Vengeance on Varos [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  But lately I decided to spend both some of my 50th birthday spending money and my Christmas spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters.

(Daily Doctor Who #344)

Vengeance on Varos

Starring Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor
Companion:  Nicole Bryant as Peri Brown.
Written by Philip Martin.  Directed by Ron Jones. Script edited by Eric Saward. Produced by John Nathan-Turner.

Format:  2 episodes, each about 45 minutes long
Originally Aired:  January 1985 (Episodes 3-4 of Season 22)

It’s possible I’ve never seen Vengeance on Varos before, at least not the whole thing. The classic Doctor Who viewing of my youth was not based on anything bingeable like DVD’s or streaming services, but rather on things like my ability to catch things being aired by my local PBS station. I have some vague memories of this story, but very little that is solid, aside from the very ending. I do remember, though, that introduces Sil to the Doctor Who universe, one of the more repulsive additions that the show has ever made. It also guest stars Jason Connery (Sean’s son), who went on to star in Robin of Sherwood, a show I used to be a big fan of.

Spoilers Ahead!

Vengeance on Varos just might be the best Sixth Doctor story on TV. I haven’t rewatched them all yet so I can’t fully back-up that statement, but at a watch it’s got a lot of good elements. Foremost amongst them is the dystopian concept that it builds its story around. I’ve written just recently about how it’s actually my favorite attempt at the idea of a dystopian society in Doctor Who, with Varos being presented as a place that has basically sold itself to the need for lurid reality-based entertainment–sort of the equivalent of gladiatorial battles but aired on TV. Or something like The Hunger Games. Or to a certain degree, like the modern-day concept of reality TV.

But it’s not just the rebels and the dissidents who are the victims of this–it’s the government leaders themselves. If a ruler makes an unpopular decision, the population gets to vote against them, inflicting terrible torture that they may or may not survive. And so the government must continually find ways to make the people happy, which means a steady diet of televised torture and death. And so the cycle continues…

Giving us our best glimpse into this mindset are the characters Arak and Etta, who play no role in the plot but to help us understand what lie is like in this society. They never interact with anyone else except through the television screen and through their votes. But through them we come to understand how tedious life is on Thoros Beta, and also how fragile the peace is. Indeed, Etta and Arak seem ready to turn on each other at a moment’s notice if it’s necessary, making it abundantly clear that this is a police state, albeit one largely regulated by its own citizenry. It’s fitting that the story ends with them, wondering what to do now that their situation has changed.

The guest cast obviously includes Jason Connery, as I’ve mentioned, but the more interesting characters are the ones played by Nabil Shaban and Martin Jarvis. Jarvis is the governor, a surprisingly sympathetic figure given that he is fully complicit in all the horrible things that go on on his world, ordering people’s torture and death and the like. But we can also see he is someone trapped in his world’s system, with no easy way out. In spite of his flaws he genuinely cares for the well-being of his world, and for that it’s possible to admire him, in spite of his flaws. Jarvis gives a dignified performance which supports these different layers.

Nabil Shaban, on the other hand, brings the alien Sil to life, a creature who would reappear a few years later. Sil, who is a the Mentor of Thoros Beta, is one of the most revolting life forms the show has ever introduced–a slimy and unpleasant toad (metaphorically) who is sadistically cruel and overwhelming selfish.

It’s like Doctor Who‘s own version of Star Trek’s Ferengi if the Ferengi were much more vicious and much more disgusting. Shaban certainly cuts a memorable figure with Sil, both through his enthusiastic performance and the character’s visual design and and it’s no surprise the show wanted him back (and that Colin Baker has been so openly supportive of the villain).

In spite of these positive comments there are a flaws with Vengeance on Varos, many of which are just problems common to the show in this era. Chief amongst these is the belief that the writers seemed to have that it was really entertaining to listen to the Doctor and Peri bicker. This is simply not the case–in general its tiresome and annoying. Like many Colin Baker stories, Vengeance on Varos takes a lot of time setting up its concepts (scenes on Varos in this case), cross-cut with barely relevant sequences on our lead actors sniping at each other while the TARDIS sloooooowly makes its way to the action. It’s about halfway through the first episode (of two) that the Doctor and Peri finally get to Varos. From there the pacing picks up considerably and the story is a lot more enjoyable, but there’s no reason that things had to be structured that way.

Another criticism which gets frequently leveled against is regarding its level of violence, which is not without warrant. In addition to being largely about torture, it features the Doctor being a bit more violent than usual. He does not, as has occasionally been asserted, deliberately push a couple of guards into an acid bath, but he does have a flippant response to it. And he does in fact deliberately lead several enemies into a death-trap involving some poisonous plants, which again he does not seem particularly phased by. This more casual approach to using lethal force does not do the character any favors.

Still, I quite enjoyed Vengeance on Varos. There are maybe a few too many concepts thrown about for its own good–Peri being turned into a bird is pretty random, and suddenly there are cannibals in the tunnels?

But ultimately it makes good use of its main ideas and pulls them together into a fairly successful narrative.

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