Doctor Who #640: Vengeance on Varos Part 1

"I like that one, the one in the funny clothes."
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD, in both standard and Special Editions. First aired Jan.19 1985.

IN THIS ONE... The TARDIS needs a rare element on available on a planet with 24-hour sadistic Reality TV. No, it's not 21st-century Earth.

REVIEW: Twenty years before the Doctor became a Big Brother contestant in Bad Wolf, Doctor Who predicted the Reality TV craze in Vengeance on Varos. Though in true 80s style, it's more Running Man than Truman Show. Varos is an ugly series of domes where they torture the likes of Sean Connery's shirtless son (so there's something for the moms too) and the Doctor and his allies have to go from trap to trap, set piece to set piece, the laziest of all narrative structures. Wait, I'm supposed to like this serial. It's supposed to be the one you can show newcomers without having to see them cringe. Well, I do like it, and I don't. The idea is excellent, even if it's rather incredible this era of the program is producing an indictment television violence. Although I suppose it could be viewed as a celebration of it, a finger lifted to Mary Whitehouse's face, right down to the Varosian control room ending its broadcast on the frozen moment of death, its audience a mirror of ourselves, lusting after death and cruelty. Then again, it DOES treat entertainment the way Marx does, as the opiate of the masses, something for the unhappy proles to do instead of rebel. And for these indentured viewers, there's really no difference between Survivor: Corridors and their Governor's referenda. Both can be lethal and both are an act of sadistic voyeurism.

If I have problems with Varos, it's certainly not that set-up. Rather, it's the execution. I found myself questioning the 45-minute format again, as it seems to have become an excuse for loads of tedious TARDIS scenes up front, just like in Attack of the Cybermen. We' looking outside at comets and voids, we're sitting around, moping and arguing, and of course there are always lots of repairs to be done. Yawn. Thematically, it's turning us into Varosians, hungering for action, but I doubt that was done on purpose. I don't actually recommend tuning in just for the TARDIS scenes, but anyone who thinks Peri never does anything might look at them to revise their opinion. As in previous episodes, she's the one who moderates the Doctor's excesses, and that often means pushing him to action. Everything is big with this Doctor, so when he despairs, he immediately gives up and waits for death. It's Peri who has to shake him out of it, who has to get the TARDIS manual (is that why the TARDIS doesn't make a noise materializing? did she make him flip the blue switches?), who has to recommend going to Varos for precious Zeiton-7. Is it a coincidence she's the one encouraging him in the desert mirage, holding a bottle of water? Now if only she could be more active physically in stories.

The story introduces recurring villain Sil, the perfect little sadist for it, doing a grotesque - not to call it rude - thing with his tongue when he gets excited. Nabil Shaban's atypical body type allows the production team to create a small fish creature, sitting on top of its aquarium, and he goes for it with gusto. Disgusting, but entertaining. He feels right a home on a planet whose second major export is snuff films. While the Varosians themselves are a bloodthirsty bunch, there is some variety to them. The old bickering couple (intercut with the new bickering couple of the Doctor and Peri, don't think I didn't notice) features a malcontent and a patriot, for example. They may act as a kind of chorus, commenting on the action, but they don't speak with one voice. There are sadistic military types, one of which is trying hard to be the next Sharaz Jek, and friendly rebels who believe it's all gone too far. The Governor, despite his role, looks like he'd want to throw in with the rebels, and doesn't stomach the systemic sadism as well as his men. And holy crap! One of them is a young, thin Owen Teale, now known as the cannibal from Torchwood's Countrycide and that arsehole Sir Alliser Thorne in Game of Thrones! Sometimes the best celeb casting is the one from before they were stars.

According to a deleted scene on the DVD, the chameleon circuit repaired in Attack of the Cybermen is still working, but badly. An unshown adventure has it appearing as a pyramid, for example.

- In execution, it could use some work, but the meta concept is fun.


CiB said...

I think one flaw with this season was that the writers use Part 1 as a hook and an introduction, and don't really move the ploy until the end- something they've pretty much always done in Doctor Who, but with 25 minutes episodes, that's fine. Here you tend to a 45 minute introduction, then 45 minutes of plot, story and wrap up (That is, they pad what would have been part 1 into 45 minutes, and then compress what would have been parts 2-4 to 45 minutes). Most stories this season do this.

The worst offender though (in my opinion) is still to come.

Madeley said...

Peri found the blue boringers and took the handbrake off! Brilliant!

Siskoid said...

CiB: That's a great analysis of what's going on with the structure. I may have to use that. So long as I haven't watched Timelash, the worst is always to come, though you probably mean... Revelation?

Madeley: I told you she's not useless!

CiB said...

In terms of that structure, I'd say Revelation was most badly affected. In terms of quality my opinion is that there is little as bad as Timelash, and nothing worse, but that's got nothing to do with structure.

Siskoid said...


(I'm just kidding, I'll do my best though.)

Unknown said...

Nice Post! I have been catching up on your site reading your Who reviews. Vengeance on Varos is possibly my favorite Colin Baker story. I Look forward to reading your conclusion.

Siskoid said...

It's definitely one of the better ones. We'll see how it all pans out by the end of his run, but from memory, Revelation is my favorite, though for the Doctor is so side-lined as to make it a question whether it's a good SIXTH DOCTOR story.

I seem to remember liking the Vervoids story too, though the Trial stuff just puts me to sleep.

Jeff R. said...

I liked Glitz enough that he brought the parts of Trial he was in up to at least mediocre.

This is the serial the BBC picked for Six in the retrospective, but it's almost by default, since you really can't use anything out of the Trial season, using the multidoctor story defeats the point of representing Six, and he certainly wasn't in the best regeneration, Dalek, or Cybermen story...that leaves just three choices, and given the other two, well...

Siskoid said...

Obviously, the best thing to give someone to introduce them to Colin Baker's Doctor is one of the Big Finish audios.


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