Back in 1984, Doctor Who foresaw Twitter. No, seriously.
Without a doubt the highlight of the Colin Baker era, Vengeance on Varos is a wonderful critique on the way media and individuals treat political officials. When the TARDIS runs short of a mineral vital to its function (more on this later) the Doctor and Peri are forced to travel to the planet Varos to procure the mineral, Zeiton-7. A supposedly improvrised planet, the planet is governed by an elite who are content to keep the planet enslaved, in exchange for selling the mineral at a marked down price to the Galatron Mining Corporation, led by the insidious Mentor, Sil. The figurehead of this elite is the Governor, a man who in reality has little power because all inhabitants are required to vote on his performance, and the penalty for his inevitable failure to meet their demands is potentially lethal Human Cell Disintegration Bombardment.
Let’s not beat about the bush – there are few stories grimmer than this one in Doctor Who’s history – arguably only State of Decay is darker. The story however is also brilliant and superbly realised – arguably the gritty tone is what makes this a triumph, where stories like Timelash and Paradise Towers would fail. While it made the story difficult viewing as a seven year old, ten years later I found myself enthralled by a story I’d completely written off. Had Baker been given more stories of this ilk, we wouldn’t be having conversations about a painfully short tenure as the Doctor; Colin Baker is completely fantastic in this story, displaying a mastery sadly only captured elsewhere in Terror of the Vervoids.
The only reason this story is not higher is precisely because the tone is so grim. I hugely enjoy and respect the story, but I find it difficult to love. The odd comic relief from the two Varosian voters watching proceedings on their television doesn’t really compensate for the continual pessimism and despondency throughout the tale. Unlike some of the other stories at the sharp end of my countdown, I wouldn’t recommend Vengeance on Varos as a good introductory story to classic Doctor Who. But I would absolutely say it is a must watch, and deservedly one of the very best from the original series.
You can buy Vengeance on Varos on Amazon for £6.99
Next Time: Meet one of Doctor Who’s best double acts, Messers Jago & Litefoot …
Okay – I think it is vitally important I start with one clear statement: I really like this story.
It’s important to begin there, because every Seventh Doctor fan and apologist will be apoplectic with disbelief that this story does not feature in my top 50 stories. Indeed, they will notice some of the stories not yet reviewed (thinking for example of Terror of the Vervoids or The Three Doctors) and wonder how I could think these stories better than Remembrance of the Daleks. So, let me repeat again, I don’t think this is a bad story – it is an excellent story, and a fine example of what the McCoy era should have been like. I have no hesitation in saying that if McCoy had been given a full 26 episode season with stories like this (and the budget of the 1996 TV Movie) I would have thoroughly enjoyed it. This story is fantastic Doctor Who.
Why then is it not in my top 50? For no other reason than personal taste – I hugely enjoy the stories in my top 100, and even have a soft spot for patently rubbish stories like Four to Doomsday (absolutely NOTHING however, will make me ever like Paradise Towers). Remembrance of the Daleks suffers from no great flaw other than being slightly less enjoyed than the stories above it. But that is no shame at all – rather a testament to 26 superb seasons of drama.
This story could have come directly from the classic era of Pertwee and the UNIT family, even featuring characters pretty much in the style of the Brigadier (Group Captain Gilmore), Mike Yates (Sgt. Mike Smith) and Liz Shaw (Dr Rachel Jensen). It features not one but two Dalek factions, each fighting to gain control of a Timelord artefact known as the Hand of Omega – a device that engineers stars to enable time travel. In a plot device later revisited to less good effect in Silver Nemesis the Doctor intends that the Imperial Daleks (under the control of the ‘Dalek Emperor’) should gain control of the device rather than the rebel Daleks.
A superb combination of well paced action and intrigue, the story features several memorable moments – not least that cliffhanger showing a Dalek hovering up a flight of stairs, debunking the myth of Destiny of the Daleks that Daleks are foiled by elevation changes. Also memorable is the revelation that the rebel Daleks are not controlled by Davros (as the TV angle suggests) but by a child conditioned to be a battle computer for the Daleks, and the the Dalek Emperor is in fact Davros. Ace famously takes on a Dalek with a souped-up baseball bat, and Sylvester McCoy gives his most memorable speech, in which the phrase ‘unlimited rice pudding’ features to describe Davros’ insane and insatiable desire for universal domination.
I cannot enthuse enough – this is a great story, and a great way to introduce anybody to classic Doctor Who. It’s only a pity that there are 55 stories I like better …