Doctor Who: Vengeance on Varos

Doctor Who: Vengeance on Varos February 19, 2012

We all have some parts of our mind that we consider unworthy, some memory that makes us shudder and squirm.

The above quote from the character Quillam in the Doctor Who episode “Vengeance on Varos” captures one aspect of the Sixth Doctor admirably – some of the harshest characteristics of the Doctor, from his arrogance to his willingness to see lives lost on occasion – come to the fore in his character – as does his persistent lack of fashion sense.

We find this mirrored in a society that has some of humanity’s worst features prominently displayed: our voyeurism when punishments or executions occur, or when accused criminals are on the run from authorities and we can watch the exciting high-speed chase.

It is a society that evolved from a penal colony. They are being exploited by the mining company represented by the entertaining character Sil, who takes full advantage of the fact that none of the humans on Varos knows the true worth of the ore they export. And in the face of the hard lives of the people of Varos, working hard in mining and dealing with scarcity of food, they find diversion from discontent in watching the suffering of others.

There is a humorous section in which, prior to the Doctor’s scheduled execution, he and a fellow prisoner are led to the gallows with much ceremony, with a priest chanting a parody of religious verse, including lines such as “In the name of the great video…” The devotion people give television in real life, and the ability of TV to distract us from the troubles of life, makes the parody poignant.

The ending of the episode is even more poignant, as a couple whose lives we’ve seen snippets of, as they watch the events in the episode unfold on their television screen, realize they are free. They ask what they should do now that they are free, and the wife’s face falls as she answers honestly, “Dunno.”

Very often we dream of freedom, but give surprisingly little thought with what we want it for, what we want to do with it.

In my First Year Seminar class this past week, we finished Plato’s Republic. One topic we focused on is how Socrates does not find democracy the ideal society. One reason is that it seems to make freedom itself the ultimate end in and of itself. Both the Republic and “Vengeance on Varos,” in very different ways, can useful spark discussion of whether freedom is a worthwhile end in and of itself, or whether what matters most is the use to which freedom is put.

Oh, one last thing. Long before there was Neo, stopping illusions with his outstretched hand, there was the Doctor:

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