Vengeance on Varos is the first story to introduce the Sil and Mentor species. Certainly, there is a lot of political relevance regarding this story, as according to the Politics and Law of Doctor Who‘s blog post, “Vengeance on Varos: or, why English and Welsh trials aren’t televised“:
The opening scene of Vengeance On Varos (1985) contains a familiar dystopian trope. A prisoner is being tortured live on TV. This ‘entertainment’ is presumably being televised across the whole planet, although the episode focuses on the responses of Arak and Etta, a couple watching in their living room. Rather than being traumatised, they are bored. ‘Not him again?’ says Arak, before complaining ‘when did we last see a decent execution?’. Etta, who appears entranced by the programme, reminds him that there was one last week, at which point the two bicker about whether or not that ‘episode’ was a repeat. Clearly this barbarity has been normalised. Equally worringly, it soon becomes apparent that when the Governor wishes to implement a new policy, citizens vote through their TV screens – and if they vote ‘no’, he dies live on air. Throughout the episode the two discuss various scenes of torture and oppression as if they were fictional programmes: ‘’I like that one [the Doctor], the one in the funny clothes!’; ‘I like this section, I wonder if they know what’s waiting?’; ‘Here comes the acid bath!’.
These events are similar to trials: the prisoner is on public display for questioning, and citizens are called upon to decide the fate of the governor. These scenes reflect English and Welsh (Scottish and Northern Irish law is different) anxieties about televising justice. Varos usefully epitomises, albeit exaggeratedly, the uneases that have informed a cautious attitude to televising trials. At present these are are not recorded or televised. By trials I mean the initial criminal court case where a defendant’s guilt or innocence is established. In contrast to trials, appeals are now often recorded and/or transmitted. The Supreme Court streams selected cases through the internet, and has an excellent YouTube channel where lawyers, law students, and no doubt some slightly bored members of the public can view recordings of their judgments. Earlier this year the Court of Appeal also started to record selected cases, although this is primarily for the media to use in reporting; it seems more difficult for the public to access them online.
The Supreme Court’s proceedings, which are only ever appeals, can be recorded and broadcast thanks to Section 47 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. The situation for other courts is governed by the Crime and Courts Act 2013. It does not explicitly ban the practice being extended into criminal trials. Section 32(1) of the Act allows the Lord Chancellor, with the ‘concurrence’ of the Lord Chief Justice, to make orders that permit the recording of images or sound in courts. There are two main barriers to this. First, under Section 32(1)(b), it can be made subject to ‘prescribed conditions’ including the agreement of the parties involved. Second, under Section 32(3), a recording order may be suspended ‘in the interests of justice or in order that a person is not unduly prejudiced’. Given that both these safeguards are broadly-phrased, they may prove difficult to define precisely; instead they seem primarily governed by matters of policy. Why then has the potential extension of recording not taken place? Why has the Lord Chief Justice recently told the House of Lords Constitution Committee that he would like a ‘pause’ to take stock of current practice before going any further? And how exactly does Varos serve as a useful illustration of those fears?
Three complaints are played out particularly well in this episode. Specifically the concerns here relate to about televising trials, and not about publicising them through other mediums: they are usually open to the public and are reported and tweeted about regularly. Vengeance on Varos helps illustrate a distinct set of issues that arise when broadcasting trials. First, justice may become a spectacle. The act of televising transforms what the people of Varos should see shameful events (torture and death) into a commodified, not-quite real event situated on the border between reality and fiction. As rued by another character later on, ‘the spectacle of death is our only entertainment’ whilst one of the villains is delighted at the ‘prime time viewing’. Guilt has apparently been assumed just because the accused is on TV; the truth is irrelevant. As a consequence of the trials being seen as entertainment, a second issue arises: detachment. Arak and Etta do not take what they are seeing seriously. They dehumanise those on display. They forget that they are watching real people in real pain or facing real consequences – recall the argument about whether they were watching a repeat. The accused becomes ‘other’ andthe watchers simply do not care what happens to them. The third issue arises from the fact that viewers vote for the Governor’s fate. His destiny is not decided by a jury or by evidence – it is settled by the gut feelings of the watching public. Opinion, not fact, is what matters here.
