Doctor Who is a long-running British science-fiction television series featuring The Doctor, a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey whose adventures see him travel through time and space. Over the years, different actors have starred in the role, and to compensate for the realities of the television business Time Lords were given the ingenious ability to regenerate their bodies when they die.
Vengeance on Varos is the 139th story of the Doctor, first broadcast in two parts on January 19 and 26, 1985 on BBC 1. “Part One” finds the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) and his companion Peri (Nicola Bryant), a 20th Century American college student who had been around since the Fifth Doctor, traveling in the TARDIS when it stalls. What is needed is Zeiton-7, an extremely rare element found only on the planet Varos. With the remaining bit of power left in the TARDIS, the Doctor is able to steer it there.
Varos is a planet in turmoil. The populace suffers from food rationing in part because of the bad deals they are offered for the Zeiton-7 from Sil (Nabil Shaban), a reptilian slug and Mentor representative of the Galatron Mining Corporation. Rebels are battling against the government, and when captured, they are tortured and executed on television for the viewers at home. The television is also used for voting, and when the majority vote against the Governor’s (Martin Jarvis) position, he is blasted by a Human Cell Disintegration Bombardment, the effects of which will eventually kill him if he keeps losing.
Shortly after their arrival, the Doctor and Peri are presumed to be working with the rebels and then another mining company. While falling in and out of the hands of the authorities and avoiding death, the Doctor works to resolve the issues of the Varosians. Peri finds herself in the all-too-familiar position of female companion: a damsel in distress, screaming for help and looking particularly nice in her leotard and shorts. Sil was over-the-top in his villainy, shouting and with a gurgling laugh. He was so popular he would later return in Mindwarp from The Trial of a Time Lord.
This was my first story with the Sixth Doctor and I found the character intriguing. Not only was he cranky and arrogant, but I couldn’t remember another version of the Doctor so comfortable with the death of those who stood in his way. He shoots at nameless guards and sets traps with lasers and poisonous vines. There is even a scene where a couple of guards end up in acid bath. Before leaving, he says humorously, “Forgive me if I don’t join you.”
The plot suffered from too many ideas. It starts well enough with the Galatron Mining Corporation squeezing the citizens and the rebellion and the commentary about television and society. But then things just get piled on. At one point after having been captured, Peri is subject to the rehabilitation unit that turns her into a bird at the hands of Quillam, a mad scientist who wears mask to cover his scars. While trying to escape, the Doctor and others find old men in loincloths, who have been lost in the bowels of the government building for so long they turned to cannabilism. And if that wasn’t enough, the Doctor is able to identify vines that are poisonous and use them to his advantage. Streamlining the script to deal would have helped improve it.
Doctor Who is known for the limitations of its special effects, but the electric carts used on Varos were laughable considering how small they were and that they moved so slow it seemed a person could walk faster them.
As usual, the BBC delivers an impressive array of extras. The commentary of Baker, Bryant, and Shaban was enjoyable as they sat together reminiscing and teasing each other as actors do. “Nice or Nasty?” (30 min) is the episode’s making-of special. “The Idiot’s Lantern” (8 min) is a series-wide examination of ideas and themes, such as the use of television. It is filled with lots of clips. There are “Extended and Deleted Scenes” (18 min), an unused music track was found in “Acid Bath Scene with Alternative Music” (2 min), Behind the Scenes (5 min), Outtakes (3 min), Trailers (1 min), and Continuities (1 min), which are the BBC1 station IDs announcing the program. There is also the usual Photo Gallery, PDF Materials, and text commentary.
With television a theme dealt with in this program, it seems natural to have so many extras related to it. “Tomorrow’s Times – The Sixth Doctor” (13 min) looks at critics’ response to Colin Baker’s tenure as the Doctor. “News” (1 min) presents the announcement of Baker being given the role, and on “Breakfast Time” (6 min) he is introduced on a BBC morning show. Baker and Bryant guest on the BBC children’s series “Saturday Superstore” (15 min) and children get to call in and ask questions. The sketch duo “French & Saunders” (8 min) play two play hapless extras in an episode of Doctor Who, recorded on 1/25/87 but never transmitted.
Colin Baker’s characterization of the Doctor is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoyed the different aspects he and the writers brought out of the character, which may have been there all along. Vengeance on Varos has enough good moments that make for its flaws and the DVD delivers for those who want to know more about the series.