Sunday, January 17, 2010

 

DVD Taster: Doctor Who – Peladon Tales

Tomorrow, another Doctor Who DVD boxed set goes on sale, starring Jon Pertwee’s Doctor in The Curse of Peladon and follow-up The Monster of Peladon. If you think a 1972 tale about joining the EEC Galactic Federation could be making a subtle political point, I couldn’t disagree more. Curse isn’t subtle (except in comparison to its crass sequel), but it’s a highly entertaining shaggy god story packed with memorable aliens, and one of my favourites of the period. Monster… Isn’t. If you want to watch something for free, though, here’s my pick of the last week’s brand new TV, repeated tonight:

Lost Kingdoms of Africa: Ethiopia

You might expect me to recommend the new series of Hustle, which is as inventive and fun as ever, or Being Human’s black comedy thriller, possibly the best new drama on right now, or even Survivors, which is still well worth watching despite its lack of killer vegetation (being essentially The Day of the Triffids with more tedious gardening) – the new series has now run out of Terry Nation’s original Survivors plotlines, so ironically last week’s lifted large chunks from his Destiny of the Daleks – but the TV show that most gripped me last week was, improbably, not big-budget drama but archaeology on BBC4. Gus Casely-Hayford’s knowledgeable, enthusiastic and kind of hot real Indiana Jones (though he wasn’t allowed in to see the Ark of the Covenant) is in the middle of a series exploring Africa’s lost civilisations, and while I was only half-watching the one about Nubia, perhaps because it’s so lost that there was relatively little to see, the latest on Ethiopia was extraordinary.

You can see the Ethiopian documentary again tonight at eight on BBC4, or on iPlayer until the series finishes, and I thoroughly recommend it. Perhaps urging you to watch a real history programme with jaw-dropping pictures of actual ancient buildings is unwise before suggesting you visit a studio-bound medievalesque Doctor Who planet of suspiciously regular caves, but really, this is too good to miss. I knew a little about the Aksûmite Empire and the Ethiopian Kingdom said to have lasted three thousand years, claiming descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, but I didn’t realise how awesome – in the best sense – the architecture it left behind actually was. Tune in for the churches carved, incredibly, out of solid rock (to bolster a usurper’s credentials), or the far older giant Stelae jutting into the sky to mark the graves of ancient kings.

If you’re still looking for a Doctor Who connection, incidentally, one of Professor Bernice Summerfield’s most intense, inspired and insane adventures, The Sword of Forever, is steeped in Aksûmite legends; as that’s long out of print, though, it might be easier simply to watch Lost Kingdoms of Africa: Ethiopia and see what strikes you (stop reading now if you want to test this theory). Perhaps it’s just me, but one of the architectural features repeated over hundreds of years in royal and religious buildings made me start the first time it appeared, then began to get unsettling as more and more examples were displayed. It’s described as an emblem of “the rising sun,” and consists of a semi-circle set – on a small connecting piece – above a tall oblong block. As it wasn’t just a semi-circle alone, the first time I saw one it struck me as a representation of a figure. And as it wasn’t just one emblem but many, it didn’t strike me as a representation of many suns in a row, but of several figures. The first pair of them, I have to confess, immediately brought to mind a stylised pair of Time Lords in their ceremonial collars (set, appropriately, above a double cross). The centuries-older pair we saw next had a far more tapered oblong below it, its stepped edges looking for all the world like shoulders and hips. And the oldest, topping the Stelae like the heads of giants, even had pointed edges to the ‘rising sun’, like the downward points of a collar. But it could be just me.

Anyway, back to the Doctor properly.

