Reviewing Who – Vengeance on Varos

Doctor: Colin Baker

Companion: Nicola Bryant

Script writer: Philip Martin

Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Director: Ron Jones

Originally aired: January 19th 1985 – January 26th 1985

Episode 1: On the prison planet Varos a young man is chained shirtless to a wall with a camera trained on him while cell disintegration rays strike randomly across his body for the viewing pleasure of the Varosian population. The scene is screened live into the sparse, ratty living quarters of sullenly married couple Arek and Etta, but it doesn’t please them much, or disgust them either – they are more interested in the latest food shortages and bickering over what constitutes a really entertaining execution.

Meanwhile, in the TARDIS, bickering of a different nature is taking place. The Sixth Doctor – a walking, talking rainbow in his loud patchwork coat – has just completed some unexplained adjustment to the console and his long-suffering companion Peri is waiting for the explosions. “You sound confident,” she tells him. “Every time you sound confident nowadays, something terrible seems to happen.”

She’s right on the money; the console suddenly dies and the Doctor, looking uneasy, checks a few controls. In the most melodramatic fashion possible, he announces that the TARDIS has run out of power, leaving the two of them stuck in space forever. He then flops sullenly in a chair, ignoring all Peri’s attempts to rouse him into action. “It’s all right for you, Peri,” he exclaims. “You’ve only got one life. You’ll age here in the TARDIS and then die. Me, I shall go on regenerating until all my lives are spent.” Peri, I am glad to say, is not sympathetic.

Also having a bad day is the governor of Varos, who is negotiations over the sale price of his planet’s only export of worth, the metal zeiton-7. The representative he’s dealing with is Sil, a diminutive reptilian alien with a revolting sense of humour and a pair of muscly humanoid bodyguards trailing him everywhere he goes. He’s not planning to pay more for the zeiton-7 – on the contrary, he’s trying to lower the price, and he’s got the governor’s chief officer on his payroll to help him achieve that.

On Varos, every decision the governor makes is put to the people for them to approve or, well, not. Taking a seat in front of a camera, he gives a rousing speech about bettering the planet together, which comes down to more ration cuts. Etta is very moved. It doesn’t hurt that he’s pretty dishy and a good speaker. Arak is less impressed, and the majority of the viewing public seem to agree with him because the vote goes against the governor. The light of a cell disintegrator beams down over his chair, torturing him in a similar way to the chained prisoner. This is the justice of Varos.

He survives, just, to Etta’s delight and Arak’s disgust, and staggers off-camera only to be faced with Sil, who wants to start up negotiations again at once. Winning a temporary respite from that fun-fest, the governor collapses into a chair. One of his more supportive officers offers an idea for placating the murderous populace: what about executing a rebel? The governor does not like the idea, having a fraction more moral fibre than is the norm on Varos, but it’s his life or the rebel’s and he goes with self-preservation.

A guard called Rondel arrives to pass the news to the rebel’s wife Areta, who is also imprisoned in the hellish Punishment Dome. He is an old friend of the condemned man and Areta makes an effort to convince him to help her, explaining what Jondar saw that drove him to become a rebel in the first place – the hypocrisies of the officers, the luxuries that are denied to ordinary Varosians. Rondel doesn’t want to hear it. Later, she receives a visit from one of those hypocritical rebellion-inducing officers, a creep in a pretentious mask called Quillam. He is a ‘scientist’ who wants to use her in his new experiment and he’s trying to convince her that she hates herself. Actually, she hates him. A lot.

In the immobile TARDIS, Peri has rooted out the TARDIS manual and convinced the Doctor to at least take a desultory flip through the pages. The console suddenly starts to move and the Doctor realises that his assessment of their situation was actually completely wrong. Not that he says so, of course. He keeps starting and not finishing rhetorical questions in a very irritating and non-informative way. The upshot of it all is that they have just enough power to make a short trip, but in order to get the TARDIS working properly again they will need a rare metal called zeiton-7. Guess where is the only place in the universe to get it?

The last person to hear of Jondar’s execution is Jondar himself. A cute little golf buggy shows up beside him and drops off the guard who will oversee his death. This guard is kitted out with an anti-hallucinatory helmet to protect him from the dangers of the Punishment Dome, but he’s barely put it on before it’s malfunctioning, because what the hell else could cause a blue box to appear out of nowhere before his eyes?

Being a guard, his first reaction is to shoot it. This has no effect other than to miff the Doctor, who decides that the best way to handle a scared man with a gun is to pop outside for a chat. The ensuing encounter, in which the guard retreats in a panic and the Doctor wrestles his gun off him, is witnessed by everybody, including the governor, his chief officer and Sil, all of whom were waiting together for the execution. Sil feels terribly cheated. The governor orders for it to be dealt with, then passes out. Being unconscious is probably the highlight of his day, but it means he does not hear Sil’s gloating plans for a very literal commercial takeover.