The events on Varos are of course dystopian. Nonetheless, the three points above are, to varying extents, caricatures of the real concerns that inform the policy reasons against extending the recording of court proceedings in the UK. Helena Kennedy warns that the solemnity required by fair trials – respecting the rights of the accused to make their case, to make sure decisions are made on evidence, and so on – could be eroded if trials were televised. This is because the events could easily become sensationalised by the media. The accused might become dehumanised; edited or distorted images from the trial could influence the jury or dictate the public perception of the accused’s guilt whatever the verdict actually is; this potential threat to the idea of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ has been cited by one New Zealand judge as a reason to ban recording in their courtroom. The Ministry of Justice itself has recognised this potential problem and states that ‘the Government and the Judiciary will not permit our courts to become show trials for media entertainment’. Richard Sherwin goes further, warning that blurring the lines between law and entertainment could lead to the law going ‘pop’: if criminal trials are seen as entertainment then their legitimacy as a forum for determining guilt and innocence may dissolve, threatening the rule of law that he sees as underpinning a liberal democratic society. Indeed, so numbed are Arak and Etta to reality that when the Doctor eventually prevails and the broadcasts are stopped, they cannot comprehend the ‘real world’.
One can look at the ongoing Oscar Pistorius trial as a real illustration of these problems. Its coverage has in many ways focused less on criminal proceedings and more on personalities and a rather distasteful non-legal narrative about celebrities. Lord Chief Justice Thomas, in the evidence referred to earlier, cryptically said that he was ‘troubled’ by the events in South Africa, but did not wish to expand. Without wanting to put words into his mouth, it is quite possible that he was referring to some of the concerns noted above.
Vengeance on Varos clearly contains representations, albeit exaggerated, of the policy reasons that for now prevent English and Welsh courts from televising trials. This is one of the great utilities of popular culture: it can place visualisations of important ideas and arguments into an easily-accessible arena. Not all the arguments against televising trials are covered in Varos of course – there is little material in there about the potential impact on witnesses for example. Similarly, the episode’s setting does not necessarily lend itself to a celebration of the potential benefits of greater transparency to things such as public education. It is nonetheless a fascinating hour and a half’s viewing for public lawyers.
Additionally, according to The A.V. Club review:
“Vengeance On Varos” presents a ruined, downslid post-industrial nightmare world run by 1984-style totalitarians where most of the population—as represented by the bickering Etta and Arak—are kept placid and pacified by a steady diet of bread-and-circuses televised torture of political prisoners and even the prospect that their democratically elected leaders will be killed on camera if their policies become too unpopular. (Which is itself an exaggeration of how elections for Britain’s prime ministers are called, so American viewers might have missed the joke when the governor’s underling tells him “Congratulations, sir. You survived the vote.”) Varos is lucky enough to have a monopoly on Zeiton-7 ore (which is pretty implausible—really, the whole universe?—but let’s just ignore that). But whatever chance the Varosians have of cleaning up their world is stymied by the greed of a rapacious off-planet mining corporation represented by the loathsome, sluglike Sil. It’s a world ripe for revolution, and the first person we see in episode one is in fact a captured rebel leader being tortured (he’s played by Jason Connery, looking uncomfortably like dad Sean did in Zardoz). In a more idealistic, earlier era of Doctor Who, this would be a sign that the story was going to be about the Doctor teaming up with the rebels to overthrow The Man, or in this case The Slug—but that’s not exactly what happens here. The Doctor does meet up with the rebels, but they never really drive the action of the story. Instead, it’s the governor, who longs for a more idealistic time but has become so disillusioned that he says things like “Oh, you grieve for his death—I forget that people do.”
