In 1976 and 1978, the BBC presented two runs of what sounds like an incredibly strange drama called Gangsters, which began as a hard-hitting look at crime and racism in a northern city but mutated into a surreal story about writing a television series about crime and racism in a northern city. It might have been the Velvet Underground of TV: not very many people watched it, but everybody who did went on to write for television. It starred Maurice Colbourne, who we saw as Lytton in the previous adventure, and was scripted by Philip Martin, who was invited by script editor Eric Saward to craft this odd, multi-layered, and deliberately unpleasant story. It’s about a former prison planet whose impoverished population get their kicks watching televised executions and torture.
I don’t like this story at all. I think it’s fake, unbelievable, and full of really bad performances, with two exceptions. First, they got the reliable Martin Jarvis in to play the planet’s governor, and second, they introduced Nabil Shaban as a slimy, disgusting, and absolutely wonderful slug-creature called Sil. Sil is obsessed with violence and profit, a big dreamer with a short temper. He’s hilarious and by miles the best thing about the two stories where he appears.
Our son enjoyed this quite a lot more than I was expecting. He really liked the scenes where “the folks at home” comment on the action and cast their votes for whether the governor should hold firm on the price of a mineral that Sil’s corporation desires. “I would have voted no, too,” he said, joining the 900-plus thousand who agreed. The population of Varos is only about a million and a half, it seems. Props to Martin and Saward for introducing an “interactive” element, of sorts, to the story, because that’s exactly the sort of thing to catch the attention of seven year-olds!
(A note on picture quality: This story was one of the first to be released on DVD in North America, through BBC Video’s old deal with Warner Brothers, and it looks incredibly dull and bland. I’m reliably assured that if you click the picture and order the subsequent “special edition,” what you’ll get is far more vivid and colorful than the original version, but I don’t care enough about the story to make the investment, honestly.)