Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Curse of Peladon

Chapter The 41st, which has a little bit of politics, ladies and gentlemen.

The Doctor and Jo land on the planet Peladon, a mineral rich but primitive country, sorry, planet which is on the cusp of joining the European Union, sorry, Galactic Federation. A delegation of freakish MEPs, sorry, aliens (including some Ice Warriors, and Alpha Centauri who from some angles looks like a pea and from other angles looks like a cock – so, a pea-cock?) is appraising the planet to ensure they are suitable to join. The inexperienced young King Peladon assures them that all is well, except for the recent brutal murder of a high-ranking local official that looks to be connected to an ancient curse. The Doctor, impersonating the head of the delegation, uncovers that it’s all a plot by a determined Leaver, the high-priest Hepesh, who is in league with one of the delegates in trying to prevent the planet joining the federation. But, as the planet Peladon is not yet ‘post-truth’, when these lies get uncovered, everyone actually does the right thing and joins. King Peladon fancies Jo and proposes marriage, but she turns him down and runs off (so, it’s not all pro-union and pro-remain).

After a few deliberately selected stories at the end of last year, and a bit of a break, 2017 sees the random number generator dusted off and redeployed, and it promptly brings us to Peladon, home of topical EU metaphors. The family - minus elder son, 10, who might be achieving what his father never did and growing out of Doctor Who - watched the DVD over a couple of days, and it went down surprisingly well with everyone. The Better Half wondered early on whether it was set on the ‘Planet of the Badger People’; no it isn’t, says I. “Then why do they all look like badgers?” A very good question.

First-time round:
I borrowed a pirate copy from long-term fan friend David sometime in the early Nineties; this must have been an nth generation copy as the quality was particularly bad, but this enhanced the experience for me – it was like I was involved in an archaeological unearthing of something precious from within a wobbly snowstorm. I also seem to remember that the aspect ratio of the source was a little off: when the Doctor and Jo were edging along a cliff edge near the beginning of the story, they looked a bit taller and thinner than normal; but this too added to it, particularly with the wind, thunder and lightning effects; they looked like they’d gone widescreen for a moment, as if they’d stepped into a Hammer film.

Once one gets used to the look and feel of this story, it’s very enjoyable; but it does take a while to get used to it. The studio has a particularly cramped, and cheap feel, when the action really needs a bigger canvas to work on. As ever with Doctor Who, any perceived tattiness is a sign of ambition rather than the opposite; the list of demands from the script is long: a palace with impressive throne room, secret tunnels, a mountain, an arena, a frightening wild beast, multiple alien delegates... and all for a budget of seven and six and a bag of grapes. But I wouldn't want it any other way. Yes, King Peladon - the romantic male lead, lest we forget - is dressed as a principal boy in velure hotpants and thigh-high boots, and he has a ginger badger's hair-do. Yet, from within all this, David Troughton's performance is ruddy, bloody marvellous, a testament to his talent, but the script as well.

Indeed, the best part of the whole story is the romance plot between Jo and King Peladon. It's spare, but well-constructed, covering just the right emotional beats, and these are performed perfectly. All the acting Troughtons are excellent, and all have subtly different strengths and qualities; but probably David is the one who's as good as - or even better than - his Dad. This early performance as the boy king, all earnest but naive lisping delivery, is equalled by Katy Manning's work, as her character gets to do something interesting, and act like an adult at last.

Now, if the best bit of Curse for me is the romance plot, then yes I am discounting the usually favoured aspects: the whodunnit 'traitor in the camp' storyline, or the satirical bits mirroring the relationship of the UK to the European Community, as hot a topic in 1972 as it is now. The reason why this latter part doesn't fully work is that it isn't accurate enough to be an allegory: Peladon isn't a former superpower that's lost it's empire, and the UK - even in the 1970s - wasn't a barbaric pseudo-medieval state wobbling between superstition and secularism. Given the focus on Peladon's valuable mineral assets, it looks more like a representation of an African ex-colony, which would maybe make the Galactic Federation - what? The UN? Essentially, it doesn't really hold together for more than the brief moment when a watching adult raises their eyebrows, and mutters "I wonder where they got that idea!". And that's probably all the writer Brian Hayles was aiming for; he didn't want to write a message story, he just wanted a new angle on his adventure tale.

