Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Vengeance On Varos

[1985 – Season 22, Serial 2]
Doctor Who weathered more than its share of controversy in the ‘70s and ‘80s, mostly from one Mary Whitehouse, an ultra-conservative Christian of the sort that gives the rest of us a bad name.  She thought television was becoming far too permissive and showing horrible, awful things that would corrupt children and even older viewers.  It’s worth pointing out that she wasn’t talking about Torchwood, where I might be tempted to concede the point, but about television programs from 1963.  I don’t know, maybe the BBC was showing some pretty racy, violent stuff in ’63, but in America at least, about the most offensive thing you could find was the highly realistic black eye makeup on Opie Taylor when he got beaten up by a bully. 

Anyway, when the ‘70s rolled around, she singled out Doctor Who as “teatime brutality for tots,” a phrase I find highly offensive in suggesting that the rest of us don’t like a little teatime brutality.  She went on to claim that it “contains some of the sickest, most horrible material.”  Eventually, the BBC started to listen to her, and censored the cliffhanger to episode 3 of The Deadly Assassin, where the Doctor, in a fight with an assassin who, strangely enough, could be described as “deadly,” was held underwater to be drowned.  Later, producer Graham Williams had to severely tone down the horror and violence in the show under Whitehouse’s influence.

In the mid-‘80s, under the script editing of Eric Saward, controversy arose yet again over the violence.  But this time, it wasn’t just Whitehouse and her followers: even many Doctor Who fans complained about the high levels of nastiness that was beginning to seep in.  In Attack of the Cybermen, a mercenary got his hands cut off (off-screen, of course, but nonetheless pretty nasty).  Vengeance on Varos was even more criticized, and it remains one of the most controversial of all Doctor Who episodes, and raises the question of just what is “too far”.

Vengeance certainly is one of the darkest, grimmest, and nastiest of all Doctor Who episodes.  Its depictions of violence are painful, it’s atmosphere deeply oppressive, its humor pitch-black.  It's also one of the most vividly captured planets of the mid-eighties.

The question is whether or not that’s a bad thing.  Some fans hate Vengeance with a, um, vengeance.  Others admire just how strongly it holds to its convictions..

And other than the writing for the Doctor’s companion and the horrifying costume the Sixth Doctor was tragically saddled with, it does it very compellingly indeed.  Its depiction of the dystopian tragedy of the world known as Varos strikes deeply.  It was originally a colony for the criminally insane, and now the leaders of the planet are the descendants of the original guards.  Torture of political prisoners in the Punishment Dome is television entertainment.  It's a vividly disturbing world.

Though not quite as disturbing as the clown nightmare the Doctor is wearing.

The darkness is only deepened by the presence of the Sixth Doctor.  Had it been the Fifth Doctor, or even Three or Four, they would have decried the violence and set themselves apart from it.  But Six was a different creature.  Deeply conflicted over the horrors seen in the final days of his fifth life and how little his compassion did to stop it, and further twisted by his intense recent regeneration, Six is a Doctor who gives into his violent impulses when he feels he is up against real evil.  He’s edgy and unpredictable.

He’s also very, very funny, albeit in a rather dark vein.  In the serial’s most infamous scene, the Doctor fights with two guards, who, in the process, accidentally fall into an acid bath.  The Doctor looks horrified, but quips, “You’ll forgive me if I don’t join you.”  It’s a remarkably cold line from a man known for his compassion.

Not that the Sixth Doctor lacks compassion; his darkness makes it all the more powerful when he saves Peri and helps the downtrodden without hesitation.  Colin Baker is terrific in this serial.  If you don’t like DarkDoctor, this isn’t the episode for you, and most of Six’s early stuff, right up until Trial of a Timelord, really, are probably better off avoided.  But if you do like that element as a contrast to his lighter side (as I do), you’ll find much to love in this story.

Unfortunately, his companion Peri isn’t near as compelling, at least not in this story.  There are serials where she’s a terrific companion, but here, she is nothing more than a grating whiner shuffled off to the sidelines just enough not to accomplish anything, but not enough to actually shut up.  There are good Peri episodes out there, but unfortunately, despite otherwise being one of the strongest of the Sixth Doctor’s stories, the Doctor-Companion relationship is rather weak, and is above all what keeps it from being a classic.

The other major flaw is the pacing – the first half is pretty slow to get started.  The Doctor and Peri don’t arrive until about 25 minutes in, and the plot doesn’t really get momentum going until then.

Whether or not you go for this is largely personal taste.  Granted, the humor in Philip Martin’s original script was unfortunately toned down too much, but what remains works very well.  It’s satire that, for once, is subtle and incisive.  It doesn’t glorify the violence; it decries it.

It’s also a suspenseful, imaginative adventure.  It’s not very kid-friendly for a show usually considered to be a family program, but it is a compelling drama of its sort, despite its rough edges.  I wouldn't want every Doctor Who episode to be so bleak and violent, much like I wouldn't want every Doctor to be unstable and violent like Colin Baker, but in this particular case, I like it.


* * *

·        That’s Sean Connery’s son Jason being tortured in the opening scenes (and playing a fairly large role throughout).

·        I didn’t mention the character of “Sil”, a rather disgusting wretch.  He’s one of the original series’ most convincing monsters, not only well done makeup wise, but exceedingly well written by Martin and brilliantly acted by Nabil Shaban.

·        The other crucial supporting characters are Arak and Etta, who don’t have any involvement in the story itself; instead, they are the representatives of the world of Varos, and a sort of Greek Chorus to the various events.  It’s a good conceit that adds tremendously to the setting and themes.

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