22.2 – “Vengeance On Varos”
The planet Varos: a mining planet where the mindless masses sit and watch live torture. The Doctor and Peri arrive in search of Zeiton-7, an ultra-rare mineral they need to repair the TARDIS. Calamity ensues.
“Vengeance On Varos” is widely seen as one of the very best of Colin Baker’s televised adventures. Having just sat through “The Twin Dilemma” and “Attack Of The Cybermen”, I’m feeling a little like that’s the equivalent of saying that being punched in one’s left bollock is better than being punched in one’s right bollock. I wasn’t looking forward to this. I wearily placed “Vengeance On Varos” in the DVD tray, worn down by an inexplicable sense of duty. With a sinking heart, I cursed Richey for his “Come write for my Doctor Who review blog! It’ll be fun!” nonsense and pressed the play button.
What happened next was…well, puzzling. “Vengeance On Varos” wins over its predecessors by not being completely irredeemable shit – hurrah – but while there is a surprising amount to admire we’re still a long way from OMFGTHATWASAMAZING territory. It confused me. Was it any good? It’s a story that critiques itself as it goes along and for the first time in many moons this is Doctor Who with something to say. These are GOOD THINGS. But they’re lost in a sea of, well, shit bits.
We kick off with Jason Connery, strung up and shirtless for the ladieez. He’s being tortured for the amusement of Varosian TV viewers everywhere. Bet my mum would like this bit. She loved Jason Connery in the 80’s. But we’re seeing this from the perspective of Actual Normal Working Class People, watching from home, complaining about low food supplies and providing a hilarious running commentary on the episode. A bickering couple with the TV on, heckling it. The sort of stuff you might yell at your own TV. As they exclaim “He’s not hurt, it’s only acting” I can’t stop myself from joining in. “Acting is a strong bloody word for THAT!” I reply. To myself. At home. Alone. As ol’ Jase continues to be tortured, we go behind the scenes to be introduced to Sil.
Sil is a bit amazing. A proper all-time classic villain, slimy and slithery with a genuinely terrifying laugh. He sounds and looks pretty much constantly on the brink of orgasm, flanked by his guards – a pair of super-butch oiled up, leather-clad muscle men. Nabil Shaban is clearly having a whale of a time playing him. And blimey, he throws a brilliant hissy fit. Constantly bubbling along, switching from petulant childishness to furious shitbox in the turn of a sixpence. And then as Jason Connery is about to be executed, he’s off with the scary monster giggling again, clearly ejaculating as he does so. He chews up every scene he’s involved in, clearly having the most fun EVER.
Cut to the TARDIS and The Doctor and Peri are, well, NOT having the most fun EVER. They’re bitching at each other and clearly trying to out-smug each other. Why are they even hanging out? The Doctor is a super-pompous bellend and Peri’s just…whining. They clearly hate each other. Why doesn’t she just leave him? It puzzles me. I realise this is the third episode on the trot to feature a load of aimless scenes of The Doctor dicking around in the TARDIS, doing very little, pausing only to be rude to Peri.
And then right on cue, finally, something happens. The TARDIS has gone tits-up and it becomes clear The Doctor needs a rare mineral to get things working again. A rare mineral that can only be found on Varos. CAN YOU SEE WHERE THIS IS HEADING? Surprise! The TARDIS lands and The Doctor gets sucked into the local bother. As he frees shirtless Jase and goes on the run, we cut back to our confused viewers.
“When did they last show something worth watching, eh?” one of them asks, clearly unimpressed.
I decide to have a think about this myself.
…oh, I don’t know…
*picks up episode guide*
…well…I don’t really think “The Caves Of Andronzani” is THAT good…well, not as good as everyone makes out, anyway, so…I reckon I’ll say…hmm…”Enlightenment”. That was a cracker. Actually, “Enlightenment” was fucking great. Why am I not watching that? *Shakes fist* Anyway, 1983. That’s when they last showed something worth watching.
I force my attention back to the story. It all gets a bit action packed while The Doctor explores the Varosian TV torture chamber. The fourth wall is broken as one of the observers points at The Doctor on the TV.
“I like that one – the one in the funny clothes!” she exclaims.
“Someone’s got to!” I shout back at her.
“He’s good in the audios!” I shoot back at myself. Thank God my wife has gone out while I do this.
Jason Connery drops exposition like a motherfucker and The Doctor goes looking for the purple passage. Arf arf.
I start thinking about this one. It’s kind of good – bar the clumsy exposition, the script is good but Christ, bar some Actual Dark Lighting for once, the production just isn’t up to it. The message is completely confused. There is some great stuff in here that really is ahead of it’s time – “reality” and “constructed reality” real-life misery shows are still big business, and the commentary on video nasties still holds up. See also the popularity-chasing politicians. But it’s made in such a way that you kind of feel like all that subversive stuff has flown over Eric Saward’s head and he thinks he’s FINALLY getting to make a pre-teen Terminator. Particularly when it gets to the notorious acid bath scene and The Doctor drops a James Bond quip as a Varosian heavy burns to death. Though, having said that, The Doctor’s nonchalance as he is later led up to the gallows to be hung is pretty cool.
Then we’re on to the ending. Sil’s manipulation of the Varosians is exposed, they have a vote and choose freedom, The Doctor gets inexplicably trigger happy again – he does that a lot in this story – and we’re done. I sit there bemused, thinking how ridiculous Tennant’s awful “Man who never would” speech feels after three Colin Baker stories. “Oh well,” I think to myself, “They tried.”
Well, Philip Martin tried.
Ooh, it’s hard to mark this one. It’s so…variable. “Variable On Varos”, anyone? Some brilliant ideas, some really dodgy bits, an AMAZING villain, a ridiculously violent Doctor. Not as godawful as “The Twin Dilemma” or “Attack Of The Cybermen” but not as good as, say, the Caveman episodes of “An Unearthly Child” either. A lowly 4/10.
Written and edited by Steve Horry