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Doctor Who complete reviews: Vengeance On Varos

REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO

A grim and unusually prophetic vision of the future... and our present...?

Vengeance On Varos

Vengeance On Varos is one heck of a scary tale. Not terrifying monster scary - we have a revolting green slug thing who's probably more amusing than terrifying - but scary as in how prophetic Philip Martin's story is.

Vengeance revolves around a bleak Orwellian society that is dependent on TV. Not just any old TV, but the most sadistic form of entertainment that you can get. Torture. Blindness. Acid baths. Men in nappies. It's all to be found on the TV channels on Varos, and those are just the ones that we either see or hear about. Presumably, there's other classics such as Strictly Come Dismembering, The Axe Factor and Masterdeath to be lapped up by the Varosian masses. What's worse though is that practically every programme has a punch-in vote, right down to the Governor's broadcasts. It's simple - the Governor of Varos makes a broadcast announcing a new policy which will affect the population - it's then up to the people to vote yes or no. Yes means survival. No means the dreaded green light of pain, which means that the current Governor's life expectancy looks more dismal by the minute.

Vengeance On Varos - Jason Connery as JondarAt the time, this sort of slavish dependency on viewer voting wasn't really heard of, but nowadays, most programmes depend on viewer votes. Programmes like I'm A Celebrity, Big Brother and all of the talent (in the loosest sense of the word) shows all rely on this input from the public to a worrying degree. So much so that it's perfectly feasible that in about 50 years' time, prime ministers will suffer a similar sort of fate as the Governor. If the public likes the PM's latest policy, he or she can have a celebratory slug of wine. If not, the PM will probably be shoved into futuristic stocks and forced to listen to the entire back catalogue of Max Bygraves.

And if the current incumbents were in the stocks, with all their screw-ups, they'd be on SingalongaMax Volume 765.

So Philip Martin's script spookily pre-empts a snapshot of 21st century life - millions slumped in front of mindless, inane TV and voting for the latest winner or loser. And given that Martin's script takes inspiration from George Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', echoes of which can also be seen in 21st century Britain, this makes Vengeance On Varos even more relevant today.

Vengeance On Varos - Peri goes avianVengeance On Varos also looks at the impact of the then-trend of video nasties. The mid-1980s saw a glut of home video releases in the boom of the Betamax and VHS explosions. More people had access to their favourite films and TV programmes, which they could buy for exorbitant prices (hard to believe that Revenge Of The Cybermen cost a wallet-busting £39.99 back in 1983). And at the same time, more cheapo horror films were around - the likes of Nightmare On Elm Street were fast becoming popular with the kids, who eagerly awaited new adventures of Freddy Krueger with bated breath.

With that in mind, Vengeance On Varos really goes for the jugular with its sly commentary on the trend. And since this is the gritty season 22 we're talking about here, it fits as snugly into this particular run of the stories as a handful of broken teeth in a thug's fist. The first shot alone is Jason (Son Of Sean) Connery failing to dodge painful laser beams. From then on, we get a whole host of psychological and physical tortures including dehydration mind games and the dreaded acid bath close-ups. It was inevitable that Vengeance would attract its fair share of complaints, given the subject matter. Sure enough, some viewers were none too keen on this rather gritty adventure, which walks a fine line between satirical comment and poor taste. It's another adventure that draws a bit too heavily on the gritty atmosphere of The Caves Of Androzani, which had proved to be a surefire hit.

Vengeance On VarosThe problem is that Vengeance - whilst a strong tale in parts - isn't in the same league, and so just comes across as a bit of a pale imitation. There's the violence, bleakness and glut of bad guys, including the Chief Officer and Quillam - talking of which Quillam is the poor man's Sharaz Jek with his gimp suit, harlequin mask and distorted face. Quillam isn't anywhere near as successful though - there's not enough motivation for his actions, and Nicholas Chagrin's rather arch performance doesn't hit the high notes of Christopher Gable's.

One main complaint that the viewers had was the infamous scene in which The Doctor allegedly pushed two goons into an acid bath. A quick glimpse of the DVD shows that the whole thing was a myth, but it didn't help this troubled incarnation's already dubious reputation. What does rankle is the way in which The Doctor just casually quips a Bondian goodbye along the lines of "You won't mind if I don't join you?" after the goons have sizzled away to bone. Presumably this is meant to highlight how alien the new Doctor is, but in reality it just makes him look like a cold-hearted arse.

And we've already seen The Doctor behave just as badly in the first part - sulking and whining in the TARDIS when it breaks down, sniping constantly at Peri ("Zee? Oh yes... zed.") and needlessly causing the death of a guard who's vapourised by a laser beam trap. Which highlights the whole problem with the 6th Doctor - it's a brilliantly observed performance from Colin Baker, but his Doctor is so in-your-face unlikeable that it's very hard to relate to this incarnation. Not only that, but the non-stop bickering between The Doctor and Peri is seriously starting to try the patience. In a way, you can understand where The Doctor's coming from with his constant sniping - Peri moans that The Doctor burned dinner the night before, conjuring up images of a whiny 12-year-old Perpugilliam throwing a hissy fit at Howard Foster's inept attempts at cuisine. You can almost picture her shrieking at the overdone fries and charcoal burger as she chucks them across the dinner table. Peri's no longer the feisty-but-likeable character of her first two adventures, but a stereotyped spoilt brat. Another casualty of the 1980s production team's increasingly odd decision to make travelling in the TARDIS about as enjoyable as going on the dodgem cars in the middle of a raw sewage pit.