As the story begins, the Doctor is having a terrible week: As Peri catalogs it, “you’ve caused three electrical fires, a total power failure, and a near collision with a storm of asteroids. Not only that, you’ve twice managed to get yourself lost in the TARDIS corridors, wiped the memory of the flight computer and jettisoned three-quarters of the storage hold. You even managed to burn dinner last night.” And he’s managed to leave the TARDIS stranded and powerless by neglecting to replenish its supply of Zeiton-7, a McGuffin designed to give him a reason to go to Varos, since that’s the only place it can be found. But before Peri prods him into thinking of Varos, he sinks deeply into despondent self-pity, ready to literally curl up and die, moaning to Peri that at least she’ll only have to die once, since he’ll just keep regenerating every time he starves to death.
Now, maybe I’m not cutting this scene enough slack since it’s obviously meant to be comic, but it’s a pretty bleak and acidic joke to make such a deliberately ugly inversion of what the Doctor had been in previous years. He is less over-the-top obnoxious here than he was in “The Twin Dilemma,” but it’s an improvement only to the extent that he’s not actively trying to kill Peri, but merely ready to watch her die. True, Peri soon goads him into action, but even when they get to Varos, he is pretty reactive and passive.
Peri doesn’t fare much better, spending much of the story out of her depth and struggling just to stay alive. She has trouble explaining to her interrogators why she and the Doctor are on Varos because she doesn’t entirely understand it herself. Which I have a certain sympathy with, because it’s what would probably also happen to me if I was stranded on a place like Varos. In some ways, Peri’s constant vulnerability throughout her time on Doctor Who is an interesting dose of realism into how an ordinary human like her—or you, or me—would cope with the myriad dangers that the Doctor runs into every time he steps out of the TARDIS. But that still doesn’t make it any more fun to watch her. She’s constantly sullen, shrill, and bad-tempered, and not somebody you’d want to be stuck traveling with. And she’s passive. The most notable thing about Peri in “Varos” is that she’s almost turned into a bird, and that’s something that happens to her. Compare that with Doctor Who’s many great female characters—Zoe Heriot, Jo Grant, Sarah Jane Smith, Leela, or Romana, for starters, all of whom had plenty of moments where they were more than just the girl tied to the railroad tracks.
Given what we’re presented with for main characters, a villain would have to be radioactively repellent to seem worse than them—and unfortunately, that’s what we get with Sil, the moist brown slug from outer space. Certainly there’s a grand tradition from Doctor Who villains to be scenery-chewing and over-the-top, which has sometimes worked very well—take Solon in “Brain Of Morbius,” or Roger Delgado as The Master during the Third Doctor era. But that kind of overacting more often than not is just poisonous to a story, and Sil is just, ugh. I mean, ugh. His belligerence and leering, greedy, toad-like personality is clearly meant as a parody of corporate capitalism, but it’s so obvious and nuance-free that it’s not enjoyable or particularly perspicacious. Nabil Shaban goes for all-out obnoxiousness, nothing but screaming, petulant mugging and disgusting tongue-wagging. Still, maybe that was the only good choice for portraying a character who was apparently designed on purpose to look and behave like an animated, oversize lump of human excrement. I guess they were shooting for a satiric effect akin to South Park’s Mr. Hankey, but instead of clever Sil just winds up revolting and dumb. And yet the character was apparently popular enough to be brought back again the following season for “Mindwarp,” the second part of the season-long “Trial Of A Time Lord” storyline. Go figure.
