Doctor Who #641: Vengeance on Varos Part 2

"An excellent scenario. Not mad about the part."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Jan.26 1985.

The Doctor helps the Governor change Varosian society by foiling Sil's corporate poaching.

REVIEW: We've had the set-up, now for the bulk of the plot. I'd like to start with a debunking of the famous acid bath scene. This has long been held as an example to condemn the era, and this Doctor, for excessive violence, and the way it's usually referred to is "the scene in which the Doctor pushes a guard into a vat of acid and quips about it". Now, it's true he makes a Bondian quip ("You'll forgive me if I don't join you"), and it won't be his last, but everything leading up to that is a struggle in self-defense, and in fact, a guard who fell accidentally in the vat pulling the other down into it. They're their own victims. The Doctor even has the decency to make a horrified face. Later, the Doctor stops Jondar from summarily shooting the guard Maldak, and ends up changing Varosian society for the better. A crucial moment is when he tries to disguise himself by putting on one of Quillam's masks and comes face to face with the deranged, disfigured scientist. For a moment, he thinks he's seen his reflection, and then notices the gun. The Doctor DOES use a gun in this, but to blow up equipment. So reports of his callousness and violence have been greatly exaggerated. We'll always have The Two Doctors though...

I also find myself liking the Governor's story. As we head further into the 80s, we move away from Cold War stories and towards corporate misdeeds as the great evil. The Governor is a weak puppet, a figurehead disrespected by the people and senior civil servants, and manipulated - I should say scammed - by Sil's mining consortium. Martin Jarvis manages to make the Governor smarter and nobler than the role would seem to call for, his every scene a game of good cop/horrible cop, and it's a nice moment when he manages to turn Maldak to his cause, not by appealing to the guard's self-serving impulses (this fails), but by speaking of the greater good of Varos. He's definitely the man to change the status quo, though his people, amusingly, don't know what to do with their new-found freedom not just from the regime, but from an omnipresent television. (The Max Headroom TV movie was shot that same year, so there was definitely something in the air.) The metatextual elements are fun beyond the two audience characters bickering over the remote too. If the execution room looks like a studio, it's because it is, and not surprisingly, the hanging is a fake. The Doctor makes several references to "roles" and doesn't take it too seriously, the bit about the guy who probably gets all the priest parts a better joke than the terrible "needs more than water, Peri, eh?" pun, which I think might have worked if Peri had acknowledged it somehow. It goes right over her head, bless.

While my review is quite positive, there are some major flaws I simply can't ignore, mostly in the form of the dreaded deus ex machina. Peri being turned into a bird - and I know it's an absurd idea from the first - is quickly reversed by shooting a console. An Invasion from Sil's people simply evaporates with a message sent about Zeiton-7 being found elsewhere AND another asking Sil to give the Varosians whatever they want. So is Zeiton-7 MORE or LESS valuable than before? It somewhat deflates the Doctor's revelation of Zeiton's true value if it was going to happen anyway. And while structurally, there's less of that "one trap after another" feeling to Part 2, we still have to suffer through hallucinations, cannibals in diapers, and poisonous vines, amounting to the weakest sequence in the serial.

VERSIONS: There's a Target novelization, of course, but I don't know of any significant change from the broadcast story. The deleted scenes on the DVD include one where Jondal tells the story of how he discovered the 1% lived in luxury.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Varos' sadism is tempered by satisfying metatextual elements and the innate decency of both the Doctor and the Governor, and when was the last time the Doctor was allowed to WIN as much as this? It's dark and violent, but not, like so much of Saward's era, nihilistic.

STORY REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - VoV deserves its place as "the one Sixth Doctor story you can show your friends". Its premise is still relevant, and it achieves much despite its structural laziness.


Anonymous said...

"The one Sixth Doctor story you can show your friends" - I like that. Though if possible I'd edit out the "You even burned dinner last night" scene, which I find atrocious.

I actually find 23 a big improvement over 22. Curious to see what you think of it coming up.


Siskoid said...

Spoilers: I like where Colin and Nicola take their character dynamic, but I despise the Trial stuff.

We'll see if my opinion survives the pilgrimage.

John Nor said...

It's significant that this was one of the earliest Region 2 DVD releases (2001), as it seems they released what they regarded as some of the best of Doctor Who to begin the range.

This also meant that a 2012 Special Edition could be released - and there was a curious echo of the "voting" of the story, with 2entertain asking fans to campaign for this new edition.

Siskoid said...

I'll be going through the Special Ed. during the week, with a review in This Week in Geek not this Sunday but Sunday next.

Anonymous said...

That's OK, you skewered "Mawdryn Undead" and I'm still hanging with you. :-)

Unknown said...

you think we would have learned from this episode the way Reality TV, and big corporations would corrupt society. At least we don't have executions broadcast...yet.


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