Doctor Who: Vengeance on Varos (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros review this Special Edition of the popular Colin Baker story
Colin Baker's short-lived time as The Sixth Doctor was peppered with a number of duff scripts; this was compounded by general feelings of malaise and that the series was in something of a slump. Baker's determination to bring something new to the part of such a beloved and long-running character was also hamstrung by a ridiculous costume that said more about producer John Nathan-Turner and the way the series was currently perceived by the general public and BBC management than it did of The Doctor.
One of the bright spots of Baker Mark II's time on the show was Vengeance on Varos; it brought a thoughtful script that would resonate in the decades to come, together with a mixture of seasoned actors and relative newcomers who were determined to shine in the reflection of the script and was rounded out by taut direction from someone who knew the ropes.
The TARDIS finds itself depleted of the vital mineral Zyton-7 and The Doctor (Colin Baker) is forced to make an emergency landing on the planet Varos, where the mineral is in abundance. The Doctor and Peri (Nicola Bryant) are soon caught up in the political dealings between the Governor of the planet (Martin Jarvis) and the repellent, avaricious Sil (Nabil Shaban), who seeks to exploit the planet for all it's worth. The Doctor and his companion are eventually caught up in the violent and deadly games that are broadcast on television for the consumption of the desensitised workers of Varos and they have to fight for their very lives.
The idea of the proletariat being entertained by reality television was years ahead of its time and was quite possibly greeted with dismissive jeers of "nah, that'll never happen", but looking back on this story, it was more than a little prophetic as to how low television would sink in terms of the sort of content that would satisfy a mass audience. Modern reality shows depict death, violence and misery, all served up to satisfy the voyeuristic bloodlust of a passive audience.
The concept of Vengeance on Varos is arguably more pertinent these days than it was when it was originally conceived, as the voyeuristic nature of reality television is more prevalent than ever and the proletariat seem to be more interested in sitting at home and watching any old crap for entertainment, even if it depicts violent death and mayhem. The idea of essentially having “video nasties” (as horror enthusiasts, we loathe that term) as entertainment was something that was foremost on the minds of the public and the Thatcher government around the time that this story came into being, and it’s to writer Philip Martin’s credit that he was able to take the idea and satirise it.
Doctor Who itself was becoming increasingly violent at the time; the show had faced allegations of being over-the-top in it’s depiction of shocking and horrifying situations ( Terror of the Autons scared the living shit out of kids and some parents, and the Hinchcliffe era was littered with examples of Doctor Who being “scary”), but the eighties had seen real-life violence and suffering creep into the show - with script editor/writer Eric Saward seemingly being the kingpin in all of this - and the sort of violence on display in Vengeance of Varos was of the same kind of level seen in Attack of the Cybermen; people are killed, tortured, maimed and even The Doctor despatches a couple of henchmen with a quip that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a Tom Mankiewicz-scripted James Bond film. Though it is necessary to depict violence in order to satirise it properly (Paul Verhoven achieved this perfectly a couple of years later with Robocop), it was something of a bold move to use a family show like Doctor Who to do it with.
Vengeance on Varos is also very canny in showing how puppet dictatorships work; having a leader with no real power being subservient to whoever is in charge of the main export and can be replaced easily. This draws parallels with some countries in South America, where drug cartels have the power and elected officials are either thoroughly corrupt, being in the pockets of the cartels, or they are genuinely decent and try to do good, but find their hands are tied. In Vengeance on Varos, Sil has the power and is ruthlessly exploiting the natural resources of Varos and the Governor is effectively powerless whilst this is going on. The workers of Varos are unaware of this exploitation and are content to view all manner of exceedingly violent programming in an almost passive fashion as a way of blinding themselves to their miserable lives.
Writer Philip Martin was an old hand when it came to turning in scripts for the Beeb; after a stint at acting in the sixties, he started penning scripts for long-running shows such as a Z-Cars and Shoestring. He eventually wrote science-fiction and watching Doctor Who with his daughter got him interested in writing for the show. Martin's previous work allowed him to effortlessly convey the criminal activities of the loathsome Sil, but also his experience in writing for shows that involved police procedure and the way laws works and are enforced gave him the opportunity to apply that to a system that is seemingly above-board, but when you scratch below the surface, it is rotten to the core. Martin's script may have a wry tongue inserted into it's cheek, but the concept of corrupt governments that televise mayhem, death and state executions was a little much for family viewing.
One could draw some comparisons between Vengeance on Varos and the 1982 Australian exploitation film, Turkey Shoot (aka Escape 2000, Blood Camp Thatcher), which depicts a dystopian future where ultra-harsh laws are in force and those who transgress them are subject to brutal penalties from the brutish enforcers. Oh, and the Chief Officer (Forbes Collins) in Vengeance on Varos looks remarkably like Turkey Shoot's Chief Guard Ritter (played by the wonderful Roger Ward), as both men are bald-headed, moustachioed and wear militaristic uniforms, but only one of them has a lisp.
