Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Serial 138: Vengeance on Varos

Doctor: Colin Baker (6th Doctor)
Companions: Peri Brown

Written by: Philip Martin
Directed by: Ron Jones

Background & Significance: Peter Davison, fearing typecasting, left Doctor Who after three well-regarded seasons. Realizing his popularity, and knowing that they, again, would have to do something a bit different, Jonathan Nathan-Turner (the producer from Tom Baker's last season through the show's ultimate cancellation in 1989) decided to cast then-well-known television actor Colin Baker.

Colin Baker's era was particularly infamous. Perhaps most well-known for its darker stories and Colin Baker's completely outlandish costume (more on that a bit later), the series, at this point, had begun to show the signs of both age and disregard.

And I find that rather sad.

In a lot of ways, this is completely grounded and understandable. Doctor Who was entering its 22nd season, and those in charge of the BBC etc. found it outdated and were looking for something new. Not only that, but Colin Baker was a radical take on The Doctor (more on this later), one who was not nearly so likable as his predecessors. The audience got alienated. This wasn't the same guy who had been around for the past twenty years... Which is ironic, because The Sixth Doctor was the same guy, just different.

And perhaps that's a bit unfair, but it's also quite true. Not every incarnation is going to work for everyone. The truth is (as we shall see), The Sixth Doctor was a DIFFICULT Doctor to like. He wasn't as immediately likable as ANY of the other Doctors. But his portrayal isn't about likability. It's about "who is this guy?"

Unfortunately, the writers didn't really have any idea how to write for him. They just saw cold nihilist, so the stories became exceptionally bleak and dark. "Vengeance on Varos" is a story specifically cited for its extremely violent and dark content, and that's completely undeniable (as we soon shall see).

Also interesting to note: this serial (like "The Visitation") is not "remarkable" in any specific way. No Daleks, no Cybermen, no Master, no multiple Doctors, no Gallifreyans. Just a Doctor and Companion get in over their heads and have to deal.

Let's get to it!


Part 1:

We start on Tattooine Varos, at Luke's homestead the main city, where we see a man getting tortured.

That's right. That's how this serial starts. With a political revolutionary. Getting tortured.

He looks to a camera (which has a red light on so you know it's recording), before the torture machine fires beams of light at him. Really painful beams of light. He dodges the first two, but catches the third, screaming in agony.

Counting the forty five second opening credits sequence, all of this is the first ninety seconds of this story.

We cut to a small hovel, where two Varosians (Arak and Etta, but we'll just call them "The Chorus" because they have nothing to do with the story except to provide a running Greek Chorus commentary on the proceedings) watch the torture of this political prisoner, on this television, commenting about how the men upstairs must be running short of torture victims.

They also spend some time talking about "food shortages" and a vote on something about the governor. It becomes increasingly clear that this is a definite dystopia, what with him not liking the governor and her saying he's being to hard on him. It's some nice commentary (and really, this episode is... when it comes to its ideas, anyway), especially when they're talking about the TV featuring executions and them arguing whether or not the execution of the blind man from last week "was a repeat" or not and discussions of politics, like when they talk about mandatory voting and the like.

But really, all I end up doing is watching this scene and thinking about the dude on the TV who's SCREAMING in agony because he's being tortured.

We move to the TARDIS, where The Doctor and decked-in-blue-companion Peri are giving a recap of their past adventures, Peri making sure to point out all the silly things that The Doctor has done wrong since his regeneration. It's a really nice bit (especially the part where she talks about him getting lost in the corridors of the TARDIS, which just makes me laugh) and it speaks a lot to the relationship between the two, as well as giving us some insight into this Doctor.

In a lot of ways, this scene works. I really like this bit of them on the TARDIS at the beginning. It's light. It's fun. It's Doctor Who. And it's a stark contrast to what just came before. Also, what on EARTH is Peri wearing? It's like a blue leotard top with blue shorts. Weird.

And then we go back to Varos and meet this little... Well I don't really know what to call him that won't be insanely offensive. So I'll call him "Sil", as that is his name.

He's arguing with the Governor of Varos over the prices for Varos's rare "Zeiton-7 ore" and mocks him for their new market of "The Punishment Dome", which the government records and then feeds to the masses and exports them off world.

Now, before I go on, I'll tackle these two things.

