Monday 29 June 2020

Inspirations - Vengeance on Varos

Vengeance on Varos was the first story to be written by experienced screenwriter Philip Martin, who was best known for the offbeat crime drama Gangsters at the time, which starred Lytton actor Maurice Colbourne. Martin himself featured in the series, as a WC Fields look-a-like assassin.
Initially John Nathan-Turner was reluctant to use him, insisting on him submitting a story treatment - something which would normally be expected from a less experienced writer. JNT was also worried that he might be too "political" for the series. As it was, his story proved to be very political.
Vengeance on Varos would be accused of the very thing which it was attempting to parody.
The early 1980's saw a boom in home entertainment as the price of video recorders became more affordable to a greater number of households. People could record TV programmes when they were out, or when two programmes clashed in the schedules, but they could also rent or buy films and TV series to view over a single night or over a weekend. The cost of tapes remained high, so it was obviously much cheaper to rent a title, and video rental businesses sprang up everywhere. The big concerns like Blockbuster would arrive soon, but initially even your corner shop could stock a limited number of videos. You joined a club, which permitted you to rent out a maximum number of tapes per night. There were fines if you were late returning a film, and viewers were expected to follow the etiquette of rewinding the tape before returning it. Big new releases were hard to get hold of unless the shop got in multiple copies. You'd often have to reserve a copy.
Lower budget film companies often even made movies which were intended purely for video release, with no chance of a cinema outing. Amongst the most popular genres were Horror and Science Fiction.

A loophole in the law, however, meant that many of these films bypassed the censors - the British Board of Film Classification, as it was in the UK. The BBFC could police what went into the cinema, but they had no control over the movies which people were able to watch in their own homes. Tabloid stories began to circulate of minors watching films with a high sex, violence and gore content. Our old friend Mary Whitehouse got involved, with her organisation - the National Viewers and Listeners Association - campaigning to have home video restricted and subject to the same processes as cinema releases. The NVLA campaign was picked up by The Sun newspaper, and some Conservative MPs.
These fine upstanding moral guardians between them got the law changed so that home video was classified as with cinema releases, and a number of titles were outright banned. Their efforts were helped by a couple of high profile incidents where access to violent videos was claimed to be a contributing factor - the Hungerford Massacre, and the murder of James Bulger. In the latter case, the child killers were supposed to have been influenced by one of the Child's Play movies.
The banned titles came to be known as "Video Nasties". There were 72 of them originally. 39 of them were allowed to be released after extensive cuts, sometimes decades later. 10 remained banned outright. Others were added to, or subtracted from, the list as prosecutions were attempted and failed, or were withdrawn. Alongside the main lost of 72 films there was a supplementary list comprising another 82 movies.

Looking at the list, you can see certain themes which provoked the response. Many deal with cannibalism, zombies or serial killers. Quite a few are what are known as "Naziploitation" films, with concentration camp settings. Sometimes it wasn't the main theme which got the film into trouble, but the inclusion of some other problematic issue such as scenes of animal cruelty. One other thing noticeable about the lists is the number of Italian productions. The vast majority of "Video Nasties" hailed from Italy, whose film industry was on the decline at the time - causing studios to increasingly rely on cheap exploitation pictures.
Vengeance on Varos shows us a society where "Video Nasties" are the only form of mass entertainment, used by the government as a form of social control. All the victims in these productions are real people, not actors, and they are being punished for breaking the law - their suffering broadcast as a deterrent to the rest of the community. Alluding to the on-going public debate about such material, at one point the Governor talks about possibly selling copies of these productions to other worlds, purely as a form of entertainment, whilst Sil gets quite excited at the prospect of viewing some of them.

The story features characters being tortured and executed, and even finds room for a couple of cannibals. "Naziploitation" gets a nod in the totalitarian government, with Nazi-like uniforms, and a chief torturer who indulges in human experiments. Quillam's half mask is reminiscent of the stage version of the Phantom of the Opera, though Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical wouldn't debut until October 1986.
In talking about screen violence, the story inevitably has to portray some of it - and this is where it got into trouble. The BBC used the violence in Vengeance on Varos to criticise the general level of violence in the series as a whole, and some fans agreed with them. One scene in particular needs to be looked at, as it is the one most commonly used to attack this story. It's the acid bath sequence. The accusation against the programme is that the Doctor pushes two minor functionaries into an acid bath, then makes a joke about it. Look at the scene carefully and you'll see that the functionaries think the Doctor is dead, and so are shocked when he suddenly gets up, and this is what causes the first of them to fall in. He isn't pushed in by the Doctor. The second one does get into a fight with the Doctor, who looks like he will have to push him in to stop himself from being thrown in, but the first guy ends up reaching up and pulling his colleague in after him. Again - the Doctor isn't responsible. What does jar with the character of the Doctor is his "Mind if I don't join you?" quip, as he surveys the scene afterwards. This is clearly meant to mimic the sort of black humour from the Bond movies, where 007 would make some ironic comment reflecting the nature of a villain's demise. These began in Dr. No when a hearse full of assassins plunged off a cliff, when Bond remarks: "I think they were on their way to a funeral". The closest parallel to what the Doctor says here is probably Bond's "Bon Appetit", after Blofeld's henchman is killed by piranhas in You Only Live Twice.
Bond is a professional killer, however, whilst the Doctor is supposed to respect all forms of life, and this is why his quip is misjudged. It depends what your view is of the Nuremberg Defence - "I was only following orders" - how much the functionaries deserved their fate.

Some other inspirations. Sil's design came from the fact that aquatic animals make up a huge proportion of life on Earth, yet they rarely featured in the programme. It had been planned that Sil would be entirely submerged in his tank, but this proved impractical for a studio-bound story, so he ended up sitting on top of it instead. His marsh-minnows were peaches dyed green, and they gave the actor, Nabil Shaban, the runs. Shaban based aspects of his performance on a pet snake owned by a friend.
There is a Philip K Dick novel, Clans of the Alphane Moon (1964 - based on a 1954 short story named Shell Game), which tells of a society arising from an abandoned hospital colony, where the different continents are characterised by various mental illnesses - e.g. the Deps who suffer from Depression, or the Ob-Coms who suffer from OCD. Varos was once a penal colony for the criminally insane, with the officials presumably the descendants of the guards with the general populace descending from the inmates. Mention should also be made of Peter Weiss' play Marat / Sade (first performed in 1964) in which the inmates of an asylum stage a play - under the direction of the Marquis de Sade - about the assassination of French Revolutionary Marat, who was stabbed to death in his bath.
A more topical inspiration is the fact that Varos depends on mining for its main source of income. Ruthless conglomerates are determined to exploit the planet's resources with the poor miners themselves seeing none of the benefits. 1984 had see the start of a year long strike by Britain's miners over pay and conditions.
Next time: there's trouble at t'mill for the Doctor and Peri as they come up against not one but two rogue Time Lords...

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