Violence on Varos
By Graham Howard
Violence has always been a controversial issue in Doctor Who, yet it is an issue which is difficult to avoid. The Doctor and his companions invariably have to contend with adversaries who are violent or intend to be violent in order to achieve their objective (usually subjugation or destruction). Because violence in some form has always been an indelible part of just about any Doctor Who story, removing it altogether is not a serious option because in most cases the entire dramatic basis behind the plot would disappear. After all, in its most basic sense a conventional Doctor Who story is about conflict between good and evil, and violence is often an inevitable consequence of this conflict. The issue therefore becomes one of degree: how do you best present the violent acts (committed by both sides) in such a way as to make them realistic and threatening, without being gratuitous, and without exceeding the boundaries of 'taste' and 'acceptability' which an early evening television programme such as Doctor Who must adhere to if it is to escape stricture and censorship. As Doctor Who is, or was, a programme watched by many children its makers need to be doubly careful not to overstep this ill-defined mark. There are those (e.g. Michael Grade) who would say, that with Vengeance on Varos Phillip Martin and the production team did go too far.
In Doctor Who violence may normally be treated with some detachment. The violence is often committed by monsters or aliens who we know are not real so it is probably more difficult to be offended. And there is very rarely any blood. While Vengeance on Varos spares us from scenes of blood and gore (although it would seem there are plenty of such scenes on Varosian television screens) it differs from other Doctor Who stories in that its violence seems unusually callous and sadistic, notwithstanding the fact that Vengeance on Varos occurs in one of the most violent Doctor Who seasons ever. It is more difficult to view the violence in a detached manner because it is not committed by some alien aggressor, but is systematically and gleefully applied by Varos's human rulers against their own people, ostensibly in defence of their 'just constitution'. The pervasiveness of violence as a theme throughout this story - in terms of its use as a means of oppression and as a form of entertainment - probably makes violence itself as much the villain of the story than are the characters who perpetrate that violence. The production team could therefore probably claim with some force, that the depiction of some distasteful violence is necessary because it is integral to the plot. And necessary in order for the story's 'social comment' on violence as a form of mass media entertainment in contemporary society - as allegorized in Varosian society - to be effectively expressed.
There are a number of possibilities available to a production team when deciding the most appropriate method of handling a violent scene. For example, a character could simply recount a violent act. Or, at the other extreme, a more graphic, blow by blow approach, shot in close up could be used. Depending on the context of the story being told and the intended audience, either of these approaches may be more effective in producing the desired effect on the viewer. Perhaps surprisingly given its reputation, Vengeance on Varos tends to opt for the former approach, at least for the most horrific acts. We (mercifully) do not witness the lengthy torture sessions and executions, although it is apparent, most notably from the comments of Arak and Etta - our window into Varosian domestic life - that such displays are commonplace. The nearest is the rebel Jondar's 'pre-execution ordeal'. While certainly violent (and graphically presented), it appears to leave him pretty much unscathed. His method of execution proper (laser obliteration), seems comparatively humane. (The fact that the New Zealand video censor would have to cope with violence of a far more explicit nature than that displayed in this story probably accounts for the mild 'low level violence' warning given on the video release.) To appreciate the full extent of the atrocities committed in the Punishment Dome we must effectively rely on the word of mouth comments of Varosian characters and Sil. The indisputable nastiness of characters such as Quillam and the Chief Officer give further weight to the realism of these mostly unseen horrors, although again it is more from what these two say than from what we see them doing which conveys this nastiness.
Part of the reason why Vengeance on Varos is such a disturbing tale is that it portrays what is in many respects a conceivable projection of society today. We glimpse a dystopian society bereft of human warmth and compassion, which is fed a diet of real, not play-acted violence both as a form of entertainment (a diversion from the drudgery of the ordinary people - have they not heard of soap operas?!) and as a way of demonstrating the ruthlessness with which dissent is punished. As if to give greater immediacy to this scenario, the society actually functions as a kind of democracy via a television voting system (eg. Varosians use this system to endorse the execution of rebels such as Jondar) which has similarities to the television telephone polls now commonly used to gauge viewers' opinions on topical issues. As a society we do watch a lot of violent television and movies, and violent computer games are hugely popular.1 Violent sports such as boxing and wrestling are very popular. What is more, it might be argued that television, and especially film violence is becoming more extreme and explicit, while at the same time becoming more acceptable in mainstream society. It might be further argued that a probable cause in the increasing acceptability of such violence is that people are becoming desensitised to its effects. Might we one day be like Arak and Etta, so numbed to the displays of violence on television, that we become as blase as them at each new violent offering? If we today derive some perverse enjoyment from seeing violence of this kind inflicted on other people (albeit fake) on television, might we one day crave the real thing?
