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Doctor Who: Vengeance on Varos (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Vengeance on Varos originally aired in 1985.

It’s a question of re-imprinting their identities, of establishing again who they are.

– Colin Baker spots the problems with the Colin Baker era

Vengeance on Varos is a serious contender for the best Colin Baker Doctor Who story. Not that there’s too much competition. It’s either this or Revelation of the Daleks. I’m also reasonably fond of The Two Doctors, but I’ll accept that I’m in the minority on that one. Colin Baker’s first season is an absolute mess. It has a scattering of half-decent ideas (paired with some atrocious ones, to be fair) executed in a rather slapdash manner.

The season is obsessed with violence and politics and power and the Doctor’s strange ability to accrue large body counts while nominally remaining a pacifist. Like the last year of Peter Davison’s tenure, there’s a sense that the show doesn’t really like its protagonist. Attack of the Cybermen seems willing to trade him for a murderous sociopath. Still, there’s the nugget of an interesting idea there; it’s telling that the revived series would explore some of these ideas in a more insightful and intelligent manner.

However, Vengeance on Varos and Revelation of the Daleks stand apart from the rest of the season because they explore these issues with nuance and sophistication. Vengeance on Varos is wicked social satire that still stings today, an indictment of reality television that was broadcast almost two decades before the format took over television.

It's okay, the audience seems to actually like this one...

It’s okay, the audience seems to actually like this one…

Indeed, Vengeance on Varos almost seems like a prequel to Russell T. Davies’ Bad Wolf, the first part of Davies’ first season finalé that was about a dystopian future Earth overrun by vicious reality television. Here, the televised cruelty is only slightly more obvious, without any of the window dressing of quiz shows or celebrity cameos. The viciousness disguised by all those pleasing trappings is on full display here, with televised torture broadcast without the veneer of a talent contest.

The Colin Baker era attracts a lot of justified criticism, but Vengeance on Varos is an example of a story that takes the general aesthetic of the era and makes it work perfectly. (Although it stars Peter Davison, I’d argue that The Caves of Androzani is another example.) And there’s enough merit here that Vengeance on Varos seems to have been something of a touchstone of the early Davies era, with the science-fiction stories of Eccleston’s sole season heavily influenced by this story.

And now, on BBC One...

And now, on BBC One…

The torture of the shirtless Ninth Doctor in Dalek, for example, evokes the torture of Jondar here – right down to the gratuitous shirtless-but-not-pantless-ness of it all. When Davies created his first batch of alien creatures for The End of the World, the Moxx of Balhoon bears a remarkable resemblance to Sil – a brightly coloured short barely-mobile alien with political power. Indeed, Sil’s insistent “water me!” could be seen as a direct ancestor of Cassandra’s “moisturise me!”

It helps that Vengeance on Varos has aged remarkably well, remaining surprisingly relevant. Indeed, the box art for the “special edition” DVD release of the story is sure to feature the story’s “V” stylised so that it loosely resembles the top half of the “X” logo for The X-Factor, the reality television talent competition that has been a rating rival of Doctor Who since it returned to television in 2005. Little touches reinforce this, as supporting characters deign to question the “reality” of what they’re watching. “He’s not hurt, he’s only acting,” one viewer protests, evoking various scandals about how little reality is often found in reality television.

Some bugs in the system...

Some bugs in the system…

The brutal televised torture and humiliation of people as spectacle doesn’t feel as absurd now at it might have in 1985, and while it’s hard not to think of American Idol or America’s Next Top Model while watching Vengeance on Varos, the story remains undeniably a product of its time, as most Doctor Who (and most television) inevitably is. Indeed, a lot of science-fiction, from The Running Man through to The Year of the Sex Olympics seemed to fairly accurately predict reality television by the simple process of looking at contemporary media and extrapolating the least savoury outcome.

Rooted in 1985, the episode seems informed by the moral debate about “video nasties” that was unfolding in the media at the time, and it aired between the passing of the Video Recordings Act, 1984 and the date when that law came into effect. As Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles have pointed out in About Time, the interactive television voting can’t help but evoke the then-current now-obsolete BBC Ceefax functionality. The episode was even broadcast around the same time that the House of Lords began to televise their own debates, making democracy even more accessible to people at home.