"The Punishment Dome": Probably the most controversial thing in this serial, leading to all the scary scary and the violent dark content... I don't mind it too too much. I think it's a bit overboard, but then again, it's supposed to be. It's supposed to be dark and dystopian and uncomfortable-making. It's commentary on society, as all good science fiction is. Does it go a bit far? Yes. But the message is certainly there.

"Sil": The "Mentor representative of the Galatron Mining Operation". I hated this guy. And you're supposed to hate him (because he's a bad guy), but he just comes out like being a really disgusting and evil version of Jar-Jar Binks who just happens to look like a little wormy dude. His voice is annoying, and this whole "Mining operation" storyline ends up being... rather insane, if you ask me, both because of its ultimate end (keep reading), and because of the political content.

What we end up getting with the mining subplot is Star Wars prequels politics (just darker) and it doesn't really.... fit. It's a lot of standing around and posturing and it isn't FUN. Doctor Who (for me, anyways) needs to be FUN. Within the show's context, politics needs to be handled extremely well or it's just boring.

But back to the thing.

Evil Mustache Guy is Evil

The Governor and Sil [Evil Jar Jar] argue about ore prices (on this show? really?) and the Governor says he can't lower them at all and that he, instead, wants to increase them. Evil Jar Jar gets pissed (he does that a lot). Unfortunately for the Governor, there is a vote he has to call for.

There's a small bit while he prepares where Evil Mustache Guy (I'd learn his name, but I like mine better) meets with Evil Jar Jar and share some thoughts about the proceedings, Evil Jar Jar saying he has thought of Evil Mustache Guy to replace the current governor.

And then it's time for the vote!

The governor calls for a vote, addressing all the citizens of Varos to decide whether or not they should decrease food rations in order to save money and help them ride through the Evil Jar Jar's attempt to get them to lower prices.

The Greek Chorus argues for a minute. The dude votes no. The chick votes yes. The results come through instantaneously, and the governor's proposal is defeated.

And what happens when you're the governor, you call a vote, and then your vote loses? You are subjected to "The Cell Disintegrator" and the people of Varos get to watch.

Which is nuts. Good commentary, though. If the governor calls for a vote and it doesn't pass, he is held accountable and punished for it. A bit extreme, perhaps, but a very interesting system that allows for democracy to see its way followed.

Much to the Greek Chorus dude's dismay, the governor survives the disintegrator, although he makes sure to say he won't survive another cuz no one's ever done that.

The Governor heads back into his operations room, concerned about his ability to survive another vote. Random Solider Dude recommends that they put on some more circuses for the people to watch, specifically an execution that will occur at a random time. If nothing else, it will give the Governor time to recover.

I love how he has that totally perfectly well-thought-out idea and he's just some lackey guy. Someone promote him to advisor!

We go back to the TARDIS, which randomly decides to shut down because it's out of power and energy, leaving the two of them stranded. The Doctor gets really depressed and talks about how Peri's lucky because she'll die fairly quickly aboard the stranded TARDIS. He, unfortunately, will have to await out all his remaining regenerations.

What the TARDIS needs is some Zeiton-7 ore. The Doctor manages to get The TARDIS working enough to get them to Varos and to some Zeiton-7.

I'm gonna call this dude "The Phantom"

The Varosians prepare to execute the political revolutionary, Jondar. They inform his wife, who begs for mercy, but no one will have any of it. The laser is pointed and set to destroy him randomly and at any time.

Of course, that's when The Doctor and Peri arrive. They're fired upon by the guard on duty at the execution, but his laser blasts do nothing to damage the TARDIS. They disembark, overpower the guard, and let Jondar free.

Evil Jar Jar is pissed. He confronts the governor, saying this just proves that Varos is not a stable system and, thusly, not worthy of his company's interference. The Governor holds strong, making Evil Jar Jar even MORE pissed and having him order a colonizing force be dispatched to Varos immediately. He then talks about how he's going to control the planet.

Hasn't he shut up yet?

As The Doctor, Peri, and Jondar try to escape, they're chased by Varosian guards. The Doctor takes the opportunity to blow the power for their little section of the Torture Dome, buying them some time. They are joined by Jondar's wife and the guard who let them out.

A second later, though, he's gunned down!