Vengeance On Varos - Martin Jarvis as The GovernorAt least some of the guest characters are more interesting in Vengeance. The aforementioned Governor is a good case in point. He's not entirely sympathetic, simply going along with Bax's plan to prolong the agony of killing Jondar so as to "please" the public with a bit of gory death for entertainment. Even Peri wonders what sort of loony asylum she's stumbled into - and that includes the outwardly charming Governor. But Martin's astute script probes a bit deeper into the psyche of a leader. Like The Controller in Day Of The Daleks, the Governor finds that leadership - or puppet leadership is a baptism of fire. Whatever decision he makes, morally it's the wrong one because of the commanding regime and the society. When talking about the corrupt regime and a race of people that enjoys torture as entertainment, the Controller simply shrugs "It's Varos". It's only in the second part that The Governor takes the side of The Doctor, preparing to risk his life under the deadly rays to claim that there is an alternative to leadership under the likes of Sil and the Chief Officer. At last, Martin Jarvis gets a Who role worthy of his acting talents, and he gives a subtly nuanced turn as the Governor, eventually turning the character into a likeable ruler who is prepared to see the error of his ways.

Then there's the Greek Chorus double act of Arak and Etta, two everyday schmoes who pass comment on the TV shows unfolding before their eyes. Great characterisation again - Etta plays by the rules of Varos, fiercely sticking up for her beloved Governor and being prepared to dob her husband in so as to maintain the status quo in the household. Arak, by contrast, is a world-weary rebel, full of sarky quips and resignation with the Varosian diet of rubbish TV. "Oh, it's pathetic," he sighs at one point. In fact, Arak and Etta should have had their own spin-off show in which they comment on some of the dreadful offerings on TV in 21st century Britain. That's testament to both Martin's writing and the superb performances from Stephen "Ken Masters From Howard's Way" Yardley and Sheila "Madge From Benidorm" Reid.

"Sil is genius - a loathsome villain for the kids and a comic legend for the adults"

Vengeance On Varos - Nabil Shaban as SilAnd finally there's Sil, a brilliant creation. He may surround himself with what seems to be extras from a Sinitta pop video and may be more vain than Simon Cowell in a hall of mirrors, but Sil is genius - a loathsome villain for the kids and a comic legend for the adults. Nabil Shaban is an inspired bit of casting and brings Sil to life with great gusto. Every detail about Sil repels - the fractured speech, the Marsh Minnows and the gurgling laugh, which sounds like a man bobbing for apples in a flushing toilet. It's true, kids were impersonating Sil's memorably evil chuckle in playgrounds back in 1985, so job done.

While Vengeance On Varos succeeds in a great many respects, it doesn't quite gel as well as it could. The cod-Shakespearian dialogue is a hurdle for two reasons - one, it never really sounds real for one minute, and instead of sounding all deep and meaningful, it sometimes comes across as flowery and pompous. The other problem is that while great actors like Martin Jarvis and Forbes Collins (who is brilliantly evil as the Chief Officer) cope well with the dialogue, others don't. Jason Connery and Geraldine Alexander are the biggest casaulties - and what's worse is that they get the lion's share of the rather OTT speeches - as a result, it's even more obvious that their performances are flatter than steamrollered pancakes.

"Philip Martin's prophetic vision of the future still strikes a discordant note in 2011"

And another lead weight is Ron Jones' rather flat direction. It's odd; he showed great flair with Frontios, but Vengeance (while containing occasional well-judged set-pieces), more often than not, lacks sparkle. There are rather plodding car chases - the overgrown mobile hoovers move with all the speed of a mobility scooter and couldn't even outstroll a limping pensioner. Some of the challenges are rather mundane too - the doppelgangers tempting The Doctor, Areta and Jondar are rather obvious for example. And the musical score has all the tension and sound of a Mini Munchman game.

Having said that, there are some visually memorable images that stick in the mind - the harrowing cliffhanger in which The Doctor apparently dies of dehydration is expertly filmed with a very convincing turn from Baker. The aforementioned acid bath scene is brutal but snappily handled. And the make-up for the bird-like Peri and the reptilian Areta works very well indeed.

A mixed bag then, but the good points do outweight the bad. Even if some of the direction and acting are a bit off, Philip Martin's prophetic vision of the future still strikes a discordant note in 2011. Grotesquely macabre images wrestle with thoughtful takes on leadership and violence, but the end result is one of the more successful tales of season 22.

And the Peri - eh gag is priceless.

 

John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.

Check out John's previous Doctor Who review, Attack Of The Cybermen

Read more Doctor Who articles at Shadowlocked


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