The third major section of the Doctor Who episode “The Trial of a Time Lord,” parts 9-12, are known under the subtitle “Terror of the Vervoids“. It is the Doctor’s chance to respond to the accusations of the Valeyard, and he has been given access to the matrix, the computer database of time lord knowledge, in order to make his defense. He will attempt to show that he improves in the future, and offers scenes from an adventure with a new companion we had never met before – Mel.
Mel is rather irritatingly energetic, and as if to illustrate the Doctor’s efforts at rehabilitating and improving himself, we see him on an exercise bike, apparently being compelled somewhat reluctantly to get fit and eat and drink healthily by Mel.
The Doctor during this episode within an episode plays the role of detective, as he tries to solve a murder mystery on a spaceship, where the TARDIS lands after they receive a distress call.
The character of the Sixth Doctor was in many respects at its height at this point, having preserved some of his most entertaining characteristics while having mellowed enough that we no longer would think he was completely out of his mind. Apparently the BBC could not see it, and Colin Baker would soon be fired. “Trial of a Time Lord” would be the last episode in which he appeared. Although there are perhaps too many lame jokes placed on the lips this much calmer version of the Sixth Doctor from his future, that was the fault of writers and not the actor, as were some of the other issues. Baker bore the brunt of the BBC’s displeasure at a number of elements in the show during his tenure – the Doctor’s initial instability, a greater amount of violence, and concerns about ratings. His departure still seems such a shame. To his credit, Colin Baker has remained a great supporter of the show to this day. I shall have to make a point of enjoying some of the many Doctor Who audiobooks he has recorded, and get some further adventures of the Sixth Doctor. While we may long for more from any Doctor, in Colin Baker’s case it is perhaps the most poignantly and clearly justified.
When the writers, Pip and Jane Baker, conducted this story arc, with its stories within a story, were they intentionally alluding to the fact that there was another layer in the real world, in which Doctor Who – the show, not the character – was on trial? We might say that the show would be acquitted on appeal, and note that some of the things critics complained about characterize the show in our time.
There are probably too many plot threads in the episode within an episode. That this was intentional to keep us guessing who the murderer was is clearly indicated by the close up on more than one occasion of the cover of a book a character was reading: Murder on the Orient Express.
While there is a sarcastic reference to the Doctor perhaps claiming “divine insight,” the most interesting element related to religion and ethics is centered on the Vervoids of the title. These bioengineered plant-people were created for the purpose of slave labor, to replace machines, since they required only water, carbon dioxide and sunlight. Reference is made to Rome’s greatness built on the backs of slaves – and to Rome’s downfall. (Our human penchant for exploitation had already been highlighted earlier in the episode, the Magarians mentioning how humans have been plundering their world for its natural resources.) The Vervoids realize that animal life is their mortal enemy (all animals depend on the consumption of plants, whether directly or indirectly, even setting the issue of their intended service as slaves to one side). The Doctor has no choice but to destroy the Vervoids – and as a result, the Valeyard invokes Article 6 of Gallifreyan law. He will now accuse the Doctor of genocide.
It is an interesting question. If human beings created a species of somewhat intelligent plant beings through genetic engineering, and when they turned hostile destroyed them, would you consider that genocide? Why or why not?
You might want to turn some carrots into carrot juice and drink it while reflecting on this question of how it is appropriate to treat plants…