Thursday, 22 January 2015

The Curse of Peladon

            What is it about The Curse of Peladon?
            I enjoyed much of Season 8. I admired The Dæmons. But I was enthralled by The Curse of Peladon. I watched the first episode in a state of delight. Just the thought of it put me in a good mood. Having just finished Episode 4 with much the same feelings, I find it's probably - very possibly - my favourite Pertwee story so far (tied with Spearhead and Dæmons).
            What's so special about it?
            The Doctor and Jo Grant arrive on the world of Peladon, in a dreadful storm, when Jo really should be sipping Pernod and Black with Mike Yates in one of Tarminster's more happening wine bars. Instantly, this story has a sense of occasion. It's Saturday night on Earth, and like other teenagers in Great Britain, she has to spend a bit of time with Doctor Who before she can escape to the discotheque, for Labbi Siffre's It Must Be Love and Cilla's even more pertinent Something Tells Me Something's Gonna Happen Tonight.
            The Tardis is lost - no way out - and they are impelled up a mountain, through a secret passage, into a citadel built into the very fabric of this inhospitable world. We happily accompany them, because they're written with a lightness of touch and because Pertwee and Manning have a sublime rapport by now. The Doctor's tetchiness is wreathed in smiles and affectionate teasing.
            So we are drawn into this strange space: the cosy refuge from the storm. Inside a mountain, outside our world, out of the storm, into danger. All the lives and history of this world, boxed up in one excursion in the Tardis, parcelled up inside Jo's Saturday night on Earth. The castle on the mountain encapsulates all that is Peladon, and tonight it even seems to encapsulate the galaxy, with representatives from distant stars gathered all together.
            As the Doctor and Jo move deeper into this world, there's that cosy feeling of a world imagined entire: the world of the story. Perhaps it feels more this way because of its fairy tale quality: the castle on the mountain, the boy king who has to prove himself, the magician with his mysterious princess.
            Of course, this is an old-fashioned Doctor Who feeling, one we've had to do without for a while. It used to be that every Episode One began with our heroes walking into a new narrative and a new world. With the canvas blank again each time, the Doctor and his companion can be the vehicle for any kind of story, and any/every law of the universe is potentially unstable: we flirt with a feeling of total otherness. Normally, this is dismissed quite quickly by someone in a PVC nappy jogging across a quarry, but the challenge can inspire stories like The Celestial Toymaker (by someone called Brian Hayles). It's the televisual equivalent of 'Once upon a time, there was...'
            What deepens the pleasure of this fairy tale world is the arrival in it of the Ice Warriors. We've taken a side-step into another world,  but - a very particular world. The world of Doctor Who! Where cold-blooded cyborg viking dragons swish haughtily about, sometimes with evil plans involving space mushrooms, sometimes on diplomatic missions to Narnia. And not only that, but as soon as they turn up (looking fabulous onscreen, which is a relief after the doddery Daleks) the Doctor is once again a man who has lived and died twice. The sort of man who can remember visiting future Earth buried under ice age, as well as he can remember Elizabeth I's coronation.
            None of this is interferes with the actual story. You could watch and follow this story knowing nothing about the show - but you'd be constantly aware that it's a show about friendship over isolation, rationality over superstition, looking your best and holding your own and trying to do what's best, even when you're completely out of your depth. There's a hermaphrodite with six arms, a gremlin covered in slime riding on top of a drinks machine, and a fey young man in an outfit that could have Jacqueline Pearce saying, 'Mm, it's a bit much...' - and they all want to get along.
            Well, not the gremlin on the drinks machine. He wants exclusive mineral trading rights with a man who looks like a badger.
            The audience can follow it. The actors know what to do. The direction is fluid. Firelight flickers. It doesn't just work - it unfolds.
            At one point, the Doctor points out to Jo how drastic the situation is: it's not about a bomb about to go off. It's about a vast, diplomatic conflict. The Doctor and Jo, taking the roles of politicians, have to engage in arguments and win the support of querulous cephalopods, not to defuse a machine but a situation bigger than any of them.
            Come to think of it, that's the threat posed in The Mind of Evil and Day of the Daleks, too. But in this story - particularly because Hepesh and Peladon are well-intentioned men who make bad decisions - the story really convinces you of that threat.
            And brilliantly, in a huge progression from all her other stories so far, Jo Grant is instrumental in saving the day! The Doctor sends her into the delegates' conference to persuade them to do what she thinks should be done. Jo is an active participant in the story. She talks to everyone, argues about everything, falls in love, pleads for the Doctor's life. She doesn't just react to the action, she goes right inside that story and makes stuff happen.
            Now, perhaps I'm being sentimental, but there is something special about a writer returning to Doctor Who. Yes, of course, I'm being sentimental - I've read Robert Holmes' biography, the story of a man who kept being called back to silly old Doctor Who because it was easy to write and paid well enough, while his own personal writing projects pootled along, or more often petered out. But there is something about a writer like Brian Hayles (or indeed, Holmes or Terrance Dicks) who writes the series in acknowledgement of its basic absurdities, its impossibility, its openness.
            In the previous story, the Doctor zapped an Ogron with a ray gun. In this story, the humanoid characters are the most murderous, and even the Ice Warriors are friendly. This is a story which belongs to the world of the Doctor: transcendental, absurd, cosy, and full of ideas.

