Sunday, 16 July 2017

Vengeance on Varos

Chapter The 59th, which is a bit clever and a bit meta.

The TARDIS runs out of a fuel element, Zeiton-7, that's never been mentioned before and never is mentioned again, but apparently is crucial. The Doctor finds just about enough energy to land on the planet Varos, the only place Zeiton-7 ore is found. At this stage in its history, Varos has moved on from its beginnings as a prison planet, but is still run by a brutal and repressive civil service / aristocracy descended from the original guards. The populace is kept in check with the televised brutality of rebellions being quashed. The planet's exports are ruthlessly exploited for a fraction of their true worth by free marketeers, represented by the reptilian lifeform, Sil. Varos's nominal leader, the Governor, is randomly selected, and forced through regular votes with physical punishment for those that go against him, and eventual death. The Doctor and Peri leave the TARDIS and rescue the most dull and earnest people on the planet (a couple of rebels) then proceed to get chased, escape, get captured, escape again, get past many tortures and booby traps, and finally liberate everyone. A couple of the Varosian viewers, Arak and Etta, who've been watching and enjoying all this, wonder bleakly at the end whether liberation will be all that good, really.

Watched on special edition DVD on a Saturday afternoon with all three of the little 'uns (boys of 11 and 7, girl of 5). I had my feet - well, foot - up, as I'd strained or possible sprained my Achilles tendon a couple of days before. Colin Baker stories are always a good choice when one's under the weather, I always find; no idea why. Afterwards, I asked the assembled council of youth to vote - somewhat appropriate given the subject matter - on whether what they'd seen was too violent or scary, they voted 2 to 1 against. The youngest was the one who said it was, but she hadn't needed so much as a hug during it, so take that with a pinch of salt.

First-time round:
I watched episode 1 on its first BBC1 broadcast, a Saturday night in January 1985. For some reason, I missed episode 2. I thought it may have been one of the couple of Saturdays that year when a friend, whose name I've now sadly forgotten, invited me to use his Dad's available season ticket, and we went together to a home match of Brighton and Hove Albion at the old Goldstone ground. After the matches, I couldn't make it home quite in time to catch Who (this was what the pre-video years were like, you lucky young things). Minimal internet research, though, tells me there was no home match that day - it also told me that watching the Seagulls beat Cardiff City 1-0 was what made me miss episode 2 of the following story The Mark of the Rani. So, whatever I was doing as a 12-year old on a Saturday in early 1985 that was more interesting than Doctor Who is now lost in the mists of memory; perhaps I was out enjoying my youth, but... that doesn't seem too likely, does it?!

Episode 2 was on one of many tapes lent to me by my university fan friend David during the first Christmas break from studying at Durham; so, I would have finally caught up with the ending some time in December 1991; curiously, I don't remember having an incomplete picture of it from all those years of only having seen the first half. You do get what's being said from the first episode alone, and the rest is just running around and a couple of old blokes in nappies. (I just saw David at a college reunion this last weekend gone, by the by, along with Phil, who I've also mentioned here, and a number of other old chums of various levels of Doctor Who interest: Tim, Kev, Rich and Mark - hello fellahs!)

Watching BBC4's continuing run of Top of the Pops repeats, which has now reached 1984 (thereby covering the period of Vengeance on Varos's writing and production), gives some indication of the cultural forces in play at the time. There was emphasis throughout the early 1980s on the glossy and commercial, but with a big strain of overtly left-wing political new wave underneath, and also avant garde inflected electronica and jazz pop starting off on the fringes, but gradually merging into the mainstream. Philip Martin's script is a product of this time of transition. It riffs with and subverts the televisual form, but not as wildly as much of his earlier work; it satirises Thatcherism, but does not go all out with the agitprop; and, above all, it manages to be a slick and smooth commercial product. The script is - hardly surprisingly given the calibre of its author, and the somewhat patchy nature of the rest of what was offered that year - far and away the best thing written for the 1985 season. It's a shame that it wasn't the script given to the envelope-pushing Graeme Harper to direct, and instead got the rather more quotidian Ron Jones assigned.

Jones's work is not all bad; there are some points towards the end of episode 2 where the required tension and energy is sadly lacking, but it mostly gets by; balanced against that, great casting decisions result in some excellent performances. I'll go out on a limb and say Martin Jarvis's work here is not just one of the best turns in the history of Who, but also some of the best work he's ever done, and he's never given anything less than an excellent performance in anything ever. The Governor is a complex character with lots going on under the surface, and Jarvis never looks like he's acting once. Effortless. Nabil Shaban gives everything he's got to make Sil memorable and effective (Russell T Davies subconsciously must have stored away the idea of a static profit-obsessed villain flanked by two attendants who regularly have to moisturise their employer), and lots of other characters are very well performed. The main issues with acting are with the two goodie guests, Jason Connery and Geraldine Alexander, who are stilted, but even that may be a choice. These are over earnest speechifier Trots; perhaps the aim was to make them satirically a little wooden (Connery inappropriately tries to engage his 'fellow men' in political discourse at a moment of peril when they're just about to eat him). If that was the idea then it backfired a bit, as they tend to suck some of the life out of their scenes.

Nicola Bryant doesn't get to do much, but Colin Baker plays a blinder after a shaky start; once he's emerged from the TARDIS, he's at his most Doctorish, offbeat and disarming, offering quickfire explanations, rushing off down corridors, being brave. The only exceptions to this are the early scenes set in the TARDIS where he sits and sulks because his ship won't work. This is no criticism of Baker, he's just playing what's on the page; but, why, at the start of things when the audience is supposed to be drawn in to the story, is the main character being written as static and apathetic. It's screenwriting 101: do not do this. Throughout the initial few minutes, every time it cuts back to the console room, a little part of one's enjoyment dies. I expect that these scenes were written as filler by Saward, but I don't want to check just in case Martin was responsible for such dross.

