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Vengeance on Varos

Production Code: 6V

First Transmitted

1 - 19/01/1985 17:20

2 - 26/01/1985 17:20

Plot

The Doctor visits the planet Varos to obtain supplies of a rare ore called zeiton 7, vital to the functioning of the TARDIS. Varos was once a colony for the criminally insane and the descendants of the original guards still rule, while the poverty-stricken people are kept entertained by screenings of public torture from the Punishment Dome.

Their Governor has been trying to negotiate a better export price for zeiton ore from Sil, an envoy of the Galatron Mining Corporation, whose reptilian body is supported and kept cool by a mobile water tank.

The Doctor and Peri meet two rebels, Jondar and Areta. Peri and Areta are captured and almost reshaped into beast-like creatures by Quillam, the Dome's sadistic commandant, but the Doctor saves them and tells the Governor the true value of zeiton 7.

Quillam and Varos's Chief Officer, who are in the pay of the Corporation, try to kill the Doctor and the Governor but are themselves despatched. Sil plans an invasion of Varos by a force from his home world, Thoros-Beta, but the Corporation veto this and instruct him to buy the zeiton ore at any price.

Episode Endings

The Doctor wanders into a No-Options Kill Centre in the Punishment Dome and suffers an hallucination, believing himself to be dying of thirst in a desert. Eventually he collapses motionless to the floor. The Governor, supervising a video recording of his ordeal, waits for a moment and then tells Bax, the vision mixer: 'And cut it - now!' Sil laughs evilly as the screens in the control room go blank.

Varosian citizens Arak and Etta are left at a loss to know what to do as, following an announcement by the Governor that there are to be no more transmissions from the Punishment Dome, the screen in their apartment fills with static.

Roots

The society dominated by TV is reminiscent of Nigel Kneale's The Year of the Sex Olympics.

The acid bath scene echoes Scream and Scream Again.

Stephen King's The Running Man.

1984.

THX 1138.

A Clockwork Orange.

Flash Gordon.

Jubilee.

Dialogue Triumphs

The Doctor : [Speaking of Sil] "I think he needs more than water, Peri, eh?"

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."

Arak : "When did they last show something worth watching?"

Etta : "Last week."

Arak : "That was a repeat."

Continuity

Some time has elapsed since Attack of the Cybermen, during which the Doctor has set about some TARDIS repairs, although this has led to three electrical fires, a total blackout, and a near collision with a storm of asteroids.

He also got lost twice in the TARDIS corridors, wiped the memory of the flight computer [presumably the Doctor keeps back ups], and jettisoned three quarters of the storage hold [after this and Castrovalva, how much of the TARDIS is there left?].

The TARDIS' latest fault occurs when the transitional elements stop generating 'orbital energy', leaving the TARDIS midway between Cetes and Scalpor. Zeiton 7 is needed to repair the transpower system, although subsequent dialogue seems to indicate that zeiton 7 is little more than a 'fuel' for a range of space and time craft. Zeiton 7 is a very rare metal, at first believed to exist only on Varos, although Sil receives a report that traces of Zeiton-7 have been found on the asteroid Biosculptor.

[In addition, there are almost certainly deposits on or near Gallifrey.] Peri finds a huge Type 40 TARDIS manual in a workshop. She suggests that the fault might be the comparator (see Planet of Fire).

Varos is a former prison planet for the criminally insane, ostensibly ruled by the descendants of the officers. Despite the poverty of the populace, it has been politically stable for over 200 years. Its zeiton-7 is bought at a ludicrously low price by the exploitative Galatron Mining Corporation. The Varosians are kept subdued by the endless images of (real) torture and execution that fill their screens.

Galatron negotiators, such as Sil from the planet Thoros Beta, exploit the ongoing political vacuum caused by the succession of Governors who are appointed and eventually killed. Galatron's chief rivals are Amorb. Varos property is owned or policed by a body known as Comtech.

QV

Constellations

Location

Varos [almost three centuries in Peri's future, so probably between 2285 and 2320].

Trivia

Jason Connery, son of James Bond star Sean Connery and the lead in the HTV/Goldcrest series Robin of Sherwood, appears here as Jondar.

Well known actor Martin Jarvis makes his third Doctor Who appearance as the Governor of Varos - previously he had been Hilio in season two's The Web Planet and Butler in season eleven's Invasion of the Dinosaurs.

