Friday, 16 August 2013

The Monster of Peladon written by Brian Hayles and directed by Lennie Mayne

This story in a nutshell: A return to the medieval world of Peladon…

Good Grief: ‘I can’t believe he’s dead. He was the most alive person I’ve ever met…’  I found the Jon Pertwee interview in the latest issues of DWM extremely interesting especially with regards to his approach to the role in season eleven. By all accounts he was grieving for the loss of Katy Manning and Roger Delgado, he was working with the knowledge that the role that had made him a household name was soon to come to an end and he was no longer surrounded by comforts such as UNIT and the Brigadier on a regular basis. To throw in a new assistant must have been tricky especially after his relationship with Katy Manning was so spectacular. And yet somehow (and this is something that he acknowledges with some pride) there is a palpable chemistry between him and Sarah Jane that is vastly different from that of the third Doctor and Jo and also acres apart from the relationship between the fourth Doctor and Sarah. It is there in their games of trust in The Time Warrior, and when he tempts her with the delights of a trip to Florana in Invasion of the Dinosaurs, and when he cups her face so intimately in Death to the Daleks before he heads off to the City of the Exxilons. And it’s never felt keener in the lead up to the regeneration scene in Planet of the Spiders – I can’t think of a scene more intimately played between two actors in Doctor Who. There is something very special between them, a Doctor a little past his best and a companion in her prime and brought together they ground each other and produce real magic. Away from Sarah is where the problems lie (at least with this story, I think Pertwee acquits himself rather well in every other season eleven story) as Pertwee seems to breeze through one scene to the next without a care in the world. Is this really the same Doctor who screamed out in frustration when the world was burning in Inferno? It almost feels as if the return to Peladon was in some way appeasing the leading man by surrounding him with familiar things before his swansong but the resulting effort that he puts into his performance is subjacent to the norm. Saying all that the characterisation is still mostly excellent and he lives up to the typical Terrance Dicks description of the Doctor (which is as succinct an example as you are going to get); he’s charming and courteous, protects the underdog, is never cruel or cowardly and faces death in order to save lives. Perhaps Pertwee is a little more complacent than usual but there is certainly no part of this story that you could point at and say he is giving a poor performance or that the Doctor is behaving out of character (and that is not something you could always say about various other incarnations). It’s moments like the Doctor hypnotising Aggedor with his spinning mirror whilst singing a Venusian Lullaby when I love Doctor Who the most. No other show in the history of anything ever would dare to present anything as absurd as this. It’s lovely that the Doctor gets to indulge in one more swordfight before his regeneration and Pertwee’s Doctor looks magnificent clashing swords with Ettis (Terry Walsh, less so). The Doctor is at his best in episode six when he tinkers about in the refinery and continues to be witty and defiant even when Eckersley throws all the mind tricks he can at him.

Investigative Journalist: It’s interesting to compare how Brian Hayles writes for his two female protagonists in the Peladon stories. Drippy Jo is easily shoehorned into the role of playing royalty and falling in love whereas tomboy Sarah spends her time arguing her way out of trouble, grappling with soldiers and miners and taking an active role in the fight to reclaim the planet. It looks like women’s lib really has dawned on this show. In her Doctor Who career Lis Sladen has had to convince in the face some pretty absurd looking props posing as monsters (she managed to make Big Man T-Rex from Invasion of the Dinosaurs a genuine threat for a few seconds, that’s how good she is) but her fazed reaction to being first confronted with Alpha Centuri clearly shows that she is being pushed to the absolute limits. She soon slips into her groove and they develop and affectionate relationship. It’s how the other characters react to Centuri that make it so convincing (at least to me). Come episode two she stands between Centuri and sword wielding mainiac, grappling with Ettis with her usual spunk. Show don’t tell has always been my philosophy so having Sarah ram the idea of feminism down Tharila’s throat is the one time when I felt that she was a walking diatribe rather than a authentic character with an attitude that favours equality. I half expected her to walk out the throat room declaring ‘power to the batches!’ and clicking her fingers. It’s a shame because everywhere else in this story Sarah is handled as excellently as ever. Episode six is great for Sarah where she gets to hold a gun on Eckersley, bravely face what she thinks is going to be a shot to the back and grieve over the loss of her best friend.