The dystopian society of Varos is far from the first one the Doctor’s encountered, but what’s different about it is the attitude the story has about it that not only is Varosian society fundamentally broken and corrupt, but that there isn’t really anything that can be done to improve it to any significant degree, at least by any of the characters we’re presented with, and that any happy ending may as well have come about through random chance as the actions of the people on screen. The Doctor Who of “Varos” doesn’t believe in the kind of unalloyed heroism represented by Doctors One through Five—instead, the heroes it gives us are either corrupt (the governor), incompetent (the Doctor), or irrelevant (the rebels). The anticorporate rebels survive, but they don’t take over. Instead, the worst elements of the government are nullified or killed, but the governor stays in power. And the governor is also the closest thing to a hero we’re going to get here, as he tries to fight both his own bureaucracy’s endemic violence and corruption and outwit Sil in a trade agreement for the Zeiton ore. He’s really the only dramatically compelling character, and it’s too bad that he doesn’t actually defeat Sil himself so much as he has a TKO handed to him by the scriptwriter when Sil’s hoped-for invasion force turns out to be instead orders from home office to knuckle under. Note also how little The Doctor has to do with resolving the story, which ends well not because of anything brilliant or proactive he does, really, but because he was lucky enough that nothing worse happens. (Though he still takes credit anyway.) Sil turns out to be something like the Sixth Doctor’s Moriarty—his perfect dramatic opposite, who can match him and even best him only in boorishness and blustering incompetence, and who fails not so much because anyone actually defeats him or outwits him, but because the writers throw in a deus ex machina.
Finally, according to the Doctor Who TV article, “Defining The Doctor: Vengeance On Varos“:
Doctor Who has always had episodes with darker motifs, varying from the environmentally-conscience Third Doctor yarn, The Green Death to the more recent abhorred Love & Monsters. Each of these stories have dour and tragic underlying themes, different ones, naturally (in TGD, it’s the fear of humankind destroying the environment (the outcome being humungous sickening maggots) and in L&M it’s the after-effects the Doctor has on people and places). Vengeance on Varos from the Sixth Doctor’s abrupt tenure is a prime example of when Doctor Who gets bleak… really bleak. Think Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games plus a shoddy BBC budget, and of course, the obligatory alien planet.
The concept of live killings as entertainment dates back the Roman era where a fighter would engage in a gladiatorial game against a compatriot and they would battle to the death. Suzanne Collins uses a similar idea in her blockbuster book series, The Hunger Games and that has brought the idea of televised murder into the modern day but in Doctor Who there is Vengeance on Varos.
The Doctor and Peri materialize on Varos, a planet with an abusive and inconsiderate government, in search of Zeiton-7 – a rare fuel source for the TARDIS (which had conveniently never been mentioned prior to Vengeance on Varos) – to discover that Varos’ leaders are supporting executions on its screens. Naturally the Doctor is outraged but rather than immediately set out to stop it, he inadvertently brings the cruel system down.
The Sixth Doctor was the darkest in my view and he was less of the pacifistic and dovelike Time Lord that we had gotten used to, striving to stop conflict without using violence. The fact that the Doctor didn’t attempt to end Varos’ brutal regime straightaway shows that he is a very different man (although he does eventually stop the barbaric goings-on). One scene that shows just how unalike the Sixth Doctor is to his other bodies is when he disturbs the two guards in the acid bath who promptly fall in, one dragging down another. The Doctor leaves with a sardonic wisecrack, unperturbed at their deaths. Almost every other Doctor would have shown compassion and pity but the Sixth Doctor didn’t express anything of the sort. Colin Baker’s incarnation was so contrasting to the other Doctors that he is hated and loved for being so different in this way.
Nicola Bryant’s Peri is a really overlooked companion (but not when it comes to her outfits in Planet of Fire) and I found myself really engaging with the ‘American’. With a lamentable accent young Peri stumbles around the Varos complex, after being split up from the Doctor in a rather perfunctory manner. The one thing that I really like about Peri is that she’s a very independent woman and rarely succumbs to the banal damsel in distress trope. Unfortunately in Vengeance on Varos she slips into ‘shriek, panic, get hysterical, panic again, shriek a little more’ far too often and is at one point strapped to a table (to have her cells transmuted, admittedly). Vengeance isn’t Peri’s best outing but it’s most definitely the Sixth Doctor’s.
Colin Baker is an absolutely fantastic actor; he can convey almost all emotions portraying the Doctor and thus his incarnation is incredibly multifaceted changing moods quicker than Prisoner Zero alters his form. His version of the reputable Time Lord is one of my favourite down to the sheer diversity of his character – the same variety is found within the stories attired to him.
