Colin Baker says this was his favourite story out of anything he did on the series. One can easily see why.
Although there is a school of thought in fandom that claims that this one "isn't all that it's cracked up to be" - I'm not one of those fans. This, in my mind at least, is a classic. In my top ten faves. Possibly even my top five!
Where does one start with the praise? I'll take my usual route: the script. Phillip Martin makes possibly the most stunning first submission the series has ever seen. It's a great story on multiple levels. First, it's makes a great social comment, of course. Like "The Sunmakers" before it, or "Happiness Patrol" in years to follow, the script focusses greatly on creating an entire society for us to look at as well as a storyline to follow. And like the other stories I just compared it to - there's some allegory at play in this presentation. So, not only do we get a very creative script that puts together an entire self-contained society - but we also get some somewhat scathing underlying symbolism. Nicely enough, Martin's symbolism doesn't totally have to bite you on the ass, though.
The other great aspect to his script is the actual action of the story. The best example of this is the later half of the first part. From the landing of the TARDIS on Varos to the cliffhanger - we are treated to one of the best roller-coaster rides the series has ever offered. The assailing of trap-after-trap in the Punishment Dome is not just good fun to watch, it's highly imaginitive. It almost seems as though Martin is aware that the story will probably have only so much budget to realise his vision so instead of having the crew build elaborate sets and props to execute his traps - he comes up with more novel ideas like the purple zone. A trap that is not only creative in the fact that it is more a "trick of the eyes" than a legitimate physical trap - but also creative because it required little more than a post-production effect and a bit of purple lighting. Brilliant stuff, really. Even more brilliant that Martin knew when to settle down with the chase through the dome and focus on the political intrigue of the story. Which is as entralling to watch as the action sequences.
But, that still wasn't quite enough for this script. No, Martin also has to give us one of the most unique plot devices "Who" has ever seen. We get our very own "Greek Chorus" thrown into the mix with the characters of Arak and Etta watching the whole adventure on their T.V. screen. This is a magnificent touch. And their inclusion in the story is one of the vital elements, in my opinion, that propels this story from "fun little runaround" to "classic". Their introduction into the story is delightfully stylistic as the image of the tortured Jondar cuts to the screen on their livingroom T.V. They also have one of my favourite lines in the whole story: "I like that one! The one in the funny clothes". The two actors portraying them do a magnificent job - giving us a real Holmesian double-act even though the great Robert didn't write this one!
Which leads us into another strong point: the acting. Aside from our two slightly wooden rebels, (who weren't really even all that wooden) - the actors in this piece do a thoroughly magnificent job. Of special note: Nabil Shaban as Sil. No one has ever played an alien with such relish and gusto as he has. In both his appearances on the show, really. But he makes the most remarkable first impression in Varos. I'm not sure what Phillip Martin's plans were for the character after this story - but Shaban can be given just as much credit as the writer for "earning" Sil's second appearance. I'm not sure if the Shaban is still around, but if there's any multiple appearance character from the old series that I would love to see come back for the new series - it would be Sil. He's great fun to watch.
Also of noteworthy mention was Martin Jarvis' excellent portrayal of The Governor. A troubled man, torn between trying to make some positive changes in his society and remaining popular enough with the people to stay alive. His speech to Maldak as he's submitted to the green light of the cellular disentegrator is an excellent moment that really gets us to see the underlying passion of this character. Yes, he's horribly cold and callous too. But, in the end, his true colours shine through. And, again, this is displayed by a gorgeous marriage between the words of the script and they way they are spoken by the actor.
While we're at it, though, let's also heap some praise on the great Colin Baker himself. The performance he turns in for this tale is one of his best. One can see his love for the script in how well-crafted his acting skills are in it. And though there is still the slighest insinuation at the beginning of the show that he's still a bit shaky from the regeneration, all of the sixth Doctor's traits are in strong evidence here. He's great oratical skills are displayed from the gallows as he rails against the Gallatron mining corporation. His first meeting with Quillam shows off his very poignant "cosmic jester" personae. And just the general delivery of his very rich, almost didactive style of dialogue is displayed in great abundance. He's arrogant and righteous one moment, compassionate the next, clever and deceitful the moment after that. And Colin gets all these very "topsy turvy" emotions to blend together seamlessly in one coherent characterisation. He does this in every story he was in, of course, but he's at his absolute best here. Even a simple line like: "Peri this is no time for casual conversation" is executed with a great delivery. Watch that bit - you'll see what I mean!
The third pivotal element that makes the story a classic is its design. One of the greatest challenges I think the show always faces is getting each planet to look different from the last. This must be done by some sometimes outlandish-looking set design. Vengeance On Varos comes just to the edge of outlandish in the way the sets look, but it never quite totally crosses the line into absurdity. So that we really get a cool-looking architecture going on. Even those two little moving spotlights they set up in the background all over the place add just the neatest little effect to the whole proceedings. Not to mention the weird, slated doors and the mottled brown colour scheme. It's the perfect distinctive touch to a very distinctive story.
Do I have any complaints? They're minimal, at best, so I can't even be bothered to mention them. I will bother to mention however, that some of the complaints levelled at this story by some segments of fandom seem generally unfounded to me.
Although other people have found this tale to be too violent and almost a contradiction to its message because of said violence, it doesn't come across that way to me. Martin understood that he still had to tell an adventure story whilst making the comments he made and he struck a beautiful fine line between adventure and gratuitous violence.
This story also has several elements to it that make it very reminiscent of other stories in this season. It's dark and somewhat macabre - like Revelation of the Daleks and The Two Doctors. The Doctor also goes a little anti-hero in places. And, it's a good long time before he actually gets involved with the story proper. But these elements, and others, were all things that I actually enjoyed greatly about Season Twenty-Two. I know I'm pretty alone in those sentiments and that many of you feel this season strayed too far from the Doctor Who formulae. But that's exactly what I like about this season. It tried something bold and different.
And at the very epicenter of all that boldness lies Vengeance On Varos. A great story that embraces a very unique approach to a T.V. show that could've very easily rested on its 22-year-old laurels rather than explore new ground. But not only does it do some bold experimentation, it also does a wonderful job of telling us the most exciting of tales about a troubled penal colony in the Earth's future.
As far as I'm concerned, you can hold this baby up to any of Tom Baker's best stories and I think it shines with them quite nicely. In some cases, even better. For instance, I'll take this story over "Genesis of the Daleks" any day.
How's that for "fighting words"?