Colin Baker says this was his favourite story out of anything he did on the series. One can easilly see why.
Although there is a school of thought in fandomn that claims that this one "isn't all that it's cracked up to be" - I'm not one of those fans. This, in my mind at least, is a classic. In my top ten faves. Possibly even my top five!
Where does one start with the praise? I'll take my usual route: the script. Phillip Martin makes possibly the most stunning first submission the series has ever seen. It's a great story on multiple levels. First, it's makes a great social comment, of course. Like "The Sunmakers" before it, or "Happiness Patrol" in years to follow, the script focusses greatly on creating an entire society for us to look at as well as a storyline to follow. And like the other stories I just compared it to - there's some allegory at play in this presentation. So, not only do we get a very creative script that puts together an entire self-contained society - but we also get some somewhat scathing underlying symbolism. Nicely enough, Martin's symbolism doesn't totally have to bite you on the ass, though.
The other great aspect to his script is the actual action of the story. The best example of this is the later half of the first part. From the landing of the TARDIS on Varos to the cliffhanger - we are treated to one of the best roller-coaster rides the series has ever offered. The assailing of trap-after-trap in the Punishment Dome is not just good fun to watch, it's highly imaginitive. It almost seems as though Martin is aware that the story will probably have only so much budget to realise his vision so instead of having the crew build elaborate sets and props to execute his traps - he comes up with more novel ideas like the purple zone. A trap that is not only creative in the fact that it is more a "trick of the eyes" than a legitimate physical trap - but also creative because it required little more than a post-production effect and a bit of purple lighting. Brilliant stuff, really. Even more brilliant that Martin knew when to settle down with the chase through the dome and focus on the political intrigue of the story. Which is as entralling to watch as the action sequences.
But, that still wasn't quite enough for this script. No, Martin also has to give us one of the most unique plot devices "Who" has ever seen. We get our very own "Greek Chorus" thrown into the mix with the characters of Arak and Etta watching the whole adventure on their T.V. screen. This is a magnificient touch. And their inclusion in the story is one of the vital elements, in my opinion, that propels this story from "fun little runaround" to "classic". Their introduction into the story is delightfully stylistic as the image of the tortured Jondar cuts to the screen on their livingroom T.V. They also have one of my favourite lines in the whole story: "I like that one! The one in the funny clothes". The two actors portraying them do a magnificient job - giving us a real Holmesian double-act even though the great Robert didn't write this one!
Which leads us into another strong point: the acting. Aside from our two slightly wooden rebels, (who weren't really even all that wooden) - the actors in this piece do a thoroughly magnificient job. Of special note: Nabil Shaban as Sil. No one has ever played an alien with such relish and gusto as he has. In both his appearances on the show, really. But he makes the most remarkable first impression in Varos. I'm not sure what Phillip Martin's plans were for the character after this story - but Shaban can be given just as much credit as the writer for "earning" Sil's second appearance. I'm not sure if the Shaban is still around, but if there's any multiple appearance character from the old series that I would love to see come back for the new series - it would be Sil. He's great fun to watch.
Also of noteworthy mention was Martin Jarvis' excellent portrayal of The Governor. A troubled man, torn between trying to make some positive changes in his society and remaining popular enough with the people to stay alive. His speech to Maldak as he's submitted to the green light of the cellular disentegrator is an excellent moment that really gets us to see the underlying passion of this character. Yes, he's horribly cold and callous too. But, in the end, his true colours shine through. And, again, this is displayed by a gorgeous marriage between the words of the script and they way they are spoken by the actor.
While we're at it, though, let's also heap some praise on the great Colin Baker himself. The performance he turns in for this tale is one of his best. One can see his love for the script in how well-crafted his acting skills are in it. And though there is still the slighest insinuation at the beginning of the show that he's still a bit shaky from the regeneration, all of the sixth Doctor's traits are in strong evidence here. He's great oratical skills are displayed from the gallows as he rails against the Gallatron mining corporation. His first meeting with Quillam shows off his very poignant "cosmic jester" personae. And just the general delivery of his very rich, almost didactive style of dialogue is displayed in great abundance. He's arrogant and righteous one moment, compassionate the next, clever and deceitful the moment after that. And Colin gets all these very "topsy turvy" emotions to blend together seamlessly in one coherent characterisation. He does this in every story he was in, of course, but he's at his absolute best here. Even a simple line like: "Peri this is no time for casual conversation" is executed with a great delivery. Watch that bit - you'll see what I mean!
