|Stuff it, Governor. I want to get back to Mass Effect. I’m|
about to kill off the Quarians.
It’s January 19th, 1985. Foreigner has decided that they are less interested in knowing whether it’s Christmas and that they’d rather know what love is, asking the question for both weeks of this story. Both Prince and King also chart, along with Tears for Fears and the gorgeously named Strawberry Switchblade. In real news, Ronald Reagan is sworn in for his second term. British Telecom announces that it will be phasing out red phoneboxes, relegating them to the same scrapheap as the Police Box (or at least trying to). A House of Lords debate is televised for the first time, and, three days after the end of this story, Thatcher is denied an honorary degree by Oxford University.
Vengeance on Varos is for the most part the easiest to like story of Season 22. This is not to say it is the best – the redemptive reading of The Two Doctors presents a story that is probably superior to this one. But where The Two Doctors is prickly and difficult, liking Vengeance on Varos requires only a basic ability to deal with satire and black comedy of the sort that ought be trivial for anyone reading this blog.
There is, of course, a negative reading to be had of the story in which it is simply an extended bit of nasty sadism and torture porn. But unlike something like Warriors of the Deep or Resurrection of the Daleks, the embedded critique of the story’s own violence is given some serious teeth. From the start this story is solid on the fact that the Varosian’s love of extravagant and sadistic executions is wrong.
But what makes Vengeance on Varos interesting, especially within the context of our chosen theme of the Colin Baker era as an exorcism. Here the story is overtly built around television as a medium, with active effort taken to make the broadcasts look and feel like the BBC. Tat Wood observes that the fanfare for the governor is a dead-ringer for BBC home video, and the interactive “home voting” aspect would have been recognizable as a close cousin to the interactive television offered by Ceefax at the time.
More broadly, we’re at a point in the history of television where the link between television and pornography is growing. A thread that’s been absent for a few posts is the rise of the VCR, which means that television is no longer simply a broadcast medium but a medium of storage and replaying. Which means, of course, that it’s possible to have pornography on it. In practice, of course, most of the pornography that could actually be obtained barely deserved the name – a motley of soft-core titillations. More common were cheap, dirty, and violent movies. But because the video market was mostly unregulated at first and major studios feared piracy, there was a flood of lurid schlock as all manner of grindhouse cinema wound its way onto the market. The term “video nasties” was bandied about a lot in the tabloids, and there was a good old-fashioned moral panic.
So buzzing around in the culture was the idea that the television had, in effect, become an all-you-can-watch buffet of sex and violence. See also Max Headroom, as this story is the closest Doctor Who comes to playing on that field. So Vengeance on Varos is a television program in which several of the characters appear on a television program and in which the audience repeatedly watches people watching television. And it frequently makes clever little cuts between these levels so that events move from being watched by diegetic characters to being watched by the audience. The best moment of this, and a strong candidate for best cliffhanger of the classic series to boot, is the end of episode one. The cliffhanger is a fairly standard bit – the Doctor is hallucinating himself to death – but instead of ending on the Doctor’s danger we cut back to the control booth and the Governor watching the Doctor die before saying “and cut it… there” as we sting our way to the starfield. Martin Jarvis, in other words, is directing the diegetic television program only to have his direction taken up by the real one. It’s glorious.
But despite the program obviously engaging in self-critique the script also stubbornly doesn’t give up on engaging in the very behavior it critiques. It’s hard to blame the story for this, though. Last story the Doctor was shooting at Cybermen. Before that he was strangling Peri. Not long before that was firing guns at Daleks. In two stories he’ll kill someone with cyanide and make a lame joke about it. So when the Doctor, in this story, starts laying death traps and making fun of people for burning to death in acid vats (Though it’s not true, as some people claim, that the Doctor pushes someone into an acid vat. He just, you know. Tries to. Followed by someone else pulling him in.) it’s not exactly an aberration. The series is clearly engaging in the exact behavior it critiques and daring the audience to draw some sort of line.
(While writing this someone just made a comment on GallifreyBase about some of my use of jargon, and specifically mentioned confusion on “diegetic.” A free primer. The term originates from discussions of music in film. Diegetic music is music the characters can hear, non-diegetic music is music the characters can’t. More broadly, then, diegetic is an adjective meaning “happening within the world of the story.” Other variations include “extra-diegetic” [material from outside of the story, but typically impacting the story in a way that isn’t quite covered by “non-diegetic” – for instance, the idea that previous regenerations of the Doctor have seniority over the current one is justified by extra-diegetic concerns] and “meta-diegetic” [within the world of the story but affecting the outside world – forth wall breaks and the like]. When we get to the Big Finish Audio Scherzo I’ll also get to coin the term “hyper-diegetic,” and I, being a ludicrous geek, am quite looking forward to that.)
