42 – Terror of the Vervoids (The Trial of a Timelord episodes 9 – 12)

If it was a shock that Robot featured in the top 50 ahead of The Seeds of Doom, this one will have fans choking on their beverages in disbelief. This is story is best (and most infamously) known as the one ‘with the monsters that are a bit rude.’ I guess it was inevitable after such efforts as the Cyber Controller and Alpha Centauri that eventually the special effects team would produce a costume that by-passed ‘hint of anatomy’ and went directly for a more than unfortunate resemblance.

Which is a huge pity, because I thoroughly enjoy this four part adventure. It is very much what a Patrick Troughton base-under-seige style adventure would have looked like had Troughton been plying his craft in the 1980s, containing all of the elements of the rather crusty base commander in the personage of the Commodore, the sinister unknown menace in the form of the Vervoids, and a whole host of characters with their own vested interests at play. Of all of the stories that feature in The Trial of a Timelord season, this one is the one that best stands in its own right as a standalone story, and arguably would have been even better if it hadn’t been interspersed with the trial scenes, or with the visual evidence being altered, making us unable to wholly trust what we were seeing.

The story also shows us a tantalising insight into what Season 24 could have looked like had Colin Baker had his contract honoured for a third season. In this adventure he is witty, brave, charming and urbane – drawing strong parallels to the kind of transformation Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor has been going through in the most recent series. Even Mel shows promise in what was her debut appearance in Doctor Who, demonstrating what Bonnie Langford could have been capable of if she’d been given a more tangible role than ‘get into trouble and scream.’ The chemistry oddly worked, which makes the actual Season 24 all the more frustrating.

On top of all this, Terror of the Vervoids is a genuinely good adventure. There is little in the way of hammed up acting, the production values hold up surprisingly well, and while there are a healthy number of subplots at play to distract from the main threat of the Vervoids, at no stage does it become overbearing or overly complicated. The Vervoids themselves, phallic resemblance notwithstanding, are worthy foes – genetically created plant creatures intended to serve mankind as slave labour, but opposed to all animal kind by instinct. In that regard, it would be fantastic to see a future Doctor Who adventure featuring a link-up between the Krynoids and the Vervoids – what an adversary that would be!

So I unashamedly place Terror of the Vervoids well within my top 50. It is true that some of the stories below are more robust, but for simple and enjoyable story telling, this story gives me a surprisingly large amount of enjoyment!

69 – The Mark of the Rani

It has occurred to me that poor Colin Baker is rather harshly judged on his first season. Yes, it did contain such travesties as Timelash, and such ill-executed ideas as Attack of the CybermenThe Two Doctors and Revelation of the Daleks – but it also contained two perfectly decent and well executed stories, that would have worked well in any other era of the show. While Vengeance on Varos tends to steal the plaudits, I think it is a little unfair to dismiss The Mark of the Rani with the rest of the season.

This story is actually a good example of what Doctor Who would become when Russell T. Davies revived the show in 2005 – the combination of a historic setting with an alien menace – in this case a newly introduced renegade Timelord (Time Lady! I’m a traditional girl!) scientist known as the Rani, played with aplomb by Kate O’Mara. Having eliminated the capacity for the natives on her experimental planet of Miasimia Goria to rest, she is stealing from humans the chemical that promotes sleep, hiding her trail by doing so during times of uprest in earth’s history – in this case, the Luddite riots.

Her plan is then complicated by the arrival of two other renegade Timelords – the Doctor (with Peri) investigating localised time distortion, and the Master (with no explanation as to how he escaped in Planet of Fire) looking to hijack a conference of the period’s greatest intellectuals to accelerate Earth’s development and turn the planet into a personal powerbase. A great deal of confused adventuring takes place, before the Doctor succeeds in trapped the Master and the Rani inside the Rani’s TARDIS with a growing Tyrannosaurus embryo.

The Rani suffers from much the same fate as Colin Baker’s era – judged harshly because of how terrible Time and the Rani was. But this story shows that it need not have been so. O’Mara’s portrayal is not in the least overdone, and her depiction of complete amorality in the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a refreshing contrast to the Master’s blinkered pursuit of universal dominance. In this story she is utterly believable, and more than an even match to the Doctor. Baker and Bryant too give a refreshing glimpse of what their partnership could have been like but for some of the production values chosen at the time – Baker’s character achieving that difficult to manage balance between irascibility and a strong sense of justice.

