Doctor Who Project: Vengeance on Varos

When did they last show something worth watching, eh?

By 1985, Doctor Who has, in keeping with the essentially protean nature of the main character, embodied many genres: historical romps, action adventures, existential ruminations, alien crime whodunnits, twelve-part space operas, and comedic asides. Rarest of the dramatic forms, though, stands the didactic commentary, wherein the Doctor encounters a situation germane to contemporary events. Philip Martin, channeling his inner Roberts (Sloman and Holmes, the keenest practitioners of social commentary on Doctor Who), revives the lost art of pointing fingers at the present in “Vengeance on Varos” (Story Production Code 6V), putting on trial the very idea of television itself as an addiction, a veritable opiate of the masses. But where Robert Holmes made a merry jest of workers overthrowing (and throwing over) the ruling classes in “The Sun Makers,” Martin takes a darker tone from the off.

Jondar (Jason Connery) awaits his fate

After an establishing model shot of a domed city on a barren landscape, director Ron Jones kicks off the ninety minute, two episode story with a close up of a shirtless rebel (Jondar, played by Jason Connery) being tortured via laser blasts, his screams and torment all for the enjoyment of the overworked citizens of Varos, portrayed in miniature by Arak and Etta (Stephen Yardley and Sheila Reid). It’s a discomfiting beginning, with Jondar’s agony mixed at full blast on the audio track; Arak and Etta take it in hungrily as they pick at the meager rations offered for their daily meal, the dissonance between their contentment and the captured rebel’s suffering landing quite effectively. When the bread is lacking, the circuses must be increased.

Arak and Etta (Stephen Yardley and Sheila Reid) enjoying some light torture with their meager meal

Colonized originally as a prison planet hundreds of years in the past, Varosian society holds a strict social demarcation between the descendants of the overseers and those of the prisoners, who toil still in the mines. Varos represents the sole source of Zeiton-7 ore, used to power the engines of “space-time craft,” and thus should be a wealthy planet. An off-world mining conglomerate, represented by the slug-like Sil (Naibil Shaban) seeks to extract as much ore as possible from the planet for the lowest price, and has driven the planet to financial ruin in the process. As part of contract re-negotiations, the Governor (Martin Jarvis) submits his proposal to lower rations in order to hold out for a better price to the viewers, who resoundingly reject the plan, voting in real time on their viewscreens, subjecting him to a near-lethal shock as a consequence. Television ratings have real consequences in this setting—a situation no doubt weighing heavily on the mind of producer John Nathan-Turner at the time, with Doctor Who‘s own fate constantly in the balance.

Nicola Bryant and Colin Baker as Peri and the Sixth Doctor, popping around a corner to say hello

From the moment the TARDIS arrives on Varos, so the Sixth Doctor and Peri can procure Zeiton-7 to reline the “transitional elements” in the power-drained time rotor, we watch Arak and Etta watch our time travellers attempt to escape from the Punishment Dome, where they have fortuitously interrupted Jondar’s execution. Martin continuously puts the viewers (the real ones) a step removed from the action, highlighting the artifice of television and the choices made by the people controlling the screens. The moments of second-order distance, with the Doctor and Peri’s travails frequently observed through screens that are shown on the screen, work tremendously well in highlighting the inherent desensitization caused by watching from afar, made more striking by the CRT televisions of the time, with their slight blurring and glare when themselves filmed.

Watching the Sixth Doctor on television

The cameras constantly follow the Doctor, Peri, Jondar, and his partner Areta (Geraldine Alexander) as they confront the psychological horrors of the Purple Zone, which cause fears to become visually manifest—specifically, a giant fly’s head, which, as an effect, fares slightly better than the mega-rat in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang.” The Chief (Forbes Collins), who is secretly working in league with Sil to undermine the Governor, exalts in the potential for sales of the tapes of the chase and eventual execution to “every civilized world,” a grim commentary of the galactic culture of the time (and, indirectly, of the direction of contemporary international media sales towards gore and violence). Once the Doctor enters the “No Options Kill Center,” the tongue-in-cheek dystopian nomenclature played characteristically straight in this story, the Governor orders the camera operator to zoom in on the Gallifreyan’s death throes, the executive function on Varos at once political and directorial. For yet again, John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward deliver a cliffhanger in which the Doctor, convinced by the telepathic devices in the Dome that he is suffering from heatstroke, seemingly dies…

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Doctor Who Project: Attack of the Cybermen

This looks familiar.

