6-5-04 "Vengeance on Varos"
I'm a softy for the Sixth Doctor, despite his wardrobe and psychotic tendencies, so there are few of his stories I could consider beyond the pale (this is the person who actually liked "Timelash" when she saw it the first time). Fortunately "Vengeance on Varos" is at the other end of the scale. After all, with a title that doesn't feature "___ of ___," how could a Whovian be happier? And anything that riles up Mary Whitehouse has my approval. All joking aside, "Vengeance" won't make it to my top ten—but its thought-provoking qualities will be remembered for a long time.
Probably the two best features of this story were the plot and Nabil Shaban as Sil; the two worst were probably Peri and the cramped, unimaginative sets. Colin Baker pointed out it was one of the few Doctor Whos to be filmed entirely in the studio, and I think it may suffer somewhat from this. Having just seen Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban the night before and having been steeped in "Moonlight Becomes Ye" skeletons from Pirates of the Caribbean, I could only laugh ironically when the first image of Varos came up on the screen: a pitiful model reminiscent of Tatooine. This first reaction was a bit harsh and undeserved; it's difficult to rein in the 2004 expectations to 20 or 40 years before. When one considers how difficult and primitive filming was on, say, “The Aztecs”, there's much to be said for a well-done, low-budget effect than a hundred CGI whatevers.
In the Punishment Dome, the site of pain and torture for the unfortunate citizens of Varos, I see a reflection of Erik's torture chamber in Phantom of the Opera, particularly the No Options Kill Center desert that the Doctor "died" in. (One of the few particularly successful effects.) The giant fly, though—kind of like the giant rat in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” such things are better left to the imagination. I did think, however, that the flesh transmogrifier was a stroke of genius—to take the thing one most fears from one's mind and transform oneself into it. Diabolical, sadistic, and perfect for the story. Quillam, the director of research, was a character who could have been a lot more interesting—or was it just the Sharaz Jek-like characterization of Nicolas Chagrin? I think I even caught a hint of Michael Crawford in his mask.
The Doctor was both tetchy and full of swagger. Unfortunately, he was certainly less than courageous plodding around the TARDIS and complaining. One rather hopes that some of the funnier bits that got cut out of this brisk two-parter were showing this Doctor's softer side. He certainly comes off with uncaring bluster for most of the episode, but there are still hints of his better nature. Still, I think I'd rather watch him in his orange coat than Jason Connery hanging around on rocks without a shirt. Young Connery can be forgiven for his less than stellar acting (it was his debut) because Jondar's contribution to the plot was not written to include much depth. It was Geraldine Alexander as Areta who was the most cringe-inducing, but perhaps that was due to her frightful '80s hair. Unfortunately, my favorite bit character, Rondel (Keith Skinner) bit the dust about half an hour in. Not Peri's most shining episode either, to be sure, though she did utter the tongue-in-cheek, "These corridors look the same."
It's the acting prowess of Martin Jarvis as the Governor and Shaban as Sil that focus attention away from endless corridors and parlor-trick-special effects. Jarvis' Governor at first had me thinking of Sean Bean, but his firm stage presence and restrained characterizations were delightful when it could have been played so much over the top. Sil is the villain you love to hate. For a Western cultural perspective that vilifies and fears all things wiggly and slimy, Shaban's weird little laugh and strange amphibious qualities are deliciously horrible. Sil's revolting excitability and murderous egotism were also a fun foil for the Doctor. It's great that he was able to show up again in "Mindwarp" though it would have been nice for him to become a recurring villain—not overused, of course, but featured in another season perhaps.
The greatest strength, of course, of "Vengeance on Varos" was its applicability to our own world. I am not certain what in British TV in 1985 would have triggered such a scathing commentary, but it's almost prophetic the way "Vengeance" anticipates the reality TV genre. This is perfectly illustrated through the characters of Etta (Sheila Reid) and Arak (Stephen Yardley). Fascinating studies in Joe and Jill Blow, the median of our society, these characters show the desensitization to violence and the addictiveness of reality TV. Most telling of all, when the torture and broadcasted killing on Varos is over, neither really knows quite what to do. A bitter but realistic commentary on humanity. There is something infinitely more disturbing about focusing in on Varosians making each other suffer rather than heartless machines like Cyberman blasting people away. I was astounded at the truth in the Chief Offiicer's statement, "Recordings of their [prisoners'] agonies will sell on every civilized world" as it is so pertinent to what is happening in the world now.
"Vengeance on Varos" by Philip Martin is a stunning predecessor for reality TV . . . but one wonders why the Doctor wasn't more involved.