            What's up next...?

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Day of the Daleks

They recast the Doctor, created a new environment for him, found the formula for ratings success. Having iced the cake, it's time to stick a few Daleks on top. But are they the delicious glacé cherries that add the real flavour to the cake, or just glittering candles to add a bit of sparkle to the ensemble?

To stretch my delicious metaphor a little further, this is a story with brilliant ingredients. Coming after the "Magic!" "Science!" "Magic!" "Science!" dialectic of the previous story, here the Doctor cheerfully assures us that ghosts are possible. Not only that, but when he's around, you get a rare kind - ghosts of people who haven't been born yet. Perhaps even ghosts of people who'll never exist! And where better to encounter them than an old stately home?

This era's gothic urban landscape - factories disgorging Satanic slime, laboratories whose doors are frequently kicked in by monsters, B-roads patrolled by murderous automata - is expanded to include railway tunnels infested with ape-men. Its seething background of political drama - glimpsed in The Mind of Evil - returns as imminent World War. And slowly we uncover more about the world after the war - a stylish dystopia to rival Inferno.

Plus, the Daleks strap the Doctor to a mind-scanner and, thrillingly, summon up images of his earlier selves. Their mortal enemy, stretching back through eternity, or a generation of television viewing (which is similar)!

Unfortunately, the result is a crushing disappointment. If it was a cake, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood would be looking extremely miffed.

The performers are all fantastic. Jo Grant is trusting and good-hearted. Aubrey Woods is wonderfully sinister, a human being with all his humanity eaten away (I always thought there was something iffy about that sweetshop owner in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). His zombie dollybirds are extraordinary, and under-used. You couldn't ask for more from Jon Pertwee, particularly in his scenes with Woods. The Controller is 'a quisling, a traitor!' - the victims of the regime are 'old men and women, even children': in one argument, we feel the force with which the Daleks' regime grinds down.

This is necessary, because we don't feel much of it elsewhere. When they appear onscreen, the Daleks are a shadow of their former selves. What's the sound equivalent of a shadow? A poorly modulated bleat? That too. Much as it's an impressive way of presenting them - already the masters of Earth, no shilly-shallying like the villains of Seasons 7 and 8 - they're really not integrated into the story, and criminally there are no big confrontations between them and the Brigadier or the Doctor, or even Jo.

I mean, come on. These are the effin' Daleks!

The direction's limp, with the modern day particularly lacking in atmosphere. A hint of  The Daemons' Dennis Wheatley theatrics would have come in handy for the ghosts at the mansion, which is lit like something out of a sit-com. But having presented them as looking simply like terrorists who have travelled through time, the script takes ages to explain that this is the case. Yes, I know that's okay - we can assume the audience picked it up for themselves - but it misses every dramatic use of time travel, and Aubrey Woods might as well be in a space ship with a transmat hovering overhead.

Equally, the Daleks could have been anyone. There's no sense that there are living beings wiggling those egg-whisks. The whole story would be improved for having Aubrey's zombie dolly-birds as the dominating evil regime. Can't you just see them marching towards that manor house, flanked by Ogrons?

Well, it was nice to look forward to. I'll just have to accept it didn't work out. The nice thing about Doctor Who is that the story has a sort of after-life in the memory: I fancy reading the novelisation at some point, too. Meanwhile, it's time to get really 'out there'...