Thursday, October 20, 2011


DVD Detail: Doctor Who – Paradise Towers

Traditional Doctor Who often includes fascistic guards, killer robots and ancient evil struggling to awaken, but the brilliance of this 1987 tale was to combine these elements not on a shiny spaceship or in a stylised English village but within an insane sit-com run by Richard Briers, clashing youth gangs against Mary Whitehouse types and bureaucracy gone mad in a run-down tower block. Result! Witty and inventive, the script is an ideal mix of comedy and horror in a still-fresh urban setting. Paradise Towers won a lot of awards back in the 21st Century. But not from Doctor Who fans…

Twenty-four years ago this evening, Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford were deep inside Paradise Towers. It was Sylvester’s first season as the Doctor, and the stories – all still finding their way with a new Doctor, a new lead writer and a new approach – have never been widely loved, with the general view that each of his seasons was a dramatic improvement on the one before (and I’d mostly agree, up to and including the fabulousness of the New Adventures that his Doctor gave rise to in the 1990s). The major exception for me was this story: a near-perfect template for the Seventh Doctor, I’d have loved to have had more like it. When it came out on DVD this summer, I was delighted – but it’s only fair to warn you that many others instead condemned it to a 327 Appendix 3 Subsection 9 death. Some people say this divides fans… Nah. Most of them just hate it! Even when it was first broadcast, the then-cheerleading Doctor Who Magazine put the boot in in a quite unprecedented way: “distinctly tired”; “isn’t much fun”; “PREDICTABLE”; “OVER-ACTED”; “frankly embarrassing”; and “Actually, watching Paradise Towers made me rather angry”. The Magazine was still reflecting that view back in September 2009, when DWM 413 published “The Mighty 200” – 6,700 fans’ votes on all 200ish TV Doctor Who stories to that point – in which Paradise Towers languished at a dismal 193rd. As I’d put it well over a hundred places higher, this story might well be the biggest gap between my taste and prevailing fan opinion. Though I’ve previously written about three of the bottom ten and found the odd nice thing to say about even the one that would be in my bottom ten, Paradise Towers is the only one of that “bottom ten” that absolutely shouldn’t be anywhere near there, where most fans are utterly wrong, and which should instead be celebrated.

While this ‘taster’ may not be short, incidentally, my policy in these is not to be too spoilery. So read on without fear of finding out too many key twists from the end. Which is just as well, as honesty compels me to warn you that, brilliant though much of this story is, the ending doesn’t quite live up to its promise…

That Golden Moment
“It’s – it’s – aaagghh!”
“Yes, I know.”
I was gripped from the first scene when this was first transmitted; ‘proper’ Doctor Who grammar, this, starting your sentence with a capital letter and your episode with a capital crime. But while the opening scenes juxtapose death in the Towers and curious bathos in the TARDIS – if the story were made today, you can easily imagine them as a pre-credits ‘teaser’ – the montage a little further into Part One considerably furthers both the adventures of the Doctor and Mel and the mysterious deaths.

Arriving to see the sights of the acclaimed architectural triumph Paradise Towers, the Doctor and Mel find it’s a right old sight, and run into a gang of girls who’ve created names, crossbows and a culture from their surroundings. I still can’t help laugh when the charismatic Annabel Yuresha sashays menacingly towards our heroes and declaims, “Bin Liner.” Nor at their inventive wordplay, or when she, a Red Kang, bitchily asks, “What is Mel’s colour?” Sylvester’s great introducing himself, too. But in another part of the graffiti-covered, litter-strewn Towers, there’s rather less jollity.

A caretaker is moving nervously along a darkened corridor, walkie-talkie in hand, as much to seek reassurance as to make his report. I loved the dirty set design, the low lighting, the sinister silhouette against the window – in a properly crapulent ’80s tower block, it always felt like Doctor Who had finally landed somewhere close to home, both bringing the series up to date and making it that much more unsettling. And, of course, like so many blocks of flats, the caretakers are bugger all use. Is he fixing the lights, cleaning the wall-scrawl, offering help and advice to visitors? No. He’s as scared as the rest of us. And it’s the running commentary of his fear that really makes this scene, with Joseph Young’s captivating performance as a minor authority figure out of his depth as he finds mounting evidence of murder. Even the sinister bass of the music adds to the atmosphere.

