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Doctor Who: Vengeance on Varos

BBC Worldwide // Unrated // September 11, 2012
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted November 9, 2012 | E-mail the Author
The Show:
Colin Baker often gets a bad rap when fans gather 'round to talk about Doctor Who.  A lot of that has to do with his introduction in the series:  the regeneration didn't go smoothly and he acted erratically:  He was egotistical, cowardly, and he even tried to kill his companion, Peri at one point.  By his first full season the writers had gotten their act together and things were much better.  The show was taking on a darker tone, and seemed to be maturing.  One of the best examples of this more 'adult' version of the show is the second story from season 22, Vengeance on Varos.  Fan who didn't get a chance to pick up this story when it was first released on DVD now have the opportunity to snag a two-disc SE edition that is chocked full of extras.

The Doctor isn't having any luck with the TARDIS.  He's caused fires, accidently jettisoned a storage bay, nearly collided with and asteroid, and then, as his companion Peri is listing off the mistakes he's made, the ship runs out of energy and stops dead.  The Doctor sinks into a depression, telling Peri that she's lucky... she'll just die there.  He's stuck in the TARDIS, dying and regenerating until the end. 
Just when all seems lost, the column moves slightly and The Doctor discovers that they're just enough energy to rematerialize one more time.  The TARDIS needs a supply of Zeiton-7, and the only place it's mined is Varos.  If they're lucky enough to arrive in a time period when they have mining operations going, they just might be saved.
On Varos, things aren't so good however.  The people work long, hard hours in the mines but the government gets little for the ore and the worker's rations are continually being cut.  This has lead to unrest and the emergence of a rebel faction.  The government has come up with a way to both punish the rebels and gain the support of the workers:  they start televising the ingenious tortures and eventual execution of anyone who breaks the law.  The most popular program is one where criminals are put into a maze with a series of deadly traps.  There is one way that leads to safety and freedom, but no one has ever found it.

The Governor is hoping to make his situation better by negotiating a higher price for their ore, something that will allow him to ease the rationing.  To that end he's summoned the representative of the Galatron Mining Corporation, Sil, a small reptilian creature with an evil laugh and even more evil personality.  Sil refuses to pay any more, and having bribed the Governor's Chief Officer, he knows that if the Governor doesn't make a deal soon, he'll be killed by his own people.
They have an interesting form of government on Varos.  All major decisions are voted on by the entire populace.  The Governor gets on TV and states his case, and then he's locked into his chair.  There's a vote, and if it goes against him he's subjected to Human Cell Disintegration Bombardment, a painful process that zaps his life force.  The people don't want to hold out for more money, since that will mean tighter rations in the short term, and the Governor is subjected to the ray for the third time in his tenure.  He survives, but only barely.  The next time will kill him.
Just as things are looking bag for the Governor, The Doctor and Peri op up in the TARDIS, right in the middle of the execution of a rebel leader.  They manage to stop it and release the prisoner, but that puts them on the wrong side of the law and they're soon running for their lives... right into the death maze.

This was a surprisingly sophisticated story for Doctor Who.  It manages to have an exciting plot, create an interesting world with a unique from of government and fleshed out society, and also make a statement about television and society (while being on television).  If anything the show is more topical in America today than when it was originally broadcast in England.  With our 200+ channel cable TV, the Internet, and constant fascination with the latest gruesome murder trial (Casey Antony, etc.) who can say that there aren't parallels to be drawn.
The one aspect of this story that really makes it work is the subplot that occurs with Arak and Etta, a married couple who spend the evening bickering while watching the story unwinding on TV.  They don't have anything to do with the main plot, they never even meet The Doctor or Peri, but they serve to give the story a personal touch and a lot of heart.  They get the last scene in the story too, and the couple of lines that they give change the whole tone of the ending, making it a bit ambiguous instead of the normal happy ending.
The creature of the show, Sil, was very good too.  A small person squeezed into a rubber suit and set atop a mobile platform filled with liquid and electronics, he actually looks alien rather than silly and he's delightfully evil.  His grating laugh was wonderful too.  He was so well conceived and performed that he makes another appearance in a future episode.
This was a pretty violent story too, especially for a supposed children's show.  They show both emotional and physical torture (though no blood, just a light shining on a prisoner who screams) as well as pair of guards falling into an acid bath and being painfully dissolved.  What makes these scenes all the more disturbing, and gives the story a real edge, is watching Arak and Etta glued to the set waiting for the next kill.  It's a wonderful touch that really brings the message of the show home.
The DVD:

This two-part series (45-minutes each rather than the typical 22-minutes) arrives on a pair of DVDs, one for the episodes and one for the extras.
This story comes with the original mono soundtrack, which is very good, and a fun DD 5.1 mix too.  I really enjoyed the full surround experience.  The track clean and clear and they make good use of the soundstage.  The subwoofer gets a bit of work, but the main advantage this track has are the incidental effects that are thrown to the rear.  They do a good job of creating a creepy environment and it adds a lot to the story. 
The full frame video has been cleaned up by the Restoration Team and looks fine.  Some scenes are a bit soft, but generally the image is clean and the colors are fine.  If you've seen the other restored Colin Baker era stories, then you'll know what to expect.
This two-disc Special Edition release of Vengance on Varos gets quite a few extras, most of them located on the second disc.  (And all of the bonuses from the original release are included too.)
The extras start off with a commentary track with the main actors, Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, and Nabil Shaban (Sil).  It was a very good track... quite entertaining as well and informative.  I especially enjoyed Colin Baker's defense of the acid scene, where he quite correctly points out that The Doctor didn't do anything aggressive or of an offensive nature. 
The video extras start off with Nice or Nasty? a making-of documentary that runs nearly half an hour.  In addition to the normal reminiscing by the cast and crew, the featurette looks at the fan's reactions.  It's a show that has its detractors, though I thought the flaws were minimal.  The Idiot's Lantern is a short piece looking at how television itself has been portrayed on Doctor Who and how they've occasionally broken the fourth wall.  There's also another installment of Tomorrow's Times, a look at what critics of the time said about the show in Britain's newspapers.
That would be enough for most discs, but there's still a lot left.  There are 17-minutes worth of deleted scenes, a short reel of outtakes and some unused footage of the cast filming the show.  In addition there's the acid bath scene with an alternate music track, an interview with Colin Baker from Breakfast Time, an appearance of Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant on Saturday Superstore (in full costume) who receive a call from one of The Doctor's fiercest enemies, and a French and Sauders skit that takes place on the set of Doctor Who (it wasn't all that funny, but worth watching.)  
The disc also comes with an optional pop up trivia tracks that's filled with information.  Some of it is minutia, the date the episodes were filmed and ever the time that the shoots wrapped, but also background info on the supporting and incidental characters and it points out on screen gaffs.  These are wonderful.  There's also an isolated music track (in mono and 5.1!), a photo gallery, the Radio Times listings (in .pdf format) and an alternate music track too. 
Final Thoughts:
This is an interesting story that manages to comment of our society as well as being exciting and fun.  Not your typical Doctor Who adventure, it's darker and more edgy than most of his adventures.  If only producer John Nathan-Turner hadn't insisted on that horrible outfit for Colin Baker.  If you've never really warmed to Baker II as the Doctor, give this story a try.  You might be surprised.  Highly Recommended.
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Highly Recommended

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