The third pivotal element that makes the story a classic is its design. One of the greatest challenges I think the show always faces is getting each planet to look different from the last. This must be done by some sometimes outlandish-looking set design. Vengeance On Varos comes just to the edge of outlandish in the way the sets look, but it never quite totally crosses the line into absurdity. So that we really get a cool-looking architecture going on. Even those two little moving spotlights they set up in the background all over the place add just the neatest little effect to the whole proceedings. Not to mention the wierd, slated doors and the mottled brown colour scheme. It's the perfect distinctive touch to a very distinctive story.
Do I have any complaints? They're minimal, at best, so I can't even be bothered to mention them. I will bother to mention however, that some of the complaints levelled at this story by some segments of fandomn seem generally unfounded to me.
Although other people have found this tale to be too violent and almost a contridaction to its message because of said violence, it doesn't come across that way to me. Martin understood that he still had to tell an adventure story whilst making the comments he made and he struck a beautiful fine line between adventure and gratuitous violence.
This story also has several elements to it that make it very reminiscient of other stories in this season. It's dark and somewhat macabre - like Revelation of the Daleks and The Two Doctors. The Doctor also goes a little anti-hero in places. And, it's a good long time before he actually gets involved with the story proper. But these elements, and others, were all things that I actually enjoyed greatly about Season Twenty-Two. I know I'm pretty alone in those sentiments and that many of you feel this season strayed too far from the Doctor Who formulae. But that's exactly what I like about this season. It tried something bold and different.
And at the very epicenter of all that boldness lies Vengeance On Varos. A great story that embraces a very unique approach to a T.V. show that could've very easilly rested on its 22-year-old laurels rather than explore new ground. But not only does it do some bold experimentation, it also does a wonderful job of telling us the most exciting of tales about a troubled penal colony in the Earth's future.
As far as I'm concerned, you can hold this baby up to any of Tom Baker's best stories and I think it shines with them quite nicely. In some cases, even better. For instance, I'll take this story over "Genesis of the Daleks" any day.
How's that for "fighting words"?
When I watch this story I feel I am watching the very best Doctor Who has to offer, a textured, well paced and intelligent piece, peppered with shockingly good dialogue, boosted by outstanding performances and some damn convincing production values. It’s completely unique, unlike anything that has come before or will come after. I love it because it ignores every rule of Doctor Who and forges its own identity in the maligned season twenty-two, shining bright compared to real generic run-arounds like Attack of the Cybermen and Mark of the Rani.
What is frightening is that this is a terrifying window into the future, the way things are going we will have a punishment dome up and running by the end of the decade. Did you see the pictures of the Iraqi’s being tortured splattered all over the front pages of the papers? I know people like the repulsive Sil who were delighting in the savagery of those being abused because of all the troubled politics over the past few years. I mean how sick is that? Admiring the broadcasted images of people being dragged around the floor like dogs…Vengeance on Varos captures that feeling of a society out of control superbly. I will never listen to Sil’s excited laugh when he is watching the Doctor dehydrate in the same way again.
Plus what with society’s obsession with fly on the wall shows the cameras are EVERYWHERE just as they are in this story. The limit of what I can stand is How Clean is Your House…sending in the cameras into people’s homes who live in pure filth and exposing them…its just sick isn’t it and hardly what I would call entertainment. How long before we have a public lavatory expose so we can see what people get up to in them? Or a glimpse into life of an electric chair operator? Considering what real life crap we put on the telly the torture in Vengeance on Varos seems relatively tame! My point is how long before we are totally monitored like the people on this planet, forced to endure life or death trials before the salivating crowds? I’m sure it would be a ratings winner.
