A planet with two meagre resources - mining and snuff videos - is ruled over by puppets who are publicly executed when their honeymoon period inevitably runs out. The half-starved population live on a diet of ration packs and torture - slaves to a cartel of galactic elites whose slug-like appearance might as well be a visual metaphor for their self-serving morals. It's a great set-up for a science-fiction novel - but is it even appropriate for the spot in the schedules immediately prior to Blankety Blank?
Vengeance on Varos may be much too in love with its own nastiness, but the idea of something as off-the-wall as this in a slot reserved for Hole In The Wall or TV Burp these days seems incredible; impossible.
Whether it has a place in Doctor Who is debatable, but Vengeance on Varos at least delivers a strong plot, some excellent dialogue and vivid ideas. Set against the tortured, nonsensical plots of Colin Baker's first two stories, Varos is a much-needed shot in the arm for a series already reeling on the ropes with a new incarnation.
It still suffers from the same production problems - poor casting, duff acting, flat direction and the myriad production issues (sound, lighting, set design, costumes) that bedevil most Doctor Who of the era - but Philip Martin's script is imaginative and sufficiently free of continuity nonsense to feel like a series striking out in a different direction and forging an identity of its own separate from the Davison era. It's the first time since the early 70s that Doctor Who has felt of its era, refracting some of the issues of the day through a gaudy prism. It's bemusing that it has taken this long for a slice of political analogy to break through, but perhaps unsurprising given its author's pedigree.
Philip Martin's reputation was forged with Gangsters, a nominally straightfoward - albeit controversial and violent - 70s thriller that increasingly broke the fourth wall: brilliantly the actors would simply walk off set at the end of episodes, or Martin would pop up as himself writing the next script. But Gangsters was interesting and different without the gimmickry too - Martin displays a good grasp of narrative urgency, character and dialogue.
Martin brings an element of that reflexivity to Varos - the only previous examples in the series being to-camera asides by naughty leading men - with his Greek chorus Arak and Etta watching events unfold on their vidscreen. Not only that but Varos also features one of the very best cliffhangers in the series, when one of the characters apparently instructs director Ron Jones to cut to the titles upon the Doctor's apparent death, which he does. Martin recalls that the increasing surrealism in Gangsters developed from the necessity to write on the hoof and replace the hard-hitting violence with something else. That post-modernism works so well here - Doctor Who had taken its tonal clues from Christopher H Bidmead's humourless approach and Eric Saward's increasing nihilism over the previous four years. Despite Varos' reputation for viciousness, it's the most playful the series has been for years.
Given that garlanding lead-in, however, there are significant problems. There's an interminable TARDIS scene to kick things off, in which the Doctor immediately resigns himself to an eternity trapped in the time machine before handily realising he can simply get it fixed very, very easily. Though not before Peri fetches a ridiculous prop with TARDIS MANUAL written on it in silver letters). The Doctor's sudden realisation that he can materialise on the planet that has the apparently-rare mineral Zyton-7 renders what has gone before both ridiculous and an obvious waste of time: not only that, it makes one wonder if this latest incarnation is an idiot or simply insane.
None of this helped by endless, charmless bickering with the rather wet Peri. Why do the Doctor and his companion remain together? Why does Peri not leave at the first available opportunity? Do naff quips and wordplay really balance the lust for violence the series displays in the era? It's not really Nicola Bryant's fault, nor can Colin take all the blame, but Season 22's pairing is by far the worst in Doctor Who history. It's just unthinkable that anyone would want to watch the show at this time and it's telling that the opening scenes of The Mysterious Planet on Ravalox - following a supposed reboot to boost humour, reduce violence and knock the edges off the Sixth Doctor - feature the two simply getting on and being normal people.
It has to be said of Season 22 that Baker does not hit the ground running - he hits it at speed and remains wedged, waist-deep, for most of the series. It's fair to say that in his first season Colin - along with producer, script editor, writers and directors - misjudges the character. Listening to Big Finish audio adventures over the years it's become clear than not only can Colin Baker act, as if that old canard really deserves a response, but he's turned the Sixth Doctor in one of the most likeable, believable and interesting Doctors - pretty much the inverse of the other classic Doctors who've revisited the role. But during his television run, the first season of it at least, he does not succeed in this.
