When the TARDIS runs out of energy, the Doctor instantly abandons hope, plonks himself down in a chair and starts to angst about how awful it will be to have to stay in one place for eternity. Later, while escaping from an alien morgue he causes two mortuary attendants to die horribly in an acid bath: “Excuse me if I don’t join you” he sneers. Each version of the Doctor is unique – that’s half the fun of the show – but over and over again Colin Baker’s characterisation makes us say “But the Doctor would never do that…”
This is a sadistic, violent, morbid story – and it’s meant to be. In 1985 the tabloids were paranoid about “video nasties” and the “hang ’em and flog ’em” politicians were making a lot of noise. So the planet Varos, where the TV shows endless film of criminals being tortured and executed had a certain topicality. We see the Doctor starving to death in a desert; we see him with a noose round his neck; and we see the rebel leader (Jason Connery) chained to a wall and being tortured by lasers. We also see the Governor (Martin Jarvis) submitting to a series of live TV referendums, knowing that he’ll be executed if the people vote against him, which is quite a cool idea in a vicious sort of way. It could even be said to satirize reality TV a full 15 years before Big Brother. But it’s not interesting enough, and it’s much, much too nasty.
The best thing in the story is loathsome alien businessman Sil – cheating Varos out of its natural resources while revelling in all the torture. Nabil Shaban’s performance – particularly his inimitable sadistic laugh – makes Sil one of the all-time great aliens. The fact that the actor was exceptionally short enabled the BBC to create an exceptionally convincing slug-like costume.
Sil and the Governor negotiate the price of Zeiton Ore; the Doctor escapes from various ghoulish traps in the Punishment Dome; but it’s honestly hard to care. Colin Baker doesn’t feel like the Doctor; and this story doesn’t really feel like Doctor Who.