I don’t have good memories of the Colin Baker years. Having been introduced to Who by the much-loved Tom Baker, and then growing up to the utterly likeable Fifth Doctor, number Six was something of an unwelcome change. The fact that he was followed by the (also utterly likeable) Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor hasn’t done our Col any favours either.
However, coming back to him in the wider context of Who history, I think I may have done him a disservice. There’s no denying that the wardrobe department did their best to make him memorable for all the wrong reasons, his companions were eye candy at best, and then there was Trial of a Time Lord, which I epically disliked at the time; but for all that, I don’t think it’s fair to blame Colin Baker or his rendition of the Doctor for this being an unpopular era in the classic show.
Vengeance on Varos, for instance, is a brilliant piece of Doctor Who that might well have been one of the great stories, given a better costume and a less annoying companion. At the start of the story, with the TARDIS having run out of petrol somewhere in the Gamma Quadrant, the Doctor sinks into a sulky melancholy, looking forward to life after life adrift in deep space, while Peri will have the good fortune of dying in a few years time. In his darker, more serious moments, and with the benefit of a bit more back story, it is easy to see that Baker was actually channelling the First Doctor, and knowing this makes his character a lot more likeable – even when he is being deliberately unlikeable.
So, with the Sixth Doctor forgiven, on with the story. In brief, they track down a reachable fuel source, the Zeiton-7 mines on Varos, which is a dystopian state in which the people are all but prisoners, subdued by being allowed to watch villains being tortured on TV (I’m a Celebrity, anyone?) while the
oil Zeiton-7 barons exploit them by making sure they have no clue of the true value of the stuff they are producing. Into this drop the Doctor and Peri, arriving in the ‘Punishment Dome’, where they are mistaken for a hallucination (a clown and a bimbo getting out of a blue phone box? Easy mistake to make) and rescue the Dome’s current victim.
Obviously the torture and execution thing means the whole story is much darker than some 80s Who, but it gives the Doctor a chance to be heroic again, instead of just grumpy. He even seems genuinely concerned for Peri’s well-being.
However, our heroes’ attempts to escape the Punishment Dome are just the action that goes on in between the satire of reality TV, political corruption and corporate exploitation of the masses… the portrayal of the voyeuristic masses tuning in for an execution (that isn’t a repeat) especially could easily have been written with 21st Century TV in mind.
Masterminding this Orwellian nightmare is the fuel magnate Sil, a deliciously vile sort of dwarf Jabba the Hutt character whose reign comes to an end when the Doctor tells the current retail value of a gallon of Zeiton-7.
Do you always get the priestly parts?
Do you always get the priestly parts?
Obviously the Doctor’s meddling is typically unwelcome, exacerbated by his colour clash to the point that it is decided to off him the old fashioned way: by hanging, an event which is accompanied by much pseudo-religious chanting which again highlights the importance of television to the Varosians (and by extension, all of us).
While the action of the story is unfolding, much of it is being watched by a couple of ordinary Varosian folks, which aside from allowing some very meta observations on the Doctor’s outfit, shows the viewer how the ordinary people see all this torture and exploitation. It also allows for a very nice ending, in which our ordinary working=class Varosians are finally granted their freedom… and have no idea what to do with it.
Watch this to see for yourself that the Sixth Doctor was not a completely horrible Time Lord, and then ponder whether you are putting the various freedoms you enjoy in the internet-enabled Western world to good use.
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