The Doctor and his companions manage to get away, but the only way out is through "The Purple Zone", which Jondar and his wife warn is really, really dangerous. Unafraid, The Doctor presses on, and in a matter of seconds, they land in the Purple Zone.

They're scared cuz of this.


(Can you guess what it is? I bet you can...)

Getting smart, The Doctor tells them to shut their eyes and they walk forward, holding hands until the monster disappears. The Doctor, having seen what all of everyone sees, points out that it was a fly made magnified.

But then something else shows up! And it smells!

Everyone panics! But The Doctor is unafraid. He presses onward like a true adventurer and discovers--

They are just lights.

Gonna be honest with you. For as dark and sadistic as the Varosians are, they don't really have much foundation in their scary creatures. Just creepy mind puzzles. I love the idea that the victims of the Torture Dome fall victim to the scary light eyed monster or the giant purple fly and die of fright rather than because the evil green lights eat them.

Anyways. The Doctor, Peri, Jondar, and his wife return to the execution room only to find the TARDIS has gone! It's been captured by the Governor etc. They want to find a way in.

The Doctor and his companions, now on a search for the TARDIS, are again chased by the golf-cart-driving Varosian guards. They make a run for it, but are separated. The Companions are captured by the guards, leading to one SMACKING PERI ACROSS THE FACE WITH HIS GLOVE.

Which is just.... I'm sorry... what? Like. Seriously. I can actually go with all these dark things that they're doing. The crazy torture and the dark themes and all that. They don't really fit in the Doctor Who context here, but they're there for a reason. But slapping Peri like that? It's not even a moment that gets lost in the shuffle (as I thought it was on the first viewing).

And it's just.... it's not okay. It's not. It's violence to an extreme.

I can even go with such an act in the right context (some really bleak war facist commentary thing, not just generic woman slapping), but this is Doctor Who. This isn't the time or the place for that. Do you really want kids watching this? Does this scream family to you? No. I'm 21 and it makes me uncomfortable because of its gratuity.

This is why people hated Doctor Who in the 80's and during the Colin Baker era. The turn towards dark violence stands out when compared to other eras of darkness in the show's past (that I've seen so far) and I can't blame its detractors. Bits like this... It's... it's a bit much.

But let's move on.

The Doctor, having gotten away finds himself in a bright area. Being the intrepid Doctor, he walks towards the light, growing steadily weaker as he goes...

The Governor addresses the people (The Greek Chorus), saying that the dissenters have been captured and will be executed and that The Doctor is heading into a [Kobayashi Maru] (for the non-nerds, that's Star Trek for "no-win scenario").

The Doctor presses onwards, towards the light, which has begun to look like an arid desert. The room gets hotter, The Doctor strips off his coat, revealing his question mark suspenders. Also, I want some.

Bow-chicka wow wow.

It gets hotter. He gets sweatier and weaker. He collapses and looks up, and hallucinates Peri standing in the mist drinking a cool, quenching drink. He crawls on, desperate, fighting the hallucination. Everyone watches him on the monitor with baited breath.

Defeated, The Doctor looks around, only to see himself surrounded by the arid desert. With a final gasp, he collapses. And dies. There's a neat part where the TV controllers tell the technicians to hold onto his dead corpse for a second and then.....

CUT to the closing credits.

And that's how part one ends. Ballsy. Dark. Really dark.

Part Two:

We come back where we left off. The Doctor's collapsed, dead. In the control room, Peri's upset (obviously), but there's no time for that. Those in the control room (Evil Mustache Guy, Evil Jar Jar, and the Governor) begin interrogating her about The Doctor and the TARDIS. Before they can get too far, though, they begin talking about ore-purchasing politics again. So let's not stay with them too long, shall we?

In the Greek Chorus hovel, the Greek Chorus still watches the TV, which shows The Doctor's body, lying in state. The woman sees his face twitch and gets all excited. The Man says not to worry too much, though because "Here comes the acid bath."

The who buh what now?

The Varosian guards dump the black plastic bag thing into the acid bath to "show that it's highly corrosive."

And then just like that, The Doctor's up. What follows is the youtube in all its horrific glory. Please to also note: the part earlier where I was talking about the dark and excessively violent? That's this scene.