But if it’s not the Kangs fighting among themselves, what could have killed the young woman we saw scream her last in the opening moments? What should be on the side of the caretakers, under their control, but have become a law to themselves and almost a mythical sight? Surely not the Mark 7 Megapodic Cleaners? And while in many Doctor Who stories the sight of them might have been saved for the cliffhanger, and in many Doctor Who stories that take themselves more seriously the sight of an unconvincing robot might wound the story terribly (not that you might in any way be thinking of, say, Colony In Space), the essential absurdity that these are the cosy cleaners that have gone on the rampage prepares you for what is, basically, a very unthreatening hoover with ideas above its station. And the punchline – exactly on the line between horror and comedy – is pitch-perfect.

Poor Caretaker 345/12(3).

Something Else To Look Out For

Sylvester McCoy is immediately endearing as the Doctor, Martin Collins’ sets are spot-on, but for me the best thing about Paradise Towers is the script. Stephen Wyatt was a new young writer at the time, and still does a lot for radio (I caught his excellent two-hander Strangers On A Film on Radio Four a couple of weeks ago), and his invention, dialogue and basic desire to stick it to architects and jobsworths really shine. The innovation of sticking Doctor Who in a dirty old block of flats is one that the new series has often followed in the last few years, and while this is very ’80s as you watch it, in Who terms it’s still very much ahead of its time, with the script well-suited to the feel of Russell T Davies in particular. And yet the buried evil on the (High) rise again could be straight out of Philip Hinchcliffe’s early Tom Baker Doctor Who – this is one of two 1987 stories that feel like folk memories of Pyramids of Mars (imprisoned grandiose killer breaking out through possession and robot servants) – while the sheer camp entertainment could easily fit into the Graham Williams’ stories for the middle of Tom Baker (in which sense, this is probably my favourite Season 17 story). Pity Eric Saward, who as recently departed lead writer had become a one-man Bob Holmes tribute band, yet on his first attempt Stephen Wyatt delivers a script whose love of language, worldbuilding, inappropriate humour, scary horror and even cannibalism captures the spirit of Bob so perfectly (without even trying to) that it walks all over Eric. Yet for all that, it doesn’t stuff itself with references to other Doctor Who stories, just gets on with telling one.

The TARDIS crew do very differently out of this story: it feels like the real start of one, and the last nail in the coffin for the other. It’s Sylvester McCoy’s second story as the Doctor, and this makes a far better start for him – his performance is quirky, inventive and very watchable, while a new habit of fast-talking bafflegab works better for him than the previous story’s misquotations (and to the later delusions of godhood, indeed). He’s got a great scene where he talks his way out of imprisonment, despite the director’s slow pacing making it less tense and funny than it should have been, and another literally reversing the position of interrogator and captive (not the only bit of this story that turned up in 2006’s The Idiot’s Lantern). You can already see how this Doctor will work so well in his later stories and the New Adventures, the whole setting not far from lead writer Andrew Cartmel’s urban nightmare Cat’s Cradle: Warhead, for example, with the added bonus that it’s far funnier and that the ‘Dark Doctor’ is not yet plotting from the start to make Kroagnon peck himself to death with his own cleaners, even if an over-elaborate trap is already in evidence.

Of course in custard, I’m practically undetectable
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Bonnie Langford’s Mel, on the other hand, is very entertaining, but the story’s very cruel for her. Bonnie works her socks off here, but in that shocking outfit and with a near-pathological character you can’t help but see the Doctor as fidgety for a new companion. And look! Right on cue, lots of streetwise teenagers with improbable slang and a taste for explosives. He clearly thought Kangs were best, too. I was one of many who criticised Bonnie at the time and failed to see the talent she’s shown so often since – not least in Big Finish’s Doctor Who stories again starring her – but the show at the time tried too hard to make her play a caricature of her own image and not a character. This is her best story for all the wrong reasons, showing everything about her that’s utterly unreal: a prim young woman among feral girl-gangs and dangerously polite old ladies; law-abiding, stuck with caretakers who don’t care; and an over-enthusiastic optimist who, when all the optimism’s gone sour, simply looks unhinged. It’s not kind, but it’s very funny. Can you really believe Mel perking “It’s great!” and “Fantastic!” about an advert for a housing estate? “I can’t wait!” There’s enthusiastic, and there’s demented. Having arranged to meet at the pool – inevitably feared and revered as “The Great Pool in the Sky” and forbidden under pain of death, complete with a stunningly camouflaged cleaner robot for which I’ve nicked a famous DWM gag – she elevates this to an obsession as she makes her way towards it through three episodes of urban degeneration.

Build High For Happiness!