Presumably as a way of emphasizing the fact that our tastes in entertainment are not too different from those of ordinary Varosians, Vengeance on Varos has been constructed so as to make it appear at various times that what Varosians observe on their screens is more or less the same as what we observe - their entertainment is our entertainment. The only difference being that the acts shown are not 'real' to us. Perhaps the most poignant example of this is at the end of episode one where the Doctor's 'death' forms the climax of the episode, while also forming the climax for Varos's television audience. The point is further emphasized with the Governor's instruction (he is directing the camera shots): 'And cut it...now'. There are also several jokes scattered throughout the story which play on this dual perspective (e.g. Arak scoffs at Jondar's televised screams of pain: 'He's only acting').
On a slightly more subtle level Vengeance on Varos gently parodies Doctor Who itself, or at least the low budget sci-fi genre. For example, as the Doctor and co. make their way through the 'Purple Zone' they see two eyes glowing in the darkness ahead apparently belonging to some large and fierce animal, although to us they look decidedly phoney. The Doctor correctly guesses that it is only two lights made to look like eyes. (For a 'good' illustration of this in Doctor Who check out Planet of the Daleks episode 4/5!). Though my favourite has to be Peri's delightful 'All these corridors look the same to me' line.
While Vengeance on Varos had the potential to be an intelligent and thought provoking story, and a good adventure yarn to boot, in the end it only partly succeeds on both counts.
In my view the biggest fault of Vengeance on Varos is a failure to clearly present the story as a battle between good (represented by the Doctor and friends) and evil, particularly as the evil in Varosian society is just so terribly bad. Colin Baker's Doctor is probably the only one which would not seem too incongruous in such a grisly tale. But his arrogant and verging on violent portrayal in this story is in my view the least well suited to provide a contrast in the mind of the viewer between 'right' and 'wrong'. The viewer takes it for granted the Doctor is on the side of right because 'he is the Doctor'. But it is difficult to reconcile this with the fact that at no time does he explicitly condemn the Varosian Government's methods. It is largely left to Peri to express her (and therefore our) revulsion and disgust at the way their society is run. In fact the Doctor seems largely uninterested in the Varosians' plight. The Doctor's overriding objective is not to overthrow the regime, but to obtain zeiton seven. His involvement stems from necessity, not altruism. As a result the Doctor tends to react to events occurring around him, he does not initiate action. (Compare this to the Tom Baker story The Sun Makers which concerns another downtrodden society. In that story the Doctor takes a great interest in the way the society is run and how it has developed, and plays an active role in the overthrow of the Company regime. The difference is striking.)
The Doctor claims to have knowledge (presumably relating to the true market value of zeiton seven) which could help Varos, but he never divulges it. Even if we accept he did not get much of a chance, it is difficult to believe such information could not be easily obtained from elsewhere. Overall I can't think of anything significant the Doctor actually did himself to allay the Varosians' economic problems, or influence them to reject their culture of violence.
Add to this some of the more dubious actions taken by the Doctor in this story and viewers' impression of the Doctor as a figure 'on the side of right' who fights evil and oppression must surely become tainted. Probably the most questionable of these actions, and the one which epitomizes the Doctor's callous behaviour in parts of this story, occurs in the infamous acid bath scene. While the Doctor does not actually push the two attendants into the acid, it is his presence in the scene which effectively results in their gruesome deaths, when he could just as easily have walked away. To make matters worse he even appears to treat the whole thing as a bit of a joke: 'Forgive me if I don't join you.' In my view the Doctor's tendency towards flippancy (masquerading as wit) in this and other scenes (e.g. during the mock execution) undermines the seriousness of the subject matter and consequently weakens the story's potential impact.
I believe a story such as this, in a programme such as Doctor Who needed at least one major character to denounce Varosian society on moral grounds. For such a character to pledge to attempt to put right the wrong which is being perpetrated against the Varosian people. The Doctor should have been the character to do this but, as I have argued, he does not. The Governor is clearly unsuitable. Although we are inclined to view him sympathetically as a jaded and unwilling victim of circumstance, his complicity in the Punishment Dome's activities is undeniable and his motives remain doubtful. In the story's early stages it seemed that the rebels Jondar and Areta might have been intended to fill this role, but their characters quickly lose their significance as the story progresses. They are not given enough to say and do, and their early remarks are not given enough weight in the story as a whole to be treated as anything more than background comments. Perhaps because no major character proclaims a positive moral basis for their actions (e.g. 'it is wrong to torture people'), the way violence is portrayed in Vengeance on Varos seems more gratuitous than it otherwise might - as if it was included for its own sake...