Meanwhile, the Doctor – having inevitably gravitated to the nearest rebellion – is freeing Jondar with the laser that was meant to kill him. Cut off from the TARDIS by the Golf Buggy of Evil, the three of them run into a maze of corridors. The Doctor cuts off power to the area with a bit of judicious vandalism and when a hand pokes out from the wall to beckon him into a secret compartment, he takes it, leaving Jondar and Peri to follow. Their rescuers are none other than Areta and Rondel, who has had a change of heart. It doesn’t last long. He is the first to risk stepping back into the corridor, and he is shot. The others flee.

All of this is, of course, being televised live, and the reaction in at least one household isn’t exactly what the officers might want. Arek is cheering on the ‘rebbos’ while Etta roots for ‘the one in the funny clothes’. Finally some quality entertainment!

The quartet enter the Purple Zone, reportedly one of the most dangerous areas of the dome. The name is explained by a sudden wash of purple light that illuminates, at the end of the corridor, a vast insectoid creature lying in wait. The Doctor recognises that for an illusion, convincing the others to close their eyes and follow him on regardless. Past the fly is the smell of an animal and a pair of glowing green eyes – these are just lights, as the Doctor instantly works out. Possibly the Purple Zone was done on a tight budget. They reach the site of Jondar’s interrupted execution safely, only to discover the TARDIS is gone. It is now in the possession of the governor and his officers who are attempting, unsuccessfully, to open it.

Denied their planned escape and with another guard patrol on their tail, the four escapees scatter. Jondar, Areta and Peri are captured; the Doctor, who went a different way, is not. He finds himself struggling through the endless sands of a desert. Before him stands Peri, holding a glass of water just out of his reach…Only it’s all only another hallucination. The real Peri is being held captive by the governor, forced to watch as the Doctor collapses and the camera zooms in on his lifeless face.

Episode 2: Peri throws herself furiously at the governor and is wrestled easily away. Then the questions begin. The governor thinks she is a rebel, while Sil suspects she is from a rival mining company. They are all so focused on her that no one notices when the Doctor twitches. The first they know of his reanimation when, transported to a particularly nasty sort of mortuary, he gets up and taps a guard on the shoulder. The guard topples over into the acid bath intended for the Doctor’s body. He tries to pull himself out but only succeeds in dragging the second guard in with him. The Doctor grimaces, whisks on his coat and leaves them to their fate.

The governor is chatting, quite courteously, with Peri about the ever-presence of Death when his chief officer arrives with news of the Doctor’s escape. In a quick change of plan, the governor decides to turn this to his advantage, using Peri as a bargaining chip to extract information from the Doctor. It’s sexist and nasty and Peri is disappointed in him. As it turns out, though, that plan isn’t necessary, because the Doctor can’t resist stealing from a guard station and gets caught by Quillam the psycho scientist.

He is dumped in a cell with Jondar and Areta, then collected by a group of men in robes pretending to be priests for a novelty ‘primitive’ execution – a hangman’s platform. The governor is waiting there with Peri. The women are handed over to Quillam’s research, dragged off kicking and screaming, and the men are led up onto the scaffold to the erratic chanting of the priests. The governor keeps asking for last-minute confessions and finally the Doctor explodes into explanation, accusing Sil of lying about the true worth of zeiton-7. Sil screams for the execution to continue. When the governor, his attention well and truly hooked, does not oblige, Sil’s guards try to do it themselves. One of them manages to pull the hangman’s lever, but the whole thing is revealed to be a charade when the nooses just unwind, leaving the Doctor and Jondar unharmed.

The same can’t be said for Peri and Areta, who have been strapped down under a cell mutation ray. Peri starts growing feathers, while Areta turns reptilian. Even though the governor has given orders that they be released, the chief officer leaves them there, hoping to derail this new co-operation with the Doctor. Quillam, who is also in cahoots with Sil, insists that the process is too far advanced, and that the governor isn’t the boss of him anyway. The Doctor retaliates in very mature fashion by ripping off Quillam’s mask, revealing the distorted results of early experimentation.

Amazingly, this does not improve the situation! Quillam refuses to say which switch will end the procedure, telling the Doctor to take a guess. The Doctor and Jondar refuse to play along, grabbing themselves some guns and blowing up the control console, which does the trick nicely. By the time they arrive in Quillam’s lab, the mutations are already fading. The two women are still weak and confused, but there’s no time to let them recover; guards are on the way. The Doctor and Jondar intercept a patrol buggy and steal it, hoping to speed up the escape. By the time they return, however, Peri has come to and wandered away. She is picked up immediately and brought back to the control room. The chief officer chooses now to play his hand. He tells the governor that he must ‘take responsibility’ for this failure to crush the rebellion and take that to a public vote that they all know will be fatal.