The various residents – tribes, really – of Paradise Towers are where the script alone can’t quite bring it all off. This story has the same director as the previous year’s The Trial of a Time Lord: The Mysterious Planet, and while the direction still has a lot of problems, he’s noticeably improved, with moody moments and some striking high shots. The set design here is quite a bit better; the costume design quite a bit worse. But it’s in his casting that you most wonder if he’s not still a bit shaky, because few Doctor Who stories have such an uncertain mix. It’s not unusual for, say, some big-name guest actors to ground a story while cheaper, younger actors try to make up in enthusiasm what they lack in experience; this is one of very few stories where that almost seems to be reversed. Some actors here are terrific; some miscast but doing their best; one simply taking the piss.

It’s time to take the plunge and come to the Chief Caretaker as played by Richard Briers, the figure at the centre of every terrible review this story has ever had. He inevitably reminds me of my recent review of Colony In Space, but where that alluded to The Good Life, this is Ever Decreasing Circles – and where that story, as I wrote, subverts Doctor Who’s love of the ancient evil awakening theme, this one gives it new life until, well, the ancient evil takes on its new life. A fine actor who decides he’s just going to enjoy himself as a literal Little Hitler, his best scene is that I mentioned where he interrogates the Doctor and you can see Sylv almost physically dragging a more contained performance out of him. He also works in the turnaround cliffhanger to Part One and the nearly-terrific cliffhanger to Part Three (going on just a little too long), one of the few points when the story leaves black comedy behind and it becomes genuinely unsettling. But then comes Part Four. It’s a shame that the script weakens here, as it means rather a lot of wheels comes off when suddenly Mr Briers gives one of the most blankwallandcleaneringly infamous performances in the series (at the time, Pyramids of Mars had just been released on VHS, and I remember vividly the unfortunate contrast of both actor and make-up for very similar roles in a not dissimilar story). Compare the appropriately named Joseph Young, like several of the caretakers miscast for what are clearly meant to be a decrepit old bunch and yet superb. Still, I can’t help but forgive Richard Briers for going off the deep end because he’s such a lovely man: I’ve met him twice, each time at the end of hours’-long autograph queues where most actors inevitably get tired and testy, yet he was charming, enthusiastic and interested. It also helps that at the first ever convention I attended he not only brought the house down by apologising for underplaying, but privately took a complete git of an actor down a peg. This man had been a big soap star but only a minor character in Doctor Who, and was volubly aggrieved that his queue was much shorter than those for people he’d never heard of. After embarrassing most of his fellow guests with a tirade in the green room against “bloody anoraks”, fans who didn’t properly appreciate him as the most important person in the hall, there was silence (by contrast, I also once met his on-screen soap wife, who was delighted and delightful in a similar setting). Then Richard Briers took a sip of tea, and looked up, with a mild but firm tone, to tell him: “Those ‘anoraks’ are paying your wages.”

At the risk of sounding sexist, the women here are generally far better than the men. The Kangs are great fun even if you can’t ignore their being perhaps the most ’80s roles ever created for TV – with their massive spray-painted wigs, it’s like Toyah versus the Bangles – and give the story much of its energy. They get many of the best lines, but also the story’s most creepily powerful tableau, a funeral without a body that makes us as mystified, horrified and drawn in as Mel, the audience like her thrown into the Towers’ twisted cultures at the deep end. Then there are the older twin-set-pearls-and-suspicious-cooking-arrangements ladies, far more politely behaved but ultimately far more subversive as they come into their own in the second episode, where the cliffhanger is an absolute scream. It’s an ideal opportunity to compare ‘young people today’ with readers of the Daily Mail (and just observe how the ‘police’ are far more interested in bullying graffiti artists than investigating mysterious deaths. Well, except for one of them, but you already know what happens to him).

The political attitude of Paradise Towers, then, is obviously one of the elements that make it appeal to me so much – and that make it so very much Doctor Who. The series has always been about standing up for people doing what they choose against huge, monolithic fascist authority that wants to force them into shape; the Daleks were often almost as much about tower blocks and the council as about the Nazis. Now Doctor Who’s doing a show about tower blocks and the council, it brings it home to the viewers by having pseudo-Daleks – like so many Dalek-substitutes, the cleaners are a flop, if here at least they have the excuse that they’re cleaners. It would be stretching it to say that local authorities being so slow to take any sort of action is satirised by most of the action sequences being so slow and feeble, though. In Paradise Towers, there are two rival authorities that boss people around and see them as inconvenient: one, that people are messy, and bossing them by the rules; the other, that people are in the way of a grand single vision. Either way, the story is quite a Liberal line of attack, even down to a ‘why can’t we all get along’ appeal. Add in a study of social alienation, a touch of the final Quatermass (breakdown of society in an urban nightmare a bit into the future, brutal authority that doesn’t have a clue, old people looking out for themselves and feral youth gangs), and of course lesbians who are simply delicious, and it’s very much to my taste. Build high for happiness!

