Review [DW]: “Vengeance on Varos”

22×2. Vengeance on Varos
Writer: Phillip Martin
Director: Ron Jones
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor and Peri become involved in political turmoil on Varos, a planet where citizens languish in poverty and are force-fed sadistic entertainment, in the midst of a dispute between the planet’s compromised Governor and Sil, a representative of the predatory Galatron Mining Corporation looking to obtain Varos’s supply of the mineral Zeiton-7.

Review: Stop me if you’ve heard any of this before – the Doctor and Peri find themselves in a dystopian society where cynical corporate maneuverings have relegated the value of human life almost to an afterthought, while numerous violent confrontations ensue and the new Doctor seems unsettlingly at ease amidst all the mayhem and bloodshed. If that sounds to you like “The Caves of Androzani” meets “Attack of the Cybermen,” you’re not far off. If you think that sounds like something of a mixed bag, you’re not far off either.

Varos may not be quite as compelling a setup as Androzani, but I’d say it comes close, both in the way it humanizes a character who could have easily come across as one-dimensionally villainous (Sharaz Jek in “Caves” and the Governor in “Varos”) and in its portrayal of a situation where corruption and cold-heartedness have simply become second nature. The Governor can sound just as callous and opportunistic as his counterparts when he discusses the profits to be made in selling videos of prisoners suffering in the “Punishment Dome” or plays the role of a film director, ordering close-ups on what he believes to be the Doctor’s death throes. But he also genuinely tries his best to improve his people’s standing and doesn’t take sadistic pleasure in the atrocities the way someone like Sil or Quillam would, and we learn towards the end that he did not assume his position by choice and is perhaps simply the product of a brutal society. When Peri, awaiting execution alongside him, exclaims that the situation is horrible, he glumly replies, “it’s Varos,” with the resignation of a man who must have known that this was how his time in office – and his life – would eventually come to an end. If he’s not exactly sympathetic, he does seem likely to take a more humane approach in the future once Sil’s position is undercut and the planet is able to obtain a fairer price for the Zeiton-7.

The most inventive aspect of the serial, and what makes it more than just a remix of “Caves” and “Attack,” is the ubiquity of the cameras and the way the live broadcasts have become an integral part of Varosian society and a reinforcement of the populace’s hopelessnes and cynicism. The script frequently cuts away to Arak and Etta, a couple who seem to have only slightly more regard for each other than for those whose whom they witness being tortured or killed on their viewscreen, which is to say not a lot. They are the Everyman and Everywoman of a morally bankrupt world, where the travails of the Punishment Dome and the sufferings of the Governor (who is subjected to live broadcast torture whenever the voters reject one of his proposals) have been reduced to what we’d think of as a particularly depraved and cruel reality television show. Neither of them seem to care much about the outcome of the conflicts set in motion by the Doctor’s arrival – Etta views his involvement and collaboration with the rebel Jondar primarily as great entertainment, and when the broadcasts stop after the Governor’s announcement of a new era of peace, they mostly just react to the fact that there’s nothing to watch any more. The Doctor quickly catches onto the dynamic at work, cleverly deducing that his own apparent impending execution is a hoax because the cameras aren’t running.

This is Colin Baker’s third serial as the Doctor, and I can’t say I’m finding this incarnation much more agreeable to my tastes than when he first arrived on the TARDIS floor and promptly insulted Peri (though I certainly don’t fault Baker himself – he’s doing what is asked of him by the scripts). There’s some implication that he’s still suffering post-regenerative instability when Peri recounts the various fiascoes he’s recently caused in the TARDIS, but past that, there isn’t much to make him a very appealing protagonist or one that I’d be eager to keep following if I knew nothing of the show’s history. In fact, his actions serve to undercut the point that the script seeks to make about desensitization to violence. The first thing he does after arriving on Varos is to run away and redirect a lethal laser beam to block pursuit, with a hapless guard walking right into it shortly afterwards, and when he’s trapped by Quillam and the corrupt Chief Officer, he directs Jondar to kill them (and two more nameless guards) with a poison vine. You can argue that he didn’t actually mean for the guard to die in the first instance and/or that his hand was forced in the second instance, but either way, it’s disappointing to see him resort so quickly to brute force rather than trying to talk or think his way out. And while I can comfortably acquit him of responsibility for the “acid bath” deaths, his quip at the end of the scene is unnecessary and the whole thing is almost staged like “Three Stooges”-style slapstick.

Doctor Who is by nature a stylistically malleable show, and there’s a certain built-in distance between the audience and its primary protagonist that’s somewhat atypical for a dramatic science fiction series. Could the show work in the absence of a likeable Doctor? I don’t know, possibly – “Vengeance on Varos” would be evidence for the argument that it could – but I’m not sure I really want to see the attempt made in the first place.

Rating: *** (out of four)

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