The Curse of Peladon

With most Doctor Who stories already released on DVD and rumours that some of the remaining ‘fan favourites’ are being held back ’til the end of the range – approximately the close of 2012 – this year’s release schedule is looking a bit patchy. This story, however, is one I’ve always loved. It’s relatively unusual for a Jon Pertwee story in that it’s set entirely on an alien planet; at the end of Patrick Troughton’s reign, the Time Lords caught up with the Doctor and turned out to be bastards (yes, it’s happened before), executing the Second Doctor and, in a fate worse than death, turning him into Jon Pertwee exiling him to Earth. There was a bit of politics, or at least internationalism, in his working with the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce when ‘grounded’; by mid-way through Pertwee’s tenure, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks were getting a bit fed up of that and finding ways to get the TARDIS working again.

This was only the second proper trip for the Third Doctor, yet the planet Peladon on which he found himself was home if anything to an even more internationalist moral (and one I took very much to heart on reading the book when I was little). In Pertwee’s era, Earth’s future involved getting an Empire, losing it, then joining up with a Galactic Federation. Unlike Star Trek’s version, in which America Earth is plainly in charge, Doctor Who’s Federation is full of genuinely alien aliens who bitch about how crap Earth is and outvote us. It’s much more like the EU and the UK than the US’s view of international institutions, by an amazing coincidence. Among the most notable here are the Ice Warriors, huge reptiles from Mars who’d been brutal conquerors (though always with some personality) in two 1960s stories, and who as a result the Doctor doesn’t trust an inch here – it may not be giving too much away that you might think of them as ‘the Germans’ for this story. Meanwhile, the local high priest is being racist to the aliens, whipping up local traditions and in proper Eurosceptic Galactosceptic way, insisting that losing the vote means people were tricked by traitors, or that mounting a coup is protecting their institutions. Like all religious maniacs, too, he pronounces instant death for the mildest infraction by anyone else, but when the Doctor is absolutely cleared through sacred ritual, he blasphemously tears up the rules – of course, he’s holy, so they don’t apply to him. Just call him Iris Robinson.

The star of the show, though, is the Federation delegate from Alpha Centauri, known imaginatively as “Alpha Centauri,” who is one of the most utterly loveable aliens ever presented in Doctor Who. An hermaphrodite hexapod, Centauri is tall, green, one-eyed, and it’s your own guess where the female bits are, as this is an alien that famously looks like a phallus with tentacles. No, I said tentacles. Centauri is a camp, panicky snob appalled at being sent to some medieval backwater, shrilling in response to:
“There has been a new development?”
“Something dreadful, no doubt. This barbarous planet!”
…but despite that, rather sympathetic, and completely endearing. Alpha Centauri’s finest moments come in the sequel, but more on that later.

That Golden Moment
“The facts point to one thing – a unilateral blood alliance between Peladon and Earth!”
“It is unusual to celebrate such an event with an execution.”
It’s easy to pick out great scenes from The Curse of Peladon – perhaps because several of the characters are so well-drawn, and there are real issues behind their arguments. Naturally, then, the one that most fans will think of instantly as their favourite involves the Doctor crooning a Venusian lullaby to a big shaggy monster. I love that bit too, of course, but I’ll pick instead a sequence of scenes that takes place almost concurrently, but with rather more meaningful dialogue.

The scene – or, rather, set of scenes – that spring to mind for me are in Episode Three, in theory the story’s most disposable. You could argue that the plot hardly moves along at all between the end of Episode Two and the very end of Episode Three, and though you’d not be wrong, you’d miss a lot of the story’s best characterisation and dialogue. I’ve always enjoyed the way the Federation delegates bicker when the Doctor’s banged up, entertaining the viewer and driving Jo to distraction. The great thing about them is that, though it’s not impossible to read in national stereotypes made green and alien, they behave hugely against type for Doctor Who ‘monsters’ of the time; they’re far more engaging characters than most of the rather wooden badger-haired ‘humans’. Arcturus – basically an alternative design for a Dalek – stirs up trouble with scurrilous gossip. Izlyr – a big butch brutal Ice Warlord expected to be the main villain – defuses the situation with dry wit. And Alpha Centauri delights everyone by waving shocked tentacles in the air and screaming. Jo loses her temper with everyone arguing round in circles, but after she walks out on them the ‘old enemy’ saves the situation, and sets out to save the Doctor’s life. It’s a turnaround in our view not just of one character, but of his entire people.