‘Making of’, Music and Me

The extras for the DVD are mainly led by musician and sound engineer of the period Mark Ayres: although he didn’t do the music on this serial, it’s a significant part of the background story; he leads the ‘Making of’; and he chairs the commentary almost as an ‘In conversation with Mark Ayres’ piece. Nowhere is this more evident than on Part One, where the entire commentary is between him and writer Stephen Wyatt, which is an interesting change of style (I particularly enjoyed Mr Wyatt’s mention of the theory that the Yellow, Red and victorious Blue Kangs represented the political parties, and that the extinction of the Yellow Kangs was now outdated as they’re in government). They’re later joined by Resident Judy Cornwell, who’s marvellously anti-authoritarian and great on how sweet and nice old people aren’t, and plain-speaking sound designer Dick Mills. There are eight minutes of deleted and extended scenes, the ’80s segment of the Girls! Girls! Girls! documentary on the Doctor’s companions (thought-provoking points by Janet Fielding, amusing computer graphics, but definitely missing Nicola Bryant). I enjoyed the main ‘Making of’ documentary, too, which adds Richard Briers, lead writer Andrew Cartmel, David Snell – of whom more in a minute – and actor Howard Cooke, who’s aged rather well and gives an interesting account of his role as wet “Musclebrain” Pex. At the time, the obvious problem with him was that he didn’t have the pecs, but it’s easier to forgive the miscasting in hindsight: he doesn’t look the part, but he can act it, right from an opening scene that adds to the bizarre culture shock of the Towers (and which I quoted the last time I raved about this story), through the gradual disintegration and eventual redemption – or is it? – of his character. So why didn’t the director pick someone who looks like a massive musclebound Rambo? Mr Cooke could act, and none of the muscles they saw could (surprise!).

1987’s new musical discovery for Doctor Who was Keff McCulloch, whose frenzied drum machines have a fair bit to do with Season 24’s unpopularity. Even my love of Doctor Who incidental music often comes a cropper with him. And yet I’ve always sneakingly enjoyed some of the soundtrack for this story, even the crassly OTT overcompensating for the cleaners. The Paradise Towers score is infamous for another reason, though – the original composer, David Snell, was actually sacked after he’d completed it because the producer thought it wasn’t up to scratch. And after decades of reading about this, the extra I was most eager for was Mark Ayres’ painstaking restoration of that score as an optional alternate soundtrack. The ‘new’ old soundtrack is… odd. It’s almost sound effects, or at least sounds repeating (rather than themes) for different situations, sometimes overcoming the dialogue, and too often either silent or one-note overwhelming. It’s not ‘strange sounds’ – like The Daleks, say – but nor does it offer tunes. It’s somewhere in between, repetitive motifs to atonal bleepings, and strangely unsatisfying. Again, it makes me warm unnaturally to Mr McCulloch. Both musicians were clearly inspired by the creepy funeral, though, as the broadcast chimes are effective and Mr Snell’s low, slightly eerie tones for it work rather well too, and he sets a much better tone for the Kangs bullying Pex than Keff’s bouncing. By contrast, he badly overdoes the music for the fizzade, which you’d think was the monster (it doesn’t help that I’d always strangely liked the broadcast “Drinksmat Dawning” segue into the Chief and his little pet). Even The Sea Devils didn’t offer such a high-pitched buzz for the cliffhanger that would have children and dogs scurrying for cover. I’m very glad to hear this score at last, but commissioning another was the right decision. I have to make a minor complaint that there isn’t – yet again – an isolated score available on the DVD, let alone the two they could have included, but as five separate audio tracks would be a bit much I reckon they have more of an excuse than usual.

