Vengeance on Varos
It would be understandable, given how well written parts of Vengeance on Varos are – superbly written, even – to tend toward the reasoning that those aspects which aren’t must be intentionally bad. You know, as a commentary on the artifice of the medium, in a similar fashion to the way the story is commenting upon the medium generally. Unfortunately, I don’t think that explanation holds up (take a look at the synopsis for Philip Martin’s subsequent and aborted, except by Big Finish for whom nothing is ever aborted but instead an opportunity for a six-part box set, Mission to Magnus). Even the most charitable reading must accept that Vengeance on Varos displays bursts of brilliance and stretches of utter stodge.
Arak: Here comes the acid bath.
Discussions of Vengeance on Varos, both at the time and since, have contextualised it as offering a take on the then-current video nasties debate. As a consequence, this has fed directly into the response to the season as a whole – further kindled by the cancellation crisis – and its apparently eager plunge into ever more gratuitous waters at the behest of script editor Eric Saward. It was claimed Vengeance was actually fuelling the desensitisation to violence it purportedly critiqued.
Arak: Yes, he’s snuffed it!
Gary Russell who, delivered an infamously edited appraisal of Warriors of the Deep the previous year (“…unlikely to be hailed as a classic…”) tackled the violence angle in his DWM 100 review. He saw Martin’s angle as a broader one, examining the dangers of TV itself: “Taken to its logical extreme, it must seem that the distant future will see people fed, educated and receive leisure via television. Philip Martin clearly saw this idea as an excuse to make a story based around a society where, to keep people contented and docile, they need videos in their houses showing the lowest and most gratuitous forms of entertainment for hours a day”.
The Doctor: Do you always get the priest parts?
If that warning struck a chord in 1985, with the ever-surging proliferation of home media, it is now even more relevant and much less a warning than a point of ready realisation, particularly where people are, like Etta and Arak, entombed in their homes with only Netflix for company. Martin conceived of his (dis)contented, docile citizens as consumers of addictively debasing reality programming that would be viewed as entirely acceptable and encouraged. Hence the description of the Punishment Dome videos’ profit potential: “The final agonies will sell on every civilised world”.
Etta: What would the next one do different?
Arak: Everything. Anything.
But this story was also made in 1984 – MCMLXXXIV – and went under the working title Planet of Fear. It posits a totalitarian regime requiring its citizens to watch the screens installed in their homes dutifully each day. Paul Cornell called it “a horribly direct picture of an absolute democracy, where nothing matters but the brute will of the brutish, disenfranchised, uninformed people. All they can do, as the two viewing members of the public put it exactly, is vote”. To that meagre extent, there is, one might argue, a degree of autonomy on Varos. The Governuer’s re-election – or survival, if you will – is not rigged, so contrasting with our own system. But since just about everything else is, the ultimate outcome of the public’s nominal freedom is irrelevant (and likewise, one would have to hold that the winner made any difference for our real-world parallel to be sufficiently distinct).
Arak: How would they know if it wasn’t me voting?
Etta: I’d tell ’em.
Martin underlines the Orwellian angle with references to “thought rebellion”, while the conversations between Etta and Arak carry the constant threat that one will inform on the other (as per Winston Smith’s neighbours). Such budding Stasi attitudes are no longer on our doorsteps, but invited into our own homes, where the concern is less one of failure to watch at the appointed hour than “How would they know I wasn’t wearing my mask in my house? Or going into my garden more than once a day?”
Etta: Do you want Polcorps calling here? Do you, Arak?
And if Varos’ ruler status is over-stressed for effect – our leaders are not actually physically tortured for all to see; instead, their brains being blown out are available uncensored as probably the most-seen snuff movie ever* – Martin Jarvis’ weak-but-honest Governor is an accurate surmisal of the immateriality of the figurehead. “What is the difference?” he asks darkly and rhetorically of the distinction between governors and prisoners. Varos has no political parties, but that only serves to make its message blunter. He’s only the worst governor since the last one, and his own survival literally relies on “a very good punch in appreciation figures”. Such that he will shrewdly sacrifice a popular/vilified rebel in return for public favour.
Arak: He’s the worst governor we’ve had since… Well, since…
Etta: The last one?
