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.