Saturday, 31 October 2009

Doctor Who: Vengeance on Varos

Part One

“When did they last show anything worth watching anyway?”

Now that’s much more like it!

I’m intrigued about watching Philip Martin’s other work after seeing this again. Anyway, we begin with a topless Jason Connery chained to a wall in a nod to the ladies, and as he dodges a laser beam we see that he’s on camera. 8.28 in the Big Brother House and Jondar is dodging laser beams. How prophetic.

We cut to our fantastic Greek chorus of Arak and Etta, whose lines are all brilliant. The first words spoken are “Not him again”! I love this kind of postmodern stuff, especially when done with wit as it is here. They have the right to vote, but this is democracy without liberty, including freedom of speech as Etta makes very clear, much more akin to voting for a reality show than a government. This is grippingly contemporary and already feels like satirical science fiction at its best.

Nabil Shaban as Sil is also superb, the perfect Thatcherite villain for the ‘80s with a great look and played quite brilliantly. And his Yoda-isms I love. His opening scenes with the Governor- Martin Jarvis, also brilliant- is also gloriously satirical in its way, as we learn that the torments of political dissidents and criminals in the Punishment Dome are not only broadcast to the population but are to be sold throughout the galaxy. “Are they really disturbing, these videos you sell?” asks Sil, making explicit the “video nasty” theme said to be behind the script.

If that’s not enough great concepts already, whenever the Governor loses a vote on one of his decisions he’s immediately subjected to a burst of cellular disintegration that can kill him! Already the nightmare of the previous stories feels very different. Oh, this is dark, even cynical, but it’s done with wit and, importantly, purpose.

The Governor survives to this time, to the disappointment of Arak, who reminds me of a number of taxi drivers I’ve known. The Governor needs a crowd-pleasing policy quickly, and an underling called Bax comes up with the answer; a particularly entertaining method of execution for Jondar. “I’m sure the video of his execution would sell” he notes.

We’re introduced to Areta and her oh-so-‘80s hair, as she reveals to us the rather intriguing back-story of the planet; originally a prison colony, it is ruled by a caste descended from the original prison officers. Another brilliant concept.

Meanwhile, after intermittent scenes of moping a\bout in the TARDIS, the Doctor and Peri finally arrive on Varos, in desperate need of the Zeiton 7 it produces. Jondar’s televised execution is being televised and, wonderfully, the TARDIS materialises on camera; the scenes in the punishment dome are being watched by the entire population of Varos, who thus become identified with the viewer. “I like that one, the one in the funny clothes” notes Etta.

I think my love for this episode was finally confirmed by Peri’s line “All these corridors look the same to me” as she and the Doctor run down the exact same set they’ve already run down several times. But even better is the cliffhanger, in which the governor usurps the role of the director: “And cut it… now!”

Part Two

“We’re free!”

“Are we?”


“What shall we do?”

The acid bath scene is often criticised but personally I see little wrong with it; the Doctor isn’t responsible for anyone’s death and I’m more than prepared to forgive the little quip in the circumstances.

The Doctor, Jondar, and the ex-guard whose name I didn’t catch are to be hanged, and Colin Baker excels in this scene. “Do you always get the priest parts?” he enquires of the man who is to give him the last rites, in a brilliantly witty bit of self-referentialism. Oh, and the deity being appealed to is the “Great Video”. I love this script.

The Doctor, declaring truth on Varos to be a “very flexible commodity” speaks on the gallows of Zeiton 7 and how it is in fact worth a lot more than Sil and his Galatron Corporation masters are telling the Governor. This proves rather fortunate, as it turns out the hanging was a mock execution, and the Governor is now suspicious of what Sil has been telling him.

Peri and Areta are to be transmogrified into a bird and a reptile respectively, so the Doctor and Jondar immediately seize some guns and engineer a hostage situation in order to escape. If there’s one thing this marathon has taught me, it’s that I don’t necessarily have a problem with the Doctor using firepower if it feels right, and this is one of those times.

The Chief, unfortunately, is able to engineer a coup against the Governor and insist upon a compulsory vote, which will inevitably result in his death by cellular disintegration. The Governor’s appeal to the Guard to spare Peri and himself ultimately fails, but shows he has faith in the Doctor.
The ending is neat and satisfying, with the Doctor even getting away with an atrocious pun (“I think he needs more than water, Peri, eh?”

It’s quite a relief, after the worst start of any Doctor’s tenure, to see a Colin Baker story that comes up trumps. Not one of the very best, perhaps, but easily a 5/5.

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