So I think this sequence merits discussion. First off: acid bath? That's a bit much, don't you think? Just by sheer principle, that's some dark crazy and it not so family friendly. And that sequence is kinda nuts. Especially the part where the dude REACHES OUT AND GRABS THE OTHER GUY. Guh. That gives me skeevies.

Secondly: the Doctor's line "Forgive me if I don't join you." That's... ummm.... People have a problem with that line and its delivery because it shows The Doctor as cold and unpleasant. I think it's a bit misunderstood. Perhaps the cracking jokes wasn't the best of tact things, but it's far from cold.

We go back to The Governor, who has taken Peri aside to try to coax some information out of her. They are soon interrupted by Evil Mustache Guy who informs them that The Doctor is alive and has escaped. The Governor tells him to attempt to capture The Doctor again. Peri is still upset.

"This disguise should fool them..."

The Doctor, free as a bird, runs around the Torture Dome for a bit before finding a convenient stash of guard clothing. Unfortunately, no sooner has he pulled clothes off the rack than The Phantom (that sentry with the mask) appears. There's some nice bantering (including The Doctor identifying himself as "A student of science") before The Doctor is marched off at gunpoint.

Peri spills the beans about The TARDIS and the fact that she and The Doctor are displaced in time. Evil Jar Jar throws another fit, saying she's lying and orders her thrown into the genetic mutation machine (that can't be good) while The Governor plans for an "old fashioned execution" for his new prisoners.

What follows is "The Hanging Sequence". Watch for Peri's terrible accent, some GREAT Colin Baker Sixth Doctor moments and a taste of some "typical" Evil Jar Jar (who, yes, by the way, is this awful in EVERY SCENE HE'S IN).

I love that red background. Also, hanging sequence. Kinda nuts. But interesting.

We go to the genetic mutation experiment, where Peri and Jondar's wife are slowly being turned into...something... Kinda bizarre. They say it's a bird, but really it's just kinda weird.

The Evil Mustache Guy informs The Governor, The Doctor, and Jondar that the transmogrifier went on for too long and they were lost. The Doctor gets angry, saying there was plenty of time to stop it. He asks to see who's in charge of the thing. The Phantom (he who is in charge of the thing) explains it, saying Peri's getting turned into a bird because her mind always wants to "fly away from trouble."

Everyone yells at him to turn it off (by everyone, I mean The Doctor and the Governor), but he plays his "I'm the one who knows how it works" card and becomes a huge dick (The Phantom does not just refer to his mask). The Doctor calls him on his dickishness, revealing--

Some plastic surgery gone wrong.

Jondar and The Doctor grab some guns and hold up the room. The Doctor explodes the mainframe with some Varos guns, making the Phantom CRAZY pissed. He flies into Pheral Phantom Attack Mode and attacks The Doctor, but is subdued by Jondar. The Doctor and Jondar make for the transmogrification room.

Luckily, they arrive in time to save the ladies from final mutation. By stopping it when they did, they prevented the final transformation and the women return to normal. They make an escape through the tunnels again and attempt to steal one of the Varosian golf carts when Peri, still disoriented from the beam, starts calling out for The Doctor.

There's no time to waste!

If this is anything like a Gallifreyan Taxi Service, sign me up!

The Doctor drives off in the slow-moving golf cart, heading to rescue the girls while Jondar lays down some cover fire. The Doctor gets Jondar's wife into the car, but Peri's nowhere to be found. With no other options, The Doctor drives off in the golf cart, being chased by Varosian guards.

Peri's captured, though. Poor Peri. Captured again. Evil Mustache Guy pulls some political crap forcing The Governor to broadcast another vote, this time with a really convenient "No confidence vote" clause in the Varos constitution. And it looks dire, like the Governor's final broadcast.

He gets all gloomy and dour. Peri shares a moment with him which provides some nice commentary about the nature of Varos's democracy and how "there are no popular solutions to the difficulties" of governance.

But then the tables turn. The Governor appeals to the guard guarding them, Meldak, trying to make a case to let Peri go. He graciously declines. After some argument, the vote is cast. The Male Greek Chorus double-casts his vote, stealing the Female Greek Chorus's. The vote is passed and The Governor starts to get fried. But then, Meldak randomly has a change of heart, destroys the disintegrator and opts to join with Peri and the Governor in their chase after The Doctor, Jondar, and his wife.