Myth

The Doctor at one point in this story deliberately pushes two guards into an acid bath. (In a struggle with the Doctor, one of the guards accidentally falls into the acid bath and pulls the other in after him.)

Goofs

The cuffs lock around the Governor's wrists at different moments in the first two votes that we see.

How can the TARDIS so suddenly run out of something so vital?

Why are the cannibals wearing nappies?

Both the desert and the water are illusions, but the desert parches whereas the water doesn't quench.

Cast & Crew

Cast

The Doctor - Colin Baker

Peri - Nicola Bryant

Arak - Stephen Yardley

Areta - Geraldine Alexander

Bax - Graham Cull

Chief Officer - Forbes Collins

Etta - Sheila Reid

Governor - Martin Jarvis

Jondar - Jason Connery

Maldak - Owen Teale

Priest - Hugh Martin

Quillam - Nicolas Chagrin

Rondel - Keith Skinner

Sil - Nabil Shaban

Crew

Director - Ron Jones

Assistant Floor Manager - Sophie Neville

Costumes - Anne Hardinge

Designer - Tony Snoaden

Incidental Music - Jonathan Gibbs

Make-Up - Cecile Hay-Arthur

Make-Up - Dorka Nieradzik

Producer - John Nathan-Turner

Production Assistant - Jane Whittaker

Production Assistant - Pat Greenland

Production Associate - Sue Anstruther

Script Editor - Eric Saward

Special Sounds - Dick Mills

Studio Lighting - Dennis Channon

Studio Sound - Andy Stacey

Title Music - Ron Grainer and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, arranged by Peter Howell

Visual Effects - Charles Jeanes

Writer - Philip Martin

Bottom Line - from The Discontinuity Guide

'Nah, he's not hurt. He's only acting.' A grim parody of TV viewing, complete with repeats and punch-in appreciation figures, and a graphic attack on video nasties. However, there is violence and voyeurism on display, and the Doctor's character continues its degeneration. He is selfish and resigned when the TARDIS 'breaks down', and shows no remorse at the violence he commits, however accidentally (e.g. the acid bath). In the first episode he has rigged up the laser gun to cause the death of a guard without really knowing what's going on.

Great ending, though: 'We're free.' 'Are we?' 'Yes.' 'What shall we do?' 'Dunno...'

Analysis - from Doctor Who, the Television Companion

After the disappointments of The Twin Dilemma and Attack of the Cybermen, the sixth Doctor is at last given some good material in writer Philip Martin's debut contribution to the series.

Vengeance on Varos is, in the best traditions of Doctor Who, a story that works on more than one level. At its simplest it is a tense and mildly horrific monster story that can be enjoyed as a piece of pure escapism, but at the other end of the spectrum it is an intelligent and thought-provoking discourse on such weighty issues as video nasties, torture and the responsibilities of leadership. As Steve Redford put it in Shada 19, dated November 1985: 'Vengeance on Varos was a story for today - topical, hard-hitting and made to make people think about the power of video and what it could become. Not only that, it was a good yarn skilfully told...'

Martin's scripts are excellent - the stylised, almost Shakespearean dialogue of the Varosian characters being particularly noteworthy - and Ron Jones's direction is appropriately moody and atmospheric. Colin Baker gives a very strong performance as the Doctor in this story, and Redford for one was impressed: 'I think Colin Baker has made a great Doctor. I've taken to him from the first appearance. He gives everything he's got. I love his style of humour, wry and sarcastic... I also like the way the Doctor is always getting at Peri for her whining.'

The regulars are backed up on this occasion by a fine cast of supporting players, only Jason Connery as Jondar falling slightly short of expectations. Laura Hedgecock, writing in MLG Megazine No. 12, dated March/April 1985, was particularly taken with the portrayal of the Governor: 'The Governor [was] played with disgusted resignation by Martin Jarvis - whose [understated] acting... served as a perfect [contrast] to the repulsiveness of Sil, who is the first villain in Doctor Who history to actually make me cringe, with his reptilian-like laughing and that [disgusting], disturbing body.'

