Tony hides from the true terror of the Vervoids – the writing.
Terror of the Vervoids was a great idea, with some really tense storytelling, more than a little spoiled by some elements over which writers Pip and Jane Baker had absolutely no control. They had little say in the mission of introducing companion Mel (as played by audiobook reader Bonnie Langford) with staggeringly little in the way of backstory or character notes, and nor did they have any control over the sets, which had more of a cross-Channel ferry feel to them than a luxury space liner, or the realisation of the Vervoids themselves – one of the most unfortunate and disappointing instances of ‘man in a suit’ alien design since at least the Mandrells in Nightmare of Eden.
All that means that Terror of the Vervoids was a story crying out for a novelisation that righted the wrongs of the TV version. In the right hands, the Terror of the Vervoids Target novelisation could have tapped into the horror of its most obvious inspiration, John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids, as well as heightening the Agatha Christie suspense factor, giving Mel the personality she deserved, and tapping the wellspring of the Greek myths which also seem to have been in the Bakers’ heads (Demeter seeds, anyone), to show the hubris of science pursued for its own sake and the blindness of such science to the human greed impulse.
Yyyeah – about those right hands.
You can have as many soft spots as you like for Pip and Jane Baker - and why wouldn’t you? After all, they gave us the Rani – but they weren’t especially great at turning reasonably good and exciting TV into even equally good novels. Their forte was the TV medium, and they lacked a degree of knowledge of Doctor Who’s history and ultimately of its sensibilities, so occasionally they invented in a relative vacuum, to the detriment of their legacy. They also – as viewers already know from watching their stories – had a slightly peculiar gift for language that occasionally went from ‘helping the story along’ to moments of ‘wwwwwhat the hell was that?’ The novelisation of Terror of the Vervoids perversely does little to fix any of the TV version’s shortcomings, rather nailing them into place in our memory with a fairly literal representation of what was shown on-screen. Mel, the computer programmer from Pease Pottage with the exercise fetish remains pretty much exactly that, and takes little to no opportunity to reflect on, for example, how she met the Doctor, which would have been useful to ground her. The characters, for the most part, lack the colour or complexity they had on-screen (one of the TV version’s positive elements was the degree to which the characters felt like real, distinct people, but that’s rather sacrificed in the novel, except in long digressions, including heavy-handed backstory chunks on Bruchner and Lasky) and the Vervoids themselves are described in incredibly repetitive ways (I swear, if I ever hear Bonnie Langford say the words ‘waxy green leaf’ again in my life I’m going to go crazy with some napalm). The pacing never especially ramps up except for the brief sequence of the Doctor running after the waste disposal bins, and the ending feels slow and inevitable, the drama of the ‘crazy killer plant-men on the rampage’ plot actively damaged by all the other things we’re given to think about – who has the tape of Mel being attacked, the Rudge-Mogarian hijacking sub-plot, the human murderer sub-plot, and so on, and so on. By the time the Doctor and Mel are breaking out the Vionesium and committing genocide, it’s incredibly hard to care, and you’re pretty much willing them to just get it over with so you can get on with your life.
In terms of the reading, Bonnie Langford’s not given that much to work with in terms of rendering an exciting story in audio. The book lacks punch and pacing, and resolutely walks away from all the potential to put right what went wrong with the TV Vervoids, so Langford has little option in some respects but to ‘print the legend’ with which she’s presented. That said, and while it makes sense for her to be given the job of reading her introductory story, there’s not much in the way of inspiration in Langford’s reading either – she gives Rudge a new accent, which at least feels like a point of interest, breaking the feeling of the TV version, of a ship full of terribly posh people from the Home Counties, but she also commits an error of omission that rather sticks in the memory and the craw, pronouncing the species of the aliens on board the Hyperion III as ‘Mo-gahrians’ rather than, as they were called on-screen, ‘Mo-gairians.’ Her version of the Vervoids amounts to little more than ‘Bonnie Langford, whispering,’ meaning the monsters are actually less scary than ‘Bonnie Langford, ordinarily,’ just as they were on screen but for entirely different reasons. And, with the exception of the Rudge accent and a degree of snappiness that aims to replicate Honor Blackman (and in one of the certainties of the universe, fails to do so), there’s little in Langford’s reading to distinguish many of the characters from an older, less squeaky Bonnie Langford.
There is though one golden little detail in the novelisation and subsequently the audiobook that fulfils the potential it has of giving an explanation for the inexplicable or the unexplained in the TV version. The moment where the solitary Vervoid, checking the cabin for humans, starts spewing gas out of its nose-holes for no damned good reason at all? Yep, that’s explained, and explained pretty well, the Bakers seeming to wake up in that moment of the writing and realise the chance they had to set the record straight. For those who want an understanding of the young Sarah Lasky and why she turned into such a spiky agronomist, there’s a backstory for her, but it’s placed at such an awkward moment that while there’s value in it, it feels out of place, and Langford, in reading, simply reads it, without giving it any special depth of emotional power. In fact the best and most satisfying addition the Bakers make to the story isn’t in the Vervoids story at all, but in the dry business of court personnel and procedure, perhaps realising by the time they came to write the novelisation that they had introduced new Gallifreyans into The Ultimate Foe that could benefit from a little foreshadowing, which here they get.
Does the work that’s been done to add explanation to Terror of the Vervoids add up to enough of a reason to buy it and listen? Mmmmmmaybe – but more because of the shortcomings of the TV version than the innovations of the audio. Bottom line, on its own, isolated from the rest of the stories, it sounds like a lost opportunity to raise a story beset by stylistic errors on-screen out of the mire, as though the Bakers were told ‘Yes, they made a mediocre story out of your good ideas, but now you get to rescue it,’ and the Bakers simply said ‘That’s OK, we’re fine with the mediocre version, thanks.’ If you’re listening to the whole Trial of a Time Lord season in sequence, the Vervoids audiobook comes as a blessed relief in terms of style after Mindwarp and its heavy, shocking content, but Langford has little of the commitment to storytelling that Lynda Bellingham and Colin Baker displayed before her, so while at the very least Vervoids is full of incident, the reading leaves you wondering about what an Honor Blackman-read version would have sounded like, and wishing you lived in the universe where you could find out.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk