Thanks to the quirks of KTEH’s (a bastion of Doctor Who in the U.S. back in the day) scheduling of Colin Baker’s first season as the Doctor, I saw season 22 of classic Who a lot during my first decade or so as a fan. That kind of explains why it’s been a hot minute since I dusted off that particular season on either my VHS or DVD collection. It’s probably been at least a decade since I really dabbled in season 22 in a serious way — and boy, did revisiting Philip Martin’s adaptation of his script for “Vengeance on Varos” show that.
Martin takes a page from the master of the Doctor Who adaptation, Terrance Dicks, and gives us essentially the same story we get on-screen. Though to Martin’s credit (and Dicks in the early days before they chained him to a typewriter and he churned out eight novels in a year), he does at least try to make the story feel like it unfolds over a longer duration of time than what we got on-screen. Martin makes it feel like the Doctor, Peri, Jondar, and Arata spend a bit more time wandering around the punishment dome, trying to find a way out and escape. He even extends things out enough so it appears the Doctor has passed away for longer than five-minutes than we see on-screen.
There is an extended sequence where we pull back the curtain and see how the Governor truly lives when he’s not negotiating with Sil or being sprayed with death rays. And don’t forget that part where he has Sil fall into the vat of liquid that he’s constantly being sprayed with on-screen.
But despite all these flourishes, it’s the story of “Varos” that continues to shine through and where the success or failure of this particular story lies.
Thirty years ago, the video nasties of Varos seemed like a cautionary tale. Now, they feel all too real with the rise of reality television and how parts of it seem to get crueler with each passing season. Martin borrows certain aspects of Orwell in creating the world of Varos, from couples potentially spying on each other to the non-stop entertainment screens in all the living quarters. Varos is a shabby, drab place but it could be more if the Varosians realized that their Ziton 7 ore was far more valuable than corporate negotiator Sil lets on.
Looking at the story again thirty years on, I can’t help but wonder just how Sil and his corporation control the information that Ziton 7 is more valuable than they’re letting on. But then, I look around at the world today and think — maybe that isn’t so far-fetched after all.
Martin’s script, which seemed far-fetched thirty plus years ago, looks far too much like what some of pop culture entertainment has become these days. I find myself revisiting certain sci-fi works from the last thirty years with their warnings about certain aspects of our world and wishing we’d paid more attention to them or learned the actual lesson they were trying to teach us.
“Varos” is a good script — possibly the strongest of Colin Baker’s tenure as the Doctor. Steven Moffat seems to agree, choosing this one to represent the era for the fiftieth anniversary a few years ago. I suppose to a casual fan or one wanting an overview of classic Who, it would suffice as am ample representative of its era (one that was far more fascinating for what was happening behind the camera rather than in front of it). But to this fan, I found myself wanting a bit more from it this time — or maybe just a bit more from the novelization. I know at this point in the show, producer John Nathan-Turner ruled the novels with an iron fist, rarely allowing authors to expand much beyond what you saw on screen to the printed page. I can’t help but wonder if Martin’s story would have benefited from being allowed to do some character and world-building across the pages (and maybe run longer than the typical Target novel did).
As an audiobook, this one is well read by Martin Jarvis. (Interestingly, this was also selected years ago as an abridged audiobook read by Colin Baker). Jarvis’ recreation of various characters is well done and he adds a bit of enjoyment to revisiting the dark, bleak world of Varos.
And like any good Target book, this one left me with the yearning to revisit the original source material. Which I may have to do pop this one in the DVD player for the first time in a decade or so.