And cut it — now!
Looking for a rare mineral to repair the TARDIS, the Doctor arrives on Varos, where political prisoners and their guards are all subjected to sadistic tortures and executions which the colony’s inhabitants view and vote on through interactive television. Accused of being alien infiltrators helping the colony’s rebel factions, the Doctor and Peri find themselves the latest unwilling subjects in this most extreme form of reality TV.
Vengeance on Varos can be considered as one of the stories that best demonstrates the violent and dark places the show was heading under the guidance of Eric Saward during Colin Baker’s era. It is undeniably a great story, focusing on reality television and showing how dictatorships cling to power, however, demonstrates sadistic violence towards individuals, as well as horrible punishments. The Doctor is not immune to this violent streak, which is the biggest problem in my opinion with this story.
The explicit violence in this story is definitely the most troubling thing, and especially worrying considering that the Doctor seems to be complicit in this. When rescuing Jondar from his punishment, the Doctor turns the laser gun on the guards, which I wasn’t particularly happy with. In some ways, the grimmer tone here is really the point, as the whole idea of the society on Varos broadcasting this footage is to keep the population in line. One of the more troubling aspects displayed here is how blasé the Greek chorus of Arak and Etta are in the opening moments of the story, with Arak even talking off-handedly about repeats. Additionally, the torture of Areta and Peri, transforming them into creatures is truly horrific, as well as featuring some of the best effects of the series. The more violent nature of this episode certainly makes the episode more memorable, especially the infamous acid bath. The Doctor may not kill the two guards tasked with destroying his body, but it is a scene that has attracted much comment. Personally, I have no problem with his offhand remark on their demise, which is a Bond-esque quip, but I can see why people aren’t keen on this aspect. A scene I find more troubling is the one towards the story’s climax, where the Doctor tempts the cannibals in the punishment zone to touch the tendrils and setting up the ambush for the Chief Officer and Quillam, a scenario where he undoubtedly knows the outcome of his actions.
You’ll forgive me if I don’t join you.
Philip Martin’s script takes a hard look at the video nasties that were prevalent in the 1980s, as well as looking at the potential future use of reality television. On occasion, this can be seen to be slightly too on the nose, especially when the Chief Officer talks about viewing figures, but by and large, this element works really well. I particularly enjoy the reaction of Arak and Etta when the Governor announces that he is shutting down the television networks. My only issue with the script is that the resolution seems to come far too quickly, and the elements seem tied up too neatly. However, the story benefits from a great central villain in the shape of Sil, played here by Nabil Shaban. Sil is a representative of the Galactic Mining Company, sent to Varos to negotiate with the Governor a price for his Zeiton-7, a valuable element also required by the Doctor to repair the TARDIS. Sil manipulates the instability caused by successive Governors being murdered to negotiate a beneficial price for his benefit, attempting to get this valuable resource at as low a price as possible. Sil must be amongst the most disgusting and sinister monsters the Doctor has ever faced, with his reptile-like behaviour and that horrendous laugh. It is a really memorable performance from Nabil Shaban which lifts the rest of the episode.
I have to say that Colin Baker is particularly good here, especially when he is so confident that he will have the opportunity to query after his execution, but I also enjoy his outrage when he sees Quillam’s experiments on Peri and Areta. I feel it is far too easy to dismiss Baker’s incarnation of the Doctor as the one in the frankly garish costume with some questionable stories under his belt. However, his attitude towards the role sees him attack even the shakiest story with enormous gusto and you can’t question his commitment to the show. With how the BBC treated him, with the initial hiatus and the frankly shocking handling of his sacking, the fact that Colin Baker remains a fantastic ambassador for the show is to his enormous credit. Anyway, back to Vengeance. I really like the performance of Martin Jarvis as the Governor, as I feel that he brings a quiet resignation to this character, who in other hands could potentially come across as a one dimensional character. The scene where he attempts to persuade Maldak into letting Peri go while being completely resigned to his own fate is another personal highlight in a strong story.
Verdict: A really strong entry for the Sixth Doctor, with my only real problem being that the Doctor indulges in violence perhaps a bit too much. 9/10
Cast: Colin Baker (The Doctor), Nicola Bryant (Peri Brown), Martin Jarvis (Governor), Nabil Shaban (Sil), Nicolas Chagrin (Quillam), Jason Connery (Jondar), Forbes Collins (Chief Officer), Stephen Yardley (Arak), Sheila Reid (Etta), Geraldine Alexander (Areta), Graham Cull (Bax), Owen Teale (Maldak), Keith Skinner (Rondel), Hugh Martin (Priest)
Writer: Philip Martin
Director: Ron Jones
Behind the Scenes
- Martin Jarvis had previously appeared in The Web Planet and Invasion of the Dinosaurs, and went on to appear opposite Colin Baker in Jubilee for Big Finish, which would be adapted into the Ninth Doctor story, Dalek. Sheila Reid went onto play Clara’s gran in The Time of the Doctor and Dark Water. Stephen Yardley had previously appeared in Genesis of the Daleks as Sevrin.
- This story attracted further criticism for being too violent from members of the public, as well as fans and long-term critic, Mary Whitehouse.
The cliffhanger at the end of Part One is perhaps one of my favourites. With the cameras in the Punishment Zone broadcasting the Doctor’s demise, the Governor calls to cut the footage at the point of his apparent death, as Sil begins to laugh his horrific laugh.
Is he sane, this Doctor?
Peri, this is no time for casual conversation!
Jondar, Peri and Sixth Doctor
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