There are two observations about this special that strike me as getting to the heart of it. The first is that, more than ever, Steven Moffat is the most interesting thing on display here. I’ve been making snarky jokes here and there about it nearing the 20th anniversary of his great “slag off most of Doctor Who” drunken performance piece at a con, but it’s here we have to admit that Steven Moffat has, at the very least, played two different characters in his life when it comes to commenting on the classic series. Which one is the authentic Steven Moffat is of course a matter for debate, and if you think the answer is either of them you’re a fool, but nevertheless, we all know he’s capable of a devastating and scathing review of this era that outdoes any other.
So it’s fundamentally interesting to see him relied upon so heavily to offer a defense of this era. It is, to be sure, not hard to reconcile the positions. His praise is based on the daringness of the ideas in the Baker era, which has always been the thing you can praise about it. It would have been easy to keep Doctor Who around as wallpaper, and by god it didn’t. But it’s easy to imagine a lengthy amount of unused footage in which he points out that absolutely none of these lofty ideas play out. Nevertheless, those with a fondness for literary biography are spoiled for choice in arguing that the inspiration for the Capaldi era came from trying to redemptively read the Colin Baker era.
This brings us neatly to the second observation, which is that it gives a surprisingly thorough sense of the turmoil of this era without ever speaking the names “John Nathan-Turner,” “Eric Saward,” or “Ian Levine.” Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant are both visibly at the edge of saying that there were some major problems with the era. Baker, at times, seems at pains to be much more soft-spoken, and to highlight the degree to which his Doctor was a performance.
But more to the point, there’s no attempt to shy away from The Twin Dilemma. The strangling scene is there and acknowledged. Defended by Bryant, yes, and unfortunately, but there in all its upsetting glory. Nobody quite tries to defend the coat so much as explain it. You can tell this is a problematic era, even though the program is basically positive.
And it has to be said, it makes good points. Its acknowledgment of how Baker was allowed to improve his performance in his second season is a nice touch, but I was genuinely surprised to see them make the case that the nature of his improvement was set up in The Twin Dilemma. And Moffat’s end-of-episode plug of Vengeance on Varos is an enormously emphatic thing that’s based on a tremendous respect for it as a serious piece of television. The fact that he takes the time to highlight the presence of a serious writer on Doctor Who is enormously appealing, simply because it is such a Moffat thing to focus upon.
And in the end, its positioning of the Sixth Doctor era is, I think, fair progress in our discourse about it. Its blanket defense/explanation is essentially “look, it was the 80s,” which is remarkably sound. The point that the clashing colors of the coat and the excessive brashness were very much of the 1980s is the same point that was so visibly lacking in the Pertwee special with regards to the 1970s. And it’s an effective defense, because it’s tremendously clever in what points it concedes. Ultimately, it’s the observation that a Thatcher-era Doctor Who was always going to have to exist, and be kind of awful, and here it is, but at least it’s interesting. Which is all true, just less interested in the “kind of awful” than most people historically have been.
But that’s still the best defense of the era anyone has mustered to date. And given that Moffat ultimately used the 50th Anniversary to symbolically remove the wound in Doctor Who’s history that’s normally blamed on this era, it’s a good defense.
In this regard, Vengeance on Varos is blatantly the best choice they’ve made for stories to show. They set the viewer up for all the necessary allowances, and then let the story’s numerous and genuine virtues shine through. The only problem it ends up with is one it’s under no obligation to solve, which is that unless you know about Big Finish, there’s nowhere good to go after it.