This story in a nutshell: ‘Blindness, torture…executions?’
Theatrical Traveller: We have soon settled down with the Doctor and Peri and she is poking fun at his accident proneness and inability to get anything right. We’ve had three electrical fires, a total power failiure and a near collision with a storm of asteroids, he’s also got lost in the TARDIS corridors twice, wiped the memory of the flight computer and jettisoned three quarters of the storage hold! He even managed to burn dinner last night! But then he has never said he was perfect (teehee). Again I find it very interesting that when Colin Baker’s Doctor throws a paddy his detractors (I always point to Paul Cornell simply because his works are always the most forceful when comparing the character to previous Doctors but there have been other, dismissive commentators) get into a fanboy tizzy and yet when Tom Baker is furious and moody (Pyramids of Mars, Horror of Fang Rock) it is the height of fashion. The Doctor childishly sulks in a chair when the TARDIS runs out of energy but as soon as Peri rouses him from his slumber he cheekily tells her not to give up hope! I was very pleased to see him picking up on Peri’s Americanisms and once again stroking his little cat badge for luck. He can’t quite bring himself to admit that the TARDIS will work ‘like new’ when she is fed a little Zyton-7 so instead plumps for ‘like she was…’ The sixth Doctor leaves a laser on that kills a guard and all of fandom starts balling their eyes out…the eight/ninth Doctor (delete as applicable) wipes out millions of people on Gallifrey and nobody bats an eyelid. Edit: This apparently was not the case post Day of the Doctor but it certainly appeared to be so from Rose-The Name of the Doctor. Also he wiped out the whole of Skaro in Remembrance of the Daleks and all and sundry seemed to think that was the height of chic and the show returning to form. Go figure. He’s a man of action, sabotaging the cameras, taking a commanding lead role by forcing his friends to confront their fears of the giant fly and walking into danger with unthinking relish. Colin Baker plays the virtual desert scenes for real and he really convinces that he is genuinely dying. The look on his face is haunting when he stops breathing. So much has been said about the acid bath scene it almost seems churlish to try and defend it. Having just watched it I will say at no point does the Doctor try and push anybody in – the first guy falls in accidentally and the second guy gets pull in by his bloodied up mate and I hate to say it but I love the callousness of the gag as the Doctor walks away. It's called Doctor Who not Doctrine Who and I could recount many times in the past when the Doctor has quipped at people who have been hurt (‘He’s having a little lie down’ after he clobbers the slaver in The Reign of Terror, ‘I’m afraid he couldn’t make it’ about the unconscious Master left behind in The Five Doctors, ‘The Root – One, Dalek – Nil’, etc, etc). He’s quite playful with Quillam until he realises Peri is in real danger. He walks to his execution quite happily knowing that it will be a fake. Baker brings a real sense of gravity when he condemns the government of Varos and how they are being exploited by Galatron; it’s the sort of scene that you can only imagine the powerfully moralistic incarnations of the Doctor getting away with (Hartnell, Pertwee and Colin Baker really). I love how the Doctor strokes Peri’s face and hair as he tries to get her to reassert her memories, these tender moments make a mockery of their fighting and show where their true feelings lie. Whilst there are other, awesome examples of the sixth Doctor as he gradually softens throughout his reign, this is the best example of the violent, unpredictable sixth Doctor that is recovering from his regeneration. He brings an acidic touch to the role, much wit and resource and yet still manages to be quite gentle and caring. It's a beguiling contradiction.
‘Run! Run! Go on run!’ – Arak plays the part of the kids watching!
‘I like that one! The one in the funny clothes!’
‘And cut it…now!’
‘You lying liar!’ and ‘She’s laughing at us all over the face!’ and ‘Pull the lever! Stretch them out of this life!’ and ‘Gently! Gently! Take extreme care with my person if you wish to retain your skins! Ah yes, I shall wear the mantle of power so, so handsomely!’ and ‘I will be governor of governors!’ – Sil’s so fabulous!
‘This Doctor must be eliminated. He smells the truth of things.’
‘The cameras are still functioning…let the show begin. I want to hear them scream until I’m deaf with pleasure. To see their limbs twist in excruciating agony. Ultimately their blood must gush and flow along the gutters of Varos. The whole planet must delight in their torture and death.’
