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Whose ideology?

Media manipulation in Doctor Who’s “Vengeance on Varos”

Andrew O’Day 

From its beginnings, Doctor Who (1963-89) has been an example of popular culture, watched by the masses for enjoyment in a ratings-driven television environment, and the series has recently returned to BBC Television (2005-), under the watchful eye of Russell T. Davies, to much popular critical acclaim, so much so that the programme has continued with Steven Moffat as executive producer (2010-). But the classic series offers compelling insights into the social world. Such compelling insights into the social world have already been demonstrated in relation to Doctor Who by television academics such as John Fiske (1983), and, much more recently, by Jonathan Bignell and Andrew O’Day (2004). Fiske, for instance, argued, using the Doctor Who narrative “The Creature from the Pit” (1979) as an example, that the programme could show ‘“pure” or “cold” science’ being “used to maintain or establish a totalitarian political order” counterpoised by liberal scientists like the Doctor (1983: 74). Bignell and O’Day, meanwhile, focus on the author Terry Nation, creator of the “popular” Dalek monsters, and illustrate how these Dalek narratives not only entertained children who used to play at being Daleks in the school playground (see Gillatt 1998), but also reflected the ideologies circulating at the time these narratives were produced: ideologies of liberalism and tolerance versus autocracy and racism.

      Another, so-far neglected, writer for the original series in academic studies, however, whose work is politically committed is Philip Martin (1938-), who had previously written Gangsters (1975-78), a highly praised series dealing with race and racism as seen through Birmingham’s criminal underworld. While there is room for a more detailed study of Martin’s work, what is so pertinent about his first Doctor Who narrative “Vengeance on Varos” (1985) is that it is a metafiction. Other critics, both professionalized fans (see Pixley 2001: 18-9), and academics (see Leach 2009: 73-5), have approached the narrative as a commentary on video-nasties. But we see that it is also a narrative which takes the ideology of broadcasting as a theme at the same time as drawing attention to itself as fictional Doctor Who in a playful manner. We see that the author-like figures using the planet Varos’ broadcasting system oppressively are not mirrored by the more liberal Doctor Who production team, although conservative readings can still be made of the narrative. The narrative is unrepresentative of the classic series (which did not usually feature author-like characters in charge of broadcasts within the narratives), yet, as shall be noted, characteristic of the fact that our screens carry ideologies. By taking one “narrow” metafiction, therefore, issues are opened up relating to the “wider” series, and this is one reason why such a close reading, typical of an approach from the early 1980s, is so important here. In this way, the metafiction to be considered here differs from examples of self-reflexivity in the original series which have been dealt with previously in more detail. For example, the pilot episode (1963) includes a discussion about how television brings vast objects into the living room, and in “The Time Meddler” (1965) the villainous Meddling Monk asks the Doctor (William Hartnell) whether he is aware of the medium of television to which the Doctor, on the television viewer’s screen, replies in the affirmative (see Parkin 2002, as well as Leach 2002: 67-9).

Broadcasting within “Vengeance on Varos”

Before delving into the uses of broadcasting in “Vengeance on Varos” it will be helpful to provide a bare-bones summary of its plot. “Vengeance on Varos” is an example of dystopian science fiction where the Doctor (Colin Baker) and his assistant Peri (Nicola Bryant) arrive on the planet Varos in the 23rd century, in need of the rare Zeiton 7 ore to re-power the TARDIS. Here they encounter a class-divided society composed of the ruling class and the working class which mine the ore. Furthermore, the Varosian ruling class pump continuous media broadcasts into the homes of ordinary citizens, consisting not only of political speeches by the Governor but also of scenes of torture, meant to entertain the populace as well as to instruct them of the fate that befalls miscreants. The Doctor causes Varosians such as the Governor to ultimately question the way in which their society operates and to bring a halt to their oppressive broadcasting system.

      Varosian society, then, is structured according to the binaries of the ruling class and the working class, rich and poor, and freedom and oppression. This class-organized society is highlighted by the costumes of characters where, for instance, the Chief Officer is dressed in majestic red on black and ordinary citizens are attired in green or black. The fact that the working class are miners who extract Zeiton 7 from beneath the ground, a mineral used to power spacecraft, is suggested by the character of Arak – representative of the working class - returning home from work with his tools near the start of the narrative. Here the State ideologically oppresses the individual and the binary opposition of oppression and liberty is highlighted in order to negate the former. While Varos is a future State, science is a means of power in an intergalactic version of a backward feudal society.