John Nathan-Turner takes no chances with Season Twenty-Two, rolling out those crafty bio-mechanical cyborgs as the marquee attraction to open the Sixth Doctor’s first full season in Paula Moore’s “Attack of the Cybermen” (Story Production Code 6T). Indeed, the entire story, told in the new format of two forty-five minute episodes airing weekly in the once-traditional Saturday evening time slot, bespeaks an attempt, at times seemingly desperate, to appeal to Doctor Who‘s roots, with scarcely five minutes passing between references, both oblique and obvious, to the series’ history. The resulting tale succeeds quite resoundingly at integrating Colin Baker’s recently regenerated Doctor into the fabric of the show, but as with prior attempts by producer Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward to reward long-time viewers with moments of in-group recognition, the excessive reliance on audience awareness of key moments and figures from the Doctor’s past mutes the effect for more casual viewers, who are more likely to be confused than thrilled at the mention of Telos…

A puzzled Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) peers outside the TARDIS

The Doctor’s more immediate history comes into play from the start, with a very familiar face planning a diamond heist in central London, circa 1985: Lytton (Maurice Colbourne). Last seen escaping to 1984 London via time tunnel from the chaos of the exploding Dalek ship in “Resurrection of the Daleks,” with two Dalek-enslaved bobbies in tow, this mercenary from the planet Vita 15 sets up an interplanetary distress beacon that draws the TARDIS to Earth. No expository set-up to his prior role occurs during the first episode, and while Colbourne plays Lytton with an ominous air, the full impact of seeing him only affects those who remember that prior story, which aired almost a year earlier.

Lytton (Maurice Colbourne) scheming again

And where, indeed, does the TARDIS land? Oh, just 76 Totter’s Lane, a nondescript little junkyard owned by one I.M. Foreman. This return to the series’ birth feels so on-the-nose that, frankly, one wonders why it took twenty-two seasons to happen. While it would take a cold heart indeed to not smile at the moment, it’s sadly played here as a one-off, just a visual name-drop in a story filled with knowing nods to the past. In short, there’s reference, but no reverence, as though simply showing the place itself should suffice to convey meaning. The Sixth Doctor and Peri leave as quickly as they arrive, without a word said about the location’s significance.

The Sixth Doctor and Peri (Nicola Bryant) come full circle

The general lack of respect for tradition goes somewhat further in the case of the TARDIS, whose chameleon circuit the Doctor has finally “fixed,” after a fashion. Upon materializing on Totter’s Lane, it takes the form of a painted Victorian cabinet, and later appears as a pipe organ and a wrought iron gate. Even though the chameleon circuit returns to its “broken” state by the end, it’s a discomfiting change from the familiar blue police box, done for no reason other than that it hadn’t been done before. Too, the prior inviolability of the TARDIS has, under Nathan-Turner’s aegis, fallen by the wayside; from being blown up in “Frontios” and invaded by inter-dimensional imps in “The Awakening,” it’s a small step to being easily opened and occupied by Cybermen later in the plot. Entire stories once revolved around Daleks and other ne’er-do-wells laying siege to the previously impenetrable TARDIS doors.

The, erm, TARDIS?

The story’s first episode establishes Lytton’s efforts to lead his heist team into the sewers, with the opening scene showing two workers killed by a mysterious figure whose identity is fairly easily guessed given the cybernetic fuzz of the first-person camera work, should the tale’s title not have sufficed. (And, of course, long-term viewers will remark to their less-than-impressed friends that the Cybermen set up shop in London’s sewers back in the 1970s as well.) The Doctor and Peri track Lytton’s distress signal to a workshop with an entrance to the sewers, and they follow him down below, though not before knocking out Lytton’s two faux-police guardians, who, like the intergalactic rogue himself, are not explained at all for viewers lacking familiarity with “Resurrection of the Daleks.” When the first episode reaches its midpoint, or what would be the normal cliffhanger for a “standard” length episode, the Cybermen finally make their grand entrance, appearing from behind a hidden door in the sewers after Lytton calls to them, suggesting that Moore originally wrote the story for a four-episode format. Old habits die hard…

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Doctor Who Project: The Twin Dilemma

That hardly sounds in character.

