Doctor Who complete reviews: Paradise Towers
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Some iffy acting can't take away the pleasure of watching Doctor Who get back on mission again...
With the dingy quarry of Lakertya now a tiny speck in the sky, season 24 changes tack and adopts more of a fun-time, holiday feel. Remember when you were a kid and you were on your summer holidays? You'd ask to go on fun days out – holidays, camping trips, amusement arcades etc... Well break out the oversized sombreros and gaudy orange swimming arm bands, since the next three stories are about to take you on a holiday-themed mystery tour. Holiday camps. Intergalactic shopping malls and Star Wars cafés. And Mel's now requesting to go to the best swimming pool in the galaxy at Paradise Towers.
It's easy to criticise season 24, which is normally filed under “Eccentric At Best” - but the one thing that it has got going for it is that the stories have a new-found pizazz about them. There's a certain new lease of life about the tales, which contain a shed-load of original ideas - some of which come off, some of which don't. But interestingly, the wretched Rani aside, there's no old foes on display in season 24. It's like the production team wanted to forget about relying too much on fannish continuity and get back to what Doctor Who does best – telling good, original stories which can be enjoyed on more than one level.
And Stephen Wyatt's imaginative script for Paradise Towers does actually meet these requirements. At its simplest, Paradise Towers is a hearty tale of good triumphing over evil. Squabbling factions come together to unite to defeat the main baddie – in this case, it's a dreaded architect called Kroagnon, who's enjoying a non-stop feast of humanoid flesh culled from the towers. The Kroagnon Cookbook wasn't a big seller in those parts apparently.
So that's a perfectly sound idea, and there's something rather heart-warming to see all the different groups come together at the end. We have the rival gangs of Kangs, groups of shrieking women in either red or blue clothing (the yellow Kangs have all bitten the dust by the time The Doctor and Mel arrive), a remaining clutch of Rezzies (an apparently harmless squad of old biddies – read on), the previously hostile mob of caretakers who have seen their beloved leader killed and used as a walking conduit for Kroagnon, and the so-called hero Pex, who's actually about as brave as Ian Beale from EastEnders. Mind you, Pex actually comes good in the end – he dies a hero's death, which is something that Squeal Beale would never be able to do in a million years. He'd probably do that weird blubbing thing which makes him sound like a big girl.
"Given the troubling times today, Paradise Towers still makes for relevant viewing"
So that's a great set-up for the kids, but adults can find much to enjoy in Paradise Towers too. Horror fans can revel in the bloodthirsty Rezzies, some of whom have turned to cannibalism – Tilda and Tabby are two such examples, tempting Mel with tea and cakes one minute and then planning to have her for lunch the next. That's quite a chilling concept, and no doubt, some of the fans were hoping that the two Rezzies would succeed in turning Mel into stew – if only to end her annoying shrieking, which is as usual, on a par with scraping your fingernails down a blackboard.
Even better are the political references, which still ring true in today's day and age. Paradise Towers is a big misnomer if ever there was one, given that The Doctor and Mel have apparently landed in Inner City Hell. If you were promised to be taken to the greatest, biggest swimming pool in the universe, the last place you'd expect it to reside in would be a depressing lot of grimy old flats. The celebrated Paradise Towers – touted as the ultimate in high-rise apartment experience – has, to put it mildly, gone down the pan. It's the sort of place an estate agent would dread to sell, since any self-respecting schmoe wouldn't pay 50p let alone £500,000 for such a 'palace'.
It's topical stuff though, given the time in which Paradise Towers was written – in the 1970s and 1980s, Britain had been affected by urban decay – some industrial cities experienced population decreases, which in turn, led to instances of market price collapse and poorer qualities of building. Also, unemployment and unrest had been on the increase in the 1980s, and this is seen in the conflict between the tribes of Kangs. So with that in mind, given the troubling times today – high unemployment figures and job cuts being two examples – Paradise Towers still makes for relevant viewing.
"Paradise Towers is another classic example of Doctor Who making social commentary, and also pre-empting future life in Britain"
Not only that, but there's also the petty bureaucracy at play here. The Caretakers are jumped-up, petty officious sorts who do everything by the rule book. They're bound up by so much red tape that it would take 10 years to set them free. Now equate that today with all the petty rules and regulations conjured up by pompous government types – it seems that you can't nip out to buy a bar of chocolate without there being some oblique law attached to stop you. So again, Paradise Towers is another classic example of Doctor Who making social commentary, and also pre-empting future life in Britain.