      The Varosian viewscreen is a prominent image in the narrative. The binary of ruling class and working class corresponds generally to the opposites of controllers of the broadcasting system and viewers, where the ruling class indeed use broadcasting to maintain power largely through the Governor’s political speeches. Unlike in the Doctor Who television viewer’s society where many viewers own a television set and pay a licence fee, the Varosian viewscreens are the property of the State, as denoted by the fact that they carry the emblem V as do the costumes of the Varosians. Also, television is a domestic appliance which reaches a mass audience, and like television the viewscreens are a means of reaching all the Varosian homes at all times with the addresses of the State when the occupants are not working. This is signified by the numbering of the representative Varosian citizens Etta and Arak’s dwelling (3), and that of the viewscreen (4D), and by the observation that there are thousands of Varosians “slumped over their wall screens deadened by hard work and starvation”. Etta and Arak are therefore metonymic of the whole Varosian viewing population. The viewscreens’ embeddedness in the domestic sphere is evident through set design. It forms part of the residence wall, dominates the dwelling positioned on the wall in the centre faced by seats, and is at no time switched off. Also, the Varosian viewscreens are metaphoric windows upon the world, a metaphor applied to television by Fiske (1987: 21) and Nicholas Abercombie (1996: 32) to describe the news and documentary programmes.

      In keeping with Karl Marx’s notion of ideology and of the base/superstructure model, in Varosian society the ideas that dominate are those of the class that has acquired economic, and therefore political power. For Marx (1971, 2004), the crucial organizing factor of a society is its economic base – its mode of production – where class identities are established according to who owns, controls and profits from the basic mode of production, and where this determines the superstructure (political and legal systems, culture, ideology). The economic base of Varosian society is the mining of Zeiton 7 ore, and the mines are owned, controlled and profited from by the Varosian ruling class. In Varosian society then the broadcasting system with the Governor’s addresses reflects dominant class interests. Although this article does not concentrate on Louis Althusser’s (2001) view that ideology is not a matter of true or false descriptions of the world but is how citizens live their lives in relation to the dominant power, “Vengeance on Varos” can be read in the light of Althusser’s concept of “Ideological State Apparatuses” (ISAs), which are those apparatuses, including the educational system, the religious system, private institutions such as the family, and cultural products such as literature, the arts and the mass media, which reflect the ideology of the ruling class, although in our society alternative views can be heard.

      For Varosian society can be seen as revolving around ideology as false consciousness. Just as Frederich Engels believes that an economically dominant class will strive to achieve political dominance, and impose its worldview over all others (the “dominant ideology thesis”), this is the case in “Vengeance on Varos” where the ruling class, living in luxury, achieves political power imposing the view that the working class must labour. This view is perpetuated by the Varosian Governor’s media addresses to the audience. Just as Engels (1942) saw that members of social groups other than the dominant class will come to endorse a successful ideology, even if doing so is not in their best interests, this is the case with Varosians such as Etta who supports the Governor.