At the same time, the Doctor’s talking with the high priest: one’s liberal and arguing in favour of working with other peoples; the other’s afraid of losing his past and his power, and setting up the other to be killed. No prizes for working out which is which, nor for who sounds scarily like a modern-day Eurosceptic. The two sequences dovetail when Izlyr finds the Doctor missing from his cell (off in search of that shaggy monster) – and, ironically, it’s only on confronting the possibility that the Doctor’s been killed that the sardonic Ice Lord finally reveals a flash of the deadly aggression for which his race was once known.
“They’ll exploit us for our minerals, enslave us with their machines, corrupt us with their technology. The face of Peladon will be changed, the past swept away, and everything that I know and value will have gone.”
“The progress that they offer – that we offer – isn’t like that.”
“I would rather be a cave-dweller, and free.”
“Free? With your people imprisoned by ritual and superstition?”
Something Else To Look Out For

The first episode has a marvellous stage-setting scene where the Doctor and Jo are dragged into the throne room, apparently to have their heads chopped off, and are instead taken as the late-running delegates from Earth and introduced to the rest of the cast. Naturally, they take full advantage of this with some inspired blagging (I suspect that blagging my own way into several meetings and buffets I had no business at were inspired by reading such Doctorish scenes as a boy). Highlights include the local theocratic bigot mixing it by telling the very nervous delegate from Alpha Centauri about a mysterious murder and threatening legend, which climaxes in a prophecy of a stranger bringing peril to the land… On the stroke of which, the Doctor appears. Anyone would think he was the personification of peril to theocratic bigots everywhere, and rightly, though this story famously exposes some of the Doctor’s own prejudices too (as well as giving him a terrible line about aristocracy being democratic; you forgive a swashbuckler for being pro-monarchy, but there are limits). Jo suddenly proclaiming herself a princess and saying how deplorable her pilot was is also a scream.

One comedy hypnotism scene apart, this is one of Jo Grant’s strongest stories. Brought in to replace the fabulous Liz Shaw – too brainy to be a companion, thought the producer – she was dimmer and ditzier, and Katy Manning often had very little to work with to bring her part to life. Here, for once, she’s allowed to be brave, bright and put Pertwee down on several occasions, which is a blessed relief. In fact, as the Doctor spends much of the story incarcerated, she’s more like the lead character, and seizes the opportunity. She gets raw emotion and interplanetary politics between her fake princess and the young king falling for her, with all the farcical gossip that arises from that situation. For me, though, Jo really shines in the scenes in the final episode where the Doctor’s swanned off to arrange a deus ex specus and she’s left as the voice of reason, paired up with a ferocious Martian warlord detective, with an outrageously camp space octopus panicking in the background. Alpha Centauri’s ‘vote’ may be extracted improperly, but it’s very funny, and who couldn’t love a character who in one online transcript of the story is given the stage direction “To Ssorg, hysterically” nine times in one scene?

That part of the final episode follows a brilliant subversion of the murder mystery that’s taken up much of the story so far. The Doctor does the old ‘I’ve called you all here today’ bit that ought to wrap up the plot, but instead of that solving things in the Agatha Christie way, it simply pushes the real enemy into mobilising his real power. The whole thing’s one of those legendary ghost stories with a scheme underneath, having more than a passing nod to The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the way it’s carried off tells you a lot about the series at the time. Had it been made for William Hartnell as the Doctor, David Whitaker would have written more intricate court plotting and far richer dialogue; if Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe had made it with Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, its main aim would have been to go for the jugular as a ghost story to scare the pants off little kids like me watching at the time. Under Barry Letts, it’s less literate on the one hand, and less scary on the other, but cosily enjoyable, full of character, and – crucially – with a political allegory for the kids and masses of memorable, colourful monsters for the adults.

