VENGEANCE ON VAROS
"Are they really disturbing, these videos you sell?"
Any story which starts with a half-naked Jason Connery chained to a wall can't be all bad. But unfortunately, Vengeance on Varos's pretty much all downhill from there.
It's not that the idea's a bad one: in fact, it's excellent. While the TV-watching metaphor is sometimes overly in yer face, it nevertheless works very nicely indeed, with the Arak and Etta scenes some of the highlights of the show.
At the time, of course, it was the comment on TV violence that made it so effective. Those were the days, eh? Bodie and Doyle blowing away the entire criminal population of Sarf London, Mr T blinding ne'er-do-wells with the powerful glow from his chains before dispatching 'em in a shower of blood... marvellous. In these sober post-millennial days, there's a lot less of that stuff about: what catches our attention now is Varos's surveillance aspect. Lines like "the whole dome is wired" instantly conjure up the Big Brother culture and, what's more, make the programme seem positively Nostradamus-like in its perspicacity. Who goes? You decide.
Unfortunately, though, the execution (sorry) of Vengeance on Varos's story doesn't live up to the framework. The script, for a start, is horribly edited. Much to the writer Philip Martin's displeasure, they ruthlessly hacked out all the humour; this wouldn't be so bad if they hadn't left just enough in to make the Doctor look a complete bastard. Here we are in the middle of this dark tale of violence, and the Doctor's quipping away merrily as if he's auditioning for the Stand Up Show. Seriously bad call. (And as for that "water, Peri, eh" joke - stop that, now, before we are forced to squeeze your head between two damp cowpats.)
Why they felt the need to cut the lighter stuff at all is a mystery to us, since what it made room for is so turgidly paced. Given the supposedly life-threatening nature of most of the action, it's astonishing how idly the narrative ambles along, stopping to pick daisies along the way.
The Doctor and Peri are in the TARDIS. They're still in the TARDIS. They're still in the TARDIS. Let us out of here, we've got cabin fever. Even once they've finally found a way outside and Jason has (sadly) put his shirt on, the action doesn't so much pick up as wander around in circles. They see scary things (a retread from The Mind Robber, incidentally). They get a bit hot. They go hilariously up and down corridors in a golf cart, creating possibly the slowest chase scenes in history. And let's not forget the worthy speechifying and the endless captures and escapes.
As for the transmogification subplot, it's just plain terrible. First, there's the moronicness of the whole notion. What are they developing it for, anyway? And Peri is a bird because she wants to fly away from danger? Oh, please. Second, it's totally unconnected to anything else. Third, it goes absolutely nowhere. And fourth and most criminally, it utterly throws away the potential of promising villain Quillam. Gah.
The Zyton-7 plot is also crammed with stupidity. If TARDISes are so dependent on such a rare mineral, how come the people of Varos don't know how valuable it is? They must have had a constant procession of Time Lords with shopping lists. And why didn't somebody think before now to find out if anyone else might want it? Why, too, does the Governor put the price up the very instant he loses the monopoly?
As for the characters, it's a one-extreme-to-the-other situation. Sil is the closest to the sublime end of the scale - he's excellent. It's a completely brilliant characterisation, and that laugh, dear God! that laugh. We love the way, too, he's not simply bent on evil as so many villains are: he's just trying to get the best of a deal. Villains always work best when there's a reason for what they do, and Sil is a fabulously Thatcherite creation.
The Governor, too, is a character that works perfectly, lifting the tone of the whole production. Most of this is due not to the character himself, who undergoes a pretty standard path of transformation, but to a knockout performance by Martin Jarvis. He simply acts everyone other than Sil off the set. All those "my fellow citizens" speeches could be deadly, as could the agonising about Varos, but Jarvis invests it all with a superb gravitas. In fact, he almost fools you into thinking this is a proper drama instead of a rambling shambles. He also enlivens the part by flirting for Varos every time Peri heaves into view, which we found immensely entertaining.
