In the late 1960s and early 1970s Philip Martin, the writer of Vengeance on Varos, had plied his trade on Z Cars (1962-78) initially as an actor and then made the transition to writing for the series before moving on to writing scripts for Thirty Minute Theatre (1965-73), New Scotland Yard (1972-74) and Shoestring (1979-80). Martin achieved a great deal of kudos as a television writer with Gangsters (1976-78) a drama series that had evolved out of his Play for Today
of the same name.
The play and the series were produced at BBC Pebble Mill Birmingham by David Rose, head of what was then known as English Regions Drama which set out to "promote drama that was regionally-produced, allowing the local production skills-base to develop, and using regionally-based writers whenever possible". (1)
Rose had been inspired by a screening of The French Connection (1971) and through Barry Hanson made contact with Martin to capture that film's sensibilities within an English regional setting which on this occasion was Birmingham, the city he saw as he gazed out of his train window after seeing the film. The relationship between Rose and the development of Gangsters was very informal and he provided Martin with funding to live in Birmingham to research the communities in the city for three months and generate potential ideas for a play.
Gangsters can be seen as typical of Martin's work and his ability to structure genre as a route into a distinctive use of social commentary. As the series progressed he used the tropes of film noir, B movie thrillers and Bollywood films to tell a bleak and cynical tale of exploitation and violence in the multiracial and ethnically diverse reality of contemporary Birmingham, to "hitch contemporary social problems to genre fiction". By series two, and as a reaction to the criticisms of the portrayal of violence in the first series, Martin turned things on their head and became very experimental in his approach.
'it's just people in a studio'The series became an examination of the television viewer's relationship to the 'reality' that the series was presenting on screen where Martin was saying "this isn't reality, it's just people in a studio, yes, it's entertainment, I hope it's amusing you, but it's only a script". (2) This allowed Martin free reign to contextualise the violence of the first series through his own authorship, not just as the writer of the series but as an actor. He plays a villain, Rawlinson, in the first series and in the second returns as himself, a symbolic writer figure as a Greek chorus seen to comment on and rewrite the narrative and characters, and as a villain inspired by W.C. Fields.
Indeed, David Rolinson has compared Gangsters requirement to turn the actuality of violence seen in its first series into a meta-text about television realities in its second series with Doctor Who's own metamorphosis in 1977 from Gothic horror realism into witty postmodern meta-science fiction. His comparison also shows the ways both programmes shifted the emphasis away from the depiction of violence within the wider context of debates about censorship at the BBC during the same period. Indeed, as Rolinson notes, Vengeance on Varos exacerbated another crisis about on-screen violence in Doctor Who that was also reflected within the panic about 'video nasties' that raged in the mid-1980s. (3)
The self-reflexive use of genre, narrative and televisuality would find its way into Martin's post-Gangsters work. For example, The Unborn (Playhouse tx 16/5/80) was also 'narrated' by Martin, portraying an angelic figure from the future, who sets the scene for a play which explored rationalism and superstition, dream and reality. As Ian Greaves notes in his review, the play's mise en scene, where bedroom becomes hi-tech war room, is also concerned with "dissolving the gap between premonition and reality" as an expectant father has a vision of his son as a future dictator who initiates a world war. (4)
He had originally been invited to pitch for Doctor Who in 1980 by the then incumbent script editor Christopher Bidmead. It was two years later that Martin submitted an idea to Bidmead's replacement Eric Saward, after, he recalls, "My daughter Hilary, who was then seven, began to watch Doctor Who independently of me. One day she said ‘Will you come and watch with me?’, so I watched a couple of weeks of early Peter Davison episodes. I woke up one morning with the idea for what eventually became Vengeance on Varos." (5)
In 1982, the series was in its two 25-minute episodes per week day transmission pattern and Saward commissioned a storyline from Martin in April that year, titled Domain, featuring the fifth Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa. Martin had been wondering what the entertainment industry of the future might consist of and in Domain this idea also worked in tandem with a story about a prison planet where the officer class ruled over the descendants of the original prisoners and subjugated them with violent entertainments. Domain's political overtones were a concern to John Nathan-Turner and he advised Saward to closely monitor Martin's development of the storyline. Martin spent some time gestating ideas throughout 1982 and it was only in October that he was specifically commissioned to write one of the four episodes with the commission for the other three following in January 1983.
