Vengeance on Varos: DVD Special

Written by:
Philip Martin
Directed by: Ron Jones
Starring: Colin Baker
Year: 1984
Video Availability: Try

Ah, Vengeance on Varos. A story which, when you really think about it, is as reactionary as Mary Whitehouse herself. Topically commenting on the video nasties bill of the previous year, it tells us that horror is bad, and offers no alternative argument. This despite Who having a long history of referencing horror, and frequently being too graphic for its timeslot. Ironically, then, it was the very thing that Varos criticises that partially led to the series' hiatus, as in criticising violence the show was guilty of excessively using it. In terms of consistent moral debate it's about as valid as a Death Wish movie.

But enough of such ruminations. What of the episode itself? Well, Philip Martin, the writer behind the worst-ever Who story, Mindwarp, here crafts a finely satirical script. There's a bit too much of characters calling each other by their first names, but generally it's sound. Oh, and look out for Arak trying to close the door in his first scene, perhaps betraying the rushed nature of production?

However, biggest all the flaws with this story - and it's a good one, but should have been so much better - is Ron Jones's lifeless direction. Seemingly cast to the wind, the majority of the cast deliver stagy, often wooden performances. Some rare exceptions are, surprisingly, The Blimp (He's engagingly OTT, which is not bad in itself, but he's bigger than the programme), Martin Jarvis and Nabil Shaban. Nicola Bryant is awful, and isn't skilled enough to convince with the outrageously contrived way the Tardis lands on Varos. A big shout out too for the unbelievable plank powers of Geraldine Alexander and Jason Connery, the latter of which was presumably cast because he looks good (apparently) without a shirt. (Anorak Fact: in this episode, Varos is shown to have 1,620,783 voters).

There's a feeling with this one that it doesn't really suit the 45 minute duration, and that a snappier 25m pace would have worked better. The story isn't quite as smart-arsed in its deconstruction as Greatest Show, though lines like "these corridors all look the same to me" are wonderful. And, as has often been observed, the cliffhanger is superb.
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An example of how full-on The Blimp's acting is can be witnessed when his awakening twitches are full facial spasms. This is, of course, the infamous acid bath episode, where the Doctor pushes two guards to their death. Except he doesn't, and it's a common fan myth, often popularised in DWM of all places. He taps one on the shoulder to speak to him, who turns in surprise and accidentally nudges the other guard in. The guard in the bath then grabs hold of the other's leg and pulls on it to try and escape, pulling them both in. Critics of Colin's era like to point out his detached, Bondian quip after the event, but it's clearly his way of dealing with it. Look at the horror and revulsion on his face when it occurs, yet some fans need it explained to them in mile-high letters. (Which explains the popularity of the Pertwee era).

The set for the Doctor's execution is phenomenally cheap, but interesting. Meanwhile, Peri is being turned into a blue tit, while Alexander's transmogrification into a reptile still doesn't make her acting any better. Quillam's unmasking is yet another example of Saward trying to be Holmes, and is quite distasteful for younger viewers.

Buggies in Who are always crap and slow-moving, while the Doctor's increasingly violent solutions to problems - poison vines the most notable - is disturbing. This is good Doctor Who, but it isn't Doctor Who for all the family. It's a very traditional Who story in many ways, with its themes of government, oppression and rebellion. However, it's overlaid with a nasty template, a macabre and unsettling edge. Top of this is Sil, who, while comic, is blackly comic here, rather than crapply comic as he was in Mindwarp. A one-off appearance would have worked much better.

