DOMAIN & PLANET OF FEAR
'VENGEANCE ON VAROS' SPECIAL EDITION DVD (BBCDVD3512) RELEASED IN SEPTEMBER 2012.
The TARDIS is adrift. Deprived of a vital power source, the Doctor and Peri have one last hope - the planet Varos. But Varos is a dangerous place. Trapped in the dreaded Punishment Dome, the Doctor and Peri must fight for their lives - and save the starving population from the machinations of the villainous, reptilian Sil.
Vengeance on Varos
19TH JANUARY 1985 - 26TH JANUARY 1985
(2 45-MINUTE EPISODES)
Colin Baker’s tumultuous tenure as the Time Lord was one defined by controversy, which is probably why Vengeance on Varos was chosen to represent his era on DVD when the series first ventured into the medium over a decade ago. Penned by lauded Gangsters scribe Philip Martin, Varos is still championed by many as grim, perhaps even prophetic, satire, whereas others fervently slam its indifferent violence. Such contention sits at the heart of the serial’s 2012 revisitation, which presents its two episodes (equipped with brand new 5.1 surround sound mixes) alongside a whole disc’s worth of bonus material that enthusiastically explores this divisive tale’s polarised repute.
The special edition’s discs are packaged much more attractively than their lone forerunner, the new sleeve eschewing the pallid photomontage of 2001 and embracing Lee Binding’s bright and evocative artwork, which seems to be very much in vogue with 2 | entertain. Those who like their DVDs to line up nicely on the shelf will lament the “SPECIAL EDITION” legend that runs down the sleeve’s spine, however, particularly as most bona fide special editions (Enlightenment, The Five Doctors, Planet of Fire, The Curse of Fenric etc) don’t have their spines sullied.
Fortunately the discs’ meat more than makes up for this minor quibble. Vengeance on Varos has always been a layered story in an abstract sense, working on a lot of different levels, but now it’s layered in a concrete sense too, thanks to its new 5.1 surround soundtrack. It’s a remarkable feat to be able to take an analogue mono mix and carve it up across multiple digital channels, really opening up the soundscape for those with the proper equipment. This point is emphasised by the retention of the unmixed mono soundtrack included on the 2001 release, which allows the viewer to listen to the serial as it was recorded in the studio before any music or sound effects were added. It’s astonishing how primitive it sounds; how amateurish. I stumbled across it accidentally whilst looking for the commentary, which is a particularly warm and humorous one featuring Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant and Nabil Shaban, who plays the serial’s slippery macrocosmic mollusc, Sil. Baker and Shaban are especially interesting as both have vivid recollections of the recording, particularly Shaban who spent days confined on top of a water tank inside a hot and immobile rubber suit.
Varos itself only seems to improve with age, which is quite remarkable for a classic Doctor Who adventure, but particularly so for one produced in the mid-1980s. Originally misrepresented by the Radio Times as a condemnation of the booming video game industry, Martin’s script is actually an intelligent satire on capitalism, as well as a startlingly prescient preview of reality television that breaks the fourth wall without us even realising it. In allowing us to view events on Varos through the television of two average Varosians, who have absolutely no involvement in those events at any point, we are unwittingly drawn in the drama. Arak and Etta (who’s more familiar nowadays as Benidorm’s chain-smoking Madge) are just like the millions who sit glued to Strictly and The X Factor, save for the fact that the torture and humiliation that they watch on screen is much more palpable than that bestowed upon lumbering Z-list celebrities and would-be pop princesses. The Varosians’ votes don’t decide who gets to go to boot camp – they decide exactly how much pain should be inflicted on their increasingly-ineffectual governor. It’s ironic that a programme that demonstrably damns televised violence would end up being vilified for its violent content.
