Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Doctor Who: Vengeance on Varos Special Edition DVD review

A couple years ago, upon the release of “The Twin Dilemma” - which despite being the first story of the Sixth Doctor, was the final tale of Colin Baker’s to get a DVD release – it felt like the last time I’d be writing about this most divisive era of the classic series for a good long while. But then came the special edition double-dip craze, and a question was posed to fans, “Would you like to see a special edition of ‘Vengeance on Varos’?” And the answer was an enthusiastic yes. But since this is a double dip, rather than talk about “Varos” exclusively, I’d like to use this space to discuss Season 22 as a whole.

“Varos” in many ways exemplifies and is emblematic of the season, given its dark and violent satirical nature. Many claim the story the high point of Baker’s entire stint, something I probably wouldn’t argue, though it’s never been a big favorite of mine. From his era I prefer “The Two Doctors,” “Revelation of the Daleks,” and even “Mindwarp,” which was a sequel (of sorts) to “Varos” from the “Trial” season. Yet through this DVD I gained a considerable appreciation for “Varos” that I didn’t have before, or at least the first half of it, as the second half never quite delivers on the promise of the setup, though your mileage may vary.

There’s a bigger picture here, though, and for better and/or worse, Season 22 is unique in the history of the series. Though the previous season had toyed with a 45-minute episode format via “Resurrection of the Daleks,” that story wasn’t envisioned, scripted or shot to be screened as two 45-minute episodes. But the screening was judged a success, and so when Season 22 was commissioned, the plan was to move ahead with an entire season of 13 45-minute episodes. Sound familiar? It should, because that's essentially the format for a season of the new series. Unfortunately, Season 22 was such a departure on so many levels from the Doctor Who BBC audiences had come to know and love over the previous 21 years, that it was ultimately deemed a failure, and the show was put on hiatus, and ended up going back to the 25-minute format a year and a half later. But as a result of the format change, these six stories have a much different feel than other tales of the classic series. They do not move in quite the same way as the 25-minute format, and it’s typical for the Doctor and Peri to become involved in their adventures at a much more leisurely pace, for instance. They are closer to the tempo of two-parters of the new series, than they are to the four-parters of the classic.

Season 22 has a pretty bad reputation, mostly for all the wrong reasons, and there’s only one truly poor story (“Timelash”) in the half dozen, with the other five ranging from watchable (“The Mark of the Rani”) to good (“The Two Doctors”) to arguably excellent (“Revelation of the Daleks”). There’d certainly been plenty of Doctor Who seasons past with far worse good to bad ratios, though as with so much TV, ratings played a part, and the ratings for Season 22 were less than stellar. But the content was the real killer, and one wonders what might’ve been if Season 22 hadn’t felt like such an upheaval.

The new Doctor was considered by most to be unlikable. There’s surely no Doctor in the history of the series that was and is less liked en masse than the Sixth…though personally I’ve an enormous appreciation for him, and even many fans have grown to love Colin Baker and Doctor #6 through his work on the Big Finish audios. But it’s easy to look at his performance from the time, and see why it was so unpopular. This Doctor didn’t feel like a hero, and the Doctor, no matter how diverse his personality may become, must always be portrayed as a hero, even if it’s a flawed one. Perhaps the Sixth Doctor was a flawed hero, but his boastful, obnoxious manner wasn’t the right complement for viewers adjusting to the loss of Peter Davison. Yet from the vantage point of today, the Sixth Doctor is arguably a fascinating slice of Who, and one that’s much easier to digest as a small part of the now much larger whole.

Nicolas Chagrin as Quillam and Forbes Collins the Chief Officer

Perhaps even more controversial than the abrasive Doctor, was the show’s violent content, which appears to be a logical extension of the violence in the preceding season’s “Resurrection of the Daleks,” as well as “The Caves of Androzani,” both of which were considered successful serials. But whereas the violence in those stories was mostly justified, there are too many times in Season 22 in which the show feels as though it’s engaging in mayhem just for the sake of it. Random acts of brutality occur around and sometimes even because of the Doctor, which he’s uninterested in addressing (or if he does, it's with a tasteless pun). As a teenager, it didn’t occur to me that Baker’s era was necessarily harsher than the material that came before it, but as an adult I’m able to see what all the fuss was about. Thing is, I really don’t mind it, because the violence here remains child’s play compared to the endless displays of cruelty I’ve seen in all manner of TV and film over the years, and because it hardly defines the series as a whole, and just happens to be where the series was at this particular point. 

