Doctor Who: Vengeance on Varos
(2 episodes, s22e03-e04, 1985)
It’s a hit-and-miss meta-adventure.
On a rocky red planet dominated by domes, a chained man is being tortured on television. Arak and Etta, our court jesters representing the common man in this play, complain about their mandatory entertainment choices, compulsory voting, and less-than-pleasing TV dinners. The whole thing is very 1984 meets The Running Man (or, if you’d rather for the sake of temporal argument, the novel version). Simultaneously, The Doctor is repairing the console on the TARDIS. Peri questions his skills, remarking on all of the traumatic events since they left Telos. The Doctor even burned dinner! Shortly thereafter, the TARDIS stalls in deep space and strands the travelers.
I enjoyed the parallel between both opening couples.
The dome planet is called Varos, and its governor is negotiating with a fish-slug creature named Sil over the price of the planet’s exclusive Zeiton-7 ore. The discussion ends in a stalemate, which upsets the Varos delegation because they have to announce the unfortunate news on schedule, and that will likely affect an upcoming vote. To complicate matters, the Chief Officer is collaborating with Sil behind the governor’s back. When the governor makes his televised announcement, he is met with a resounding “no” vote – his third consecutive failure – and is subjected to a Human Cell Disintegration Bombardment, which slowly kills the recipient with each dose. The Chief Officer gives the governor a moment to recover while a guard recommends a public execution of Jondar, the prisoner in the dungeon, to boost ratings.
On this week’s episode of Survivor…
Peri brings the TARDIS operator’s manual to the Doctor, and they soon discover that the TARDIS has sufficient power but – as we discover through a barrage of technobabble – cannot transmit it since the transitional systems are misaligned. To solve it they need Zeiton-7 (of course), so set sail for Varos. They arrive just before the execution of Jondar, and the TARDIS is mistaken for a hallucination side-effect from the execution method. The Doctor and Peri end up rescuing Jondar – inadvertently executing a guard in the process – and escaping into the depths of the dungeons. They are rescued by Areta (Jondar’s wife) and Rondel (Jondar’s friend, a government official who is evicted from the Big Brother house… er, I mean, killed by the pursuing guards), and navigate back to the TARDIS with their peril-filled journey being broadcast to the masses.
Of course, the TARDIS has been taken by Sil and the governor. Luckily, attempts to open it have failed (which means that the Doctor has finally remembered how the lock works). Meanwhile, the Doctor is separated from the group: The remaining three are arrested, but the Doctor escapes into a desert scene where he nearly succumbs to the virtual heat. He is taken to a separate room to recuperate before being slated for execution by acid bath. The Doctor wakes up and startles the guards, both of whom end up taking a dip in the fatal pool with some oddly comedic music and a James Bond-style quip.
The Doctor’s escape gets stymied by Quillam, the planet’s chief scientist. Meanwhile, the governor decides to execute the Doctor and Jondar in a “good old-fashioned way.” They will be hanged while Areta and Peri are subjected to a cell mutator, but as the noose is slipped over his neck, the Doctor connects the dots and confronts Sil over his extortion of Varos. Sil orders his bodyguards to silence the Doctor by pulling the lever, but the Doctor and Jondar simply fall through the trap doors unharmed. The governor was using the staged event to learn the truth about the Doctor’s presence on the planet, which the Doctor suspected when the cameras were turned off.
In the cell mutator, the women are already being transformed. Sil pushes the Chief to continue the mutations in order to defeat the Doctor, but the Doctor confronts Quillam and stops the experiment in the nick of time by shooting the control panel. The men rescue the women the quartet escapes into the depths of the Punishment Dome after stealing a golf cart. Unfortunately, Peri is captured once again after wandering off.
The golf cart theft scene was unintentionally comedic, but the discussion between the governor and Peri was quite pleasant. Peri is really starting to grow on me. I enjoy her plucky, kind, and curious attitude toward everything.
The Chief and Sil set up one last vote in hopes that the governor will be killed and their alliance can secure control over the ore. The vote is resoundingly no, but Maldak (the guard overseeing the proceedings) saves the governor by destroying the field emitters. The governor, Maldak, and Peri escape into the Punishment Dome and pursue the Doctor, Jondar, and Areta, eventually joining up with them. The Chief and Quillam also pursue the running prisoners, but the Doctor traps them in an ambush with their own arrogance.
Our heroes end up back in the Varos control center to confront Sil, but his own mining corporation betrays his invasion plans when they find a second source of Zeiton-7, removing the corner from the market. The Doctor and Peri depart, Zeiton-7 in hand, and the governor proclaims that the era of injustice, torture, and executions is over.
In the end, the story’s court jesters Arak and Etta are left in confused disbelief over their new-found freedom from the television.
The stranded TARDIS part of the story was pretty bad. I liked Peri trying to solve the problem, but I didn’t like the Doctor moping instead of looking for a way out. The commentary on socially-driven entertainment to placate the masses was frighteningly relevant three decades later, and I did kind of enjoy the spin on The Running Man-style execution by entertainment. Some of it was silly, and the setting certainly amped up the dark and violent tone of the show in the John Nathan-Turner era, but the creativity was enjoyable.
It’s always odd when televised entertainment comments on the perils of televised entertainment; one would think that it would be self-defeating, but more often than not, it works on some level. It was decent enough here.
Rating: 3/5 – “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.”
UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Mark of the Rani
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.
5 thoughts on “Timestamp #139: Vengeance on Varos”
This is usually lauded as the best of the sixth Doctor’s run, although I don’t happen to share that view. Like you, I think that this one has some interesting societal commentary that’s far more relevant now than it would have been in the 1980’s, but it’s got too much of the “casual violence” tone of the sixth Doctor’s era for me to really like it. I do like Sil as a villain. He’s almost like a prototype Ferengi, and that’s probably why he was popular enough that they wanted to bring him back…
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[…] but they are forced to run further by the guards. They hide, and from the shadows, they observe Sil and two others of his species being carried […]
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[…] got a kick out of Colin Baker’s obsession with Vengeance on Varos. It’s a story that’s often derided by critics for excessive violence and dark tones, […]