Vengeance on Varos isn’t perfect; a lot of it appears to me as a whole load of wandering around punctuated by violent encounters and a lot of the characters seem underused and not fully developed (the reptilian Sil spends an awful lot of time cackling gleefully and having childish tantrums without rising to much) but it’s the Sixth Doctor’s best story in characterisation and depiction of his zany and changeable world.
According to the m0vie blog review:
It’s a question of re-imprinting their identities, of establishing again who they are.
– Colin Baker spots the problems with the Colin Baker era
Vengeance on Varos is a serious contender for the best Colin Baker Doctor Who story. Not that there’s too much competition. It’s either this or Revelation of the Daleks. I’m also reasonably fond of The Two Doctors, but I’ll accept that I’m in the minority on that one. Colin Baker’s first season is an absolute mess. It has a scattering of half-decent ideas (paired with some atrocious ones, to be fair) executed in a rather slapdash manner.
The season is obsessed with violence and politics and power and the Doctor’s strange ability to accrue large body counts while nominally remaining a pacifist. Like the last year of Peter Davison’s tenure, there’s a sense that the show doesn’t really like its protagonist. Attack of the Cybermen seems willing to trade him for a murderous sociopath. Still, there’s the nugget of an interesting idea there; it’s telling that the revived series would explore some of these ideas in a more insightful and intelligent manner.
However, Vengeance on Varos and Revelation of the Daleks stand apart from the rest of the season because they explore these issues with nuance and sophistication. Vengeance on Varos is wicked social satire that still stings today, an indictment of reality television that was broadcast almost two decades before the format took over television.
Indeed, Vengeance on Varos almost seems like a prequel to Russell T. Davies’ Bad Wolf, the first part of Davies’ first season finalé that was about a dystopian future Earth overrun by vicious reality television. Here, the televised cruelty is only slightly more obvious, without any of the window dressing of quiz shows or celebrity cameos. The viciousness disguised by all those pleasing trappings is on full display here, with televised torture broadcast without the veneer of a talent contest.
The Colin Baker era attracts a lot of justified criticism, but Vengeance on Varos is an example of a story that takes the general aesthetic of the era and makes it work perfectly. (Although it stars Peter Davison, I’d argue that The Caves of Androzani is another example.) And there’s enough merit here that Vengeance on Varos seems to have been something of a touchstone of the early Davies era, with the science-fiction stories of Eccleston’s sole season heavily influenced by this story.
The torture of the shirtless Ninth Doctor in Dalek, for example, evokes the torture of Jondar here – right down to the gratuitous shirtless-but-not-pantless-ness of it all. When Davies created his first batch of alien creatures for The End of the World, the Moxx of Balhoon bears a remarkable resemblance to Sil – a brightly coloured short barely-mobile alien with political power. Indeed, Sil’s insistent “water me!” could be seen as a direct ancestor of Cassandra’s “moisturise me!”
It helps that Vengeance on Varos has aged remarkably well, remaining surprisingly relevant. Indeed, the box art for the “special edition” DVD release of the story is sure to feature the story’s “V” stylised so that it loosely resembles the top half of the “X” logo for The X-Factor, the reality television talent competition that has been a rating rival of Doctor Who since it returned to television in 2005. Little touches reinforce this, as supporting characters deign to question the “reality” of what they’re watching. “He’s not hurt, he’s only acting,” one viewer protests, evoking various scandals about how little reality is often found in reality television.
The brutal televised torture and humiliation of people as spectacle doesn’t feel as absurd now at it might have in 1985, and while it’s hard not to think of American Idol or America’s Next Top Model while watching Vengeance on Varos, the story remains undeniably a product of its time, as most Doctor Who (and most television) inevitably is. Indeed, a lot of science-fiction, from The Running Man through to The Year of the Sex Olympics seemed to fairly accurately predict reality television by the simple process of looking at contemporary media and extrapolating the least savoury outcome.
