Doctor Who episode 629: Vengeance on Varos – Part One (19/1/1985)
‘When did they last show something worth watching?’ It’s clearly a step-up from The Twin Dilemma and Attack of the Cybermen, neither of which appeared to be about anything in particular, whereas this practically bashes the audience over the head with a point. What that point is is harder to define. Everything I’ve read says this is “about” video nasties, and that’s in the mix (the Governeur is selling tapes of the executions).
But beyond including that idea, I don’t get what this is trying to say? That video nasties are immoral and the Tories were right to suppress them? So, a Conservative message? But then the brilliantly vile Sil is obviously positioned as a Thatcherite (‘That is enterprising’ is his approving appraisal of the Governeur’s video nasty scheme, and he’s giving the hard-working miners of Varos a bum deal). So, this is, what? Approving of the moral majority but disapproving of Liberal economics? Or suggesting that video nasties are the product of a society exploited by the rich? It’s all very confused.
So maybe this isn’t really “about” anything after all, it’s just some juicy stuff ripped from the headlines to spice up the standard rebels versus invaders and quislings plot that Terry Nation was doing back in 1964. Certainly Philip Martin’s subsequent work for Big Finish doesn’t necessarily sell the idea that he’s a top tier Doctor Who writer.
Sitting through this first episode, I’m disappointed again by how badly Colin Baker is served by material that has him being mean to Peri (refusing to offer any comfort when the TARDIS breaks down) and has Peri replicate Tegan’s grouchiness with none of her gutsiness. Again, they spend ages in the TARDIS without getting involved in the plot, which is, again, more dismal violence in gloomy tunnels. At least once the Doctor takes the lead in escaping the punishment dome he rediscovers some of the old gumption and heroism, which gives Baker something good to work with.
The bad bits of this are the same as the bad bits in Baker’s last two stories: a Doctor and companion relationship that doesn’t work, and some appalling dialogue delivered badly (‘Areas of ingenious danger lurk in every corner. You can die in so many varied and spectacular ways’). I suppose at least Jason Connery is something for the daddies. The almost-as-pretty Rondel is played by Keith Skinner, latterly author of a number of well-regarded Jack the Ripper true crime books.
Peri is written like a character in an overwrought HP Lovecraft story rather than an American teenager (‘Oh, what was that thing we saw? A creature from my worst imaginings’). There are one too many villains between Sil, the Chief Officer and Quillam: a sense of a loose plot that could be extended ad infinitum by adding another ordeal in the punishment dome. It seems weird that the TARDIS (and all time ships in all the galaxies) rely on a mineral found only on Varos, and that Sil suddenly decides to organise an invasion (what prompts this decision?)
Ron Jones’ direction is very… Ron Jones (for instance, the guard who wanders nonchalantly in front of a death ray). The score has sudden appalling lapses (like the bizarre fairground muzak when the Doctor reveals a monster is actually two green lights). Sil occasionally talks like Yoda when the writer and script editor bother to remember (‘This mysterious most is’) but it’s clearly too much effort to sustain that idea for the whole episode.
Still, it’s meant to be one of the better sixth Doctor stories, and it at least aspires to be about something more than Doctor Who’s own continuity. Sil is a superb creation – albeit I credit that to Jones and Nabil Shaban, who seizes the character with the same relish Ainley shows for the Master and adds in gruesome details like the ululating laugh. He’s the most memorable monster-villain of the 1980s and deserved repeat appearances. I can remember as a kid pretending to be him with my legs in a sleeping bag – he’s a very interesting, playable baddie for kids in a way that Mestor just isn’t. I love the little grimaces Martin Jarvis gives whenever Sil gets agitated about something.
The other brilliant thing, and this is credit to Philip Martin, is the Arak and Etta double act, Doctor Who’s Statler and Waldorf. Their commentary lifts the pretty bog-standard punishment dome material into something much more interesting. Their Nineteen Eighty Four style home, with omnipresent TV and sinister references to denouncements to PolCorps say much more about Varos than Jondar and Areta’s rebellion. This extra texture, of ever-watching cameras and eyes reinforces the idea of a society addicted to television which extends to the brilliantly postmodern cliffhanger (‘And cut it…. Now’).
Next episode: Vengeance on Varos – Part Two
I didn’t even remember Keith Skinner / Rondel even after multiple rewatches. Which either says something about a bland featureless role or Jason Connery’s hairy chest.