Doctor Who- Vengeance on Varos
January 19 -January 26, 1985
“When did they last show something worth watching?”
On the planet Varos, the people watch horrific scenes of death and torture from the confines of their living cells, voting on the outcome. The Doctor and Peri arrive in desperate need of a rare mineral only to find that the people of Varos are in need of liberation from themselves, just as the hideous Mentors hover in the wings, waiting to take advantage. Braving a barrage of tests and traps, the Doctor must free the planet Varos from the fate it has found itself in, even as the population watch him suffer in enjoyment and anxiously await his televised death.
The Sixth Doctor’s era is a period of Doctor Who that suffers from Peter Davison backlash. That may sound odd, given that Davison’s era suffered from Tom Baker backlash, but it is also true. Doctor Who has always mirrored the times in which it was made in my opinion, making the 22nd series a particularly difficult to watch one as it mirrors all that is worst in the 80′s.
For three years, viewers had watched the youngest ever incarnation of the Doctor take them into the optimistic 1980′s only to be smacked in the face in 1984 with Colin Baker and the nasty half of the decade of hope. The early 1980′s for many represented an era of technological advancement and a new golden age. The latter half of the decade was rife with hyper-violence in entertainment, global warfare and economic/societal decline in the news. Right in the middle of it all was Doctor Who, shining an unwanted spotlight on the proceedings in Vengeance on Varos, one of its more brilliant adventures.
Written by Philip Martin (the creator of the post-modern Gangsters starring Maurice Colbourne- known to Doctor Who fans as Lytton), Vengeance on Varos is a dark vision of the near future in which the population sits glued to a TV screen waiting for something to happen while their own lives dwindle away. The second story of the 21st series, Varos follows on the strengths of Attack of the Cybermen in depicting the brutality of man against his fellow man, but in such a graphic style that it is clear this is no longer a program for the kiddies.
The Doctor and Peri find that the TARDIS is in need of a rare mineral found only on the planet Varos, a world that has hit hard times and is in the process of finalizing an alliance with the Mentors, a blood-thirsty race of slug alien/businessmen. Arriving in the midst of a public execution, the Doctor and Peri find themselves part of a sick televised ritual of torture and death, watched with baited breath by the entirety of Varos.
Undoubtedly, Vengeance on Varos is one of the more cynical Doctor Who stories ever made. A population made up of depressed workers tolling away in the mines whose only pleasure comes from voting via an interactive TV set to torture anyone on the screen… this is miles from the navel-gazing tale of Kinda. The Sixth Doctor is still the sharply alien personality whose next actions the viewer cannot predict, making this a particularly gruesome and dramatic story (long before the character was sadly soften in Trial of a Timelord). His relationship with Peri is still rather spikey and they certainly do not trust each other, a quality that viewers had no doubt taken for granted with the Fifth Doctor’s English Gentleman-persona.
This is an altogether different Doctor who is not afraid to take risks and while we may not be sure of his motives, he has never been more sure of himself.
This is probably my favorite Colin Baker Doctor Who adventure alongside Mark of the Rani. Baker is in true form as the brilliant yet egocentric madcap scientist who has a solution for every problem yet looks completely barmy nonetheless. There are many who say that Baker was hampered by his outlandish costume that producer John Nathan Turner insisted he wear as the Doctor, and while I concede that it is very distracting… I have to disagree. Given that Colin Baker had planned to play the Doctor as a morally ambiguous and shady character clothed entirely in black, the multi-colored fanfare coat smashed that decision to bits. As such, the sixth persona of the Doctor puts up a brash and bold front while underneath he is not only calculating his next move but is much more sympathetic to the situation than he lets on. I’m sure this performance would not have come about if the coat was not placed on Baker’s shoulders and in my opinion we would have missed out because of it.
Varos ranks amongst one of the few ‘classics’ of 80′s Who in my opinion as it is one of the few stories that is actually about something, reality TV. In typical Doctor Who fashion, the entire planet’s viewing population is represented by a single couple; Arak and Etta. Both are opposed to each other and act like a kind of Greek chorus to the events unfolding on the screen, watching the Doctor struggle against the challenges of ‘the punishment dome’ even as he attempts to win their planet’s freedom. It’s the abstraction of suffering that is presented as entertainment that Arak and Etta find so enticing to separate them from their dull lives, yet the Doctor has arrived on the scene to show them just how low their society has stooped.
During the mid 1970′s Doctor Who was still a program that, while entertaining, had a central message. That quality got lost somewhere and while the were glimmers of intelligence in the Fifth Doctor’s era, Vengeance on Varos makes no qualms about its meaning. Sure, it is heavy handed, but I am very taken by the sheer arrogance and self-assuredness that this adventure presumes. A TV program set within a TV program is very ahead of its time, with the first cliffhanger focusing on the Doctor’s apparent dead expression followed by the command ‘cut!’ one of the program’s more brilliantly inspired moments.
All that praise said, there are some quibbles. James Bond’s son Jason Connery as the revolutionary Jondar is so stagey that he becomes two-dimensional and the mad scientist Quillam is far too camp to be taken seriously. I do enjoy Quillam, but when I showed the program to a friend the soundtrack was obliterated by his laughter at the actor’s performance. It is a fine line between Doctor Who acting and over-the-top acting, and Nicolas Chagrin certainly crosses that barrier as Quillam with his camp scenery-chewing. All the same, at least he’s entertaining while Connery is just wooden.
That said, the actor who steals the show is no doubt Nabil Shaban as Sil the Mentor. Speaking in undulating tones through bizarre tongue-lashings, he makes for the most memorable of 80′s villains for Doctor Who. A creature devoted to brokering shady business deals and even suggesting selling recordings of taped executions for profit, Sil is one of the most vile villains to ever grace the screen.
Nicola Bryant as Peri is every bit the sympathetic companion in Varos and she really gets put through the ringer in this one. Transformed by Quillam into a bird-like creature by an unstable torture device, Peri experiences one of the weirdest perils ever beset upon a companion. Peri fights the good fight in this one and tries her damnedest to refuse her captors the pleasure of watching her squirm in terror. She’s a very brave gal and she rarely gets a mention in the annals in Doctor Who companions aside from the mentioning of her impressive chest. This was Bryant’s first acting gig and while it may show, she still plays the part with gusto and sincerity.
Perhaps it is therefore hardly surprising that Peri is the first companion to be released as an action figure by Character Options (unless you count the Fifth Doctor/Master set that technically featured Kamelion as the Master) in January, 2011.
(click on the above image to pre-order a Peri/Sil action figure set in the US)
The 22nd series of Doctor Who never gets mentioned as a high point of the program and while I must admit that it rarely rises above the competitive 21st and 25th series, it certainly has its high points such as Vengeance on Varos. If you are a newcomer to the Sixth Doctor and looking for an ideal place to start viewing his era, you cannot do better than Vengeance on Varos.