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Best Served Cold

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Among Doctor Who fans the tenure of the Sixth Doctor – played by actor Colin Baker – is riddled with controversy and polarization. There are some who accuse the series of falling to shoddy writing, poor planning, Baker’s take on the main character, too much violence and a change in format. While all or some of those things may be true it does not disguise the fact that the story "Vengeance on Varos" was one of the best of Baker’s tenure – a well-rounded tale with some surprisingly sharp and pointed criticisms which hit the mark with Robin Hood’s aim.

 The TARDIS is in need of a rare ore and so the Doctor and companion Peri take a gamble to make it to the only planet where the ore can be found – Varos. Unfortunately, at this period in history Varos is a vicious, hard place where the governor stays in power only by entertaining the baser instincts of the populace. Should he fail to win their approval the result may mean his death. As fate would have it, the governor is, at this time, engaged in contract talks about the ore with a representative of a slug-like alien race. The Doctor and Peri jump into the middle of this and find their fate entwined with that of a couple of freedom fighters who have uncovered secrets about the government of Varos… secrets which will sentence them to death. There is government intrigue and a flight for freedom through a deadly maze. Without the ore the TARDIS will never leave Varos although the Doctor and Peri may leave… in body bags.

One of the most striking things about this episode is the way the writer managed to work in a number of themes and influences. Originally, the main idea was to examine the concept of "snuff films" and the like though a science fiction lens. The legends and stories about such films still abound today and it may come as some surprise that they go back to even before 1985, when this story first aired. The idea that the people of Varos could be "entertained" through the torture and murder of other human beings is obviously a pointed barb but the story also aims it arrows at television violence and mind-numbing TV viewing in general.

 The writer did not stop there, however, and went on to add even more themes such as the concept of the "Bread and Circuses" of ancient Rome. These were not the three ring or Cirqe du Soleil affairs of today the phrase comes from a time in the Roman Empire when the politicians provided the poor with free wheat for making bread and made the games – usually chariot racing – a cheap form of entertainment in order to win votes among the masses. The Roman chariot racing was not the orderly horse or sulky racing most people have probably seen on TV. Ancient chariot racing was a bloody and often deadly free-for-all and people were not averse to seeing someone die on the field. For those less steeped in history a chunk of this aspect of the plot is liable to put them more in mind of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Running Man. Some of this also bore allusions to what was happening politically in Great Britain at the time under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

What is perhaps amazing is that the story turned out so well considering all of the difficulties in the program at that time. First of all, the show had long ago settled into a pattern of four-episode serials, a half-hour (approximately) per-episode with few exceptions. With the advent of the Sixth Doctor producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner decided to change the format to two 45 minute episodes per serial. This changed the pacing of each episode and many writers for the series found it hard to adjust; because of this the series found itself short on scripts rather early in Baker’s tenure.

That was not the only thing Nathan-Turner dictated. While he was certainly a fan himself and is often credited for keeping the show on the air when there were those who wanted to see it disappear, he also had a reputation for micro-managing. Whereas in the past actors were generally allowed to bring their own spin and costuming choices (within reason) to the character, Colin Baker found much more of this had been decided upon without his input. It had become tradition for each new actor differentiate himself from the previous actor and in this Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward had taken the reins and decided that Colin Baker’s version of the Doctor should be unstable, argumentative (which unfortunately translated as bickering in most scripts), arrogant, and possibly even dangerous in order to differentiate him from Peter Davison’s more mild and soulful take.

Along with the brash characterization Nathan-Tuner wanted the costume to be as garish and tacky as possible… in that he succeeded. Although in his retiring years Baker has since made his peace with it, at the time he was not at all happy with the costume choice. Baker was, however, more enthused about the idea of playing the Doctor as someone who had a darker streak. The idea was that the character would warm as the series went on but Nathan-Turner and Saward moved the pace of that growth more slowly than Baker wanted and more slowly it would seem than fans wanted as well.

Nathan-Turner also extended his control over costuming and characterization to Nicola Bryant. By the mid-1980s Doctor Who had gained a small but loyal fan base in the United States thanks to airing in syndication and on PBS stations. Again searching for bigger budgets and more backing, Nathan-Turner hoped to woo an American TV production company into partnering with the BBC for the show just as he had tried to do with the Australian Broadcasting Company earlier in the decade. As before, the producer hoped that having a familiar character would help lure in partners and so he decided upon an American companion for the series. Nathan-Tuner also decided that the show needed more "sex appeal" despite the long-standing understanding that the attractive female companions on the program had long been "something for the dads". Nathan-Turner found what he was looking for in relatively novice actress, Nicola Bryant.

