Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Random Who Report: Vengeance on Varos (1985)

DVD cover and Amazon link
The Colin Baker era of DOCTOR WHO is an interesting one, held in relative disgrace by a lot of Who fans. The sixth Doctor’s first season (of only two) was a strangely experimental one, with longer episodes, a darker tone, and a brash and arrogant lead character with the most ridiculous outfit imaginable. Ratings eroded and the show was yanked off the schedule for 18 months, and the next season was a gutted reformatting, signifying that the BBC no longer had any confidence in the institution. I honestly think that this period of WHO gets more flak than it deserves; yes, it was uneven, and took the show from being a popular hit to a cult item, but it was a daring attempt to move the show forward, and it produced a few classics.

Case in point, VENGEANCE ON VAROS. This is probably the best executed of Season 22’s stories, without the awkward structuring that plagued the show’s expansion to 45-minute episodes, but at the same time it demonstrates the stylistic change that had come over the show. It’s a grim, violent, gritty story about a dystopian society where torture and murder are used to distract the public from their crippling poverty, and it’s laced with surrealism and murky morals. It’s also bordering on brilliant, with a magnificently constructed premise that touches on a lot of social issues in a way that, while not subtle, avoids preachiness for the most part. Like much of the season it’s slick and stylish, and it introduces one of the show’s more memorable villains. If only I could figure out what, precisely, the title is referring to.

Varos is a desolate mining world, originally a prison colony. Its chief export is the precious metal Zyton-7, which it sells to an intergalactic mining conglomerate represented by the sluglike Sil (Nabil Shaban). The conglomerate uses its muscle to extort a low price for the metal, keeping the planet poor; the current governor (Martin Jarvis, being fucking awesome) wants the people to hold out for a better deal, but they need food and keep voting him down. Incidentally, whenever the governor loses a vote, he’s subjected to a shower of laser beams, and losing too many or by too much means they’d better sweep him up and find a replacement. To try and keep the public happy, the governor also broadcasts executions and torture sessions from inside the colony’s punishment dome, and there’s no shortage of dissidents. Into this fascist society with a veneer of democracy comes the Doctor and Peri (Nicola Bryant), as the TARDIS needs its Zyton supplies replenished. They happen to arrive just as the rebel Jondar (Jason Connery) is about to be executed, and they try to escape the dome’s many traps and mind games, while the arrival of two offworlders brings tensions between Sil and the governor (and his underling, who is taking payoffs from the mining company) to a point of no return.

A main reason why I love this story is that the society presented is so damn fascinating. Most looks at the story focus on the “video nasties” angle, but that’s just one salacious part of a larger picture; what we have is basically a corporate-run fascist state with the trappings of democracy. The art direction is very reminiscent of 2000 A.D. (the Judge Dredd comics in particular), and despite middling production values the story has a strong atmosphere. A kind of Greek chorus is provided by a middle-aged couple, the miner Arak (Stephen Yardley) and wife Etta (BRAZIL’s Sheila Reid), who watch the Punishment Dome proceedings, vote via television screen, and never leave their little hovel- a decision both economic and evocative.

One of the things that really disarmed viewers during Colin Baker’s first year was how poorly the Doctor and his companion got along. The arguments between him and Peri aren’t as severe as in some other stories, and they don’t spend quite as much time wandering around on their own as they do in other stories (the season’s major problem- writers weren’t really used to the 45-minute format, and never had time to get comfortable with it.) The Doctor’s still a blowhard, but he’s dealing with such baldfaced evil that he doesn’t have to go far to be the hero.

The story has its rough patches, namely loads of clunky expository dialogue from Jondar and his main rebel squeeze Areta (Geraldine Alexander); the good guys can’t help but come off bland in such a fascinatingly dark environment. As the governor, Jarvis fares much better- he’s so dignified and charismatic you almost forget that he’s part of the system. Nicholas Chagrin (best name ever, by the way), also has some great scenes as Quillam, the sadistic head of the Punishment Dome with a fondness for genetic experimentation who gives the proceedings a bit of a David Lynch feel, and Shaban and Forbes Collins are both impressive. I like Colin Baker’s Doctor quite a bit, including his ridiculous outfit, and Nicola Bryant is, well... bouncy, in whatever way you care to interpret that.

Forced to make a snap decision (I’m not getting left with 5 posts a month again), I’m going to give this one a very high grade. It’s the best of C. Baker’s stories, and if you want to see just one of his, this is it. It’s fiercely intelligent, well directed, solidly paced, and though it embodies a lot of the stylistic weirdness and grimness that made season 22 so polarizing, it’s also just plain good sci-fi. This is a classic that stands up with the best of any era.

Written by Philip Martin
Produced by John Nathan-Turner
Directed by Ron Jones

Grade: A

1 comment:

Al Bruno III said...

I agree that the 6th Doctor gets way too much flak and I agree the show was in the process of trying to reinvent itself for a modern audience.

Or what was a modern audience back then.

Decades later I still mourn a bit for what might have been. In a lot of ways I see the 9th Doctor as a throwback to the 6th- just with better clothes sense.