Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "Vengeance on Varos"

You know, this one's a bit misnamed since it really doesn't end up involving much "vengeance" but... hey, yay for alliteration!

It should also be noted that when the twenty-first season started the decision was made to move away from the traditional serial format of four half-hour episodes and instead to go to two forty-five minute episodes. This story was only the second in the new format and it met quite a bit of resistance from viewers.

The Plot: The TARDIS gets stranded in space and the Sixth Doctor discovers the only way to fix the problem is to acquire a rare mineral called Zeiton 7. And Zeiton 7 is primarily found on a planet called Varos so, using the last of the TARDIS's power, the Doctor and his companion Peri arrive on Varos.

Unfortunately for them they arrive early in Varos's development and they find a brutal planet where there are only the 'haves' and the 'have-nots'. Corruption is rampant, the planet is under the economic thumb of an alien mining company, the lower classes are slowly starving and Governor must ask the people for a vote on all of his decisions and if the people do not approve he is exposed to a beam which painfully damages his cellular structure. Too many times under the beam will prove fatal and the current Governor is nearing the end of his strength.

In order to keep the people in line and pacified the government has turned brutality into entertainment. Criminals and dissidents are executed or tortured on camera and the images transmitted into every home. There is even a game where those who speak out against the government are placed in a labyrinth of deadly traps and forced to run the gauntlet in hopes of reaching freedom on the other side. None make it and the people of Varos are encouraged to eagerly watch every step of the way.

When the Doctor and Peri interrupt the execution of one of the rebels -- Jondar -- they soon find themselves embroiled in Varos's problems... and running the maze of death for their own survival. The Doctor must change Varos itself against high stakes for if he fails his companion's life is forfeit as well as the lives of his new found rebel friends and an entire planet will continue on crushed under a corporate heel and living in darkness.

My Take: While the writer's original concern with this episode had been the phenomenon of "snuff films" (something that actually still crops up in mentions today) and it has quite a bit in common with the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Running Man the story resonates even more powerfully today with the continuing concept of the "reality TV show". Sure, modern reality TV doesn't kill people but shows like American Idol deliberately show people trying out for the competition who cannot sing a lick just so that they can be ridiculed when you get right down to it. And there have been those who watched the show primarily for judge Simon Cowell and took great delight when he would critically rip a singer apart. So there is still that undercurrent of delighting in the tearing down of others.

The episode also touches on the old, Roman idea of "bread and circuses" -- politicians would give away cheap bread and provide low class amusements to the populace in an attempt to both pacify them and win votes. Those circuses often consisted of things like chariot races, which in ancient times were without rules or pity -- fast races in which there were often crashes and bloody, fatal crashes at that. Here the idea of the "circuses" has been transformed into television programs in which people die violently for entertainment.

The episode was not without it's controversy. Even though the purpose was to show the terribleness of violence and the harm of desensitizing people to violence the story was criticized for the amount of violence it had. There were accusations that, in a certain scene, the Doctor pushed a guard into an acid bath. It is clear, upon viewing, however, that this is not the case and the guard is actually pulled in by a compatriot who fell in previously but the Doctor's rather callous and cold reaction to the carnage (topped off with a bon mot no less) is somewhat in bad taste for the character.

The script for this one is also stronger in that it keeps the usual bickering between the Doctor and his companion Peri to a minimum. In point of fact, this is probably the most caring and concerned we've seen the Doctor toward Peri since Baker's tenure began.

Baker's performance is solid but one can see that Bryant is still learning and isn't quite as strong in the role. Also, as an American, I can safely attest that Bryant's so-called American accent is really quite wobbly -- which isn't fun to listen to. Trivia buffs will also be pleased to note that Jason Connery -- son of Sean Connery -- is here in one of his first TV roles as Jondar. Like Baker he's solid but he is hampered by not being given much to do in the second installment. Still, he's easy on the eyes and spends a chunk of the first episode shirtless so I'm not going to complain (hey, I'm a chick, I'm entitled to occasionally objectify men).

On the villain side, Martin Jarvis as the Governor turns in a lovely performance. Even when he begins as the seeming villain he infuses the part with an underlying nobility and as the story progresses more and more of that nobility comes shining through. It is strange and a bit of a shame that his character is never given a name, merely credited as "the Governor".

Also on the brilliant villain side is Nabil Shaban who plays the alien, corporate mining representative, Sil. Shaban suffers from a condition which left his legs underdeveloped but this has not stopped him from making a career as an actor and writer. Here he crafts a character that is so larger-than-life, slimy-evil he fairly walks away with the whole story. He does a great job at taking the idea of the callous, corporate raider type prevalent in the 1980's and transferring it into an alien form.

The bad thing is that there are even MORE villains in this story! There is the Chief Officer (yet another character never given a proper name, only a title) who schemes with Sil to see the Governor fall with plans to take his place, and the mad scientist Quillam who delights in suffering. In point of fact, Quillam seems the most like a traditional Doctor Who villain but he only comes into all his villainous glory towards the end -- too late to really do anything with him. The actor playing the Chief Officer turns in a steady but unremarkable performance but the actor playing Quillam really sinks his teeth into the part when he is actually given something to do. Which makes it sad that he was not given more to do.

The villains are one area where the story falls down -- so many of them make things a bit unfocused -- we're never sure exactly who we're supposed to be boo-ing for, when and why. It also means that we never get a really strong, central figure to hate or fear. Sil, while entertaining, is never really threatening and his evil is the kind of evil of white collar criminals -- the evil of Bernie Madoff, the evil of the corporate raider who is only interested in how much he can get out of something, how far down he can drive the price for HIS company and damn the consequences for everyone else just so long as HE makes the biggest profit he can. Summed up, I guess it's the "Evil of Selfishness". And that kind of evil... well, it makes you angry but it doesn't make you SCARED. The best candidate for the 'scary villain' role was Quillam but, as I mentioned before, his character is largely wasted.

The story also falls down on special effects. This entire episode was filmed in the studio and as such there is a lot of corridor running (something that is often a sign of poor budget or padding out a short episode) and it gets a bit boring. Peri gets captured... a couple of times. Yawn. There is a little electric go-cart thing the guards ride around in that is laughable -- mostly because a snail could beat it in a race, and there is an overabundance of what I call "stupid guard syndrome". You know, guards who walk right past the people they are chasing and yet never seem to see them, the inability to hit a target that is five feet in front of them, etc.

Despite the faults and flaws, "Vengeance on Varos" is actually extremely watchable. There are some really good performances turned in, there are some great lines of dialog and the story itself holds up well to the passage of some 25 years. In many ways it has found a new way to resonate with the modern idea of reality TV.

Also, I don't always mention the DVD extras but here they are MORE than worth the listen. Baker and Bryant banter well together and are very comfortable with one another after the passage of years. It offers a little glimpse into how good these two could have been on-screen together if the scripts had been less focused on argumentativeness and Baker and Bryant had been allowed more control over shaping their characters. Both actors also dish some dirt about what was going on behind the cameras at the time which give some new insight into their time on the series.

If you watch no other Sixth Doctor story then at least watch this one, it's worth the time spent.

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