Varos' political system is quite static...

Varos’ political system is quite static…

All of this is at play here. It’s made quite clear that Varos is manufacturing video tapes to sell oversees to support its own failing economy. “We sell tapes of what happens there,” the governor explains. The governor tries to justify the decision to profit off the suffering of these people. “All the functions of the Punishment Dome are recorded as warnings to miscreants everywhere.” Sil’s eyes are lighting up at the prospect of exporting such videos and turning a tidy profit. “But they entertain as well as instruct?” he teases.

These tapes are what would be classified as “snuff” films. The term came into use some time in the early seventies, with the earliest significant usage being Ed Sanders’ The Family. Sanders reported that the Manson Family had recorded their movies, and described these grim home videos as “snuff” films. The terms was really pushed into the mainstream in the mid seventies when Allan Shackleton attempted to market Slaughter, a dodgy horror from Argentina, by rebranding it Snuff and playing up the mystery surrounding it. (He even created a fictional public interest group – “Citizens for Decency” – to campaign against it.)

Or you could, you know, read a good book instead...

Or you could, you know, read a good book instead…

“Snuff” films are an incredibly popular piece of urban mythology, to the point where there was even a big-budget high-profile Nicolas-Cage-starring Joel-Schumacher-directed thriller released on the subject with 8mm in 1999. Thanks in large part to Shackleton’s marketing effort for Snuff, most stories suggest that these sorts of tapes are smuggled in from abroad. “The film that could only be made in South America… where life is CHEAP,” Shackleton’s publicity boasted, and the use of Varos here evokes some foreign banana republic that sustains its economy by smuggling video nasties to “nicer” parts of the universe.

Vengeance on Varos is very much an episode about television, and not just because it happens to feature television. The adventure features what might be the best cliffhanger of the classic series (or the entire franchise), as the governor winds up directing the episode that he is appearing in. “And cut it… now.” It’s a very clever piece of writing, and it’s wonderfully directed, calling attention to the fact that this is a violent piece of television about violence on television.

This might just be the best illustration of how the show felt in the Colin Baker years...

This might just be the best illustration of how the show felt in the Colin Baker years…

That idea is reinforced by the fact that so many of Varos’ torture devices are illusions and dodgy special effects – characters seeing things that aren’t really there, or being tricked into believing in something that isn’t real. Quillam’s evil torture devices serve to take images and make them real. “It focuses on the seeds of fear in your mind and makes them grow until you, your body, your face, your entire being, transforms into the image in your mind,” he brags, reinforcing the idea that Vengeance on Varos is a show about the intersection of heightened televisual reality and the real world.

In a way, Vengeance in Varos sees Doctor Who engaging with one of the most humbling criticisms in the history of the show. When Mary Whitehouse had decried the Hinchcliffe and Holmes era of Doctor Who as “tea-time brutality for tots”, she managed to effectively hobble the show. Almost immediately, anything dark or suggestive or potentially unnerving was ushered off the cardboard sets, and replaced with a newer and softer version of Doctor Who.

Green politicians don't last long on Varos...

Green politicians don’t last long on Varos…

Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that renewed fascination with depravity and violence during Peter Davison’s final season and Colin Baker’s first year is a direct result of Whitehouse’s campaign. Behind the scenes forces, led by Eric Saward, seemed to be actively rebelling against the bright and cheerful mood the BBC enforced when they fired Hinchcliffe and hired Graham Williams as his successor.

The decision to have the Cybermen crush Lytton’s hands in Attack of the Cybermen, or the brutality of Revelation of the Daleks seems like a counter-reaction, a defiant attempt to re-establish that Doctor Who could do horror and violence, but without understanding the nuance of televised horror. What had been unsettling and uncertain suddenly became gaudy and grotesque. Instead of necessary, the brutality became nihilistic.

A strapping (and strapped) young lad...

A strapping (and strapped) young lad…

Re-watching this era of the show, I can’t help but get a sense that this reaction was a massive part of what killed classic Doctor Who, making it harder for casual fans and family to watch and enjoy the show. It seemed like the show favoured violence and brutality simply because the production team felt like they could get away with it. This leads to several uncomfortable undercurrents throughout this season, including the recurring torture and physical alteration of Peri, which happens here, and the sense that the Doctor is a bit crap.

