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Review of Vengeance on Varos: SE (#138)
DVD Release Date: 11 Sep 12
Original Air Date: 19 - 25 Jan 1985
Doctor/Companion: Six, Perpugilliam "Peri" Brown
Stars: Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant
Preceding Story: Attack of the Cybermen (Six, Peri)
Succeeding Story: The Mark of the Rani (Six, Peri)

Before watching this release, I'd seen Vengeance on Varos twice previously. The first time was when I was just getting started, watching as many pre-Hiatus stories as I could get my hands on, and the second was for my pre-Gally marathon last year. It has always been one of my least favorites.

Trying to give it a fair shake for this review, I did my best to throw all my preconceived notions - and the fiery passion with which I hate the character Sil - out the window. I think I was I was successful; I liked it more this time around.

Once I was able to get beyond (or put a mostly-effective mental block up against) Sil - a native of Thoros Beta, he is of a reptilian race that is sluglike and, at least in the instance of this individual, utterly disgusting to me - I could see there's actually a pretty good story with some interesting social commentary here.

While the plot device that gets us to Varos in the first place feels utterly contrived ("This is the one problem the TARDIS cannot overcome..."), the twisted society that awaits the Doctor and Peri is thought-provoking. Because it was actually transmitted well before the "reality TV" rage of recent years, Vengeance feels, in retrospect, rather ahead of its time. It taps into the voyeurism and detachment from violence that we all know so well thanks to our own screens today.

Varos is home to a society that originated as a penal colony, and has used fear and punishment to keep its population in check ever since. To heighten the efficacy of the deterrents - and cash in - the government broadcasts what happens to rebels sentenced to make their way through the "Punishment Dome." Making the whole thing even more bizarre (and disturbing) is the fact that the viewers vote periodically to pass or defeat some motion the Governor has made - and the results rain down on said Governor as instant karma, in the form of "human cell disintegration bombardment." It's sadism, pure and simple. And a really unpleasant view into a funhouse mirror.

Looking at the episode more superficially, I've already mentioned how much Sil squicks me out, so let me list a few other things I consider "cons" before moving onto the "pros." For a start, I have a hard time getting over Areta's '80s hair (perhaps because it reminds me too strongly of high school). The little electric patrol cart was also on the pathetic side - they could've run faster than that thing moves! Also, there was no real resolution to the cliffhanger. Why was the Doctor not actually dead? It's never explained, which is irritating. Most importantly, though, the way the Doctor just kind of gave up at the beginning when the TARDIS wandered into "an actual and temporal void" and started to pout, getting all maudlin about sitting there for ages, regenerating endlessly until he finally died, was just about unforgivable. This is one of several places where I felt the writers let Colin Baker down - Six should've been better than this.

On the flip side, Sil was well characterized, even if he is super icky; having a shirtless Jason Connery (yes, that's Sean's son) is fun for those of us who appreciate male aesthetics; and the avian prosthetics on Peri for the tissue transmogrification scenes are beautifully realized. Putting aside my own distaste for the main villain of the piece, I've found a new appreciation for an insightful story.

DVD Extras (highlights)
Nice or Nasty
The "making of" documentary takes a rather philosophical approach to the story. I was particularly interested in what Sheila Reid (the actress who played Etta, one of the in-home viewers) had to say about her role, and how those scenes worked during recording. The piece also covers the importance of incidental music, how the switch to a 45-minute episode format changes story pacing, and the part Vengeance might have played in contributing to the 18-month hiatus (that's the lowercase-h "hiatus") between S22 and S23.

Idiot's Lantern
Presented by Samira Ahmed (a BBC broadcaster), this extra looks at how Doctor Who uses media in its stories to make them feel realistic, as well as "subverting them, poking fun."
 
Tomorrow's Times: The Sixth Doctor
Another installment in this brilliant series of extras, this edition is narrated by Sarah Sutton (who played Five's Companion Nyssa). Tidbits from the press during Six's tenure included snarking about the costume, what the 18-month hiatus was all about, the change in Companion, and how Colin Baker left the show.

There are plenty of other things I could pick apart if I was feeling persnickety (Peri's imperfect American accent, the way the Doctor gets Jondar to kill the Varosian authorities with the vine ambush), but that could be done with absolutely any story in the show's history. Vengeance is a bit of a victim of its '80s production values, but objectively otherwise holds up pretty well as as story that makes us take a harder look at ourselves.

Categories: 

Comments

I have never understood what I perceive to be the general consensus that this is a good story. It has an interesting take on video nasties but too many contrivances for my liking:
1) Zeiton 7 being necessary for all time travelling craft and the only planet that has it being mercilessly exploited by Sil and his cronies, as if there would only be one customer for such a product! Peladon did this much better
2) The death of the Doctor as a cliffhanger, highly unlikely, a ho hum moment for me, although the delivery of the line about cutting the shot was good
3) Maybe I had lost the will to live by part 2 but whenever there was a perceived threat the way it was directed made me feel that actually there was not much of a threat eg transmogrification, poisonous vines etc etc
4) The about turn from Galatron that allowed the Governor to ask whatever price he wanted happened way too fast for my liking
5) For me the couple watching the video feed was too staged, although they were an integral part of the story

Maybe what I disliked was down to the direction. Unlike you I thought Sil was a revelation with a great laugh and it was refreshing to find a villain who found Peri unattractive for a change

Great ideas Mr Martin, maybe Peter Grimwade or Graham Harper could have made this into something I could have enjoyed. Was it Ron Jones directing?

One I can happily avoid in perpetuity, 3/10 for me

By Wholahoop (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

Honestly, I have always had such a poor reaction to this one before, I was just working hard to see it with fresh eyes. Didn't even notice most of the plot holes/issues you mentioned here because I was just trying to give it a fair shake. Guess I wasn't even aware of the "received wisdom" that this one's supposed to be good. That, umm... actually surprises me.

By mrfranklin

See Subject for comment :-)

By Wholahoop (not verified)

Another piece of this puzzle is that by now, the Beeb had decided they wanted to kill Dr Who as the man at the head of programming didn't like S.F. and thought it was a waste of programming time. A LOT of Colin Baker's stories spent time showing us just how very bad he was - I always wondered how much of that was attributable to the Beeb...

By twilight2000 (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

Yes, I've heard things like that before. I don't know how much that seeped into the writing directly, but it certainly took me a long time to warm to Six. I will say, though, that I think C. Baker did a bang-up job with the scripts he was given - it's just that many of them were (in my mind) kind of crap. :\

By mrfranklin
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