Monday, 18 May 2015

The Monster of Peladon

After the savourless stodge of Death to the Daleks, we come to a dish carefully prepared. A proper story, with mystery and political allegory: a secret traitor, an icy villain and – what more could you ask for – a giant green phallic monster with six arms who worries that humans are alarmed by it.

It's a sequel, the one instance of this Doctor returning to a previous adventure, and Sarah Jane's sharp tongue prevents it all getting too sentimental. There are brave queens deceiving their viziers, political skulduggery, ghosts and brave dashes and mad miners. When a beautiful young woman is dragged through secret passages beneath an ancient citadel, a mad-eyed man on her arm, a slavering beast on her trail, it makes you wonder how Philip Hinchcliffe could ever be thought the last word in gothic Doctor Who.

So why is it all so flipping dreary?

Why do we long for the episodes to spool by faster? Why do we yawn, tut, scratch ourselves and think of other things? Why does this whole story feel so unnecessary?

It must at least be the inevitable comparison with the fabulous Curse of Peladon. Nothing stands up to four episodes of plotting, red (or rather emerald green) herrings, and the gorgeous David Troughton being utterly serious in a jumbo purple velvet collar and silk hotpants, whilst talking to a man of a certain age with a pink streak in his hair. While the torches flicker...

It was like nothing we had ever seen on Doctor Who before, and recycling the sets only reinforces that we haven't returned to the real Peladon, not to that assemblage of alien beings, that sense of something daring and weird and authentically panto. If only Brian Hayles had taken a gamble and tried the Peladon approach with a whole new planet. To be honest, Terry Nation tried that last story with an arid alternative to swampy Spiridon and it was a total disaster – but at least he tried (and to be honest, he didn't try very hard).

Then there's the unavoidably crude politics. It's about the miners strike – so here are some miners, on strike. Do you see? Only sadly, caricaturing them as badger-like superstitious hotheads, the script manages to treat them with such insensitivity they might as well give them all Welsh accents, hire Talfryn Thomas and be done with it. Then we have Sarah Jane offering the Queen of the planet a crash course in women's lib; thank goodness for Lis Sladen's delivery or we'd all be cringing into our purple velvet sleeves.

I mean: yes, fill a story with cartoons, but have fun with it. Don't pretend you're making any kind of political analogy. Go big. Go wild. Go colourful.

I have to make an exception here for Alan Bennion, back for the third time here as an Ice Lord from Mars. He knows what he's about, and if it wasn't beneath me to make some cheap puns, I'd call him truly chilling. He's arranging the Doctor's execution and threatening the murder of hostages, and that's before the mask slips and he's revealed as a bad guy.

The Third Doctor has really lacked for enemies of his calibre. What a shame Azaxyr, leader of a Martian splinter group, isn't more the focus of this story.

Almost done now. The days of this incarnation are numbered. At one point, when the Doctor and Sarah Jane think they're slipping away unnoticed, the canny Queen Thalira cries out – with some emotion – 'Goodbye, Doctor!' And yes, you think, it's almost that time.

In one scene, with vague presentiments of Caves of Androzani, the Doctor actually seems to go past the point of mortal strength and collapses lifeless in his chair for an hour. Sarah Jane is quite rightly in bits (albeit for the second time, for the same reason, in one story) and when she says, 'I can't believe he's dead. He was the most alive man I ever knew...' Well, you feel that emotion – and you can almost kid yourself that this was his last hurrah, among the badger-men, penis people and screaming queens of Peladon.

Goodness, though, that would have been bloody weird.

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