Incidentally, the story exists in a couple of other versions, too (as does its sequel, less memorably): it was released on CD a couple of years ago with narration from Katy Manning where, just as in the days when she was playing Jo, she’s better than the script – there are some good lines, but far too many of them treading across the soundtrack. Within the first couple of minutes, the words “The beast’s roars echo back along the corridor” entirely drown out the roar itself, for example, and while it’s useful to have the action on the mountainside narrated, do we really need to be told about Jo tugging the Doctor’s arm and shaking her head, when we’re just about to hear her telling him that she can’t go on any further? Then there are additions we wouldn’t have by watching the story: Arcturus may well have a helium-filled dome, but is this a talking book with hastily-squeaked frills, a radio play or TV show with occasional stage directions? The uneasy mix of all three does it no favours, though I do enjoy the slightly tongue-in-cheek
“The delegates bow to the King, and then shuffle, walk and trundle towards the doors.”
Brian Hayles’ novelisation was also a particular favourite of mine as a boy – no doubt strongly contributing to my political indoctrination – with an excitingly monster-packed cover (the sacred beast Aggedor may sometimes look a bit iffy under studio lights, but in pictures, as a statue and as a thrillingly threatening legend he’s fantastic), a strong narrative told solidly with flashes of inspiration, and above all, Alpha Centauri, a favourite alien long before I ever saw the show from little flashes of character such as diplomatically praising the harsh, barbaric décor from which the delegate inwardly yearns to shy away to the way Centauri’s green tentacles turning milky blue or even mauve in distress were endlessly fascinating (now, come on, if there’s an alien to bring back for the new Doctor, fully realised at last…).

The Monster of Peladon

This story’s half as long again as the original; definitive proof that it’s not how big it is, but what you do with it that matters. Obviously, the longer adventure has fewer interesting characters – you can guess which one I’m going to praise – and a far thinner plot, with court politics, contemporary political allegory and murder mystery all much dumber and less involving this time around. Most of the Ice Warriors are physically at their least impressive – in their final appearance, their costumes are shoddy and ill-fitting – but wheezily voiced, uncredited, by producer Barry Letts and with rather a splendid leader, as usual. The rest of the design ranges from a terrific Aggedor statue to the Universe’s largest screw (no, steady) for the Doctor to wave his sonic at. The latter is more representative. The story’s BBC production code was “YYY”: make up your own jokes.

There are three things to notice about The Monster of Peladon, and they’re all about mining. Back in 1974, when this was transmitted, mining was big news – so much so that this is all about a mining dispute. Except that I shouldn’t pay it the compliment of calling it an allegory, when the boss is a murderous, stupid bully who doesn’t listen to anyone, the miners are all incredibly dim and do exactly what the last person who spoke to them says (whether it’s the Scargill-a-like revolutionary, the dull but worthy ‘moderate’ or even their evil boss: “All right, Chancellor, we’ll trust you this time”), and the Doctor is cast in the role of ACAS as action hero. No, really. Second, this story and its predecessor were the only two Pertwee stories made with no location filming – so, in a stroke of genius, they make it all about mining, so have to build a quarry in the studio. And thirdly, it seemed very exciting to me when I was a boy because of Weetabix. No, hear me out – this comes back to mining, eventually. I hated Weetabix. Loathed it. It did, in fact, make me sick. But we got boxes of the revolting stuff, because when I was very little they did a range of cardboard Doctor Who figures (as seen on TV), and because The Monster of Peladon had been on TV a couple of years earlier, several of them were based on characters from it. It was a story from just before I started watching, and the figures were thrilling, so naturally I was far more excited by them as little cut-out standees than I’ve ever been since seeing them on screen. One was the Queen’s Champion, Blor, who in the actual story gets to wear a remarkably silly hat, grunt “Uh!” about nine times and then cry “Aargghh!” I remember thinking, ‘And he gets a Weetabix for that?’ But the really exciting one was the wide-eyed, faun-like mining engineer (from a Star Trek-esque planet made up entirely of mining engineers, apparently), Vega Nexos. He won’t last long, either, but he’s far more interesting and Weetabix-worthy than Blor, so he’s remembered much more fondly than the usual ‘first alien to be brutally murdered’.