      Engels, however, does not explain why people come to beliefs that are damaging to them, and, as we shall see, in “Vengeance on Varos” the populace are actually fed lies. At this point, in “Vengeance On Varos” there is a merging of Engels’s notion of ideology as “false consciousness” with Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s (2003) idea of ideology involving gaining consent. Terry Eagleton writes that in order to be truly effective, ideologies must make a minimal sense of people’s experience and this is the case on Varos where the poor are used to labouring. Eagleton further notes that ideologies “must…engage significantly with the wants and desires that people already have, catching up genuine hopes and needs [and] feeding them back to their subjects in ways which render these ideologies plausible and attractive” (1991: 14-5; my italics). So “successful ideologies must be more than imposed illusions, and for all their inconsistencies must communicate to their subjects a version of social reality which is real and recognizable enough not to be simply rejected out of hand” (1991: 14-5). In “Vengeance on Varos”, the Varosian Governor’s direct addresses are speeches which address the Varosian populace’s desire for better living conditions and suggest ways in which these conditions can be obtained. Eagleton writes that “ideology is a matter of “discourse” rather than “language”” which “concerns the actual uses of language between particular human subjects for the production of specific effects […] a question of who is saying what to whom for what purposes” (1991: 9; my italics). In “Vengeance on Varos” the Governor is employing rhetoric – the technique of persuasion – in order to attempt to get the Varosian populace to consent to his view. Aristotle (1992) defines three types of rhetorical strategy, which are worth considering in relation to the way in which the Varosian Governor attempts to render his viewpoint attractive. The first of these is “ethos” which concerns how the credibility of a speaker influences an audience to consider him or her believable. The second of these is “pathos” where there is a use of emotional appeals to alter the audience’s judgement. The third and most important for our consideration here is “logos” where there is a use of reasoning to construct an argument. In “Vengeance on Varos” the Governor employs reasoning to try to get the Varosian viewers to consent to his viewpoint even though some of his statements do not actually correspond with reality. It must be noted, however, that a lot of the Varosians do not buy into his ideology.

      For a central opposition running throughout “Vengeance on Varos” and governing Varosian society is that of falsity and truth. This opposition plays a key part in the Varosian Punishment Dome where guards must wear anti-hallucination helmets, and prisoners encounter illusionary perils such as monsters and mirages, but is also central to the way in which the ruling class provide ordinary Varosians with an illusion of how their society works through broadcasts in order to maintain control.

      The Governor’s addresses to the Varosian populace are purported to be factual but, in fact, they cover the truth. The Governor states:

    For centuries the Galatron Mining Corporation have declared rich dividends by exploiting our labour…As always I seek to market the resources of our poor planet…I ask that we agree to hold out for what is a fair price for our principal marketable resource, that of Zeiton 7 ore. Those who wish to fight alongside me for a prosperous tomorrow vote Yes to a 10% reduction of our food rations. Those who wish for full bellies today and nothing to eat tomorrow have the option to press their No buttons (“Vengeance on Varos”, episode 1)

The Governor’s statement that the Galatron Mining Corporation have become rich by exploiting Varosian labour and that he seeks to market their resources at the best price possible is held up to be true by the narrative. However, his address is notable as much for what it does not reveal as for what it includes. The Governor gives the impression of Varos as a poor planet where in order to hold out for a better price for the Zeiton 7 ore the populace must agree to reduced food rations. But his speech does not reveal that while the populace would be agreeing to these rations, the Officer Elite are living in luxury.

      The discrepancy between reality and the truth of Varosian society created through the Governor’s addresses is highlighted in dialogue. The narrative is about epistemology. In the first episode, Jondar’s wife Areta tells the guard Rondel: “Do you know what he found, what he saw…While the rest of us toil without hope, the Officer Elite enjoy power and luxury…That is what Jondar found, what he learnt” (my italics). In the second episode, when it appears that the Doctor is about to be hanged, the Doctor tells Peri: “Truth is a very flexible commodity here on Varos…As long as things appear truthful. That’s all that matters” (my italics). Later, the Chief Officer states “This Doctor must be eliminated. He smells the truth of things” (my italic).

      The discrepancy between reality and illusion in Varosian society is further highlighted through narrative structure. In the first of two pivotal scenes, the Governor, addressing the Varosian population, speaks of attempts to obtain better terms for the mining of the planet’s resources. The Governor follows this declaration by announcing the forthcoming fate of the rebel Jondar informing the populace that it will “witness what must befall all who oppose the reality of’ their ‘just constitution” (my italics). Therefore, the Governor presents the reality of the Varosian society as one which benefits the entire populace, and the populace is informed that Jondar has rebelled against productivity. However, following this scene we are presented with the scene of Areta telling the guard Rondel of what Jondar learnt, that the populace are toiling while the Officer Elite enjoy power and luxury. Hence, these two scenes are juxtaposed, and the second reveals what the Governor’s address does not.

