Taking a break from my review of Bond films/watching for now (although I have rewatched but am yet to review Dr No and Moonraker), I'm reviewing the third 6th Doctor story Vengeance on Varos. It's the first time I've seen it - ever, meaning I have just one more story to finish before I have seen all of Colin Baker's stories. But forgive me for not watching it Who fans - because it is after all, The Twin Dilemma.
Vengeance on Varos is a good story - but it isn't really any more than that. I enjoyed it, and it has some great scenes, but it fails to deliver on a couple of things. I'll start with the good things. The concept, for one. It's inspired. Commenting on corrupt politics, video tapes, profit and if you look deeper; hallucinogenic drugs and experimentation. The latter are done more for effect, but the first three are undoubtedly key themes. It puts them in a standard alien planet setting you'd expect from Doctor Who, and Philip Martin delivers his message in a very Doctor Who way. That's the key thing about this story I think - it is a standard Doctor Who story, it is a combination of everything you need. It should be a classic, and certainly it's concept and attempts to take Who in a new direction help to push it in that way. It is good ideas at the centre of it, and as I said, there are some excellent scenes. The hallucinogenic scenes in the green tunnel for one, practically all the scenes with the Governor are good too (especially where he tries to convince the guard to give him and Peri their freedom), and the Doctor gives some poignant speeches. Sil is brilliant, though he gets a little boring in Part Two. There a few other good scenes, and it is scattered with good bits. It has the ingredients of a classic.
The story is like a Jon Pertwee story. You have the Doctor wielding a gun, which actually works quite well, and you have him rescuing his companion, who's busy screaming as she watches a man die in front of her eyes. It does take a classic formula. There's even the threat of an alien invasion later on in it. The Doctor makes quips after people fall into acid, again fitting into the Jon Pertwee being like James Bond sort of thing. But this is where the problems start. Jon Pertwee may have used a gun a few times, may have killed an Ogron in cold blood in Day of the Daleks, but he was compassionate deep down. You don't get that from the 6th Doctor in this story. It's a dark story, with a Doctor who suddenly has no moral compass, no way of making us see right from wrong. He fights the enemies by employing someone (who thinks he's on stage, by the way) to shoot the bad guys. The Doctor in this story is wrong. He doesn't have much to do, except become a victim and get free very easily, and he's written quite poorly. Colin Baker acts him perfectly, the best he can - but the script lets him down. It's out of character, even for a colder Doctor. The 6th Doctor isn't so cold that he'll push people into an acid bath. He should try and save them. His Doctor, every Doctor, would try and save them - so the Doctor is wrong in this story, and that, unfortunately, is down to the writer.
The characters of Sil, The Governor, and the bald bloke with the moustache who's name I don't know, and even the two characters watching the whole thing on their TV - they're all great characters. They've got great dialogue. It's funny, entertaining, it's poignant and in the case of Sil, it's repugnant. Their dialogue fits the characters perfectly. So maybe this story would have been good for some spin-off, some new sci-fi show. Because here, the Doctor is simply a figure to promote revolution, he's a symbol of hope. That could be anyone - and in the way he's written, it certainly shouldn't be the Doctor. Peri seems ok - but again, she's got a very standard, classic Who role. This story, with it's ambitious ideas, should be pushing Doctor Who in a new direction. Instead, the Doctor's written poorly, the sets don't look great (and are helped only by quite excellent lighting), and not a lot happens in the story at all. Problems are evaded easily, and the main story seems to be a mix of a political power struggle, which is resolved fairly easily with only minor hiccups along the way, and escaping Sil's evil death methods very easily. Good ideas - but the plot needs more, it needs to support the characters, and the characters need to fit the show. Maybe that's all Vengeance has. Ambition, and quite a good monster. But where's our dramatic Doctor/Sil confrontation? There's kind of one - but where's the sparring dramatic dialogue? You wouldn't find that in this story - because the Doctor is wrong.
Characters like Jondar and his wife/fiancee/girlfriend, whoever she is, aren't great. Again, they have potential, but the person acting Jondar treats it like he's on stage. The Doctor's got a few stage-esque performances as well.
So. The story is good, on paper I expect. It's ambitious. But it's a story trapped in bad sets, it's a script that hasn't been tampered with enough to make the Doctor Doctor-ish, because people wanted him to change. The change is too quick. It's a classic story in the sense it doesn't do anything imaginative with the 'classic' ideas, that it could've reinvented so well. For me, the biggest let down is the Doctor. I'm sure he does do stuff, but he just feels a bit useless in it, a bit pointless, and because he's written out of character I noticed he wasn't being used effectively. In The Happiness Patrol, which is similar to this story in lots of ways, they experiment with strange characters and ideas, and the Doctor is actively protesting against the government. In this, he just puts his face in front of the camera and does whatever he needs to.
Colin Baker is wonderful, all the actors are wonderful. Most characters are very good - but the scripting for the Doctor is poor, and the plot just doesn't develop enough. It doesn't use it's characters well enough. Good ideas - but not realised well enough, unfortunately.
PS It's interesting that the Nice or Nasty? documentary on the DVD talks about Revelation of the Daleks, another story focused more on other characters than the Doctor. It's interesting that in Revelation you get the Doctor/Davros scenes anyway, and the Doctor's scenes are small but memorable, he's written well. Vengeance tries to be like this and isn't. And the documentary also picks up on Androzani-inspired stories, carrying on the idea of darkness and bigger supporting characters. Again - it works in Androzani/Revelation, but not Vengeance.
PPS I don't mind the violence in Vengeance at all - it's a small part of it really. It's a grim setting, you expect it, it doesn't bother me at all. It just again, perhaps isn't Doctor Who-y enough. And I think the scene where the Doctor has the gun is perhaps the best scene the Doctor has in Vengeance because he's doing something!
Overall rating: A 'Meh' out of 10.