Rooted in 1985, the episode seems informed by the moral debate about “video nasties” that was unfolding in the media at the time, and it aired between the passing of the Video Recordings Act, 1984 and the date when that law came into effect. As Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles have pointed out in About Time, the interactive television voting can’t help but evoke the then-current now-obsolete BBC Ceefax functionality. The episode was even broadcast around the same time that the House of Lords began to televise their own debates, making democracy even more accessible to people at home.
All of this is at play here. It’s made quite clear that Varos is manufacturing video tapes to sell oversees to support its own failing economy. “We sell tapes of what happens there,” the governor explains. The governor tries to justify the decision to profit off the suffering of these people. “All the functions of the Punishment Dome are recorded as warnings to miscreants everywhere.” Sil’s eyes are lighting up at the prospect of exporting such videos and turning a tidy profit. “But they entertain as well as instruct?”he teases.
These tapes are what would be classified as “snuff” films. The term came into use some time in the early seventies, with the earliest significant usage being Ed Sanders’ The Family. Sanders reported that the Manson Family had recorded their movies, and described these grim home videos as “snuff” films. The terms was really pushed into the mainstream in the mid seventies when Allan Shackleton attempted to market Slaughter, a dodgy horror from Argentina, by rebranding it Snuff and playing up the mystery surrounding it. (He even created a fictional public interest group – “Citizens for Decency” – to campaign against it.)
“Snuff” films are an incredibly popular piece of urban mythology, to the point where there was even a big-budget high-profile Nicolas-Cage-starring Joel-Schumacher-directed thriller released on the subject with 8mm in 1999. Thanks in large part to Shackleton’s marketing effort for Snuff, most stories suggest that these sorts of tapes are smuggled in from abroad. “The film that could only be made in South America… where life is CHEAP,” Shackleton’s publicity boasted, and the use of Varos here evokes some foreign banana republic that sustains its economy by smuggling video nasties to “nicer” parts of the universe.
Vengeance on Varos is very much an episode about television, and not just because it happens to feature television. The adventure features what might be the best cliffhanger of the classic series (or the entire franchise), as the governor winds up directing the episode that he is appearing in. “And cut it… now.” It’s a very clever piece of writing, and it’s wonderfully directed, calling attention to the fact that this is a violent piece of television about violence on television.
That idea is reinforced by the fact that so many of Varos’ torture devices are illusions and dodgy special effects – characters seeing things that aren’t really there, or being tricked into believing in something that isn’t real. Quillam’s evil torture devices serve to take images and make them real. “It focuses on the seeds of fear in your mind and makes them grow until you, your body, your face, your entire being, transforms into the image in your mind,” he brags, reinforcing the idea that Vengeance on Varos is a show about the intersection of heightened televisual reality and the real world.
In a way, Vengeance in Varos sees Doctor Who engaging with one of the most humbling criticisms in the history of the show. When Mary Whitehouse had decried the Hinchcliffe and Holmes era of Doctor Who as “tea-time brutality for tots”, she managed to effectively hobble the show. Almost immediately, anything dark or suggestive or potentially unnerving was ushered off the cardboard sets, and replaced with a newer and softer version of Doctor Who.
Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that renewed fascination with depravity and violence during Peter Davison’s final season and Colin Baker’s first year is a direct result of Whitehouse’s campaign. Behind the scenes forces, led by Eric Saward, seemed to be actively rebelling against the bright and cheerful mood the BBC enforced when they fired Hinchcliffe and hired Graham Williams as his successor.
The decision to have the Cybermen crush Lytton’s hands in Attack of the Cybermen, or the brutality of Revelation of the Daleks seems like a counter-reaction, a defiant attempt to re-establish that Doctor Who could do horror and violence, but without understanding the nuance of televised horror. What had been unsettling and uncertain suddenly became gaudy and grotesque. Instead of necessary, the brutality became nihilistic.
Re-watching this era of the show, I can’t help but get a sense that this reaction was a massive part of what killed classic Doctor Who, making it harder for casual fans and family to watch and enjoy the show. It seemed like the show favoured violence and brutality simply because the production team felt like they could get away with it. This leads to several uncomfortable undercurrents throughout this season, including the recurring torture and physical alteration of Peri, which happens here, and the sense that the Doctor is a bit crap.