Menagerie: It’s not secret that this is direct sequel to The Curse of Peladon and as such it tries to cram in as many of the popular monsters from that story as possible whilst trying to add a few more to the mythos. It’s also true that I have an unerring affection for Alpha Centuri which completely bypasses my good taste chip and forces me to ignore all the design faults and naiveté that goes into creating such a creature. Whether it’s Ysanne Churchman’s insanely shrill voice, Stuart Fell’s intimate gesturing (oo-er), Brian Hayles’ scripting or simply because I immediately sympathise with any creature that looks that phallic I couldn’t tell but in my mind this is a living, breathing ‘penis in a cloak’ (TM Terrance Dicks) and in no way a rubber costume with a stuntman inside. In fact in my more delirious moments I can be seen menacing my husband around the flat with my hands as claws going ‘che-che-che…we could all have been killed!’ and trying to grapple the phone off him as he attempts to ring the local nuthouse. His bitchy line in episode five ‘thank you Eckersley but you are still a traitor!’ might be the best thing in this entire story. Vega Nexos doesn’t last beyond episode one but he continues the bizarre fascination of trying to make all aliens that visit Peladon as weird as possible, what with his glassy boss-eyed stare, his bare man boobs and his impressively hairy legs. Perhaps not the most convincing of races ever developed for the show but the way everybody seems to accept him convinces the viewer that this is a perfectly acceptable representative of his planet. Although given that the make up and costume artistes have failed to glue his eyes on in line makes that hard to swallow at times. Needless to say I have been looking for a head warmer in the style of the Peladon miner badger wear but to no avail. I hate it when science fiction shows feel the need to give their aliens funny haircuts to try and suggest their otherworldliness and this a particularly comical example. Bless Rex Robinson for acting his way out of it, the only miner to escape the show with any real dignity. Aggedor is still a man in a monkey suit but Lennie Mayne seems more careful this time to keep him in the shadows and to shoot him dramatically with quick cuts.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Quite the little Napoleon, aren’t we?’

