Television loves a drama about itself. In fact it is almost a surprise it took 22 years for Doctor Who to set a story in a TV studio. Vengeance on Varos cleverly uses the audience’s awareness of both the language of television, and the lively debate about the effects of screen violence, which has rumbled on since popular entertainment was first projected on to a white sheet. Back in 1985, the whole “video nasty” controversy was still fresh in minds of many UK viewers. The early burgeoning video rental market had seen gory exploitation fare like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Driller Killer and SS Experimentation Camp suddenly leaving the relatively controlled environment of late-night cinemas and into the living rooms of family homes. Not only that, but objectors pointed out that unlike broadcast television, video recorders had the facility to pause, slow-down and replay disturbing scenes. Doctor Who had courted controversy in the past with some of its frights, and this legacy is also re-examined in this Special Edition DVD. For some fans, Vengeance on Varos is the story that crossed the line in the depiction of violence, by explicitly involving the Doctor as a perpetrator. More on his acid bath murders later.
The TARDIS is stranded in space. Only by obtaining the rare mineral Zeiton 7 can the Doctor hope to travel again. He and Peri make an emergency landing on Varos, an ex-prison planet turned brutal mining colony. Here the Governor and his officers control the population through violent repression and lurid reality television, filming what happens in the “Punishment Dome”. They’ve even started selling packaged programmes of the disturbing footage to other worlds. Somehow the Doctor must escape the many death-traps of the Dome, and outwit the loathsome Sil, an intergalactic business shark.
Vengeance on Varos was the first Colin Baker story to be released on DVD. For the time the extras seemed quite generous, most of them based around the unedited studio footage. But the presentation of the programme on DVD has become a lot more sophisticated since then, as has the methods of converting the video tape into digital. Hence this two-disc special edition with improved picture and sound, plus three new featurettes.
The core of the story is a satirical look, both at violence on television and the debate over its effects on the audience, and modern democracy. Its vision of an emotionally deadened audience, watching a constant diet of violence and death 24 hours a day maybe exaggerated but there are some prophetic observations. About the way news is reported and the cynical producers who shape the material to create stories. Or the risk that continual public referendums via TV voting, could result in meaningless democratic choice and poor government. The real complexities of the planet’s problems are reduced to platitudes and soundbites from the Governor when he asks the people for their yes or no vote. Yes, watching this story in June 2019, its hard for a UK viewer not to think about Brexit and the way the referendum has failed to achieve anything so far, except increasing our cynicism in politics.
“Well he makes me sick!” complains Arak to his wife Etta. “He’s the worst governor we’ve had since…well since…”
“Since the last one?” she finishes mockingly.
This bickering couple who watch the story unfold on the video screen in their dingy room, are obvious avatars for the both the the populace of Varos, and the real life television audience at home. But their commentary gives the rest of the story more reality and a lot of their dialogue is entertainingly meta. “I like that one,” coos Etta at the Doctor, “the one with the funny clothes.”
Television is accused of cheapening human life, reducing traumatic experiences to shallow entertainment. But ultimately it is the evil regime and economic poverty that is driving the misery, so it can be argued that the exploitative television is a symptom rather than the cause. The most important quality of this story is that it both entertains and asks serious questions to get the audience thinking. It also features one of my favourite cliffhangers, a clever post-modern moment where the Doctor’s apparent death is being directed onscreen and the episode ends with the line, “And cut it…now!” If only the end titles had crashed in on the Governor’s words, rather than the television static and Sil’s maniacal laughter, and would have been in my top ten of greatest moments in the show.
Writer Philip Martin had some form with this kind of fourth wall breaking. The second season of his Seventies crime drama Gangsters became increasingly self-aware of its nature as a television show, memorably ending with an actress walking off-set in indignation, as the picture pulled back to reveal the studio set.
Sil is the most memorable character, thanks to a marvellous performance by disabled actor Nabil Shaban and a good costume. This greedy squirming amphibian with a gurgling laugh and pompous manner is the highlight of every scene he appears in. A ruthless, cowardly businessman obsessed with profit over lives, he is an obvious comment of commercial greed but Shaban gives the character a powerful, funny personality, with some nice alien touches, particularly his gurgling alien laugh. He was popular enough to be brought back in the following season and has made a further appearance on audio. This year will see him return in his very own Reeltime spinoff video – Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor.
Martin Jarvis is excellent too as the haunted,resigned Governor, a leader who is literally tortured by every negative vote. There’s an interesting complexity about him. Although he mostly presented as a sympathetic character, by contrast with Sil and the duplicitous Security Chief, the fact that he originally came up with the idea of selling footage of the torture as entertainment and his willingness to use executions to achieve his aims means that his hands are far from clean. There is certainly no guarantee when the Doctor leaves that the colony is in good hands. Colin Baker is in his early days here and his Doctor is still pretty bombastic and unsympathetic. Colin Baker’s idea that his Doctor would mellow over time proved to be bad choice in my opinion, since his character too often ended up alienating viewers rather than intriguing them. Worse still, in an already violent story, the Doctor seems to come under the influence of the Dome. He fights with two guards who have recently carried his unconscious body into a disposal room. In the ensuring struggle, one guard falls into a vat of acid, and then accidentally drags his compatriot in. Watching them dissolve the Doctor remarks with a smirk, “You’ll forgive me if I don’t join you!” This hardly seems heroic, especially this Schwarzenegger-esque quip at the end. as they thrash and disappear under the bubbles. A completely wrong choice by actor, writer and director there.
Nicola Bryant is meanwhile fine as Peri, although she is pretty much a victim for much of the story. But her natural emphatic reactions to the wrongness of the world around her as a welcome balance in a story so steeped in amoral attitudes.
As I mentioned above, there are three new extras on this release. Nice or Nasty hosted by Matthew Sweet is a cheery making-of doc that concentrates on the writers for a change, namely Philip Martin and script editor Eric Saward. It looks into the controversy of the story’s violence, as well as the budget problems. The Idiot’s Lantern sees Channel 4 News presenter Samira Ahmed looking at all the instances where television itself has appeared within Doctor Who. It’s a good succinct feature and its striking just how much both televisions and the language of the medium are threaded into the show. Characters frequently watch television (or video monitors). Events are often reported on by TV presenters to give them more reality. Occasionally characters even comment with self-awareness on the show’s own cliches. “Not even the sonic screwdriver will me get out of this one!” announces a worried Fourth Doctor to the camera in Invasion of Time.
Tomorrow’s Times looks at the press coverage of Colin Baker’s tenure. After an initial burst of positivity with his casting and arrival, sadly most of it was pretty critical. This was the time of the 18-month ‘hiatus’ when Michael Grade nearly cancelled the show and it was here that the show seemed to stop being a popular mainstream hit and the narrative became that of a struggling cult series.
It’s an actor’s commentary for this story: Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant and Nabil Shaban discuss their memories in a laid back manner. The original extras, based on the raw studio recordings are all here. Also archive clips of Colin Baker’s first interviews in the role, on Saturday Superstore and Breakfast Time which are quite charming. There is also a deleted French and Saunders sketch in which they play actors in monster costumes who keep spoiling a take, but it is tin-eared and unfunny. In addition there are the traditional high quality photo gallery and information subtitles.
Despite its relatively low budget qualities, such as the guard’s amusingly slow moving electric buggy which is in-advisedly used in an action scene, this story’s ambition and performances make it possibly my favourite of Colin Baker’s short era in Doctor Who.