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Doctor Who: Vengeance on Varos (Special Edition)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
BBC Worldwide
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Ron Jones
Colin Baker
Nicola Bryant
Martin Jarvis
Jason Connery
Bottom Line: 

As the second adventure to be broadcast in the new series format devised for season 22 (with its 45 minute-long episodes replacing the time-honoured length of 25 minutes), and while still being only Colin Baker’s third screen outing as the sixth Doctor at the time of broadcast in January 1985, the inappropriately titled “Vengeance on Varos” (no-one exacts any vengeance on anyone at any point in the story!) still comes off as being something of an oddity, its unusual tone vacillating between what Tat Wood, in volume 6 of ‘About Time: The Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who’, describes as “radical fringe theatre and children’s television”.  On the surface, this is DOCTOR WHO as we know it -- incorporating lots of the usual business of running up and down corridors; and the story has one of the most memorable ‘monsters’ of the Colin Baker era – the slimily repellent Sil, played with tongue-flicking relish by actor and fan of the show Nabil Shaban, who seems to have approached the part with a determination to leave a lasting mark on the series. But at the same time, the story gets remembered for harbouring a pronounced sadistic element, featuring as it does the most notorious sequence of this era, involving an acid bath and the galaxy’s clumsiest guards. There’s also disfigurement, torture and a lengthy hanging sequence set alongside some bizarrely camp sadistic humour; one character even envisions the rapture of going ‘deaf with pleasure’ from the screams of his victims, at one point!

Writer Philip Martin was a former actor-turned-writer who’d started out penning scripts for “Z Cars” in the late’60s and who had already developed a healthy reputation as a serious dramatist by the time he unexpectedly offered his services to the DOCTOR WHO production team in 1982, on account of his increasingly experimental TV crime series “Gangsters”, which started off as a “Play for Today” about crime amongst ethnic minorities in 1970s/’80s Birmingham, and ended up ‘transmogrifying’ into a piece of self-referential postmodern programming, years before that term was even generally applied to TV or film. The series got caught up in the latest instance of that regularly reoccurring  backlash against violence on television, during its gritty first series, and Martin subsequently reacted by poking fun at and undermining the conventions of TV drama  and all the different sub-genres of crime thriller it encompassed, taking the series more and more towards left-field surrealism and often having his characters break the fourth wall to acknowledge the viewer’s involvement or walk off the set in the middle of a scene; he even appeared in the series as the author, and depicted himself actually writing the scripts at his typewriter.

This approach was nothing new per se (Anthony Newley’s surreal 1960 series “The Strange World of Gurney Slade” had done similar things) but the fact “Gangsters” had started off as a completely conventional, tough crime drama and then switched to this offbeat and totally surrealist mode was extremely unusual. It also informs, in admittedly a much gentler way, Martin’s approach to “Vengeance on Varos”, which appeared at a time when the political right-wing in Britain was once again railing against TV violence whist simultaneously overseeing the sort of robber-baron capitalist ideology which was resulting in the devastation of whole communities, particularly in the mining industry. Martin had become fascinated with DOCTOR WHO after watching a whole series of it with his young daughter in the early eighties, and began to look at the series as a potential writing exercise for him, in which he could use its structured format to comment on contemporary issues while still respecting the traditional sci-fi requirements of the series. 

At first glance “Vengeance on Varos” seems to rely on a typical piece of dystopian world-building of the sort that had been seen quite frequently on the programme throughout its history, particularly from the pen of Robert Holmes in serials such as “Carnival of Monsters”, The Sunmakers” or recently “The Caves of Androzani” -- all of which use satire and humour to address contemporary attitudes where social issues and political allegory intersect in a science fiction setting. “Vengeance …” toyed with humour in material with a potentially even bleaker tone to it than had been evident even during Peter Davison’s much praised swansong, though: the Doctor (Colin Baker) and Peri (Nicola Bryant) stumble into this particular adventure when they arrive on the planet Varos in search of a vital mineral that the malfunctioning TARDIS needs in order to be able to continue to propel our hero through time and space on his future adventures. They rescue a rebel from his imminent execution just as the event is about to be beamed live into the populace’s ‘living cells’ as its evening entertainment, and discover that this man Jondar (Jason Connery in one of his earliest acting roles) and his girlfriend Areta (Geraldine Alexander) are being hunted and condemned to death because they have discovered a buried truth about the planet’s past: that it was formerly a penal colony in which the governing officer class have, over the eons, come to represent the political establishment, living in luxury while the descendants of the former prisoners continue to toil as the workers, having to mine the reserves of Zeiton-7 on which the planet depends for its prosperity while taking home less-and-less money as a living wage.

