Doctor Who complete reviews: The Curse Of Peladon
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A first-class Doctor Who creature-fest proves to have an enduringly topical spin...
Apologies from the editorial goofs department, that The Sea Devils went up before this one. Of course, Sea Devils precedes The Curse Of Peladon... Ed
One of the great things about the Pertwee stories is that they always had some relevance to the topical issues of the day. With The Green Death tackling all-important green issues, The Monster Of Peladon looking at the miners’ strikes, the original Peladon story, The Curse Of Peladon, dealt with the topical (at the time) debate of whether Britain should join the Common Market. Even today, Peladon still has relevance, especially bearing in mind the debates over whether Britain should join the EU.
All thought-provoking stuff, and Barry Letts and Uncle Terrance definitely deserve the plaudits for basing the fantastical Doctor Who adventures in some grain of truth. The Common Market debate is seen in the shenanigans on the planet of Peladon. Under the rule of King Peladon, a gaggle of alien diplomats are attending a conference to see if the planet of Peladon should join the Galactic Federation. All of this would be relatively simple if it wasn’t for the fact that there’s foul play at work. Chancellor Torbis, one of Peladon’s advisers, has already been found dead, and there’re rumours that the ancient spirit of Aggedor has risen again.
Like Day Of The Daleks, The Curse Of Peladon is very much a mix of the topical and the supernatural. Curse, however, is more of an equal balance, thanks to the gothic, gloomy surroundings of the planet of Peladon, and its equally atmospheric citadel. Lennie Mayne, marking his Doctor Who debut, really sells the atmosphere of this story with some of the best direction of the season. Mayne makes great use of camera angles, whether the camera looks from down low up to the ominous citadel exterior at the Ealing Film Studios, or whether we look down from above at the main throne room where negotiations are taking place. Even the little touches like the foregrounding of Arcturus when The Doctor and Jo are talking in the throne room, it shows that Mayne has taken great care in choosing his camera shots, and that’s what gives Curse its real visual edge.
"It’s rare for a Pertwee story to not contain an office, industrial building or power plant..."
And the designs are uniformly impressive too, thanks to Gloria Clayton. It’s rare for a Pertwee story to not contain an office, industrial building or power plant - so to base The Curse Of Peladon on a gloomy, windswept planet with a dark citadel of gloomy tunnels and medieval-style rooms, statues and tapestries is a real visual treat. Clayton’s designs don’t disappoint, adding much to the story and giving Curse a lavish, high-budget look.
In fact, what with its impressive design and camerawork, not to mention menagerie of monsters, Curse is something of a banquet for the eyes. The monsters are all interesting in their own ways. We have Arcturus, a weird skull-octopus thing in a futuristic goldfish bowl that has a silly voice that’s nearly as daft as the Cyber Planner in The Invasion. We have Alpha Centauri, with the voice of (as ordered by the director) a gay civil servant and the look of a - well, let’s not go there. Centauri is a classic example of how Letts and Uncle Terrance always tried to look for the good in aliens, no matter how weird they look. In any other TV show, it’s likely that Centauri would have been some villain that’s impossible to take seriously. So it was a great idea to have an alien that’s as cowardly and incompetent as the rest of them. Centauri’s constant squealing may grate after a while, but overall, Ysanne Churchman’s vocal talents are utilised very well indeed.
"The Curse Of Peladon shows that just like us mortal humans, The Doctor can also let prejudice get in the way of the true facts"
The concept of “Don’t always judge a book by its cover” is very much seen in the treatment of the Ice Warriors. For once, in a stroke of genius, they are the good guys, in the capacity of diplomatic representatives rather than vicious killers. What I like about this is that The Doctor is highly sceptical of their motives throughout the first couple of episodes. He suspects that they are behind the toppling Aggedor statue and also the sabotage of Arcturus, especially since they have both the strength and the technical knowledge to carry out both crimes. It’s nice to see The Doctor making mistakes like this from time to time. It’s easy to cut him some slack, given his past encounters with the Ice Warriors, but The Curse Of Peladon shows that just like us mortal humans, The Doctor can also let prejudice get in the way of the true facts.
And Alan Bennion gives a strong performance as Izlyr too. Bennion always tends to add an air of nobility to the Warriors that he plays, and while he’s saddled with a green bucket on his head, he manages to give Izlyr a proper personality. Izlyr may be slightly cynical, overly defensive, but he is still seen as loyal and a strong diplomat, even forgiving The Doctor’s overt mistrust. To contrast this with the Ice Warriors’ past actions was a very shrewd move on the part of the production team.