Dolly Parton's The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was mistakenly seized as pornographyThe development of the scripts took place during the infamous moral panic about 'video nasties'. This emerged after the release of several unregulated video titles, featuring violent, gory and sexual content, in the growing home entertainment market of the early 1980s. In an era before the BBFC either granted them a certificate, imposed severe cuts or banned them, these films gained a certain notoriety via the Director of Public Prosecution's list of videos that were likely to be confiscated if found on retailers' shelves.
Naturally, Doctor Who's old friend Mary Whitehouse went in for the kill when she was made aware of the nature of such films as The Driller Killer (1979) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and her public campaign gained support through The Sunday Times and The Daily Mail during 1982, culminating in MP Graham Bright's introduction of his Private Members Bill in 1983 and leading to the passing, in 1985, of the Video Recordings Act 1984.
This made the BBFC responsible for the certification all films released on video. Gone were the days when police raids on hire shops were common and often a source of amusement when the likes of Dolly Parton's musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) was mistakenly seized as pornography. Ironically, it was during 1983 and 1984 that BBC Video began its VHS and Betamax release of Doctor Who stories as part of its 'Video Tasties' campaign. Even the BBC Enterprises sales sheet for Varos mentions 'video nasties' in the programme's synopsis.
The other landmark to note here is that, in between the transmission of both episodes of Vengeance on Varos, a six month experiment began in the House of Lords to allow the BBC and Channel 4 to televise debates. The first of these was scheduled for 23 January 1985 and was a debate on the state of the economy, the government's relationship with trade unions and the effects of the on-going miners' strike. It's interesting to note that under the strict regulations that the Lords applied to the televising of such debates, cameras were not allowed to cut away to a noisy demonstration up in the gallery in support of the strike . (6) The protracted and divisive strike and the related dismantling of British industry also offers a parallel to Varos, where the mining for Zeiton 7 ore is carried out without knowing the mineral's true worth and its workers are placated by entertainment featuring others worse off than themselves.
During this period, Martin's completion of the script had to take into account many changes within the production of Doctor Who itself. Peter Davison had been replaced by Colin Baker and the characters of Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough had come and gone and Martin admits, "I remember doing one draft when we didn’t know who the new Doctor was going to be, we didn’t know who the companions were, and we weren’t even sure of the time slot!" (7) It wasn't until November 1983 that Domain, now retitled Planet of Fear, was recommissioned as two 45-minute episodes for the forthcoming Season Twenty-Two. Between November and February 1984, Martin collaborated with Saward on the scripts, expanding Peri's involvement, shifting emphasis to the alien Sil, making the Governor more of an unwilling participant in the machinations and introducing the 'Greek chorus' of Varos's desensitised citizens Arak and Etta.
Planet of Fear was scheduled as the fifth story of the season but was shifted to second in line when Pat Mills' Space Whale fell by the wayside. It was also retitled Vengeance on Varos when Nathan-Turner deemed its original title too close to 1983's Planet of Fire. Originally, Michael Owen Morris (The Awakening) was due to return to the series to direct but Vengeance on Varos was finally assigned to Ron Jones who set about casting the production in the Spring of 1984. Jason Connery, then better known as son of Sean, was cast in only his second television role in May 1984 as the rebel Jondar. Shortly after he was headed for greater recognition when he became Robert of Huntingdon in Richard Carpenter's Robin of Sherwood (1984-86), after its producers had rejected the likes of Simon Dutton, Paul McGann, Jason Carter and Neil Morrissey. When the BBC promoted this story they emphasised his recent Robin of Sherwood casting.
Jones had unsuccessfully auditioned several actors of short stature for the role of Sil and Nabil Shaban, whom he eventually cast, was discovered through a serendipitous series of coincidences. Martin Jarvis's wife, Rosalind Ayres, had remembered Shaban from his appearances in several recent documentary films, including editions of Arena, Thames Television's Help and a Channel 4 film The Skin Horse, and suggested to Jarvis, who had already been cast as the Governor, that Ron Jones contact him.
