Vengeance on Varos is probably one of the grimmest Doctor Who stories so far. Much like The Sun Makers, it pushes contemporary concepts to farcical extremes to create a darkly comic dystopian future. In this case, it’s a society that oppresses its people while publicly televising torture and death for their entertainment, dangling the carrot of freedom in front of them by letting them vote on their governor’s policies. I suppose it’s also a commentary on reality TV, albeit a bit before its time.
The plot is kept simple, but is punctuated by some distinctive imagery. The slug-like alien, Sil, and his evil gurgling laugh is particularly memorable. Quillam’s scarred face, Peri growing feathers over her skin, the Doctor being subjected to heat exhaustion, an acid bath and a gallows. It’s almost relentlessly bleak.
It has some comedic elements, some of which work as satire, like the couple watching and commenting on the TV at home, while some of it feels very badly judged in tone. The Doctor is supposed to care about life, but he has no problem with causing a few deaths here. Firstly, the security guard who gets zapped by the torture beam that he intentionally sets up as a trap, and later the two who get knocked into the acid vat. This wouldn’t be so bad, but the Doctor then makes a witty quip afterwards (“you’ll forgive me if I don’t join you”) – he’s not James bloody Bond! He hasn’t got the dress sense, for a start.
The Governor is the sympathetic character, bravely going against the grain of the public vote, and is generally likable even when he’s giving questionable orders in the line of duty. No-one is a saint, there are only shades of grey. The Doctor continues to improve as a character I can actually care about, which I guess means he just needed a decent script, and on the whole I did enjoy this one a lot.