Due to the fact we can’t physically watch and review every classic Doctor Who story before the 50th Anniversary, we have decided to check out two episodes in each Doctor’s era every week until the 50th. This week is the Sixth Doctor’s week, featuring Vengeance on Varos and Caves of Androzani. For those looking for another good episode to understand the Sixth Doctor, also look at The Resurrection of the Daleks.
Vengeance on Varos is the second story of Season 22. The Doctor and Peri arrive on Varos in a great fourth-wall breaking episode.
We don’t really get enough fourth wall breaking episodes in dramas, so it’s always awesome to see a TV show that really embraces the fact that yes, it is a TV show. Doctor Who actually has done a bit of fourth wall breaking in its time, with its propensity for monologues directed at the camera.
However, Vengeance on Varos takes this to a whole new level. Former prison planet Varos is controlled by an oppressive government in which citizens are too hungry and tired from working all day to really care. Voting has become something akin to reality TV – when the governor proposes an idea which is shot down, he is subjected to potentially lethal punishment, and executions are also televised. Meanwhile, the planet remains poor due to a Corporation, and its swindling representative Sil’s negotiations.
At the beginning of the episode, the Doctor and Peri run into a spot of trouble as the TARDIS has run out of a vital, rare mineral, Zeiton-7 ore.Luckily, he manages to pilot the TARDIS to Varos, the only planet that possesses this ore. Unluckily, the travellers happen on a political execution. What ensues is a web of political machination, greedy corporation meddling, commentary from citizens about the television they’re watching and near-death escapades.
The entire episode is an interesting commentary on the nature of violence in television and also on the greed of corporations. My first real impression of the Sixth Doctor is not a favourable one. He’s brash, loud and arrogant. He’s quite rude to Peri, and knowing that he hits her in his first episode didn’t endear him to me even slightly. On top of that, he’s ruthless. Sure, the people he doesn’t help are “bad guys” (which is unclear – if you’re offered a better-paying job from a government that has probably already brainwashed you, does that really make you a bad guy?). However, he pretty heartlessly pushes a man into an acid pool and leaves him there quite happily. Even the Ninth Doctor, after all the horrors of the Time War, isn’t that merciless. All in all, a great episode, even if I dislike this Doctor.
Compared to the mild mannered and soft-spoken Fifth Doctor, the Sixth is an absolute brute, loud in every way possible, from his voice to his outfit. In his second story, he is still unstable from his recent regeneration, and as a result he is brash, arrogant and makes mistakes. Understandably, this Doctor is not everybody’s cup of tea – although all other Doctors do share some traits with him. And that outfit is enough to make a blind man cry. In regards to content, it was dark and quite violent for a classic Doctor Who story. Pointed and satirical, it highlighted the problems with violence on television.
The 45 minute length of the episode could sometimes be a bit drawn out, but aside from that, the serial was a good one. The story of Vengeance on Varos was quite strong and coherent, with characters that were fairly believable and a plot that wasn’t too odd or illogical. On top of that, it was a strong social satire, with heavy emphasis on the impact of violence in the media. The society that the TARDIS team arrive in is a prison society, one that is controlled by the state through fear and turning executions into entertainment. Even political office is dangerous: when the Governor falls out of favour with the people he is destroyed, the logic being that a person in fear of his life will make better decisions. The people, exemplified by two overworked and hungry ‘citizens’ (with thick lower class accents), are not greatly intelligent, and are too tired to question the nature of things, and are also shown to be highly forgetful and docile.
The planet is being maliciously exploited by a mining company, which has sent the greedy and conniving Sil to bribe and cajole his way to cheapen Zeiton-7, Varosí primary export. The Doctor and Peri, who he still treats rather poorly, arrive in this hellish world, and begin their adventure with a bang by liberating a prisoner who was about to be executed, and the pace doesn’t slow down from there. Filled with dark action and violence, the story keeps a fairly quick pace. The characters in this episode were interesting. The Doctor was quite ruthless, killing several minor characters without even seeming to stop to think about it. Although he did try and save some people, notably the political prisoners, he didn’t seem too fussed over killing most of the, admittedly brutal, ruling elite of Varos. Peri was quite brave – as companions go she was strong willed and quite independent. Unfortunately for Peri, her accent somehow made her seem both much more frail than she actually was and more annoying at the same time. Whilst the American accent is not annoying in of itself, it seemed very out of place surrounded by the variety of British accents. Nevertheless, she was much more of an interesting companion than some give credit for – she was even more fleshed out than some of the more modern characters, such as Amy or Rory. The other characters were a little two dimensional, such as the rebels and the ruling elite, but the Governor and Sil were interesting. Sil was a creepy little slug-like creature, motivated by greed and sadism. He used corruption and finally the threat of an occupation to try and extort the community of Varos out of its mineral resources. The Governor was also interesting, originally starting out as a villain and managing to end up on the side of the Doctor and Peri.
The main aspect of the story that came through was an anti-corporatism combined with a social message about violence on TV. The fourth wall doesn’t really exist in this episode, with the characters talking directly to the audience almost all the time, especially when talking about their ‘entertainment’ industry. In an obvious way the episode highlights the dangers of violence on TV. The population is completely desensitised to violence, which is used to keep the lower orders in their place. In conclusion, it was a good story, and a strong episode. The graphics were not too shabby, and the acting was quite good. The social commentary is what makes this episode worth watching.