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 …
It has occurred to me that poor Colin Baker is rather harshly judged on his first season. Yes, it did contain such travesties as Timelash, and such ill-executed ideas as Attack of the Cybermen, The Two Doctors and Revelation of the Daleks – but it also contained two perfectly decent and well executed stories, that would have worked well in any other era of the show. While Vengeance on Varos tends to steal the plaudits, I think it is a little unfair to dismiss The Mark of the Rani with the rest of the season.
As I opined in the reviews of The Ultimate Foe and The Mysterious Planet, I think that The Trial of a Timelord gets a pretty rough ride from fans. I cannot help but feel that if the show had continued in the vein of Season 23, rather than take the direction it did in Season 24, then perhaps the show would have been better ready to survive into the 1990s – although I also opined today that any Doctor Who that survived to the nineties could have featured a guest appearance by the Spice Girls – so perhaps we should count our blessings!
It’s always been a poorly kept secret that the female companion on Doctor Who was intended to be a bit of a looker, in order to keep elder male viewers interested. This story doesn’t even pretend to treat it as a secret – Nicola Bryant’s first appearance as Peri features her in a bright pink bikini that is so abbreviated it must have had Mary Whitehouse hurrumping into her cup of tea! By his own admission, showrunner John Nathan Turner cast Peri with the view to make Doctor Who more accessible to more mature audiences, and to the American market – and with the same flamboyance of one of his Hawaiian shirts, he proudly unveils Peri as the new companion.
Having acknowledged the one aspect of the story that is impossible to ignore, let’s now remember that it makes a very small part of what is quite a clever overall story. From the moment Turlough stepped into the TARDIS in Mawdryn Undead you’re wondering what his backstory is, and Planet of Fire brings his story to a very pleasing conclusion. Of course, it wouldn’t be Doctor Who unless several different story threads were happening at once. So we have three distinct threads – the Doctor and Turlough picking up a distress call in Lanzarote (this being the next overseas production after Arc of Infinity) where they find an alien artefact, and also Peri – who unfortunately plays damsel in distress from the start by having to be rescued from drowning! Meanwhile a group of colonists on the planet Sarn are troubled by earthquakes – a sign in fact that their planet is breaking up. They are beholden to their high priest who insists faithfulness to their god, Logar. Oh, and just for good measure, Kamelion makes his first appearance since The Kings Demons, spending most of the story in the appearance of the menace controlling him – the Master! It transpires that his miniturising gun hit him by mistake, and he is relying on the restorative powers of Sarn’s volcano to return him to full size and health – only to burn when the flames change and then seemingly vanish to nothing.
If you’re confused, you will get a good idea of the health warning for this story – it is so complicated that you need to watch it twice to get your head around it! When you do however, it is more than satisfying. Davison gives a superb show, making one wish (with no disrespect intended to Colin Baker) that he had given at least another season as the Doctor – his line to Turlough “If you are withholding any information that prevents me from defeating the Master, then our friendship is at an end,” is utterly compelling. Turlough too enjoys a triumphant farewell, rounding off his story, and seeing some form of redemption – not least in being returned to his homeland of Trion, no longer a disgraced criminal. Peri’s debut is sadly less impressive, spending most of it imprisoned by the Master, who is camped up to the maximum by Anthony Ainley. But for all that, it is one of the better stories to grace the 1980s and is thoroughly enjoyable.
After the hiatus of 1985, Doctor Who arrived back in 1986 with the distinct threat of doom hanging over the show – so it is appropriate that The Mysterious Planet, the first story within The Trial of a Timelord begins with a bell tolling ominously and little indication as to why the Doctor has arrived without his companion Peri. Whatever misgivings Script Editor Eric Saward may have had about using the trial analogy to compare the idea of Doctor Who being on trial in real life, I thought the concept overall worked rather well.
There are no words for how disappointed I was when I watched Attack of the Cybermen on VHS. I had loved The Tomb of the Cybermen and enjoyed The Tenth Planet, and having read that this story brought elements of these two stories together (and included the return of Michael Kilgarriff as the Cyber Controller) I really wanted to see this story. My disappointment was reflected in the fact that it does not do the least justice to the older serials, and especially Tomb.
This serial really confused me when I first saw it. The BBC did repeats of one serial for each Doctor – and I started watching from Genesis of the Daleks. I accepted the change to Peter Davison with confusion but reasonably equally, but was confused when Colin Baker appeared in Revelation of the Daleks, with no explanation to his change. Of course, I very soon figured out that the BBC had not shown the serials in order!