Vengeance on Varos

Special Edition:
Region 1

Region 2
VHS Video
(Doctor Who Story No. 139, starring Colin Baker)
  • written by Philip Martin
  • directed by Ron Jones
  • produced by John Nathan-Turner
  • music by Jonathan Gibbs
  • 4 episodes @ 25 minutes each, or
    2 episodes @ 45 minutes each
Story: When the TARDIS runs out of power, the Doctor makes a desperate visit to the mining colony on the planet Varos. Encouraged by off-world sponsors like the alien Sil, the regime on Varos is making extra profit by producing sadistic videos, and the Doctor is to be their next star....

Special Edition DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by actors Colin Baker (The Doctor), Nicola Bryant (Peri), and Nabil Shaban (Sil).
  • "Nice or Nasty" making-of featurette (30 min.), with Nabil Shaban (Sil), Sheila Reid (Etta), writer Philip Martin,
    script editor Eric Saward, and composer Jonathan Gibbs.
  • English audio in both original mono and new 5.1 remix
  • Isolated music audio in both original mono and new 5.1 remix (Thank you, thank you, thank you!)
  • "The Idiot's Lantern" featurette (7 min.) on Doctor Who's use of television
  • Deleted and extended scenes (18 min.)
  • Raw studio footage and outtakes (8 min.)
  • The "acid bath" scene with alternate music score (2 min.).
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • Photo Gallery (7 min.)
  • "Tomorrow's Times - The Sixth Doctor" press coverage featurette (13 min.) hosted by Sarah Sutton.
  • "Breakfast Time" interview of Colin Baker (The Doctor). (6 min.)
  • French and Saunders TV sketch (7 min.) using the sets from "The Trial of a Time Lord"
  • BBC News report of Colin Baker's casting (1 min.).
  • Saturday Superstore excerpt. (15 min.)
  • Alternate audio track of plain studio sound

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have
already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.

This story sports a bizarre combination of excellence and rubbish. While poignant satire saturates the background of this adventure, supported by half a cast of excellently created characters, it fails to figure out how to flesh out a central conflict that can properly engage the Doctor, who finds himself surrounded mostly by the other half of the cast of characters who are forgettable at best.

Doctor-less Satire

"Vengeance on Varos" jumps eagerly into both of the major story structure problems of season 22. I will continue to automatically refer to the 25-minute international versions of this season's episodes, especially since it really highlights those problems in the writing. First off, it takes the Doctor and Peri all of the first half-hour episode just to begin to get to the scene of the action. They just barely get around to landing the TARDIS, and as the Doctor peers at the view screen muttering, "Who's this coming to welcome us?", we cut to the credits. Although he and Peri got some decent scenes in the TARDIS, these should ideally be packed up near the beginning of the episode, leaving more time for them to involve themselves in the scenes on Varos.

And one of the bizarre things about the scenes on Varos is that they are actually at their highest quality in the opening half-hour episode, during the long sequence of exposition of the colony's social structure and conflicts, while the Doctor is nowhere around. This is where the most interesting characters of Varos define themselves and make most obvious the nature of the satire that the story wants to draw attention to.

The television medium itself is scrutinized here, and very nicely done through the two "viewers at home" characters of Etta and Arak, who do not actively get involved with anyone else through any other means. This scrutiny can be seen as simply attempting to promote anti-violence on its most basic level, which doesn't work too well as it's yet another hypocritical re-run of what we already got in "Warriors of the Deep" (story no. 131), "Resurrection of the Daleks" (story no. 134), "Attack of the Cybermen" (story no. 138), etc. Does it matter if it ends on Varos, after these four episodes are over? The Varosians seem all too clueless what to do next, as do Doctor Who writers. Next story, we'll no doubt be back to tackling it again.