      This juxtaposition is also noteworthy since it brings into focus the binary opposition between public and private. There is a shift from the Governor delivering a public speech to the Varosian populace to a more intimate scene between Areta and Rondel, unseen by other characters, in the prison cell in which Areta is being kept. The latter scene is structured by the binary of public duty and the personal. As Jondar’s wife, Areta’s pleas for him are motivated out of personal concern for his welfare and her knowledge that the State is feeding the populace lies. It is also significant that Rondel is not only a guard, who therefore has a duty to the State, but is also revealed to have formerly been Jondar’s friend. Areta pleads with Rondel based on this and ultimately Rondel is revealed to be a positive character when he chooses his personal friendship with Jondar above the duty to the State. There is therefore a difference between what the State tells the Varosian public about duty and what occurs in private and a different type of duty.

      In considering the Governor’s addresses, it is worth comparing the narrative to Jürgen Habermas’s (1989) arguments about the decline of the public sphere in our society. Originally, the public sphere was associated with democracy. A democratic state is one where its citizens, from an informed position, elect those whom they believe will act to their benefit. Habermas traces the development of the public sphere from the seventeenth- to the twentieth-century. At first, argues Habermas, the ‘bourgeois public sphere’ was not controlled by the state and people engaged in free political discussion. The public sphere offered a place for members of the public to unite, and share views. There was, for example, a coffee-house culture where writers such as John Dryden and Alexander Pope met with others and engaged not only in literary debate but also in economic and political disputes which led the government to issue proclamations confronting the dangers bred by these discussions: “Men have assumed to themselves a liberty, not only in coffee-houses, but in other places…to censure and defame the proceedings of the State, by speaking evil of things they understand not…’ (quoted in Habermas 1989: 59). Indeed, literature and politics merged in the eighteenth century with the satires of writers such as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. According to Habermas, however, over the twentieth century, this ‘public sphere’ of free debate was replaced by the mass media such as radio, cinema and television which conveyed their own mass opinion to viewers, a view of the media earlier voiced by the mid-twentieth-century functionalist C. Wright Mills. Habermas writes of the shift from a culture debating public to a culture consuming public. Habermas comments:

    With the arrival of the new media the form of communication as such has changed…Under the pressure of the “Don’t talk back!” the conduct of the public assumes a different form…the programs sent by the new media curtail the reactions of their recipients in a particular way. They draw the eyes and ears of the public under their spell but at the same time…place it under “tutelage,” which is to say they deprive it of the opportunity to say something and to disagree (1989: 170-1)

Habermas indeed writes that “The world fashioned by the mass media is a public sphere in appearance only” (1989: 171). Raymond Williams (1974) notes that television has broadened the forms of public argument and discussion but, like Habermas, points to the restrictions placed on the full range of argument. Habermas’s notions of the original public sphere, however, idealize a sphere which only allowed participation by a small segment of society. But there are other avenues of expression. The press, for instance, is regarded as having gained freedom from the State in the mid-nineteenth century and new media, such as the Internet, are seen as contributing to the extension of democracy and freedom of expression.

      Television, however, has become the predominant mass medium over the later half of the twentieth century and a primary place in which the television viewer gathers information. The Governor’s addresses are like a Party Political Broadcast and appear to enable a democratic function. The Varosians are given an illusion of choice in the running of their society. They have the option to vote for or against the Governor based on his policies. But these policies are prepackaged and actually shroud the truth. Indeed, the broadcasting system only gives those in charge the opportunity to have a voice, there are no televised debates with the Governor, and there are no journalists offering opinion on his policies, as one would find in the television news. Furthermore, when the vote goes against the Governor he is ultimately eliminated by the cell disintegrator rays. The Governor is a prisoner, ironically not governing the narrative which is in the hands of the Officer Elite represented by the Chief Officer. The Governor is confined on a chair on a raised platform. This is not only a throne, and majestic music sounds as he prepares to give a speech, but also a place of imprisonment, since he is confined and can be weakened and eliminated by rays from a cell disintegrator. The only power that the Varosians have then is to eliminate one Governor who will be replaced by another. The cycle of oppression would continue with a new Governor. As Etta says to Arak, “What would a new Governor do differently?” Therefore, Varosian society is shown to be circular (see Philip Martin quoted in Brown 1998: 4).