The dialogue crackles with some lovely dark comic zingers, far too many to single out. Design-wise, it mostly rises above its set-bound cheap production status, though it does sadly usher in the era of rubbish vehicles in the studio that are supposed to add verisimilitude but which any character can escape at a walking pace. I don't know if these particular ones were provided by Bootsy and Ferret who became ubiquitous for this later. The music by Jonathan Gibbs is a cut above (I hope it was a deliberate joke in a script where the natives worship "The Great Video" that the fanfare accompanying the Governor's broadcast bears a strong similarity to the BBC Video ident music which started to appear on sell-through Doctor Who tapes at around this time). The writing covers a lot, managing to touch on hysteria about video nasties, the moral vacuum of neo-liberal economics, the undemocratic nature of referenda, as well as doing some familiar Orwell / Stasi informer-next-door stuff, and having characters escape into ventilation ducts. Like all good writing it is endlessly applicable: the material about elected representatives being just as much prisoners as those they represent could have been written for Theresa May's incumbency. Quillam and his implausible body transmogrification antics is probably a villain and a concept too far, but it isn't too badly integrated.

Talking of not being integrated, Varos is unique for the presence of Arak and Etta, a (probably) married couple acting as Greek chorus, voting and watching the events of the story unfold on their vid-screen. They get most of the best lines in the piece, and add a nice ironic complexity with their final scene, the last moment of episode 2, and one of the best endings of a Doctor Who story. I think, though, that there is an implicit promise made during the action, given Who's usual structure, that the Doctor will run into their quarters at some point in the action. I'm not sure whether it's a strength or a weakness that he never does, and they maintain their disconnected presence throughout.

Both Vengeance on Varos and The Runaway Bride include politicians (or at least the mention of them in the latter's case), dodgy corporate entities, slow novelty vehicles being driven indoors, and mini-beasts that are not so mini- (although the fly beastie's size in Varos is just a hallucination).

Deeper Thoughts:
Violence on Varos? This is one of a handful of Doctor Who stories notorious for overstepping the mark with regards to violence in some people's opinion. And, with the announcement of the actor to play the 13th Doctor still a few hours away at the time of writing, I have time to muse upon this, and I think the story is fine. I've never had a problem with violence, horror, brutality or gore in anything I've ever watched at any age. I don't believe there is anything morally wrong with any level of violence in a piece of drama; it might be aesthetically wrong, or wrong for a particular character, but never wrong in and of itself, and I very much reject the idea that violence in dramatic or written form can influence the consumer to perform acts of violence. There are many and complex reasons why any person commits violence, and it's always been a gross oversimplification, often motivated by a hidden political agenda, whenever a public individual or group gets into a self-righteous tizzy about TV, horror films, Tarantino flicks, video games, Marilyn Manson songs, etc. etc. Tipper Gore was no friend of mine, neither Mary Whitehouse.

Recently, though, I read a quote which challenged me; it was by Irving Kristol and went thus: "If you believe that no one was ever corrupted by a book, you have also to believe that no one was ever improved by a book.” Now, I happened across this as just a quote, out of context of a particular work or body of work, and I'd never heard of Kristol, so I looked him up. He is held by some commentators to be 'the father of Neo-Conservatism'; okay, so it's unlikely we were going to agree given our polar political persuasions. That shouldn't, though, prevent me from giving his point of view a chance. Is what he states in the quote self-evidently true? No. Isn't it possible for an activity to be wholly improving? Good book or bad book, it is I think wholly possible for the act of reading to not allow any possibility of corruption. Reading is training for the mind, and like exercise it can be seen to have a wholly improving effect. Sure, you might have a heart attack while jogging, but that's a risk not a corruption caused by the act; and, in reading like in jogging, the risks are contingent upon one's state - mental or physical - when one embarks on the activity, they aren't created by the activity itself.

Someone can be trained to be violent, of course; but that's going to take more than a TV programme or a film or a book, or even constant exposure to such material. If that wasn't the case, then the armed forces would just be plonking recruits in front of a home theatre for a few weeks, as that's got to be cheaper than boot camp. Violence takes effort, it is not going to be the path of least resistance in a civilised environment like what we live in. So, what then of children? Does this mean I advocate letting children watch whatever they like? Well, no, but that's because there are other factors at play with kids. I don't believe they can be corrupted, but there is the risk of innocent imitation of what's seen on screen, so that always has to be a concern. Beyond that, though, children have different levels of sensitivity, and there's a chance they might be upset (but probably not ever traumatised) by what they see.

The issue with a child getting upset is not that you're going to give them nightmares: kids need nightmares as well as dreams for their development, and a parent has to deal compassionately with both; that's the definition of being a parent. No, it's more that upset and sensitivity will impede their understanding: best to wait a few years and try again. Stories are the medicine balls and dumbbells of understanding, and one needs to try all kinds to get a full work-out. Stories that show pain (which is usually the reason why violence exists in a narrative) are vital. Vengeance on Varos shows pain and torture as the symptoms of a society that's gone wrong, and that's a useful lesson; but, more controversially, it shows that brutality can be attractive; that's just as important a lesson, and just as much true. Stories exist in Who and elsewhere that show that pain can be unjust, shocking, endurable, destructive, pacifying, galvanising, sad and even funny. They have to, because all of that is true.

In Summary:
A video export that entertains as well as instructs.

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