Saturday, 11 October 2014

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

This story in a nutshell: It was a was a monster mash...

 Good Grief: I rather like the acerbic, downright rude third Doctor of seasons seven and eight. He can be a right bastard at times, bringing all his worst qualities to bear upon the authority figures that hound him in his new life trapped on Earth. However I think I prefer the gentler side to his personality, the charming rogue who bows down before royalty, who is charmed by his companion and who tries to juggle a hundred problems with a smile on his face and a song in his heart (even if it is a Venusian lullaby). In short, Pertwee was able to evolve the character into a much more appealing charmer over time, one who was less likely to take a report, shove it down your neck and make you choke and more likely to respectfully bewitch and negotiate. In The Curse of Peladon, Pertwee is inundated with those moments of charm that he sought.  There's something very blas√© about his admission that he has gotten the TARDIS working again that leads you to believe that it's bluster covering up for the fact that the Time Lords are still pulling his strings. Still it's nice to know that things never change and he is still pretending he has gotten them exactly where they are meant to be when he way off course. Much has been said about the Doctor's prejudice in assuming the Ice Warriors are up to their old tricks but let's be honest the hulking great reptiles murdered their way through his first two encounters with them so it is a fair enough reaction to their presence. Had he at any point seen a gentler side to their nature then I would call him prejudiced but given he hasn't I would instead consider this a natural response. He learns a valuable lesson though, to not tarnish everybody with the same brush. I know some people who are appalled at the very notion that there could be noble Ice Warriors, that they should be treated as villains at all times but I rather like this learning curve the Doctor goes on. He's pretty conceited at the best of times in this incarnation so to mis-judge a situation so badly might have something to do with his generally softer approach from this point on in his run. I think it is rather wonderful that the suspicion is reciprocated, Izlyr is as mistrustful of the Doctor as he is of the Ice Lord. You've got to love the sheer self-importance of the man, suggesting that his death would lead to an interplanetary outcry. He's also the epitome of collective cool, strolling towards Aggedor (a creature that has already killed several men) with a spinning mirror singing a lullaby. Even in this patently absurd situation (singing to a man in a bear suit who is flexing his plastic claws) Pertwee doesn't falter. What a guy. 'He didn't even seem to mind when I scratched him behind the ears...' You could make an argument that the Doctor is responsible for Hepesh's death by bringing Aggedor to the throne room, it was a bold attempt to regain control of a volatile planet that was slipping back into barbarism that got out of control. Like a puppet on a string, the Doctor realises that this was all the work of the Time Lords again and they are heading straight back to Earth again. He seems resigned to his fate as an intergalactic yoyo at this stage.

Funky Agent: One of the strongest Jo stories because the writer allowed us to see her in the role as the perfect companion to Pertwee's Doctor but also for her to go it alone and enjoy some independence. This is exactly the midway point of her tenure so it is quite right that it indulges in the clinging-on companion antics of old whilst pointing forward to the future and her growing autonomy. Is it my imagination or is there something of Clara Oswald to Jo Grant at the beginning of this story, all set to have a date with Mike Yates and being yanked away by the Doctor to an alien planet? Even when she is angry with the Doctor for being dragged away and stranded on Peladon she still giggles and plays with him, there is an easy chemistry between this pair that positively glows on screen. Jo leaps on the opportunity to play at royalty and looks down her nose at her disgruntled companion ('the pilot was exceedingly inefficient' - check out Pertwee's reaction, it's a scream) and revels in the chance to flirt with the King. It's a delightful turn by Manning who is clearly having a whale of a time. Jo must be in her element, in episode two she has two charismatic, intelligent men vying for her attention. Jo responds warmly towards the King and the Doctor, torn between her feelings for one and her loyalty to the other. She figures that Peladon is only getting close to her because he wants a political ally but you only have to spend five minutes with the man to see that he is head over heels in love with her, like a dewy-eyed puppy. I think Jo deserves some credit for bravely battling the elements outside and almost falling to her death to sneak out of the Ice Warriors room and then walking smack bang into the ravaging beast of Peladon and not screaming her head off. In fact she retrains her lungs throughout this story despite being in some very frightening situations. King Peladon really could choose his moments more considerately, one moment he is condemning the Doctor to death and the next he's proposing to Jo! What would a relationship with this man be like? A round of executions in the morning followed by a request for ten children? Whilst some might accuse Manning of phoning in her performance on the odd occasion, simply having a laugh with Pertwee in zany settings rather than engaging with the drama that simply isn't the case in this story. Go and watch her in episode three, she's really give this her all ('I'm begging you! Please...'). The Doctor sends Jo off to take charge of the conference whilst he concerns himself with an open door, that is how much faith he has in her abilities now. Although she's still daft enough to be hypnotised by a spinning mirror.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Eeny meeny miny mo...' ROOAAR! 'Meeny?'
'What do mercy and compassion mean to you? You need someone to die to justify your own stupid superstition!'

