I watched Vengeance on Varos on first broadcast in 1985, and was frankly bored and appalled by it. (Actually I have only a clear memory of the first episode; I may have missed the second.) The start, with a prisoner being tortured and the Doctor / Peri relationship in a deep trough, was not promising.
When I rewatched it in 2008, my views had not changed much.
I remember catching the first scenes of Vengeance on Varos first time round, where Jason Connery’s Jondar is unpleasantly tortured as an audience looks on, and then the Tardis breaks down and the Doctor decides it can’t be fixed. At that point I gave up and went away to do something else. Well, I misjudged it slightly. The torture scenes are unnecessarily unpleasant, and Colin Baker’s portrayal as annoying as before, but the rest of the story is not bad, Martin Jarvis and Nabil Shaban being especially good. Having said which, the scene with Peri turning into a bird is a bit crap.
Coming back to it in 2011, I was a bit more forgiving:
There’s a decent story in Vengeance on Varos, and particularly some good guest performances by Martin Jarvis, Nabil Shaban, and Sheila Read who plays Etta, and decent special effects at a period when these were sometimes a bit embarrassing. But it is rather spoiled for me by the violence, which I am now realising is a consistent problem with this season; by the silly subplot of Peri being turned into a bird and then magically cured in about five seconds; and by a number of under-rehearsed scenes where actors stand around with their hands limply at their sides, always a bit of a red flag for me.
Rewatching this time, my eye was particularly caught by Stephen Yardley, who is also the mutant Sevrin in Genesis of the Daleks, appears in the last series of Blake’s 7 in the Tanith Lee episode Sand, and is also a regular in the second series of Secret Army.
However, it’s still a rather stupid story. To add to my complaints above, it’s weird and a bit dehumanising that The Governor and The Chief Officer don’t have names. More trivially, when the Doctor is supposedly dead to all appearances during the cliff-hanger at the end of the first episode and the start of the second, Colin Baker is visibly still breathing.
The novelisation is also by Philip Martin, and the second paragraph of its third chapter is:
‘Next time he will die,’ he said soothingly.
When I read the novelisation in 2008, I mocked a malapropism:
“I just won’t look!” Peri said, clenching her eyes shut but feeling the stiff vulpine feathers that had now emerged almost fully all over her arms.
(Philip Martin, Doctor Who – Vengeance on Varos)
Vulpine feathers, eh?
With extra irony, the chief villain is given to malapropisms due to a faulty translation unit. The omniscient narrator has no such excuse!
I was interested to note that the cliff-hanger comes relatively early in the book, a good ten pages before the half-way point. Otherwise the book is a safe transformation from screen to print. You can get it here.
Before I get into Jonathan Dennis’s Black Archive, I just want to look at the later career of Sil. I’m actually rather a fan of Mindwarp, the second part of Trial of a Time Lord, with its shock ending for poor Peri (foolishly revoked six episodes later). Mission to Magnus, the unbroadcast story from the cancelled 1986 season, failed to impress me either in print or on audio. I was much more impressed by an original Big Finish audio by Martin, Antidote to Oblivion.
And for this post, I sought out and read Martin’s novel Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor, based on a direct-to-video film which I have not seen (though apparently Jeremy Corbyn got a copy from Nabil Shaban). The second paragraph of the third chapter is:
The profit chamber on Thoros Beta monitored the progress of its multiple investments throughout the universe. Thoros Betans were hunched over display panels giving the latest profit and loss values, and muttered voices echoed in the corridors as fortunes were made . . . and sometimes lost.
It’s not very good. Sil and Lord Kiv get caught up in a plot to sell dangerously addictive drugs to the people of earth (specifically the “Eurozone”, whose boundaries are not defined). Lots of characterful screeching, but as so often, the plot is just nasty for the sake of being nasty. You can get it here.
Jonathan Dennis, who previously wrote the Black Archive on Ghost Light (incidentally, the first Black Archive that I didn’t really care for), has mounted a detailed but ultimately unconvincing defence of Vengeance on Varos.
The first chapter, “Introduction – In Poor taste”, defends the aesthetic and tonal changes made to Doctor Who for the 1985 season, and asserts that they work. I think a more nuanced view is possible.
The second chapter, “Winston Smith Takes it on the Jaw”, looks at dystopias, especially 1984, and at the uncharacteristic (for Doctor Who) pessimism of the story.
The third chapter, “Capital (It Fails Us Now)”, looks at the critique of capitalism and to a lesser extent colonialism in the story, and in other Who stories (including Kerblam!). The second paragraph is:
Keeping this history in mind, it stands out when looking into the production of Vengeance on Varos that ‘producer John Nathan-Turner was wary, fearing that Philip Martin might inject political comment into the storyline.’4 Martin said, ‘He suspected I had some sort of political aim in mind, and so he insisted I prove myself first by doing a scene breakdown.’5
4 Pixley, ‘The DWM Archive: Vengeance on Varos’, p17.
5 Bentham, Jeremy, ‘Keep Watching!’ In-Vision #80 p4.
The fourth chapter, “‘They Also Affect Dogs’ – Sadism and Video Nasties”, looks at the moral panic around video nasties in the mid-80s, in the context of the horror genre in general and Videodrome in particular. Dennis finds a smidgeon of regret that the music cue in the acid bath scene is handled badly, and that Peri is exploited worse than usual here.
The fifth and final chapter, “Who Speaks for the Audience? – Conclusion” makes the fairly obvious point that Arak and Etta to some extent stand for us the audience.
An appendix, “6 Times 2 Equals 12”, makes some very interesting paralells between the Sixth and Twelfth Doctors:
The obvious similarity is in the Doctor’s character arc. Both eras feature a gruff, arrogant Doctor who gradually smooths out and becomes more (conventionally) likeable. In the sixth Doctor’s case that arc is unfortunately truncated due to real-world circumstances outside the narrative. It was a good concept in the Colin Baker era and Moffatt is able to bring it to its proper conclusion with Peter Capaldi.
Aside from this general similarity of the character arc, many of the details are echoed as well. Baker and Capaldi both appeared on the show prior to being cast as the Doctor…
The Doctor and Clara bicker. It doesn’t come off quite as harshly as comparable scenes between the sixth Doctor and Peri, but that’s down to the dialogue being funnier…
The first full years of both Baker and Capaldi’s tenure end with stories heavy on body horror, set in funeral homes where the Doctor’s old enemies are recreated with human corpses as the raw material. There’s even similar imagery, of the glass Dalek and the transparent Cybermen in tanks. They both have companions who die – Capaldi gets two – and all those companions get those deaths negated in some way…
Capaldi gets the all-black outfit that Colin Baker wanted, and it does serve as a visual reminder of the severity of the character. However, Moffatt starts progressing the character arc immediately.
Dennis is ready to admit that this was much more successful in the 2010s than in the 1980s. He seems curiously shy of drawing the obvious conclusion that it’s simply that Steven Moffatt (plus team) is a much better show-runner than John Nathan-Turner (plus Eric Saward). His argument is that the decision to darken the Sixth Doctor era in terms of aesthetics and tone was not a bad decision, just inadequately executed. I’m sorry, but that makes it a bad decision as far as I am concerned.
The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44)| The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | The Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37)