Doctor Who: Vengeance On Varos – Special Edition REVIEW
During the freestyle dance-off, Colin did the Timewarp while Jason did Riverdance.
Release Date: 10 September 2012
1985 | PG | 89 minutes | £19.99
Director: Ron Jones
Cast: Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, Martin Jarvis, Nabil Shaban
Some people like to tell you off for saying any kind of variation on, “This isn’t proper Doctor Who,” on the grounds that anything that goes out under the Doctor Who label is, by definition, Doctor Who. But if you edited together 45 minutes of autopsy footage and hardcore pornography, simply whacking Ron Grainer’s theme tune on the front wouldn’t make it authentically Who-y. Mind you, it’s equally true that often the stories which feel the least quintessentially Who turn out particularly well. On balance, that’s the case with this Sixth Doctor tale.
First of all, though, you have to get past the unlikeability of Colin Baker’s Doctor. When he isn’t smugly grandstanding or sniping at long-suffering companion Peri he’s drowning in self-pity or – least Doctorish of all – being heartlessly flippant. In the story’s most infamous scene, an encounter with two guards ends with both tumbling into an acid bath, with the Doctor quipping, “Forgive me if I don’t join you,” as the flesh sizzles from their bones. (Earlier on, he deliberately positions a massive laser so that a guard is blasted to atoms when he rounds a corner.) Not for the last time during this season (Baker’s first) it’s something of a relief that it takes forever – a good half an hour – for the regulars to leave the TARDIS and get involved.
That acid bath tumble is far from the only moment where this Orwellian tale, devised in the era of the panic over “video nasties”, seems rather cold-blooded for Who (and rather hard-edged for Saturday tea-time viewing). It’s set on the mining planet Varos, where the ground-down plebs are kept entertained by watching miscreants put to death in ingenious ways in the “Punishment Dome”, live on TV. Politics is bloodthirsty spectacle too, with the softly-spoken Governor (a dignified, statesmanlike Martin Jarvis) periodically required to “go to the country” for approval via a push-button vote. Lose (as he invariably does), and he writhes in agony beneath a cell-disintegration ray. The debt to Orwell is most apparent in sequences featuring a “transmogrifier” which, in an ingenious twist on Room 101, turns its victims into the creatures they most fear – in Peri’s case, a giant bird. Maybe she once got a pigeon stuck up her chimney.
Not only does the story feel uncharacteristically dark, both metaphorically and literally (the fact that it’s one of the few ‘80s Whos that’s atmospherically lit helps matters), but it feels unusually sophisticated, thanks to metafictional techniques that foreground the fact that this is a drama – but in a considerably less cute and cuddly way than say, Moonlighting or Community. We periodically cut away to a pair of Varosian viewers, who pipe up with remarks like, “I like that one, the one in the funny clothes!” or “They’ve had it now!” This self-consciousness seems to infect other characters too, with the Doctor at one point asking an extra, “Do you always get the priest parts?” as he’s led to the gallows (incidentally, this scene, which gloomily lingers over a double hanging, is another which feels rather out of place in Who). Their running commentary holds up a mirror to the viewers, serving to make us feel complicit in the gruesome goings-on being served up for our titillation.
We’re also treated to one of the period’s most memorable monsters: Nabil Shaban’s Sil, a leering capitalist slug with the gargling laugh of a man enthusiastically miming cunnilingus, who speaks with mangled Yoda syntax due to a faulty translator (you’ll be grateful for the subtitles).
While the story has its weaknesses – a surfeit of “explain the world” exposition; buggies which trundle along at the velocity of a lazy milk float; a limp performance as a tortured rebel by Jason “son of Sean” Connery, who’s out-acted by his own naked torso – none is sufficiently calamitous to torpedo the whole production.
And impressively, Philip Martin’s prescient script feels more pertinent and topical in 2012 – an age of cruel vote-in talent shows and online beheading videos, when a politician’s gaffe can have a Twitter mob baying for blood within minutes – than it did when it was initially broadcast.
“Vengeance On Varos” originally came out on DVD in 2001, and the not-insubstantial extras from that release – a commentary by Baker, Bryant and Shaban; some raw studio footage; deleted and extended scenes and out-takes; continuity announcements and trailers; a gallery – are bolstered on this reissue by a raft of new goodies.
Making Of “Nice Or Nasty?” (30 minutes) gives the story the serious discussion it deserves, with mischievous presenter Matthew Sweet posing some cheeky questions to script editor Eric Saward. “The Idiot’s Lantern” (seven minutes) signals its high-minded intentions by using former Channel 4 News presenter Samira Ahmed, as a frontperson; discussing the way both old and new Who have played with the language of television, it’s an intelligent little essay that manages to avoid straying into Pseud’s Corner territory.
A Sixth-Doctor themed edition of “What The Papers Say”-style series “Tomorrow’s Times” looks at press covering during this turbulent era, picking out some particularly choice quotes, and taking us back to the time when Michael Grade’s attempt at cancellation made the front pages of the tabloids, with the then-BBC Controller harassed by hacks on his skiing holiday (and serve him right too!)
Then there are several clips from other shows, beginning with the news report about Colin Baker’s casting. Baker is also quizzed by Frank Bough on Breakfast Time (six-minutes), before visiting Saturday Superstore (15 minutes) to answer questions from callers (including, hilariously, Anthony Ainley’s The Master… is this canon?) and have his handwriting analysed by a graphologist! A French And Saunders sketch (eight minutes), shot on the courtroom set from “The Trial Of A Time Lord” and featuring the duo as a pair of Silurian extras, is so torturously unfunny that they could have used it in the Punishment Dome; no wonder it was never transmitted.
Completing the package are a new text commentary track (replacing the one on the original release), an unused music cue, an isolated score and Radio Times PDFs. So is it worth buying the Special Edition if you already own the original release? Well, you can live without it, but those two thoughtful featurettes are well worth a watch. Maybe talk a new-to-Who mate into splashing out on the DVD, then ask if you can borrow it…
Ian Berriman twitter.com/ianberriman
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