a completely different, and potentially more serious, charge being brought against him by the Valeyard. It is a lovely cap to the episode, not because the script at that moment is particularly exciting but because the actors play the moment so well, with the Doctor feeling a sense of triumph only to be quickly deflated when the Valeyard manages to turn his words against him.
In Review: Though it suffers from some poor design choices and features a monster that doesn’t quite work, I find this story to be the most enjoyable of the first three parts of the Trial largely because it suffers least from the repeated interruptions that destroyed the pacing of the first two adventures. Baker and Langford work nicely together, even if the latter is never given a proper introduction, and there several cracking cliffhangers. Certainly this is a flawed story, but an enjoyable one that sets up the final two parts nicely.