That Varos was originally a prison planet feels a bit too easy, since it gives it “Well, it was going that way anyway” underpinnings. Far better if it was just a grim mining colony (à la Outland). On the other hand, on-the-nose Alex Jones might regard it as extremely apposite. The key is that, whatever the situation and however oppressive and shorn of liberty it becomes, it breeds acceptance and complacency within the populace. And it’s a nice touch that the real rulers, the elite who install the figurehead to be tormented at the whims of the public, are “descendants of the original officers still rule”. Bloodlines, eh? Who just happen to answer to off-world reptilian masters. Everything on Varos is ruthlessly controlled, such that the idea something unplanned could happen (like a president being elected by mistake) is out of the window. Until the Doctor comes along.
Areta: Varos is what it always was. A prison planet, a colony for the criminally insane.
Of course, the Doctor’s intervention isn’t necessarily an unequivocal positive. Indeed, Vengeance on Varos is very much in the lineage of the show’s preceding overt political commentary, The Sun Makers, whereby the revolution on a distant Earth colony lends itself to a less-than-certain future. And while there may not be a rampant AI here (The Face of Evil), a failure to hang around for the mopping up spells trouble. If that is very much intentional, along with the weary acceptance of the weight bearing down on both the ruler (“Now death is my only friend”) and downtrodden (Arak), there’s much in Vengeance on Varos that seems less plausibly intentional.
Sil: You belong to Amorb, you lying liar!
Did Martin really intend, after the cancelled invasion ex-machina that spoils Sil’s plans, for something as obviously illogical as Galatron Mining no longer needing Varos because another source (on an asteroid) of Zeiton-7 has been found, and yet their simultaneously offering any price for the mineral because new supplies are urgently needed? As About Time pithily put it “Do the words ‘supply and demand’ ring a bell?”
Arak: That’s more like it!
Etta: I thought he was dead.
Arak: No. Pay attention.
However, About Time also has it that Vengeance on Varos possesses “a plot that actually makes more sense each time it is watched”. I’m not so sure. I’ve seen the story many times – true of most stories this season outside of Timelash, a consequence of having only a couple of videotapes by that point in the show – and its issues only get more glaring. As, to be fair, do its merits. The way the story ends is especially unfortunate, because it illustrates that the idea is everything to Martin, and once it has been delivered, he doesn’t really care about dramatic integrity. It would be so much more satisfying if Vengeance on Varos worked on those multiple levels throughout, rather than just the more deliberate ones.
Arak: When did we last see a decent execution?
Which is where we get into the Brechtian elements, and the manner in which the story foresees the likes of The Crystal Maze, Battle Royale – even as it comes in the wake of Rollerball – and The Royle Family. Everything with Etta and Arak is beautifully done. Not only the dialogue, but the performances from Sheila Reid and Stephen Yardley. On the one hand, Arak’s boredom with the entertainments on show can be used to justify their not being very imaginative. On the other – and this is crucial in dramatic terms – they’re not very imaginative. And they’re repetitive. To an extent, this is simply the Ron Jones factor. But while the Episode One ending raves of “a strong candidate for best cliffhanger of the classic series…” are valid conceptually, in terms of stakes it’s actually a bit of fizzle. And that’s what counts here, ultimately, because time and again, Varos sets up something with bags of potential only to squander it through reminding you of how average the execution is.
The Governor: The regulations are archaic, distorted, unworkable.
About Time broaches this, asking if Jondar is supposed to be a parody of a rebel. Now, his dialogue is absolutely dreadful. As is Areta’s (not such a fine idea either to have one character called Etta and another Areta). But lest we think that’s the size of it, so, frequently, is Peri’s (“Anything could happen to us just for their amusement”). As is the Governor’s. Jarvis comes through this making his lines look almost decent most of the time, and to be absolutely fair to Bryant, so does she. But I’m not having the suggestion that Connery turned in solid performances elsewhere (go on then, where exactly?)
The Doctor: Let’s see what this purple passage has to offer.
Accordingly, when About Time follows this with “We can’t avoid asking if we’re here indulging a sloppy production by thinking that errors are clever ruses”, I have to suggest one look at Ron Jones’ previous directorial efforts. And Martin’s subsequent plot-hole-filled story. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to suggest “This is a story telling us that it’s not just a story” but that there’s a very good reason it isn’t acclaimed as the classic it should, by rights, be. Jones was a static a director as they came, which may be why he’s so suited to the story’s TV play elements, which aren’t just about the bickering couple but also the very obvious scene upon scene of characters standing around an obvious set debating.
Etta: They’ll be coming round for you!
