Martin Jarvis is, let there be no mistake, a legend in the audiobook world. Alongside a handful of others, he dominates the world of spoken world audio, with a skill for both characterisation and narration that can, for instance, make even Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities an enjoyable experience.
He’s also of course no stranger to Doctor Who, starring in three of the…if not technically better, then at least most notable Doctor Who stories across the Classic era (surely it’s time for a New Who appearance?), The Web Planet, Invasion of the Dinosaurs and this Sixth Doctor stand-out, Vengeance On Varos.
Which is why it pains me to say he’s not the right reader for this audiobook version of Philip Martin’s novelization of the story.
It’s the second time the novel has been recorded for audiobook, and it’s ultimately the second time a mistake has been made on the reader. That’s no fault of Jarvis’, any more than it was a fault of Colin Baker the first time round. It’s just that Vengeance On Varos, more than almost any other non-Dalek and non-Cyberman adventure, is a story that depends utterly on one very particular vocal performance. One can and should wax intensely lyrical about Martin’s prescience in showing the rise of reality or managed-reality TV, about the greater participation in the voting process for such shows than in actual democratic elections, and how the melding of entertainment and governance looks like an increasingly inevitable trend some 35 down the line. One can hem and haw over video nasties, the gradual domestication of suffering as entertainment, and the vexed question of whether Vengeance On Varos itself showed too much violence and so became part of the very thing it was predicting and/or satirizing. One can do all that, and it’s been done for over three decades. What one ultimately has to face though is that there’s one key vocal, one key sound in Vengeance On Varos, and that’s the voice, the vocal performance of Nabil Shaban as Sil, the ultimate profiteer, the ultimate right-wing sadist and pioneer of the art of the deal.
It’s such an extraordinary performance when you actually hear it that inevitably, anyone who’s not Nabil, trying to render Sil, comes off worse by virtue of imitation. And without a solid Sil, the rest of the story of Vengeance On Varos begins to feel distracted by an absence, rather than a situation moving under its own steam.
Jarvis, to his credit, delivers a different take on Sil, which achieves its own internal consistency of hysterical wet explosions through dialogue, but Shaban’s performance is such that it’s made Sil a high stand-out of the Sixth Doctor’s era, and doing something distinct and different with it, while absolutely the way actors should approach the character, is never going to get you there for fans – and fans, after all, are probably the people most likely to buy an audiobook of a novelization of a TV story from three decades ago.
As such, there feels inevitably like something of lost opportunity about this audiobook, and once that sets in, it doesn’t really leave you throughout the run-time of the story. But let’s for a moment move beyond the central Sil issue. How does the audio-novelization do in terms of either replicating or deepening our understanding of the world of Varos and its closed-in one-time prison-world?
That’s something of a game of two halves here. On the one hand, some of the ‘What-the-hell?’ moments of the TV version of Vengeance On Varos are neatly addressed – occasionally even with just a line or two – in ways that make much more sense than we ever got to see on screen. When the Doctor finds himself trapped in a desert in the middle of a corridor, the pertinent question of why he doesn’t just retrace his steps out of the area is dealt with by the information that a metallic net has dropped down behind him, so that when he tries to do this, his way is barred. Instantly, that makes more sense of his onward progress. Likewise, the infamous scene where the Doctor quips heartlessly to two men sinking in a pool of acid is rewritten, not only to let the Doctor seem more morally virtuous than he did on screen, but also to remove the active bantering, which allows for a Doctor more fitting to his general moral indignation at the destruction of life.
There are other subtle deepenings of the world of Varos too – additional context is given to the lives of Arak and Etta, the typical viewers who are used to give a running commentary on the disintegration of their previous way of life, and additional venom and backstory to the relationship between domestic power-players the Chief, who runs the show, and Quillam, the scarred architect of the punishment dome that has become the focus of Varos’ entertainment and justice systems. There’s even a little more detail than there was ever room for on-screen about the process by which one becomes governor of the benighted planet, and what ‘the Governor’ during the time of the story – he apparently forsook his name when he was elevated to the big chair – has known and felt and dreamed for his planet and people.
On the other hand, Quillam, like Sil, was embodied on screen by an actor striving for something notably grotesque, the fabulously named and sadly no longer with us Nicholas Chagrin. And as with Sil, there’s something lost in the novelization of what he achieved on screen, making Quillam a somewhat more run-of-the-mill sadist than Chagrin delivered. Equally, the ending for the forces of domestic darkness on Varos feels oddly rushed here, as they’re all loaded up into one vehicle and driven into oblivion near the end of the book, which deals with them conveniently, but in a way which almost shows too much of the authorial wiring – they’ve served their purpose, so when it’s time for them to die and give way to a happier future for Varos and its miners, they’re just disposed of, though there is of course a kind of perverse justice to that, given how many lives they’ve despatched with equal lack of ceremony.
Overall, despite the additional touches of detail, the novelization of Vengeance On Varos feels a workmanlike affair, not to say a light one, worth exploring only if you feel a particular devotion to the TV version. And if you feel that devotion, sadly, the question of a screen-accurate Sil vocalisation becomes rather more important than it might otherwise have been. Of the two available versions of the audio-novelization, arguably it’s more worth going for the Colin Baker version, because at least then the story’s other big personality is rendered with its full vigour. Martin Jarvis remains a legend in the audiobook world, but his character as the Governor is inherently fairly restrained, buttoned down by the politics of his horrifying world. As such, his is not by any means the primary necessary voice in the story, and while he absolutely delivers a solid narration, when it comes to adding in the vocalisations of other characters, his range is such that it leaves us thinking more of the audio-novel that could have been, rather than notably enjoying the one we most recently have. Tony Fyler