The good one of the season.
In his book About Time, Tat Wood said that if you want to know what the 80s were like, "imagine a world where this could be followed by Jim'll Fix It."
After the TARDIS breaks down in the middle of nowhere, the Doctor quickly decides that his life is over now and he'll be stuck in dead space for the rest of his regenerations. Peri convinces him to actually read the TARDIS manual for a change, which tells him that he could get the ship working again using some Unobtanium from the nearby Crapsack World of Varos. They land right in the middle of an execution. Timing is everything!
Being executed is Jondak the Rebel, who was trying to lead a fight against Varosian society. The government is something like mob rule crossed with Bread and Circuses — everyone's television is also a voting device. Since there's not a lot of food and entertainment left, society is hungry for any kind of distraction, and people's tastes have gotten ever more bloodthirsty. To distract the workers and discourage uprisings, public executions are carried out in a Death Course full of nastily fatal traps, the video footage of which is then sold to anyone willing to buy it. The current governor, who's constantly in danger of being executed through the TV voting system himself, sees no way out and has long since become accustomed to the way life on Varos works.
So the Doctor and Peri bogart with Jondar, picking up his wife, fellow rebel Areta, along the way, and make their way through the Deadly Game. They are separated, trapped, recaptured, nearly killed, etc., until finally the governor confines the Doctor and Jondar to the Gallows Room and begins to turn Peri into a bird unless the Doctor explains just why he's there.
The Governor and his guards all do a tentative Heel–Face Turn once they realise the Doctor may hold secrets of the outside world. However, they're also being extorted by a sort of fish-dwarf named Sil, a representative of the Galatron Mining Corporation. The Doctor is most annoyed that Peri is turning into a bird, even after he's revealed that the Varosians' zeiton ore is much more valuable than they'd been led to believe. Fortunately, the process is reversible. Now the group hobbles towards the exits, neatly avoiding the poisonous plants and the cannibals. In the end, the Governor is able to tell Sil where to stick his outrageous prices (as well as his invasion fleet) and announces a new golden age of prosperity, without any more entertaining Death Trap executions. The people watching TV look positively crestfallen.
- Agony Beam: Used on Jondar, which leads to the odd spectacle of a shirtless Jason Connery being tortured by having a torch shined on his chest..
- Ambiguous Ending: The ending seems positive, but the final scene adds a note of uncertainty, making it clear that the general population of Varos may be unable to accept living without their Torture Porn.
- Anti-Villain: The Governor.
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Peri complains that Six caused three electrical fires and a power failure, nearly collided with a storm of asteroids, got lost in the TARDIS corridors twice, wiped the memory banks of the flight computer, jettisoned three quarters of the storage hold and burned her cold dinner.
- Bald of Evil: The Chief Officer.
- Baleful Polymorph: Peri's forced transmutation into a bird creature.
- Bond One-Liner: "Forgive me if I don't join you." — said by the Doctor to some guards who are dying in an acid bath.
- Bread and Circuses
- Crapsack World: Varos.
- Cutting the Knot: Faced with a complicated console and no idea which switches will deactivate the transmogrificaton, Six simply shoots the console.
- Deadly Game: On Varos, executions are televised as part of a Bread and Circuses system.
- Death Course
- Democracy Is Bad: Varos is depicted as a dystopic democracy where most of the population watches executions for entertainment and will vote for the death of leaders they dislike, which apparently they do pretty often.
- Distressed Dude: The Doctor and Peri arrive just in the nick of time to save Jondar being executed for his work in La Résistance.
- Dramatic Unmask: When the Doctor rips off Quillam mask, and reveals the mess underneath.
- Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Neither the Governor nor the Chief Officer is ever referred to by name.
- Evil Chancellor: The Chief Officer to the Governor. Slightly unusual example, in that it's immediately clear to both that the Chief Officer is both (a) the real power and (b) utterly venal, but unfortunately the Varosian system of government means the Governor's all but powerless.
- Expy: Nabil Shaban modelled Sil on Gollum, with some snake-like aspects.
- Family-Unfriendly Death: A guard falling into a pool of acid (mostly notable because the Doctor seems to make a mean-spirited quip about it afterward).
- Family-Unfriendly Violence: A story entirely themed around Torture Porn and Snuff Films.
- Greek Chorus: Arak and Etta, who are watching from their home.
- Hobbes Was Right
- I'm a Humanitarian: The mad escaped prisoners in the tunnels.
- Leaning on the Fourth Wall: When the Doctor has (apparently) been killed, the Governor, coordinating the filming of the event for later video sales, decides exactly when the video should cut out for maximum effect. Then the Doctor Who episode ends.
- Mad Scientist: Quillam, complete with a mask to hide his disfigurement.
- Non-Indicative Name: The story features just about every negative human motivation except vengefulness.
- Noodle Incident:Peri: You even managed to burn dinner last night!
The Doctor: I never said I was perfect!
Peri: If you recall, I was going to have a cold dinner last night.
- Penal Colony: Varos used to be one of these. It's partly what makes it such a charming and lovely place in the present.
- Professor Guinea Pig: Quillam.
- Punch-Clock Villain: The Chief Officer.
- Read the Freaking Manual: The Doctor, in mid-strop, claims that he tried to read the TARDIS manual once. He obviously didn't get very far.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: The Governor is in many ways a decent, fair and honourable man who genuinely just wants to do right by his people. Unfortunately, he's essentially a figurehead faced with a corrupt and venal Chief Officer, a ruthless and (literally) slimy Corrupt Corporate Executive and a system of government which is basically The X Factor voting system operated by a disengaged and unthinking population which can actually physically torture or even kill the Governor if he receives enough "no" votes. This tends to make things tough for him.
- La Résistance
- Snuff Film: The story is about a deeply messed-up space colony whose regime, among other charming habits, sells recordings of the public torture and execution of dissidents to underground perverts on other planets as snuff movies.
- So What Do We Do Now?: Arak and Etta, at the very end.
- Spanner in the Works: The Doctor only lands on Varos in the first place because the TARDIS only has enough power for one flight and it's the nearest source of zeiton-7 he can find. He just happens to arrive during Jondar's execution, which creates a chain of events which ends up bringing down Varos' corrupt government.
- Strapped to an Operating Table: Peri and Areta, in the transmutation machine.
- Televised Torture: As both entertainment and warning.
- Torture Porn: Varos is a depraved far-future society which tortures and kills its rebels in inventive ways on live TV, and exports the videos to other worlds as Snuff Films. Depending on your view it is either a prescient satire on the genre or an early, ugly example.
- Unobtanium: The zeiton-7.
- Video Nasties: Sil likes making people watch these, and selling them to depraved residents of other planets.
- Walking Shirtless Scene: Jondar.
- "What Now?" Ending: "We're free". "What now?" "Dunno".
- Your Mind Makes It Real:
- One of the deadly traps.
- Also basically how the transmutation machine works; it latches on to a thought in the subject's mind (say, "I want to be free!") and mutates the subject into a warped expression of that desire (turning them into a bird-creature so they can "fly away").