The Mark of the Rani isn’t remarkable enough to merit being mentioned in the same breath as true classics of Doctor Who’s classic era, but it still remains a great example of classic Doctor Who.

77 – Mindwarp (The Trial of a Timelord episodes 5 – 8)

As I opined in the reviews of The Ultimate Foe and The Mysterious Planet, I think that The Trial of a Timelord gets a pretty rough ride from fans. I cannot help but feel that if the show had continued in the vein of Season 23, rather than take the direction it did in Season 24, then perhaps the show would have been better ready to survive into the 1990s – although I also opined today that any Doctor Who that survived to the nineties could have featured a guest appearance by the Spice Girls – so perhaps we should count our blessings!

As with most of this season there are two story levels – the ongoing trial of the Doctor for ‘Actions unbecoming a Timelord’ – and the presented evidence of one of the Doctor’s adventures, in this case on the planet Thoros Beta. A lot of the problems with this story result from the fact that as part of his overarching scheme to frame the Doctor, the Valeyard has tampered the evidence. At the same time, a key feature of this story was to be that the Doctor loses his mind following the episode 1 cliffhanger of having mental experiments performed upon him, voluntarily helping the villains and only regaining his mind by the last episode. Both are great ideas – combining the two together not only confused the viewers, it left poor Colin Baker unsure how he was meant to be portraying the Doctor in any given scene – and it very sadly shows!

For all of the flaws, the story features a triumphant return by Nibil Shaban as the villainous Sil after his memorable debut in Vengeance on Varos, and a very interesting ethical question as warped scientist Crozier looks to prolong the life of the Mentor ruler Lord Kiv by transplanting his brain into another living being. In theory it also was intended to provide the shock to end all shocks – and I am not referring to Brian Blessed’s unforgettable interpretation of the warrior King Ycarnos! With all due spoiler warnings – at the end of the final episode, Crozier has succeeded in transplanting Kiv’s mind into Peri’s brain – effectively killing Peri. What is shown is the Timelords pulling the Doctor out of proceedings (leading directly into the start of The Mysterious Planet) and taking control of Ycarnos to assassinate everyone in the room – including Peri/Kiv. The story finishes on the stunned cliffhanger of the Doctor coming to terms with Peri’s apparent death – apparent because this did not sit well with the test viewers, so they later decided to make it a part of the Valeyard’s fabrication!

Mindwarp is therefore another example of a good story that is too clever for it’s own good. Let me put it this way – if Season 21 had finished with Caves of Androzani, and Season 22 had instead begun with Vengeance on Varos and concluded with Mindwarp (killing off in the process the utterly useless Timelash and Twin Dilemma) I think the entire Trial season would not have been needed, and Baker would have gotten the full Season 23 and 24 he deserved. Instead of which … we can only wonder …

88 – The Mysterious Planet (The Trial of a Timelord episodes 1-4)

After the hiatus of 1985, Doctor Who arrived back in 1986 with the distinct threat of doom hanging over the show – so it is appropriate that The Mysterious Planet, the first story within The Trial of a Timelord begins with a bell tolling ominously and little indication as to why the Doctor has arrived without his companion Peri. Whatever misgivings Script Editor Eric Saward may have had about using the trial analogy to compare the idea of Doctor Who being on trial in real life, I thought the concept overall worked rather well.

When considering The Mysterious Planet however, I find on the whole it is best to ignore the overall story-arc, which has the bare minimum of impact upon these episodes, except to introduce trial. As a standalone story the first four episodes bear up remarkably well – it is a striking comparison to Attack of the Cybermen in terms of how to do a season opener, and I would go so far as to say that if Season 22 had begun with this story (less of course the trial) then Colin Baker would have started out on a much stronger foot as the Doctor.

Arriving on a planet supposedly called “Ravalox” the Doctor discovers that it is in fact Earth moved thousands of years across time and space and apparently desolated by a solar storm; although we do not discover until The Ultimate Foe that this was by secret order of the Timelords! The story centres around four distinct groups – a research robot who lives in an underground bunker, aims to return to Andromeda with stolen secrets, and holds a captive human population as his slaves; a rebel leader within this population who releases select members to the surface rather than culling them as requested; the tribe of survivors on the surface led by a rather mad Boudicca-like Queen; and lastly the lovable rogue Sabalom Glitz, who with his accomplice Dibber is planning to steal the stolen secrets from the robot. The secrets we later discover are stolen from Gallifrey, hence why the planet was moved across the universe – but we leave episode 4 with the mystery unresolved.