There’s an added dimension to this, however, that is often overlooked. If we accept Tat Wood’s observation that this story is in part a response to the “video nasties” moral panic then there are two enormously salient facts. The first is that the moral crusade against this “filth” was led by none other than our old friend Mary Whitehouse. The second is that among the things released on video around when this story aired were three pieces of Doctor Who – Revenge of the Cybermen, The Brain of Morbius, and The Pyramids of Mars. In other words, three stories from the teatime brutality for tots era of the program. So when the program wades into a critique of television and violence here it does so in a way that, distantly, implicates its own history.
Indeed, we said way back at the end of the Hinchcliffe era that the run-in with Mary Whitehouse started the chain of decisions that brought the program down. Williams was forced to swing the pendulum back hard away from horror and towards comedy, and Nathan-Turner in turn reacted against that, trying to win back the fans alienated by Williams. And here we are today, seven years of reactions against Mary Whitehouse, and we’re finally actually getting around to the obvious one, which is to do a Doctor Who story about it.
In one sense, of course, this is just the program sauntering up to a fight years too late, roaring that it’s ready to take Mary Whitehouse on long after she’s moved on to other things. It’s not even doing it directly – there’s no Mary Whitehouse figure here. If anything Vengeance on Varos risks being accused of allying itself with Whitehouse. The accusation would be utterly off-base, of course. What’s actually going on is that the program is showing that there’s a distinction between torture porn and art, and it’s not based on how violent the art is. Vengeance on Varos needs to be sick and nasty to work – it has deep roots in the avant garde theatrical tradition of Brecht and Artaud. But it’s turning those tools in a critique of dumb violence, and it’s doing so with no shortage of sharpness.
A better description, then, would be that this is a program that has grown up and is returning to an old demon with newfound perspective. This isn’t Doctor Who going and facing its schoolyard bully of seven years ago, it’s Doctor Who reflecting on its past and the legacy of that past. It’s Doctor Who looking at the question of “teatime brutality for tots” – and back in its good old Saturday viewing slot too – and saying “OK, who does benefit from a violent and sensational media.”
The answer, it seems, is the right. Vengeance on Varos once again embroils itself in the imagery and symbolism of the mining strike, this time with evil corporate overlords cheating the miners of Varos. But this goes beyond a cliched “evil corporate overlords sure are evil” bit of didacticism. Indeed, it goes further than the “everyone is to blame” position of Caves of Androzani. Had this been a Davison story, and thus not poisoned by the negative associations of the Colin Baker years, there’s a fair case to be made that this would be an even more popular story than Androzani.
Here we get a story in which the system that exploits the miners is shown to be all-encompassing. The televised executions, the almost hilariously crap rebels, the political system, and Sil’s scam are all interrelated forms of oppression – a mutually supporting system. Everyone is to blame, but not in a cynical “because they’re all corrupt bastards” way, which is, let’s be honest, all Androzani really got at. I mean, Androzani is great, but here we have a system in which visibly noble men and women – the Governor, Arak, and Etta, most notably – are made to act against their own interests and blind themselves to the fact that there’s an alternative.
But in amidst all of this there’s still something tentative here. Part of this is clearly deliberate, and is indeed part of what’s so clever about the story – the decision to end on Arak and Etta having no idea what to do with their newfound future is a delightful bit of ambiguity that keeps this story from falling into the opposite trap of Holmes’s utter cynicism, acknowledging the fact that the system of corruptions responsible for Varos was based on humans even as it exploited them, and that the next system may well be just as bad. In many ways it echoes the old complaints of The War Games – the fact that the Doctor leaves planets in a post-revolution haze and doesn’t bother to put any work into making sure the revolution comes out well.
But more than that, there’s an uncertainty about the program itself. Because Vengeance on Varos is constantly implicating the show in its own critique it’s never quite clear whether or not it views itself as part of the problem – nor, indeed, whether it’s simply being part of the problem. The fact that the Doctor is involved in much of the violence of the story brings it very close to the bit of the Hinchcliffe era that most supported Whitehouse, namely Seeds of Doom. And more broadly, there’s always a lurking sense that the tail is wagging the dog here – that the fact that there’s a larger moral and political point to be made is being used to justify the violence of the story, as opposed to the story justifying the level of violence.
But this continues the exorcism theme that I’m increasingly staking the Colin Baker years on. The stories this season all, in their own ways, amount to the program taking stock of its own weaknesses. Not correcting them, at least for now, but acknowledging them and facing them. Vengeance on Varos ends on an unsettling note in which it’s not at all clear whether the preceding ninety minutes actually stood up to their own critique. Given that the previous story would have failed unambiguously, it’s difficult to call this ambivalence a fault.