Some part of me feels a little guilty rhapsodizing about Doctor Who--after all, I've been a Doctor Who fan so long that I just assume that everyone already knows about every episode. I feel like I could almost just say, "Vengeance on Varos--pretty awesome, right?" and everyone would know what I was talking about.
But then I remember that not everyone comes to this blog through Doctor Who fandom. Some people might only have seen the new series, or not seen the show at all. So for those folks, let me sum up Vengeance on Varos for you a little bit better than, "pretty awesome, right?"
Vengeance on Varos is one of those stories that seems a little bit smarter every year. It's set on a mining colony (a staple of Doctor Who) that was originally a prison colony, a la Australia. There's a lot of social unrest, with the workers constantly in thrall to the "company store" (an off-planet mining consortium run by slimy aliens. The alien representative, Sil, is one of the series' few genuine special effects triumphs; the actor who played him, Nabil Shaban, was born without legs, and the costume is designed around that. There's a great scene where he's resting on a platform that you assume houses the actor, and then his manservants pick him up while he continues to talk and gesture.) As a gesture to ease the unrest, the ruling class televises the execution of prisoners in a grotesque form of reality television (a good decade or so before the term was coined.) Prisoners must run a demented obstacle course called "The Punishment Dome", with numerous fatal traps for the unwary. The audience delights in the spectacle of watching them match wits against the designers of the traps.
The Doctor and his companion, Peri, stumble into all this when the TARDIS malfunctions, and the Doctor needs the mineral Varos produces in order to restore it to working order. Of course, the TARDIS materializes square in the heart of the Punishment Dome, and to escape, the Doctor winds up assisting a group of rebels who are trying to overthrow the social order. There's lots of fun to be had with the metatextual layers of story; after all, we're watching the Doctor struggle for his life against the Dome, putting us in the position of the miners in a sense. (The ultimate example of this is the frankly brilliant cliff-hanger at the end of Part One. The Doctor has entered a virtual reality trap that convinces him he's dying of thirst in the middle of a trackless desert; his slow, agonizing struggles against the seamless illusion are contrasted with the TV execs cutting from camera to camera, finding the best angles to catch his death throes. He collapses, and the director says, "Perfect. And cut it...now." And on cue, the end credits roll.)
In the end, this is probably the only Sixth Doctor story to really make good use of the era's strengths. The violence is grotesque and over-the-top, much like the rest of the Sixth Doctor's run, but here it seems genuinely disconcerting, instead of simply layered on for shock value. The Sixth Doctor is manic, unstable, self-righteous and arrogant, but he's fighting a system so obscene that his theatrical gestures (and nearly un-Doctorishness tendency towards violence) seem in keeping with the story. And the actors (particularly Martin Jarvis, playing an ineffectual governor who's trying to change the system from within) do real justice to the script. If you ever want to watch a Colin Baker story, but have been turned off by the reputation of his time as the Doctor, this one is the one to watch to get a real feel for the potential of what his era could have been.