The Good:
  • Since this is our second visit to Peladon it is quite nice to see how the place looks given another airing. This planet made quite an impact back in season nine, offering up a stormy, wind lashed castle atop a mountain with creepy catacombs to play about in. Monster re-uses the same sets but there is definitely a different vibe this time around. I would say that the main sets feel plainer and the lighting is far simpler (it isn’t helped by what is clearly supposed to be an imaginatively shot high angle in the throne room that really exposes the paucity of the set and the flatness of the studio floor) and less atmospheric but the catacombs (they’re called mines this time) are much improved for being shot on film. It genuinely feels as though they have found some old mine workings to film the show in. Regardless it’s still a fun playhouse of gothic trappings to play about in.
  • What to make of the Aggedor creature? Through the eyes of an adult it is clearly a poorly disguised bit of trickery (although the mass murder it commits is certainly a convincing point in its favour) but to a young child this might just be the ultimate fright. A glowing, roaring, giant statue that belches smoke and strikes people dead with a breath of fire. Plus it zips about all over the place, appearing apparently at random and it is that unpredictability that gives it is edge. Mind you the extra that dies in the first scene is almost as frightening, or at least his performance is.
  • Donald Gee as Eckersley is so charming, affable and carefree that it would have been a greater surprise if he hadn’t turned out to be the villain. He’s also decked in black leather, camp as hell, smooths his way in with Sarah and revels in being the sexiest person around on Peladon. And his hands never stray far from his hips. He really couldn’t give off any more indications that he is up to no good. Half the fun is waiting for him to make his move whilst wrapping everybody around his little finger. I wont say that Gee is giving a particularly nuanced performance (because he really isn’t) but he does everything that the script requires of him. Only a baddie would hop into a room and exclaim ‘Alright chum, I’m here, what’s the panic?’ When the Ice Warriors turn up he brilliantly refuses to admit that any of this argy-bargy is anything to do with him and the way that Azaxyr treats him so gently suggests that there might have been some interspecies romance in the past between them. He’s the sort of villain who every bugger can eavesdrop on at the appropriate point and hear him rubbing his hands together and cooing ‘fooled them all…’ Eckersley even knows which camera to turn to in a sweep of villainous decadence as he declares that once the Ice Warriors win he will be ruler of Earth. Despite his many failings, you can’t help but love this guy (when he pulls out his gun to shoot a bystander he does so with an apologetic ‘sorry chum’). Thalira is appalled by the mess of bodies in the mines both Pels and Ice Warriors and as proof that he has what it takes to make it with the best baddies Eckersley looks around and shrugs ‘never mind.’ What a guy. Anything less than a tussle with Ageddor would have been a disapointing end for him. 
  • Anyone who argues that the Pertwee era didn’t have a deliberate political agenda (stand up Terrance) must surely crumble in the face of the complaints that the miners bring to the Doctor in the form of bad pay, terrible working conditions and no thanks. It’s nice that Doctor Who can bridge the gap between fiction and reality like this and make a Citizen Smith stand for the underdog. It even ensures that the miners aren’t entirely blameless in what they are accused of either to keep things balanced.
  • Hindsight is a wonderful thing but the whole mystery of what is behind the refinery door generates some great suspense early in the story that is somewhat lacking in the miner plot.
  • Functional, adequate and acceptable are all uncomplimentary words to toss at a director but I mean them with the greatest respect when it comes to Lennie Mayne’s handling of this story. He’s not looking to revolutionise genre television (like Graeme Harper) or to craft each shot artistically (stand up David Maloney) or even turn the show into a masterpiece of action (a round of applause for Douglas Camfield) but instead Mayne wants to provide six episodes of rollicking entertainment. I wouldn’t even say it is Mayne’s best direction (that for me would be The Hand of Fear) but he seems very comfortable here (perhaps a little too comfortable on the odd occasion) and every now and again there is a shot that really makes you ponder how the hell he did that (such as the long shot looking up from the pit at the Queen, Ortron and Centuri staring down). The POV shot of the miners attacking an Ice Warrior from inside the helmet is quite imaginative too.
  • The end of episode three is a doozy with an Ice Warrior baring down on the camera. It’s precisely what I have been hankering for since the very beginning…some real menace. I really like the mind games that they chose to play with the Ice Warriors in the Pertwee era, first pulling off a coup by having them turn up as noble and honest creatures in Curse of Peladon (against all expectations) and now reversing that innovation and having them return to their malignant ways (although a line is slipped in to suggest this a splinter group so their portrayal in Curse is still how the race should be seen in general). To be honest I prefer them as baddies because there is something marvellously chilling about their design and menacing about the way they are shot. The green carapace armour looks fantastic in colour and they add to the rich blush (the Doctor’s coat, the royal purples of the Queen and Ortron’s costumes) that stand out from all the beiges and browns on offer elsewhere. Alan Bennion plays a very different kind of Ice Lord to the one he presented in Curse, relishing the chance to play bad and spit out each line for all they are worth. My one complaint about the Ice Warriors is that one of their number has been fitted with a helmet so smiley that he lacks any menace when he stomps along the corridors with a huge grin plastered all over his face (it wouldn’t seem out of place for him to scream ‘please be my friend!’ as he pursues all and sundry). Brilliantly the Ice Warriors take out eight miners in about three seconds, showing that they mean business. Although they get their comeuppance when Aggedor turns on them (and make sure you keep your eyes peeled for the Ice Warrior who legs it up the passage when two of his chums get disintegrated). Ice Warriors are clearly not above the old hiding behind pillars routine and waiting until the miners are up close and then cutting them all down (think of the similar trick that Daleks pulled off in their first story with the Thals).
  • In typical tidy Terrance Dicks style, the narrative turns back on itself when the Ice Warriors arrive so the miners that had been such a threat in the first half of the story are now working with the Doctor and co (except Ettis of course but he’s got problems) to try and save the planet. Azaxyr’s terror methods unite the people of Peladon to rise up against their oppressors. It’s no neat you could write a thesis on it. It’s practically the same tight narrative construction that unfolds in Paradise Towers but it is (mostly) praised in that story and declared lazy in Monster of Peladon. Come episode five I had completely forgotten about the identity of the miscreant controlling the ‘spirit of Aggedor’ so the way it is suddenly dropped in was a great surprise. Then for the Doctor to figure out how the trick was done and use it against those who were exploiting it in the first place…Terrance Dicks’ elegance at its finest. 
  • I don’t know if the scripts for Planet of the Spiders were written at this point but there is some marvellous foreshadowing for the events that were about to strike. The sequence where Sarah thinks the Doctor is dead is magnificently played by Elisabeth Sladen (you genuinely believe that Sarah thinks the Doctor is gone) and its a dummy run for what would play out in the next story. Also Sarah mentions that the Doctor always said that while there’s life there’s hope which are his eventual dying words.
  • By the end of the story it is clear that there is a hierarchy of villains in this tale that is quite similar to The War Games (except The War Games pulls it off far more memorably). On the bottom rung of the ladder is Ortron who means well but causes trouble regardless, followed by psycho miner Ettis who cannot be reasoned with, topped by the Ice Warriors who are thrilled at the chance to go on a killing spree, led by Azaxyr who is motivated by greed and power and at the top strutting about in tight leather is Eckersley who is running rings around them all. It would have been awesome if at the last minute Alpha Centuri had swished his cloak and revealed that he was the brains of the outfit all along.

