The struggle in terms of the strange

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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.


  1. Matt Sharp
    May 7, 2012 @ 12:50 am

    'and the gorgeously named Strawberry Switchblade.'

    Not just gorgeously named – the tall red haired one had a profound effect on my eleven year old self during their Top of the Pops appearance…

    I'd completely forgotten that. To YouTube!


  2. Exploding Eye
    May 7, 2012 @ 12:59 am

    This story is a grower. I didn't think much to it when I was 10, probably because I didn't want to have to think about the implications of violence, I just wanted nice bloodless laser battles and monsters. But it is a clever and thought-provoking story when you're older and can appreciate the themes more.

    Watching the Strawberry Switchblade TOTP video – one of those performances that shows a guitarist, with no guitar on the soundtrack. She ends up flourishing sarcastically during the instrumental break. Ah, the 80s.


  3. David Anderson
    May 7, 2012 @ 1:12 am

    I don't think that it would ever be as popular as Caves of Androzani even with Davison. It's a story about complicity in watching violence that is playing about with being complicit in watching violence. The audience can rise above Androzani in a way that it can't rise above Varos. If the program is going to give us ninety minutes that may not stand up to their own critique at least it doesn't try to claim that it does.
    When Davison is given a line like 'Let's bring a little light into the Myrka's life' he reads it as the Doctor's black humour while desperate. That sanitises it a bit. Colin Baker on the other hand reads those kinds of lines as just as unpleasant as they actually are. The Doctor isn't a foothold from which we can disassociate ourselves from what we're watching.


  4. Dougie
    May 7, 2012 @ 1:21 am

    I had wondered if, when dealing with Brechtian Alienation in "Varos", you'd reference the 1982 BBC production of "Baal" starring David Bowie. Brecht was a big deal when I was at University from 81-85. Speaking of weird tv from the mid-to-late 80s, will you revisit Channel 4's Brond or the equally-forgotten Zastrozzi?

    As for Strawberry Switchblade, I queued up to ask them to autograph their 12-inch single. This was in the old Virgin Records shop in Glasgow's Union Street- which was Goth before there was Goth. ( I mean the youth culture movement not the Chancellor, naturally).


  5. Gnaeus
    May 7, 2012 @ 1:46 am

    David Anderson, that surely is not a weakness on the part of Varos, but a strength. Drama does not exist to make people feel good about themselves, and encouraging questioning and self-examination is surely a plus for any piece of fiction.


  6. Andrew Hickey
    May 7, 2012 @ 2:13 am

    Which makes Varos a better piece of TV than Androzani (and I do think it is) but also makes it likely to be less popular (which is what David said). People don't like questioning and self-examination, in general — and in particular, Doctor Who fans as a group tend to like clear-cut cases of goodies and baddies over anything more complex.


  7. David Anderson
    May 7, 2012 @ 2:19 am

    I meant it as a strength.
    Well, it's better I suppose for a program that's criticising complicity in violence to have a solution to the problem of avoiding that complicity itself. But it's better to confess to not having a solution than to have a fake solution. And in episodes like Warriors of the Deep and Resurrection of the Daleks the Doctor is a fake solution.


  8. William Whyte
    May 7, 2012 @ 2:27 am

    Vengeance on Varos casts itself as a commentary on video nasties, but it draws a lot of its structure from video games: it's a series of levels, facing off against a different peril each time. It refers to Manic Miner as much as it refers to Mary Whitehouse.

    Looking at it this way, it wouldn't fit as a Davison episode so much as it would fit as a Christopher Ecclestone episode. Imagine if they'd got someone with Russell T Davies's energy to write the action sequences and pretty much any one of the new series directors to direct them. That would be a story people would remember. It certainly makes a more coherent critique of mass media culture — showing it as actively nasty, rather than just deadening — than The Long Game or Bad Wolf does.

    “OK, who does benefit from a violent and sensational media.” The answer, it seems, is the right.

    I'd say one of the interesting things about Varos is it answers this with the more accurate and more grown-up "established interests", rather than "the right" as such.

    First: In the UK, it was easy to see an equivalence between the Soviet Union, where state-run TV pumped out propaganda, and the US, where the networks put out shows that would appall any self-respective Doctor Who fan and the government didn't care enough about quality to do anything about it, and see bad, exploitative, cynical TV as a general tool for keeping the population distracted and under control, rather than a tool of the left or right in particular. (In this comparison, of course, the UK comes out as "just right", with the license fee and the requirement that radio stations broadcast as certain amount of news).

    Second: The resolution to the planet being exploited is not Galactic!Revolution! but a correction of an information asymmetry in the market that allows Varos to escape its monopsony relationship with the purchaser and participate in the market fully (albeit with a monopoly itself — and of course companies with a monopoly are ones that can most afford to share profits, so it's implied that things are probably going to go well; the story is relatively sophisticated economically but not quite up to tackling the resource curse).

