‘The Black Archive #41: Vengeance on Varos’

❉ This is one of the very best entries in Obverse Books’ Black Archive series, writes Si Hart. 

“In an era where Gogglebox is a ratings hit, Jonathan Dennis shows how ‘Vengeance on Varos’ is a story that was ahead of its time”

Thirty-Five years since its first broadcast, Season 22 of Doctor Who remains a controversial one for fans. Too violent, gruesome and downright nasty in places, it’s a season that is sometimes easy to admire, but often hard to love. With the announcement of the eighteenth month hiatus coming in the middle of broadcast seemingly due to its violent nature, this season has been often analysed under these terms, but rarely as thoroughly as in this latest addition to Obverse Book’s Black Archive series.

Jonathan Dennis takes these themes as the basis for his essays on Vengeance on Varos. He asks some difficult questions about the show in this particular season. This is the perfect story to ask these questions about the series, as it sets out to critique violence as and in entertainment, but were they a suitable theme for a Doctor Who story?

An irresistible place to start is to compare it to George Orwell’s 1984. As Dennis notes, 1984 and other dystopian fiction was very much in vogue as this story was being written and going into production. He takes an incredibly detailed look at the ways the novel influenced the story, from the language used, to the way media and screens are used throughout both stories before comparing how each dystopian society is ruled. There are delicious parallels between the Governor of Varos and Big Brother, and Dennis explores this intensively, leading it into a discussion of pessimism and nihilism. These are huge themes, but Dennis writes about them clearly and accessibly.

It’s a measure of what a good piece of writing Vengeance on Varos is that it is far more than just a pastiche of 1984. Dennis explores these other themes extensively too, with the third chapter looking at the story’s capitalist and neoliberalism themes. Again, Dennis explores these themes clearly and concisely, defining them and then following this up with analysis of how these apply to Vengeance on Varos. His line of questioning is intriguing. Is Varos a private prison? There’s certainly evidence in the story to back this claim up and Dennis’s arguments about how capitalism is a motivating force that has warped the society of Varos is a very persuasive one.

There is interesting material in this chapter comparing Vengeance on Varos with more the more recent stories Oxygen and Kerblam! which have both looked at capitalist corporations. Dennis finds more nuance in Varos than in either of these stories, as although Sil is evil, he’s not the oppressor in this situation, he’s just exploiting it. The oppressor is the system itself and Dennis is rightly scathing of how the Doctor doesn’t fight the system. At least, Dennis notes, in Varos The Doctor shifts the power dynamics, but he does ask the question of how much Varos can change. Will it always be a capitalist dystopia? It’s an interesting question and it certainly made me think.

Of course, no analysis of Vengeance on Varos would be complete without looking at video nasties, especially as this one of the themes Philip Martin proposed for the story when first submitting it as a Doctor Who story. Dennis’s chapter on this is the most fascinating of the book. He takes a good look at the moral panic video nasties caused in the early 1980s with a neat piece of writing about how new technology often causes fear in the ruling classes, followed by a fascinating history of video nasties and snuff movies.

This leads to an argument that will be familiar to Doctor Who fans everywhere; is Doctor Who too violent? Much has been written on this over the years, it being a perennial theme that the both the media and fandom argue about. Dennis’s claim that season 22 is the video nasty of Doctor Who again isn’t a new argument, but he looks at this in an interesting way, arguing that the styling of the violence in this season is what pushes it over the edge rather than the nature of the acts themselves. The effects are shown with a realism that make them seem more horrific than similar acts in other eras. Dennis’s imagining of the acid bath scene with the Fifth Doctor rather than the Sixth shows how it could be presented in a less horrific manner. The Sixth Doctor’s lack of empathy makes the scenes of violence far worse than they might be.

There are also good points about sex and violence in this chapter, with a remarkably interesting discussion of Peri as a victim and her sexual objectification in the show. As Dennis notes, Peri isn’t just a sexual object for the dads; she’s lusted at consistently by the villains (and the heroes) in the show and isn’t written strongly enough to become much more than that in this season. She really does fulfill the role of the sexy victim in Varos and beyond and Dennis’s arguments are hard to disagree with.

Dennis’s concluding chapter argues that there is no other story that’s so aware of its nature as a piece of television. This self- reflexivity is a fascinating subject, with its discussion of Arak and Etta commenting on the experience of watching Doctor Who itself. In an era where Gogglebox is a ratings hit, this shows how Varos is a story that was ahead of its time.

I have had the pleasure of reading and reviewing many of the books in the Black Archive series now, but I have to say this is one of the very best entries in the series. Jonathan Dennis has written an incredibly detailed and incredibly readable book that really does thoroughly explore the many themes of Vengeance on Varos. I learnt a great deal while reading this book and what better recommendation can there be than that? It’s a triumph on all levels.

‘The Black Archive #41: Vengeance on Varos’ is out now from Obverse Books, RRP £3.99 – £8.99. Buy Black Archive books from the Obverse Books website!

Green-fingered librarian Simon Hart is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. Follow him on Twitter: @Si_Hart

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