The Bad:
  • Nina Thomas is no David Troughton, that’s for sure. You can remind me that she is supposed to be a naïve young slip of a Queen until you are blue in the face but that still doesn’t excuse how vacant Thomas appears to be in the role at times. Thalira has a habit of speaking her lines with a glassy stare that suggests she’s just taken a good sniff of powered Peladon lapacho. I’ll toss Sarah’s feminism aside for a moment and point out that she is a bit of fox though. Even when she finally grows some balls (metaphorically speaking), she’s a bit rubbish being dragged from cave to cave by Eckersley. She’s wetter than a frogs backside and drippier than a frying pan after a days work at a greasy spoon. As if Sarah needed to ask if she could faint convincingly. It feels as if the women’s lib angle is added so Thalira can rise up and do something brave and prove her worth but at the climax she is still being dragged around by men. Useless harpy, they should stick Sarah on the throne.
  • This is far from Dudley Simpson’s best score for the show and in parts seems to be made up of a ‘best of’ series of steals from other stories. Things improve exponentially when the Ice Warriors show up (it feels as though he is invested in the story again) and he provides them with a terrific scream-like sting that really sends a shiver down the spine when they appear. He has a fit on the bongos (or whatever drums he happens to be playing) in episode six as Eckersley and Thalira take a tour of the catacombs.
  • At times the story does seem to forget what constitutes an interesting story. Demonstrations of mining technology might be impressive on a production level but it feels like we have wandered into a dreary ‘how it’s made’ documentary on Sky. With aliens.
  • Ettis is one of those characters that turns up in Doctor Who at least once a season who is so obstinate and irrational he is constructed out of plot conveniences rather than characteristics. He is just there to muddy the waters, to stir up trouble and to get in the Doctor’s way. Without Ettis this story could comfortably be three parts long. Ralph Watson does what he can with what is basically a series of rants that equate to little more than narrative contrivances but he cannot mine (hohoho) for anything deeper because if he went looking he would discover there is nothing there. Ortron is similarly defiant but at least he is seen to have a decent reason for doing so and he shows some genuine concern for Thalira and Peladon in his machinations. Ettis handicaps events because that is what he is designed to do. Come episode four he has to be put out of his misery, he’s killing his closest friends and threatening mass murder of all in the citadel. There was nothing more extreme to be done with this cipher.
  • The end of episode one is absolutely precious with Blor’s hilarious reaction to being confronted with the spirit of Aggedor being more akin to a baby gurgling at an extreme high pitch. Go and watch it again. I promise you most comedies couldn’t score laughs like this. Perhaps somebody high up at the BBC complained that Doctor Who was no longer taking itself seriously because the gurgle has miraculously vanished during the reprise in episode two. It loses something as a result.
  • Come episode three and the story desperately needs something more potent than the miners and their machinations to prop the story up. Fortunately Brian Hayles has something scaly, green and nasty right up his sleeve and they don’t come along a moment too soon.
  • In a shocking moment of oversight the director doesn’t even bother to use a Jon Pertwee voiceover as Terry Walsh takes on Ettis. He just has Walsh do a particularly gravelling Pertwee impression. Face hits palm.
The Shallow Bit: Sarah is wearing a leather jacket and chords. As far as I am concerned the only year she had any dress sense was season eleven (although her later fashion effrontery was admittedly much more fun and said something about how much she had loosened up – like the Doctor – into a seasoned time traveller).

Result: Nowhere near as bad as its reputation. On the one hand The Monster of Peladon is overlong, padded, repetitive and unoriginal but on the other it is exciting, topical, adventurous and bursting with character. I’m probably not the best person to talk about the Pertwee six parters (plus) because I pretty much adore most of them and not just because of their individual merits (and with stories like Inferno, The Sea Devils & Frontier in Space these are easy to spot). Their length means that you get taken on an extended adventure away from your life for a while (and let’s be honest there are always times when that is a necessity) in the hands of one of the most expert storytellers (Terrance Dicks’ nuts’n’bolts approach to Who pervades his era). For six episodes you can get whisked away to Peladon or Draconia or Spiridon for an action packed adventure infused with great morals (the way that the good guys triumph so spectacularly over evil makes this perfect fairytale Who). It might be easier to approach this era as a child in that respect but I think there are times even as an adult where it is necessary to drag out your inner ankle biter and immerse yourself in something as pleasurable as formulaic classic Who. In this respect The Monster of Peladon comes out extremely favourably featuring as it does monsters you can coo at (Alpha Centuri) and monsters you can hiss at (the Ice Warriors), a dastardly villain (Eckersley), a rock solid Doctor (even a somnambulistic Pertwee is debonair and upright) a feisty companion (the inestimable Sarah Jane), plenty of running about, action and danger and even the odd moment of high drama (the Doctor’s apparent death and Sarah Jane’s reaction) to take your breath away. I’m not trying to pretend for one moment that this is classic Who or anything approaching it because it is far too safe and habitual to really make an impact but it is perfect comfort viewing on a evening when you are at a loose end. I can think of nothing finer than slipping into the TARDIS and heading off to Peladon to help the Doctor out in an exciting adventure involving miners, monsters and modest hermaphrodite hexapods. Don’t expect anything revolutionary but do expect typically engaging Doctor Who. If this is the sort of thing you don’t like then I don’t know what you are doing watching Doctor Who because so much of its oeuvre is made up out ubiquitous action adventure like this that taps into your inner kid: 6/10

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