Doctor Who is supposed to be a teatime treat for kiddies but Vengeance subverts that valuable role with glee, pumping for something a bit more intelligent for adults to get their teeth into. The first ten minutes are shockingly slow, the Doctor only getting a token scene and the story far more concerned with setting up Varos. But these early moments are some of the best, for once creating a society that we can believe in, bored, witless workers slumped in front of their screens, a governor desperately trying to make the books balance and a capitalist presence sucking the life out of the planet. The opening shot in the punishment, the camera swooping down on Jondar chained to the wall, a camera greedily recording his torture is one of the best opening scenes to any Doctor Who story. In these early scenes there is no attempt to sensationalise the material, Arak and Etta are totally uncharismatic, the Governor is trapped in an impossible situation and shown on the brink of a nervous collapse. Its mature stuff for a show that was exploding Cybermen like fireworks just one story earlier.
But it goes even further than that. Rarely was the Doctor as sulky and violent as he is in this story, apparently as pacifistic as the pope in every single story before this one (which I refute) which has led to a gang of sixth Doctor haters who feel his emotional characteristics go against the core of the character. To be perfectly frank this violent shake up was NEEDED, as ‘popular’ as Peter Davison’s portrayal of the fifth Doctor was (I refute that too) after three years of being terribly nice to everybody it was a joy to have the Doctor rubbing people up the wrong way again. Yes the sixth Doctor is undeniably flawed, just like you and me he is sensitive and passionate and oh yes, he wants stay alive too so he is sometimes called upon to jump into action to make sure that he achieves that. He gives up when the situation seems impossible (the TARDIS malfunctioning) and gives rousing speeches when there is a society to whip into shape. And I refuse to believe that he achieves nothing in the story, he saves Jondar’s life, Areta and Peri’s too later on, if he hadn’t proved to the Governor there was somebody else who wanted to fight the system he might not have convinced Maldak to save his life. Oh and he helps to kill the Chief and Quillam, two of the most repulsive creatures he has ever met. In every way the Doctor is responsible for the uprising on Varos, Sil’s pathetic attempt is just a side issue compared to troubles the planet is having.
I don’t think the story ever oversteps the mark in its portrayal of media controlled violence. There are distressing scenes, the Doctor gasping for breath in a fake desert, the acid bath sequence with the guy yanking his friend inside with blood and ooze dribbling down his face…but if you’re going to make a programme that deals with a serious issue you have to show what you’re exposing, in many ways Vengeance on Varos is as bad those voyeuristic papers, similarly condemning the material and revelling in it. Maybe I am naïve but I can accept one as entertainment and can be sickened by another because it is real life but that’s my prerogative. I love how the story refuses to take the easy way out and suggest that everything is peaches and roses at the end, the violence has subsided yes but the ambiguous final scene that sees Arak and Etta staring at their blank screens with no idea what to do now that the threat of death has gone brilliantly makes the point that there are no simple solutions. It is the sort of intelligent reasoning the story deploys throughout.
Lots of lovely touches remind us of our own media controlled society. The much-celebrated cliffhanger that sees the Doctor ‘dying’ in a cliffhanger on the Varosian screens cleverly mocks all those melodramatic Doctor cliffhangers that I am certain directors’ were just as careful to cut off at the right point for optimum suspense. Dialogue such as “We’ve received very good punch-in appreciation figures” and “I’m certain the video of his death will sell” prove it is all about the money. And who can see themselves in Arak and Etta? Moaning about repeats, sitting on the edge of their seats, commenting on inconsistencies, who they like and whinging about government officials for their poor decisions…Geez it could be Simon and I!
If Vengeance on Varos was just politics and parodies it would get dull very quickly so it’s also an archetypal runaround with lots of running, shooting, escaping and getting captured again. It even works on this level because the story is filmed with a real sense of energy and style; the lighting is appropriately moody to increase the tension, the traps are fairly ingenious (love the giant fly…brrr) and rarely have a heard a musical score so in tune with its material (it is playfully surreal in places which makes you feel even more uncomfortable watching). Plus it helps that Jason Connery is flashing a hairy chest for half an episode, very nice.