Colin Baker is great in this story; though Baker was never anything less that completely professional during his time on Doctor Who, when he was particularly taken with a story, there is a certain twinkle in his eye that shows that he is enjoying himself. Baker gets to stretch a bit in this story, particularly in the scenes where he is almost killed, but also he is able to look utterly dejected early on in the story when it looks at though he and Peri are going to be marooned in space for all eternity. He also gives a commanding performance that really sells that he is a supremely intelligent being who really shouldn't be taken for a fool.
At one point in the story, Colin Baker takes of that bloody awful jacket for a while and actually looks pretty good in just the trousers and shirt, making him look not that much more outlandish than his predecessor, who wore louder trousers than Baker. Sadly, this does not last and once again, the dignity of the Sixth Doctor (and poor old Colin's to be honest) is thrown into the fifth dimension, when he puts the Joseph-like piece of apparel back on. Oh, and for such a tall, imposing actor, there are some surprising moments when Colin Baker demonstrates that he is fairly light on his feet.
Nicola Bryant is as good as ever - we have personally thought that The Sixth Doctor and Peri made for one of the strongest Doctor/companion pairings in the show's history; the pompous, brash, know-it-all Doctor coupled with a superficially brash young woman who could easily prick his pomposity when necessary always meant that even if stories weren't up to snuff, Baker and Bryant could always put in bits of business to spice things up - fortunately, Vengeance on Varos' script didn't need such thespian improvisation. It should be noted that at one point toward the end of the story, he accent slips and she says the name "Doctor" in her real voice.
Vengeance on Varos features the debut of what was arguably one of the most memorable Doctor Who adversaries of the eighties - Sil. Played by Nabil Shaban, Sil is the thoroughly slimy - both in personality and in physicality - and he is the opportunistic middle-man who is exploiting the planet of Varos for all its natural resources at the lowest prices possible. With a level of vanity that is pumped up to the level of absurdity, Sil more than likely served as the inspiration for the character Cassandra in the Nu-Who story, The End of the World, as both have similar personality traits, are dependent upon muscular minions and need to be moisturised. Sil made a return appearance during the Mindwarp story in the Trial of a Time Lord season (and also in Big Finish‘s audio adaptation of Mission to Magnus), but he was never more repellent and odious than he was here - so much so, that there are times that you wish The Doctor could just grab hold of him and drown him in his own tank. The actor playing Sil certainly throws himself into playing the part - the whole Shaban, you might say... ahem, yes.
We would be remiss in our reviewing duties if we failed to mention that this story features Jason Connery in a role shortly before he hit the big time in Robin of Sherwood. James Bond Jr is first seen being tortured whilst chained up and shirtless, which doubtless appeals to a couple of certain sections of the audience, but eventually helps The Doctor and Peri in trying to change things for the better on Varos.
Martin Jarvis was no stranger to Doctor Who - he first appeared on the show back during William Hartnell's time in The Web Planet, where he essayed the difficult role of Helio, the butterfly-like Menoptra. Few would argue that The Web Planet was a cruelly-overlooked masterpiece, but Jarvis' next appointment with The Doctor would be during the twilight of Jon Pertwee's era, playing Butler in Invasion of the Dinosaurs, a story that was entertaining despite the general sniping over the less-than-impressive special effects of the titular creatures. Jarvis' third time on Doctor Who was in a story that that stands up very well and sees Jarvis give his best performance out of the three as the Governor of Varos, as this particular Governor has no real power; even though he is nominally in charge, the power - and his fate - is in the hands of the people. Jarvis makes the most of the character written by Philip Martin and imbues some subtle nuances that really flesh out the Governor and makes him a three-dimensional character, rather than a two-dimensional caricature.
There are times when the Doctor's exploits, going from ordeal to ordeal at the hands of his tormentors is reminiscent of an episode of The Crystal Maze, or even The Adventure Game - god, we wish that could be repeated somewhere...
The production design is pretty good in this story, with some interesting costumes and sets, coupled with atypical lighting for the period, i.e. not looking like the sets were lit by the titular pieces of equipment in the ABBA song, Super Trooper, allowing for moody corridor shots that emphasised the more suspenseful elements of the story. The influence of Star Wars upon Doctor Who can still be seen, as the helmets of some of the guards have that Samurai look that was popularised in Darth Vader's helmet. The costume for Sil is certainly something to have praise lavished upon, creating a character that was unique to Doctor Who, and indeed possibly televisual science-fiction in general at that time - though there are one or two moments when Sil's headpiece goes a little askew, but with the sheer effort into transforming Nabil Shaban into something so remarkable, this minor problem is easily forgiven. Oh, and just like The Happiness Patrol, some of the drama and excitement is dissipated by the use of slow-moving vehicles, such as The Doctor and his companion nicking a tarted-up golf-carts as a method of escape from their pursuing adversaries.
