Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Vengeance on Varos - "I think he needs more than water, Peri. Eh?"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Vengeance on Varos - Details

Season 22, Story 02 (Overall Series Story #139) | Previous - Next | Index

Peri, we feel the same way about Season 22.
"Fifteen Million Merits," the second episode of Black Mirror is ostensibly (per wikipedia) a "satire on entertainment shows and our insatiable thirst for distraction," an assessment I don't agree with, but I was struck by how much its world-building proceeds from "Vengeance on Varos." I don't mean to say anyone involved in Black Mirror cares, or even knows, about Doctor Who's lamentable 22nd season, only that it's a straight line from Arak's and Etta's living room in 1985's dystopian future to Abi's and Bing's lives in 2011's dystopian future. Saward & company hadn't lived through the turn of the millennium and the ascent of reality TV yet, but they were onto something.

The Black Mirror episode tacks, I think, towards blaming the politics of mass distraction on the distracted. It's better television than what DW was managing, but DW has the virtue, in this case, of being more radical. It ends with a question, and what could be read as a dawning realization ... where Black Mirror feels far more cynical. Now, that's a real surprise, as mid-80s Doctor Who, until its demise, felt like little more than an exercise in cynical brand exploitation with a side of all-but-incoherent philosophizing.

As a youngster I loathed "Vengeance." The flaws I remember all too well are still evident, but I'm more inclined to excuse its terrible acting, unsubtle writing, and even its didactic tendencies, because it at least is willing to wear its anger on its sleeve. Even if it's pretty much incoherent on the subject. BM, on the other hand, deployed its superior acting and writing in the service of satire that fails give a baddie as blameworthy as Sil.

I disagree with the consensus on this one: it's not better than "Attack of the Cybermen." It is merely the second-best story of Season 22. Or, put another way, the second prettiest turd in the sewer.


  • On what level, if any, does the infamous "Forgive me if I don't join you" line work? Is it a critique of Bond and Schwarzenegger? Is it mere apeing?  How is that a Doctor line?  It can't be, can it? Could it have worked if delivered sadly? Delivered smugly, it's one of the most un-Doctorly lines in all the series. That later incarnations of the Doctor disavow the War Doctor, but not this one, doesn't jibe.
  • Jason Connery, Sean's son, later plays Robin Hood in what I remember being as dreary a take on the legend as ever was made. His acting must have improved though. It being notably dreadful isn't one of the first things to come to mind about it, at least.
  • The opening scene, Jondar (Connery) being tortured on TV, doesn't only present violence as entertainment as a moral failing, the voting aspect makes it a political commentary as well. 
  • "That is what our secret payments to you are for." Clumsy Expository Writing 101
  • The set up isn't half-bad. A one-resource world, at the mercy of capitalist exploitation, where the militarized government doesn't serve its citizenry (militarized as it is primarily against its own people), but members of it have to stand for sham elections -- this remains relevant.  
  • The Doctor materializes into a liminal space in the sick society ... a starting point from which he is able to turn the weapon on the security force. By the end of the first episode though, he is subjected to a series of psychological attacks while being broadcasted as entertainment to the Varosians.  The Doctor's dramatic cliffhanger "death" is given in-episode direction by the Governor, who decides when to cut the coverage so episode 1 puts us in the viewers' seat. OK, I admit, it's somewhat well conceived. Our experience mirroring the viewers' can't help but force us to identify with them. 
  • The diapered cannibals are ... lamentable.

Additional Resources:
Tardis Wikia Entry
Wikipedia entry transcript
Eruditorum Press's Commentary podcast
Wife in Space post
Me: Do you think the programme is having its cake and eating it by criticising violence and showing so much violence at the same time?
Sue: That’s a bit deep, isn’t it? You’re not writing one of your essays now, you know. I don’t mind it personally, I just don’t think it’s appropriate for younger children.
AV Club review
It’s really no wonder, looking at season 22 with 2012’s hindsight, that this was all a terrible idea that would wind up nearly destroying the series. “Varos” gives us a Doctor who is a foolish, abrasive clown, and almost totally lacking in the charm and larger-than-life qualities that made his earlier incarnations tick. Indeed, those very qualities are savagely parodied by every aspect of his character from the bipolar yaws between arrogance and pathetic whining to the fact that his candy-colored costume only makes sense as a caustic satire on the Doctor’s own eccentricity. And that’s not automatically a bad way to go—a bumbling Doctor could be comedy gold if written the right way. I’m just not sure what producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward thought they were getting out of destroying their own show by making its central character such an unpleasant person to be around, or by making the show as a whole so grim, bleak, and ugly. 
TV Tropes page

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