What is especially astonishing is how well the story uses Peri. I do mind at all that it takes her and the Doctor half the first episode to arrive because at this point we are still getting used to this unusual couple and their domestic bliss (I think not) still makes for engaging viewing. She is the Doctor’s rock, trying to lift his spirits, making helpful suggestions, sticking to his side whilst they dash about the prison trying to reassure their new allies. Peri is so underrated as a companion; she stands up to Sil, the Governor and the Chief in an interrogation scene heavy with great performances and later she shares a moment of disquiet intimacy with the Governor that is dramatic gold. So, so underrated…
Nabil Shaban and Martin Jarvis deserve to be commended for their superb performances as Sil and the Governor, two very difficult roles to play and yet they carry their scenes with total conviction. Sil is so loathsome you have to love him; his gurgling laugh and excitable tail add an extra dimension of alieness to this funny creature and his hard on for torture, both men and women gives him a perverse edge. By the time he had reached the end of his first scene he had already earned a second appearance. The Governor remains sympathetic throughout, no matter what instructions he is ordering Jarvis plays the role with a resigned disgust that never lets you forget he is trapped inside a job he loathes.
And the icing on the cake is Colin Baker’s star turn as the Doctor already giving the quality of performance it took some Doctor’s (McCoy, Davison, Troughton) a season to master. When he promises a better future for the Varosians from the scaffold you listen, such is the intensity of his words. He leads his little band of rebels through the punishment dome with supreme confidence, I love it when he guides them through the flytrap, absolute conviction sees him through. He just glitters on screen, a blur of emotions and impossible to take your eyes away from. I love him, rigged lasers and all. I’d do the same thing in the acid bath sequences.
Quality of a sort I am not used in the JNT era, this beacon of a story inspires fascinating debate and that might be its biggest strength yet. Even today people are still talking about its message, be it condemning or praising it. It makes people think and for that alone I cannot praise it highly enough.
After the dire 'Attack of the Cybermen', Colin Baker's first full season starts to look up with 'Vengeance on Varos', an intriguing story with generally very high production values and acting. It is often remembered for being grim and gritty, and not unfairly; 'Vengeance on Varos' is a dark story, set on a planet were executions are rife and torture is used as a form of entertainment to keep the population in its place by the corrupt government. And therein lies its enduring appeal…
'Vengeance on Varos' has often been touted as a commentary on "video nasties". If this is true, writer Philip Martin's intention was presumably to demonstrate that watching violence for entertainment is bad because it leads to an acceptance of violence, or possibly to simply make the audience question its own enjoyment of such violence were relevant. However, 'Vengeance on Varos' has never really worked for me in this respect, as it is itself so dark and (by the standards of Doctor Who) violent; the notorious acid bath scene is fairly gruesome, as are the cannibals (in principle if not execution) and the Doctor's dispatch of the Chief Officer and Quillam. But from a twenty-first century perspective, 'Vengeance on Varos' works on a whole new level; the proliferation of "reality TV", a tedious format aimed at the lowest common denominator in the audience and represented by such unimaginative and cheap dross as Big Brother and Survivor, casts the population of Varos in a whole new light. Arak and Etta are obsessed with watching the victims of the Punishment Dome as they struggle through a series of ordeals, in the hope of escaping via the safe exit. Mainly this is because the Varosians are legally required to watch the continuous broadcasts provided by their government whether they like it or not, with death the punishment for failing to do so, but it is amusingly relevant that they have to watch reality TV because there is nothing else on. Equally interesting is the voting system; allegedly, a recent poll showed that the number of young people who voted for a Big Brother final was greater than the number who voted in the general election. This may not be true, but it is alarmingly easy to believe, and the depiction of a society in 'Vengeance on Varos' that is required to vote via television is thus rather amusing. As for the fact that the story depicts a corrupt government motivated entirely by capitalism that controls its population via television, make of that what you will…
Much of the success of 'Vengeance on Varos' stems from a combination of characterisation and acting. Nabil Shaban's Sil is a memorable creation for a number of reasons. For one thing, it is rare to see such an effective non-humanoid alien in Doctor Who, and for another Sil's character, which is equally as grotesque as his appearance, also makes an impression. Sil is not the first Doctor Who villain to be motivated by profit; Morgus is a recent example, but the characters are light years apart. Whereas Morgus was a ruthless businessman, Sil is a sadistic, greedy extortionist whose volatile temper and colossal ego often prove to be his undoing. His temper tantrum in Episode Two for example endangers his plans for Varos, as he releases the Governer from his obligation to accept Sil's offer for Zeiton-7 ore. Sil also fits in perfectly with the tone of the production, since he is on one hand a thoroughly repulsive and unpleasant character, but on the other he provides a certain dark comic relief due his eccentric speech patterns.