The image quality is about what you would expect from a Doctor Who story of this vintage. Shot on one-inch video, there is only so much sharpness that can be obtained from he format, but what is presented here is arguably about as good as it will look (short of releasing it on Blu-ray, which would be pretty much pointless anyway). As it stands, it looks pretty good, with only a little colour bleeding from some of the vivid reds and there is a reasonable amount of image definition.
You are presented with a whopping six audio choices for this special edition of Vengeance on Varos, but we will deal with the two choices for the main feature here - the rest will be examined in the extras section.
The default option for the audio is the original mono track, which is clean, clear and pleasant on the ear, but for us...
...the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is the preferred audio option (to us, anyway), as it presents a gutsy and full-bodied sound-mix that makes full use of the subwoofer and every now and again, you are presented with some most pleasing ambient surround effects to sell the harsh and murky environments on Varos.
This special edition of Vengeance on Varos is packed to the digital rafters with all manner of featurettes, trailers and what-have-you. A large amount of it has been ported over from the original 2001 release, but there are many newly-minted diversions produced just for this special edition.
Audio Commentary: The Sixth Doctor himself, Colin Baker, and Peri herself, Nicola Bryant. Things get off to a promising start, with the divine Ms B practically drooling over Jason Connery's half-naked torso. Nabil Shaban's reptilian tones sool slither their way over the soundtrack, who shortly rattles off an anecdote about working with Faye Dunaway, who ultimately gave him a book on acting by Stanislavski. Oops. Colin Baker is always great when taking part in a commentary track - as well as being wonderfully witty, his knowledge is seemingly vast and crystal clear; whether this is due to him having amazing powers of recall, or simply whether he did his homework before going into the recording booth, it matters not, as the results are always informative and entertaining. Baker also gently pokes fun at certain staples of Doctor Who, the main one being that monsters were seldom fast-moving and that they could be evaded by taking a brisk walk; the topic of corridors is also briefly mentioned when an appropriate example is seen on-screen. At one point, and Bryant confirms that they try to put an unscripted line in each story about corridors looking the same. Shaban mentions that Vengeance on Varos's storyline "anticipated Big Brother", but this very perceptive comment is expanded upon by the others - Baker saying that it was "prophetic", and Shaban does an amusing impersonation of a BB eviction - Big Brother was still hugely popular when this comment was recorded back in 2001, but it was a little before the raft of moronic reality television that followed in the Dutch-originated show's wake.
Baker, Bryant and Shaban gel very well indeed, as they all have wry senses of humour and they bounce ideas and remarks off each other and things just get more and more amusing. The tone of the track is somewhat earthier than subsequent ones (this was recorded for the original DVD release), and there is a certain degree of smut and innuendo popping up, but it's all in good fun and the general atmosphere is infectious. There is a danger with all-actor commentaries in that it could devolve into a mutual backslapping exercise, with precious little information revealed and with the word "dah-ling" being bandied about with the rapidity and equally painful nature of the dangerous end of a sub-machine gun (although Bryant applies this insincere moniker to Baker at one point) . This is not the case here, as our amusing trio impart much fascinating information about the shooting of Vengeance on Varos and all three are remarkably self-deprecating, with Baker even sighing about his weight.
Colin steadfastly defends the infamous "acid-bath" scene, where he goes to great length to point out that pretty much everything that he did on-screen during that sequence was defensive, rather than offensive and aggressive. When you hear Mr B dissecting this sequence, you see it in a new light and The Doctor isn't that much of a violent thug, responsible for the death of two people, than you originally thought; "in comparison with some of the stuff in Tom's days, this wasn't that violent", Colin concludes. Baker also takes a little pot-shot at Peter Davison's Doctor, calling him "featureless" and an "arid desert", then adds "nothing personal, Peter!"
The biggest and smuttiest double-entendre goes to Nicola Bryant who muses at the end of episode one about the increased running times of the episodes in that season "I like the longer length", she opines in an accidentally crude manner, much to the amusement of Shaban. It has been said that innuendo is always best when you don't see it coming (ahem)...
The final word is given to a trend that was prevalent back when the audio commentary was recorded and still exists today - that of spoiling end credit sequences by shrinking the credits and having a voiceover on top of it; our thespian trio all voice their dislike of it, with Colin Baker being the most irate - who can blame them?
