What’s It About?
The Doctor needs Zeiton-7 to repair the TARDIS and the only planet where it is mined is Varos, a planet under strict corporate control. The Doctor and Peri suddenly find themselves running for their lives in a torture dome which broadcasts death and dismemberment as entertainment.
When did they last show something worth watching?
Lawrence Miles has said that Steven Moffat has the best job in the world, by which he means show runner for Doctor Who. At the same time, I sometimes wonder if Steven Moffat has the most thankless job in Doctor Who, by which I also mean show runner.
The current position of show runner embodies a role that was divided between two people in the classic series: producer and script editor. The former oversaw the production aspect and acted as a liaison to the BBC, the latter commissioned stories and set the path for each season. In modern Who, the show runner does both by varying degrees. Thus, when Doctor Who is a success, one individual gets a good amount of credit; when it is not successful, one individual gets the blame. And since 2009 that individual has been Steven Moffat.
But Steven Moffat is not alone in the history of Doctor Who production. He is the latest in a long line of men (and one woman) who oversaw the show. He knows that there were people before him and there will very likely be people after him. Fans of the show are also quite aware of this, each having his or her own preferred production team: Lambert/Whitaker, Hinchcliffe/Holmes, Russell T. Davies, JNT/Saward, and so on and so on. But increasingly in this show that has a large fan following, a show that gave a strong voice to fans in the 1980s and still depends on the devotion and evangelism of fans, balancing the needs of show production, market viability, and fan service has to be a thankless job. I’ll put my cards on the table (as a preview of sorts to when I finally get to the New Who era): I loved Moffat stories from RTD’s run, I enjoyed series five, but everything since then has been inconsistent for me. I think Steven Moffat has certain personal tropes he relies upon, some which work very well and some which are annoying and don’t. And so in his current position as a show runner, I sometimes wonder if these tropes become his way of staying on schedule while dealing with the myriad other duties his job requires. Sometimes his stories annoy me greatly (every appearance of River Song since season six), but I love it when I can give him full credit for stories that stretch him beyond his tendencies, in this case, Day of the Doctor. The 50th Anniversary special out-and-out worked for me. I loved 98% of the thing and I can’t wait to watch it again. But Day of the Doctor aired after a year of hype and expectation, after a season which has seen the greatest criticism of Steven Moffat and his approach to Doctor Who, storytelling, and gender. And while there is genuine criticism to be had, there is also hatred for the sake of hatred. For some segments of fandom, Steven Moffat can do no good. Make no mistake, there is an opposite segment of fandom for whom Steven Moffat can do no wrong. And, as with all things, many people fall in the middle, acknowledging highs and lows and just hoping for a good story week after week.
Some of the criticism of Day of the Doctor is baffling to me as it seems Steven Moffat played to his strengths, stretched himself as a writer, and turned in a story that, pacing issues near the beginning aside, worked as a celebration of old and new and managed to fit quite well in the trajectory of all Doctor Who, from Lambert to Davies. I was seriously impressed.
Which brings me to Vengeance on Varos, which I can only read (during this viewing) as a metaphor for Doctor Who production. The Governor is the show runner, whether JNT from the era in which this show was produced, or Steven Moffat in our current era. The citizens are the two extremes of fandom, the critic for whom the show runner can do no good and the optimistic fan for whom the show runner can do no bad. (Statements such as “I like the one in the funny costume” elevate this reading as the superficial becomes substance.) I think it is telling that the two citizens spend all their time watching television, watching the Doctor and his companion go from one danger to another, enjoying different aspects and cringing at the ones they don’t. Sil and the Chief Officer represent the business concerns of Doctor Who (production cost, overseas marketing), recognizing the value of what they have but not wanting to give credit to it. Quillam, as the program manager who oversees the tortures, is the script editor from the classic Who model, and his love of the gruesome and violent leads me to see him primarily as an avatar for Eric Saward.
And so, Vengeance on Varos becomes a meta-textual criticism of Doctor Who itself in which the Doctor materializes inside his own show and attempts to redeem it. The Sixth Doctor is not as harsh as he was in the previous two stories; he is actually Doctor-like—unique but still of the traditional mold. In this story more than The Twin Dilemma and Attack of the Cybermen we see what the Sixth Doctor can be, rather than how he was written at the time. And the final moments of the story are a strong critique of the blind-fan mentality, emphasizing that while Doctor Who as an entity will not cease to exist (as Zeiton-7 is still in production, but more valuable than ever), it must go away for a while and redefine itself. (A prescient observation if ever there was one. What more compelling image in this era of the show than two fans sitting in disbelief as the screen goes blank?)
JNT and Steven Moffat are, in many ways, in the same struggle. Both must balance business and production interests with storytelling and fan criticism. Both were also fans of the show, and each has his own view of what Doctor Who should be. And both enjoy baiting the fans. But Vengeance on Varos as with The Day of the Doctor is Doctor Who at its most self-aware. It recognizes its place not just as a story, but as a production. And where Day of the Doctor celebrates the show, Vengeance on Varos criticizes it. It proposes a different attitude and approach. It asks fans to find a middle ground.
And, bottom line, Vengeance on Varos is a great story with a lot of depth and the story in which Colin Baker finally became the Doctor.