But Varos has a much more interesting deeper layer, which is that all this video violence is a means for those in power to distract the populace into continuing to accept their financially exploitive rule. The web of characters created to flesh this out are really nicely written and portrayed on screen, from Martin Jarvis's puppet Governor, to Nabil Shaban's alien merchant Sil, to the corrupt Chief Officer, to the suggestive video technician Bax. Roping viewers Arak and Etta into the mix via instant voting gives this story a marked uniqueness amongst other adventures that might tackle similar themes. Even the short scene in the cell between the guard Rondel and the rebel's wife Aretta adds nicely to the critical picture being painted here.

The Weak Half: On-Screen Plot

The Doctor's greatest contribution to Varos and to being its catalyst for change, supposedly, is in exposing the truth to enough of the right people, which is an excellent way to use his character. However, the script never figures out how to really engage him in that process. Instead, it engages the Doctor nearly full time in the distraction of the "run up and down corridors" version of video violence, and REALLY leaves these portions empty of actual danger and interesting challenge. Although several cool video effects sequences breathe a bit of life into the corridor challenges, it only really works when actual guards are chasing the Doctor and friends around, firing at them, or when previously unseen bubbling pits of lava are actually revealed. The huge fly that isn't there is cool - but unless it is used to scare our heroes back into the guards' clutches, it's pretty useless.

What we don't get nearly enough of is the Doctor actually investigating the truth of Varos. Writer Philip Martin reveals the truth in Doctor-less expositional character scenes instead. And pretty much all of the Doctor's scenes of exposing the truth to the right people are in episode three, chiefly the very poorly plotted hanging sequence. Character motivations make little sense here, while the Doctor's strategies are all over the place and feel ineffective, and as such the actors' charisma levels tend to drop a bit below par here.

Falling Apart Finale

The biggest fault of the story's structure becomes obvious when you examine where it leaves off after three of the four half-hour episodes have finished. The Doctor and Jondar have held up all the villains at gunpoint in the video control room - arguably their lair of power - and shot the whole place up. Plus they rescue Peri and Aretta from transmogrification. The Doctor utters "Come on, Peri, walk!" just before the credits cut in. If the editors had had half a brain, they could have cut to the credits before all such tensions were relieved as most of this is once again repeated at the start of episode four.

But regardless of that, with 20 odd minutes still ahead of us, one has to wonder where this story has left to go? Indeed, its biggest mistake is in keeping the Doctor and his rebel friends occupied in more corridor silliness, and REALLY making it silly with half-naked old wrestling wannabes and a tacked on deadly vine cop-out for a final challenge. The Doctor, Jondar, and Aretta talk about needing to escape the dome - why? Back in the second half-hour, before they'd been anywhere else, that goal would make sense. After having shot up the villains' lair, and proving themselves free to go anywhere that the villains can go, it no longer makes sense. Can you spell "anti-climax"?

The Doctor's party should really be restricted to one sequence of dome corridor challenges in the middle of the adventure. Once he's out, let him stay out, beef up his investigation beats and information bartering, and save the shoot-up of the villains' lair for much later in the final half-hour.

The structural problems of the story are even more bizarre due to the fact that this story was originally commissioned during previous years for the four 25-minute episode format, and was reportedly "working" when they had to change it for the two 45-minute episodes. Personally, I think if it really was working as a four-parter, no changes should have been required. Just put two 25-minute episodes together and presto; there's your double-length episode, done! It worked for "Resurrection of the Daleks", and it works for almost every movie compilation I've ever seen. (The big exceptions may be over-padded six-parters, like Patrick Troughton's "The Seeds of Death".) But you have to really wonder if the original four-part script was actually working, especially since it didn't have Arak and Etta viewing everything from at home. Good thing they added them.

Thankfully, many of the guest characters still get some really good scenes in part four, with Martin Jarvis's Governor character managing to completely upstage Colin Baker's Doctor as a sympathetic central protagonist. Thus, this becomes Jarvis's definitive role on Doctor Who, easily overshadowing his unrecognizable costume-spectacle portrayal of Hilio in "The Web Planet" (story no. 13) and his eternally hidden scientist character in "Invasion of the Dinosaurs" (story no. 71). Nabil Shaban put a ton of energy into his portrayal of the alien Sil, quickly turning him into the signature villain of the piece, and having so much fun that it's hard not to want to laugh along with him. He is superbly deserving of the return appearance on the show that he eventually got.