A floor manager working on Doctor Who suggested that Shaban be reached through the disabled actors’ theatre group 'Graeae' which Shaban had co-founded with Richard Tomlinson in 1980. At the same time BBC producer Alan Shallcross had sent a memo out to colleagues encouraging directors and producers to cast more disabled actors in their productions, mentioning 'Graeae', and Jones subsequently visited the group. However, Shallcross was rather disconcerted when he discovered Jones and Nathan-Turner had cast Shaban as the villain Sil.
After Shaban had visited the costume and effects department in June for a fitting, Vengenance on Varos went into TC6 on 18 July 1984 for the first of two, three day recording blocks. The session on that day also included the now infamous 'acid bath' sequence and even after completing the scene with a number of retakes, Jones still had some concern about the way it was shot and the implication that the Doctor caused the horrific deaths of two men.
The impact of the acid burnt victims was reduced in the final edit but the difficulties with the scene continue to linger according to Patrick Mulkern in his Radio Times review: "I saw that being recorded: the make-up on the scalded victims was horrible and, ultimately, less offensive takes were aired. The problem remains that the Doctor’s clumsiness is shown to cause two grisly deaths."(8) Other problems during recording included a section of scaffolding collapsing during the gallows scene and Nicola Bryant's allergic reaction to the feathers used in the scene of Peri's transmogrification.
Varos is that rare animal in mid-1980s Doctor Who. It's a clever, multi-layered narrative and manages to incorporate a strong moral message and social commentary. It achieves this while employing an interesting structure that plays on the relationships between the actuality of Varos, its televised representation to its own populace and the audience watching at home. As Philip Sandifer succinctly puts it, Varos is structured as "a television program in which several of the characters appear on a television program and in which the audience repeatedly watches people watching television. And it frequently makes clever little cuts between these levels so that events move from being watched by diegetic characters to being watched by the audience."(9)
... apathy with political systems... vote rigging... and a wry commentary on quality televisionThis reaches its height in the cliffhanger to episode one where the direction of the programme switches between the Governor deciding when to do close ups on the dying Doctor and cut the scene and Ron Jones sat in the gallery in TC6 pulling back from the Doctor, cutting to the Prison Control monitor screen and then, as the Governor asks for the cut, rolling the end titles.
Martin's concerns about ritual humiliation, torture and lowest common denominator mass entertainment are more relevant now than ever before. Don't forget, this was before reality shows such as Big Brother, so it's partly prescient but also reflects the then knee-jerk reactionary debate over screen violence and cruelty (the 'video nasties' debacle of the period) and the exploitation and dehumanisation of vulnerable members of society through mass communications and observation. But the other 'Big Brother' is clearly an influence here too - the Varos logo is surprisingly similar to the insignia designed for Oceania in Michael Radford's recent film of Orwell's 1984 and the uniforms with their medals and sashes have a suggestion of South American dictatorships. Argentina's 'Dirty War' may well have some resonance to Varosian politics and society here too.
The narrative is framed by the 'viewer appreciation' figures of commentators Arak and Etta, perhaps symbolising the bored and jaded audience seeking entertainment in any form and typically representative of audiences that are often targeted in the so called 'ratings war'. They also effectively sum up an apathy with political systems, hint at vote rigging and provide a wry commentary on quality television while they sit there in their little hovel watching dead entertainment. Tat Wood sees this device as a either an expression of the need to pad the story out (Martin's scripts under ran and Saward had to put material in to get them to length), as an example of Brechtian de-familiarisation or postmodern self-reflexivity. Or all three at once. (10)
As Matthew Sweet acknowledges in the documentary, it's also a story that tries to have its cake and eat it. Just as it comments on exploitative entertainment and TV for kicks, it is in itself exploiting violence and body horror to depict the ramifications of a society that has evolved out of the hierarchies of prison life, with Martin suggesting that this is the dead end of a society dominated by media exploitation. There are people falling into acid baths (the Doctor does not push anyone into an acid bath but his parting quip is certainly callous), poisoned by vines, turned into birds and reptiles, tortured and shot. Some may feel this is a grim place for the series to end up but there are checks and balances with the blackly comic figure of Sil, the political satire of the Governor and his voting audience lightening the darker areas of the narrative.