Since Bryant’s character was supposed to be an American college student Bryant herself had wanted to dress as a typical college student – sweatshirts or t-shirts, blue jeans and athletic shoes. Nathan-Turner, however, insisted that she wear something "fitting" to play up the sex appeal he wanted and Bryant ended up spending much of her tenure in leotards and shorts. She also spent quite a bit of time with a dialogue coach to try to learn an American accent since she was British by birth and American ears might find her take sounded not quite right.

Despite the micro-managing, "Vengeance on Varos" sported not only a solid script but also a solid cast. Since the story had originally been pitched with the Fifth Doctor and companions Nyssa and Tegan in mind it ended up with less of the trademark bickering and Baker’s Doctor and Bryant’s Peri seem warmer and more caring about one another as well as the people they encounter. Peri also comes across as more quick-witted with a stronger sense of humor than she does in other stories. Viewers may be surprised to see Jason Connery (son of Sean Connery) as the rebel Jondar in what was his first TV appearance. He did a good job in the role although after the first half of the story he wasn’t given much to do.

The scene stealer is Nabil Shaban as the alien Sil. Shaban was born with a rare condition which caused his legs to be underdeveloped but despite this he pursued his dream of becoming an actor. While the shoot was rather uncomfortable due to the costume and the set Shaban threw himself into the oily (in more ways than one), sneaky, avaricious Sil with relish. The other stand out in the episode is Martin Jarvis as the Governor (no name ever given). Jarvis pulled out the Shakespearian elements of the Governor and helped craft the character into one of the more interesting "villains" in Doctor Who at the time. While the audience initially wants to dislike him as the villain they are quickly sucked in by Jarvis’ charming and sympathetic portrayal and are quite willing to cheer him in the end.

The story is not without its problems. Some of the special effects are really quite laughable even for the time period and the story’s use of violence (even if it is to draw attention to violence on TV) can be disturbing. Perhaps more disturbing is that Baker’s portrayal of the Doctor seems to be rather callous and blasé about many of the deaths that occur.

The extras for this DVD are a bit slim but many of them are quite worthwhile. The cast commentaries with Bryant, Baker and Shaban offer insight into this story but also a wealth of information about the entire tenure of Baker as the Sixth Doctor as well as the actors’ attitudes toward what happened. It is also a delight listening to Bryant and Baker banter and it is here that viewers can catch a glimpse at what might have been if the two had not been scripted like a pastiche of a bickering old married couple. There are also some deleted scenes that go a long way towards improving the story (too bad they were originally cut), some outtakes, and the usual on-screen trivia track and photo gallery. There is also the option of watching the story with the audio track only – which cuts out the incidental music and the sound effects but this will probably only be of real interest to purists.

While Baker’s tenure had a lot of faults and missteps if you’re going to view any episode from that era make it this one. They say that revenge is a dish best served cold but in "Vengeance on Varos" the action is hot.

Vengeance On Varos is available from BBC DVD.

 

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Comments

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver May 20, 2009 at 4:46pm

    Revelation of the Daleks is definitely my favourite Colin Baker story. In fact it's in my Top Ten Who stories full stop. But Vengeance On Varos is pretty darn good and Sil is a great villain. What a pity we never got to see his proposed team-up with the Ice Warriors in the lost season. Rassin'-frassin' Michael Grade!

  • Tonya Crawford

    Tonya Crawford May 20, 2009 at 7:56pm

    I found "Revelation" to be a bit too heavy on the bickering for my taste and that DJ makes me shudder in horror. Ick! But the character of Orcini is a real gem!

    I've listened to the fan audio made from the unused script of "The Nightmare Fair" and THAT'S the story I think is a shame never got made. If it had of I think it might have gone a long way toward reparing some of the accusations against Colin Baker. In that story the Doctor shows a very playful, fun-loving side and I think the sweetened disposition and lack of bickering could have saved things. Not to mention location filming at Blackpool would have been kitchy fun going from the pictures and vids I've seen of Blackpool (obviously never been there in person).

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