So who better than The Doctor to stir up a bit of anarchy in this hell-hole? A great aspect of the 7th Doctor is his ability to bring down authority. The Doctor's always been an anti-authoritarian figure, but the new incarnation positively revels in bringing down ruthless forces for power. Whether they're power-mad control freaks like Gavrok or Kane, or whether they're corrupt regimes like in The Happiness Patrol or in this story, the 7th Doctor brings them all down with unassuming glee. A great example of this is when The Doctor escapes from the clutches of the Caretakers by turning their relentless bureaucracy against them. He craftily steals the Caretakers' manual, and quotes a made-up clause that allows him to escape while the obedient drones remain motionless. Great stuff, and Sylvester McCoy is evidently having a whale of a time with this likeable but anarchic portrayal of The Doctor.
The downside of Paradise Towers though, is its realisation. Whereas Time And The Rani's terrible script had just about been saved by good direction and high production values, Paradise Towers' production is too busy fighting with the script to make it work as well as it could. Everything is exaggerated to the point of pantomime, most notably a lot of the acting which is either too cartoony or too am-dram to convince. Take both sets of Kangs – potentially hard-hitting characters, but most of the performances are too stagy and mannered. It's like the local amateur dramatics society booked all the Kang roles, and thanks to the rather corny dialogue and tacky wigs and costumes, they're a bit rubbish. And when they start on at Pex for being a “Cowardly Cutlet” (which seems to happen every 10 minutes), the whole tone shifts from well-observed drama to playground histrionics.
Ham-wise, the Rezzies Tilda and Tabby are a bit ridiculous, with Elizabeth Spriggs doing her Simon And The Witch schtick again. Their deaths (during which they're throttled and pulled down a waste disposal unit) are equally silly, and very nearly on a par with Richard Briers' odd performance as the Chief Caretaker. Don't get me wrong, Briers is a highly accomplished actor, but his performance in Paradise Towers is over-zealous to say the least. Initially, the Chief Caretaker is the epitome of slimy obedience, forever in thrall to his master, Kroagnon. However, when he's been subjected to the overgrown toilet roll of death, he emerges as a walking cadaver. Now this is no creepy Marcus Scarman or Reuben The Rutan we're talking here – this is full on crazy days, as The Chief Caretaker, now possessed by Kroagnon, staggering about in a drunken lurch and talking in a weird, slurred, deep voice. OK, so maybe Kroagnon is supposed to be adapting to his new existence (which seems to be better than a life of being two coathangers stuck on top of a giant cardboard box), but Briers just goes for barmy zombie parody rather than making him a convincing foe. At the time, Doctor Who had started to get a reputation for going a bit light entertainment, and with the likes of Bonnie Langford and Ken Dodd around, you can see why there were raised eyebrows – which presumably flew off people's faces into the sky after seeing Briers' oddball face pulling.
"Doctor Who was luckily starting to look forward after the obsessive continuity references of the last few years"
The whole thing just seems a bit too pitched at kiddie level – as I said, the realisation of Kroagnon is poor; some of the effects and sets also look tacky – the mobile vacuum cleaner is particularly silly, and part three's cliffhanger of it throttling a gurning Doctor is hardly likely to convert Coronation Street fans. There's also the ridiculous bright yellow 'monster' terrorising Mel as she finally gets her wish for a dip in the pool. The biggest problem though is Keff McCulloch's misplaced score. Originally, the story was to have been scored by a chap called David Snell, but the music was rejected for some unknown reason. Quite how it could be worse than McCulloch's score (which seems to think it's pre-empting some ropey old shite like Changing Rooms) is anyone's guess – apparently the forthcoming DVD release allows you the option of viewing the story with the unused score, so all will be revealed.
Mind you, some of the on-screen realisation isn't too bad. Some of the acting is very good. Clive Merrison is excellent as the over-fussy deputy chief caretaker – he displays great comic timing without going too far over the top. Judy Cornwell does a fine job as the comparatively timid Rezzie, Maddy. And Howard Cooke does a nicely subtle job as Pex, even if his medium build clashes with the original script's plan to make him a Schwarzenegger-style action hero with muscles the size of Manchester. Nicholas Mallett, despite the OTT misfires, does also manage some atmospheric shots and moody lighting effects – the scenes in Kroagnon's den are a good example.
But Doctor Who was luckily starting to look forward after the obsessive continuity references of the last few years. Paradise Towers is by no means perfect, but it does signify a big step in another confident direction. Stephen Wyatt's script is a commendable critique on social and political issues, issues which still resonate today. And best of all, it's imaginative – Doctor Who was and always will be a programme that relies on firing the viewers' imaginations. So even if the Chief Caretaker, hungry old bags and mobile hoovers are ever so slightly silly, at least they're welcome diversions from everyday life such as bills, work and taxes. Season 24 may be pitched at the slightly brighter seven-year-old, but maybe that's no bad thing, especially if it slips in moral messages along the way.
Forget the leftovers of Time And The Rani, this is where both season 24 and the Sylvester McCoy years begin in earnest.
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.
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