This is a wonderfully entertaining audio commentary, with three very eloquent and engaging people providing their thoughts on what is widely regarded as the best Colin Baker Doctor Who story - there is never a dull moment and there is much to keep you amused and informed. You couldn't ask for more, really.
Isolated Score: Jonathan Gibbs' musical compositions for Vengeance on Varos can be heard with the hindrance of dialogue and sound effects. But wait...
Isolated Score in 5.1: Yes, folks - you also have the option to listen to Mr Gibbs' work in a multi-channel audio mix that is sure to have you dizzy with sensory overload.
Mono production audio: This is a most welcome addition and proof as to how much of the original materials they had access to when putting a DVD package together. Presented here is the original audio, without the benefit of all of the little touch-ups and polish that a final sound-mix can bring; heavy footsteps, all manner of clumps and bumps on the floors of raised stages can be heard, along with the original sounds made by props and vehicles, which sound decidedly less futuristic that what eventually made its way into the final mix. This is a nice extra that allows viewers to appreciate just how much effort goes into the audio side of Doctor Who, as a final mix shows that imperfections are removed, sound effects embellish and music augments the drama - the opening scene with Jason Connery demonstrates this perfectly. This a lovely extra that enlightens and entertains in equal measure.
Information Subtitles: They say for a human to look into the Time Vortex is to bring certain doom upon them, as the puny mind cannot possibly collate the sheer volume of information residing within. Rose Tyler got away with it because she was under contract to appear in the next series of Nu-Who, but there are none equipped to take on such a task and live to tell the tale. Well, except the brave/foolhardy few responsible for putting together the Subtitle Track, a stream of data so vast it can only come from looking directly into the Vortex, and these guys risk total obliteration to bring you everything you need to know about Doctor Who, and Vengeance on Varos is the latest peek into the void, unable to find an appropriately brave soul for the original DVD release. Here is another comprehensive look at another classic story, and just you remember what they risked to bring you this much insight!
Right from the outset there are virtual acres of differences pointed out between various drafts of the script, with minutia ranging from the interesting to the deeply fascinating. Be it the version originally written as Planet of Fear for Peter Davison’s run or any number of rewrites and camera scripts, everything is faithfully recorded here, including how all references to the original fate of the Governor were expunged, along with his ultimate demise. You want exacting detail here? How about that Philip Martin wrote the companions’ name “Perri” rather than the expected way of spelling it during the original draft? We thoroughly agree that this was a perfectly forgivable cock-up, given that the character hadn’t even been introduced at the time it was written!
With a sizeable chunk of the running time hitting the sawdust before the final edit, you’ll learn exactly where all over-long material came into play, and just how they came to the decisions which brought it into line with the required timeslot. There is a lot to chew over, as even scenes which were added at a very late stage for the sake of improving the story were nixed just as hastily, including the sequence which would have originally introduced the character of Quillam. Of course, watching the deleted scenes on this disc will part the clouds, but if you want to know everything, then this is were the real action is, as they used to say. Do they still say that any more? They do? Gear!
It’s all here, as comprehensive a list of the exact recording dates as you could ever wish for, including occasions where various scenes had to be remounted due to either actor or technical problems. You’ll even discover how long Vengeance on Varos' Greek Chorus, Sheila Reid and Stephen Yardley, filmed their entire appearances in, and we’re sure that you’ll be amazed at either the incredible efficiency of the BBC or shocked at how cheapskate they were to only hire them for the short period of time they did whilst slotting them in throughout the run of the story. Aesthetic subtext is also up for discussion, including how subtle costume differences were used to denote political rank in the Varos hierarchy, something which might be overlooked by most of the casual audience, but opens up the efforts put in by the all departments at the Beeb.
The biggest chuckle we had came reading of the problems which arose when trying to locate footage for the Doctor's “death” by desert mind-fuck, with imagery of scorching sands propelling him to parched doom. When asking for such looking at the usual companies which supply stock imagery, they were very surprised when the BBC crews were told that they were looking for the same kind of footage themselves! It was the good ol’ EMI Picture Library which was finally able to come up with the goods, in the form of silent 35mm film.
In something which goes against anybody who has had to audition for a role (even if it was written specifically for them…) we hear how Jason Connery was sent the script “…asking him if he would like the part”, and from personal experience, we sincerely wish all casting processes were as painless as that one! On the flipside of being grateful for work in the Biz, we get to hear of the instances when certain people booked to play henchmen failed to turn up, along with just who ended up pulling double-duty to take up the slack when playing the (fortuitously) masked characters.
