Doctor Who: Vengeance On Varos Review
Colin Baker was the sixth actor to play the lead in Doctor Who and is probably the most unfairly maligned. While Sylvester McCoy's Doctor has been re-assessed with time, Baker mark 2 seems to remain perpetually undervalued. Admittedly, some of the stories he appeared in were more than a little ropey - The Twin Dilemma and Timelash spring to mind - but his era also brought one genuine classic in the shape of Revelation of the Daleks - and some interestingly quirky stories including Vengeance On Varos.
This blackly comic comment on society's addiction to violent entertainment is set on a planet called Varos where serious social disorder is kept in check with constant violence on television. But not just action movies, genuine violence involving real torture and death. The planet relies for its economy upon a valuable mineral called Zyton-7, which is much sought after. The Governor (Jarvis) is currently in negotiations with the Galatron Mining Company, represented by the malevolent aquatic alien Sil (Shaban), and is aware that any failure to deliver a better deal for his electors is likely to result in his trial by television and subsequent death. Meanwhile, the Doctor's tardis is in dire need of Zyton-7, the mineral which keeps it working, so he and Peri (Bryant) arrive on Varos in the hope of getting hold of some. In the immortal words of Arnie, "Big Mistake".
The story develops in classic "Who" style, with the Doctor plunged into murky goings on which he then proceeds to sort out, with the added inconvenience of the odd execution, torture and cell mutation experiment. Baker handles all this stuff rather well. His decidedly tubby frame isn't done any favours by the worst costume in the history of BBC Drama and he doesn't quite look right running about corridors, but his delivery of Philip Martin's pithy dialogue is just right and when he is working with another good actor, such as Nabil Shaban as Sil, he rises to the occasion with aplomb. Nicola Bryant is also a welcome presence as Peri, complete with ridiculously low-cut top, but she is, as ever, subjected to the sadistic attentions of aliens wanting to do strange things to her body and it's hard not to feel sorry for her when she is temporarily transformed into something out of "Playdays".
Much has been made of the violence in this story. It's certainly rather more brutal than the majority of early evening SF/drama, but is still relatively tame compared to what we see on TV sixteen years later. There is certainly an argument that in order to satirise the prevalence of violence on TV it is necessary to show some of it, but that's usually a cop-out on behalf of unimaginative producers. In any case, the examples we see are laughably watered down for family consumption, so whatever satirical point is being made is considerably blunted. However, I do think that the controversy over the violence in Colin Baker's era is somewhat overstated, thanks to Mary Whitehouse and Michael Grade. None of his stories are any more graphically violent than those in his namesake's time in the show - the scene where Davros's hand is shot off in Revelation is similar to a scene in Brain Of Morbius, and The Seeds Of Doom is just as energetically nasty as The Two Doctors. I think that the way Baker plays the Doctor is probably the reason his shows appear more violent. Baker's Doctor is rather more alien and prickly than any of his predecessors since William Hartnell and the contrast was all the more marked with him following nice, gentle Peter Davison. I find this way of approaching the character is very effective in retrospect and I wish Baker had been given more of a chance. I especially regret the loss of the projected Season 23 with the return visits for the Celestial Toymaker and Robert Holmes's story of the Autons and the Brigadier in Singapore.
The story is a little repetitive and the device of having two common people - Arak (Yardley) and Etta (Reid) - commenting on the proceedings as they watch on television is seriously overplayed. But Sil is a wonderfully nasty villain, played with relish by the diminutive Shaban with a particularly memorable chuckle, and Martin Jarvis adds his usual solid presence to a slightly unusual role for him. Forbes Collins is also fun as the slimy Chief Officer. These good performance do compensate somewhat for Jason Connery's turn as Jondar, the rebel leader, which is purest oak. Otherwise, the general impression is one of competence in every department. Even the make-up team manage to work some kind of miracle in making Sil look halfway convincingly alien, a feat which is enough to make one overlook the ludicrous transformation of Peri in episode two. I wouldn't say that Vengeance On Varos is essential "Who", but it is certainly one of the more interesting stories of the eighties.
This is another impressive disc from the BBC's Doctor Who range. Following the false start with The Five Doctors, the discs have got better and better and Vengeance On Varos does not alter that pattern.
The picture quality is generally good. Thanks to the heroic efforts of the Doctor Who Restoration Team, "Doctor Who" is one of the few BBC shows which has been carefully maintained and restored to good condition. Although there are certain flaws to the picture in places, it is generally sharp and clear with rich colours and a high level of detail. I did notice a small amount of grain here and there and some small instances of artifacting, but otherwise this looks very good indeed. For an insight into the work involved in restoring this show, have a look at the excellent Restoration Team Website. If you compare the quality here to that of some of the comedy shows released recently, you will immediately see the difference. The programme is correctly presented in the original 4:3 aspect ratio.
The soundtrack is the original mono track as heard on the 1985 BBC1 broadcast. Absolutely fine and it has obviously undergone a thorough clean up compared to the track found on the video tape release.
There are a number of worthwhile extras included. The best is the audio commentary with Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant and Nabil Shaban. All three actors are full of good humoured stories and comments on the filming and Baker is especially interesting as he counters the accusations of violence levelled at his stories. None of them fall into the trap of just telling us what's on screen and the result is a highly entertaining commentary track.
There is also the option to watch the show with on screen production notes. These provide plenty of background information but for some reason they seem to stop after the layer change. Two other people have reported this problem on different players so I suspect it's either intentional or a disc problem.
A five minute featurette contains the studio footage of a scene being shot. This is actually quite revealing for anyone who doesn't know much about how TV Drama is recorded. There are also two outtakes included.
Ten deleted scenes are featured. These round out existing scenes or add character touches, although it is, as usual, easy to see why they have were omitted. The video quality of these is, unsurprisingly, poorer than that of the main feature but it is not all that bad either.
We also get a photo gallery with 72 photos, trailers for both shows - originally transmitted at 5.10 before the news - and nostalgic continuity announcements with the original BBC 1 globe which will be familiar to anyone over a certain age.
Add the option to listen to the original production sound, without the music and sound effects, and subtitles for all the features including the commentary, and you have a very good disc indeed. There are 10 chapters to each 45 minute part and the option to go directly to either episode. The menus are nicely animated and include scenes from the story.
If you're a fan of the show, you will be pleased to know that the quality control of the releases remains impressively high. If not, then this story is a pretty good example of an underrated period in the programme's history. Definitely worth considering for SF fans.