In short – it’s a typical Doctor Who story but reinvented for the 1980s – conflict and confusion, and the Doctor and his companion caught in the middle. It gives a frustrating glimpse of what might have been – Baker remains bombastic but is much more likable, and the chemistry between himself and Peri is significantly improved on Season 22. Every character is believable and engaging, even if somewhat overacted, and the production values bear up surprisingly well. In contrast to the naysayers, I actually really enjoy the Trial theme – the idea that the Doctor is put on trial to cover up the Timelords own complicity in sacrificing the earth to protect their technology from being stolen. In contrast to some of Steven Moffat’s recent story-arcs, this one is pretty good – and the chemistry between the Doctor, the Valeyard and the Inquisitor in the trial scenes is highly enjoyable. It’s only a pity it took the threat of cancellation before the BBC started to get the best out of Colin Baker …

89 – Attack of the Cybermen

There are no words for how disappointed I was when I watched Attack of the Cybermen on VHS. I had loved The Tomb of the Cybermen and enjoyed The Tenth Planet, and having read that this story brought elements of these two stories together (and included the return of Michael Kilgarriff as the Cyber Controller) I really wanted to see this story. My disappointment was reflected in the fact that it does not do the least justice to the older serials, and especially Tomb.

Fast forwarding several years, my dad bought me the novelisation on paperback. Initially unimpressed (“Why did you buy this exactly?”) I read it one night when unable to sleep – and loved it! Enjoying the story on its own merits and with the back story properly explained, Attack of the Cybermen becomes a much better story, and it meant the DVD received a much more sympathetic viewing than it may otherwise have done.

The plot is relatively straightforward – the Cybermen are trying to travel in time to prevent their home planet of Mondas from being destroyed, as seen in The Tenth Planet. At the same time a former Dalek mercenary, Lytton (who previously appeared in Resurrection of the Daleks), is working with the inhabitants of the planet Telos, who have been driven underground by the Cybermen taking over their planet – his aim is to stop the Cybermen making use of the time vessel the Cybermen have stolen. The Doctor is not sure why he is drawn in, but eventually realises that the Timelords engineered his arrival.

Straightforward plot – but overly complicated realisation, hence why the story worked better as a novel than as a televised episode! As the first episode in Colin Baker’s first full season as the Doctor, it was perhaps ill-advised to begin with a convoluted storyline, that is gruesomely violent in places, and involves a backstory few fans would actually get. I don’t think it contributed to the decision to put the show on hiatus, but it certainly didn’t help get Baker off on the strongest foot. Peri similarly does not shine in this story, and her attire does little to discourage the perception the producers chose her primarily for her sex appeal – given that where given the opportunity Nicola Bryant does an excellent job, it makes one wonder what could have been if Peri had been allowed to tone down the costume, and play less of the damsel-in-distress.

Don’t get me wrong – it will take a couple of viewings to make sense, but Attack of the Cybermen will grow on you. You just end up with the feeling that it would have been better to have dropped the convoluted backstory and told a simple and straightforward adventure.

92 – The Ultimate Foe (The Trial of a Timelord episodes 13-14)

Season 23 of Doctor Who is strikingly unique in the history of Doctor Who, featuring a notionally single story lasting across 14 episodes. Entitled The Trial of a Timelord, it properly consisted of three four-part stories, and a concluding two-part story to tie the story-arc together. The story and its name in part reflected the notion that the show had just been on hiatus and was on trial for its very existence – it turns out with hindsight that Seasons 23 through 26 were but a stay of execution. As it is, I count the four stories separately because they effectively are four different stories, although the one we review today arguably is not a standalone story, but the one that binds them together – rather like the One Ring only much less cool.

So let’s begin with the overarching theme – the Doctor is put on trial (again) for the crime of “actions unbecoming a Timelord.” Borrowing from the Christmas Carol tradition of past, present and future, evidence is presented in the form of three adventures featuring the Doctor. These adventures will be reviewed further along our countdown, but it suffices to say that by episode 13 the Doctor is now accused of the crime of genocide.

The last episode was named The Ultimate Foe in the production notes, and so this is what it has become popularly known as, including in the DVD release. It emerges that the court prosecutor, entitled ‘The Valeyard’ is in fact a projection of the Doctor’s darker side, existing “somewhere between his twelfth and final incarnation” – and who should reveal this? None other than the Master himself. It is revealed that the Timelords rigged the trial to cover up their own involvement and intervention in an earlier adventure (The Mysterious Planet, episodes 1 to 4) and used the Valeyard as an agent to adjust the evidence. In the meantime, the Valeyard has set up a base in the Matrix, the depository of all Timelord knowledge, and plans to stab the High Council of the Timelords in the back – while the Master himself plans to steal the Matrix.

