Video Nasty? Re-evaulating Vengeance on Varos

Hailing from Colin Baker’s first full season, Vengeance on Varos is infamous for both its social and political commentary, as well as its post-modern take on the medium of television itself. It draws some inspiration from the subject of “video-nasties” and concerns about violence on television, both hot topics at the time with the emergence of the home video market.

In his third outing, the Sixth Doctor seems to be settling and moving away from the bombastic instability of his debut, though he still suffers from a decidedly uneven temperament. Apparently running out of power mid-flight, the Time Lord settles into a depressive slump and it takes some cajoling from his companion Peri, to coax him towards seeking a solution. Divining that they need an essential and extremely rare element, he resolves to sacrifice all remaining power for a hop to Varos where the vital Zeiton 7 ore is to be found.

As the two principals cope with their transport issues for the first twenty minutes, we build up a good picture of Varos before they arrive. A former prison colony, the planet has morphed over time but maintained its social strata. So, we come to a society where an officer elite governs while proletariat miners remain oppressed, barely subsisting on starvation rations. Their main interaction with society comes thought a television screen which acts as an instrument of the state, though which a beleaguered Governor submits his decisions for endorsement by the people in public referenda. He is either bathed in a healing glow of their approval or weakened by the slow torture of gradual cell disintegration when they do not agree. That same television also serves as Varos’ sole entertainment medium where prisoners, both criminal and political, are tortured and executed in gruesome fashion for the entertainment of the masses.

The Doctor and Peri land amid all this, at the same time as the Galatron Mining Corporation’s representative, Sil, is driving a hard bargain over the price of Varos’ major export. With the Governor up against it, the Doctor’s outside knowledge of Zeiton’s rarity and value becomes prized information, as long as he survives the dangers of the punishment dome long enough to impart it.

Varos unfolds as part political thriller, part action run-around and throws in some black humour for good measure. The story is unique in approach, with the device of ‘Arak and Etta’ who both build the back-story and comment on events. Despite their being affected by what occurs, and voting in the referenda to validate the Governor’s decisions, they never actually interact with any of the other characters in the story and thus form a sort of Greek chorus. The couple are brought to life wonderfully by Sheila Reid and Stephen Yardley, both well-known British television faces. They have an enjoyable, spiky interaction with a healthy dose of one-upmanship while monitoring the unfolding events.

Colin Baker’s Doctor is for me ever watchable, handling both the action scenes and the quieter moments well. His characterisation was a bold move on the part of the production and he presents as a sort of action hero, with shades of the dynamic Pertwee and the authoritative Hartnell in the mix for those who care to find it. Despite the bickering relationship, he is well paired by Nicola Bryant as Peri. Though poorly served in this somewhat masculine story, fated to lie prone and be transmogrified into a bird, the scenes when she challenges the weak-willed Governor are strong.

Martin Jarvis brings great depth to his role as the Governor in this, his third series credit having formerly guested in both The Web Planet and Invasion of the Dinosaurs. You want to like him, trapped as he is between a starving populace and the unyielding Galatron Mining Representative, but he is apparently lacking in moral fibre; he uses the punishment dome as a source of revenue as we see in the wonderfully post-modern cliffhanger, where he milks the Doctor’s on screen death by sensory illusion for all its worth, in order to make a better video to sell. Also, he’s weak enough to allow Peri and Areta to be taken off for experimentation and fails to stand up to either Quillam or the Chief Officer. At the end of the tale he appears to be rising to the challenge, but you cannot help but wonder how long he will last? One hopes he might be somewhat emboldened now that he doesn’t fear summary execution for failure to please the people.

Sadly, there is little positive to say about Jason Connery’s performance as the rebel leader Jondar. Indeed, with someone so stunning empty of dynamism, it is no wonder that the people remain subjugated. Knowing that it was his first television work I will try to be charitable and assume he was deliberately playing it as an uninspiring revolutionary. Realistically, one cannot help but wonder if this is another example of stunt casting for his famous surname, that or his muscular physique.

Nabil Shaban’s Sil is perhaps the most visually memorable element of the story. A truly vile and unpleasant creation, he is driven by greed and entertained by pain. The monster presents as twisted take on Star Wars’ Yoda with his colour and diminutive stature, yet Yoda never employed anything approaching the hideous tongue flicking laugh. There are distorted speech patterns too, though this was sometimes misuse of language or the mixing of word order. On other occasions, some deliberately elongated pronunciation such as “Governurr” which, though referenced as a joke within the script, do make him a little difficult to understand. It was a brave casting choice to make a virtue of Shaban’s unique physicality in order to create an alien who is more than just a man in a mask and it brings a great dimension to the character. Add to that Shaban’s extraordinary performance, and it is no wonder that Sil was promptly lined up for a repeat appearance.  Sil’s henchman, the charismatic Forbes Collins deserves a mention too. As the Chief Officer, he puts in a nice performance, playing the Governor and manipulating the situation to Sil’s advantage, ever smiling and presenting as a voice of reason.

In the first episode, I found it hard to keep a track of all the Varosian authority characters and their relationship to each other. In rapid succession we meet the Governor, the Chief Officer, the guard who appears to work the vision mixer (Bax?), Quillam, Rondel (Jondar’s friend) and Maldak (the young guard who supervises Jondar’s execution). They came a little too thick and fast for my liking. That said, there was some clever casting employed: bald, blonde and square-jawed, dark-haired, masked. If you had not tracked all the names it was at least easy to visually identify them.

