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…

13 Responses to “Doctor Who: Fifty Stories For Fifty Years: 1985”

  1. Another Doctor Who Post On Mindless Ones | Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] This time on Vengeance On Varos. I should have a post for this blog up tomorrow. Share this:PrintEmail [...]

  2. Marc Burkhardt Says:

    I’ve only seen this once when it was rerun on my local PBS station in the late 80s and I still remember it vividly. Strong stuff, although many fans seem to only recall that the 5th Doctor tossed two thugs into a vat of acid … which didn’t exactly happen that way but who needs facts to make an argument on the Internet?

  3. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Why Marc, whoever could you be referring to there? ;)

  4. moose n squirrel Says:

    I didn’t manage to catch this until years later, when it was being released on video (my local PBS station stopped running Who after Davison’s run ended). After years of being told how horrible the Colin Baker era was, I was delighted with “Varos”, and had no idea what those crusty old Who fans were smoking. Then I saw “The Twin Dilemma”…

    I still love Baker’s portrayal of the Doctor – serious character flaws in a protagonist are always welcome, I think, especially these days, when the eagerness to portray the new-series Doctor as a kind of nerd demigod just leaves me with a feeling of exhaustion.

  5. Gavin Burrows Says:

    Before I actually go on to say my bit, can I ask we collectively forget the comments to Andrew’s previous post? Take a Men in Black gun to ourselves, or whatever else it takes. Just for a bit, at any rate.

    Andrew, I find I always enjoy reading your comments about classic Who more than the current show. And while I wouldn’t normally be so cavalier as suggest to someone else what they should be writing about, I can’t help but feel that’s largely because you enjoy writing them much more.

    When you write about the current show, I have at times been reminded of a man who hates fried egg sandwiches eating another fried egg sandwich, and commenting how it tastes no better than all the other fried egg sandwiches.

    (Personally I can’t bear fried egg sandwiches. Please mentally substitute a vat of acid or another example if it works better for you.)

    While I wouldn’t want to suggest you go back to the original, highly ambitious plan you had on your own blog of reviewing every single storyline, I am going to rashly claim it would work better for us all if you were to direct your energies to the classic show.

    Please feel free to tell me to butt out if I am speaking out of turn here. Just a suggestion…

  6. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Gavin, you’re not speaking out of turn at all, and I totally agree.

    However, a lot more people are interested in reading about the new show than the old, and I’ve committed to covering the few episodes left of this series. Once that’s done, I won’t be bothering to watch it ever again (except maybe the anniversary special out of morbid curiosity).

  7. londonkds Says:

    I can’t really adopt a neutral attitude to “Vengeance on Varos”, because I remember watching the first episode at the age of seven and turning the TV off in terror and disgust after the first scene of the Governor being tortured, ie before any of the really notorious stuff in the story happened. And then being shaken for several days, not in the jolly “oh, the kids hide behind the sofa” sense, but in the “feeling fucking violated, and betrayed by something I’d trusted” sense.

    Now of course I can see that it is of pretty high quality, and that there is some serious intention and thought there. But it’s the kind of thing that should have been broadcast as a “serious political drama”, and not on a show that was still being marketed at the time to small children. I’m sure someone will call me Mary Whitehouse, but I don’t think all culture should be appropriate for six year olds. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think there should be a line when you’re making something that is being promoted to six year olds.

    And this story isn’t uniquely something odd and good taken in isolation, it’s part of a season that uses the same brutality and grimdark tone in far less justifiable ways. I assume from your remark about the good and bad stories in S22 that you think the grotesque violence of “The Two Doctors” was also justified by the story told. But there is still a connection between this and the way that “Timelash”, otherwise a completely generic “Doctor overthrows tyranny on an alien planet” story, starts off by threatening Peri with having acid squirted in her face, moves on to have her chained up and threatened with torture by almost everyone she meets including the alleged good guys, and finally threatening her with explicitly stated constant rape for breeding purposes after horrific physical disfigurement.