It's interesting to ponder what Peter Davison might have done with this material - albeit important to acknowledge that Davison did not have to work with material as wretched as the two immediate predecessors of Vengeance On Varos, nor a production team coming apart at the seams. Try to imagine Davison, clad in Baker's prat-clown outfit, spouting florid dialogue and delivering a quip to two blameless goons who have just burned to death in a bath of acid before striding off to shout in his companion's face. In fact, try to imagine any of the others doing it. It's not even possible. Six exists in a universe of his own, as if the Valeyard is already dragging the Doctor away from his moral core and, with it, a different show.
The Fifth Doctor simply couldn't exist here; it needs someone more brash, more vulgar, more garish - someone prepared to deal with people on their terms. Somehow, the Sixth Doctor is in his perfect environment when he's trading barbs with baddies and fighting guards to the death. Frustratingly it's almost as if Caves of Androzani is leading us to this point; to a Doctor that is able to stand toe-to-toe with Sharaz Jek, Morgus and Stotz. There's actually a moment in Deep Breath that could have defined Six at a stroke in one short scene: alas, for Colin Baker, it never comes, so we never get the Sixth Doctor's journey - merely the start of it, where he's a twat.
While the Doctor doesn't get much of a chance to define himself, Varos does provide a template for how the series could have survived and prospered as something sufficiently different from what had gone before. It is wildly, absurdly unsuitable for its timeslot but, like Revelation of the Daleks and Mindwarp, it offers a vision of where the series might have gone - not necessarily down the route of off-the-wall surrealism and genre-bending of Gangsters, but certainly a more experimental bent. Alas, we all know what happened next: badly-made fanwank fests, play-it-safe mediocrity and out-and-out howlers for the rest of the season. A series broken by the poor choices of the people running it.
Perhaps the realisation of Vengeance on Varos doesn't do the concept justice, just as neither Paradise Towers nor The Happiness Patrol quite pull it off a couple of years later. But a Sex Olympics template overlaid with a political allegory penned by a genuine television auteur known for his meta fiction, featuring an unstable new Doctor? Perhaps familiarity dulls the glister at the heart of many a Doctor Who story, but there are glimpses of brilliance here - and the promise of so much more.
It's only on Varos - and later on Necros and Thoros Beta - that the Sixth Doctor works and the vision for a new sort of Doctor Who is really evident. Interestingly, though almost certainly coincidentally, they all feature scenes where characters essentially watch Doctor Who in an episode of Doctor Who. And it's in these slippery post-modern pastiches that the Sixth Doctor era comes into its own.
Whether it works is very much down to personal taste, but it does pose some intriguing questions as to the nature of Baker's Doctor. That the stories which show him in his best light concern torture, sadism, perversions, betrayal, cannibalism and violent visceral death doesn't just give us an insight into Eric Saward's state of mind at the time, it forces us to ask some troubling questions about this most enigmatic of Doctors. If Hurt is a War Doctor, what does that make Colin?
During Into The Dalek the Twelfth Doctor asks Clara whether he is a good man - his sixth incarnation might have asked the same question. It's not clear what the answer would have been - from companion or audience and it's in this ambiguity that the potential for the Sixth Doctor resides, untapped.
It could have been a spectacular launching pad for what came next. Where would we be going? Into darkness.
The Sixth Doctor's sole confrontation with the Daleks was broadcast at a time when I wasn't watching Doctor Who - sulking after Davison, my Doctor, had been replaced by a new Doctor I did not care for at all. Without a novelisation or VHS release - and in the days before the internet - it remained a mystery to me until a repeat on BBC2 in 1993. At that point all I knew of the Colin Baker era had been gleaned from whatever tapes I'd bothered to buy and The Colin Baker Years, a VHS where Colin gamely tried not to write off most of the stories in his run as a load of old shit.
Unable to watch it live, I'd taped it and rushed back to watch this story which, to all intents and purposes, was brand new. And I loved it. It was funny, violent, sick, weird and operating on a level I hadn't previously noticed in the series. I think what struck me the most was how rich Revelation of the Daleks was. The concept of Daleks roaming the catacombs of a necropolis, harvesting the best of the specimens held in suspended animation to turn them into Daleks and converting the rest into soup for an expanding galaxy, is irresistible. An ensemble of grotesques - variously vainglorious, smelly, preening, greedy, obsequious and violent - fits the bill perfectly. Rather like Androzani, there are no redeeming characters here, and the comparison is telling.
