Despite what people may think, Colin Baker’s era on Doctor Who produced some great stories that were not only ahead of their time but stand the test of it as well. One such story is Vengeance on Varos now released as a special edition DVD. It was one of the first released way back when and has now been re-issued with tons of extras that weren’t done the first time round.
The story sees the Doctor and Peri, played by Colin Baker and the beautiful Nicola Bryant, forced to visit the planet Varos where they desperately need a rare mineral Ziton 7 to power a dying Tardis (This particular power source was never used again, which isn’t a bad thing to be honest). There they discover a former penal planet that now fuels its economy through videos of execution and torture. This was the early days of reality tv and looking at our television schedules today, we can watch the inhabitants of Varos and completely identify with them as they sit glued to their screens waiting for something to happen. Remember the days of Big Brother where viewers sat watching the housemates sleeping in their beds in case they miss something exciting? Well, that’s Varos.
In the mix is Sil Nabil Shaban, a slug like businessman who sits atop a tank and is trying to screw the Governor played by Martin Jarvis for the rights to mine Ziton for a dirt cheap price. The Governor has no idea of the worth of the ore until the Doctor arrives. The Doctor and Peri are soon plunged into the madness of the reality television market when they battle deranged prisoners and lethal vines.
Varos is a strong story which is remembered to this day and Sil has just been released as an action figure. He is one of the great villains and returned the following season in Mindwarp. and fans still try to imitate Sil’s weird laugh. Nabil makes him truly alien from his taste for marsh minnows to his need to be moisturized constantly by his strapping bodyguards. He finds Peri ugly and manipulates a takeover from using human greed, the one thing he knows so well.
It was this season that saw the standard episodes go to 45 minutes long and for once the story doesn’t struggle to fill the time. The cliffhanger that sees the Doctor trapped in an illusion that makes him think he is dying of thirst in a dessert is brilliantly played. When the Governor calls for a close up of the Doctor’s dead face and calls cut it is one of the most clever and well realized endings to an episode ever.
Our viewpoint is represented by the characters of Etta and Arak who spend the entire story watching events on their television and giving a running commentary on what they are watching but cleverly giving an insight to how Varos works in a menacing Big Brother way where even comments you make in the privacy of your own home can get you imprisoned. And the final scene where the television screen goes to static when their hideous snuff video trade is ended is magic. Both Etta and Arak look at each other and wonder what they are going to do now. That’s exactly what would happen if someone ended all reality tv shows here tomorrow. It becomes almost an addiction. How would people cope with cold turkey in that case?
Peri meanwhile, discovers that Varos also dabbles in genetic experimentation and she and new ally Areta are almost turned into a bird and fish mutant respectively. Among the other guest cast is one Jason Connery in his first big role on television and he does an able job considering. His dad’s James Bond, you know?
One of the biggest attacks on this story was that it was too violent for television and a children’s show. However, writer Philip Martin wasn’t glorifying violence, he was warning us about it. One of the key scenes was where the Doctor throws someone into a vat of acid but these bandwagon jumpers should get their eyes checked. If you watch the scene it is obvious the man falls in while he tries to throw the Doctor in, not the other way around. But that was the trend at the time; attack without being constructive. I wonder how many of those critics watch now and think Doctor Who was ahead of its time just before they tune into the latest reality show?
This is a fantastic story with real meat to it, a memorable villain and the fact we’re still talking about it today speaks volumes about its quality.