“Truth is a stranger to the Earthlings.”- Enzu
This is actually my favorite of all the Trial of a Timelord stories. I like the straightforward but engaging nature of the adventure storyline, largely a good old-fashioned mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie (as highlighted by having one of the characters reading Murder on the Orient Express). On the other hand, the complexity of the trial sequences takes it up a notch by having us suddenly looking at events in the future. I’m not sure how all this works in terms of the laws of time for the Doctor to be seeing later events in his own timeline, but it is really interesting as a story telling idea. We’re suddenly in the thick of things with a companion that we don’t even know. I find it fascinating how the device of the trial lets the writers skip over the usual long introduction and time of building trust straight to an established and close relationship. The Matrix as an unreliable narrator is also reinforced and even shown to be changeable.
Though Mel is much derided as a companion known for her screams, I really liked her introduction on this re-watch. She is keen and eager and strong-headed but resourceful and full of cheer. It’s a totally different relationship with the Doctor than Peri. She gets some good moments of showing up the Doctor like when she’s the one who ends up charming the professor and they both totally ignore him. On the other hand, one of my favorite moments in the story comes when she explaining to the Doctor the difficult position that would require him to address two problems when, without missing a beat and hardly seeming to acknowledge her statement, the Doctor turns around with some lateral thinking and easily has the solution to both problems in hand with a grin.
Other side characters in the story largely fulfill a function, but I really like the character of the captain as he both bemoans the Doctor’s presence and yet trusts him completely. Sometimes characters introduced as previously having met the Doctor come across rather contrived but this relationship seems totally believable. There are lots of moving parts in the elimination of suspects in this story—several red herrings as to which mystery we’re actually solving at any given moment. At times it seems like a lot but ultimately it ends up back at being a classic Doctor Who plot of a dangerous monster created by greed that the Doctor has to come up with a clever scheme to combat. The Vervoids costumes are well-designed and the wind-like howl as they age and wither is quite eerie. And just when it seems like all is resolved and the Doctor has won the day, the Valeyard pounces with the surprise accusation of genocide.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
The reveal of the poor lab assistant kept locked away in isolation with her disfigured face and pulsing vesicles is horrific.
There’s some campiness that creeps into the story, but my main complaint is that it seems rather stupid and out of character at the end for Lasky to think she can walk in amongst the Vervoids and reach an understanding with them. She and the Doctor had literally just explained to everyone else the impossibility of finding any common ground with these plant-based mutants. (I also cringe when I see the Doctor toss back one of the Demeter seeds—surely there would have been complaints about the waste much less the fact that it’s some augmented super-seed that he can’t know is even edible.)