Two of the most significant characters in 'Vengeance on Varos' are Arak and Etta, superbly portrayed by Stephen Yardley and Sheila Reid. They are important because they represent the viewing public of Varos, the little people trapped beneath the yoke of power. Their bickering provides considerable entertainment, but their most important function is to illustrate the effect of living on Varos; Arak is ever-so-slightly rebellious, but too afraid of the repercussions of disobedience to actually do anything beyond complain, and on one occasion he even stops complaining when he realises that his partner is likely to report him for sedition in her viewer's report. When he does eventually act on his rebellious streak, voting twice and using somebody else's voting box in an attempt to get rid of the current Governer, Etta's furious response clearly worries him, and Yardley conveys purely through his facial expression that Arak is regretting his spur-of-the-moment action. Arak and Etta also get the final scene of the story, which is quite superb: freed from the shackles of tyranny, they suddenly realize that they have absolutely no idea what to do…
The other two main characters and performances of note are the Governor and the Chief Officer, played by Martin Jarvis and Forbes Collins respectively. The Governor is an interesting character because he is essential well meaning, but has been ground down by Varos to the point that he describes death as his only friend. Forced by the system into the position of Governor, he knows full well that it is a position that he will leave only by dying. His acceptance of the status quo is born out of an inability to change it; by the end of Episode Two, the influence of the Doctor and Peri finally gives him hope and he at last becomes able to rule without the control of the officer elite, and to demand of Sil what he considers to be a fair price for Varos' sole commodity. Jarvis brings an air of quiet dignity to the role, making the Governor likeable even from the start. In contrast, the Chief Officer is a brutal psychopath who enjoys the executions and tortures that take place on Varos and who is thoroughly corrupt, having made secret deals with Sil to maintain his own power. He is not remotely likeable, and Collins portrays this very well, with a quiet but convincingly cold performance.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is rather more variable. As young rebel Jondar Jason Connery proves that looks might run in his family but acting skills do not, and Geraldine Alexander as Areta is just as bad, both delivering their lines in a very unconvincing fashion. Owen Teale is also rather wooden as Maldak. Nicholas Chagrin hams it up as Quillam, a third-rate megalomaniac who is fairly superfluous to the plot, but the worst actor on display here is Graham Cull, who's weird performance as Bax is utterly dreadful - fortunately, the character gets little to do.
As for the regulars, both are excellent here, with Colin Baker really having found his feet in the role. At the start of the story, when the TARDIS runs out of Zeiton-7, the erratic and moody Doctor of the past two stories remains evident, sinking into a depressed sulk and rather callously telling Peri that if they are stranded for eternity, it won't be as bad for her, because she'll grow old and die. It's the kind of selfish disregard for her feelings that characterised 'The Twin Dilemma', and as such feels perfectly in character, but it also gives way as the story progresses to a far more stable, concerned characterisation, who becomes quickly appalled by the situation on Varos and sets out to change it. After blundering about in 'Attack of the Cybermen', this thus feels like the first time that the Sixth Doctor actually settles down. What is interesting however is the hard edge that remains with him; he makes a quip when two attendants fall into the acid bath, and later rigs a lethal trap to dispatch the Chief Officer and Quillam, making an intriguing contrast to the Fifth Doctor's characterisation. I don't have a problem with this, although I do object to the fact that on arriving on Varos he is responsible for the death of a guard without any idea what is going on - an uncompromising Doctor is interesting, a Doctor with an utterly reckless disregard for life is merely alarming. Nevertheless, by the end of 'Vengeance on Varos', it is worth noting that the volatile relationship between the Doctor and Peri has settled down, and he greets her with a hug at the end; they will continue to bicker, but after the traumatic treatment she received in 'The Twin Dilemma', their friendship seems to have genuinely recovered.