Times are hard and wages are being constantly forced down because the monopolistic Galatron Mining Corps, which exclusively buys up all the ore from the planet’s authorities, forces the market price ever lower using the hard-line negotiating tactics of its alien representative: a green, slug-like aquatic creature called Sil (Nabil Shaban), who’s company has bought off several corrupt officials in the Varosian political elite in order to manipulate the planet’s TV-voter based democratic process.

 Martin’s script unveils a very particular and unique form of television-based culture operating on Varos:  surveillance and entertainment all play vital roles in the social and political structure of the planet, and greatly influence the mind-set of the electorate in a manner which effectively keeps it trapped in its economically debilitating downward spiral. In order to make up the economic shortfall, the elected Governor (a subtle performance from Martin Jarvis in his third DOCTOR WHO role since his debut in 1965) has hit upon the idea of selling ‘snuff’ videos of state executions, which have become popular entertainments off-world and so are helping to keep Varos’s struggling economy afloat, thus encouraging the authorities to devise ever crueller methods of dispatch for its political prisoners and criminals.

This element of the plot, of course, becomes more intelligible when set against the then-contemporary backdrop of the ‘video nasty’ panic which had successfully been whipped up by an alliance of  conservative-minded groups such as the Viewers & Listeners Association, the right wing tabloid press of the day and the government, which reacted to the hysteria generated by the Department of Public Prosecutions’ indiscriminate seizing of videotapes of everything from Lucio Fulci’s “Zombie Flesh Eaters” to Dolly Parton’s “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”, by passing the Video Recordings Act, making it mandatory for all videos to require certification before they could be legally sold or rented, and therefore taking the BBFC out of its role of being merely an advisory body and giving it the power to deny such certification to films it considered unsuitable for public viewing, effectively banning them.

The story’s theme of public executions being used for entertainment perhaps has its origins in the notoriety surrounding the “Faces of Death” series, released around this time, but the interesting move Martin’s script makes is to tie in the concept of a political establishment using the sale and the consumption of such violence and torture as its means of controlling a semi-brutalised populace; manipulating its political responses by keeping it distracted and pandering to the public’s baser instincts. The Governor who is responsible for maintaining the illusion of voter based democracy on Varos becomes as much a victim of the system he has to implement though: his decisions are also put to a public vote and if he loses he has to undergo a televised torture process involving ‘cell disintegration’. We learn that each Governor has been randomly selected from the population and takes his office once his processor has succumbed to the inevitable weakening that occurs from having lost too many such public votes. Meanwhile, the secret deal between Sil and the Machiavellian Chief Officer of Varos (Forbes Collins) and the shadowy state torturer Quillam (Nicholas Chagrin), which allows each of them to personally profit from the planet’s near bankruptcy, stays in place regardless -- meaning the chosen Governor has no choice but to keep pressing the voter population to accept his economic ‘austerity’ measures, and then submit himself to regular bouts of televised torture whenever they (inevitably) refuse to accept his recommendations.

The warped alien logic of the Varos system can’t help but hold particular resonance for modern viewers with its emphasis on surveillance camera footage being beamed into people’s homes as ‘reality footage’, and on viewers being asked to vote for or against the representatives of pre-decided issues, with the promise of torture being dished out to the loser. This all anticipates some of the crueller elements of modern ‘reality drama’ years before such a thing existed, while also highlighting how great TV events of public spectacle can be used to divert the population’s attention away from an unpalatable reality while continuing to provide the illusion of choice; but Martin’s use of self-reflexive narrative techniques inside the story also take the serial to a level beyond that of being just the usual DOCTOR WHO satire on such matters: while the Doctor, Peri and their allies race around the bunker-like system of corridors that make up most of Varos, attempting to avoid capture by the Varosian authorities and evade the various hallucination-based traps that the tunnels contain, their exploits are being beamed straight into the homes of a typical Varosian couple, who proceed to comment and debate the same on-screen action (which is being directed from the ‘gallery’ by the Governor and the Varosian elite) as we the viewers at home are seeing.

Stephen Yardley and Sheila Reid never interact with anyone else in the story. Their characters, Arak and Etta, are proxies for the viewer watching at home, cheering when their favourites escape, arguing over whether or not the Governor deserves to be tortured, and voting on the action as instructed whenever required to do so. The two live in a spartan, dimly lit hovel which looks more like a prison cell than a living area, but which encourages the sense that these people are living in a version of Plato’s cave, watching illusory shadows dancing on the walls of their underground living space and never really getting access to the reality of either their own lives or of Varos’s system of government. The theme of illusions even extends to the activities of the ‘characters’ they are watching on the screen, who must often overcome a series of illusions in order to escape the Varosian justice system. The most memorable instance of this comes at the end of episode one when the Doctor succumbs to an illusion, concocted inside the Varosian tunnels,  that he is lost in the middle of a desert without water. Such hallucinations are so convincing that their victims’ bodies react as though they were real, and thus they die of dehydration just as they would have done had they really been in such a situation. The episode ends with the Doctor about to expire, as the Governor, watching from his own monitor in the director’s gallery, directs the camera to move in for a close-up in order o catch his final moments, Arak and Etta watching the same images as us in expectation of the end, with the episode concluding on the Governor’s cry of ‘cut!’ …