Equal to the script though are the performances of the cast. Baker weighs in with one of his finest televised performances, his character’s rough edges perfectly suited to sparring with Shaban’s slippery Sil. For his part, Shaban is sublime as the rapaciously entrepreneurial Mentor – the perfect monster, really, for Thatcher’s Britain. Like many of Doctor Who’s most memorable villains, Sil has real charisma and knows how to use it, but he can’t help but betray his underlying greed and malice. He’s a slimy Del Boy without a heart; an unctuous DS9-dwelling Quark before he was vested with a Federation-softened soul. Almost as impressive is Who veteran Martin Jarvis (The Web Planet, Invasion of the Dinosaurs) who plays the colony’s insipid governor, and television debutant Jason Connery as the rebel Jondar. The son of Sean would quickly go on to find fame as the second Robin Hood in HTV’s hit series Robin of Sherwood, which borrowed a trick or two from Doctor Who when it renewed its lead man, albeit through mystical recruitment as opposed to regeneration.
Above: Matthew Sweet asks “Nice or Nasty?”
The DVD’s flagship feature, Nice or Nasty?, tackles Varos’s notorious nature directly, its very title summarising the programme’s mission statement. Having heard the writer’s comments in this programme, it’s easy to see how the serial earned its ‘nasty’ reputation. What he had originally envisaged as outright humour intended for the more cheerful fifth Doctor suddenly took on a more sinister quality in Old Sixy’s insensitive hands. With most of the story’s overt comedy cut, the few examples that did remain really stand out amongst the ubiquitous grit. One incongruous slapstick sequence even sees two guards tumble into an acid bath, much to the Doctor’s apparent amusement. His subsequent deadpan quip would attract him far more derision than his cold-blooded killing of Shockeye in The Two Doctors would just weeks later. This scene’s notoriety is acknowledged by the special edition DVD, which presents it with an altered music cue, just in case that might win any of the wounded audience members over.
Inevitably Nice or Nasty?’s themes bleed into those of Tomorrow’s Times: The Sixth Doctor, which examines the media’s reaction to Doctor Who during what was arguably its most turbulent period. By far the most interesting instalment in the Tomorrow’s Times series thus far, here Sarah Sutton paints a picture of a programme literally roasted to death by fickle, self-serving naysayers. Baker’s first season as the Doctor attracted some of the most vitriolic reviews that the series had ever received by that point, only for those writing the reviews to suddenly switch horses and launch a ‘Bring Back Doctor Who’ campaign when news of the series’ cancellation broke. Such preposterous media vacillation is brought into sharp focus by the dignified Baker, who puts the whole circus into context as he speaks to the broadsheets of the loss of his son to cot death, and the precious time that the hiatus would allow him to spend with his new baby daughter.
Above: Sarah Sutton's seen it in The Times - Tomorrow’s Times
The final ingredient of note exclusive to Varos’s special edition is The Idiot’s Lantern – not an arbitrarily-selected Mark Gatiss bonus episode, but an appropriately-placed seven-minute look at the role of television within the fiction of Doctor Who that borrows its name. The remainder of the bonus disc then preserves the short-lived special features included on the original release, which include some poor quality (in every sense) trails and continuities that pale in comparison to the dynamic trailer for next month’s Ambassadors of Death colour release, and a number of extended and deleted scenes that, believe it or not, suggest that the Doctor and Peri should have actually spent even longer in the TARDIS during Part 1. For completeness, 2 | entertain flesh out the release with some tenuously-relevant clips from BBC News, Breakfast Time, Saturday Superstore and even French and Saunders that I think have all shown up on earlier releases in some shape or form, though admittedly I’m too lazy to check. In any event, perception is everything, as proven by Tomorrow’s Times.
Above: Samira Ahmed joins Arak and Etta in front of The Idiot’s Lantern
Ultimately my only real criticism of this special edition release is that if 2 | entertain had cut some of the recycled elements, it could have easily been condensed onto just one disc, but then I suppose it would’ve been in danger of not feeling quite so special. So far as Varos itself goes, Colin Baker’s had his neck in its noose for more than thirty years now, but he’s yet to be hanged – and that’s despite the best efforts of the BBC’s props department. Back in the day, those who saw Doctor Who as an oasis from the hard-edged grime of its prime time TV rivals were quick to damn it; those who prefer their Who with a bit of an edge were quick to embrace it. The same holds true today.
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