The little “insider” references work so very well, drawing fans into the a secret circle of Doctor Who filming without the cast doing in front of a camera and being far to jolly about it. No pointing fingers, of course, but to do it subtly goes a long way to keeping things exclusive. OK, it’s no revelation, but when you read that the time-code system seen in the control room as the ghoulish TV show goes out is similar to the one used by the BBC when editing its own shows, it directly brings you in on the joke, rather than just dismissing it as utilising the standard operating procedures of the time. Extrapolating from that for a moment of whimsy, it makes you wonder if Auntie Beeb broadcasting torture in the mid-eighties was in any way linked to the commissioning of Eldorado not long after…
The risks taken by Paul Scoones will not be forgotten by an army of Doctor Who fans, for his dicing with death by peering into the Time Vortex has brought forth a tremendous bounty of exhaustive, exacting detail, giving you everything you could ever need (or even want) to know about Vengeance on Varos. You would be hard-pushed to find a more edifying way to spend an hour and a half, short of pulling a shotgun out at a convention and force information out of the guests over the course of ninety minutes. The former option avoids all that messy arrest and dropping-the-soap unpleasantness, and is much more entertaining. Peerless work - yet again!
Nice or Nasty?: Running at nearly half an hour, this retrospectively documents the making of Vengeance on Varos; though it doesn't have the active participation of either Colin Baker or Nicola Bryant - their presence is very much missed, especially as this is regarded by fans as being one of the best of Baker II’s bunch - it has television historian Matthew Sweet interviewing writer Philip Martin, script-editor Eric Saward, composer Jonathan Gibbs, along with actors Nabil Shaban and Sheila Reid.
Matthew Sweet opens things with his usual smug piece to camera that relates to part of the story and then informs the viewer about the controversy surrounding it and then tells you, Billy Jack-style, what is going to happen over the course of this documentary. Once this somewhat pretentious opening is over, Sweet becomes more engaging as in something of a break from the established making-of format, Northerner Sweet interviews his guests in a probing-yet-relaxed manner reminiscent of Michael Parkinson, but does not feel the urge to give his subjects a free Parker pen just for enquiring.
Sweet manages to get some good information out of his subjects, especially Eric Saward, who stops short of voicing some of his main concerns about Doctor Who at that point. Saward admits that he stayed on as script editor for too long and should have gotten out after the end of season 22 (before the Trial of a Time Lord), but didn't do it because he did not want to be seen as a rat leaving the sinking ship.
It's nice to hear composer Jonathan Gibbs interviewed here; his worked grace several Doctor Who stories during the early eighties, with his efforts providing something of a melodic respite to many of the efforts heard during this time in the show. Gibbs comes across as a very likeable man who looks back on his association with Doctor Who with a not inconsiderable degree of fondness.
The issue of violence is brought up by Sweet and it is mainly aimed at Eric Saward, who almost sheepishly holds his hand up in terms of responsibility over the level of nastiness seen on-screen at that point in Doctor Who's existence.
As a documentary, Nice or Nasty? delivers on the opening promises made by Matthew Sweet, but confining the answers to these posers to the last ten minutes; the first two-thirds of the running time almost plays like a standard making-of documentary. It's a pleasing look at the making and the subsequent controversy surrounding Vengeance on Varos and ultimately, Doctor Who itself was starting to spiral out of control.
The Idiot's Lantern: This is a breakneck look at the medium of television has been represented in Doctor Who or how television has influence the way that the medium has been portrayed in the show. Hosted by Samira Ahmed, this seven minute featurette has copious clips to illustrate the points being made, beginning with an excerpt from An Unearthly Child where The First Doctor tries to liken the inner dimensions of the TARDIS as a television.
There are some interesting points and observations made in this featurette (including how Nu-Who tries to inject a sense of realism and verisimilitude into things by having people watching the news trying to explain other-worldly events in a "realistic" manner and also depicting these events being reported around the world to cement this. It fails to mention that one of the first uses of "live" television on Doctor Who to inject a sense of realism into the story was The Daemons, though the story is very briefly touched upon.
Classic Doctor Who fans will find interesting the section that notes the similarities between the conventional space journeys The Doctor takes in The Seeds of Death and Ambassadors of Death (even the titles have distinct similarities) and has a split-screen comparison that is fascinating and amusing. We personally aren't keen on Nu-Who squeezing in specific televisual pop-culture references, as it tends to date pretty quickly (the use of Eastenders in Army of Ghosts is particularly toe-curling) and just comes across as cheap. Doctor Who has established a reputation as being something that will be enjoyed for decades to come and shouldn't have overt pop-culture references squeezed into it, but then again, we're suckers for the moment where Roger Delgado's Master watches The Clangers in The Sea Devils, so what do we know?
This is a pretty entertaining little look at how television has shaped how Doctor Who portrays the medium and Ahmed makes use of the opportunity to inject a little levity into the proceedings.
