Vengeance on Varos
Tony Fyler fights The Man.
After the car-crash of plotting and delivery that was The Twin Dilemma, Colin Baker’s first full season as the Sixth Doctor had much to prove. Attack of the Cybermen by *cough, cough* Paula Moore had been an above-average start to the season, though it confused some – in fact, many – casual viewers by its heavy reliance on Who history. Vengeance on Varos was to be the season’s first real attempt to deliver a new addition to the mythos, rather than a regeneration story or a Doctor-proving encounter with an old enemy. It was the Sixth Doctor’s first real chance to set his seal on the style of the show during his time too, and in both of these regards, Vengeance On Varos is an intriguing success.
The story is fairly simple – downtrodden populace with a ruling aristocracy, evolved from a prison for the criminally insane and their guard class, the exhausted population sedated by a diet of constant video nastiness and snuff movies, their approval constantly sought on everything from what happens to the unfortunates they watch, to the fate of their own governor by virtue of electronic voting.
Perhaps the point is that such a plot may seem simple now, but it was a serious act of creative imagination from writer Philip Martin in the days before Britain’s Got Talent, before The X Factor, before I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, before even Pop Idol and Big Brother. Martin’s Vengeance On Varos is frequently so well regarded because in its day, it predicted a world where sedation through engagement in televisual trivia of the most inane kind was the stuff of fantasy. Now it’s a world we live in, giving Vengeance On Varos that rarest and most precious of science-fiction gifts – the appearance of prescience. The idea of horrible violence as entertainment was not perhaps quite such a leap of creative imagination – by 1985, the terms ‘video nasty’ and ‘snuff movie’ were already creeping into the popular lexicon, though we had some way still to go before we would achieve the nadir of realistic horror in franchises like Saw and Hostel.
And then of course, there was Sil.
Sil was a moment of pure genius, both in terms of his cultural and satirical background and in his portrayal on-screen. He was essentially a slug-like creature (the Sixth Doctor battling a parasitical, rapacious slug-like life form for the second time in three stories), vain, self-interested, financially, morally, and it was hinted, sexually deviant, focused only on profits for himself and his masters, actively enjoying grinding the noses of the poor into the dirt and reveling in their suffering. In Vengeance On Varos, he even has a comedy speech affectation, the ‘OK Yah’ of the age translated into a malfunctioning translation unit, meaning Sil didn’t even speak the same language as ordinary people. His horrible tongue-waggling wet gurgle of a laugh was the science-fiction slug equivalent of the braying laughter of the Hooray Henry – Sil is absolutely the essence of the shriveled black Yuppie heart in a science-fiction construct. This skewering of the ‘greed is good’ mentality was brave back in 1985, when Margaret Thatcher was at her popular zenith, having kicked the bejeesus out of Britain’s mining industry through the long, bitter miners’ strike of 1984-5, having won the Falklands War, and having made significant in-roads into the task of dismantling and castrating the force of organized labour in the UK.
Varos was an unashamed and unsubtle statement of affairs – rich bastards will lie to you, keep you docile and producing, make you think you have a voice when all you really have is a vote, and steal the products of your labour to enrich and aggrandize themselves. This is a state of affairs that will lead to your enjoyment of the basest forms of pleasure, including callously laughing as your fellow sufferers are tortured to death, because you cannot see any of the light of prosperity you deserve – it was strong, bleak, stuff, set in a world of tunnels and corridors which mostly had odd angles and non-reflective coatings, as though no light whatsoever penetrated the mud-brown, grey and black colour pallette of the lives of the Varosians.
Varos was also notable for a very strong cast, from established character actors like Martin Jarvis (as the exhausted Governor who dares to hope for a better way for his planet), Stephen Yardley and Sheila Reid (as Arak and Etta, a working couple who, in a bold storytelling departure for Who, acted as the ‘commentators’ on the action without ever being part of it), to young up and comers like a pre-Robin of Sherwood Jason Connery as lead rebel Jondar, the fabulously-named Nicholas Chagrin as the loathsome masked man Quillam, and Owen Teale as guard-turned-rebel Maldak.
And then of course, there was famously left-wing actor and activist Nabil Shaban as the arch-Yuppie himself, slithering and sibilant as Sil the unscrupulous.
The strong performances helped sell the completeness – and in that completeness, the abject, oppressive hopelessness of Varos as a planet to live and die on. A less confrontational relationship between the Sixth Doctor and Peri was also something of a relief after two stories where they were fairly regularly bickering together – see their bamboozling of the guard on their arrival for evidence of what the pairing could have been – brash and ballsy together, and all beaming smiles till someone points a gun at them.
Varos is often cited as a hallmark of the Sixth Doctor’s more hands-on acceptance of violence as a way of doing business, and there’s some justification in that – in The Twin Dilemma, he’d personally hurled a vial of acid at Mestor, and Attack of the Cybermen saw true body-horror in the cyberisation process and on-screen blood and torture, but in Varos, the Doctor is casually responsible for setting poisonous traps, and offering callous Bondian quips as people fall into acid baths, bubble and dissolve. It was an unsettling direction for the character (and we’d see just two stories later, the Doctor personally poison Shockeye the Androgum to death), and led to many complaints – not least from the guardian of British morality throughout the 70s and 80s, Mary Whitehouse. It’s more than possible that in Varos she had a valid concern, but if you remember Varos only for the violence, you’re seriously missing the point of it. At its heart, Vengeance on Varos was a parable of compassion, economic opportunity, the lengths to which the rich would go to not only keep the poor down, but convince them that being downtrodden was the natural order of things, and the brutalizing effect that oppression had on everybody – the oppressed and the oppressors alike. Thirty years on, all that’s actually changed in British society is that Vengeance On Varos doesn’t seem anything like as extreme, as shocking, or as fantastical as it did on its original broadcast.
We should be very, very worried about that.