Doctor Who
Vengeance on Varos

Starring: Colin Baker
BBC Worldwide
Certificate: PG
Available now

Centuries ago, Varos was a prison planet. The descendants of the original officers still rule - over a poverty-stricken working class kept in line by broadcasts of real-life torture and execution. Varos is also the only place that the Doctor can obtain Zeiton-7, a rare mineral vital to the functioning of his TARDIS...

In their quest to release at least one DVD from each Doctor's era, BBC Worldwide faced a problem when it came to Colin Baker. His tenure was brief and, through no fault of the actor, woefully lacking in quality. Arguably Baker's best TV story in terms of script, direction and production values was Revelation of the Daleks, but that title was issued relatively recently on VHS (and then for a second time in the current Davros Collection boxed set). Revelation might also have made the DVD series appear to lack variety if placed alongside Sylvester McCoy's Remembrance of the Daleks on the shelf.

However, although Varos doesn't quite merit "classic" status, it does come close. Admittedly, Philip Martin's script contains some fairly undeliverable lines. The cast, including Forbes Collins as the corrupt Chief Officer and Martin Jarvis as the Governor, mostly succeed at making their dialogue sound natural. Jarvis in particular turns in a splendid and subtle performance as a decent man who is forced to endorse cruel activities in order to survive and attempt to improve the lot of his people. However, Jason (son of Sean) Connery as the rebel Jondar and Geraldine Alexander as his wife Areta manage less well, and end up sounding distinctly hammy in many scenes.

And the less said about the oh-so-scary (not) old men in nappies, the better! Nicola (Peri) Bryant rightly scoffs with derision during the audio commentary when these unfortunate guys make their entrance.

Where this story succeeds is in its ingenious, even post-modern, media satire. Back in the 1980s, Philip Martin was inspired by the then topical subject of "snuff" movies, video nasties in which people are killed for real. However, as Nabil Shaban (who plays the villainous alien Sil) points out in the commentary, the writer also managed to predict the reality TV shows of today. Just as occupants of Big Brother have been voted out by public opinion, so the longevity of the Governor, Varos' political figurehead, is at the whim of the viewing public - and on Varos, political defeat means death.

Both of the 45-minute episodes end with characters watching television screens as a transmission is cut. Indeed, the cliffhanger that concludes Part One has the dramatic close-up on the apparent death of the Doctor being directed within the context the story.

A particular stroke of genius - which the commentary and on-screen text information inform us was the work of script editor Eric Saward - is the inclusion of Arak (Stephen Yardley) and Etta (Sheila Reid). These characters, ordinary citizens who do nothing throughout the story except view and comment upon the broadcast events, comprise a comic double-act in the great tradition of writer Robert Holmes.

Back in 1985, there was a hysterical reaction to this story's violent content, including claims that the supposedly non-violent Doctor pushed a character into an acid bath. Viewing the serial again confirms that the Time Lord does no such thing. He handles guns, but never fires them at people, only at machinery (although he does leave a laser cannon emitting a constant beam, which a guard later, rather stupidly, walks into). Certainly the levels of violence and horror are no more excessive than those of, for example, The Brain of Morbius or The Seeds of Doom.

Among the disc's special features are ten minutes' worth of deleted and extended scenes. None of this extra material is particularly earth-shattering, although one TARDIS scene does reveal that the Doctor and Peri made several landings between Attack of the Cybermen and Vengeance on Varos. Also included is footage showing several takes that precede the perfected version of a scene from early in Part Two.

Something the DVD overlooks is the fact that this story was also divided into four 25-minute episodes for exported editions. It would have been nice to have seen the endings to these 25-minute instalments, complete with their musical "stings", or at least to have had these breaks sign-posted by the on-screen text.

The text information is in fact rather thin on the ground compared to previous releases. Nor does it get off to a good start when it informs us that the surface of Varos was actually a model - blimey, I would never have guessed! The audio commentary, provided by Baker, Bryant and Shaban, proves rather more entertaining, containing as it does a high level of (frequently bawdy) humour.

This might be the least "classic" Who story to have been issued on DVD to date, but Vengeance is still well worth seeking.

Richard McGinlay

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