      “Vengeance on Varos” can also be read in the light of De Fleur and Ball-Rokeach’s (1975, quoted in Fiske and Hartley 1978: 73) “dependency theory” where everyone in modern western society depends on the mass media for information. According to De Fleur and Ball-Rokeach, everyone in this society has three primary needs. Firstly, there is the need to understand one’s social world. Secondly, there is the need to act in that world. Thirdly, there is the need for an escape from the daily problems of that world. The Varosians have a dependency on the media since they need to understand how their society operates, they feel the need to become participants in that society by casting votes, and there are broadcasts that serve an entertainment function such as viewing torture and watching rebels endure trials in the Punishment Dome. This is illustrated by the planned lead-up to Jondar’s execution designed to engage the Varosian viewers’ suspense, illustrated by the suspense that the Doctor Who television viewer is invited to share where a digital clock showing time passing occupies the bottom centre of the screen and where the incidental music composed of rising beats is repeated continuously. The Varosian rulers therefore provide the illusion that this dependency is being catered for in order to provide satisfaction among citizens.

      Those who are not successfully interpellated into the ideology and who threaten the society are punished by execution, therefore adding a kind of “police state” repressive violence to the ideological work done by the Governor’s broadcasts as well as entertaining the populace in keeping with the Chief Officer telling Jondar that the Governor “bows to the will of the people”. This shows flaws in the “false consciousness” model of ideology, introduces Althusser’s (2001) idea of the “Repressive State Apparatuses” (RSAs), which are those public agencies or institutions (like the Army, the Police, the Courts, and the Prisons) that function primarily by force in order to maintain power, imposing punishments on individuals, and prepares for the discussion below of subaltern groups competing for hegemony in a Marxist Gramscian fashion. Some rebellious Varosians see through the unreality of the media broadcasts, demonstrating that on Varos ideology does not always succeed. The binaries of work and leisure, working sphere and domestic sphere, and public sphere and private sphere structure the lives of the Varosian working class masses, but actually the first parts of these categories encroach on the second parts. When the workers return to their living quarters they are faced with images of torture and execution on their viewscreens. While watching television is often associated with leisure, in Varosian society the viewscreen is connected to notions of both leisure and work, having a dualistic function. The scenes of torture and execution entertain but also, being transmissions of reality, serve as a lesson about disobedience for the workers since those presented on the viewscreens are rebels against the State, such as Jondar, with whom the narrative opens, strapped shirtless to a wall and enduring pain. There are therefore parallels between the Varosian audience and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), where the State, Big Brother, in a parental role, tells Winston, as child, how to behave through the massive screen in his room, although Winston is under constant surveillance by a camera. The presentation of the Varosian family is interesting, consisting of grown-ups without children. The grown-ups that we see, Etta and Arak, are metonymic of the entire populace. But these are metaphoric children, their viewing dictated by the Varosian rulers. These rulers are symbolic parents teaching the populace to behave and showing the punishment that will befall them if they do not. The Varosians have only the choice of whether to remain in the confining structure of their society, with the dwellings being prison-like with bars, or be literally imprisoned and tortured.

      Varosian society, then, is structured like a prison. In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault (1977) provides a historical overview of the penal system, looking to the past to show how the modern system was not the only one possible. Foucault explains that before the eighteenth century public execution was a key punishment and was a ritual for an audience, with details of executions reported in popular literature, establishing the authority of the King, by making “everyone aware, through the body of the criminal, of the unrestrained presence of the sovereign” (1977: 49). Foucault states:

    punishment is…a way of exacting retribution that is both personal and public, since the physico-political force of the sovereign is in a sense present in the law…The public execution…is a ceremonial by which a momentarily injured sovereignty is reconstituted…It restores that sovereignty by manifesting it at its most spectacular…The public execution…belongs to a whole series of great rituals in which power is eclipsed and restored…it deploys before all eyes an invincible force (1977: 48)