Saward was clearly indebted to Robert Holmes, with florid double acts everywhere. The thing is, Saward doesn't quite have Holmes' skill and the dialogue simply isn't up to it on occasion, though Jobel's horrible brush-off to Tasambeker - "I would rather run away... with my own mother than a fawning little creep like you" - is worth a chortle. But it reveals something that is at once a strength in the script and something utterly unsuitable for Doctor Who.
As unremittingly nasty, nihilistic and blackly comic as Doctor Who gets, Revelation of the Daleks doesn't really belong in the series at all. Doctor Who has been violent - even vicious - before, but it's never ladled it on with such glee. To recap, Eric Saward's crowning achievement on the series sees Davros get his hand blown off, several scenes of torture - "I must mark her!" - genetic experimentation, a semi-converted human begging his own daughter to kill him, embalming fluid injected directly into a man's heart, the most violent, screaming, writhing exterminations of the series and perhaps the most horrible murder.
The upside to all of this is that it allows Colin Baker to show some empathy, disgust and outrage - finally lending the Sixth Doctor some sympathetic traits. Saward famously wrote Orcini to show up how little he thought of the Sixth Doctor, which seems a bit like blowing up your car because you don't like the colour - and the Doctor contributes literally nothing to the progression of the script.
But as a mood piece Revelation of The Daleks works fantastically. How much this is due to Graeme Harper's direction - again wonderful - and the bleakness of Roger Limb's minimalistic score, designed seemingly to ratchet up the unpleasantness and send children scuttling to the safety of the sofa's backside, is debatable. Once again Harper makes the most of what he has: shooting the Daleks in such a way that they reacquire some of their threat; attempting a few tricks such as scrolling through the floors of Tranquil Repose and attempting to show Daleks and Davros levitating, that are generally a qualified success. He also creates some stunning visuals with the series' last ever film location shooting and assembles a superb cast (if you ignore Jenny Tomasin as Tasambeker and any of the bits that involve Alexei Saye's DJ).
Terry Molloy is arguably the star of Revelation of the Daleks. It's become a received wisdom in fandom that Michael Wisher is unassailable in being the definitive Davros, but Molloy's Davros is wheedling and even a little humourous here. He switches between sibilant and psychotic as he attempts to build a business empire parallel to his Dalek army - the template here allows for Lance Parkin's quite excellent Davros play for Big Finish 20 years later - as the self-styled Great Healer, a nice Orwellian touch; it's as if Davros relishes in the sly irony. There are inflections of other works and writers here too. The Loved One and Soylent Green are most obviously quoted with regard to Revelation, but Saward is good at mining sources and inspirations to flesh out his characters; their drives and motivations.
Clive Swift is the other performance of note and clearly receives most of Saward's attention - the little vulgar asides that pepper his dialogue, all nose-picking, insinuations of necrophilia and corpses 'beginning to froth' - are quite horrible and it's hardly a leap to imagine what Jobel might like to do to Peri. It's hard to think of many other moments in the series that require such an effort, for such little payoff, as the mortuary chief's wig falling of as he expires.
William Gaunt, John Ogwen, Eleanor Bron and Hugh Walters are all quite excellent, though Takis and Lilt don't really come off - absurdly we're expected to view them starting to rebuild Necros as a farm as a happy ending, an episode after we saw them torturing Natasha and Grigory. And once again, you're forced to wonder what exactly JN-T was on at the idea that Laurence Olivier might have been interested in playing the mutant, who has a fight in the snow with the Sixth Doctor before being beaten to death by Peri over about 90 seconds.
As a whole Revelation of The Daleks is rather grand guignol: bleak, gory, slightly hysterical and building towards a massacre that kills off virtually every character we've been introduced to, bar the regulars. It's ironic that it hit the screen around the time that video nasties were the centre of a debate in Britain; watching it back it's hard not to agree with Michael Grade's assessment that the series had lost its way. Still, it remains an impressive, stylish outlier in the series' canon.
Saward's Doctor Whos get progressively more unpleasant, as if reflecting the man's descent into a sort of private Hell. As a sign-off to Doctor Who it may not have been perfect, but it surely reveals the inner torment and ambivalence towards the programme that Doctor Who's script editor was going through at the time. But it did deliver us his best script and one of Doctor Who's most nasty-minded and horribly enjoyable stories. Spiteful, cruel, twisted, lascivious, empty, ultimately pointless and unabashedly hate-filled - Revelation of the Daleks is Saward's portrait in the attic.