Helpful as Jonathan Gibbs’ score tends to be – it’s furnishes some very welcome “atmosphere” that complements the desired tone – he can’t speed up trundling golf buggies or lethargically staged action. On the other hand, because much of this story is about standing around debating, Vengeance on Varos probably succeeds better than any Jones outing since Black Orchid (and fortunately has much more substance).
Arak: Why do they keep showing that stiff?
Martin and Saward manage some effective self-conscious passages (I’m a fan of the staged execution early in Episode Two) but also some fairly clumsy ones. What’s with Quillam’s surprise at the Doctor guessing someone wearing a whacking great mask should have suffered the consequences of his own experiments? And why does Quillam not put one of his many masks back on if he’s so sensitive about his disfigurement, rather than parading in front of the cameras for all to see? And why does he, heading up the science division and doubtless given a freehand with the prisoners, claim the transmogrification experiment has never been “so advanced or successful before”? He even says “It’s an unstable process. Even I am uncertain quite how it works”. Still, I guess he’s at least sufficiently ethical not to inflict it en masse on each and every one of the Varosian populace.
Sil: Dead as death!
Vengeance on Varos is best known due to Sil, of course. I remember being less than keen on the general design of the character at the time, as it utilises the often rather naff human face on alien physiognomy idea (see also the Jacondans). However, there’s no denying Nabil Shaban’s performance is through-the-roof superb. Or that his costume is vastly superior to the redux of Mindwarp (where his character also undergoes a dilution from seething, blackly comic villainy to light relief).
Forbes Collin also deserves praise for the Chief Officer, with a great offhand delivery (“You simply really mustn’t threaten me”). Nicholas Chagrin ramps up the loathsome thing such as him, Quillam and gets apparently the campest line ever (“I want to hear them scream, until I’m deaf with pleasure!”) And if Peri, eh is rather foolishly put in peril and Bryant occasionally stumbles over the mealy dialogue, hers is also a good showing.
Etta: I like that one, the one with the funny coat.
The Doctor too is on thoroughly fine form. He and Peri may not arrive until the end of the traditional first episode, but he makes up for it with a very pro-active presence throughout. I’m generally unconvinced by arguments of how “psychopathic” or lacking in empathy the Sixth Doctor is. Most of his acts of violence are in the self-defence realm (it isn’t the acid bath, or the traps for the Chief, but leaving an open disintegrator waiting for someone to step in front of that feels most irresponsible). And if his quips tend to the bad taste, well I can only offer that I find them amusing (“You’ll forgive me if I don’t join you”).
Arak: We go anything to drink?
I wouldn’t quite go to Cornell lengths in justifying his offhand stance (“The script says there is such a thing as society, and so does he, by being absolutely outside of it”; “He’s almost doing the job of a Brechtian narrator, making us look at this as a metaphor, not a story”), but I tend to the position that Baker’s Doctor gets an unfairly bad rap. I rather like his existential funk in the TARDIS, an aspect that runs through his character (see also The Two Doctors and Revelation of the Daleks for ruminations on a similar bandwidth). Most of all, you can see Colin holding together scenes – mostly with Jondar, Etta and Peri – that would otherwise disintegrate.
Priest: In the name of the great Video and of Varos, who gave his name to our planet, accept the lives of these humble deviants in recompense for their sins.
About Time has it that “The ironic ending, where the Doctor has removed what little meaning there was to anyone’s lives, is part of Saward’s overall conception of the series as being about people losing hope and getting killed…” For once, though, that’s not the only level it’s working on; it’s a story that manages to make such an impulse seem purposeful rather than simply nihilistic. That can’t disguise Vengeance on Varos falling short of the complete vision it is sometimes purported to be (in the way one can successfully argue Kinda or Warriors Gate, for all their production deficiencies, are). I’d even assert – touchy one, I know – that much of The Trial of a Time Lord is more successful at the metatextual game than Vengeance on Varos, even if the latter is more directed.
Arak: What shall we do?
In the flush of a first viewing, Russell called the story “ninety of the most enjoyable and interesting minutes of entertainment seen on television for a long time”. But then, the same review called Attack of the Cybermen “quite superb… for a season opener”. Vengeance on Varos remains one of the best ideas the show has seen, and it sporadically achieves that potential. Unfortunately, its more pedestrian tendencies, both as a production and a script, ensure it never quite makes it.
*Addendum 14/08/22: Assuming former POTUS’ brain, and the rest of him, is anything other than intact. Which isn’t to say they didn’t blow someone’s brains out. They like that sort of thing, the Elite.