As Mark Poster notes, this system was “not pure barbarism, but a “regulated practice”…designed to produce terror in the hearts of the people who witnessed the torture and thereby to reaffirm the power of the ruling class” (1984: 98). “Vengeance on Varos” ties in with the notion of public execution establishing the authority of the ruler since on Varos punishment is put in place to act as a deterrent to those citizens who threaten the State and there appears barbaric. Foucault notes the presence of the “gallows speeches” where “The rite of execution was so arranged that the condemned man would himself proclaim his guilt by the amende honorable that he spoke” and that “at the moment of the execution…he was given another opportunity to speak, not to proclaim his innocence, but to acknowledge his crime and the justice of his conviction” (1977: 65). In “Vengeance on Varos” the Chief Officer lists Jondar’s crimes to him and at the point where the amende honorable would have normally taken place, although not asked to speak, Jondar resists the dominant ideology. Foucault proceeds to explain that in the eighteenth century there were calls for “a theatre of punishment”. One can see how these ideas feed into “Vengeance on Varos” where there is a type of “theatre of punishment” which serves as a ritual for the Varosian audience. Foucault then moves on to write about Enlightenment calls for reform in our world “to shift the locus of punishment from the body to the mind, to present to criminals the certain prospect that their acts would cause more pain than pleasure so that, as rational beings, they would avoid committing illegalities in the first place” (Poster 1984: 99). According to Foucault, the new system of punishment which developed fully in the nineteenth century was the prison, although criticized by reformers for not corresponding to the specificity of crimes, and for being useless (Poster 1984: 99). Foucault proceeds to write about the unique features of the prison, such as techniques controlling the body, like arranging one’s movements in space and time. For Foucault, the idea of controlling people, which began as a means of controlling the plague, is exemplified by Bentham’s Panopticon, which showed how individuals can be supervised efficiently. However, Foucault writes that these series of techniques had already been apparent in everyday society:

    The prison form antedates its systematic use in the penal system. It had already been constituted outside the legal apparatus when, throughout the social body, procedures were being elaborated for distributing individuals, fixing them in space, classifying them, extracting from them the maximum in time and forces, training their bodies, coding their continuous behaviour, maintaining them in perfect visibility, forming around them an apparatus of observation (1977: 231)

One can also see this concept at work in Varosian society where citizens such as Etta and Arak’s time is managed by the State where they must keep a log of their viewing habits or else face the first type of punishment. While I am providing a Marxist reading of “Vengeance on Varos”, in which the ruling class maintain domination over the working class through the use of screens, Foucault’s work, and others on the prison, challenge Marxist views. In Foucault’s writing, criminals have not necessarily rebelled violently against working conditions. As Poster argues, Marxists provide a reductionist history of the penal system where they conclude that “specific forms of punishment correspond to a given stage of economic development” (1984: 104-5), which, while to an extent true, does not present a rounded picture. There are other accounts of the development of prisons, of the way in which prisoners were treated differently, and of the subculture that develops within prisons, which revises a Marxist historical strategy (see Poster 1984), and, furthermore, rejecting a Marxist approach which concentrates solely on economics and labour, Poster writes about how in our world “new technologies…extend the reach of surveillance far beyond its nineteenth-century limits” where “The vast ability of the established authorities to gather information about individuals or groups places in question or even eliminates the distinction between the public and the private” as well as there being a surveillance of items that are different from the norm with negative implications for marginalized groups (1984: 114). These reveal “as much about the repressive nature of modern society as the analysis of capitalist domination” (Poster 1984: 108).

Doctor Who as ideological

Not only is broadcasting a theme within “Vengeance on Varos” but the narrative also reflects on itself as fictional Doctor Who in a postmodern fashion, and fits in with Patricia Waugh’s (1984) and Mark Currie’s (1995) description of the type of metafiction that displays an illusion-breaking moment to its own status as a fiction. The most explicit moment of the narrative’s self-consciousness is at the end of the first episode. The Doctor sees a mirage of a desert which causes him to believe that he is dying of thirst and he collapses. The Governor asks for a close-up of the Doctor, and it appears that there is no sign of life. This close-up both appears on the Varosian screens and then only seen on our screens, illustrating that the broadcast is not only being made for the Varosians but also for us. The episode ends with the Governor stating “And Cut It…Now”, with the screens in the technician room going blank, and the monster Sil’s laugh being audible. Therefore, the Governor’s pronouncement not only marks a cut for the Varosian viewers but also marks a literal break in the narrative for the viewers of Doctor Who, and it was common for such episodes to end with a close-up of the hero at the mercy of a monster. Furthermore, earlier in that television episode, the Varosian viewer Etta states of the Doctor, seen on the viewscreen, “I like that one. The one in the funny clothes”, which may parallel many television viewers appreciation of the Doctor. Although these moments are playful, as a result, we can draw comparisons between the way Varosian viewscreens and our television screens operate. For example, we have already seen the way in which some scenes are broadcast to the Varosian populace and others kept private shrouding truths. But we television viewers are privy to all those scenes so we may reject the ideology.