The Good:
* Audiences must have been thrilled by the riot of colour, the unusual setting and the menagerie of monsters that were on display in The Curse of Peladon after a glut of exile adventures on the Earth. Unlike the dull, grey slag heap of Colony in Space, Doctor Who was once against revelling in the wackiness of the future and it's manifest of creatures and settings. It's the ultimate refreshment when watching these stories in order, an exotic diversion from Earth. It's as refreshing as The Mind Robber after a spate of base under siege stories or The Sunmakers after so many horror pastiches.
* Considering the wealth of problems going against it (a lack of money, being conjured up in BBC studios rather than on location) the realisation of the planet Peladon is pulled off extremely well. The castle itself looks grand and opulent and gothic, standing atop a grisly cliff face and lashed with wind and lightning. It immediately captures the imagination and these 'outside' sequences are aided by being shot on film and the elements being seen to assault the Doctor and Jo as they scale the cliff. Inside the sets are basic (there isn't much scenery to speak of) but that helps to suggest a people that live simply and there are an abundance of torches swaying in the breeze providing an atmospheric, smoky and claustrophobic atmosphere. The Curse of Peladon has a unique atmosphere in Doctor Who, capturing a medieval (and yet futuristic) society in its prime. This extends to the royal colours of the King's court and the impressive leather combat gear worn by the guards. It feels like everybody is working their hardest to make this citadel seem like a genuine seat of power of this planet. There's a glorious reminder of the harsh conditions outside in episode two as Jo has to climb out of the window and walk along the ledge, looking down at the lightning streaked, vertiginous drop below her. Lennie Maybe ensures the audience is as disoriented as Jo is, offering in a giddy POV shot of the drop.
* In the first scene the Chancellor and High Priest are squabbling over the mythology of this world, suggesting a long past. In the same breath we can see long standing relationships between these men coming to a head. I have known planets in Doctor Who stories that have been conjured up less authentically after four episodes (Karfel) than Peladon is after one scene.
* Immediately you have two very interesting ideas that are worth exploring, that of a feudal society trying to decide whether it wants to be refined by a more sophisticated one and the question of whether a myth can be said to be real because the people embrace it and fear it to be so. Especially fascinating when the Chancellor who was mocking the old superstitions is savaged by one of them the moment he is out of the throne room. A very real dilemma presents itself, embracing the past or embracing the future? Even the personal predicament facing King Peladon is a fascinating one, a boy born of parents from two worlds and struggling his whole life to bring them together. The Doctor sums up the King's dilemma simply and effectively - who will the people believe, their King or the mythology of Aggedor? The story has some fun as a whodunit with a variety of aliens for a while before revealing its culprit in episode four, the very creature whose life was threatened in the first place! The villain goes from trying to manipulate a myth to frighten off the Federation to staging a coup when that doesn't work. Like Terror of the Vervoids, it is a story whose plot is constantly evolving, throwing in all kinds of twists and turns to keep the viewer interested.
* Mayne's eyes must have been out on stalks when he read that the TARDIS has to fall disgracefully down the cliff, bouncing off it's surface all the way. With stylish modelwork and carefully angles it looks gorgeous on screen and it genuinely feels as though the Doctor and Jo are marooned.
* Not content with providing just one race of aliens, The Curse of Peladon delights in bringing five into your living room to thrill and surprise. The budget might have strained a little in bringing some of these creatures to life but they are imbued with a great sense of dignity and character by the script, how the actors react to them and the performers choose to play them that transcends their appearance. Alpha Centuri might by the least likely alien that you have laid eyes on but the shy and gentle movements, the blinking eye and shrill voice, the way he it shuffles about tentatively and how the Doctor and Jo treat it with such transforms into a creature I can believe in. It's the magic of Doctor Who, right there. It might look like an enormous knob in a cloak but to me it is a hysterical and very sweet delegate from Alpha Centuri. I love the moment in episode four where Centuri takes a vote under protest, accepting no responsibility for the consequences of that vote. The ultimate diplomat or the ultimate coward? On the one hand Arcturus is a box of tricks, a tentacled mutant having a disco inside a slimy glass dome but in the hands of this writer and director he is a scheming, lying trickster stirring up dissent on Peladon. It's almost a competition of the funny voices, Alpha Centuri's gay MP versus Arcturus' Stephen Hawking on acid. Add in the Ice Lord's sibilant whisper and you might wonder how anyone took any of this seriously but they do and the resulting menagerie is plausible because of it. In Curse of Peladon there are enough villains about for the Ice Warriors to be the good guys. That is an extremely novel idea and one the writer has fun with. And don't they looks fabulous in colour, the striking green of their armour adding a much needed splash of vivid colour to the proceedings.