However, what makes Vengeance on Varos work is the willingness with which it engages with all of these issues. It’s a story featuring violence and torture and depravity, but it’s perfectly willing to discuss those things. In presenting a society built entirely around violence and torture (real and psychological), Vengeance on Varosmounts a convincing defence of those classic Doctor Who stories.
Their brutality was of a completely different sort from the violence depicted in Vengeance on Varos, just as the use of the violence by the story is distinct from the use of violence in the story. The government of Varos uses empty violence as a means of placating the populace, offering them bread and circuses. Vengeance on Varos, and Doctor Who as a whole, uses this violence as a means to spark debate and to engage with bigger ideas.
While this is great for Vengeance on Varos and as retroactive vindication of the Hinchcliffe and Holmes era, it inadvertently serves as a fairly cutting criticism of many of the stories surrounding it. While the violence in Vengeance on Varos is in the service of bigger ideas and concepts, can the same truly be said of Attack of the Cybermen or Timelash? Vengeance on Varos condemns the repackaging of violence-for-the-sake-of-violence as entertainment, while those stories often feel like violence-in-Doctor-Who-for-the-sake-of-violence-in-Doctor-Who.
While Vengeance on Varos flirts with the same sort of grim nihilism that has taken in root in this part of the show’s history, it is at least thoughtful. The dystopia on Varos isn’t presented as the result of a single evil influence. Yes, Sil’s stranglehold on the local economy doesn’t help matters, but Vengeance on Varos is quite explicit about how the inhabitants of Varos are just as complicit in this moral decay.
When the sinister Quillam, with his Phantom of the Opera mask, looms over the beautiful Areta in the episode’s weakest subplot, he insists that the horror of Varos is reinforced by its inhabitants on some primal level. When Areta insists that she has nothing but hatred for him, Quillam replies, “Ah, but hatred of yourself as well. We all have some parts of our mind that we consider unworthy, some memory that makes us shudder and squirm.” His device externalises that insecurity and weakness.
The governor is portrayed as a flawed but noble individual, trapped within the confines of a system that restrict his ability to alter the status quo in any meaningful way. He is nowhere near the decent man that he could be. “And I thought you were a bit better than these other brutes,” Peri remarks at one point, earning only an apology in response. He’s a victim of a flawed system, a grotesque exaggeration of democracy, where his need for public approval to ensure his political and literal survival impedes his ability to be anything more than “a transient governor in the twilight of his reign.”
Here, Vengeance on Varos is making an interesting and daring point, one riffing off Winston Churchill’s rather infamous line about how democracy is the worst form of government; apart from all the other ones. The need of democratically-elected politicians to rely on constant democratic approval impedes their capacity to influence society for the better, because entrenched interests will always fear change, and manipulate the public to feel the same way.
As a result, the system doesn’t work as well as it has to. Indeed, it has the effect of restricting the actions that will be taken by any elected official who needs to win the next election. The theory is sound – there’s no more philosophically sound form of government than democracy. However, in practise, it is quite flawed. “The theory being that a man scared for his life will find solutions to this planet’s problems, except the poor unfortunate will discover there are no popular solutions to the difficulties he will find waiting for him here,” the governor explains.
Vengeance on Varos is quite explicit about just how culpable everybody is in this system. Jondar is being captured and tortured for discovering that class structure still exists in the democratic Varos, with the descendants of the original officers all holding high office on the failed prison colony. And yet, despite this corruption, the inhabitants of Varos have the ability to change things, but steadfastly refuse to do so. “We sell ourselves cheaply for nothing to such as Sil and his like,” the governor accuses. “I see my words mean nothing, that you all wish the harsh system of Varos to continue.”