Saturday Superstore: In the battle for supremacy on Saturday morning television, the mighty Swap Shop had fallen. Posh Paws was extinct, and Noel Edmonds was looking for ways to break into prime-time that very same day, preferably without killing innocent members of the public in the process. A way of bridging the gap came in hte form of Saturday Superstore, fronted by DJ and general hipster Mike Reid, offering all things kids like, along with prizes, music and other colourful crap to remind kids it was the weekend.
To plug the new series of Doctor Who, Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant turned up in full costume, as if to prep the fans for a sartorial assault on the eyes. When asked just who decided about the clothes he was given for his character, Baker lets out an almost surprised chuckle, going so far as to say: “…I think his eyesight was a little poor, don‘t you…” before going on to directly name John Nathan-Turner in front of an audience of millions for his fashion crimes. He elaborates that clothing that hideous came about through an expert designer ramping up the tastelessness on each attempt before disgusting perfection was attained. Bryant stresses that the colourful clothing she sports was not her own choice, the offending blouse being her costume, and it appears that terrible apparel in the Doctor Who universe is a least operating on a sexually equal level.
One of the biggest draws in Saturday Superstore was always the most cringe worthy for us, being when the kiddies could call in an ask all sorts on obvious questions to their idols, with the more savvy of viewers keeping an eye on the little reactions from the guests so as to gauge just how embarrassed/uncomfortable they were. To great surprise, Bryant is asked something, and she details how she got into the business, but the kid asking probably tuned out at the mention of “musicals”. The only other look-in she gets is when asked how she won the role of Peri, with the reply most in the business will recognise: “An agent will put you up for the role, and you just hang around for five years waiting to see if you can get it.” With kids causing discomfort to the adults in the studio, to lighten things up comes a mystery caller, and while we all remember Five-Star and Bros copping abuse from crank-calls on live TV, but this one - identified himself only as “The Master” - not only mocks them, but threatens the two guests personally! Yep, Anthony Ainley gives the new facet of his arch nemesis a very public introduction to his villainy, and it’s a lot of fun to watch. Still, there are those that would argue that it wouldn’t be the first time Ainley phoned in a performance...
Baker and Bryant really shine when they are going through the prizes on offer, with they chemistry really coming through, and it’s a shame that the characters spent so much of the time on each others’ nerves, as the two actors were to very entertaining to watch when all smiles. When asked to repeat the rather easy competition question just in case anyone didn’t get it, Baker amusingly lets out of very impertinent “Duuuuhh” to express his contempt for having to do so. He was clearly having fun at the time, and as a matter of fact, this whole piece is almost depressing to sit through when you see the optimism and enthusiasm Baker had for the role from the outset, before being bogged-down by mediocre (or crap) scripts, changes forced upon him and almost universal dislike from not just critics, but also fans. You can almost savour his elation when Saturday Superstore has Baker’s handwriting analysed by a professional, unaware of the actors’ identity, with intelligence, independence, diligence and creativity being the watchwords to his personality. This is a man who was effectively crushed in a very public arena, and probably came out a different person the other end.
Seeing (and reviewing) things you saw when they went out are a always little awkward to write about, as watching it from an adult perspective changes your perception of the piece. In this case, if you can put they way Baker was screwed over out of your mind, then there is some real nostalgia to be found here. Fans will get off on a number of the prizes being offered, including some items which were already not longer in production at the time - love that picture LP - and there is a sense of fun about the whole thing. One of our other halves noticed the clip playing on the computer whilst writing, drawing the reaction of: “Yay, Saturday Superstore!” from her, proving the show still has fond memories for those of a certain age. Hell, somewhere in our archive we still have the clip of James “Scotty” Doohan cack-handedly dishing out the prizes for the release of Star Trek IV on the programme. The added participation of Anthony Ainley this time around gives it some real fan-appeal, and all shows just how much promise the show had with Baker at the helm.
French and Saunders Sketch: Ah, now for something so rib-ticklingly funny that it was never broadcast - Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders may be two successful, funny comediennes, but it doesn't mean that they don't have the odd duff sketch now and again. This skit involves the two of them playing supporting artistes (read: extras) in a Doctor Who story; they have ridiculous costumes and are required to do the minimum of action near the end of a take, but keep blowing it and hilarity ensues. Other than the multitude of inconsistencies and that will have some of the more anal Doctor Who fans inadvertently spitting their Ovaltine across the room, the sketch simply ISN'T funny. French and Saunders have often portrayed themselves as being lowly observers as major events unfold around them, in a manner similar to Tahei and Matashichi in Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, but with them being such being such big, established stars, it feels like them poking fun at people in the entertainment lower than themselves, or it feels like the whole thing is just an in-joke for the televisual bourgeoisie - or both.