Each new Doctor’s inaugural tale must fulfill two objectives, often at odds with each other. In addition to providing a rousing introduction for the new title character, one that establishes a tone, an arc, for the adventures to come, the story must still function as a narrative whole, placing the new Doctor in some engaging situation that puts the fledgling Time Lord’s fresh attitude to the test. Not all of Doctor Who‘s post-regeneration stories work as well as others, and Colin Baker’s proper debut as the Sixth Doctor, in Anthony Steven’s “The Twin Dilemma” (Story Production Code 6S) doesn’t quite deliver the comprehensive punch of, say, Jon Pertwee’s “Spearhead from Space,” which introduced the Third Doctor in as compelling a tale as possible.

Nicola Bryant and Colin Baker as Peri and the Sixth Doctor

In part, this narrative disconnection comes about because producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward seem intent on telling one long story with their run on Doctor Who. Most other Doctors take over at the beginning of a season, with months passing between the prior Doctor’s regeneration and the new Doctor’s first real appearance, separating the audience from their memory of the predecessor. Here, Colin Baker assumes the role in Season Twenty-One’s final story; only six days pass between the Sixth Doctor popping up with a burr under his saddle at the end of “The Caves of Androzani” and the first episode of “The Twin Dilemma.” Having built the Fifth Doctor’s story as a continuous slide into ruin and despair with the first six stories in Season Twenty-One, Nathan-Turner and Saward seem intent on directly addressing the trauma they caused by inducing a regeneration crisis in the Sixth Doctor that leaves him initially with no discernible character at all.

A less-than-impressed Peri taking in the Sixth Doctor's gesticulations

Such a character-driven focus can pay real narrative dividends, and a more daring approach might have seen this as the sole focus of a story, a tight two-episode tale along the lines of Season One’s “The Edge of Destruction,” where the TARDIS crew turns on each other in an existential fugue, revealing far more of their true identities than any encounter with a Dalek ever could. But as with Peter Davison’s initial story, “Castrovalva,” Nathan-Turner’s concept of the “regeneration crisis” in “The Twin Dilemma” starts out strong and then flounders as the “action” part of the plot fails to keep pace. For once again, the notion of magical sums comes into play.

Romulus and Remus (Gavin and Andrew Conrad) -- or maybe the other way around

Two precocious, mathematically gifted twins, with the unfortunate names Romulus and Remus (Gavin and Andrew Conrad), disappear from their home on Earth, kidnapped by Professor Edgeworth (Maurice Denham), who seeks to harness their genius in order to move planets. Adric, it might be noted, similarly found himself trussed up in a skien of webs in the Master’s TARDIS in “Castrovalva,” his own calculation skills used to power the “block transfer equations” that create the mysterious town of the same name out of sheer nothingness. Much of beginning of “The Twin Dilemma” establishes the twins and the efforts of the Earth authorities to rescue them, padding out the story by introducing characters never seen again, save Lieutenant Hugo Lang (Kevin McNally), whose squadron of space fighters explodes while chasing Edgeworth’s space freighter to the asteroid Titan 3.

Maurice Denham as Professor Edgeworth (for now)

The Sixth Doctor, inevitably, turns his sights on supposedly abandoned Titan 3 as well, seeking a hermitage in which to recover his senses; the Fifth Doctor obviously never replaced the TARDIS “Zero Room” he retreated to (and then ejected) during his own regeneration crisis. His behavior immediately after his regeneration veers wildly—madly, even—at turns irascible, cowardly, brash, and, in a frankly shocking twist for the character, violent. Throughout “The Twin Dilemma,” the Sixth Doctor, and indeed Nathan-Turner behind him, seems to be daring the audience to dislike the Doctor. By the time he accuses Peri of being an alien spy and pushes her to the ground, throttling her, one might well say he succeeds…

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Doctor Who Project: Peter Davison Retrospective

While Peter Davison might have been the youngest actor, at 29, to take on the title role in Doctor Who when he became the Fifth Doctor in 1981, in many ways he stands as the most adult of the Time Lords to grace our screen. From the very beginning, in “Castrovalva,” Davison’s Doctor shepherds his copious flock of companions to safety, and while they certainly support him in turn, the overall effect throughout his twenty-story run feels very much like a beleaguered teacher on an intergalactic field trip, hoping to get all the kids back on the big blue box bus.