Martin himself has offered that the examination of violence at the heart of the story is in part an acknowledgement of Whitehouse's and the National Viewers and Listeners Association's concerns of the day: “What we’re actually doing, in a way, is arguing on their side, but are they intelligent enough to see it? They should be, because it’s there, but then you need a sophisticated response, and you have to have shows like this, so people’s critical faculties can spot what is gratuitous and what is there for a purpose, almost a moral purpose. (11)
Vengeance on Varos works because it also has a particularly strong central cast. Martin Jarvis is terrific as the Governor and he wonderfully captures the barometer of the narrative. The Governor is just as corrupt as the henchmen he works with but you get a sense of his ache for something better and more honorable through Jarvis's sensitive approach to the role. The character provides an essay in turncoat politics, quite apt in the era of Thatcherism, as the Governor faces the popular vote with steely determination and the power structures that make Varos function begin to dissolve around him.
He's also a symbol of Martin's core concern about finding the truth at the heart of the situation and is complimentary to the rebels Jondar and Areta and voters Arak and Etta as they all provide slightly different versions of Varosian reality for the audience to consider. Stephen Yardley and Sheila Reid are excellent as the chorus of Arak and Etta. Forbes Collins is also great as the Chief Officer with a lovely line in sneering pomposity that almost equals the puffed up nature of the Sixth Doctor. His manipulation of, and crossing swords with, Jarvis's Governor provides the story with some fascinating political interplay and commentary on media manipulation.
Nabil Shaban grabs the role of Sil and uniquely makes it his own. An actor's performance which is an object lesson in projecting character from behind encumbering prosthetics, using physicality and vocal mannerism to underline Sil's dangerous but child-like nature, always petulant if he doesn't get his own way. He's a mixture of intergalactic Soho porn-baron and commodities broker who simply exists to exploit others and Shaban plays him with great energy and conviction. Here is an actor capable of providing the Doctor with a decent foil and it is entirely clear why the character was deemed successful and returned the following year, albeit less effectively, in Mindwarp.
And then we come to Colin Baker. Here he perfectly sets out the Sixth Doctor's stall and it's one of his best performances as the Doctor, somewhat freer of the excesses of other scripts in the season. Love it or loathe it, but the characterisation could never be described as boring. He jumps from sulky indignation and manic outrage to clear compassion and bravado within the space of the story and Baker never falters, never bats an eyelid as the performance he gives twists and turns.
... you don't win at the end of game. You die.While some of the Doctor's actions are deeply questionable - the criticism was that he did 'cause' a number of deaths by proxy (the trap with the vines, the acid bath etc) - and seem very atypical of the Doctor, this needs to be seen in relationship to what particularly Eric Saward was doing. The loss of innocence of the Doctor, as exemplified by his role in stories such as Resurrection of the Daleks and The Caves of Androzani, was the overture to the Time Lord's ongoing relevance in Saward's increasingly hostile, amoral universe, perhaps itself a more conservative reflection of the equally vilified brutality of the Holmes/Hinchcliffe era.
There is a distinction here between comic book, fantasy violence prevalent in the 1970s and the more realistic approach seen in the series from Season Twenty-One onwards. That the Doctor gets tough at this point is not just part of Saward's penchant for the template of The Caves of Androzani but it echoes the politics of the time. With the 'no such thing as society' line taken by the Tories, individuals were seriously encouraged to 'get their hands dirty' and succeed in both the marketplace and in attaining class position. Could the Sixth Doctor be a manifestation of the 'by any means necessary' individual then being born out of such times?
Another concern here is that the character of Peri does continue to be reduced to the status of victim, despite some great banter between her and the Doctor, and this is especially evident in the transmogrification sequence. However, some have commented that this scene, like many of the traps in the Dome, is redundant to the plot. They are rather the point of the narrative, all functioning as trials set up deliberately to exploit the unfortunate rebels who end up in the Dome. All the devices are there purely to wring out the maximum humiliation for a desperate audience of viewers wanting their ounce of snuff. It's just like the inmates completing tasks in the Big Brother house but you don't win at the end of game. You die.
