Vengeance on Varos
was my favourite Colin Baker story back in the day which, to be honest, is damning with faint praise. It embodies many of the excesses of the era and redeems itself mostly through a consistency of tone and presentation, Martin Jarvis and an interesting and well-executed framing device.
Let's face it, a story set inside a "punishment dome" complete with acid baths, cannibals and a sadistic alien that leers and exults over any prospect of death and cruelty is a very Colin Baker kind of premise. I strongly suspect the story was influenced by Running Man
though I don't know for sure. It's at the edge of the sort of setting any era of Doctor Who might have chosen, but it gives the appearance of relishing its more horrific moments for the spectacle rather than for the purpose they serve in telling the tale. Moreover, it lacks the lightness of touch in delivering moments of relief that other eras might have achieved. I have a feeling that Saward's vision for the show was as a black comedy. Vengeance on Varos
succeeds in being dark and nasty but never really achieves (or perhaps even attempts) to be comic. It's possibly the nastiest story in this season, though at least it appears to know what it wants to do tonally which isn't always the case.
It's easy to point at what is going wrong here. Unlike a lot of the era the director isn't trying to flood the set with vast amounts of light, but even so it somehow manages to look gaudy rather than atmospheric a lot of the time. The characters with whom we are supposed to sympathise, the rebels Jondar and Areta (who are sufficiently forgettable I've just had to look up their names) are, frankly bland, dull and woodenly acted. A lot of it doesn't make sense at the "world-building" level (for instance the perils and traps of the punishment dome mostly turn out to be a) a bit rubbish and b) well-known to the audience and thus, theoretically, the prisoners). This is mostly possible to overlook, but less so the moment at the end where the price of Zeiton Seven ore rises because an alternative source has been found (my grasp of economics is shakey but I'm fairly sure the price normally drops if supply increases - assuming demand remains the same*).
On the other hand Martin Jarvis delivers an excellent performance as the Governor, invoking our sympathy while nevertheless suggesting that this is a man who has only really found the ability to show compassion and a desire to change the system now he is in a position where the system is more or less actively trying to kill him. Where Vengeance on Varos
really succeeds is in the framing device. It takes the concept that the punishment dome is a form of entertainment and gives us the couple, Arak and Etta, who watch events unfolding, bicker about them, yet never take part in the action except for the obligatory votes on Governor policy. In the light of recent political upheavals some of it seems remarkably prescient. Arak desires to vote against the Governor no matter what. "What will the next one do differently?" Etta asks. "Anything, Everything," Arak more or less shrugs in return. He's voting for change without any particular interest in what the change is to. Of course it's prescient too, given that this was produced before the Internet and Reality TV, about our new ability to provide instantaneous feedback on anything and everything.
There are one or two other moments where Vengeance on Varos
uses the conceit that all is for entertainment well. Most notably the episode 1 cliff-hanger that ends, not with the Doctor apparently dying, but the camera feed focused on his corpse and the Governor, in the role of director, saying "and cut it, now" as the feed goes blank. The final moments are also a triumph, if a somewhat nihilistic one. As Arak and Etta observe the blank screen that is supposed to symbolise their new freedom they ponder vacantly over what they are to do now.
When I was a teenager I think I was probably as fond of dystopias as the modern teenager, though with a rather sparser supply since YA fiction, as a marketing niche, was yet to be invented. I thought very highly of Vengeance on Varos
at the time and I can see now that its tone and tropes match up nicely with with those particular preferences. These days I like my Doctor Who to have more of a focus on humour and entertainment and less of a desire to imagine the unpleasant and grim. As such Vengeance on Varos
looks pretty flawed (though, as I say, these are the flaws of the era). Even so it is hard to ignore that there are some things it does extremely well (where so much Colin Baker Doctor Who manages to fumble its good ideas) and somewhat reluctantly I think it remains my favourite Colin Baker story.
*Obviously the price has been kept artificially low but even so it's hard to see how discovery of an alternative source strengthens the Varosian bargainning hand.
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