Of course Vengeance on Varos is not unique in its lax approach towards issues of morality, in that other stories from around this period have the same failing. Eric Saward believes there are no moral absolutes, and that 'the portrayal of characters such as Lytton and Orcini [and the Governor] perhaps reflected a more accurate image of life than had been attempted before. '2 I'm not suggesting 'right' and 'wrong' need always be presented as being black and white in Doctor Who or even that those on the side of 'right' should always be shown to be infallible, or even always win. But in my view, the Doctor at least, should always be shown to be clearly acting for the greater good (maybe misguidedly at times). Indeed with previous Doctors this was rarely in doubt. Surely this is a significant part of the appeal of the Doctor, and what is more, it is an essential part of his character. That is why he is the hero. The Doctor has never been, nor should he be a James Bond or Schwarzenegger type of hero - although even heroes of this ilk normally have a tenuous moral justification for their violent behaviour built into their stories.
I have suggested that violence is as much the villain in Vengeance on Varos than any of the characters. Yet in the end violence as a 'villain' is not vanquished. The use of violence to entertain and oppress is not shown to be wrong. Good does not triumph over evil in the traditional sense - Varos's problems are effectively solved by a couple of extremely fortuitous pieces of luck (invasion force cancelled; Sil's company requires zeiton seven urgently - 'pay any price') while the deaths of Quillam and the Chief Officer lack bite due to the fact that for all their talk we haven't actually seen them in action. Because of all of this the ending seems rather insipid. Why tack on what is effectively a simplistic moral ending which tries to make it appear as if good has prevailed over evil when questions of morality have been largely downplayed or ignored throughout the story. Such a facile 'happy ending' also seems at variance to Eric Saward's stated desire for realism noted above. Wouldn't a downbeat ending have been more powerful and realistic in the context of the scenario we are given? For example the Doctor gets his zeiton seven, but due to popular demand the executions continue, the Governor having avoided his own execution cements himself in power...
Another way of viewing the violence in Vengeance on Varos is to consider it in terms of how violence is presented in Season 22 as a whole. On this basis, the nature of the violence in Vengeance on Varos is thoroughly consistent with other stories in that season. A number of 'acts of violence' did seem designed to gratify the viewer, titillate (e.g. transmogrification scenes) or even amuse. Which of course is highly ironical, considering the story's subject matter. JNT's claim in the recent documentary 30 Years in the TARDIS, that he used to pray that Mary Whitehouse would complain that a particular episode was too violent, because this 'automatically put an extra two million viewers onto the ratings' supports this impression, and unfortunately tends to rule out the possibility that such irony was intentional.
So was Vengeance on Varos too violent? My personal view is that as a story which sought to provoke the viewer into thinking about television and film violence and its effects, the answer is no, not necessarily. Maybe not enough, although obviously Doctor Who is constrained in this regard. But as a backdrop to a Doctor Who story in which the Doctor does not exhibit some form of moral leadership, yes. The story's violence becomes pointless, a depressing observation of humanities inherent inhumanity, rather than as a message or a warning. The absence of a positive moral stance leaves the viewer aware of the social comment but unedified by it. The plot becomes a routine runaround. Too violent? Yes, again if the on screen violence was intended as some cynical ploy to boost ratings. The function of the violence in the story and the manner of its portrayal ends up subverting the very point the story's social comment was presumably trying to make.
But then on the other hand I doubt if I would have found Vengeance on Varos such a disturbing tale if it had been totally unsuccessful in getting its message/observations across. And the plot itself is reasonably engaging, for all its problems. Out of all the stories of Season 22, I believe Vengeance on Varos is the only one which, with some reworking, might have been hailed as a 'classic'. But it is not. Even the extended or 'rough cut' version of this story, while generally benefiting from the additional scenes, does not redress the fundamental problems with the story; at least as I perceive them.3 While the violence theme was a good idea, it was not used effectively towards any end. It is a shame the script and production team did not capitalise on what was potentially a powerful concept in such a way which could have made an average story a great story.
This item appeared in TSV 39 (May 1994).