In the end, the sabotage is all down to Arcturus and (as if you wouldn’t have guessed) Hepesh. Hepesh is an interesting one - he’s a classic case of a villain that’s not motivated by power or greed, but by his own beliefs. And not for the last time this season, we see a man whose downfall is his patriotism and narrow mind. Hepesh is a man who refuses to let go of the past and embrace the concept of change. In order to maintain the status quo, he resorts to murder and trickery by using an Aggedor beast to spook the conference delegates into fleeing. Naturally, when this plan fails, he has to resort to brute force - well, as brutal as you can get with an army of rather fey soldiers - in order to hold the King to ransom and call off the alliance. But while Hepesh is a fanatical patriot, he’s still not what you’d call a true baddie, more a seriously misguided man, whose outdated beliefs not only hold back progress, but result in his foolish death. It’s a great role for any actor to get his teeth into, and luckily Geoffrey Toone succeeds admirably.
"A ruler that evidently doesn’t own a pair of trousers, Peladon is clearly finding the burden of leadership a very heavy one"
You almost think that Hepesh might succeed, given that King Peladon is such a wet fish. A ruler that evidently doesn’t own a pair of trousers, Peladon is clearly finding the burden of leadership a very heavy one. He’s like a frightened little boy, forced to make choices that he’s only just beginning to grasp. In his defence, he has firm ideas and views on the Galactic Federation, and he’s open minded enough to welcome change and encourage it on Peladon. The problem is is that he’s totally lacking in confidence, always over-ruled by both Hepesh and the ancient laws of the planet. When The Doctor is sentenced to a fight to the death with Hepesh’s mute henchman Grun, Peladon refuses to let him off the hook because of the ancient laws and Hepesh’s dominance.
In all honesty, I don’t think his romance with Jo would have lasted. Peladon has Doormat written all over him, and given Jo’s growing confidence in the next few stories, I doubt if the King would be able to keep up. David Troughton’s performance is excellent though. Troughton is one of the most versatile character actors around, whether he’s playing dithering professors, pervy teachers or grizzled thugs. His sensitive portrayal of Peladon is just another example of Troughton’s versatility as an actor - even if his attempts at sobbing sound like he’s got a bad case of bronchitis.
Talking of Jo, this is easily one of the best stories for both The Doctor and Miss Grant. In fact, their relationship is one of the best things about The Curse Of Peladon. You can tell from 1000 miles off that Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning enjoyed working together on Who, and this chemistry practically oozes out of the TV screen. There’s a real warmth between the two, and even when The Doctor flies off the handle at Jo for shoo-ing Aggedor away with a torch, he quickly realises his mistake, apologises and recognises her bravery.
"Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning both turn in some of their best work for the series"
That closeness spills into many scenes. The one in which they gently tease each other about acquiring newfound royal status is one of their best. “How do you like being a princess - princess?” jokes The Doctor, wrinkling his nose in mock superiority. The last scene also shows how attached The Doctor has become to Jo. After Jo has turned down Peladon’s advances, The Doctor is clearly relieved, and even tells Jo that he wouldn’t like to lose her. It’s all rather poignant, especially given that this situation will be played out again in The Green Death without the happy ending.
Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning both turn in some of their best work for the series. Pertwee’s Doctor is on commanding form, acting as both the action hero in his fight with Grun and as the diplomatic mediator (“Gentlemen, please! Do my ears deceive me…?”) His talks with Hepesh show that this incarnation of The Doctor has also matured. Whereas in the past couple of seasons, The Doctor would have flown into a cross-eyed rage at Hepesh’s stubborn stance, here, he tries to understand Hepesh’s motives - look at his quiet but authoritative talk with Hepesh in episode three, where he tries to convince him that an alliance with the Galactic Federation is in the planet’s best interests and that instead of being free, autonomy would only lead to a backward decline.
Katy Manning is also given much more to do as Jo. Princess Josephine of TARDIS is allowed to stand up for herself, and gives King Peladon as good as she gets. She also takes the initiative on more than one occasion to investigate the mystery, even going so far as to clamber on the narrow ledge of the outside window to get to Izlyr’s room. And not one shriek in sight. Surely that’s progress? Both Pertwee and Manning really show their acting chops here, and prove what assets they are to Doctor Who.
The Curse Of Peladon is fantastic stuff. It’s got everything that you could want in Doctor Who. Grown up allegory for the grown-ups. Well-executed action sequences and scares for the kids. Great design work. Impressive direction. And more monsters than you can shake a tentacle at. Along with one other monster-based classic (hmmm, what’s coming next, I wonder…), this is the highlight of the season.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.