      In keeping with Gramsci’s (2003) model of ideology where there is a struggle for hegemony between the dominant and subaltern groups, Doctor Who narratives sometimes involve a struggle for hegemony between a dominant ideology and the ideology that rebel figures are trying to replace it with. In Doctor Who a sense is provided of the more liberalist values of the production team which control the television broadcasting system. In “Vengeance on Varos” certain viewers within the narrative actively resist the ideological positions laid out for them by the broadcasts, just as we as viewers of the Doctor Who narrative are invited to rebel against these positions. Such a rebel character in “Vengeance on Varos” is Jondar. While not shown, Jondar, as a member of the working class, has begun as a reader of the oppressive Varosian system represented on the viewscreens. Jondar has not been a passive reader. Rather he has attempted to affect change through political activism. Linking in with Gramsci’s idea that in the struggle for hegemony subaltern groups attempt to obtain consent from others and use force against the ruling class, Jondar is accused of inciting other workers to riot. The viewer of Doctor Who is invited to side with Jondar.

      Various televisual techniques mean that the Doctor Who viewer is invited to reject the State’s oppressive ideology, as is often the case in the programme. The narrative sets up a binary between humanoid (the Varosians) and repulsive non-humanoid (Sil, who finds the torture entertaining), but some of the humanoids share this moral repulsiveness. Sil, the name suggesting Silurian, is part repulsive snail, with a shell-like helmet on his head, part slug with a tail curling outwards at its tip, and part lizard, whose tongue flicks in and out as he laughs, all creatures coded as unpleasing in the television viewer’s culture, and his colouring is a cross between a murky green and brown. The world presented in the narrative is furthermore bleak. This sense is achieved partly through colour coding, since dominating the narrative are pale blue verging on greyness (the colour of the Governor’s costume), murky green (the colour of the costume tops of Varosian citizens like Etta and Areta and the colour of Quillum’s mask), and black (the colour of Arak’s costume, and that of the guards). The low-key lighting, by Dennis Channon, is also bleak. Incidental music, by Jonathan Gibbs, is moreover sombre.

      As is common in Doctor Who, the Doctor, as regular hero, however, ultimately helps bring about a new situation, as opposed to being the subject of the broadcast, and the television viewer is invited to side with him. “Vengeance on Varos” involves the Doctor helping bring about the end of oppressive “reality” broadcasting. The Doctor’s actions encourage the television viewer to resist the Varosian State’s ideology. The Doctor’s function in narratives is that of a catalyst where “one of” his “pivotal roles is to ask questions, or to ensure that questions get asked” (writer Philip Martin quoted in Brown 1998: 4). The Doctor’s humane and liberal individualism, mentioned by John Tulloch and Henry Jenkins (1995: 58), means that he opposes the malevolent Varosian State of totalitarian enslavement, siding with the rebels and helping citizens to a better way of life.

      Earlier, the notion that Varosian society is circular was raised where it was noted that one Governor is simply replaced by another with the system of oppression that benefits the Officer Elite being continuous. This notion was raised again towards the end of the narrative when the present Governor has been subjected to a forced vote by the Chief Officer and has been bombarded with the lethal cell disintegration rays. The Governor tells the guard Maldak that the new Governor, who could easily be Maldak, will find no solutions to the planet’s problems and that the harsh system of Varos will continue. However, the circle is broken when Maldak saves the Governor from the cell disintegration rays, meaning that the current Governor is not replaced by another. It is the Doctor’s intervention that has helped raise these issues in the minds of the populace, and the narrative has moved forward in a linear fashion to a new state of equilibrium.1