With the alien Sil, his lackey the Chief Officer and also Quillam, I do wonder if there were too many villains here. Sil’s motivations are wonderful as he is a true capitalist monster. He doesn’t seek power over Varos for its own sake, though it does appeal to his vanity, but rather he wants to control the Zeiton. Fundamentally, he just wants to do his job well and make pots of money for his corporation, and doesn’t care how he achieves these ends. Meanwhile the character of Quillam smacks to me of an additional body-horror scare for the younger viewers, with the mask concealing his partially. Barely present in the first episode, he gains a larger role in the second, but coming so soon after the wonderful Sharaz Jek in The Caves of Androzani, it cannot help but pale into comparison despite a spirited performance by Nicholas Chagrin.

One production misfire was the use of what appears to be an electric golf cart redeployed as the ludicrously slow guard buggy. Easily outrun, it couldn’t be turned in the corridor width and needed reversing. It is a wonder that someone did not just suggest that they were scrapped and have the actors simply chase each other up and down instead! Another poor choice was the realisation of the cannibal threat; despite the two men acting their respective hearts out, they remained purely comical dressed as they were in oversized nappies and even the Doctor seems to have a hard time taking them seriously.

This was writer Phillip Martin’s first Doctor Who script, though he had a good pedigree in television work before and after, including scripts for Z-Cars, Star Cops and Hetty Wainthropp Investigates. He went on to pen two Sil sequels, including the Mindwarp segment from The Trial of a Time Lord as well as the unmade Mission to Magnus from the original aborted Season 23, which has been dramatised in audio as a Lost Tale from Big Finish.

Vengeance on Varos was the 7th Doctor Who story to be released on DVD, before the range had really got properly established. Consequently, there are minimal additional features such as some behind the scenes footage and a few extended/deleted scenes.  The commentary track features both Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant, as well as Nabil Shaban and is a funny and revealing listen. Varos was one of the titles considered for a ‘Revisitations’ Special Edition and, while initially decided against, was put in the lap of the fans to show their support. With a twitter hashtag #releasevaros monitored by the then publisher 2Entertain, support was indeed forthcoming and the title was eventually forthcoming in September 2012

Violence is rife throughout this story and while that is a given within confines of this tale, the issue that dogged the show and caused uproar was the Doctor’s apparent use of it. The infamous acid bath struggle scene is actually reasonably tame in the context of the series, and I feel on reflection that it is the nature of the Doctor’s reaction to it that really ought to be called into question. The Doctor has always been one for a witty aside, but this is more of a James Bond style quip in poor taste. Baker defends this giving the justification that the Time Lord should have alien reactions to such things. He also states that he has no issue with his Doctor, as a man of action, brandishing guns, but again I feel that they are just the wrong elements of the character to be illustrating. Yes, he will use a gun if he has to, but he would rather not. Personally, I like to have the Doctor rely on wits rather than weaponry and thankfully more recent production teams have taken the same approach.

The story’s solution effectively involves the Doctor and friends running away into the punishment dome, and then resorting to violence by killing off Quillam and the Chief Officer to remove their grip on power. This also weakens Sil’s position before the external threat is decapitated by ‘noises off’ with a message indicating that another source of Zeiton 7 has potentially been found.  In many ways, it is a poor resolution, but it is evident that the story is about much more.

Interesting issues are raised on the DVD commentary. Recorded in 2000, they mention the then relatively new reality television programme Big Brother.  Looking back from the perspective of nearly a further two decades on, it’s even more interesting to comment on the themes raised in Varos. While it is true that we do not watch torture and state legislated executions, there is a good deal of endurance based reality television where the viewer often watches participants struggle and fail, sometimes in order to gain food and luxuries – Colin Baker has even participated in it, as a contestant on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! While these are currently willing participants, seeking fame or fortune, it is not so much of a stretch for the imagination as it was 1985 when this tale was broadcast. Will we ever get to the point where the trial and execution process crosses the line into entertainment for the masses? 2005’s Bad Wolf offers a look at this from another angle, where failure to answer correctly or to survive the popular vote on a game show results in death.

We see Varos’ senior political leader literally submit to the will of the people, with their judgement either rewarding or punishing him physically. Perhaps a touch of wish fulfilment there, written as it was in Thatcher’s Britain, it raises the question of voter engagement. The Governor makes his speech and suffers the vote. At other no point are the people involved in the political process, nor are their opinions are sought. They vote in isolation though a remote mechanism in a system where participation is compulsory. Presumably, continued failure to engage in the process would be punishable too by becoming another Varosian video star. I suppose that’s one approach to dealing with voter apathy!

Another issue tangentially touched upon is that of viewers feedback. Etta is seen filing out her ‘viewers report’, allowing her to comment on the programming as well as her fellow viewer and husband Arak. In reality, audience appreciation is something that is taken very seriously in the television industry. Within the public service broadcasting model that the BBC operates in, it is often considered more important than viewing figures.

Vengeance on Varos raises many issues on-screen and there is an engaging story with some strong performances. What really lifts this story beyond its contemporaries though is the device of the viewing pair, Arak and Etta. In the final scene, as they look at a screen of white noise and wonder what to do with their freedom, we see the true message of the story. It challenges us to consider the implications of how we are influenced by the medium of television. This is when Doctor Who is at its best, working on multiple levels to create food for thought, while at the same time telling a good story.