Doctor Who: Vengeance on Varos Review

DW Vengeance on Varos

The Sixth Doctor’s TV story section on this blog is still barren, so let’s finally stick one of his televised stories up, shall we? Vengeance on Varos is one of the few true highlights of Colin Baker’s one regular season, full of violence, political messages and a critique on then-modern trends and TV itself… most of which is just as, if not more relevant today! Plus it’s a good story in and of itself, messages aside. So let’s take a look at it!

Official Synopsis:

Seeking the rare mineral Zeiton-7 to repair his TARDIS, the Doctor arrives on Varos, a world where political prisoners and their guards are all subjected to sadistic tortures and executions which the colony’s inhabitants view and vote on through interactive television. Accused of being alien infiltrators helping the colony’s rebel factions, the Doctor and Peri find themselves the latest unwilling subjects in this most extreme form of reality TV.

*spoilers appear from here on out!*

Cast of Characters:

DW Vengeance on Varos 3

A cheeky looking Sixth Doctor and his two rebel friends.

The Doctor (Colin Baker) – The Doctor accepts his fate to be stranded on the TARDIS forever after running out of Zeiton-7… Unless, maybe they make one last effort to land on the one planet on the universe that has the substance in abundance…

Peri (Nicola Bryant) – Peri is annoyed at how quickly The Doctor gave up on everything, but is pleased when her idea of checking the manual yielded possible life-saving advice… even if it might lead them to a the new, more “exciting” death instead…

Sil (Nabil Shaban) – Sil is a heartless and shameless slug-thing who wishes for Galatron, the company he works for, to have the sole rights to Zeiton-7 for as little money as possible…

The Governor (Martin Jarvis) – The Governor of Varos, he is doing his best to lead the planet, and wishes to get a better trade deal with Sil and his corporation… if he doesn’t get zapped with deadly cell-destroying lasers due to a public vote again…

Quilliam (Nicolas Chagrin) – Quilliam is in charge of creating the ways of torture the people of Varos get subjected to, both on and off screen. He is also a master scientist, looking into transforming people’s very DNA…

Jondor and Areta (Jason Connery and Geraldine Alexander) – A married couple who tried to resist the hellish ways of Varos and fight against the system, only to be captured and put in the Punishment Dome…

The Chief Officer (Forbes Collins) – The Chief Officer is conspiring with Sil in hopes to take control of Varos from the Governor…

Arak and Etta (Stephen Yardley and Sheila Reid) – Two people of Varos who enjoy watching the daily torture programs, and always vote on their voting machines when prompted, like good loyal citizens…

Plus more!

The Good:

DW Vengeance on Varos 1

You couldn’t ask for a more stereotypical evil-looking force!

Varos, with its pro-torture TV full of anti-government rebels being killed, is a strange one. It’s hard to imagine a world getting that far into the crazy regime-ness, but I enjoy it nonetheless. The Governor is a good character, he starts off seemingly as the harsh ruler, but he soon begins to lower his guard and actually tire of a lot of the more brutal methods on Varos. He is zapped with cell-destroying beams when a vote is cast against each new policy, and if he survives he continues to rule, so it’s a different kind of dystopian dictatorship, that’s for sure. He was chosen, but he really didn’t want to be because most Governors only last one or two unpopular votes before they’re dead. Peri ends up befriending him to a degree, and by the end he actually helps The Doctor and co. overthrow his own corrupt Chief Officer and, now with the actual worth of Zeiton-7 known to him, he’s able to get a far better deal with Sil and his corporation. He’s an unlikely ally, and that makes his side of the story genuinely interesting throughout.

I like a lot of the scenes with The Doctor, Peri and the two rebels Jondor and Areta. There are some crazy traps and contraptions in the Punishment Dome, and seeing them get through it was (mostly) entertaining. Not quite sure about the scenes with Peri and Areta being partially … altered into other beings (Peri a bird… thing, for example), but Quilliam is a delight in his over-the-top evilness, complete with eye patch and later, scarred face. Thankfully as well this story features less of the arrogant and unpleasant Sixth Doctor towards Peri scenes, and in fact I genuinely laughed when The Doctor tried to put on a disguise he found, only for Quilliam, the person who the outfit belongs to, to just happen to walk in and catch him. The Doctor’s attempt to play it off before quickly realising there is clearly no excuse was funny, which is a rare thing for TV-Six.

Then we get to a sticking point: is this Doctor Who gone too dark? Well, I don’t think so, Sil is silly (despite being a parody of a very real type of unpleasant person most adults can relate to) and there isn’t any real gore. The infamous acid bath scene, where The Doctor struggles with two guards, one of which falls into the nearby acid, pops back up horribly burned and accidentally pulls the other guard in with him in an attempt to escape, is definitely brutal (not helped by The Doctor jokingly saying “Mind if I don’t join you?” with a smirk) and the atmosphere is bleak, but I still think it works enough to still be watched by the whole family, even if it is a bit more enjoyable if you’re older. As I believe I said in the Caves of Androzani review, I wouldn’t want all my Doctor Who this dark and bleak, but as a rare thing it can lead to great stories.

The Bad:

DW Vengeance on Varos 4

I was going to try and type out his trademark laugh, but … no idea how I’d do that.

Vengeance on Varos isn’t shy about its subject matter. The whole story is full of scenes with two regular viewers of the torture and political broadcasts on the planet, constantly saying how much they enjoy it. Meanwhile Sil and his “must extort this planet for all their money because I can never be too rich and profitable” attitude are right up in your face. There are a lot of things I enjoy about this story, but the lack of subtly isn’t one. In fact the married couple watching the TV is my least favourite part about it. I get it, but they took up a lot of screen time for little reason, we didn’t need to see the viewers and how they react to things, not really…

In fact Sil in particular I’ve never enjoyed. He’s too on the nose and (intentionally, I know) obnoxious. I get the character, but I just don’t enjoy his villainy… it irritates me, rather than getting me angry and wanting to see him “get his”.

Oh and I didn’t like the whole Zeiton-7 sub-plot. The TARDIS, and indeed all time travel craft, needs it to function and it only occurs on a single planet in the universe? Surely the Time Lords alone would have mined it dry by now! That’s ignoring the fact we know that TARDISs run on power from the Eye of Harmony, so… just doesn’t add up…

The Continuity:

DW Vengeance on Varos 2

My best attempt to screenshot the most over-used picture of The Sixth Doctor out there…

Sil would reappear in the Sixth Doctor epic “The Trial of a Time Lord”, specifically the second story “Mindwarp”. He also reappears in the Sixth Doctor “Lost Story” audio “Mission to Magnus”.

The Seventh Doctor TV story “The Happiness Patrol” and the Ninth Doctor TV story “Bad Wolf / The Parting of the Ways” have similar grim dystopian futures, the latter complete with televised games featuring live death.

Overall Thoughts:

Vengeance on Varos isn’t a masterpiece, but it is a great mix of mature storytelling, over-the-top villainy and generally a good two-ish hours of Doctor Who adventure. Some new characters have interesting character development, and some are just so straight up bad that you enjoy seeing The Doctor et al. take them down. A good bit of fun, a definite standout in the Sixth Doctor’s ill-fated TV run.

4 Star Watch

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