Friday, 28 August 2015

Story 138 - Vengeance On Varos

In which the TARDIS breaks down in deep space - and the Doctor does not appear to be in too much of a hurry to fix things. In fact, he seems quite resigned to his fate, living out the remainder of his regenerations aboard the ship. It is Peri who takes the initiative, fetching the ship's manual so that they can identify the problem. A mineral called Zeiton 7 is required, and they have just enough power to make it to the planet of Varos - the only known source.
Varos is currently playing host to Sil, the representative of the Galatron Mining Corporation. This repellent slug-like amphibian is determined to procure Zeiton 7 supplies for a fraction of their true worth. The planet was once a penal colony. The elite are the descendants of the guards, whilst the bulk of the population labour in the mines. The population is kept under control by a constant diet of televised horror - torture and executions. Currently in the Punishment Dome is a young man named Jondar. He tried to publicise the luxurious lifestyle of the elite. He is being tortured by intermittent laser pulses, prior to his public execution. Sil learns that these punishments are marketed and sold for entertainment on other worlds - something he would like to further exploit. He is in league with the planet's Chief Officer against the Governor.

The Governor wants a better price for the Zeiton 7, but the Chief is in Sil's pay and works to undermine him. Periodically, the Governor must go to the polls, so that the population can vote on his plans. If he loses a vote, his body is bombarded by harmful radiation. The laser which is punishing Jondar is set to deliver a deadly random pulse that will disintegrate him. Whilst the death will be quick, there will be considerable tension as the moment when it fires will be unknown. A guard named Maldak is left to supervise things. The Dome can cause hallucinations, so he thinks his helmet's protection has failed when he sees a large blue box materialise in the chamber. The Doctor and Peri free Jondar, and another guard who arrives is disintegrated by the laser instead. Jondar's wife, Areta, and a guard friendly to the couple appear. They show them a way out of the Dome. However, all of this has been witnessed by the Governor, the Chief and Sil, and the guards are sent to capture them all. The guards are the least of their worries, however, as the Dome is full of lethal traps. All of this is also being watched by citizens such as Arak and Etta. One by one the fugitives are captured, until only the Doctor is left in the Dome. He enters an area where he appears to die of heat stroke brought on by a hallucination.

He comes to just before his "corpse" gets dumped into an acid vat, and sets off to rescue the others. The scientist Quillam, who devises many of the torments, uses Peri and Areta in an experiment where they transform into animals which reflect their personalities. The Doctor frees Jondar and they manage to halt the process before it becomes permanent. The Doctor and Jondar are recaptured and find themselves about to be hanged. However, the Governor has started to listen to the Doctor and realises that his people are being cheated. The Doctor and his friends flee once more into the tunnels, but Peri is recaptured. Sil and the Chief force the Governor to endure another vote - and Peri will join him. Maldak is left to guard them, and the Governor starts to convince him that he will probably be made next Governor and will face the same fate. Maldak frees them before the radiation builds up. The Doctor, Jondar and Areta are in the tunnels, pursued by Quillam and the Chief. They set a trap of their own and their pursuers are killed by lethal stinging vines. Sil is about to launch an invasion of Varos when it is announced that Zeiton 7 has been found on another planet - so he must negotiate whatever price the Varosians want. The Governor plans wider reforms. Arak and Etta see their TVs go blank for the first time in their lives.

This two part adventure was written by Philip Martin, and was broadcast between 19th and 26th January, 1985.
It introduces the Sixth Doctor's signature villain Sil - played by Nabil Shaban. It also sees the final (to date) appearance by Martin Jarvis (the Governor). He had first appeared, under Menoptra make-up, way back in The Web Planet - although he has contributed to a BBC Radio 4 Extra Torchwood episode.
The obvious inspiration for the story is the controversy over "Video Nasties" and the general (mis) conception that TV was too violent. Ironically, the very themes explored in this story would be used against the show at the season's close.
Colin Baker's first season is often criticised for its levels of violence - and this story is often cited. The sequence with the acid bath is usually singled out. The Doctor quite clearly does not push the hapless attendants into the acid. One falls in, and pulls his colleague in after him. What does jar is the Connery-Bond quip from the Doctor afterwards. He really should be appalled rather than cracking cheap jokes.
Of more concern, as far as I'm concerned, is how the Doctor (and Peri) make assumptions as soon as they arrive on the planet. They assume Jondar to be an innocent victim, and then the Doctor disintegrates a random guard - all without knowing anything about what is going on here.
The Sixth Doctor does not gain any new fans in the first episode when he sits back and does nothing about the threat to the TARDIS. It is a problem of this entire season that the Doctor and Peri take far too long to get involved in the main plot.

I've mentioned a couple of the cast members already. Sil is a wonderful creation, superbly played, and it was only a matter of time before he was brought back. Arak and Etta - who never interact with any of the other characters - form a sort of Greek Chorus. Often they say what we the viewing audience might be thinking. They are played by Stephen Yardley (who had been Sevrin in Genesis of the Daleks), and Sheila Reid (who will return as Clara Oswald's grandmother, but is best known for the Davros-like Madge in Benidorm). Nicholas Chagrin is Quillam, and Forbes Collins is the Chief Officer. In one of his first ever TV roles, as Jondar, is Jason Connery - son of Sean - and soon to be the second Robin of Sherwood. Maldak is Owen Teale, who has gone on to great things. He hasn't been back to Doctor Who, but he did play a homicidal cannibal leader in Torchwood's first season.
Episode endings are:
  1. The Doctor is subjected to a hallucination of being stranded in a desert. He collapses. In the control centre, the Governor directs the editor to cut just as the Doctor appears to expire...
  2. Arak and Etta see their TV screen go blank, and ponder what they will do now...

Overall, it may have its faults, but it is the best Colin Baker story. Not the best Sixth Doctor story - for reasons you will have to wait for - but the best we get from Baker.
Things you might like to know:
  • Philip Martin was best known at the time for the Birmingham-set crime series Gangsters, which starred Lytton actor Maurice Colbourne. It started off as a straightforward thriller, then just went all weird and postmodern. Martin himself appeared as an assassin who looked and acted like W C Fields. Do check it out.
  • Nabil Shaban suffers from a bone disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta. On set to assist him was his friend Tom Watt - who would become as one of the Eastenders principle cast members in its first years (he was Lofty). Like Watt, Shaban's politics are well left of centre, and he has been very critical of the BBC in the past (despite also campaigning to play the Master), and he has stated that this might be why the Corporation hasn't re-employed him.
  • The marsh-minnows which Sil guzzles were peaches dyed with food colouring. They upset Shaban's stomach - which was unfortunate as he was bound up in that costume. He suggested that they could be marketed.
  • The initial plan for Sil was that he would be contained within his tank, rather than sitting on top of it - but the practicalities of this would have been too great.
  • The model of the Varos domes comes from a Blake's 7 episode.
  • I was terrible at economics at college, but surely the discovery of new sources of a rare commodity would depress prices, rather than raise them? This only makes sense if the fresh discovery comes under a rival company's control, but this isn't stated.
  • Why doesn't Galatron just invade anyway, if this is one of their normal business practices and their fleet is on its way anyway?
  • Director Ron Jones only joined the project late in the day. The director initially scheduled to make this was Michael Owen Morris - who had helmed The Awakening.
  • The "priest" officiating at the intended hanging might look familiar. He was the oil rig survivor in Terror of the Zygons.
  • Negative reviews of this story - highlighting the horror and violence - were cut out and kept by Philip Martin and blown up, to pin to the wall of his toilet as reading material for his guests.

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