You get to see what George Layton would have been like if he had been portrayed as The Doctor (he seems to be playing a Tom Baker-esque Doctor, which is pretty lazy, seeing as he had left the show several years prior to this point) and you get to see numerous Doctor Who costumes being recycled in a bizarre manner (one of the extras is seen wearing part of Omega's outfit from The Three Doctors!), but other than that, this thing really is painfully unfunny.
Tomorrow's Times: This is the final instalment of this very entertaining series that looks at the coverage Doctor Who received in the press. Presented by Sarah Sutton, this examines the journalistic focus that was applied to Colin Baker's brief tenure as The Sixth Doctor. Presented, as always, in a manner more than a little reminiscent of the popular old BBC show, What the Papers Say, this is another fabulously entertaining romp, with copious snippets to illustrate the uncertain times that Colin Baker found himself in. From the initial reaction to his casting, through to his unceremonious dismissal, there is plenty to keep you enthralled and disgusted in equal measure.
You see many of the main issues raised during Colin Baker's stint, including the adverse reaction to the "colourful" costume that Baker had forced upon him and the 18-month hiatus that Michael Grade imposed upon the show (though there was no mention of the rumour that Grade was actually trying to axe Doctor Who, but merely suspended production after a newspaper apparently got wind of the original plan). It is now generally accepted that the hiatus was imposed to allow the Beeb to generate the necessary start-up cash for Eastenders, but there is no explicit mention of this during this instalment of Tomorrow's Times.
The actress who was Nyssa presents this featurette in a manner not unlike Jan Leeming, being somewhat plummy and professional, yet with the occasional twinkle in the eye. Having a Doctor Who-related cast member presenting a peice on another era entirely is a bit of a bizarre concept, but the sense of personal detachment appears to work in its' favour. Though you can see Miss Basingstoke's eyes constantly darting back and forth as she reads the autocue, she still exhibits a certain amount of charm in her delivery.
Breakfast Time: Now, this was one of purest rushes of nostalgia we’ve ever experienced on a Doctor Who release, and is a most welcome inclusion where, fresh from the public announcement of his appointment to the role, Colin Baker shares the BBC sofa with Frank Bough to chat about the much-coveted job, where he informs that he wanted to “…inject a little acid humour into him” and all whilst wearing a rather nice calculator watch. The highlight of the interview comes when the panic that breaks out in the gallery is almost palpable as Bough mentions how Baker had been synonymous with being cast as villains on TV, something which started with the Roads to Freedom series. Getting a more frank answer than Bough was expecting, the jovial action concurs, noting how he: “…played a rapist in that, and as a result thereafter, I always got the nasty parts”. You can almost count in microseconds the speed at which Ol’ Frank changes the subject, including if there might be an encounter with the nations’ favourite baddies, and Bakers‘ reply of: “…I’d be very disappointed over the next year or so if I didn’t meet a Dalek” is given a degree of poignancy when you realise that his brief tenure only encompassed little more than the time-span he mentioned.
Along with the above clips from Saturday Superstore and the BBC News, you can really appreciate how much Baker was looking forward to being on the show, and how quickly things changed for him. We were hoping that Bough was going to ask him about the processes of acting, and making sure he didn’t forget his lines, something which Frank certainly didn’t, and that’s nothing to be sniffed at…
Deleted and Extended Scenes: You get plenty of extra TARDIS console-room action, with so much being shot you wonder if they were using it as a cover-set, and were the result of the number of delays in filming. It’s interesting that no one actor/character was bore the brunt of having to reduce the running time, with everybody having some of their work dropped from the final edit. One particularly nice inclusion is a scene where Baker, Connery and Alexander all contemplate their fate under incarceration, with some really good work from all involved. Most reading this will already know just what material is out there, so we’ll hold of giving a complete listing of everything, as surprise is a big part of the experience. OK, you get the original coda which takes place in the TARDIS - happy now? But though, how many times have we watched a deleted scenes section only to find something which was promised on there but nowhere to be found ( The Avengers’ Peggy Carter sequence, anyone?) or found stuff which you honestly weren’t expecting? It’s all timecoded, and of reasonable quality, Step right up and roll the dice, but we have a feeling you’ll want away pleased on this one…
Acid Bath Scene with Alternative Music: Whilst preparing the 5.1 audio mix, alternate music was discovered and it is included here for your edification. The synth-heavy music is much more of a product of it's time, but it helps to underscore the tension of the scene, not to mention resolving it in a playful manner when The Doctor makes his quip about not joining the guards in the deadly bath. It makes for an interesting examination of how music can tonally change a scene - one to be examined alongside the production audio, wethinks.
Outtakes: Fluffs come with a vengeance on Varos, as technical difficulties and thespians doing a Hartnell all combine in this trio of cock-ups that Dennis Norden would have killed for permission to use. Be it the large bank of video monitors failing to bring up images of Areta coming a cropper, the mike dipping into shot (to the mock indignation of Baker) there are few hearty chuckles to be had here, and all of excellent quality without the impediment of timecodes.