The production of 'Vengeance on Varos' is outstanding. The sets are superb, capturing perfectly the grim and gritty atmosphere of the story, and are, happily, appropriately lit. Ron Jones' direction is excellent, especially as the Doctor and his friends find themselves facing the various tricks and traps of the Punishment Dome. Most notably, the cliffhanger to Episode One is excellent, as events on screen nicely reflect the need for an episode ending, the Governor's "And cut it… now" a knowing wink to the series format. Jonathon Gibbs' excellent incidental score also benefits the story, perfectly capturing the mood. My only real criticism is the use of black actors to portray Sil's slaves; it is rare to see non-Caucasian actors in the series and as such their employment of slaves makes me rather uncomfortable. Fans often mention Toberman in 'The Tomb of the Cybermen', but he at least was a paid servant; here we get scantily clad muscular men in bondage gear that never speak, and I get no sense that they are serving Sil for the sake of money or loyalty. Nevertheless, despite this niggling criticism and few dodgy performances, 'Vengeance on Varos' is an impressive story that has aged very well, and for me is the first real high point of the Sixth Doctor's era.
Direction and writing in Doctor Who are two elements which rarely come together; we either get a well directed story with poor writing (Earthshock) or a well written story with bad direction, which is the case here. Vengeance on Varos is almost ruined by Ron Jones' absolutely flairless direction. A lot of people will nominate Peter Moffatt for the title of Worst Who Director, but in truth he occasionally was capable of something approaching atmosphere (State of Decay is an admittedly inconsistent example of this). Jones, on the other hand, never rises to a challenge, and he succeeds in sucking the life out of a highly interesting script, with, perhaps incredibely, some well judged edits by Eric Saward.
The most potent example of this is the first scene between Arak and Etta. Never mind that Etta looks about thirty years older than her supposed husband; the really jarring thing about this moment is how slowly it seems to pass. And it isn't anything to do with leaden dialogue- it's because Ron Jones directs the scene unadventurously, a long wide shot of the two arguing. I was sorely tempted to turn it off.
But to do so would mean missing an otherwise fantastic story. The writing, by Phillip Martin, is excellent. He manages to give almost all of the major characters a clear identity. We sympathise with the weary Governor; and we are reviled by the reptillian Sil. Equally, the issues it tackles, most prominently video nasties, are fascinating, particularly so when you look at how creatively and intellectually bereft most of it's Season 22 stablemates are. Occasionally the structure wobbles, but this is largely due to the fact that the series had changed to a slower paced 45 minute format. Is it violent? For a Doctor Who story, yes, but the furore at the time surrounding it was misjudged, as it is farely tame by today's standards. Plus, at least it is provocative, and not a dull Underworld style runaround.
And at least on the acting front, Ron Jones got something right, by casting disabled performer Nabil Shaban as Sil. The remarkable design of the character has something to do with the success of Varos and Shaban imbues him with some truly vile habits, like his hugely grating laugh. The rest of the cast is variable, as usual; Martin Jarvis is excellent, Jason Connery less so in the important role of Jondar, which would have been a hard slog for most actors anyway. Colin Baker really takes control, however, and in some respects we see him acting, rather than simply hamming it up. The scenes in which he feigns death are a case in point. From a production stance, it is competent but not visually resplendent; few stories set in an underground mining colony could be.
This is very good stuff, which could have been great had Ron Jones not been behind it. Still recommended, though.