Sil is indeed an unusual and amusing character, excellently brought to life by the ideally-cast Nabil Shaban. With his fractured speech, excitable manner and deliciously evil laugh he easily qualifies as the best original villain created during the sixth Doctor's era. Not surprisingly, he has won many plaudits. 'Sil was a wonderful creation,' asserted Redford, 'even allowing for the similarity between him and the Collector from The Sun Makers. The mask and costume were very convincing, and made him look absolutely repulsive. All of this was added to by Nabil Shaban's excellent portrayal, so thoroughly evil. I liked the scene where Sil demands a mirror so he can make himself look at his best. Also at the end when the Doctor is leaving, and he calls for him begging him to stay, the look on Sil's face is wonderful...'

Another interesting feature of the story is the inclusion of the characters Arak and Etta, who serve as a sort of Greek chorus offering comment on the action as it unfolds. '[These characters] are the light relief from the seriousness of the situation,' wrote Hedgecock, 'as well as showing how the inhabitants of Varos have come to accept their miserable existence without a shred of pity for the poor victims of their system.'

If there is one serious criticism that could be made of Vengeance on Varos it is that it is perhaps just a little too unremittingly grim in tone. David Owen, writing in DWB No. 113, dated May 1993, was particularly concerned about the Doctor's role in the proceedings: 'The Doctor has killed many times over the years, but his actions have always been governed by a kind of Hippocratic ideal to preserve as many lives as possible. Usually, it's [a] pretty clear cut choice - despatch a single villain if there's no other way of dealing with him, and in so doing safeguard the lives of millions of innocents. No ethical dilemma there, no raised eyebrows. If it can be done by turning the villain's evil/greed/ruthlessness/whatever against him, then all the more poetic.

In this story, the concept of turning the enemy's sword against him is taken a little too literally. As the Doctor and co escape in Part One having rescued Jondar, the Doctor turns the random laser beam emitter back on the pursuing guards causing one of them to be vapourised. Why not just throw a chair or something into their paths? At the beginning of Part Two, the Doctor struggles with not one but two acid bath attendants, causing them both to do passable Disprin impersonations. He could just as easily have run away. To make matters worse he then makes a "joke" about it to himself a la James Bond. Finally, in the End Zone he constructs a deliberately fatal trap from a piece of string and some poisonous tendrils to despatch the Chief Officer and Quillam. In the words of his predecessor, "There should have been another way."'

Antony Howe, an outspoken critic of this era of the series' history, was even more damning in his condemnation of the story in A Voyage Through 25 Years of Doctor Who, dated December 1988: 'Vengeance on Varos had some initially interesting ideas but they were not developed and it quickly degenerated... The direction was poor, and in over-exploiting violence the story failed as a social criticism of "video nasties" - it itself was a video nasty! Ripping off the film 1984, this world was very unpleasant, the sets were drab and the characters were all back-stabbing creeps - even the personable Governor was really a vicious, ruthless, greedy tyrant. The new alien, Sil, was absurdly helpless and was amazingly stupid, so how did he become so powerful? Doctor Wholigan was at home here: he sneered at men dying in a vat of acid; organised an ambush which killed many people; and did nothing at the end to help anyone, leaving the video and torture equipment intact and not helping to free the people from the Governor's tyranny.'

Hedgecock, on the other hand, found criticisms of the story's level of violence misplaced: 'The idea of a society which uses [torture] as its pleasure, to the point of public executions being marketable, is not a new one - the Roman Empire did it some time back and the film Videodrome recently revamped it to new extremes... The violence on show was bound to raise some protest, and this it did, but I fail to see how a society which glorifies such violent sports as boxing and wrestling can complain when this odd behaviour is suddenly pointed out to them during a Saturday teatime.'

Hedgecock did however have one complaint about the story: 'The climax of Vengeance on Varos came all too quickly for me. It was unfortunately abrupt and far too cliched and simple. Okay, we all like happy endings, but things don't just happen like that. Within the space of ten minutes the Doctor kills off all the bad guys [and] saves Jondar and the Governor, and... the whole of Sil's invading fleet simply give up and go home! Tidy as the ending was, I couldn't help but feel more than a little cheated by the story's conclusion.'

This is a valid point. Overall, however, Vengeance on Varos stands up well and rates as one of the highlights of the Sixth Doctor's brief era.

< Attack of the CybermenSixth DoctorThe Mark of the Rani >

This episode guide is made up of the text of The Discontinuity Guide by Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping, and Doctor Who: The Television Companion by David J. Howe and Stephen James Walker.

The Discontinuity Guide © Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping 1995.
Doctor Who: The Television Companion © David J Howe and Stephen James Walker 1998, 2003.



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