Behind the Scenes: This is the unedited footage of the scene where they decide to “extract” the truth from Peri, and probably would have been classed as 'outtakes' were they not in possession of the entire material, fluffs and all. It’s a nice look at just why filming a drama using multiple cameras was an art in itself, with actors momentarily stumbling over their lines whilst others fail to maintain composure. With Martin Jarvis seeming to rack up the most fouls, it comes as little surprise that he expresses his thanks to the director for letting them have another attempt at recording it. Included are both attempts to get it on tape, and you can certainly see the improvement when they are all functioning in a more focused fashion. This is a really nice inclusion, as it gives a very honest look at the way the BBC production mill operated at the time, and how actors had to bring stage-accrued technique to get through it all.
News: Fronted by a frighteningly young-looking John Humphries, the BBC news covers the announcement of Colin Baker as the new Doctor, with footage from his press-call. Sure, Baker comes out with almost the same things as he said on his Breakfast Time interview with Frank Bough, but it’s nice to see how big a deal it all was back then, enough to make it onto the main news with all the gravitas usually reserved for the second-coming of Jesus H Christ. Say… The Doctor dies only to live again. He was betrayed to a slow, painful crucifixion by one of his disciples, only to have his faith and following made even stronger once resurrected. Not to mention his coat of many colours… bugger, that’s the other one, isn’t it? It’s fun to see news before it all went the way The Day Today predicted it would, so it’s worth the few minutes of your time it‘ll take up.
Trailers: Both starting with variations on “…In tonight’s Doctor Who in fifteen minutes…” these two little gems really evoke the times the story was shown in, with selections of material which really would have hooked fans waiting for it to start after the news, and might have attracted causal viewers with Sil’s seductive villainy and Bakers’ underrated humour. We’re pretty sure we know who had their VCR running at the time to capture these, and we’re very grateful they did!
Continuities: As with the above, someone very fortuitously had their video recorder running to capture the opening links to both episodes of Vengeance on Varos, each containing varying levels of enthusiasm from the announcer reading them. What else is there to say, but they are a welcome window into the past, and reminds us all just how horrible the yellow/blue globe used at the time was.
Photo Gallery: It caught our eye that some photos from the Acid-Bath scene are more graphic than was allowed into the final edit of the show. There are a number of ones with Baker where you really can see what’s going on behind the eyes, the complexity of his performance being captured more successfully on celluloid rather than on videotape. As a matter of fact, these still how that if Vengeance on Varos were to have been shot on film, it would have looked absolutely stellar, with the visual qualities of a feature as opposed to a TV show. You also get a few stills of makeup being applied to various actors, and the whole shebang is perfectly brought alive by the combined audio contributions of Jonathon Gibbs and Dick Mills.
PDF Materials: As well as the trusty listings from the Radio Times (where they claim The Doctor finds deadly “video games” on both occasions) you’ll find letters both for and against the violence found in that particular season of the show, as well as a “humorous” cartoon depicting the stronger direction the show was going in. Best of all is something REALLY interesting: a promotional flyer from the BBC -this “sales sheet” gives a rundown of the plot and the cast, presumably to stimulate interest among international broadcasters who might be tempted to take up the show. We suspect that many printers will be set in motion by the inclusion of this excellent extra.
Coming Soon: This is it! This is the one so many people have been waiting for - Ambassadors of Death presented in full colour for the first time since it went out over forty years ago! We’ve already seen it, and it is just breathtaking to finally have it back the way it was intended to be viewed. Get ready to smash open those piggy-banks, kids!
We hadn't seen Vengeance on Varos since it was originally broadcast; we certainly remember the story, but we recall not being all that taken by it (give us a break, we were only eleven at the time). Watching it now, we can see exactly why the story is held in such high esteem. It could be argued that it was groundbreaking stuff back then - and most certainly controversial; the cast are firing on all cylinders, the script positively reverberates with portentous echoes.
The extras are plentiful, with a staggering SIX audio options, along with all manner of featurettes. The image quality is a step-up from the original release and the audio is in another league entirely. This is one special edition that no true Doctor Who fan will want to pass up.
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 10th September 2012
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Digital 2.0
Extras: Audio Commentary, Nice or Nasty?, The Idiot's Lantern, Tomrrow's Times: The Sixth Doctor, Saturday Superstore, Outtakes, Painfully Unfunny French and Saunders Sketch, Production Audio, Isolated Score, News, Production Subtitles, Coming Soon Trailer, PDF Materials
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ron Jones
Cast: Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, Martin Jarvis, Nabil Shaban
Length: 98 minutes
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