There are some problems with certain scenes and performances. The scene in the TARDIS at the beginning of the story, which is very lengthy, is more or less rather dull padding, symptomatic of the way stories would open and close in this period and the increasing desire to delay the Doctor's entrance into the story proper. The sequences with the security golf buggies are very unconvincing as it's clear that anyone could out run such vehicles and the various moments of gun play are a sop to younger audiences.
While Jason Connery is very lovely to look at here as Jondar, he is rather over-earnest with his reading of some lines and often misplaces the emphasis on them. It does tend to make him sound a little wooden but he does capture a certain reckless innocence and determination that is appealing. Geraldine Alexander as Areta often suffers with the same problem and again gets very little screen time to truly establish the character. Tat Wood has suggested that, given Martin's use of postmodern ambiguity in much of his work, and in Gangsters particularly, then the nature of these performances could be deliberate and as a signal to the audience that these are the stereotypes you'd expect to find in the tapes created by the punishment Dome.
Lighting and production design also raise the standard of the story. Tony Snoaden's minimal sets are beautifully lit by Dennis Channon and there is a claustrophobic and hallucinatory nature to the story generated by shadows, smoke effects and use of colour. Jonathan Gibbs doesn't smother the soundtrack in synthesisers and is very precise in spotting scenes with music, often allowing silence and sound effects to convey the emotional essence of a scene. His cues often have a macabre quality all of their own, adding to the nightmarish nature of the scenarios encountered in the Dome.
It all provides the right atmosphere for such a grim, dystopian tale that seems even more relevant than before and doesn't pull its punches in the delivery of that final coda with Arak and Etta. As their televisions screens go blank, they ponder their future and their freedom from tyranny. What exactly are they going to do with it? It seems to be suggesting that all our perceived freedoms are tyrannies of some kind whether we know it or not.
(1) Stephen Lacey, Critical Studies in Television: David Rose and English Regions Drama
(2) Interview with Philip Martin by Richard Amphlett & Matthew Newton, Newton's Laws of Television
(3) David Rolinson, British Television Drama, Scene vs Scene: Assassins vs Gangsters
(4) Cheer up! It Might Never Happen, The Unborn reviewed by Ian Greaves
(5) Philip Martin quoted in the Doctor Who Interview Archive
(7) Glyn Mathias in Bob Franklin, Televising Democracies
(8) Patrick Mulkern, Vengeance on Varos Radio Times
(9) Philip Sandifer, Do You Think Anybody Votes for Sweet
(10) Tat Wood, About Time: Seasons 22 -26, the TV Movie
(11) Philip Martin quoted in the Doctor Who Interview Archive
As per the original DVD, a very entertaining track featuring Colin Baker, Nabil Shaban and Nicola Bryant.
Nice or Nasty? The making of Vengeance on Varos (29:37)
Matthew Sweet goes all Governor of Varos on us and from the voting box regales us with the behind the scenes development and production of the serial. Or is this Carry On Varos? From the opening line, "this is a story that has its fans but it also has its knockers", as an image of Peri fickers onto the screen, and descriptions of old men in nappies and Jason Connery running around in his trousers, you'll recognise Sweet's trademark approach. The documentary is then framed around interviews with Philip Martin and Eric Saward.
There's a great moment when Saward talks about how writing for Doctor Who is difficult and that it would be hard to even accommodate Harold Pinter within the series format. Sweet manages to get an unfulfilled desire out of Saward that he wished he'd asked Pinter to write for the series. It's rare that Saward cracks a smile and he's positively giggling with delight here. He's also very honest about how much the Holmes/Hinchcliffe era was an inspiration to him at this time and discusses the 45 minute format of the series where Sweet suggests that Doctor Who was mutating into a science fiction anthology series.
Martin relates Nathan-Turner's suspicions of his desire to write for the series and the insulting demand from JNT that Martin do a scene breakdown before he could be considered for the job. He also notes Sweet's comments about Varos's concerns with the media and the state, recalls the fall of Bhutto's government in Pakistan and how the media is always a target for control, and that the agencies of power in Varos are themselves trapped in the system. He also discusses the breaking down of the fourth wall in Gangsters and The Unborn.
