Welcome to Varos. There’s plenty of the rare mineral, Zeiton-7 (at the right price); there’s food rationing; a distrustful atmosphere where your own partner could land you in a whole heap of trouble; torture and death as entertainment; and Jason Connery.
Welcome to Varos. Forgive me if I don’t join you.
“When did they last show something worth watching…?”
Producer and script editor team, John Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward, were looking for something different. Some of the bravest episodes of Doctor Who have also been some of the best: just look at The Ark in Space, The Time Meddler and Snakedance (or more recently, Midnight, Flatline, and Vincent and the Doctor). So when Saward was approached by writer, Philip Martin, with a script riffing off ‘video nasties,’ it seemed perfect. Its dark and gritty tone certainly clashes with the Sixth Doctor’s tastelessly-colourful jacket, anyway!
‘Video nasties,’ generally low-budget films distributed on video tapes to avoid censorship, were causing much debate – particularly from Mary Whitehouse, who had previously attacked Doctor Who for its violence in tales like The Seeds of Doom and The Deadly Assassin. Martin’s script coupled this idea with the rising trend of reality shows; something which had begun as early as the 1940s (though, on the whole, unrecognisable from today’s crop of ‘reality’), but was still finding its feet in the early 1980s. In fact, the first ‘reality’ show had just concluded in America prior to the broadcast of Vengeance on Varos, and Real People – a show about people with weird occupations and hobbies, which debuted in 1979 – spawned a few imitators.
Most notable of these was That’s Incredible!, which ran from 1980 to 1984, and showcased a dangerous array of stunts. Some of these acts were so risky, the show coined the phrase ‘Do Not Try This Yourself,’ which has, of course, developed into ‘Do Not Try This At Home,’ particularly used in the 1990s (and yes, I’m thinking of that 1998- 2001 show hosted by Davina McCall). It’s Incredible! was even voted the ‘most sadistic’ show on television by Time Magazine; while items included a man trying to catch a bullet in his teeth, another who could swallow swords, and, uhm, a dentist who tattoos teeth, some of the stunts were revealed to be exaggerations or, let’s say, untruths.
Vengeance on Varos is perhaps more topical today than it was upon its initial broadcast in 1985, with reality television now commonplace. In fact, it even rivals Doctor Who in the ratings war, as millions tune in to watch the tuneless on The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. Fortunately, modern reality TV is far removed from the fictions of It’s Incredible!…
A story about torture might not seem a good fit for a show originally commissioned as ‘for children,’ but as Eric Saward explains in the documentary, Nice or Nasty?:
“It was just following in the long line where I think it has always been made as an adult’s programme.”
In a season bookended by the decidedly violent and grim Attack of the Cybermen and Revelation of the Daleks, Vengeance on Varos suits perfectly!
State of the Media
Philip Martin was held in high-regard in the industry – his first work being Z Cars in 1970-72 before moving on to write episodes of Thirty-Minute Theatre, Play For Today, and Shoestring – but he’d never really considered writing for Doctor Who before. Then an idea about a dystopian world where torture was entertainment and the public lived in fear popped into his head.
He was filming his best-known 1970s TV series, Gangsters in Pakistan (Martin himself appeared in a number of roles over its two seasons), just after a revolution had taken place. In 1977, a military coup had overthrown Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the country’s ninth Prime Minister, fourth President, and founder of the Pakistan People’s Party (since voted into power five times). General Zia-ul-Haq, chief of the army, promised general elections within three months of the takeover… but things turned decidedly nasty. Martin notes:
“Always, in any of these revolutions, they always go to control the media.”
General Zia imposed martial law, and, despite being widely disputed, charged Bhutto with the murder of a fellow politician and lawyer, Sahibzada Ahmed Raza Khan Qasuri.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged in April 1979.
General Zia, meanwhile, acted as Pakistan’s sixth President until his death in 1988, and was a very controversial figure. Though he eventually lifted martial law in the year Vengeance on Varos was broadcast (and a new Prime Minister was elected), there was a large amount of smoke-and-mirrors, as he obtained even greater power by enforcing the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, thereby changing the politics of the country to a semi-presidential system.
On the other hand, Zia ushered in economic prosperity for the country, and prevented a potential soviet attack.
(And if the name, Bhutto, is familiar, it is because Zulfikar Ali’s daughter, Benazir, became Pakistan’s eleventh Prime Minister in the late 1980s and 1990s.)
It’s easy to see how the idea of a state-controlled media and oppressed peoples filtered into Varos’ voting system and political system, where even the Governor isn’t in control.
Deaf with Pleasure
Vengeance, too, is a bit of a double-edged sword.
Despite its negativity, many consider it as one of Colin Baker’s best stories as the Sixth Doctor, and around 7 million people tuned in. It remains one of the finest examples of Doctor Who from that era, and has much to say about politics and human nature. It stars a fine cast, including Who-regular, Martin Jarvis (The Web Planet; Invasion of the Dinosaurs), Jason Connery (son of Sean, the very first James Bond, of course!), and Sheila Reid, now best-known for appearing in Benidorm, but she also plays Clara’s Grandma in The Time of the Doctor (2013) and Dark Water (2014).
Then there’s Sil.
Wonderfully played by Nabil Shaban, the slug-like creatures was created merely to fill the role of ‘monster of the week,’ but was so successful, he returned in the four-part segment in Trial of a Time Lord (1986), titled Mindwarp. A similar monster was also introduced in the latter tale, Kiv, a fellow Mentor, played by Christopher Ryan (now a familiar face/voice as various Sontarans, including in Big Finish’s Classic Doctors, New Monsters: Volume One).
Sil is perhaps one of the most memorable creations in Doctor Who, partly due to Philip Martin’s witty and layered script, but certainly because Shaban is delightfully vile and sly. His translation circuits are faulty, so he slurs words and mispronounces. His vain arrogance is startlingly ironic, as is his dismissal of humanoids (particularly Peri) as ‘ugly.’ Oh, and his laugh is one of the creepiest things you’ll hear.
Sil was to return once again in Mission to Magnus (also to be written by Philip Martin), but this promised third appearance never materialised on television as Doctor Who was forced into a hiatus. Why? Because it was too violent.
There are arguments as to what was at the top of the evidence list, but definitely battling for place are Revelation of the Daleks, Vengeance on Varos, and Attack of the Cybermen. Martin maintains that the latter was the prime example, but the unrelentingly grim tone of Vengeance can’t be underestimated.
There is, of course, the massively controversial scene that caused as big a stir as the conclusion of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (2012)! Yes, it’s the acid bath scene, in which many think the Doctor pushes two guards to their doom. What actually happens is that one falls in by accident, then drags the other in behind him. But the Doctor’s almost-gleeful remark – “forgive me if I don’t join you” – sticks in the back of the throat.
“I Have Never Said I was Perfect!”
Violence, however, is laced throughout Doctor Who – just look at the Doctor attempting to bash someone’s head in with a rock in An Unearthly Child – and the themes of Vengeance on Varos reverberate in both the minds of viewers… and in the show itself. Bad Wolf/ The Parting of the Ways (2005) particularly shares its viewpoint, and its tone is similar to 2011’s The Rebel Flesh/ The Almost People.
Doctor Who has always upturned expectations and freed the citizens of the universe – but rarely does the Doctor come across such an ingenious and gritty problem as he does on the former prison planet, rich in Zeiton-7: Varos.
(Adapted from an article originally published on Kasterborous in February 2013.)