Quillam is pretty much a useless character in the story, perhaps designed as a kind of Sharaz Jek / Weng-Chiang wannabe and really not living up to the hype. As a dull, known quantity, perhaps it is best that he doesn't feature much in the story, though too bad his billing in the credits didn't fall back to match.

Finance Ex Machina

The final turns of events resolving the plot seem quite arbitrary, most obvious of all being the tacked on deaths of a few of the villains. Other points that require deeper thought include Varos getting a higher price for its ore at the same time as a source on an alternate planet is discovered, not to mention the Galatron Mining Corporation making the idiotic move of going around its delegated negotiator to tell Varos that they will pay anything. Shaban and company make the scene VERY enjoyable to watch, despite the fact that it doesn't make much financial sense. Saddest of all is the fact that this important stuff is all just "deus ex machina" showing up improbably at the end of the tale, rather than as a result of what any of the characters have done.

For Musical Effect

The Colin Baker era features some great music from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which the BBC has been quite negligent in marketing successfully. Jonathan Gibbs does some really nice work for this story. Even though it may seem simple, the composition perfectly punctuates on-screen actions and helps build tensions during countless key moments, and instrument choices work extremely well. Of course, there are a couple of cheesy moments you can focus on if you're the type to do so, but for the bulk of this score that really works well, I'd have to rank it as the second most desirable to collect from the six scores from this season. So it really was sad that it has neither made it to CD, nor, as far as I can tell, been included separately on the original DVD's specially produced "production sound" audio track. Weird. And most disappointing. I would have eagerly bought that DVD soon after it came out had it featured the usual isolated music track. The BBC lost another sale there. (Mind you, if they can produce a similar "production sound" audio track for Jon Pertwee's "The Mutants" (story no. 63), I'm there all the way. Another missed audio option would have been to include the German language track "Revolte auf Varos" from the 1995 VOX broadcast. That might have equally convinced me to buy the original DVD.)

However, the people at the BBC seem to be coming up trumps with the new Special Edition DVD release, as we finally get the music tracks to make the exercise worthwhile. Nice!

At least the story has some half decent laser effects - a stream of thankfully moving red dots from Dave Chapman, reminiscent of the effects in "The Keeper of Traken" (story no. 115), and probably bypassing a multitude of potential problems with the original footage that solid beams would have made obvious, mixing with a successful sound effect. Nice.

While "Vengeance on Varos" is far from a great story, particularly as a Doctor Who adventure, it does have many points of merit as a sci-fi metaphor satirizing our own use of media for entertainment, politics, and financial gain. It is an interesting piece that is worth anyone's time to see once, or if they've only seen it once and dismissed it, to look at once again with a more open mind.

International Titles:

Deutsch: "Revolte auf Varos"

Magyar: "Bosszú a Varoson"

Français: (Vengeance sur Varos)

Русский: "Возмездие на Варосе"

This story is available on DVD and VHS video.
Click on the Amazon symbol for the location nearest you for pricing and availability:
New Special Edition re-release:
DVD NTSC Region 1
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada
DVD PAL Region 2
for the U.K.
VHS Video
NTSC A in the U.S.
NTSC B in the U.S.
NTSC in Canada
PAL for the U.K.

Original release:
DVD NTSC Region 1
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada
DVD PAL Region 2
for the U.K.

Original DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by actors Colin Baker (The Doctor),
    Nicola Bryant (Peri), and Nabil Shaban (Sil).
  • Deleted and extended scenes
  • Raw studio footage and outtakes
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • Photo Gallery
  • Alternate audio track of plain studio sound

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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "The Mark of the Rani"

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