The Fifth Doctor and Companions survey the Urbankan spaceship

In part, this sense of heightened responsibility for his youthful charges—Tegan notionally being oldest, somewhere in her early-twenties—dovetails with producer John Nathan-Turner’s increasing focus on the Doctor being old, not just in terms of having a massive well of off-screen experience to explain whatever might be needed to move the plot along, but also bearing the emotional scars from those hundreds of years of regeneration-fueled existence. And at its best, Davison’s ability to harness this reservoir of painful knowledge imbues his version of the Doctor with a depth of character that transcends the often uneven scripts. For the Fifth Doctor, more than any other, fails.

The Fifth Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa, realizing Adric is dead

Three stories in particular—”Earthshock,” “Warriors of the Deep,” and “Resurrection of the Daleks“—highlight (for lack of a better word) the ways in which the Fifth Doctor faces the limits of his power and the limitations of his belief system. Like many a person in middle age, he comes to terms with his regrets. It’s no longer a series aimed at children…

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Doctor Who Project: The Caves of Androzani

Curiosity’s always been my downfall.

After twenty stories, spanning nearly two and a half years, Peter Davison hangs up the Fifth Doctor’s cricket sweater in “The Caves of Androzani” (Story Production Code 6R). Producer John Nathan-Turner entrusts this valedictory story to a Doctor Who legend, Robert Holmes, both a prolific writer and a former script editor for the series, a recognition of the importance of this milestone moment. The ensuing four episode tale takes the Fifth Doctor on a journey into his core beliefs, confronting issues of life and death against an incredibly violent and grim backdrop. Strangely, though, the Doctor only peripherally interacts with the conflict that dominates the story, between the military from Androzani Major and a small band of androids led by their disfigured creator, waging a war on Androzani Minor for control of a life-extending drug.

Peter Davison and Nicola Bryant as the Fifth Doctor and Peri

Holmes, with the tacit agreement of Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward, puts the Doctor through a grueling test in “The Caves of Androzani,” forcing him to choose between his own life and the continued well-being not of the universe, or even a whole planet—like many a prior Doctor’s regeneration story—but of one person, whom he just met: Peri (Nicola Bryant). They arrive, apparently straight after “Planet of Fire,” on barren Androzani Minor (its name an awkward Nation-esque play off of the android inhabitants) looking for glass to repair a faulty TARDIS circuit, only to be stricken immediately by a deadly toxin produced by raw spectrox, source of the precious rejuvenating elixir being fought over. Before they can return to the TARDIS, alas, they stumble upon a gun-runner’s cache of arms, destined for the rebels, just as General Chellak’s (Martin Cochrane) troops close in, apprehending them as traitors to Androzani Major.

Peter Davison and Martin Cochrane as the Fifth Doctor and General Chellak

If captivity and the increasing severity of their condition, known as spectrox toxemia and signposted by weariness and progressively unnerving makeup on their skin, were not enough, the owner of Androzani Minor, the businessman Morgus (John Normington) orders them executed, pour les encourager les autres and so forth, showing no interest in learning what they might know about the source of the weapons, preferring to get back to his financial scheming. The first episode cliffhanger, one of the most disturbing yet, shows Chellak carrying out the order. Guns blaze forth, with the Doctor and Peri slumping to the ground in their red execution hoods to open the second episode. Viewers tuning in expecting a regeneration story—or indeed those who have witnessed the inevitable violence and tendency to the unexpected during John Nathan-Turner’s run as producer—might be excused for thinking that the Doctor could die in such an unheroic manner, but instead the Gallifreyan and his companion have been replaced by perfect replica androids.