However, what makes Vengeance on Varos work is the willingness with which it engages with all of these issues. It’s a story featuring violence and torture and depravity, but it’s perfectly willing to discuss those things. In presenting a society built entirely around violence and torture (real and psychological), Vengeance on Varos mounts a convincing defence of those classic Doctor Who stories.

Caught on camera...

Caught on camera…

Their brutality was of a completely different sort from the violence depicted in Vengeance on Varos, just as the use of the violence by the story is distinct from the use of violence in the story. The government of Varos uses empty violence as a means of placating the populace, offering them bread and circuses. Vengeance on Varos, and Doctor Who as a whole, uses this violence as a means to spark debate and to engage with bigger ideas.

While this is great for Vengeance on Varos and as retroactive vindication of the Hinchcliffe and Holmes era, it inadvertently serves as a fairly cutting criticism of many of the stories surrounding it. While the violence in Vengeance on Varos is in the service of bigger ideas and concepts, can the same truly be said of Attack of the Cybermen or Timelash? Vengeance on Varos condemns the repackaging of violence-for-the-sake-of-violence as entertainment, while those stories often feel like violence-in-Doctor-Who-for-the-sake-of-violence-in-Doctor-Who.

Sil crazy, after all these years...

Sil crazy, after all these years…

While Vengeance on Varos flirts with the same sort of grim nihilism that has taken in root in this part of the show’s history, it is at least thoughtful. The dystopia on Varos isn’t presented as the result of a single evil influence. Yes, Sil’s stranglehold on the local economy doesn’t help matters, but Vengeance on Varos is quite explicit about how the inhabitants of Varos are just as complicit in this moral decay.

When the sinister Quillam, with his Phantom of the Opera mask, looms over the beautiful Areta in the episode’s weakest subplot, he insists that the horror of Varos is reinforced by its inhabitants on some primal level. When Areta insists that she has nothing but hatred for him, Quillam replies, “Ah, but hatred of yourself as well. We all have some parts of our mind that we consider unworthy, some memory that makes us shudder and squirm.” His device externalises that insecurity and weakness.

Scarred tissue...

Scarred tissue…

The governor is portrayed as a flawed but noble individual, trapped within the confines of a system that restrict his ability to alter the status quo in any meaningful way. He is nowhere near the decent man that he could be. “And I thought you were a bit better than these other brutes,” Peri remarks at one point, earning only an apology in response. He’s a victim of a flawed system, a grotesque exaggeration of democracy, where his need for public approval to ensure his political and literal survival impedes his ability to be anything more than “a transient governor in the twilight of his reign.”

Here, Vengeance on Varos is making an interesting and daring point, one riffing off Winston Churchill’s rather infamous line about how democracy is the worst form of government; apart from all the other ones. The need of democratically-elected politicians to rely on constant democratic approval impedes their capacity to influence society for the better, because entrenched interests will always fear change, and manipulate the public to feel the same way.

Is the Baker era really DOA?

Is the Baker era really DOA?

As a result, the system doesn’t work as well as it has to. Indeed, it has the effect of restricting the actions that will be taken by any elected official who needs to win the next election. The theory is sound – there’s no more philosophically sound form of government than democracy. However, in practise, it is quite flawed. “The theory being that a man scared for his life will find solutions to this planet’s problems, except the poor unfortunate will discover there are no popular solutions to the difficulties he will find waiting for him here,” the governor explains.

Vengeance on Varos is quite explicit about just how culpable everybody is in this system. Jondar is being captured and tortured for discovering that class structure still exists in the democratic Varos, with the descendants of the original officers all holding high office on the failed prison colony. And yet, despite this corruption, the inhabitants of Varos have the ability to change things, but steadfastly refuse to do so. “We sell ourselves cheaply for nothing to such as Sil and his like,” the governor accuses. “I see my words mean nothing, that you all wish the harsh system of Varos to continue.”

Get your votes in now!

Still more exciting than Big Brother…

Cannibalism is a recurring image in this season, and it’s used as an effective metaphor for internal class conflict – people eating one another, reverting to savages rather than trying to figure out a better solution to their problems. In Revelation of the Daleks, for example, Davros stumbles across an easy solution to galactic hunger – simply feed the dead to the living; perpetuating a broken system rather than trying to find a new system that works.