    This isn't a review comment thread, but rewatching it recently I was struck by how weak the beginning and resolution are compared to the rest of it. The shocking thing about the sequence where the TARDIS runs out of plot-devicium is how quickly the Doctor gives up — another hint, perhaps, that this Doctor is actually bipolar. The shocking thing about the resolution is that they clearly decided to edit out the scene where the Doctor feeds stupid pills to the baddies, which is the only thing that would explain their decision to walk en masse into the cave of poisonous vines.


  9. Exploding Eye
    May 7, 2012 @ 2:28 am

    I definitely like Varos more than Androzani these days; the latter I find overrated, it doesn't have an awful lot going on beyond good production values. Varos is uncomfortable viewing – like its sequel, Mindwarp, it's one of the few Who stories to hit a tone of unrelenting nightmarishness.

    In fact, Season 22 is one of the most consistently nightmarish seasons – the cannibalism and violence of Two Doctors, and the cannibalism and body horror of Revelation Of The Daleks. A clear 50% of the stories have pretty challenging themes combined with claustrophobic levels of violence. The more I think about it, the more season 22 grows on me. Only Mark Of The Rani is barely entertaining – two of the show's dullest villains – but the rest actually have plenty to recommend them, even if it is (in the case of Timelash) all the wrong things.

    Revelation Of The Daleks is the last of the classic series that I really really like on its own terms.


  10. Andrew Hickey
    May 7, 2012 @ 2:51 am

    The problem is that the 50% that are challenging in some way (Varos, Two Doctors, Revelation) are alternated with a continuity wank-fest, a story by Pip & Jane Baker with people pretending to be Geordies, and Timelash.

    Had Season 22 been as short as every later series of the 80s — having a four-part Varos and Revelation and a six-part Two Doctors would actually take it to one episode more than the rest of Colin Baker and McCoy's series — then it would be regarded as one of the greats, but there's just too much terrible filler.

    I suspect actually that what turned the show's quality round more than anything else, even more than Saward leaving, was just not having to commission so many scripts.


  11. William Whyte
    May 7, 2012 @ 2:56 am

    Considering that Silver Nemesis was one of the four best scripts they had in 1988, you may have a point. (Note though that 14 episodes is exactly the length of the other seasons even though 13 is the "natural" length)


  12. Exploding Eye
    May 7, 2012 @ 3:27 am

    Andrew – agree completely, Season 22 could have been a classic with half the material (and a different costume).


  13. Andrew Hickey
    May 7, 2012 @ 3:30 am

    You're right, of course. Don't know why I thought they were 13…


  14. Tommy
    May 7, 2012 @ 5:36 am

    "Vengeance on Varos is for the most part the easiest to like story of Season 22."

    Oh…. I take it my favourite Colin story and the one that almost singly redeems the 80's for me, Revelation of the Daleks won't be getting much love then? πŸ™

    For me the main message of Vengeance on Varos is about the farce of the prison system. That it's supposed to be a place of 'rehabilitation' for criminals, and yet Varos shows how it not only further brutalises criminals and breeds spiritual decay, it actually brutalises the guards and wardens who work there too. And in such a way that now this prison planet has birthed several generations in this environment who have all experienced the same brutalising environment.

    It could almost be seen as a microcosm for Season 21 and 22's worldview of a universe that's become a haven for violent souls. But as one other reviewer put it (on the Malcassairo blog), this isn't a typical Doctor Who story where a bunch of tyrants happen to a world, these vile people didn't happen to Varos, it's Varos that happened to them.


  15. Elizabeth Sandifer
    May 7, 2012 @ 5:46 am

    Well, I'm quite fond of The Two Doctors in its way as well. But I think Vengeance on Varos is the easiest to like. The others require some effort. Rewarded effort, but effort.


  16. Alex Wilcock
    May 7, 2012 @ 6:45 am

    I’m not sure I find any of Season 22 easy to like – the most likeable in some ways ought to be The Mark of the Rani, as relatively inoffensive and not that violent, though I don’t actually like it much; and Colin’s at his most likeable this year for me in The Two Doctors. I think there are bits of this that are at least as prickly and difficult, and at least in the latter it’s mostly the other Doctor who’s given the unlikeable role. But I still think this is a good story, while nowhere near as good as it could have been (another polish of the script, a completely different director), and I’m with Andrew, above, on how differently this season would be seen had the slashed running time come in a season early. As long as they only picked out the even-numbered stories to keep, of course. The odd ones would be a disaster (not least because it’s the even-numbered stories that are the odder ones).

