Tag Archives: sil

Late response, lasting impact and Vengeance on Varos (1985)

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!

Narrative, Mystery and Mindwarp (1986)

mindwarp

The trial has a great many twists… There are lots of layers, and it’s very, very complicated, which I rather like. I like things you can’t understand. Colin Baker, DWM 118.

The Trial of a Time Lord is Doctor Who‘s great experiment with presenting a dual narrative. Over 12 of its 14 episodes, it presents three Doctor Who stories as evidence in the Doctor’s trial for breaking the Time Lords’ law on interference. Interlaced with these three stories is the Doctor’s trial itself; we cut from the action regularly to see how the evidence is affecting the trial and specifically, three characters: the Doctor, court prosecutor the Valeyard and magistrate type the Inquisitor. We are effectively watching fictional characters watch Doctor Who.

So while the three stories are being told, there’s a longer narrative – a slower burn – also playing out. Watching just one of Trial’s  segments out of order means that the viewer gets a Doctor Who story in its entirety (the evidence, set here on the garish planet Thoros Beta), plus just one part of a much larger story (the trial). Whatever the merits of this approach (and they have been debated at length), I think it’s fair to say that it’s audacious and innovative move for Doctor Who.

Trial‘s second segment, known informally as Mindwarp (you didn’t really expect me to tap out The Trial of a Time Lord parts 5-8 each time, did you?) deals with the dual narrative approach neatly, and does something interesting with its main story too. But first, to the trial.

Someone once said to me about playwriting that each character, no matter how minor, needs to go on a journey throughout the story. They each need to be transformed; in some way changed by the events of the story, so they are a different person at the end, from who they were at the beginning. Thinking about the Doctor, the Valeyard and the Inquisitor – the characters in the ’trial story’ – I don’t think they can be said to be transformed in either The Mysterious Planet or Terror of the Vervoids. Which is another way of saying not much happens to those characters in those two stories to change them.

But much happens to them in Mindwarp, and the story it tells in the trial room is one of the Doctor gradually losing confidence in himself and his actions.

It starts with the Doctor treating the trial with mocking irreverence. He’s hugely confident in himself and his own actions and that both can withstand any criticism. But when the evidence shows him being subjected to a brain transference machine, the trial room Doctor realises he can no longer remember anything that happened on Thoros Beta after that point. To him, the evidence is no longer simply the replaying of recent events. It has turned into an allegation of his role in events he cannot recall, but which are played out for him on screen. And to him, the evidence looks flawed. His levity vanishes.

VALEYARD: Does any of your sudden and convenient recall agree with anything that the court has already seen?
DOCTOR: No! I mean yes, but, but the emphasis is all wrong.
VALEYARD: And what does that mean?
DOCTOR: The events took place but not quite as we’ve seen them.

This is quite a frightening idea; that you might be confronted with video evidence of yourself behaving wildly out of character or even committing a crime. But if you had no clear memory of the events, how could you refute the evidence of your own eyes, or hope to offer an alternative version of events? In the Doctor’s case, events on Thoros Beta hardly show him in a good light.

Let’s jump to the Thoros Beta story. The Doctor and Peri arrive to find out who’s supplying arms to people called the warlords of Thordon. But this is soon forgotten when they see Sil (Nabil Shaban), the reptilian capitalist villain from Vengeance on Varos. Sil’s boss Kiv (Christopher Ryan) is there too, suffering from a condition where his brain is swelling within his skull. Surgeon Crozier (Patrick Ryecart) is attempting to find a suitable body into which to transfer Kiv’s brain.

After being subjected to the brain transfer machine, the Doctor initially appears to lose his marbles for a bit, before deciding to betray Peri and new found ally Yrcanos (BRIAN BLESSED!!!) and side with Sil. It is suggested by the trial room Doctor and by Sil himself that this is a ruse, designed to gain the bad guys’ confidence. And so it appears to be; late in proceedings the Doctor switches sides again and appears to be back to his normal self.

For the period when the Doctor is working with Sil, he’s quite horrible, particularly towards Peri. And we never find out for sure if this behaviour was indeed a ploy, or if the Doctor’s brain was scrambled by the machine, or if the evidence had been tampered with to make the Doctor appear to be a bastard. Hang on to this, I’ll come back to it. Because something nifty is about to happen.

In Part Eight, the Doctor on Thoros Beta seems back to normal. With Yrcanos in tow, he’s off to stop Crozier operating on Peri. We’ve been here before; the story is rushing towards its conclusion. Then, mid corridor run, the TARDIS appears in a shaft of blue light, the Doctor is drawn into it, and the ship disappears, to land a second later on the space station where the Doctor’s trial is taking place. It’s a great moment as we realise this is where we came in back at Part One of Trial. It’s the classic series’ cleverest use of time travel to double back on its own narrative, and perhaps the most elegant of its kind in all of Doctor Who. To use a Moffatism, a true timey-wimey moment.

But the really neat bit is that the two storylines – trial and Thoros Beta – now converge. The Doctor can merely watch the conclusion of events play out on screen. The Inquisitor suddenly takes a more active role, describing how the Time Lords decided to intervene, saying events had gone too far. And then the story ends in devastating style; Peri’s brain is wiped, and replaced with Kiv’s. Effectively she’s transformed into a monster. Yrcanos breaks in a shoots the place up. Everyone dies.

In the trial room, our three characters reach the end of their journeys. The Doctor is shattered, but vows to fight on. The Inquisitor has become the Time Lords’ voice, justifying their actions, no longer an impartial observer. The Valeyard is triumphant, and the trial no longer seems like a joke, but in fact a cover for something far more serious.

The trial room story (or this part of it) has ended. But the conclusion to events on Thoros Beta feels unsatisfying, because we never found out the reason why the Doctor was acting the way he did. Later in Trial, it’s confirmed that the Thoros Beta evidence was altered and that Peri survived. Which changes the way we look at Mindwarp. It becomes the only story where the viewer is presented with an unreliable version of events. Let me tell you a story, Mindwarp says, but it might not all be true.

Mindwarp is famously the story where disgruntled script editor Eric Saward walked off the program. His mind clearly was not on the job during this story. Colin Baker has often said that he couldn’t get an answer from script editor nor director on what was causing the Doctor’s erratic behaviour. This uncertainty is often pointed out as a production error. And it probably is just that.

But what that narrative vagueness has left us with is something unique: a Doctor Who story we’ll only ever know part of. Bits of the full story are missing. It’s a story which, because of its very design and construction, we’ll never get to the bottom of.

If I didn’t know about the behind the scenes turmoil engulfing the show at this time, I’d be tempted to say it was deliberate, with writer Philip Martin wildly experimenting with the program, keeping everyone in the dark about the lead character’s motive – even the actors and production crew – to create something which genuinely wrongfoots the viewer. There’s a part of me that would really like that to be the case. Because as noted by Colin Baker himself, it is possible to like something you don’t fully understand.

LINK TO Turn Left: Both feature the faux death of a companion.

NEXT TIME: Love & Monsters. Elton! Fetch a spade!