  8. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Londonkds
    I agree in general, but not in the particular, because I was six when this was on and absolutely loved it (and indeed the rest of the season). It might have been inappropriate for *some* small children, yes, but definitely not for all. I also think that by that time it was being marketed to an older audience to an extent, and had been for some time.

    And yes, Saward’s fascination with brutality is very, very offputting. It works here but definitely *not* in the stories where it isn’t thematically connected.

  9. Gavin Burrows Says:

    Eight comments compared to over fifty for New Who. I guess that makes you right over what the Great British Public want!

  10. Andrew Hickey Says:

    They like to see me suffer.

  11. Lee Ravitz Says:

    Interesting that it’s easy to minimise the contribution of solid writers to the show (note I said minimise, not neglect altogether) when they weren’t regular members of the writing stable. When he was working at his best, Philip Martin was a fantastic writer, and all the greatest parts of ‘Varos’ are distinctly reminscent of the best post-modern aspects of the 2nd series of ‘Gangsters’ (which I grant you many absolutely loathed…but still stands as some kind of late 70′s postmodern genius to my eyes).

    I agree that the ‘adventuresome escapades’ are tiresome in comparison. Quite what went wrong with the return of Sil in the 2nd part of ‘Trial of a Time Lord’ is another question, of course.

    Indeed, all of Baker’s best episodes in Season 22 appear, in retrospect, to have mined the vein of blacker-than-black comedy and abusurdism in an effort to offset the prevailing cynicism and violence. Holmes was at his most gallows humourous in ‘The Two Doctors’, and Saward elegant and scathing in ‘Revelation of the Daleks’.

    Yet, I can’t diasagree with Londonkds: at the time, the eruption of this sort of amorality, brutality and leering sensuality into the confines of a programme that had been previously associated (in this kid’s mind, at least) with the selfless and heroic figure of the 5th Doctor, and the wordy, intellectualised and occasionally dry qualities of the post Bidmead era (don’t get me wrong: I’m not condemning those qualities – it’s my favourite period in all Doctor Who history) felt unsettling and alienating.

    It may have seemed like a cunning plan at the time to have Baker draw a definitive line in the sand between his and Davison’s portrayal by starting him off behaving like a psychopath in a clown costume, but I tend to believe it was what ultimately sank him a few years later. Baker was undoubtedly one of the actors most enthusiastic to take over the Doctor’s mantle up to that point in the programmes history, and this enthusiasm was never allowed to transfer because of the nihilistic persona that was nailed onto his characterisation.

    And the rest of the show followed where the Doctor’s new character led it. These days, I can appreciate the cynical asides, the snide knowingness and the occasional glimpses of the Doctor’s pomposity being burst when he overreaches: at the time, it felt like a brute had taken over the reins of the TARDIS, and my childhood self didn’t know what to make of it.

    But I don’t see any of this as having been conditioned entirely by the internal politics of the show: it was the times, which were themselves increasingly bleak and brutal and nihilist and stark that made their impact felt on the show in the mid 80′s. And that is never made plainer than in ‘Varos’ and its stablemates.

  12. Quantum Says:

    “They like to see me suffer.”
    You made me snort with laughter like a pig.

  13. Matthew Marcus Says:

    Always nice to read a story analysis that it so compelling that it has me nodding along, thinking “maybe I’ve been wrong? maybe I need to revisit my assumptions?”

    …at least while the post lasted. Fortunately I attended the BFI showing of The Two Doctors last month, and so have recent evidence that the “good” half of Season 22 isn’t actually good, just marginally less dire then the awful half. Eric Saward was on the panel afterwards and any amount of exposure to him makes it abundantly clear that there wasn’t any kind of “Sawardian Masterplan” to paint a thematic contrast to the Davison years, just a not-very-bright man obsessed with making the kind of not-very-good television he liked, at the total expense of the show.

    Philip Martin is clearly one of the best writers to grace this era of the show, but good writing alone couldn’t escape the devastating awfulness of the house style at the time. When even the great Robert Holmes becomes incapable of generating anything better than The Two Doctors and The Mysterious Planet it’s time to accept that something’s gone wrong with the brief.

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