The idea that illusions can be used to remould and pervert reality is given its most surreal outlet in the form of Quillam’s ‘Transmogrification Machine’ – a device which provides entertainment for the watching electorate by transforming its victims’ bodies into a literal representation of their internal fears. In Peri’s case, she apparently wants to fly away from her predicament so the machine transforms her into a rather exotically plumed bird-like creature! The story’s mix of the outlandish, the allegorical and the satirical also gives rise to instances of screen violence which are certainly stronger in tone than was usual for the programme even during this stage of its life when script writer Eric Saward was known for commissioning more action-orientated stories in which the Doctor, who was now in the much more physically proactive hands of Colin Baker, was quite happy to blast away at his enemies with laser guns or get into lethal fights with people. Here he causes the violent death of several characters and is inadvertently  involved in two guards being dissolved in acid, about which he afterwards makes a cheerful quip (‘You’ll excuse me if I don’t join you!’) as their corpses bubble and dissipate in the acid bath vat!

Ultimately though, this is possibly one of Colin Baker’s strongest performances as the Doctor (a cut scene has Peri describe him as ‘a petulant baby’ and that is an accurate description of Baker’s interpretation of the character when he’s at his best); although he was forced out of the role at the behest of Michael Grade during one of the show’s most difficult periods of production, and was lumbered with the most god-awful patchwork costume, Baker really put his all into his performances and the often critically flawed stories that make up most of his era were certainly no more marred by his often compelling stint in the role. This, as one of the better tales from his brief reign, highlights how good he could have been with better material and deserves the special edition makeover it gets with this new 2-disc DVD release, replacing the previous edition which came out originally back in 2001.

Disc one is devoted to the two forty-five minute episodes and an extensive list of audio options which include the original mono sound, a 5.1 audio mix, mono isolated music mix, 5.1 isolated music mix and mono production mix (without effects or music). The original unmoderated commentary track featuring Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant and Nabil Shaban is an entertaining listen, particularly if you enjoy double entendre since there’s plenty of it here involving talk of ‘stroking pythons’ and Nicola saying how much she enjoys ‘the longer length’ (okay, so she’s talking about the episode length). The text-based production notes have been rewritten for this release to take account of the recent discovery of an early draft of the script from 1983.

All of the other extras can be found on disc 2. The best of these is a new documentary produced by Simon Guerrier and presented by Matthew Sweet. “Nice or Nasty” takes the form of interviews with actors Nabil Shaban and Shelia Reid, writer Philip Martin, script editor Eric Saward and composer Jonathan Gibbs, and is a cut above the standard ‘making of’ I feel, due to its inclusion of Sweet’s searching but friendly questioning, which unearths the revelation that Saward even considered asking Harold Pinter to write for the show at one point. “The Idiot’s Lantern” was billed as a follow-up to the excellent “Race Against Time” documentary which was included with the DVD release of “The Mutants”, examining the show’s relationship with the medium of television in a broader sense than is encompassed by just this one story. This is a much more cursory piece though, running at little more than 7 minutes and featuring newsreader Samira Ahmed delivering a monologue written by Guerrier accompanied by brief clips. “Tomorrow’s Times: The Sixth Doctor” covers Colin Baker’s tenure on the series as reported by the press at the time, from the optimism and promise in the announcement that he was taking over the role from Peter Davison, to the dismay at the BBC’s decision to rest the show for 18 months after his first full season and  the follow-up news that Baker’s contract was not being renewed after the “Trial of a Time Lord” season. There are 17 minutes of extended and deleted scenes, some behind the scenes outtakes, a version of ‘the acid bath sequence’ with some alternative music which has been recently discovered in the mix tapes by Mark Ayres, trailers and BBC continuity announcements for the story; plus a photo gallery and PDF Sales Sheet and Radio Times Listings. In addition, the disc contains some retro clips of interview appearances from 1984:  there’s a clip of Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant appearing on Saturday Superstore; Baker being interviewed by Frank Bough on “Breakfast Time”; a BBC news story presented by John Humphries announcing Baker being cast in the role, and an atrocious French and Saunders sketch which was apparently never aired with the two comediennes appearing in costume as a pair of portly Silurians!

Finally, the eagerly anticipated DVD release of “The Ambassadors of Death” is almost upon us and is highlighted in a ‘coming soon’ trailer.

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