This Sixth Doctor serial from 1985 has quite the reputation among Whovians; people seem to either love it or hate it with no middle ground. I have heard it denounced as the worst of the Colin Baker era if not of all of classic Who‘s twenty-six years, and I have heard it praised as an underrated and under-appreciated gem. As I’ve learned with so many of the Sixth Doctor’s other stories, the only way to form an honest opinion about this episode was to watch it for myself.
The Doctor and Peri land on the planet Varos to procure a fresh supply of the mineral zeiton-7, which is vital for the TARDIS’s operations. When they arrive, they are shocked to learn that Varos is a 1984-like planet with an oppressed population, spying guards, and entertainment that consists solely of watching prisoners being tortured. And because it’s Doctor Who, it’s not long at all before they get involved in a resistance that aims to free the people from their oppression
Yes, it’s a plot that’s been recycled a lot in Doctor Who‘s history. That being said, this was probably my favorite interpretation of that plot. I lose patience with a lot of these grungy, heavy, Big Brother stories, whether they’re in Doctor Who or not, because they are so blatantly trying to emulate George Orwell’s 1984. 1984 is a classic all its own and can never truly be copied, but Doctor Who took a cliched story line and made it unique. Part of what made the setting work so well were the characters, especially Sil and the Governor. I was already familiar with Sil because I had previously seen “The Trial of a Time Lord”, so it was really interesting to see Sil’s first Who appearance. What surprised me the most was that he seemed like such an important personage in this episode while in “Trial” he came across a little fish trying to be important.
As fascinated as I was by Sil, it was the Governor who really captured my attention. Here was a man who had lost all hope and was thoroughly disgusted with his culture but saw no way out. I was convinced he was going to die for his principles in some noble manner, so I was pleased to see that he didn’t die, that he listened to the Doctor’s advice and was able to lead his planet into a prosperous new era.
Long story short? “Vengeance on Varos” does not deserve all of the hate it receives. Yes, it is dark in tone, but a lot of the 80’s episodes were dark, so it seems unfair to single this one out specifically. It starts out a bit slowly, but when the plot picks up, it really grabs your attention. I wholeheartedly recommend this installment of classic Doctor Who; you’ll be missing out on something special if you pass it by.