    Anyway, ill, dizzy, not very coherent here, so shorter comment than usual. Good on you for explaining “diegetic”. Useful word. Got it from a Who author years ago when arguing about music (hope there’s an isolated score on the new edition, rather than the painful isolate-away-from-score version). And as you’re trailing stories to come, did I read somewhere that you’re doing Jubilee about June 15th? Would you consider moving it forward a week or so and giving us all a break from the incessant other Jubilee? And are Arak and Etta “noble” in any sense (other than your nobility of the working classes)?

    I just wish Varos was more consistently like the best of itself – like the season as suggested, dropping out the crap bits. Keep Sil (fabulous) and the Governor, replace the Chief and Quillam, and so on… Though the most jarring thing about it for me is that it turns Doctor Who inside-out, not just in concept by critiquing it, but in structure by the way that this time the beginning and the end (save the coda) are sagging and lifeless, while the middle’s terrific. The Doctor sulks for ages in TARDIS scenes that go on for ever before they land in search of MacGuffin 7; then it doesn’t so much end as abruptly give up after a nonsensical message from ‘off’. For an ’80s story with much to say about big business and powerlessness against market forces, it’s a bit dumb on supply and demand – a superb plot collapses in a heap when a new supply sends prices soaring… It’s rare for a ‘climax’ to be dramatically and economically useless at the same time!


  17. William Whyte
    May 7, 2012 @ 6:57 am

    Alex, I don't think it's economically useless. The point is that there's additional demand, not additional supply. It's as if Chinese mines were only allowed to sell their rare earths to Chinese companies and then moved to being allowed to sell them to the rest of the world — of course the price they see would go up. The oppressor is a monopsony, not a monopoly — a much rarer case to see in drama but a real-world case nevertheless.


  18. Jesse
    May 7, 2012 @ 9:03 am

    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.

    And indeed, of the Colin Baker stories I've seen, those two and The Mysterious Planet are the only ones I like at all. (And the ones I haven't seen are Mark of the Rani and the Dalek one, so I doubt they'll make the cut if I ever do take them in.)

    [Oh, wait: I guess I like Mindwarp "at all" inasmuch as it contains some elements that I like. But it left a bad taste in my mouth.]

    Anyway. I didn't post this comment to bore you all with my likes and dislikes. I posted it to inquire whether anyone here has seen Philip Martin's 1970s series Gangsters. It sounds fascinating, and I've been wanting to watch it for years.


  19. Exploding Eye
    May 7, 2012 @ 9:19 am

    "(And the ones I haven't seen are Mark of the Rani and the Dalek one, so I doubt they'll make the cut if I ever do take them in.)"

    You might be surprised by Revelation Of The Daleks. It has its flaws – it's barely either a Doctor Who or a Dalek story, as both elements are quite marginalised – but taken on its own terms it has a lot of interesting things going on, some great ideas and some of the most memorable characters of the 80s. It's the most colourful and least macho of all Saward's scripts. For me, it's the last time (before the new series) that Doctor Who felt decently paced, like an actual adventure rather than a slightly rushed sequence of events.


  20. Matthew Blanchette
    May 7, 2012 @ 9:49 am

    Ahhhh… so, now I know where Tommy got his IMDb user name from! πŸ˜€

    (I know him from there; got him interested in this lovely blog. πŸ™‚ )

    …speaking of non-diegetic music, I'm probably saying this a bit early, but the '86 theme is probably my favorite of the '80s Who themes, mainly because it brings the theme back to its original key, which I really appreciate.

    The Howell theme has some wonderful "zazz" to it, but the key change irks me a little, and as for McCulloch… well, let's not talk about him. :-/

    I also really love the Debney theme, even if it does plod along a bit.


  21. Gnaeus
    May 7, 2012 @ 10:00 am

    Revelation is indeed excellent, and to my mind jostles with Varos for being the better story in this season (and whether or not it's a Doctor Who or Dalek story enough be damned – it's good television).

    It is worth noting, however, that the credit there must go, in the main, to Waugh, rather than Saward or any of the rest of the production team.


  22. Alex Wilcock
    May 7, 2012 @ 11:12 am

    Is it clear that this is monopsony?

    For Varos, yes, for most of the story… But what precipitates the sudden ending I criticised wasn't the Governor's attempt to look for other buyers but the news that Zeiton-7 has been found on an asteroid, which you've clearly forgotten. It would only be a proper monopsony if Galatron Mining has control of it or sole access to the people who do, and that's not at all clear from the dialogue.

    Either way, "the point is" that there is additional supply. That's given as the whole reason at the end!

    The asteroid may give the opportunity for Galatron to expand their monopsony, or it may not; the dialogue doesn't say so. There may be additional demand from somewhere, or there may not; the dialogue doesn't say so.

    All that the dialogue clearly says at the end is that a/ a new supply has been found and b/ that Sil should pay the Varosians "any price asked" for the Varos supply, which they need urgently (though nothing about why not the new supply, or whether it's any more urgently than usual).

