April 1st, 2013
Eric Saward hasn’t received a lot of love in these essays so far, but in the last full series he script-edited, Colin Baker’s first, he finally found a coherent aesthetic vision for Doctor Who. Whereas previously he’d been content to throw in as much violence and references to old stories as he could, by this point he had been converted to The Church Of Bob Holmes, and had come up with a semi-formula for the show that worked in the three stories that year where he could try it — comic double acts, vicious black humour, and a smattering of post-modernism with characters commenting metafictionally on the action. The fact that new companion Peri’s catchphrase became “all of these corridors look alike to me” gives a hint of the way Saward’s thoughts were trending.
Vengeance On Varos is the story where this style is taken to its ultimate extreme, and is by far the best Doctor Who story of the 1980s. Written by Philip Martin, a noted playwright who had decided that Doctor Who was the only place left on TV that would buy truly experimental drama, it’s the kind of thing that could, with very few changes, have been considered ‘serious’ political drama.
Most of the discussion of the story (I typed ‘play’ there at first, and it feels more like one than anything else) revolves around the way the story plays with the fourth wall — there are two characters, Arak and Etta, who watch the rest of the story on the TV and comment on it, and the cliffhanger of the first episode (the single best cliffhanger in Doctor Who in my opinion) shows the Doctor’s apparently dead face on a TV screen while the person directing the in-show TV says “And cut it…now.”
There are many, many examples of that kind of thing throughout the story — the Doctor saying to a priest leading him to his execution “Do you always get the priest parts?”, for example, or when someone describes how he’s to be tortured replying “An excellent scenario — not mad about the part” — but this metafictionality is not the main point of the story.
Almost uniquely for Doctor Who of this era, this story is about things. In fact, if anything, it’s about too many things to deal with in a short essay like this — it’s almost overloaded with meaning. Many of its concerns are based in the very specific political climate in which it was created (it was written between 1982 and 1984), with clear references to the planned reintroduction of capital punishment, the miners’ strike and (most obviously) the moral panic over so-called ‘video nasties’ that had coincided with widespread home video ownership.
The end result actually feels a lot like 2000AD of the period (a couple of years before Andrew Cartmel would take 2000AD as a conscious model) — biting political satire and ultraviolence For The Kids.
But the broader concerns of the story are timeless. The basic plot involves a planet whose only export is bought by a monopoly that sets the price ridiculously low. The planet is supposedly run by a governor, but he has little power compared to the unelected bureaucrats who conspire with the mineral exploiters. He can make new policy suggestions, but he has to subject them to a televised referendum, and if the vote goes against him he gets hit with a ray that tortures him and will eventually kill him. The public will never vote for an actual practical change, but they’ll still punish him when their own decisions backfire. Meanwhile, a sensationalist, exploitative, violent media keeps them from questioning the system they’re in, apart from a few inept rebels who can be derided as extremists.
The characters in the story are all trapped in their roles by the system they have to live in. Martin Jarvis’ governor, who would like to do the right thing, is driven to more and more vicious acts in a desperate attempt to stave off his inevitable painful death (and who reminds me more on every viewing of Nick Clegg), becomes almost indistinguishable from Sil, the evil slug-like reptilian capitalist who profits from the oppressive police state (at least until the collapse of the system at the end, at which point Jarvis’ character can try to fix things). The ‘rebels’ prop the system up as much as anyone else does.
“He’s the worst governor we’ve had since…”
“Since the last one.”
It’s not a matter of goodies and baddies, but of people being forced to fit into a corrupt, evil system, no matter what their nature. And that is something that resonates as much today as it did in the 1980s, even though the political events to which this was a response are fading into history. Changing the man at the top doesn’t matter if the people working under him, and the system they’re all working in, remain the same. Elections where the question is a forced binary choice between yes and no are no choice at all, however painful they may end up being for an unpopular leader forced to try to gain the support of a mob baying for blood.
Vengeance On Varos is very far from a perfect work. The plot resolution makes no sense whatsoever, the Doctor has nothing much to do with the actual plot, and much of the middle of the story consists of what feels like a bunch of D&D style ‘random encounters’ with fairly pathetic threats. The dialogue for those bits is also shockingly weak, suggesting that either Martin simply couldn’t be bothered with the adventure story aspects of the story or that Eric Saward rewrote them.
It feels like a story with a natural length of an hour that’s been stretched to ninety minutes, and could really do with some editing, but in the hour or so of it that works, it works wonderfully. Sil is the last great comic grotesque of Doctor Who’s history, the ending (when the response to “we’re free!” is “What’ll we do now?” “I don’t know”) is possibly the best in the show’s history, and the main cast are superb.
Sadly, a month after this story aired, Doctor Who was put on hiatus for eighteen months, by a BBC that no longer thought there was much value to the show. The series of which Vengeance On Varos was part alternated between three of the weakest stories of the eighties (Mark Of The Rani, Timelash and Attack Of The Cybermen) and three of the strongest. The series that followed the hiatus was an attempt to recapture the highs, but ended up emulating the lows…