The Doctor, Jondar, and wife arrive at the "End Zone", the final end game to the Torture Dome, which will lead to the exit. They are tempted by ghost-phantom-shadows of themselves which beckon them forward, but The Doctor is too smart for that and does an INCREDIBLE BADASS action pose (you'll see it at the end of the blog).

And it's a good thing he stopped them when he did, or they woulda fallen into this grossness.

Evil Jar Jar gets pissed again, demanding that Evil Mustache Guy and The Phantom chase after the missing Governor and The Doctor and his companions. Loving Evil Jar Jar (for some God-only-knows-why reason), they happily oblige and give chase.

The Doctor, Jondar, and his wife come across a dead body with a swollen neck. They don't have long to deal with it, though, because they are attacked by evil cannibals!

The Ultimate Indignity is getting eaten by cannibals who dress like that.

Now chased, The Doctor, Jondar, and his wife race into a vine-strewn corridor. The Doctor warns them to pick through it carefully, lest they fall prey to these tendrils. One cannibal touches a tendril and dies. The second cannibal pulls him down. We know what comes next.

(Nom nom nom.)

One of the Varosian golf carts approaches and Evil Mustache Guy and the Phantom approach. The Phantom does some excessive poetic posturing about what he's going to do (because he was insulted. Can you imagine if you took this dude's lunch money?)

Luckily, The Doctor had the tendrils to be dropped, which they do, killing Evil Mustache Guy and the Phantom and the people they brought along. The Doctor recommends they get out of there.

The Doctor meets up with Peri and The Governor and they all head off to confront the Evil Jar Jar, who's trying to summon his invasion fleet. Also, he's getting spritzed by his highly paid man servants.

Anyways. Yeah. They confront him. He's talking about the invasion force that's about to land and how he's going to be Governor (this sounds a lot like Tobias Vaughan and Mavic Chen if you remember them). He receives word from his home planet.

But the transmission isn't what Evil Jar Jar expected. It's from the mining corporation, saying a "second source" of ore has been found on an asteroid and, because they need Varosian ore to mine the second source, that Evil Jar Jar should "obtain the Varosian source at any price."

Wait what? Isn't that bad capitalism? Shouldn't the second source create more supply, thereby lowering the rates for the ore, leaving the Varosian quantities less valuable? That's like paying money to a bunch of people so that they can get you the same amount of money.

Also, this is a GREAT deus ex machina. They could have gone through the entire episode without doing anything and then this could have happened.

Evil Jar Jar gets pissed again because now he's going to be paying FIVE TIMES MORE than what he was asking for originally. He screams. Everyone laughs at his expense, and all is right on Varos.

The day is saved. The Doctor and Peri get their Zeiton-7 and leave.

BUT! What about the Greek Chorus? The Governor gives them an address about peace and tolerance (meaning no more evil reality shows on TV) and that this will usher in a new golden age of Varos. The people are free. And what shall they do? There is a pause as they realize they don't know.

And on the wall the TV is static. A poetic ending.

But what about The Doctor?: I think it's safe to say that Colin Baker (along with, perhaps, Paul McGann) is one of the most unpopular Doctors. His demeanour is haughty and rather self-righteous and not the easiest to deal with.

And yet, I really came out of this liking him. He has this charm about him that's so Doctor I love it, despite the fact that he can be cold at times. He's fun and funny in his own way, and his clothes...

Yeah. Just to touch on this really quickly. His costume's the most infamous. Easily. But I rather like it, so you get no sympathy from me. I liked it before I saw him in action, I LOVED it afterward. It's completely insane and it makes no sense, but I don't care. Except for the patchwork on the back of his coat, this suit just WORKS. I wish he was in what Colin Baker wanted him to wear (straight black), but this suit is just ridiculously iconic and I can't hep but sigh with some wistful nostalgia at how delightful it ends up being.

Colin Baker stood out in this serial, if you ask me. He has this power and this presence and this charisma that might not be for everyone, but it worked for me. Perhaps he certainly wasn't as good as Troughton or Davison, but he was easily the best part of this serial and I can't wait for some more him-stories down the line. (Wait till December, that's all I'm saying...)

Next Time!: 7th Doctor! Ace! Victorian Evolution! Light! Control! And a story depending on you to fill-in-the-gaps! "Ghost Light"! Coming up next Tuesday!

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