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
, 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. Great Britain
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...?