As for the rest, oh dear. As we've already said, Quillam would have been good had he not been involved in a subplot of superhuman pointlessness, so that's sad. As for Jason, apart from the eye candy factor he's unfortunately not very good at all, making about as much impression as a marshmallow hammer on a marble slab. And his wife's even worse, although what with the rebel speeches and the reptile makeup the odds were stacked against her from the start. Everyone else is pretty much a cardboard cutout, except of course for the lovely little jewels of performances from Stephen Yardley, back again after Genesis of the Daleks, and Sheila Reid as Arak and Etta.
As for the Doctor, there's been a lot of criticism over the years about his violence in the story, and there's no doubt there's some merit to the complaints. While we've got no problems with him using a gun per se, the Doctor shoots at a guard without even knowing what's going on, and lays a particularly nasty lethal trap with poison tendrils. While it's hardly the first time (remember the Fourth Doctor flicking a Horda onto someone in Face of Evil?), it's not terribly Doctorly.
But when it comes to the (in)famous acid bath scene, we acquit the Doctor of all charges. It's very clear in that scene that he's defending himself, not trying to push anyone into the bath, and it's the guy's mate who yanks him in in the end. Admittedly, the Doctor's joke at the end isn't in the best possible taste, but then the Sixth Doctor's not exactly a subtle man.
As for the bits where he isn't killing somebody, they're pretty routine. We quite like the part where he's moaning on in the TARDIS about being stuck for eternity - and it's probably worth pointing out that given his tendency to exaggeration and his obvious concern for Peri, his line about it being all right for her because she'll just age and die is not meant to be taken seriously. The disjointedness of the rest of the plot means his character doesn't really get a chance to shine.
And Peri? It's not exactly a dazzling story for her. First of all, there's that awful costume, with the horrible leotard and shorts and the tacky red shoes and belt. (Of course we're not the target audience, but still.) Nicola Bryant reportedly hated this costume, and who can blame her? And to add insult to injury, she has zero to do except whine at the Doctor, get captured, whine some more and turn into a bird. No BAFTA stuff there, then. Peri could've been a really interesting companion if only they'd let her, and this throwback-to-the-sixties-style feebleness lets both the actor and the audience down.
It's slow, it's jumbled, it's underwritten. But nearly twenty years later, it's still making its point.
DVD: Some excellent extras here. The deleted scenes and production footage are interesting, and the opportunity to listen to the unmixed soundtrack is also fascinating, although it does underline the flaws in the story. Probably only insanely dedicated completists care about the continuity announcements and trailers, but if that's you, they're there. But the undisputed highlight is the enormously entertaining commentary by Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant and Nabil Shaban, which we enjoyed a lot more than the story itself. (Don't miss the bit where Baker eyebrow-raisingly trashes the Fifth Doctor.) Well worth the dosh.
MORAL: TV is bad for you. Oh. Wait a minute...
In the first vote, the Governor knows the result before he puts his hands in the handcuffs - in the others, he's handcuffed before the people start voting.
PERHAPS THEY'VE LEFT US A PRESENT
Why does the Doctor say "if we can get back to the TARDIS, we can get away much more easily" when he knows that the TARDIS can't go anywhere without Zyton-7?
THAT'S FOR ME TO KNOW AND YOU TO FIND OUT
Why is Peri so close-mouthed about the reason they've come to Varos? That's hardly going to get them any Zyton-7, is it?
AS SEEN ON TV
As the guard leads the way into the cell, the cell door wobbles.
WELL, YOU COULD HAVE AN EXTRA BATHROOM, BUT HOW ABOUT AN ENORMOUS VENTILATION DUCT INSTEAD?
"There has to be another route." "There is - the ventilation ducting." Where else? And isn't it lucky they always make it big enough for even a quasi-porky Doctor to get through?
LUCKY, LUCKY, LUCKY
How does the Doctor know the tendrils are poison?
OOPS, I DID IT AGAIN
After issuing his dire warning about the tendrils, the Doctor proceeds to brush against them with merry carelessness, as do the others.
I KNEW I SHOULDN'T HAVE SKIPPED THAT NATURE RAMBLE
How come Quillam doesn't know the tendrils are lethal? He lives there, after all.