* The return of the Ice Warriors is entirely unsuspected which makes their shock appearance all the more satisfying. Dudley Simpson's drum banging theme for the reptilian creatures is superb and I'm sure I'll be found lumbering around my flat humming this tune for the next week. The score in general is excellent, Simpson out from behind the electronic equipment (as he was forced to wrestle technology rather than instruments in season eights scores) and back in front of his mini orchestra. The result is a memorable and atmospheric soundtrack and one whose musical cues stick in your head long after you've finished watching. Although the music that accompanies Grun does occasionally sound like an instrument has let out a sly fart.
* I haven't even mentioned the performances yet, such is the wealth of positive things to say about this adventure. Pertwee is rarely better than he is here, at his most comfortable in the role (after his initial reaction to playing a straight part and before the apathy set in, getting to be brave, heroic, noble, romantic and intelligent) and Manning is clearly desperately in love with both him and David Troughton which spills on the screen addictively. You'll find no finer moment of intimacy between the Doctor and Jo than their conversation about the situation in their quarters in episode two. Troughton is a little bit wet but that is how the character is written, he's also commanding when he wants to be and thoughtful and gentle too. It's a very nuanced performance of a very nuanced character. The look on Peladon's face when Hepesh storms the throne room at the climax speaks volumes; disappointment, embarrassment and defeat rolled into one. And his tears when he cradles his one time mentor to his death are very poignant. What an unexpectedly rich relationship (he even pauses to preserve the mans dignity by putting a purple cloth over his face once he has slipped away before addressing his people and getting the situation back on track). Alan Bennion deserves a huge round of applause for taking the weight of expectation against the Ice Warriors and turning it on his head by proving honourable and considerate as Izlyr. A gruff and powerful actor was needed to bring Hepesh to life, a man who is single handedly trying to hold onto the superstition and violence of the past and Geoffrey Toone fills the screen with his personality. What surprises is that he also manages to show how frightened he is of the Federation, how tentative he is in upsetting them. Hepesh is another multi-layered character in a script full of them. There's a fantastic scene in part three where the High Priest drops all the pretence and has an honest conversation with the Doctor, admitting that he doesn't want his death, he just wants the Federation to high tail it away from Peladon. That's an essential scene because it softens Hepesh's character, he doesn't want to murder, he isn't an evil man, he just wants to keep things the way they are. If he achieve that and the Doctor survives then that is the better option. That makes him quite different from your standard Doctor Who villain. Even Grun the King's Champion who is used by Hepesh to do his evil deeds is given a shot of comedy and sympathy as he cowers and grunts at the thought of coming face to face with Aggedor (do-do-push pineapples shake the trees...). Saying that even the guard Captain, who hasn't even had any lines until this point, is given a shot of character at the climax, prepared to lose his life for turning against his King and looking humbled and embarrassed when he is spared. Whether it was the work of Hayles or Dicks, this monster mash is steeped in strong characterisation.
* Shot on film with impressive handheld camerawork and high angle shots, vicious stunts and moody lighting, the fight between the Doctor and Grun is one of the most impressive the show presented in this era. And given the qualities of the action sequences during the Pertwee era that is really saying something. It genuinely looks as though the Doctor is choking Grun to death at one point.
* Proving that this was a scenario with substance and populated by strong characters, there is an extended coda at the end of The Curse of Peladon that ties up many of the loose ends and allows for Jo and Peladon to part company on amiable terms. This world has been brewed up with some care so it is good to learn that the future is bright...until the miners strikes that is.