The Fifth Doctor and Peri, replaced by androids just in time

Their erstwhile savior, Sharaz Jek (Christopher Gable), created the androids to mine the deadly spectrox in alliance with Morgus, but when the tycoon turned on him, leaving him to die in one of the mud magma flows that plague Androzani Minor, the horribly scarred Jek vowed to avenge his fate. Hence, the android rebellion, aimed at cutting off the flow of spectrox that the people of Androzani Major rely on to the point of psychological addiction. Far from being an uprising for the rights of sentient robotic life, then, or any other noble cause that might tug on a Time Lord heart(s)-strings, Jek fights solely for revenge, demanding as a condition for ending the rebellion nothing much, just Morgus’ head on a literal plate. Jek’s whole demeanor, from his black-and-white leather face mask to his frequent unhinged rants, set him off as perhaps the most irredeemable villain yet in the series, a pantomime version of the Phantom of the Opera (stealing a march on Weber by two years), made all the worse by the fact that his besotted, and frankly creepy, behavior towards Peri comes across as unwelcome as a Dalek slug’s tentacle…

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Doctor Who Project: Resurrection of the Daleks

It seems I must mend my ways.

Given producer John Nathan-Turner’s iconoclastic approach to Doctor Who, the most surprising element of script editor Eric Saward’s “Resurrection of the Daleks” (Story Production Code 6P) is just how long it took the two of them to get around to remaking the most beloved villains in the series’ history. By Season Twenty-One in 1984, fully three and a half seasons have elapsed since Nathan-Turner took over, and in that time he brought back many an old foe, from the Silurians and the Master to Omega and the Cybermen, often giving them a harsher, less subtle, and more menacing aspect. As for the Daleks—in their first full appearance in nearly five years, since 1979’s “Destiny of the Daleks,” not counting their brief cameo in “The Five Doctors,” and the first not written by creator Terry Nation in over twelve years, since Louis Marks’ “The Day of the Daleks” from 1972—the perfidious pepperpots come out of the Nathan-Turner and Saward transmogrifier with a surprising twist: they are defeated.

The Mighty Daleks

Saward’s story draws heavily upon Nation’s “Destiny of the Daleks,” which sees the Fourth Doctor and Romana in the far future outwit, in turn, the Daleks; their new forever enemies, the robotic, disco-bead-wearing Movellans; and Davros, the latter being captured and placed in suspended animation for transport back to Earth. Some ninety years later, the war between the excessively logical rivals has ended. The Movellans introduced a virus that targets Dalek genetics, wiping out most of the mutated Kaleds and scattering the remainder to far-flung corners of the galaxy to escape its effects. Hoping to engineer a cure, the Supreme Dalek, aided by a small core of followers, turns to their creator, Davros, for help once again (as they did in “Destiny of the Daleks,” after having tried to kill him in “Genesis of the Daleks,” if anyone is keeping score).

Terry Molloy as Davros

They can’t do it alone, though, as their power has waned and their ability to think strategically has diminished. They turn instead to a band of brainwashed human duplicates, led by Lytton (Maurice Colbourne), to serve as their shock army, and also, for reasons that Saward never really tries to explain, to guard a cache of Movellan virus canisters in an abandoned London warehouse in 1984, accessed via a “time corridor” created by the Supreme Dalek’s spaceship. It’s this corridor that the TARDIS finds itself trapped in at the end of “Frontios,” and by the time the Fifth Doctor breaks free of it, the temporal-spatial momentum brings the blue box down on the banks of the Thames, right near a street where a group of armed bobbies guns down a band of escaped slaves from the Dalek ship in the story’s opening scenes.

Not quite your average bobbie.

This opening in particular, with its sense of disorientation, juxtaposing the familiar with the unexplained, sets out the stakes for the entire two part story. (To accommodate the Sarajevo Winter Olympics, the four original twenty-five minute episodes of this story were edited into two fifty minute ones, per Howe and Walker, Doctor Who: The Television Companion.) More than anything, the first few minutes call to mind the ruined London of “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” and the shock when the usually unarmed contemporary police appear and kill in cold blood causes confusion and dismay in equal measure. Saward and Nathan-Turner intend to bring about just what the title suggests, a “resurrection” of the Daleks, returning them to their rightful place as the ominous, frightful, ruthless killers that they are. But then they take a page from the campiest of all Dalek stories, “The Chase,” and have the Doctor bundle a screeching Dalek out a window to its explosive demise…

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