Peri is made to stand beside him as evidence of his failure. While they wait for the chief officer to say his piece to the public, the governor explains to her what is going to happen next. He will be killed by the vote and his successor will be chosen from a pool of senior officers, forced to govern until he too dies. The idea is that someone that scared for their life will find better solutions, but of course, as this governor has come to realise, there are no solutions that the Varosian public want to accept.

Peri is sympathetic, but the speech is actually aimed at the guard who is watching them. The governor addresses him by name, Maldak, asking as one last favour for Peri to be allowed to go free – or, failing that, killed quickly instead of being handed back to Quillam. After all, in this system, Maldak is hardly in a fantastic position himself. He could end up as the next governor very soon with this whole mess on his hands. Maldak refuses. The governor returns resignedly to his chair to face the wrath of Varos.

That is summed up by Arak, who hits his ‘no’ vote and takes Etta’s for good measure, to her furious indignation. The cell disintegration ray beams down, the governor is writhing in its light while Peri looks on in horror, when Maldak suddenly changes his mind. He fires on the disintegrator and leads the reprieved governor and Peri into a ventilation shaft to go meet up with the Doctor – who, though he looked, has failed to find Peri for obvious reasons. He and his rebel friends have reached an area of the Punishment Dome known as the End Game. There is rumoured to be a way out here, though no one has ever found it. The three are struck by a state of hallucinogenic happiness, beckoned forward by smiling phantoms; the Doctor comes to his senses just in time to prevent them all falling into a seething pit. They backtrack, only to run into a pair of half-naked crazies in loincloths. Perhaps they were fellow prisoners once, but Jondar’s speeches are coming way too late. Running from the deranged cannibals, they come across a curtain of dangling tendrils. The Doctor guesses these are most likely poisonous and orders the others to maneouver a way through without touching them; moments later, one of the pursuing cannibals proves his point by brushing a tendril and falling instantly dead.

It looks like they may have a shot at escape, but the cameras are still rolling and Quillam has other plans. He and the chief officer arrive to collect their troublesome prisoners and Quillam treats everybody to a monologue on exactly how he intends them to die. It’s ironic, really. His job is to make traps and he doesn’t even realise he’s walked straight into one. The Doctor and his friends release a bunch of the killer tendrils from a string bundle and they flick outwards, brushing Quillam, the chief officer and their accompanying guards with their instantaneous poison. Peri, Maldak and the governor arrive to the sight of their bodies.

There still remains the question of Sil. He has requested an invasion force from his company and, expecting their arrival any time now, is occupying himself by musing aloud to his long-suffering guards about how very suitable he is for the mantle of power. He is all set to gloat when the governor comes for him, trailed by the rest of the revolutionaries, but just at that moment a message comes through from Sil’s company. The invasion has been cancelled. A supply of zeiton-7 is required urgently, at any price. The governor is more than happy to reopen negotiations.

Varos’s first customer, though, is the Doctor, who is offered as much zeiton-7 as he needs free of charge in return for his assistance in both restoring their financial future and bringing down the officer hierachy that had made this planet such a hellish place to live. The Doctor and Peri wave cheerily to Sil on their way out, leaving the governor to announce the changes to the Varosian public. Arak and Etta are left bewildered.

ARAK: No more executions. Torture. Nothing.

ETTA: It’s all changed. We’re free.

ARAK: Are we?

ETTA: Yes!

ARAK: What shall we do?

ETTA:…dunno.

Together they stare at their wall screen, the blank face of freedom.

The Verdict: Colin Baker’s era as the Doctor is, like his coat and Peri’s American accent, a deeply divided subject prone to mockery by even diehard Whovians. Certainly the Sixth Doctor’s relationship with Peri is a mess, veering from grudging affection to open hostility on both sides. That’s a problem that really comes from scriptwriters and bad direction rather than the actors themselves, but as a result I’ve never been much inclined to rewatch Baker No.2’s stories. Vengeance on Varos is one of the exceptions. It is riddled with problems, from constant sexism to visible racism to massive plot holes, but it’s ambitious and exciting and funny. It’s a 24/7 Hunger Games for a dystopian society that’s so bored and world-weary that they’ll watch anything. With evil golf buggies and 80s hair.

And actually, the coat grows on you. Does anyone else love his cat badges?

Colin Baker has had the chance to reshape his Doctor into the man he should have been with a run of audio adventures that give him greater warmth and range than the TV series ever did. I am still ANGRY that he and the other living Doctors do not seem likely to make a proper appearance in the 50th anniversary special. Next month we move on to another controversial incarnation: the enigmatic and occasionally eerie Sylvester McCoy, who in July will be facing down otherworldly knights, a destroyer of worlds, and a brand new Brigadier who is so not impressed.

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