The hunt for the traitor works better, particularly as it does something fairly rare for Doctor Who and revolutionary for the time: finding a new use for an old enemy. The grammar of the first shot of an Ice Warrior lumbering into Peladon's corridors screams out that these are the bad guys. But are they? The Doctor's prejudices towards his old foes is probably the second-most successful aspect of the story. But the traitor plot is ultimately undone by an odd decision of story structure. For three of the four episodes we've been wondering who's behind the nefarious scheme; at the end of episode 3, the Ice Warrior appears to shoot at the Doctor. Ooh, it's them after all! Episode 4, begins, and we find that what we saw wasn't quite what we thought we saw (it doesn't help that this isn't visually very clear, but we're still good). Then there's an jump cut, it's much later, and the Doctor is doing a big info-dump revealing the traitor and explaining everything. There are still twenty minutes left to go.

Aggedor only knows why this all happens so abruptly and so early; but, with the mystery blown, and with the only plot left a battle with someone who is essentially a secondary adversary, the energy of the story collapses like a punctured balloon. If only they could have held out a little longer and revealed things 5 or at a push 10 minutes from the end, it wouldn't have lost the audience in my house. This was such a shame, as - no word of a lie - they were loving it, loving it up to that point. And I never expected that of The Curse of Peladon.

The Return of Doctor Mysterio has a character who wears a cape; The Curse of Peladon pretty much has every character wearing a cape. And Arcturus, aside from some vestigial limbs, is basically a brain in a jar.

Deeper Thoughts: 
"I'd rather have Doctor Who than Star Trek". Doctor Who is a show about monsters; like the best fairy tales, it encapsulates discussions about and guidance for dealing with the unknowable and often unstoppable dark forces that work on all our lives. Star Trek on the other hand, deals with politics; like the best allegories it encapsulates discussions about and guidance for dealing with interactions at the personal and national level. Doctor Who is theology, Star Trek is political philosophy. This is clear and self-evident, but also not true, obviously. For huge swathes of the show's lifetime, it has been the case that the Doctor encounters Evil with a capital E, and there's never much interrogation of greyer areas of morality. But not all the time.

The latest Doctor Who Magazine focuses on the 1970s, and there is a very good article by Jonathan Morris which posits that every story in Jon Pertwee's tenure has a post-colonial subtext; I disagree with the suggested extent of the productions' intent: as I mentioned above, Curse, which is one of the most overt about its themes, is still only adding a little bit of politics, the majority of it is just an adventure story. But clearly, the bad guys are not a black box of unexamined evil, and there are shades of grey. The inadvertent impression the article also gives is that this is something that started in 1970; but, although either side of Pert's reign it's all about the monsters, Doctor Who had prior form: the very first two stories, right in the beginning in 1963, were both political allegories. The Daleks, at first glance, might seem like a perfect example of an unthinking destructive force, but this would be a misreading - in their debut they are emphatically a Cold War parable; how much more Star Trek can you get?

Star Trek too has dabbled with the other side of things, notably with The Borg who aren't going to attend any galactic peace conference, or come to a compromise. They were "Doctor Who Villains" slamming into Star Trek, and were all the more powerful for it. But even in the original series, there was a lot of photon torpedo and phaser fun when the talk ran out. The interesting thing is that, even if he's facing something clearly malevolent, the Doctor believes he's in an episode of Star Trek, and that there can be a negotiated settlement. Despite being disappointed over and again every week in this aim, he has to keep resetting to believe it's possible at the start of every new adventure. If he didn't, and a writer were to be tempted to make him disillusioned, or put forward that this is just pretence, that he doesn't really mean it, he'd go from Doctor to Great White Hunter, the man who sets out to slay the monsters. The character and the optimistic nature of the show would be badly damaged.

At the time of writing, the world is at the very start (two days in) to a four year "adventure". For some who are organising, it will be a four year mission; it's clear there's a villain, but is he from the Star Trek or Doctor Who universe? Is he going to be a force of destruction that can't be reasoned with, or will he manage to find compromise? Though it's hard, we have to be like the Doctor and keep hold of our optimism.

In Summary:
Doesn't really badger you with a political message.

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