Friday, July 19, 2013

Doctor Who: 1985

Episode 630: Vengeance on Varos, part two
First broadcast: 5.20 pm, Saturday 26 January 1985
<< back to 1984

The Doctor rescues Peri - doesn't he?
Vengeance on Varos, part two
I used to be terrified of Doctor Who - or at least some of it. As I've said already, it was always (or always seemed) a serious, adult show full of things I didn't understand and content unsuitable for an impressionable small boy.

In 1982, after Kinda - and the Mara lurking in Tegan's dreams - I had nightmares. The following year, there were more, the result of the Mara returning in Snakedance and David Collings' chilling performance in Mawdryn Undead.

I didn't tell anyone: I feared if my parents knew they wouldn't let me watch the programme. And it wasn't that every story led to nightmares. Monsters, generally, didn't scare me - I've never been very squeamish. The death of Adric or the Black Guardian's control of Turlough were thrilling but not scary.

When I got through Season 21 (in 1984) without a sleepless night, I thought I'd achieved something, that I was growing up and out of nightmares. So it was a bit of a shock when the following year Vengeance on Varos utterly terrified me.

The whole story is deliciously horrid. Sil is a brilliantly grotesque creation, giggling as he orders yet more outlandish tortures. And yet the thing that really got in my head is the briefest moment.

Peri and Areta are subjected to an experimental process to amuse the viewing public. As Quillam is all too eager to explain:
The nuclear bombardment beams release all the power latent in the recipient's mind. If the changelings see themselves as unworthy, they can become serpentine or reptilian. [Peri], for instance, must wish to fly away from trouble as would a bird.
It's the word "unworthy" that really got me: as if transforming was the victim's fault. If you're not good enough, the machine finds your secret fears and then uses them to change what you look like.

But it wasn't the process that turned Peri into a bird that bothered me so much as the Doctor coming to her rescue. We see her change back to her human self and the Doctor rushes over:
I am the Doctor and you are Peri. Perpugilliam Brown.


It's a question of re-imprinting their identities, of establishing again who they are.

Wake up, Areta. Come on!

Can you walk, Peri? Come on, try.

I thought I could fly.
There's a hint that she's not back to normal, that for all it looks as if the process has been reversed, inside her head she's still a bird. That's what terrified me and led to nightmares - because the Doctor's too busy trying to escape to notice.

It was only when the story came out on video in 1993 that I saw it again and realised the moment that so terrified me, that I'd kept in my head for years, didn't really happen. Peri doesn't say "I can fly", only that she had thought that she could. She's fine, if confused and exhausted. There is no permanent damage.

I'd taken something in the story and spun it out into something of my own, as if just to scare myself further. The nightmares were a creative act. Once I realised that, I could see it was also true of the other stories that scared me. I'd invented new stories for the Mara, appearing in places I knew in real life such as my school and the fields where we walked our dog. With Mawdryn Undead, there's a brief time when Nyssa and Tegan think Mawdryn might be a regenerated Doctor and I fixed on the idea he had regenerated, in pain, on his own - something that's barely suggested in the episode.

I'm fascinated by how people respond to and take ownership of Doctor Who - telling their own stories, making films and documentaries, dressing up, or looking for work in the industry. David Tennant became an actor because of his love for Doctor Who. Though my favourite version of this is that Dr Marek Kukula pursued an academic career in astrophysics because he wanted to be Leela.

Oh, and that thing of Peri being transformed but the Doctor not noticing? In 2002 I used that as the basis for my first ever professionally published bit of fiction, a Doctor Who short story called "The Switching".

Next episode: 1986

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