With author Stephen Wyatt the person whose involvement in this story I most admire, his was the voice I was most interested to hear in the extras, and he’s very informative. I was fascinated by his starting point for it – not just his experience of living in crappy tower blocks and dealing with petty control freaks, but about what he’d like to see in the series, too, thinking that it never had dirty corridors like those he walked, and that it had got to the point where you had to know everything about Doctor Who in order to watch it. And perhaps he had a point in thinking Doctor Who had got far too up itself to be watchable; in the previous year, the series had had fourteen episodes, taking A Christmas Carol to start off with and finishing without satisfactorily resolving most of the questions, absolutely definitely killing off one of the lead characters and then bringing them back, with another recurring character turning out to be a mysterious future relative, and the whole thing mucking about with the Doctor’s past, present and future, with a woman he meets in the wrong order. [Miranda Hart look to camera]

Alex and the Pool Cleaner
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Rather disconcertingly, I once met Stephen Wyatt through his ex, who was my ex’s disturbing landlord. Said disturbing landlord heard I liked Doctor Who and promptly rang Stephen up and handed the phone to me. This was twenty years ago, and I’d not met authors before, nor spoken to them, so I was more than a little stilted and had no idea what to say when suddenly presented as demanding his attention over the phone. He asked me which story of his I preferred, and couldn’t believe it was this one – his other Who script is widely fêted, this widely hated – so I told him that, no, it wasn’t always delivered very well on screen, but I still loved the script. He also asked, cautiously, if I was his ex’s new boyfriend, which I was very quick to deny. If you can find a copy of Mr Wyatt’s novelisation, by the way, it’s rather good, though with less of a light touch than his script: he fleshes out a lot of the details, and my favourites Tilda and Tabby get an appropriately fairy tale buildup (“Surely not”) and witty asides.

The photos, incidentally, are more from the Blackpool Doctor Who Exhibition. A major part of my childhood, it was closed in 1986 with a new version opened in the 2000s, but the Philistine BBC closed it again and flogged off most of the exhibits two years ago rather than preserve them for the nation.

Why Max Normal Isn’t

I’m sorry, but I’ve got to get this off my chest. Paradise Towers was the first fruit of new lead writer Andrew Cartmel’s desire to see Doctor Who become more like some of the wilder comics of the time, and it often has a bit of a 2000AD feel about it. Like 2007’s even more fabulous Doctor Who story Gridlock, you can see some of The Ballad of Halo Jones here, with Paradise Towers itself a slightly sanitised version of Judge Dredd’s massive citiblocks (and all at least more upbeat than Doctor Who Magazine’s memorably wrist-slitting-tastic End of the Line). And because of that, and the bloke in the bowler hat in Gridlock, the one character people always seem to talk about (rather than, say, the more appropriate Swifty Frisko) is one from the early years of Judge Dredd. His name was Max Normal, he wore a bowler and a pin-striped suit, and every single Doctor Who fan who mentions him misses the point entirely (I suspect even Russell may have made the same mistake). To pick on About Time 6 unfairly purely because it happens to refer to him while comparing Gridlock and Paradise Towers and so a piece I read today while trying to avoid saying the same as everyone else, the ironically-named Max Normal is not “vigorously-average”.

I suppose if you’ve never read a strip in which Max Normal – “the pinstripe freak” – appears, it’s easy to mistake the name and the look of this inhabitant of the crazed world of the Mega-City of early 22nd-Century East Coast America for some sort of boringly ordinary character. That means you’ve missed the triple joke: when he first appeared in 2000AD in the late ’70s, people in suits and bowlers were ‘normal’, and shocked by the small numbers of young people dressed as punks – in Mega-City One, everyone looks like a punk, and are shocked at a young rebel dressed outlandishly in suit and bowler when nobody else does; it’s the 22nd Century, so this is like someone dressing as Beau Brummel today; and he’s Judge Dredd’s informer, who talks jive, so he’s also Huggy Bear incongruously turned white and dressed like an old City stockbroker, which is just as outrageous an outfit in Mega-City One as Huggy Bear’s pimptastic look was in old Bay City.

Which is why Max just isn’t Normal. Perhaps the much-anticipated About Time 7 can correct this misapprehension when it comes to Gridlock itself?

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Paradise Towers is one of my all-time favourite Who stories. I was still at school when the show aired and it was totally unlike anything I had seen before on the show.

The fairy tale nature of Tabby & Tilda, the post-apocalyptic society of the Towers and the commical ineffectuality of the Caretakers all appealed to my comic book reading sensibilities. It blew my tiny little Who-loving mind. (and tbh, Elizabeth Spriggs could've turned up in Timelash and it would have leapt to the top of my Favourite Stories list)

Loved the review. Glad to hear I'm not the only one who holds the Towers in high regard.
Thank you very much! I agree with every word – except, possibly, about Timelash ;)
Readers happening across this post may be excited to know that I later selected the same scene - but wrote it up with significant differences and another 'source' for the story I'd suddenly spotted, so as not merely to repeat myself - for my countdown of Fifty Great Doctor Who Scenes (it's Number 43).

Complete with a more extended tribute to the lovely Richard Briers.
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