Reviewed: Vengeance on Varos by Philip Martin

“Doctor, I’m sorry. I’ve tried everything but they won’t believe the truth!”

“Truth is a flexible commodity on Varos, Peri!”

When I was given the opportunity to read this reissue of Vengeance on Varos, I had a decision to make. Should I watch the serial itself before diving into the novelisation or simply read it as a piece of writing? I chose to do the latter because I wanted to go in blind. For the record, after reading I did go back and watch the serial again after having not watched it for several years. Now, coming to the story in its literary form and from a reviewing perspective, it actually felt like experiencing a lot of it again for the first time. I recall that I liked the story as some of the issues raised along the course of the narrative were quite dark and, as I have mentioned in other articles, I am a strong believer that Doctor Who is at its best when confronting big topics.

To put it simply, on Varos we are presented with a large subservient population kept in line by the high ranking few and distracted from the awful nature of their existence by compulsory viewing of broadcasts from the Punishment Dome. The planet is led by a Governor, negotiating a fair deal for the production of Zeiton-7, trying to find a balance between offering a reasonable price for the planet’s only asset and the very quality of life for his citizens. All whilst being deceived by his aides, left in the dark about the true value of Zeiton ore and having his every decision voted on by the viewing public. If a majority agree with him, then a reinvigorating haze washes over him. If a majority disagree, then his life force is slowly and agonisingly drained away until he can survive no more. At one point, he says that the theory for governing assumes ‘that a man terrified for his life will somehow find solutions to this planet’s problems.’

The basis of the entire system of rule is fear. In that basic principal, there is something utterly frightening but also unerringly familiar that, as an audience, makes us both uncomfortable and intrigued by what is going on.

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My favourite thing about novelizations is their ability to fill any gaps and add more information to characters, places and events that cannot be fully explored or explained within the time frame of each episode. For instance, in Chapter 8, ‘Night and Silence’, we come across entire sections that simply didn’t exist in the television version.

The part that stands out to me is how writer, Philip Martin adds flesh to the bones of the two attendants in the mortuary. In the episodes itself, the scene involving these two attendants was viewed as incredibly contentious by some critics who believed that the men falling, or being pushed, into the acid bath was far too violent. Personally, I was one of the people who believed that, whilst the outcome for the guards was horrible, the Doctor does try to pull the guard he ‘fights’ with away from the pool only for him to be dragged in by the other attendant who has already fallen in. When approaching this story, I was intrigued to see how the novelisation dealt with this scene and I was not disappointed.

Firstly, these two men are given names, Az and Oza, and proper dialogue. This simple process makes the reader invest in the characters and, despite the fact that their first appearance has them looting the bodies they are about to dispose of, they instantly become more rounded people simply by being given names. Their conversation is almost comical when they discuss the possibility to be paid a bonus wage if they get featured on the live broadcast when they dispose of the bodies. Whilst, this interaction is ultimately quite dark, it demonstrates to the reader how death has become such a familiar and normal thing on Varos. Even the disposal of bodies is made into entertainment and is just another job for these men to get done. Their interactions actually reminded me of the grave digger scene in Hamlet with their gallows humour and their conversations that make death seem so unremarkable.

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Secondly, in the novelisation when the Doctor wakes from his apparent death in the mortuary, Az and Oza are understandably startled and Az launches himself at the Doctor intent on getting him into that acid bath. Having moved to stand on the edge of the acid bath, the Doctor simply steps aside and sends Az tumbling into the bath. Oza goes to help his friend only to be pulled into the pool himself. The descriptions of the acid corroding the bodies and dissolving the skeletons still reveals the horror of the situation, but the Doctor is seemingly distanced from these two deaths by not fighting and just letting them bring about their own demise. Whether this is supposed to be funny by demonstrating they would ultimately end up becoming the victims of the process they took part in or whether it presents some other meaning, the difference in this scene compared to its television counterpart is very interesting.

Now, there are plenty of other parts in this novelisation that have been changed from the original broadcast version or have simply been added to, but I will leave you, the intrepid reader, to go and find them for yourselves. This book has certainly been an enjoyable read and can be knocked out in an afternoon if you want something familiar and thought-provoking.

And I’m looking forward to further Target reprints. So if BBC Books could just announce more, that’d be fantastic. Please…?

Well? What are you waiting for? Get reading!