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Taking its initial lead from the various Mummy films in circulation, this story has all of the ingredients needed for a damned good adventure: a team of irresponsible and naive archaeologists, two devious members of a mysterious cult (plus their muscular, taciturn man-servant), disinterested hired help in the form of a squad of Anglo-Yank space-marine types and a tomb full of aggressive cyber-beings who can't wait to be reactivated in order to resume conquering the universe. Throw in the charm and resourcefulness of the Doctor, some well utilized location work, stylish and impressive sets and some great direction, which manages to imbue this TV shoot with sensibilities of a more cinematic nature, and the result is a slice of Sixties black and white Sci-Fi that can hold its head high.
The Cybermen are very much like Star Trek: The Next Generation's Borg. They're an aggressive collective who move from planet to planet, swelling their ranks by modifying the brains of their vanquished victims and re-housing them within new cybernetic bodies. They're a sinister proposition at the best of times but as they slowly thaw out, uncurl and emerge from their freezer-like hives, these Cybermen evoke the uncoiling menace of Ridley Scott's Alien. This particular encounter with them marked the introduction of their Cybermats: creepy and deadly metallic drones that could be taken for insectoid variants of Christian Duguay's smallest Screamers. Programmed to home in on human brainwaves, some extremely effective reverse motion photography enables the Cybermats to pounce on their hapless victims in a truly frightening manner.
The second half of the show is a real roller-coaster ride with the balance of power shifting several times and a few false endings being played out. The Doctor is at his devious best, playing the fool and lauding his enemies in order to buy the time he needs to resolve the situation. There are a couple of good scenes where Toberman (Roy Stuart), the Logicians' powerful man-servant, tries his muscles against the superior strength of the Cybermen. He's eventually subdued and partially assimilated but he manages to break free of the Cybermens' mind control to become something of a hero.
The acting is pretty much spot on throughout: Troughton is superb, as is George Pastell, who had gained plenty of practice for his role here when he appeared in Hammer's The Mummy and The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb. In one scene Pastell's megalomaniac Klieg details his intense if delusional belief that he really can become the master of the universe, bringing to mind Duran Duran's tyrannical outbursts in Roger Vadim's Barbarella. The soundtrack music is great, featuring a marvellous mix of dramatic orchestral stuff and stranger electronic pieces. And Morris Barry really went to town on the direction. The cast and crew recall him ripping the sets apart in order to get the camera placement and angles that he wanted. His vision and attention to detail really shine through and this exciting, well paced, and well edited adventure could quite easily compete with some cinema presentations. There's a little exposition about the Doctor and the TARDIS at the start of this show, for the benefit of Victoria, making this an ideal starting point for anybody who might be looking for an introduction to the series.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this DVD is the fact that its contents were lost for nearly 25 years due to the BBC short-sightedly junking portions of its archive in the early 1970s. 1 Luckily a copy was discovered in Hong Kong in 1992 and the Doctor Who Restoration Team have done a first class job of restoring the picture and audio quality. It's virtually mint. Episode one suffers from an ever so slightly wobbly picture but it seems churlish to even mention it. The extras are as welcome and as generous as ever. The BBC Visual Effects Department featurette presents colour footage of the Cybermats while the 'Tombwatch' footage from 1992 features a fun reunion of the adventure's surviving cast and crew.
The Colin Baker years were, in some senses, troubled times for Doctor Who. Baker had big plans for the role but when the BBC elected to move the show's transmission schedule from Spring to Autumn, effectively meaning an eighteen month gap between the end of Baker's first season and the start of his second, he rallied the show's fans in protest. A move which resulted in him becoming the first Doctor to be sacked. He was forced out of the role after his second season, which was a shame because he was pretty good as the Doctor. A little like the fourth Doctor (Tom Baker), his curly blonde hair brought to mind Harpo Marx, but this Doctor had a rather brash and sometimes narcissistic personality and his bizarre attire made him look like an intergalactic Pied Piper. The flip-side to Doctor Who's creature-feature outings were rather more dramatic affairs that focused on deep space sociology and political and commercial intrigue a la Frank Herbert's Dune. Colin Baker's Doctor's PAL Region 2 DVD debut is one such tale.