Martin Jarvis as the Governor
It’s the satire, probably, that really kills this season for so many people. There’s often a wry undercurrent of sadistic humor that pervades these stories (which, when presented alongside the violence and the snotty Doctor, can feel weirdly oppressive) and never more so than in “Vengeance on Varos,” which thrives on it. The story revolves around the class and political structure of the titular planet, which is a dreary sort of place that can most easily be described as Orwellian. On Varos, the populace seemingly works all day at the mines (the planet’s most valuable resource is an ore called Zeiton-7), and spends all night viewing the cruel displays of torture of political prisoners on their big screen TVs. Meanwhile, the actions of their leader, the Governor (Martin Jarvis), must be voted on from within individual households. Basically, everyone has access to their very own “yes” and “no” buttons, and if enough nays are pressed, what appears to be a beam of radiation comes cascading down onto the Governor for all his constituents to see. So it’s only a matter of time until a new Governor must be put into place, because the system is set up so that its leaders must ultimately fail and die.

Nabil Shaban as Sil
If you’ve not seen “Varos,” you can already pretty much glean whether or not it’s your cup of tea, and it’s hardly light entertainment. It boasts an early performance from the 21-year old Jason Connery, as the rebel Jondar, but what “Varos” is probably best known for is the reptilian villain Sil (Nabil Shaban), who’s sort of the breakout creature of the second Baker’s era. Again, I’d take some issue with that, as I’ve never been a giant Sil fan, yet it’s easy to see why many folks are. He’s a sleazy, slimy creepy little thing, that’s something of a triumph of the makeup and/or effects departments of the time. And he’s got a fair share of decent lines, assuming you can understand him.

“Vengeance on Varos” is tough to recommend for, well, for all the reasons I’ve written here. For someone who’s never seen it, it’s a fair representation of this era of the series, and - my overall opinion of it notwithstanding - there’s no question that it’s the most original story of the season, and probably of the entire Colin Baker era. And here in the States there can be no better time to view it than now, given that the political season is upon us, and there’s nothing in “Varos” uglier than what we’re often seeing on TV right now, or reading on the internet every day. You may even find it a sort of release from the frequent mockery of the American political system you’re forced to endure from one day to the next, and you’ll very likely come away from it wishing you had “yes” and “no” buttons of your very own.

Jarvis, Jason Connery and Baker

DVD Extras: All the extras from the original disc seem to have been ported over, including the commentary track featuring Baker, Nicola Bryant and Nabil Shaban, so if you’re a “Varos” fan, you can safely pass your old disc on to a newbie. And if you are a “Varos” fan, I’m pretty confident in predicting you’ll want to make the double dip for this double-disc set. There’s a 32-minute making-of called “Nice or Nasty” that’s appropriately over the top in its exploration and presentation. (Sadly, no Jason Connery, though!) “The Idiot’s Lantern” is a fine, but short piece on the show’s relationship with television over the years (as in how TV is portrayed within the series itself). There’s a 17-minute selection of deleted and extended scenes, which is more than what was on the original disc I think, as well as three minutes of outtakes. The infamous acid bath scene is presented with alternate music in the extras as well. “Tomorrow’s Times – The Sixth Doctor” was reason enough for this double dip; the DVD range would’ve had a big hole without it!

There is also a news item on Colin’s casting, and some Colin talk show appearances from Breakfast Time and Saturday Superstore (the latter also features Bryant, and a phone-in from the Master!). I guess these haven’t been on DVD before, but honestly it’s hard to keep track. There’s a rare French & Saunders sketch with the ladies playing Silurians on the set of a fictitious Who taping that’s great fun, and the opposite of the Jim Broadbent bit I recently trashed. There are the usual Radio Times listings in PDF form, as well as a trailer for the eagerly anticipated “The Ambassadors of Death,” which is due out in October. Finally, the disc features a half a dozen different audio track options, which must surely be a Who DVD record: Aside from the commentary, there’s the original mono mix, a 5.1 Surround mix (that I personally found exceptional), an isolated music score, and the isolated music score in 5.1, and finally a clean production track with no sound effects or music! Go figure. Even better, go and enjoy!