Vengeance on Varos is a story that seems even more in tune with current trends than when it was originally broadcast, nearly thirty years ago. The rise and rise of reality television over the last few decades chimes perfectly with the similarly obsessed viewers of Varos. It’s only a short step from Arak and Etta to the viewers seen each week on Gogglebox.
The ruling elite of Varos seek to pacify the population with a daily broadcast of torture and execution, in some ways similar to the entertainments offered to the Roman people – “bread and circuses”. They also have a lucrative sideline in selling videos across the galaxy of the events seen inside the Punishment Dome – as they say, they literally have to “export or die”.
Interactive television is something we take for granted now (and Doctor Who also has had its brush with it, who could forget the difficult decision about whether to choose Mandy or Big Ron to assist the Doctors in Dimensions in Time? Not me, and believe me, I’ve tried) and it made it’s first faltering steps in the late 1970’s.
In America, Warner Amex Cable Communications pioneered a system called Qube. It offered a variety of interactive services, including home shopping and quiz shows. Each user was provided with a handset which had a number of buttons, so that when, for example, questions were asked, the viewers could instantly give their opinion – and it’s clearly this type of technology that influenced Varos (witness the Varosians ability to vote on key matters, which has the side-effect of deciding whether the Governor lives or dies).
Television violence was in 1985, as it remains now, a hot topic – so a story that satirises violence was always going to be controversial. As might be expected, there were complaints – not only from casual viewers and media watchdogs, but also from some fans who were concerned about the Doctor’s actions. Personally, I don’t have a problem with the acid bath scene, as the Doctor doesn’t actually push anybody in – the one guard pulls in the other. I do have an issue with the scene towards the end of episode one, where the Doctor leaves the machine that was about to obliterate Jondar pointing towards the pursuing guards, and we see one unfortunate guard killed.
If some of the visuals and dialogue are (intentionally) unpleasant, then no doubt Philip Martin and Eric Saward would say that that was the point. Exactly how far the programme could (or should) go during Saturday tea-time viewing is another interesting debating point.
Moving on, it’s clear right from the start that this story is going to be something unusual. Arak and Etta never interact with any of the other characters, they remain isolated from the action and only view the events on their screen and then pass comment on what they see. For example, Etta remarks that she likes the Doctor, “the one in the funny clothes”. And, like many viewers, they are also quite clear about what they like and don’t like.
ARAK: Why have they stopped? Oh, it’s pathetic. When did they last show something worth watching, eh? When did we last see a decent execution.
ETTA: Last week.
ETTA: The blind man.
ARAK: That was a repeat.
ETTA: It wasn’t. You’re thinking of that infiltrator. He wasn’t blind. Not at the beginning, anyway.
The opening fifteen minutes or so manage to set up the basics of the story very effectively. We know that Varos is a military dictatorship which appeases the working population with violent broadcasts, whilst the Governer (Martin Jarvis) negotiates with Sil (Nabil Shaban) concerning the mining rights for Zeiton-7 ore. This is, though, one of the major plot flaws in the story. Zeiton-7 is one of the most precious substances in the Universe, so it beggars belief that nobody on Varos is aware of this or that Sil and his company have been offering them a pittance for it for centuries.
One problem with this elaborate world-building is that, like Attack of the Cybermen, the Doctor and Peri take a long time to actually connect to the plot. If you treat Varos as a four-parter, then for the majority of episode one they’re stuck inside the TARDIS.
Once they arrive on Varos though, things do begin to happen. They team up with the rebel Jondar (Jason Connery) and his wife Areta (Geraldine Alexander). Both give rather stagey, unnatural performances, but there are stronger actors on Varos (particularly Martin Jarvis) so this isn’t too much of a problem. And they’re certainly better than Rondel (Keith Skinner) who is mercifully killed off very quickly.
If the rebels on Varos are a bit wet, then the baddies are much better. Forbes Collins (Chief Officer) gives a gloating performance as the power behind the throne. Nicholas Chagrin isn’t subtle as the scarred, deranged Quillam – but it’s not a part that really demands subtlety. Nabil Shaban as Sil has the showiest part and he clearly made enough of an impact to have a swift return to the series the following year. Best of all though, is Martin Jarvis as the Governor.
The Governor isn’t an evil man – he just seems to be trapped in the system and has very little room for manouvere. So he’s like many politicians then, although he – unlike them – is in constant danger of death from his people if he announces too many unpopular policies. Something that has yet to be introduced here, popular though it undoubtedly would be!
As the Doctor and Peri proceed through the Punishment Dome, they become an instant hit with the viewers of Varos (something that JNT obviously hoped would also be reflected in real life) but they find rather less favour with some of the ruling elite. Quillam, especially, seems keen to arrange a painful death for the Doctor.
QUILLAM: I see you have a keen interest in the flora of Varos, Doctor.
DOCTOR: Just a passing fancy.
CHIEF: It’ll pass faster than you think. Kill them!
QUILLAM: Wait. This man has insulted me. He must suffer for my humiliation.
CHIEF: This is no time for revenge. Kill them quickly!
QUILLAM: And deprive Varos of an example of how traitors are dealt with? The cameras are still functioning. Let the show begin. I want to hear them scream till I am deaf with pleasure. To see their limbs twist in excruciating agony. Ultimately their blood must gush and flow along the gutters of Varos. The whole planet must delight in their torture and death.
DOCTOR: An excellent scenario. Not mad about the part.
Vengeance on Varos was Ron Jones’ final Doctor Who story as director. Out of the all regular Doctor Who directors from the 1980’s he seems the most anonymous. He was no Graeme Harper, but Varos, like his previous story, Frontios, is shot quite effectively. Both were studio-bound, but Jones managed to couch good performances from the majority of the cast and whilst the camerawork is not particularly elaborate, he was able to lower the lighting and produce a decent atmosphere. Music, from Jonathan Gibbs, is sparse, but it’s quite striking. Today, it seems impossible to have a story without wall-to-wall music, so this is a trip back to a time when silence could be very effective.
Although it was originally planned to end the story with the Doctor and Peri inside the TARDIS, common sense prevailed, as the final scene, like the rest of the story, is deeply ironic.
GOVERNOR [on the viewscreen]: And that, fellow citizens of Varos, is my vowed intention. For without justice and peace and tolerance, we have no future. I know you will all work as hard as I shall for a glorious tomorrow. Thank you for allowing me into your homes. Thank you.
ARAK: No more exeutions, torture, nothing.
ETTA: It’s all changed. We’re free.
ARAK: Are we?
ARAK: What shall we do?
(Static on the viewscreen.)