Radio times letter

Dear Harry,

I am a little late responding to your letter in the Radio Times, 9-15 February 1985. To be fair, there were a few impediments to me to doing so.

For a start, when your letter was published, I was only 10 years old and living in Nowhere, Australia. Also, I’d never heard of the Radio Times, its letters page or indeed, you. And on top of all that, I’ve only just become aware of your letter, via what is now, in the space year 2019, called a website. And if you think entering into correspondence about your thoughts on a program broadcast 34 years ago, expressed in reply to a letter which wasn’t addressed to you is both unusual and obsessive, well, you obviously haven’t met many Doctor Who fans.

Doctor Who was the subject of your disgruntled letter back then. Specifically, the story which stoked your objections was Vengeance on Varos. You’ve probably forgotten all about it and gotten on with your life, like a norm. Good for you.

But to jog your memory, VOV (as no one has ever called it) is about a dystopian society where capital punishment and torture are served up as entertainment to an oppressed public. The planet’s governor (Martin Jarvis) is trying to negotiate a trade deal with a capitalist slug called Sil (Nabil Shaban) but is hampered by a corrupt police state and regular public votes from the viewing public, which if lost, result in painful retribution. The Doctor (Colin Baker) and his friend Peri (Nicola Byrant) turn up and get caught up in all this.

Your letter ends with the memorable phrase, “the kids deserve better than this…” and after reading it, I suddenly remembered that I was one of those kids.

In 1985, I had made the transition from casual viewer to book collecting, t-shirt wearing fan. And I was just becoming aware of other Doctor Who fans and their complex organising principles. Through fan clubs and their newsletters, I knew what was coming up in Doctor Who’s 1985 season and I was looking forward to Vengeance on Varos. I knew that it had attracted some criticism about the levels of violence in it; I even remember worrying about whether it was going to edited for local transmission, or perhaps even omitted (Doctor Who‘s Australian broadcaster, ABC, had a habit of doing both these things). The things you worry about when you’re 10.

Oddly enough, Doctor Who tended to worry its fans a great deal in 1985. Having just started to make contact with my fellow Whoheads and read their opinions in homemade fanzines (cheaply printed but lavished with extensive outrage), I was confused to find that most of my fellow TARDIS followers seemed to hate Doctor Who, at least in its current iteration. Which you might think is a contradictory position for people who loved something enough to form themselves into a fan club to take, but then, as I’ve speculated above, you’ve probably haven’t met many Doctor Who fans.

Like you, they worried about its violence. But also, they worried about this new Doctor, dressed like a demented fairground attendant and with a fractured personality to match. His newfound tolerance for, and occasional participation in, violence signalled a relaxation of the Doctor’s moral code, and they hated it.

On viewing VOV, fans concentrated their ire on the “acid bath scene” where the Doctor makes a tasteless quip after two men fall in a pool of acid, and the last of a string of set pieces in the planet’s “punishment dome,” where the Doctor engineers the deaths of two bad guys by slapping them with poisoned vines. (They didn’t worry that the only two black people in the show are voiceless, musclebound servants or that the only female characters are two housewives and Peri, costumed to accentuate her breasts, but there you go).

But Harry, I’m here to tell you I survived the ordeal of watching VOV when I was 10. In fact, I loved it. It was my favourite of the season. At 10, I don’t think I could fully grasp the satirical points it was making about the corrosive effect both television and violence have on a society, or the dangers of tying government to populism – a message which seems particularly relevant in 2019. Mainly, I think, I liked the character of Sil, a slimy but hilarious business type, who laughed like a broken propeller when fortune deserted our heroes. Plus, the Doctor being bold and ingenious, and more prepared to dive into immediate action than his cautious predecessor.

I certainly wouldn’t have been able to identify its faults and contradictions, most glaringly that it seems to be indulging in the sort of gratuitous gore it was busy criticising. But also that the Doctor and Peri take ages to arrive on Varos, with loads of valueless TARDIS scenes delaying their entrance into the story. There are a few dodgy performances. And special effects. And buggies. And mysteriously, two old men in nappies. But none of this stayed with young me, only the afterimage of an engaging and witty story, inhabiting some of the darker corners of Doctor Who, which I always liked to explore.

What has the lasting effect of VOV been on me? Well, it didn’t scar me for life. It didn’t turn me into a violent sociopath. It has, along with the rest of that visceral 1985 season of Doctor Who, made me fonder of this difficult era of the show than most. That’s partly as a rebellious response to the vehemence of its critics I found inhabiting fan clubs; I’ve never liked being told what to like and their strident complaints served only to draw me closer to it, to search harder for the good stuff in it. I’m glad I did.

But perhaps it also made me more tolerant than others of a sort of darker version of Doctor Who, one which can test its own boundaries about violence and grimness from time to time, as long as the Doctor’s core values are maintained. It’s something the show does occasionally – it went this way in Tom Baker’s second and third years and does it again in Colin Baker’s first and Peter Capaldi’s first. Each time, it emerged with a greater commitment to the Doctor as a figure of compassion, empathy and intelligence over brute force.

But did I, as one of those kids you mention, “deserve better than this”? Well, what we kids got was the first Doctor Who story teaching us to read television, and to think about how television is constructed by producers and politicians alike. We got a story mixing the storytelling traditions of Greek theatre and contemporary television. One which had something to say about democracy, entertainment, colonisation and violence. One that blurred its fictional world with the techniques of its own production (watch the end of Part One to see what I mean).

At 10 years old, it was my introduction to metatextuality and post-modernism. More than any other Who story up to that point, it prompted me to think beyond the surface level of a story. And despite its faults, it’s remained a story which Doctor Who fans (a far nicer bunch these days), return to time and again to deconstruct and find new meaning in.

So no, I don’t think we did deserve better than Vengeance on Varos. On the whole, we were pretty well served with what we got. And we still are.

Love to the kids,

Johnny

 ***

LINK TO Snakedance: JN-T produced both. Plus both have guest stars called Martin.

NEXT TIME: Talking of questionable levels of violence, we match wits with The Brain of Morbius, you chicken brained biological disaster!