    Which, as I said, is both dramatically useless – because rather than any action of our heroes', or even on-screen at all, giving the villain his comeuppance, effectively a telegram comes in that says 'Story is over. Stop' – and economically useless, because additional supply that we do hear about and additional demand that we don't should mean the price going down, not "pay any price" as a sudden but economically illiterate happy ending.


  23. William Whyte
    May 7, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

    Ah right, the asteroid. You're right, I'd completely forgotten that. And you're right, it makes no sense to have that immediately followed by the "pay any price" line. If it's worth paying any price for, it's worth invading for. That's a shame, I'd remembered the end as being quite good and forgotten that they'd thrown in the asteroid line to find a way of getting out of the invasion.


  24. William Whyte
    May 7, 2012 @ 12:38 pm

    I'm not sure that's fair. Ideas matter, but execution is important too.


  25. Dougie
    May 7, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

    Re-watched Gangsters series 2 on Youtube last year. It wasn't nearly as good as I remembered. Stylistically very dated and annoyingly wilful in places. Interesting as a visual record of declining Britain, however. Maybe the best thing about it is the overblown theme song.


  26. Alan
    May 7, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

    I had assumed that the asteroid was under the control of some other business interest and that Galtron's monopoly power was about to be threatened. Accordingly, it was necessary for Galtron to have a large enough stockpile of Maguffin Element to undercut the rival start-up and lock in contracts for the new war that was breaking out. But that's just a guess. The dialogue is certainly ambiguous, but that would make sense if Galtron were both a monopsony and a monopoly.

    Of course that doesn't answer the more bizarre question of how the entire galactic economy could rest on an element so rare that it's only found on one planet in the universe and yet none of the natives on that planet have any idea what it's worth AND all the galactic civilizations tolerate a single corporation exercising monopoly control over it.


  27. gregmcduck
    May 7, 2012 @ 9:49 pm

    What the hell is this? Everybody told me there were no good Sixth Doctor tv stories, and what happens three stories in? One I really, really like. The script really feels sharp and Colin Baker really works here. I know about the whole "each Doctor is a comment of the previous," but it's startling just how violent the Sixth Doctor can be, especially for a guy who started watching Doctor Who in the Tenth-Doctor-I-Never-Would-I-Won't-Shoot-The-Master-To-Save-The-World era (I would have loved to see a Time Crash with Ten and Six).

    How did Whitehouse not pay attention to Who at this point while getting her boobs in a twist over the Doctor getting his head dunked under virtual not real water? In three stories, we've had the Doctor strangle Peri, throw a vial of acid at Mestor, beat up police officers, shot a handful of Cybermen, tried to dunk a guard in acid, and then kill a bunch of people with poisonous vines. That's kind of crazy.


  28. Wm Keith
    May 8, 2012 @ 12:06 am

    It's not completely unlikely that I'd never have become a Doctor Who Fan if it wasn't for "Vengeance on Varos". I suppose I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.


  29. David Anderson
    May 8, 2012 @ 12:22 am

    If I remember correctly Mary Whitehouse did complain but by that stage she was issuing ritual denunciations of everything. Also, Michael Grade had already decided to cancel Doctor Who on other grounds.


  30. Abigail Brady
    May 8, 2012 @ 2:37 am

    Oh, so that's what that song is. I don't know how many times I must have danced to it.


  31. Abigail Brady
    May 8, 2012 @ 2:43 am

    That rest of the plot doesn't even need it to be that rare to work. You could change a bit of the Doctor's dialogue in episode 1 (have him say that Varos is the only place in range that has it, rather than in the entire universe – it's entirely plausible for a broken down Tardis to have a limited range), and figure out another way of doing the ending.

    I suspect this happens because writers do not appreciate quite how big the universe is (c.f. the galaxy/solar system confusion).


  32. Youth of Australia
    May 8, 2012 @ 9:51 pm

    I'm reminded of that Doctor Who? cartoon in DWM around this time, where the Sixth and Fourth Doctors are discussing violence in their show. The Sixth insists his era is nowhere NEAR as violent, and conversation drifts to a nearby bandaged figure covered in bloodstains on life support.

    "Who's that?"

    "He's the cameraman."


  33. Flynn
    November 12, 2012 @ 6:44 pm

    I think the coat could've been dealt with as it was- the most obvious solution for me would've been to make the Sixth Doctor a lover of beauty in the most garish and ugly of places (which is something they hint at in Twin Dilemma only to maddeningly drop and deny it almost immediately afterwards).

    Taken in that sense, though, there's a real Doctor-ish character element that could be played with in the series (being able to find the beauty in the most ugliest of circumstances) that would actually be mirrored in the nightmareish quality of the season itself.


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