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Doctor Who: Vengeance on Varos

"When did they last show something worth watching?"

You know a show is in trouble when something like 'Vengeance on Varos' is actually considered one of the good ones.

'Vengeance on Varos' is very reminiscent of 'The Sun Makers' in that it is your bog-standard overthrow the oppressors story masquerading as satire. Instead of the inland revenue, writer Philip Martin's main target seems to be television and our society's thirst for violent content. Torture and executions are what pass for prime time entertainment on Varos, and their political referendums tend to end in death if the vote goes the wrong way. Throughout the story we cut away to two Varosians, Etta and Arak, watching all the action play out from the comfort of their own home and providing droll commentary like some totalitarian version of Gogglebox. But this satire is without any bite. Martin doesn't seem to have anything insightful to say about any of the subjects he is satirizing, while many of his jokes fall completely flat.

One of the things I hate about stories like this, even the good ones, is that they always push the companion aside and lumber the Doctor with a bunch of bland rebels who have the collective personality of a coat hanger and are played by actors who can barely be called that, in this case a mostly shirtless Jason Connery, who somehow manages to be more wooden here than he was on Robin of Sherwood.

The villain aren't much better. I know that Nabil Shaban's Sil has his fans, but I'm not one of them. The character just doesn't do anything for me. The only thing I found interesting about him was how blatant it was that Russell T. Davies ripped him off to create Lady Cassandra, even going so far to give them similar catchphrases ("Water me, water me!").

At the time of its original broadcast, 'Vengeance on Varos' was heavily criticised for its violent content, which is somewhat ironic for a story that is meant to satirize violence in the media. It all looks rather tame by today's standards, but I can see why a lot of people were upset, especially in regards to the infamous acid bath scene. Contrary to popular myth, the Doctor doesn't actually push anyone into the acid. The first one falls in by accident while the second one gets pulled in by the other one after struggling with the Doctor. But it is the Doctor's reaction to this incident that leaves bad taste in your mouth.

I know the Doctor is a little hypocritical when it comes to violence. He spent most of his third incarnation doing a very poor Bruce Lee impersonation and don't even get me started on his so-called "no guns" rule. But whenever the Doctor has used violence it has been with an air of reluctance, and when people died, and they often did, he took those deaths personally, even when it was his enemies. The Doctor reacts to death, even death he has unintentionally caused, with callous indifference. Gone is his compassion, replaced with Bond-like quips. I get that this Doctor is meant to be different, a stark contrast of what we've become accustomed to, but they've changed so much that the character is unrecognisable as the one we love. The Doctor has become an obnoxious bully in tacky clothes who it is almost impossible to root for.

Notes and Quotes

--And I thought Peri's costume in 'Attack of the Cybermen' left little to the imagination.

--There is something appealing about Varos' referendum system. I can't speak for anyone else, but seeing David Cameron vaporized on live TV would have softened the blow of Brexit for me.

--Sheila Reid (Etta) later appeared as Clara Oswald's grandmother in 'The Time of the Doctor' and 'Dark Water'. A baby faced Owen Teale (Game of Thrones) appeared as the guard Maldak. He later guest stared in the Torchwood episode 'Countrycide'.

--During the first recording of the execution scene, part of the set collapsed under the weight of the actors. Fortunately, this did not happen when Colin Baker and Jason Connery actually had their necks in the nooses (although in that case, for safety reasons the nooses were not actually tied up).

Jondar: "Is he sane, this Doctor?"
Peri: "Sometimes."

The Doctor: "You'll forgive me if I don't join you."

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."

Two out of four vaporized politicians.
Mark Greig is walking through a red forest More Mark Greig

1 comment:

  1. This is without doubt one of the better 6th Doctor stories, even with its problems. It has some merits though, and while let down by certain parts, like the ludicrous transmogrification portion, it's not a bad watch.

    Martin Jarvis, who played the governor, also played one of the conspirators in the Dinosaur Invasion. He was good at both roles of course, but I find him one of the better supporting characters here.

    I had read that there was a scene where Arak slaps Etta, but they took that out since it was already so violent and that wouldn't have sat well with people. I always thought it works better with her being the more powerful spouse anyway, so glad they took it out.

    I too dislike how callous this Doctor can be, as he's worse than even how badly the 1st Doctor was in the cave people portion of An Unearthly Child, and that shocked me when I first saw it.


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