If you are confused, it is for very good reason. This last story was originally written by Robert Holmes, but he took deep offence when asked by showrunner John Nathan Turner to rewrite the original ending, which featured the Doctor and the Valeyard falling into an abyss locked in a tussle in a quite literal cliffhanger ending to the season. With the show under threat, JNT felt this would give the BBC an easy way to write off the show. Holmes refused to re-write, and withdrew the second part of his story, necessitating Pip and Jane Baker to rewrite episode 14 to fit with episode 13, while ensure it did not reflect the original written by Holmes.

With all that in mind, it is remarkable that the story manages not only to hold together, but to tie together the loose ends of the story arc. Colin Baker is excellent, and his entire performance across Season 23 demonstrates the folly of the BBC to not give him a fair crack of the whip as the Doctor. In fact, there remains just two pities – the awful acting of Bonnie Langford as Mel, and the mushy rewriting of Peri’s back story her apparent death in Mindwarp (episodes 5 to 8) tested very poorly, and so she was rewritten as being saved from her fate and marrying King Ycarnos – a highlight on the DVD is hearing Nicola Bryant’s less than impressed reaction as she sees this scene for the first time ever and reacts in horror!

I suspect I am in a minority – I really enjoyed Season 23 and liked the trial concept. Even if this is not the best story within the season arc, and even if the execution was somewhat flawed, I very much enjoyed the way everything came together, and even the verbal sparring with Mr Popplewick the petty bureaucrat. And while the cliffhanger of the Doctor sinking into the sand at the end of episode 13 is memorable and flawlessly executed, I still get goosebumps at the end of episode 14, when it transpires that the Valeyard is not dead as we assumed …

117 – Revelation of the Daleks

This serial really confused me when I first saw it. The BBC did repeats of one serial for each Doctor – and I started watching from Genesis of the Daleks. I accepted the change to Peter Davison with confusion but reasonably equally, but was confused when Colin Baker appeared in Revelation of the Daleks, with no explanation to his change. Of course, I very soon figured out that the BBC had not shown the serials in order!

I’m sad to say though that I didn’t enjoy it then, didn’t enjoy the VHS, and only warmed up slightly when I bought the DVD. It’s not really due to the fault of the story as there are a number of intriguing threads – Davros creating Daleks from humans (a theme revisited in The Parting of the Ways); the revelation that the ‘real’ Daleks were hunting after Daleks; and of course the machinations of the inhabitants of the planet of Necros who are attempting to depose Davros – who is masquerading under the alias “The Great Healer.” His duplicitous scheme – he tells griecing relations that their departed loved ones are in cryogenic freezing pending eventual awakening and cure of their ailment. In practice? The rich ones are frozen, the rest are turned into food to meet the galaxy’s major food crisis.

All very macabre and in theory set up for a good story. But there are some distinct problems – top of the list being that it takes the Doctor and Peri all of the first 45 minute episode just to reach the site of the main action. In the meantime, we have a veritable overdose of story lines and characters, and a cringeworthiness of over-acting. One senses that story teller Eric Saward was simply trying to cram too much into a usual length story – in actual fact, it may have been a better candidate for the three-parter than The Two Doctors. And then there is the DJ – the utterly pointless DJ who kills Daleks with ‘rock’n’roll’ and then does the stupidest of stupid things and doesn’t stay with his gun. I suspect many viewers cheered when the Daleks exterminated him.

The DVD was much better than I was expecting it to be, which I think is once more an indication that enjoyment correlates with expectations. But it is with justification that this is the worst Dalek story – it really didn’t need the Daleks! They were not hugely integral to the story, didn’t add any additional menace or gravitas to the story, and both they and Davros would not have been missed if there had instead been a generic villain. While I can see what John Nathan Turner was trying to do, sadly he didn’t manage it. The only thing that will save this from being the worst Dalek adventure is if one of the three lost serials transpires to be worst than fans recall it to be.

On a different note – this is a very noteworthy review as until this point, each serial reviewed has come from the 1980s. The story ranked at 116 features one of the first four doctors, and is my first step to acknowledging that you couldn’t just blame the 1980s for any particularly bad stories!