Introducing: Vengeance on Varos

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…?”

Vengeance on Varos Sil Martin Jarvis

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

Vengeance on Varos Sil Martin Jarvis Peri Nicola Bryant

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 on Varos Sheila Reid

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!”

Vengeance on Varos Jason Connery Peri Nicola Bryant

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.)

  • bar

    Always liked VoV. The scariest bit is that the population is complicit, and when ‘freed’ they don’t know what to do next.
    the Doctor is great against a totalitarian regime, especially a media-enforced one – reminds me of 7 against the Happiness Patrol regime.
    And Sil should be back – with today’s budgets he could be more mobile, slithering at speed, scaring the kiddies… 😉
    I wish our modern ‘reality’ tv were as far removed from this as you suggest, but Neil Postman’s ‘Amusing ourselves to Death’ about present-day bread and circuses has never felt more prophetic.

    • TimeChaser

      I’ve always liked Hapiness Patrol more. Saward was always a bit too afraid to let the show be more direct political commentary, but Cartmel and co. had no such scruples, and so HP is the glorious direct attack on Thatcher that it is.

  • Dr. Moo

    My introduction to the Sixth Doctor (5’s regeneration aside) was VoV. As a result I have a lot of time for it.
    This is the story that sums this Doctor up: Loud, brash, rude, arrogant… but also heroic, kind and with a strong sense of justice. He’s EXACTLY how a centuries old alien should be behaving and in VoV we get to see every side of him. I’ve been a huge fan of the Sixth Doctor ever since! In fact out of all the ClassicWho incarnations he was the first one that I saw every episode of. Sadly none of his other serials were as good as this one but that only made me appreciate the underrated brilliance of the Sixth Doctor all the more!

    • TimeChaser

      Six was always more of an enigma to me. Our PBS didn’t play his episodes very often (probably because there were so few, and most likely because after they moved the show from Saturdays at 10 PM to 4 PM, I would imagine they would be less likely to air them at that time on public television). For many years I was unable to see quite a few of his episodes (Twin Dilemma, Attack of the Cybermen, Vengeance on Varos, and Revelation of the Daleks). I also think his stories would be the ones my parents would more likely record over if they weren’t keen on me seeing them at such a young age.

  • TimeChaser

    Ah, good ole’ Vengeance on Varos, a story I have a rather interesting relationship with. Back when I first became a Doctor Who fan, our local PBS aired it very late on Saturdays, 10 PM. At the age of 4, I was rarely allowed to stay up to watch it, and even when I could I would usually fall asleep before the end. So began my parents’ recording them all for me to watch later. But this also meant they could screen them ahead of time, and they were very turned off by the torture on display in this story, so for many years all I had of it was the first minute or so – the pan across the surface of Varos and then a biref glimpse of Jondar in chains. It wasn’t until much later when the story finally came out on VHS, sometime in the 90s, that I was finally able to watch it.

    I do agree that among the episodes of Colin’s all-too-brief tenure, this was one of the rare highlights. A story self-consciously attacking the very thing it was being accused of (gratuitous violence), and yet it doesn’t quite manage to rise above it’s own critique. A flawed story, but a good one nonetheless.

    • bar

      ‘doesn’t quite manage to rise above it’s own critique’ – like, for example, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. But much better than the Hunger Games, whose films are precisely the entertainment-as-opiate-of-the-masses which the books so eloquently attack.

      • TimeChaser

        Well, I give Greatest Show more of a pass. It’s not trying to comment on televised violence while still being heavily mired in it. (Besides, I’m a die-hard McCoy fan).

        I haven’t read or watched Hunger Games, but from what I’ve seen of the ad campaign for it I would probably agree with you.

        • Dr. Moo

          I’ll support you in defending TGSitG (so much easier to use acronyms for that one). It’s simultaneously creepy, funny and a decent story in its own right, as well as gloriously meta and self-aware. They don’t make them like that any more!

          • TimeChaser

            No they don’t. The new series has given us many wonderful things, but there’s just a particular kind of narrative and esthetic magic about the Cartmel era, even through much of the New Adventures, that has never been seen again.

          • Dr. Moo

            Definitely a high point for the show.

        • bar

          Greatest show is fun, not critiqueing violence as much as anal retentive fandom – TPMcKenna being the Absorbaloff figure. I do like it, but I’m glad Sophie has had the chance to develop Ace over the years, thanks especially to BF. it’s hard not to be a fan of her and 7. But I’m still more likely to rewatch VoV.

  • Ranger

    VoV is one of those ones that I didn’t think much of at the time, but have subsequently gone back and revised my opinion of. Sil I really disliked at the time, he made me very uneasy and I was too young to really get the irony, but now I love him.

    This and the GSITG and others are where DW scores when commenting on universal negative images of society. Where I have doubts is where personal political bias comes into play. I have a lot of problems with Happiness Patrol. It has become fashionable now for the Thatcher-era to be mocked and denigrated, but to ignore society’s complicity – after all she didn’t become the last century’s longest-reigning Prime Minister by manipulating democracy as happened in the example of Pakistan. For as many people who were “harmed” by the Thatcher-era, it can be argued that as many or even more “benefited”. So it is not a straightforward, this is an evil regime that must be fought, type story. It is all down to one person’s political bias, that might match the views of some watchers, but will alienate other viewers. By being such a blatant attack on Thatcher, I think that in this case DW got it wrong and stepped out of it’s moral surety. I would be saying the same thing if it was an attack on Callaghan, Blair or Cameron. DW does deal with political issues – but in a broad, universal way. DW is not the right vehicle for political campaigning.

    The other problem I have with Patrol is that I just personally find the story and stylistic decisions boring and silly.

    • Dr. Moo

      Whoa there Ranger! I’ll defend The Happiness Patrol to the end, and I say that as someone with no particular feelings on Thatcher one way or the other (I wasn’t around yet). As a traditional ‘Doctor vs Tyrannical Regime’ story it does well. The Kandyman isn’t nearly so ridiculous in context as he looks. The political stuff is my only real issue but I can overlook that and just enjoy the story. McCoy’s “pull the trigger” monologue is chilling.
      There’s a lot I like about that story. It’s just a shame it had to be so blatant in the writer’s political views, a problem I often have with RTD as well.

      • Ranger

        That’s fine, I will fight to the end for your right to like this and any other story that I dislike! It would be boring if we all liked and disliked the same things. After all, in all the multiverse everywhere, there is a strange one where someone doesn’t love Pyramids of Mars.

        On second thoughts, nah. That concept is just too wacky and far-fetched to be possible.