Fortunately, The Monster of Peladon isn’t the only sequel to Curse; I suspect the first story grabbed many young fans’ attention for being the only decent alien world for years under Pertwee, so you can find several books and audio plays that return to Peladon in later years. The most entertaining for me remains one that strictly isn’t a sequel at all – not only is it not set on Peladon, but it features not one of the Alpha Centauri but the even less butch and naughtily copyright-skirting Beta Centauri. If you get hold of the Bernice Summerfield short story collection A Life of Surprises (edited by Paul Cornell), you must read Nev Fountain’s Beedlemania aloud, and read out all the Beta Centauri lines in an hysterical high-pitched voice. It’s the law. It’s also killingly funny. 2005’s Russell T Davies story The End of the World has more than a touch of The Curse of Peladon about it, too…

That Golden Moment
“The Citadel of Peladon, Sarah. One of the most interesting and –”
“Oh no it isn’t, is it, Doctor?”
“Well, no. Not exactly.”
“No! It’s not your precious Citadel at all. It’s another rotten, gloomy old tunnel.”
“Yes, well, with the scanner still on the blink, there was no way I could really check…”
“There’s more than the scanner on the blink.”
It’s another adventure, and the TARDIS materialises in another dingy tunnel (to be fair, some of the tunnels look all right, but it’s quite glaringly obvious which are shot on film and which on video). The Doctor steps out in full tour guide fashion, introducing Sarah Jane Smith to the Citadel of Peladon – it’s before the days when people would say of him (and Martha say to his face) that he always takes his new dates to the same old places, but you may find the style familiar, even though this is in fact the first time he ever successfully takes a companion to the alien world he’s aiming for without the controls blowing up – and falters slightly on seeing where he’s parked.

Unlike some of the Doctor’s companions, Sarah Jane is fabulously unwilling to put up with his cock-ups, and tells him so. She’s also dressed rather better than he is, in a black leather jacket rather than his green-as-poison jacket (itself an improvement on his moss-green outfit a couple of stories earlier and his nasty green and red plaid in Curse). He’ll pick up the leather jacket a few lives later. In the meantime, he locks the TARDIS door and puts the key away, transparently to stop her going back inside and tapping her foot ’til he turns round. He only gets his way by pleading with her, when she finally breaks and humours him, alternating between getting cross and pissing herself as he first gets them lost and then tries his usual name-dropping act to big himself up again. She really is just what he needs – brilliant at taking him down a peg or two. And wait until he’s optimistically pleased to see the palace guard…

Something Else To Look Out For

It’s not just Sarah Jane that takes this Doctor down a peg in his penultimate and rather tired story. While he’s become a legendary figure in these parts in the fifty years since the previous story, opinion on him is divided. The Queen virtually asks for his autograph, while the jealous Chancellor / High Priest / power in front of the throne would prefer a lock of his hair with the head thrown in, reckoning himself the keeper of the sacred beast and not wanting any competition for living legends (to the point where, predictably and again blasphemously, he ignores all his own sacred rules). The main villain, once revealed, is all for killing the Doctor at once – but gets talked out of it. The most satisfying moment for Pertwee-non-fanciers, though, comes at the end of Episode Four, when Scargillesque local nutter Ettis beats the stuffing out of him. Or, more accurately, beats the stuffing out of an hilariously visible stuntman – in full close-up! I met actor Ralph Watson (and his son Alex) recently, and he’s still very proud of getting to duff up the Doctor. In other stunt-related fun, watch out for the stuntman-cum-bit-player who dies several times in this one story…