Here, the Doctor and Jondar stumble across feral people in the overgrown corridors. “What do they want?” Jondar asks. “Why do they want us?” The Doctor replies, “I noticed a pile of bones back there. I think we were on their dinner menu.” It’s a very small touch in the episode, but it plays into the large themes – the idea of how society will corrupt and degrade itself in order to stay afloat, how cheap human life is, and how complicit individuals are in that corruption and degradation. It’s easy to blame large governments and bureaucracies for problems, but there is an element of complicity involved.

Candid camera...

Candid camera…

Vengeance on Varos ends on a rather bleak and grim final sequence, with two inhabitants of Varos struggling with their new-found freedom. As the early years of the 21st century taught us, installing democracy is never as simple as deposing a dictator and overthrowing a corrupt system. “What shall we do?” Arak asks as the television goes silent for the first time. “Dunno,” Etta responds.

That final scene makes it clear that the problems on Varos will not be solved immediately, and hints at the idea that the Doctor has just skipped out after doing the easy stuff. “I think we’ll leave the Varosians to work out their own idea of justice, Peri,” the Doctor insists, which seems like a rather questionable idea given how Vengeance on Varos has spent an hour-and-a-half condemning the Varosian “idea of justice.” The notion that the Doctor is somewhat careless or indifferent to the consequences of his actions is a clever idea – an idea the show touched on in The Face of Evil and that Davies would revisit in Bad Wolf.

Hair today...

Hair today…

That said, Vengeance on Varos isn’t quite perfect. The subplot involved the transformation of Peri into some strange creature is a bit creepy, even in context. Peri is a companion who is defined by the way that Doctor Who objectifies her. She’s bullied and brutalised and transformed and ogled repeatedly in this season, lending the whole stretch of episodes a decidedly uncomfortable subtext. Peri doesn’t seem to exist as a character, but rather an object to be coveted or transformed or imperilled.

Quillam even has a creepy Phantom of the Opera mask, underscoring the creepy sexual subtext to this victimisation of beautiful young women. This is the one point where Vengeance on Varos seems to be playing into the weaknesses of the Colin Baker era, rather than exploring them, justifying them or critiquing them. Even the best scripts of the Colin Baker era struggle with how to make Peri work as a character, rather than treating her as a living probe in the most unsettling and creepy manner possible.

They didn't handle her Peri well, if you ask me...

They didn’t handle her Peri well, if you ask me…

On the other hand, Baker’s Doctor works reasonably well here. There’s the infamous acid bath scene, where the Doctor wrestles with a goon before another goon conveniently pulls the Doctor’s opponent into an acid bath. The Doctor then offers a wry post-mortem one-liner, like a cut-rate James Bond. It’s not a scene that makes the Doctor look especially heroic, but Colin Baker’s Doctor never really seemed especially heroic.

While the show never seemed to quite pull it off, there’s a suggestion that the Sixth Doctor was always meant to be the “flawed” incarnation of the character. The problem was that the writing team had no idea how to do “flawed” without wandering into “sociopath.” Episodes like The Twin Dilemma and Attack of the Cybermen make it very tough to like the Doctor, treating him as a malicious and incompetent buffoon.

He really lights up the screen...

He really lights up the screen…

In contrast, Vengeance on Varos hints on the idea that he’s far from perfect, but he’s still able to affect real change on Varos. The Doctors swans off at the end, like he always does, but he has at least helped secure the possibility of peace. That one-liner is an uncomfortable moment, but it feels like it might have been intended as “a bit edgy.” Since it’s the rare example of the Sixth Doctor doing “a bit edgy” that doesn’t liken his dynamic with Peri to an abusive relationship, or make him seem completely ineffectual, it works surprisingly well.

Vengeance on Varos isn’t perfect, but it’s intelligent, thoughtful and well-constructed. It stands out as a highlight of the era, and holds up a lot better than most of the surrounding stories. It’s an example, perhaps, of what the Colin Baker era might have been – it only serves to make the actual Colin Baker era all the more disappointing.

 

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