      Following the Doctor’s intervention, the end of the Governor’s final address is telling since he respectfully thanks the Varosian populace for allowing him into their homes, whereas earlier broadcasts were enforced upon the populace. After this, the screen fills with static, bringing the system to a halt. Etta and Arak are now presented with media-deprivation but in each other’s arms, suggesting a new intimacy of the private sphere, so the blurred boundaries between categories where the private was public are finally separated and the viewpoint of this audience against oppression may be paralleled by that of the real television viewers. The final shot of the narrative is of the empty screen, leading into the end credits to Doctor Who, creating a doubling between what has happened to the Varosian broadcasting system and the Doctor Who broadcast.

      More recently, however, Alan McKee (2004) has challenged the possibility of decoding Doctor Who as political, taking a post-structuralist approach to audience studies as a way to attack structuralist readings of the programme such as indeed Fiske’s analysis of “The Creature from the Pit” noted in the Introduction to this article. McKee’s audience study illustrated that “The politics of this group range from self-nominated Marxist to extreme right wing” and that “their interpretations of the programme’s politics, when asked to produce them” were “similarly wide ranging” (see Abstract). Although one can argue that the “preferred reading” of “Vengeance on Varos” is one of liberalism, there might still be “active” and resistant readers who read the narrative conservatively as advocating a capitalist system that is fairer. For although “Vengeance on Varos” concludes with an end to the autocratic system of government and with demands on Sil to pay any price necessary for the Zeiton ore, the Doctor does not suggest a dissolution of the Varosian class system, and of the working class rising to power, since capitalism must continue, but in the future there can be greater prosperity. Varosian society involves finding, what Tulloch refers to in his more general discussion as, “An alternative “democratic” and socially caring version of science” (Tulloch and Jenkins 1995: 33). Similarly, “The Monster of Peladon” (1974) replaces the gothic past of “The Curse of Peladon” (1972) with workers forced to mine, and it is the Doctor’s (Jon Pertwee) job to see that they get better conditions, while not advocating the radical miner Ettis’s attempts to use laser technology to blow up the citadel or a total dismantling of the class system. Likewise, later in “The Happiness Patrol” (1988) there is a violent struggle for hegemony between the working class drones and Helen A.’s regime which insists that everyone be happy with their lot, but the narrative does not advocate a total dismantling of the class system. Indeed, as John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado argue in relation to the BBC specifically, the corporation, after the 1950s when it had spoken to one great national audience, came to speak to all sections of society (1983: 51).


This article, then, has taken a narrative from a popular television series, Doctor Who, and has followed a common critical framework in illustrating how popular television can offer compelling insights into the social world. But this article has added to existing scholarship by examining a narrative which centres around the issue of broadcasting, thus getting us to question what the television medium does. This article has raised the issue of “whose ideology” is present in “Vengeance on Varos”. It began by examining how the dominant ideology of the Varosian ruling class is perpetuated by that society’s media broadcasts, illustrating how the narrative can be tied into concepts of ideology raised by Marx, Engels, Althusser and Gramsci. However, we do not only witness broadcasts within the narrative but in a metafictional moment attention is called to the broadcast of the narrative. We see that the Doctor sides with rebels against the Varosian broadcasting system in a Gramscian fashion to help bring about a new equilibrium. It is therefore proper to conclude that in this ideological battle it is “who’s ideology” that triumphs.2 While the narrative conterposes autocracy with a more liberal stance, however, resistant, and more conservative readings can be made.


[1] The notion of moving out of a circular society in a linear manner has been emphasised in relation to Blake’s 7 where the Liberator offers forward movement away from being in a drug-induced labyrinth (see Bignell and O’Day 2004: 141-43), and in relation to the Doctor Who narrative “The Happiness Patrol” (1988) (see O’Day 2010, “Towards a definition of satire in Doctor Who”).
[2] The Twilight Zone episode “The Obsolete Man” (1961) also takes the ideology of broadcasting as a theme, while the later film Starship Troopers (1997) concerns media manipulation.


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Text © Andrew O'Day and used with his kind permission. This page was compiled by Tim Harris.

This page was first published to the internet Saturday 21st August 2010.