The Bad: Terrance Dicks should no better than to let lines like 'there is no plot!' past his censorious eyes. Fortunately there is an abundance of it in The Curse of Peladon. Yeah Aggedor is a man in a monkey suit and competes with the Taran Woodbeast as the least convincing hairy native wildlife but else were they going to pull this off? Had they kept the beast in the shadows it would have been even more unsatisfying. Given the strength of the direction overall, the end of episode three is bizarrely edited so a lot of dramatic things happen at once that make very little sense until the recap in episode four. As such it is one of the more confusing cliff-hangers. All you can say with some certainty is that 'lots happened.'  As good as the setting is, it does lose its novelty value in the latter episodes and can prove a little drab - you might be desperate for a hint of colour (you aint seen nothing yet, wait until the dowdy colour scheme of The Sea Devils and The Mutants!). The climax is theatrically staged (with the Doctor entering the carnage with Aggedor and using Hepesh's own secret weapon against him) but it is the only time the story the drama trips over a bit, with Hepesh doing his embarrassing Ageddor (push pineapple shake the trees) dance bit to try and get him back under control. Dramatically it is satisfyingly told but the performances finally tip over into melodrama.

Result: Peladon remains one of the most fascinating worlds that Doctor Who ever had the chutzpah to invoke. A feudal medieval world on the a precipice, deciding whether to take the plunge and accept Federation membership or turn back into superstition and violence. Populated with aliens from many worlds; the sweet and hysterical Alpha Centuri, the devious trickster Arcturus, a Time Lord posing as a Federation delegate and his human companion, a dignified Ice Lord and his Ice Warrior companion and even local wildlife savaging the guests in the secret tunnels. Every one of these characters has a story tell and they have been brought together in a story that presents a moral and personal dilemma (centred on King Peladon, a boy of mixed race who is trying to decide which half of him he should listen to), a massively entertaining murder mystery and an amusing political satire. The characters are wonderfully conceived, designed and performed and it is a real refreshment to be surrounded by so many unusual alien races. And Peladon itself is atmospherically brought to life by Lennie Mayne, a world of stark simplicity and smoky corridors, of wind lashed cliff faces and cavernous tunnels. Add in the Doctor and Jo at their most gorgeous, guest characters that are written with some depth and sensitivity (including a three dimensional villain) and a plot that constantly throws up surprises and you have a story which is firing on all cylinders. My only complaint is that at four episodes it is a little too busy in places, for once a Pertwee adventure that doesn't have the luxury of taking a breathe (the rarest of occurrences). Compared to Day of the Daleks, which presented its plot in an extremely clear cut and yet gripping manner, the handful of ideas, aliens, motives and twists means this a little more scatterbrained as a result. I do believe in Russell T. Davies assertion that there has to be some kind of connection to humanity in order for an audience to connect with a story emotionally (Jo is our conduit in this tale) but The Curse of Peladon does rather dispel his theory that there isn't a place for alien planets with a variety of colourful creatures on display taking dominance over the domestic elements. It presents its world and menagerie boldly and gets away with it because of it. I found this ridiculously entertaining and it would take the work of a real cynic to point at this and laugh. Those people don't deserve to be watching something that has so much pleasure to give: 8/10

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