There are also recollections from Sheila Reid who reveals that she and Stephen Yardley didn't see any of the clips they viewed on screen until they began their recording block; Nabil Shaban on the creation of Sil's laugh; composer Jonathan Gibbs on covering up noisy security golf buggies and creating the sound of Varos. Overall, this a great half hour that finds time to explore the themes of Varos with those that created it.
The Idiot's Lantern (7:29)
An interesting but all too brief examination, hosted by Samira Ahmed, of how television has been used in the series to comment on the nature of reality and how Doctor Who has used the medium to comment on itself, to subvert other genres and reality through mock news programmes.
Extended and Deleted Scenes (17:42)
The original set of deletions/extensions running to about ten minutes on the original DVD release have been added to. The additional seven minutes here include more of the Governor's broadcast to the people of Varos, slightly extended versions of the TARDIS scene, the fight with the chained up Jondar (that includes the Greek chorus of Arak and Etta), the journey into the 'purple zone', the Doctor's death, the acid bath scene, the Doctor's encounter with Quillam, the aftermath of the show trial and hanging, Quillam's rant at the Governor and the Doctor rescuing Peri from the transmogrifier. Many feature unused bits and pieces from Arak and Etta.
Acid Bath Scene with alternate music track (1:37)
Even with a different score it's still the same contentious scene.
Behind the Scenes (4:42)
As featured on the original release, a brief look at one scene between the Governor, the Chief and Peri and the retakes required to perfect it.
As per the original DVD release, this is the selection where Sil's burly aides nearly tip over his water tank and Forbes Collins forgets where his prop chair should be; the gallery forgets to insert the footage of Peri and Areta being transmogrified into the confrontation between the Doctor and Quillam.
The two BBC1 trailers as featured on the original DVD.
As featured on the original DVD, the BBC1 on-air announcements.
Tomorrow's Times - The Sixth Doctor (12:56)
Sarah Sutton hosts this edition of 'Who the Papers Say' and covers the announcement of Baker ("a green eyed blond with a crow's nest coiffure and the burly build of a boxer" cooed The Daily Express) becoming the next Doctor, JNT's threatened abandonment of the Police Box prop, the reactions to Baker's debut "strangling that awful girl sidekick". And JNT's overflowing mailbag and Baker's fifteen year old knickers don't bear thinking about. This also takes in the media reaction to the 'hiatus' and Baker's eventual departure from the series.
John Simpson announces Baker as the next actor to play the Doctor on BBC1's news bulletin of 19 August 1983. This features comments from Baker, at his first photo call, to reporter Frances Coverdale and a clip from Arc of Infinity.
BBC Breakfast (05:41)
From 22 August 1983, after clips from The Web Planet, The Mind Robber, Spearhead from Space, Pyramids of Mars and Enlightenment, Frank Bough interviews Colin Baker about his forthcoming role as the Doctor.
Saturday Superstore (15:07)
In a March 1984 edition, Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant promote the transmission of The Twin Dilemma and are interrupted by Anthony Ainley during their phone-in with viewers.
French and Saunders sketch (7:31)
There's one reason why this sketch, shot on the Trial of a Time Lord set in 1987, was never transmitted. Sadly, it's not very funny. Which is ironic given that it was originally included on the video release of the much funnier The Curse of Fatal Death.
Mono Audio, 5.1 Remix and Isolated Score Options
As well as the original mono audio, there is the mono production audio (no post-production effects and score), a new 5.1 mix and Jonathan Gibbs' score in mono and 5.1 flavours as an isolated set of tracks.
Radio Times billings and several outraged viewers' letters about the violence and horror in Vengeance on Varos. Plus we get BBC Enterprises promotional sales sheet for the story.
Doctor Who: Vengeance on Varos
BBC Worldwide / Released 10 September 2012 / BBCDVD 3512 / Cert: PG
2 episodes / Broadcast: 19 January – 26 January 1985 / Colour / Running time: 89:28