Vengeance on Varos: Part 1
Broadcast on January 19th 1985 @ 5.20pm (7.2 million viewers)
The Colin Baker era of Doctor Who is not a popular period in the show’s history. However, critics often point to Vengeance on Varos as a high point, not least for the introduction of Sil, the Mentor. It also provided a comment on the growth of ‘video nasties’ which had been on the rise since the advent of video recorders. Despite highlighting the effect that violence can have on the viewing public, the story would ironically also come in for criticism over the violent content.
After setting the scene with a model shot of the planet Varos, the episode opens with a torture scene. Watching on are two civilians, the male is quickly dismissive, stating that “He’s not really hurt, he’s only acting,” an early indication that over exposure to televised violence has created an apathy but when the so-called spectacle stops he complains that there hasn’t been anything decent to watch in a while. More distressing is that the viewers are not just compelled to watch for their own entertainment but are made to watch out of fear of reprisals by what one can assume is some form of a police force, even having to complete ‘view stat’ reports. It is then revealed that the planet is making money from videos of what occurs in their punishment dome, a deliberate reference to the ‘video nasty’ tapes of the 1980’s.
Sil is a fantastic creation, exquisitely brought to life by actor Nabil Shaban, and unlike any creature seen on the show before or since. A form of intelligent slug, his appearance is very much unique in the history of Doctor Who but more than just the physical appeal Sil is also an interesting character, with questionable morals. Sil even speaks briefly in a manner more akin to Yoda of Star Wars, “like this governor we do not, replace you must arrange most soon”, that character having become hugely popular earlier in the decade. Far from being a mere ‘villain of the week’, Sil is a rounded character, with particular goals and aspirations, a determination to achieve them and a memorably resonant laugh.
Curiously, the TARDIS scenes are far less interesting than what is occurring on the planet, filling some of the extended 45-minute episode duration, with the Governor being obliterated by cell disintegration for failing to gain approval by the public. Can you imagine Prime Minister David Cameron or President Obama enduring such treatment? Revelations of the elite officers enjoying power and luxury whilst other members of the society struggle sound very familiar to British viewers of a certain class and is an early example of the show appearing to have specific political leanings.
The concept of the viewing public gathering around their television sets to watch an execution as entertainment is a grotesque concept to our modern sensibilities and is the perfect example of why ‘Vengeance on Varos’ is such a good story. Written by writer Philip Martin, known for his work on hard-hitting drama ‘Gangsters’, he adds a fresh take on what the Doctor Who format can do, creating a planet and a society which generates interesting parallels to our own society.
Most of the best moments are found when the two Varosian viewers, Arak and Etta, are watching their video screen. Etta was played by actress Shelia Reid who would later return to the series to play Clara Oswald’s grandmother, fact fans! Anyway, by watching them we are effectively observing ourselves, considering if we too would recoil at the horror of execution footage or be entertained by such scenes of torture. The two also offer very different perspectives, one supportive of the Governor, the other fatigued by the seemingly continual stream of inept leadership. Together the duo are the perfect device for what is an excellent story full of depth, produced during a period of the programme which is not highly regarded by some but deserves praise for its originality and perspective about our society.
Also first aired On This Day…
- Invasion of the Dinosaurs: Part 2
- Four to Doomsday: Part 2
- Snakedance: Part 2
- The Awakening: Part 1