The Good Stuff: Typical season twenty-two, the opening is stark and brutal with a woman almost hypnotised with pleasure as a handsome man is tortured on TV. It certainly grabs the attention. It's one of the things that the story is praised for ad nauseum but it is worth remembering just how intelligent and striking the framing device of having Arak and Etta watching the events of the story on their television just as we do on ours is. Any viewer can see themselves bitching about what is on the TV, complaining that it isn’t violent or satisfying enough and blaming the current government for all the problems. I do it all the time, safe in the knowledge that nobody can hear me. It’s almost a bit too smart for Doctor Who which makes it very special indeed. Plus the power games and opposing viewpoints of the two characters get more interesting as the story progresses. In the hands of another director Sil might have been shot more dynamically but in this case it is worth introducing the character in long shot since we get to see the full extent of his costume (with that awesome twitching tail) and his opening scene suggests he is just another character rather than the monster of the week (because there are far more terrifying dangers to come). Everything about Sil is fresh and deliciously grotesque from his orgasmic love of violence, his disgusting turd-like appearance, that wonderful snakish laugh and the delightful performance by Nabil Shaban. We haven’t seen a worthy new race in Doctor Who like this for quite a few years and it is no surprise that he was quickly pencilled in for a return visit. Martin Jarvis brings a seriousness and severity to Varosian politics; throughout you are completely on his side and watch him walk a fine line between leader and victim. The system of government on Varos makes for gripping viewing as it all comes down to numbers – if the majority disagree with the Governor he is tortured and if the majority agree he survives a blast from the disintegrator for another day. In a world where phone-in polls decide whether celebrities face intense hardship in the jungle, we're only about three steps away from this becoming a reality. There is a dramatic shot of the green light bearing down on him that really sells the horror of the vote going against you. In a society that is starting to focus more on numbers and public image this is becoming increasingly prescient. How awful is it when a man with integrity such as the Governor gets excited by Bax’s fresh method of execution because it might please the people and spare him more pain. That's desperation. Quillam is one of the most repulsive characters ever to appear in Doctor Who, there is something skin crawling about such a camp, hissable man who enjoys hurting people so much (and is so in love with his experiments he is even willing to mutilate himself). Varos has a fantastic music score, listen to the atmospherics as we lead up to Jondar’s execution and the fairytale tinkling as they enter the purple zone. Sil becomes even more wonderfully loathsome when you realise that Varos has a precious commodity that the galaxy is crying out for and he is keeping them in deliberate poverty just to turn a decent profit. Thanks to some effective lighting (imagine if this story had suffered the bleached lighting of so many other eighties stories?) this is one studio bound adventure that is very atmospheric. One of my all time scariest moments comes in this story when they are confronted with that horrid giant fly. Flies are one of my greatest phobias. I just hate everything about them from their creepy whining cries, their uncleanliness and the idea of them eating food, vomiting it up stamping the mulch into food and then eating it again (Ugh! Ugh! Ugh!) and so to be confronted with a giant fly with its hairy mouth wide, its legs twitching rubbing together and its segmented watching eyes…it gets me every time! The Governor exploiting the Doctor’s death to gain public support is utterly immoral and yet you understand why he is doing it – that’s how strong the undercurrents of this story are. In any other story the Governor would be the villain, in Varos he is a desperate man. Arak chuckling away at the Doctor falling to his death is chilling because I can see myself in a similar position in a really good death scene on the telly – Varos holds a mirror up to the audience and forces you to take a good, long look. The various methods of death in the punishment dome are pretty strong for Doctor Who; an acid bath, hanging, cannibals, physical mutation and mental torture. I’m not keen on the pink back lighting but the music, the chanting and the image of the Doctor in the noose all combine to make a memorable hanging sequence. The theory of a man frightened for his life will find solutions of the planets problems is frighteningly logical and unjust at the same time. Even Maldak who would be a faceless guard in any other story becomes a fully-fledged character when the Governor convinces him of how impossible ruling this planet is and helps him and Peri to escape at the last minute. Arak and Etta’s scenes just get better and better with the former frightened of her report against him but still stepping in to vote on her behalf, much to her horror. How atmospheric is that final set piece? The Doctor, Jondar and Areta amongst fleshy tendrils with blood red lighting and Quillam’s loathsome threats. That's some nasty makeup for Quillam’s scarring. The last scene is one of the most sublime moments I have ever seen in television – once the TV is switched off for good what do we do: ‘dunno…’ Priceless.
The Bad Stuff: That opening model shot isn’t very convincing. Areta is remarkably wet for a rebel and the actress is the weak link in the otherwise strong cast. I was quite pleased when Quillam tried to dispose of her which probably wasn't the idea. As soon as his part in the plot is over, Rondal is quickly dispatched. There is five minutes or so where the action lags in episode two. Ineffective gun play and an escape in a (really slow) buggy. The lava special effects is rubbish (primitive early electronic effects) and if you are going to feature scary cannibals do yourself a favour and don’t stick them in nappies.
Result: Highly original, atmospheric and intelligent, Vengeance on Varos scores highly for its Russian doll storytelling which sees a scary Doctor Who run-around taking on much deeper context as we experience the politics of the planet that is supporting such sick entertainment and get to understand the people who enjoy it as well. Ron Jones gives his best direction in this story and subverts the stagey nature of the studio by giving the material some real integrity and still providing plenty of memorable imagery and set pieces. Colin Baker gives one of his strongest performances and has never felt more commanding in the lead role, I was riveted by his character throughout. Vengeance on Varos is a remarkably prescient Doctor Who story in that it explores a television medium that enjoys watching people suffer – the sort of reality television that has taken a grip over the schedules in recent years. The dialogue is thoughtful and Varos is fleshed out beautifully, it is no surprise that Philip Martin was drafted in pretty quickly for a second story. All this praise and I haven’t even mentioned the superb lighting, a memorable musical score and Nabil Shaban’s unforgettable debut as Sil. All this and you have one of the finest cliff-hangers and final scenes to any Doctor Who story. I’ll forgive Vengeance on Varos its few faux pas (a couple of dodgy performances, the nappy cannibals) because it pushes boundaries like no other Doctor Who story and manages to tell a gripping, frightening and considerate piece of drama: 10/10