Cannibalism is a recurring image in this season, and it’s used as an effective metaphor for internal class conflict – people eating one another, reverting to savages rather than trying to figure out a better solution to their problems. In Revelation of the Daleks, for example, Davros stumbles across an easy solution to galactic hunger – simply feed the dead to the living; perpetuating a broken system rather than trying to find a new system that works.
Here, the Doctor and Jondar stumble across feral people in the overgrown corridors. “What do they want?” Jondar asks. “Why do they want us?” The Doctor replies, “I noticed a pile of bones back there. I think we were on their dinner menu.” It’s a very small touch in the episode, but it plays into the large themes – the idea of how society will corrupt and degrade itself in order to stay afloat, how cheap human life is, and how complicit individuals are in that corruption and degradation. It’s easy to blame large governments and bureaucracies for problems, but there is an element of complicity involved.
Vengeance on Varos ends on a rather bleak and grim final sequence, with two inhabitants of Varos struggling with their new-found freedom. As the early years of the 21st century taught us, installing democracy is never as simple as deposing a dictator and overthrowing a corrupt system. “What shall we do?” Arak asks as the television goes silent for the first time. “Dunno,” Etta responds.
That final scene makes it clear that the problems on Varos will not be solved immediately, and hints at the idea that the Doctor has just skipped out after doing the easy stuff. “I think we’ll leave the Varosians to work out their own idea of justice, Peri,”the Doctor insists, which seems like a rather questionable idea given how Vengeance on Varos has spent an hour-and-a-half condemning the Varosian “idea of justice.” The notion that the Doctor is somewhat careless or indifferent to the consequences of his actions is a clever idea – an idea the show touched on in The Face of Evil and that Davies would revisit in Bad Wolf.
That said, Vengeance on Varos isn’t quite perfect. The subplot involved the transformation of Peri into some strange creature is a bit creepy, even in context. Peri is a companion who is defined by the way that Doctor Who objectifies her. She’s bullied and brutalised and transformed and ogled repeatedly in this season, lending the whole stretch of episodes a decidedly uncomfortable subtext. Peri doesn’t seem to exist as a character, but rather an object to be coveted or transformed or imperilled.
Quillam even has a creepy Phantom of the Opera mask, underscoring the creepy sexual subtext to this victimisation of beautiful young women. This is the one point where Vengeance on Varos seems to be playing into the weaknesses of the Colin Baker era, rather than exploring them, justifying them or critiquing them. Even the best scripts of the Colin Baker era struggle with how to make Peri work as a character, rather than treating her as a living probe in the most unsettling and creepy manner possible.
On the other hand, Baker’s Doctor works reasonably well here. There’s the infamous acid bath scene, where the Doctor wrestles with a goon before another goon conveniently pulls the Doctor’s opponent into an acid bath. The Doctor then offers a wry post-mortem one-liner, like a cut-rate James Bond. It’s not a scene that makes the Doctor look especially heroic, but Colin Baker’s Doctor never really seemed especially heroic.
While the show never seemed to quite pull it off, there’s a suggestion that the Sixth Doctor was always meant to be the “flawed” incarnation of the character. The problem was that the writing team had no idea how to do “flawed” without wandering into “sociopath.” Episodes like The Twin Dilemma and Attack of the Cybermen make it very tough to like the Doctor, treating him as a malicious and incompetent buffoon.
In contrast, Vengeance on Varos hints on the idea that he’s far from perfect, but he’s still able to affect real change on Varos. The Doctors swans off at the end, like he always does, but he has at least helped secure the possibility of peace. That one-liner is an uncomfortable moment, but it feels like it might have been intended as “a bit edgy.” Since it’s the rare example of the Sixth Doctor doing “a bit edgy” that doesn’t liken his dynamic with Peri to an abusive relationship, or make him seem completely ineffectual, it works surprisingly well.
Vengeance on Varos isn’t perfect, but it’s intelligent, thoughtful and well-constructed. It stands out as a highlight of the era, and holds up a lot better than most of the surrounding stories. It’s an example, perhaps, of what the Colin Baker era might have been – it only serves to make the actual Colin Baker era all the more disappointing.