Season 22 – Story 138
“Oh, it’s pathetic. When did they last show something worth watching, eh? When did we last see a decent execution?” – Arak
With the Tardis low on power, the Doctor and Peri need to source some zeiton 7, a precious mineral only to be found on one planet, Varos. Its inhabitants are kept in abeyance by live TV broadcasts of torture and execution, but get to vote on whether their ruler is punished by a cell disintegrator. The current Governor, who has survived three losing votes, is negotiating a yearly review of zeiton with Sil, a reptilian delegate from the Galatron Mining Corporation. The Doctor and Peri side with rebels opposing the status quo and leave Varos aspiring to be a less barbarous society.
Part 1 – Saturday 19 January 1985
Part 2 – Saturday 26 January 1985
Studio recording: July/August 1984 in TC6
The Doctor – Colin Baker
Peri – Nicola Bryant
The Governor – Martin Jarvis
Sil – Nabil Shaban
Quillam – Nicolas Chagrin
Jondar – Jason Connery
Chief Officer – Forbes Collins
Arak – Stephen Yardley
Etta – Sheila Reid
Areta – Geraldine Alexander
Bax – Graham Cull
Maldak – Owen Teale
Rondel – Keith Skinner
Priest – Hugh Martin
Writer – Philip Martin
Incidental music – Jonathan Gibbs
Designer – Tony Snoaden
Script editor – Eric Saward
Producer – John Nathan-Turner
Director – Ron Jones
RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
Two images are burned in the memory from this story – sweaty, shirtless pretty boy Jason Connery tied up and tortured by lasers on “live TV” and the revolting, slime-eating Sil, one of the most effective new Doctor Who monsters in ages.
I can even put the two images together. In February 1986, just as he was launching Robin of Sherwood on ITV, I interviewed Connery for Starburst magazine and he treated me to a rendition of Sil’s gurgling cackle. I don’t know what the other punters sipping tea in that posh Knightsbridge hotel lobby made of his display, but it amused me.
He told me playing young rebel Jondar was “good fun” but he felt silly firing his ray gun. “Nothing would happen but the guys would scream and fall dead on the ground. Every time I fired, I had to pause for three seconds, so the laser effect could be added later. It was like being five again. I ended up going ‘Pow! Pow!’”
A year and a half earlier, Vengeance on Varos had been Connery’s first proper TV work. I was at the studio recording on 18 July 1984, watching those torture scenes and remember the very happy make-up lady applying fresh “sweat” with a big yellow sponge to the blond’s buff torso. Quite a few people in the viewing gallery were steamed up, too.
The son of Sean Connery and Diane Cilento, Jason inherited their looks if less evidently their acting prowess. But he’s not alone in struggling through cumbersome dialogue here; there are several weaker performances on display.
On the plus side, Martin Jarvis is graceful and suitably subdued as the Governor, who is just as much a victim of the warped Varosian society as the rebels. The top job seems very temporary, highly undesirable. He suffers the direct effect of “people power”, since the populace decide their ruler’s fate of at the touch of a button in the comfort of their own homes. Oddly, despite ordering the Doctor and Jondar’s deaths, the Governor emerges a good guy.
The story’s great triumph is Sil – “a cross between a tadpole and a turd,” says actor Nabil Shaban on the BBC DVD. A tiny, excitable reptile with a thirst for violence, sitting on a mobile tank, he recalls Arcturus from The Curse of Peladon (1972) and the Collector from The Sun Makers (1977). And Shaban has a riot with Sil’s bilious outbursts and mangled syntax (“This mysterious most is” and “You agents of Amorb are!”).
In an age when the media shrieked headlines about “video nasties” and snuff movies, Philip Martin’s serial makes it point by cutting back to two viewers who are desensitised by all the horrors beamed into their home.
Arak (Stephen Yardley) and Etta (Sheila Reid, decades before fame as Benidorm’s Madge) act like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action while they nosh their TV dinners. They’re bored by Jondar’s agonies (Arak: “Rubbish. He’s not hurt. He’s only acting”) and perk up when the Doctor leads an escape (Etta: “I like that one, the one in the funny clothes”).
The cleverest moment comes at the cliffhanger. Live cameras broadcast the Doctor’s hallucination and apparent demise. The Governor becomes TV director: “Close-up on death throes, please… And cut it – now!” Cue closing credits.
Of course no one believes the Doctor is dying or that Jondar is in real agony. It’s tricky territory for Doctor Who, because given the level it must pitch at – teatime family viewing – it cannot be graphically gory. But the acid bath scene went too far.
I saw that being recorded: the make-up on the scalded victims was horrible and, ultimately, less offensive takes were aired. The problem remains that the Doctor’s clumsiness is shown to cause two grisly deaths. He does nothing to help the attendants he’s tipped into the acid, and exits the fray with a flippant “You’ll forgive me if I don’t join you”. It’s unfunny, unDoctorly and should have been changed at script stage.
In the mid 80s, I began contributing to Doctor Who Magazine. My pal Richard Marson and I were wet-behind-the-ears teenagers – I don’t know why anybody took us seriously – and occasionally we’d sit in on each other’s interviews. Richard was wary of meeting Ron Jones. Not the greatest director, he had a forbidding look, what used to be termed “clone” in the gay world.
Indeed, he turned up to our meeting at TV Centre on 19 June 1984 with thick moustache, leather trousers and jacket. But, of course, he was a complete pussycat, keen to please, delighted to discuss his work and preparations for Vengeance on Varos. It would prove to be one of the more polished productions of his career – cut short when he died too young (49) in 1995.
And as I write this, it strikes me with a jolt to realise producer John Nathan-Turner died exactly ten years ago today, aged 54. Back in 1985, he acknowledged Varos had received dissent from viewers, telling me it was mainly about “the subject matter, the idea of torture for pleasure, not about violence. It wasn’t particularly violent. I think only a couple mentioned the acid bath.”
Complaints were even published in Radio Times and JN-T confided that for once, “I decided not to reply.”
RT archive material
Letters (RT February 1985)
Here are two rare snaps I took of director Ron Jones in June 1984:
[Available on BBC DVD]