Some of the effects in the tunnels remind you of an episode of Knightmare, though they work. The Doctor even gets a nice groan-worthy pun ("I think he needs more than water, Peri eh?"), which was something the Doctor did right from the time of Billy Big-Up.
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A generally superior Doctor Who story - the second-best of The Blimp's era - yet not without its flaws. Tighter direction, some stronger performances and maybe more incidental music would have improved things. Yet as it stands this is still an extremely worthwhile and important work.
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I wrote the above review back in November 2002, and updating this page to make it a review of the DVD in 2004 I feel I must apologise for the shaky quality of the writing. While you'll not find anything on this site to match the collected works of Jonathan Swift, the Colin stories are some of the very first reviews I did, and I feel that they're a little sparse and disjointed. In the main, it's the Hartnell, Troughton and Davison reviews that are the most recent, and I reckon you get a bit more in them. They're still full of tripe, of course, but anyway, let's get on with this DVD review…

Vengeance on Varos is reportedly the lowest-selling DVD of the entire range, and in fact I managed to pick a copy up for £6.99. It's a shame, as, while the extras could have been presented a little better, perhaps (such as a chapter option on the deleted scenes, allowing you to jump through them to find your favourites) generally this has to be one of the very best for additional material. Why poor sales should be the case is not clear; though it has to be acknowledged that a ludicrous rumour passed around fan circles that the Restoration Team - who are a professional body employed by the BBC, don't forget - weren't fans of the Colin Baker era, and so weren't "enthusiastic" about restoring it properly. Details of their work, including over 120 individual repairs, can be found at The Restoration Team Varos DVD Page, but being an investigative Anorak I decided to get the official word from the horse's mouth, as it were. Being a tactful kind of guy I asked Steve Roberts if they'd done a crap job on the DVD because they hated Colin Baker. "That's absolute bollocks," Steve informed me, "we put the same care and attention into every release." So it's nice to be able to use this site to try and finally shut this rumour down. I'm a real loss to the diplomacy service though, ain't I?

Two faults on the disc totally unrelated to the RT are its authoring - the info text production notes go missing 10'05m into the second episode (not that you'd notice, they're so sparse anyway they're hardly worth using) and at the same time the layer change may cause your DVD player to momentarily pause the disc. The missing info text can be found on the Restoration Team's website, while the latter is a minor problem that lasts for a split second, but would be remiss of me not to mention here, and is more detectable when you have the commentary on.

Speaking of commentary, then Colin, Nicola and Nabil Shaban provide a jovial, thoughtful and intelligent guide throughout the story. You might not want to put it on while you're eating, as Nabil's frequent discussion of bodily functions may put you off, and you may also cringe at the awkward silence where he tells Colin and Nicola about writing his own Doctor Who short story. In the main, though, this is a considered discussion that takes in the production, the themes of the story and the implications of the story in a modern context.

Sometimes it's not the number, but the quality. The virtue of a more recent story is that more archive material will be available. The Varos extras may not get to twenty minutes, but how many discs have ten whole scenes of extended or deleted material?

BBC One Trailer Episode 1 (0'23m)/BBC One Trailer Episode 2 (0'18m) - Interesting to see, but both have notably poor sound.

Extended/Deleted Scenes (10'21m) - Ten scenes excised either in whole or in part from the story, all of which made it stronger by their removal (particularly a two-handed "angry" monologue from Geraldine Alexander and Jason Connery, and a proposed climax with Colin making jokes about Peri turning into a budgie) but are exactly the sort of thing I like to see as extras on a disc.

Behind The Scenes (4'41m) - Not really a "featurette" as the DVD back cover claims, but just under five minutes of takes of a scene. Still, a nice extra.

Photo Gallery - One of the old-fashioned galleries with no rolling display or annoying sound effects. And as the material is more recent, there's 70 images to look at.

Outtakes (3'06m) - Three outtakes, none of which are likely to trouble Dennis Norden, but again it's really nice to see this kind of stuff on a Who disc.

Continuity Announcements (0'35) - Badly edited together (you can hear the sound from the first creep back in) these are just the pre-episode announcements by the BBC voice, and would have been quite nice as an Easter Egg. As a feature proper then they're a little underwhelming, but good for completists.

Also on this disc is the opportunity to hear the story just as a production soundtrack, with no music or added sound effects. Other than providing mild amusement at silent guns, it does little, but is again a considered addition. Overall, this disc could have been better presented - even a commentary or info track over the deleted scenes may have been nice - and the small errors do make it a flawed product, but I'd still rate it above the norm.

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