The sixth Doctor emerged from the regeneration process with something of a jumbled psyche. While acts of violence and destruction were only ever employed as a last resort by his earlier incarnations, Baker's Doctor, initially at least, was more open to a slightly heavier-handed approach. So there was never a better time for the series to run an adventure which tackled the subject of media effects, video violence and the power of television. Writer Philip Martin borrowed various strands of mass communication and media effects theory from the traditional Mass Society, Liberal-Pluralist and Marxist schools of thought and bound them together to construct a nightmare future world whose society is governed by a political system built around a never ending cycle of televised violence.
The Varosian elite's television transmissions act as a cautionary device that keeps the Varosian proletariat in their place but those same transmissions have also become the only source of entertainment in their mundane and atomized lives. The visiting alien capitalist, Sil, is thrilled to note that the transmissions from the Punishment Dome both "entertain as well as instruct" and excitedly offers to help the Varosians market their Punishment Dome footage off-world. And while the current Governor is increasingly uneasy about some aspects of the political system on Varos, he knows that he is not physically strong enough to survive the effects of another negative vote and so is quite happy to promote the distracting, crowd-pleasing spectacle of an off-worlder like the Doctor being hunted down, The Running Man-style, live on TV. The Governor even goes as far as enthusiastically directing the camera action himself for maximum effect.
By virtue of the subject matter being critiqued, there's all manner of unpleasant detail present in the Punishment Dome sequences. Things aren't much more palatable outside of the Dome, with the mass population of Varos, their attitudes to violence callused by repeated exposure to it on TV, cooped in their grim quarters as they wait for the next destructive spectacle to be transmitted, threatening to report each other at the merest hint of a subversive opinion and regularly exercising their power to literally destroy their Governor with the push of a voting button. All of this is done without a flicker of emotion or pity. By contrast, the officer elite live relatively well, their time spent thinking up ever more diabolical uses for the Punishment Dome while dreading the day that they might themselves become Governor.
For Baker's first season as the Doctor, the running time of the show's episodes was doubled which effectively meant that each adventure had less opportunities to stage the much anticipated cliff-hanger endings that the series was renowned for. Vengeance on Varos was presented as two 45 minute episodes (as opposed to four 25 minute episodes) and so boasts only one cliff-hanger ending: the Doctor's apparent death at the hands of an intensely powerful hallucinatory projection device, which is a pretty shocking and disturbing sequence. In a later scene, Peri is exposed to a strange ray that is capable of using its victims inner fears to physically transform them into beast-like creatures.
It's all reasonably well acted, with the strange lingo of Varos (kind of like a Shakespearean version of A Clockwork Orange's street slang) adding to the dramatic feel, though Jason Connery shows little of the presence that he later brought to Robin of Sherwood. Nabil Shaban undertakes his role as a capitalist amphibian with relish, easily making Sil one of the greediest and nastiest aliens ever to grace the series. The special effects are reasonable, if not quite as good as the functional sets, but it's important to remember that, by this stage, the show was being put together on a fraction of the budgets afforded to US Sci-Fi shows. That said, this adventure is more than a little constrained by its obvious lack of any location work.
Picture and sound quality are excellent and there's a good number of extras too. Interestingly, the deleted scenes section has an unused closing sequence which features the Doctor and Peri in the TARDIS, ready to embark on their next adventure. Director Ron Jones dropped this scene, preferring to end the show on a more poignant note: two Varosians are seen looking shocked and worried in front of their TV screen, which is now showing nothing but empty static fuzz. "We're free," says one. "What shall we do?" says the other. "Don't know," is the hollow reply.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. BBC Treaure Hunt: Details of all of the currently missing or lost
Doctor Who episodes can be found at
this link - there's a chance that copies of some of these episodes could be held in the vaults of overseas
TV stations or in private collections. Please contact the BBC if you know the whereabouts
of any of these lost episodes.