Sarah Jane gets some other good moments – notably, mourning for the Doctor as well as mocking him, in some of the powerfully emotional (but never hysterical) scenes for one of his companions. Naturally, each time he turns out not to be dead after all, he takes the piss out of her for worrying, the cad. I have to admit, though, my ‘you go, girl!’ reaction to Sarah Jane snatching up a gun may be at odds with my distaste for the Doctor slaughtering battalions with a remote-controlled death-ray. Perhaps Miss Smith’s best-known moment here is telling the sopping wet Queen (in her primary school stiff card and tin foil crown) that she should stand up to her Chancellor, because “There’s nothing ‘only’ about being a girl!” Not only is it a clumsy and patronising stab at ‘Women’s Lib,’ but it’s a sign of the times that no-one noticed anything remotely incongruous about Sarah Jane repeating this advice mere seconds before the Doctor prattles on and on about Gebek being the right “man”. You want Mr Watson’s character to come back to life and slap him again.

There’s some fun to be had with the almost Tom Baker-like laid-backness of engineer Eckersley (his first name’s William), but you know who I really watch this for. And, unlike the first story, Alpha Centauri’s most of the reason to watch this one at all. Now the Federation Ambassador and with an expanded role – effectively taking much of Izlyr’s place in the story, too – Alpha Centauri is, like all the characters here, occasionally very dim (though the Queen is so stupid that Centauri has to dramatically reveal to her the oh-so-secret traitor’s identity twice), but even more entertaining than before. Now, some fans say Alpha Centauri looks and sounds silly, and so is a ‘silly monster’. Not only does this show an appalling humour failure, but on a planet of overacting people in badger-striped afros that make Jon Pertwee’s bouffant seem restrained, ‘silly’ hardly bears mentioning. Alpha Centauri is outrageously camp and outrageously out of place, but magnificent. If it didn’t give the game away, I’d have picked as my “Golden Moment” Centauri’s piercing thanks to the traitor at a moment of revelation – simultaneously polite and damning, and prompted by sheer civil servant’s outrage – but there are many others. Describing treasonous thuggery as “most reprehensible,” or the outstandingly flouncy act of bravery “I shall summon assistance. Help! Guards! Aaahh!” On finding out about a traitor, the Ambassador exclaims, “I find it hard to believe that ----- could do something so wicked!” Bless you, Alpha Centauri. You’re too good for this world. In several senses.

Finally, it’s an impressive DVD set from a technical point of view; they’ve gone to remarkable lengths to restore the two tales, and the two stories get three discs, packed with extras. There are the usual full commentaries (with a bonus ‘fan commentary’ including writer Rob Shearman on one episode of Monster; I’m particularly looking forward to that, as I’ve heard him be even ruder about it than I am) and text notes on the stories themselves, photo galleries, pdfs, and several documentaries – two on The Peladon Saga, its making and its socio-political background, one on the Ice Warriors, one on Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning. There’s even a deleted scene. I suspect I’m most looking forward to another piece on Target Books, however, this time focusing on Terrance Dicks, who wrote nearly as many Doctor Who novelisations as everyone else put together (and previously the subject of a DVD retrospective on his wider Doctor Who work). The set’s exciting trailer is only available online…

Update: Whoops! I forgot to plug the detailed and insightful episode-by-episode reviews of Curse and Monster by the lovely John Dorney. Take a look, and – as, though he got a lot further than me, his reviews tailed off with the penultimate episode featured in this set – I’ll give him a little prod to say I’d like to read more. I bet you would, too.

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Comments:
Hi Alex! Great post about the Peladon series - I've just rewatched them both recently and was glad to have found your write up on them. I don't know which I prefer, the Curse or the Monster; both are quite appealing to me (and I'm not just talking about Jo and Sarah! Jane!) and entertaining. Will look forward to getting these properly some day soon!
 
Thank you very much - and I'm intrigued. If you might prefer Monster, I'd love to hear why :D

Incidentally, tickled by your shortening them to "The Curse" and "The Monster" - the "The" makes me think of old Universal monster movies, and they'd fit in so well, wouldn't they? Though I'd probably call "The Monster..." "The Ghost of Peladon" in Universal style!
 
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