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Doctor Who: The Monster of Peladon (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Monster of Peladon originally aired in 1974.

Oh, have a heart, Sarah. I’ve been meaning to pay a return visit to Peladon for ages.

I can’t think why.

– the Doctor and Sarah Jane

What made The Curse of Peladon so fantastic was the fact that it felt so unique and different, as compared to all the Third Doctor adventures that had appeared before. Sure, the Doctor had travelled in time and space in Colony in Space, but The Curse of Peladon was really the first time that the colour television series had indulged in designing a truly alien world populated with truly alien creatures. Since the series had begun transmission in colour with Spearhead from Space, there had been nothing quite like it, and that was what made The Curse of Peladon so refreshing.

As such, the idea of doing The Monster of Peladon seems a bit questionable, especially when it’s going to feature the same world, the same aliens and be two episodes longer than the original adventure.

Not an underrated gem, I'm afraid...

Not an underrated gem, I’m afraid…

I have to admit, I’m wading through Jon Pertwee’s final season, and I can see why the end was nigh. With the exception of The Time Warrior, which seems to call forward to stories like The Masque of Mandragora and The Talons of Weng-Chiang, these stories all feel like retreads of familiar ideas and concepts. However, the energy seems to be slowly ebbing from the series. Invasion of the Dinosaurs seemed to accuse the Third Doctor of selling out, while even his most iconic foes could inject any dynamism into the Terry Nation hijinks of Death to the Daleks.

The Monster of Peladon, however, feels especially crass. The Curse of Peladon was a massive success – something that both audiences and the production team quite enjoyed. So, from that point of view, returning to the planet for Jon Pertwee’s final season feels a bit appropriate. It is reasonable to suggest that The Curse of Peladon demonstrated that the show could take to the stars again, in colour and on its production budget. So, for purely sentimental reasons, it seems an appropriate location for Jon Pertwee’s penultimate story.

The alien's grave yard...

The alien’s grave yard…

On the other hand, there’s something very lazy and self-congratulatory about it all. The decision to extend the adventure to six parts feels a little cynical, even if it does spare us the dread of a six-part Death to the Daleks. The criticisms of The Monster of Peladon are effectively and brutally summarised by The Television Companion:

The repetition of so many elements from The Curse of Peladon is not only unoriginal but also creates problems in terms of believability. It seems very unlikely that Alpha Centauri would still be on Peladon some fifty years after the events seen in the earlier story (unless the creature has a high boredom threshold!) or that Aggedor, the last surviving beast of its kind, would still be alive – especially if it has been kept in a pit all this time – and more unlikely still that the Ice Warriors would again be involved. Although perhaps less significant in plot terms, the biggest coincidence of all is that the mineral trisilicate, said by the Doctor in The Curse of Peladon to be exclusive to Mars and Martian technology, is now to be found in abundance on Peladon and is being used by Galaxy 5 as the basis for their technology!

Indeed, it seems a little trite that Ortron should question the fact that the Doctor hasn’t changed too much in fifty years. “And anyway, after fifty years, who can be sure it’s the same man?” he asks, even though it seems like Peladon itself hasn’t changed at all in half a century. Experience on Peladon would suggest it’s highly probable that the Doctor is the same after all this time, because… well… everything else is too.

They should probably beef up security in the throne room...

They should probably beef up security in the throne room…

The Television Companion sums up the problems with The Monster of Peladon so well that I’m tempted to just call it a day with their brutal and honest criticism of the adventure. After all, what more can I really add? Beyond, of course, the fact that even the recap sections of the episode seem bloated and padded out, a sign of just how thin everything is being stretched so The Monster of Peladon can stretch to reach six episodes.

In fact, even the script seems to concede that it is running a little long. Pertwee at least seems slightly more engaged than he did in Death to the Daleks, but not by much. The serial does give him a fair amount of action, asking more of its leading man than standing on the sidelines or running his finger through a blood maze. That said, there is an especially dodgy stunt double for Pertwee visible during his fight with Ettis. However, even though Pertwee seems to be having a bit more fun, the Doctor seems a little worn out by it all.

The Ice Warriors cometh... again!

The Ice Warriors cometh… again!

In fact, by the end of it all, the Doctor is so tired that he sleeps the final episode out, apparently in “complete sensory withdrawal.” He explains, “I shut myself off.” That’s generally not a good sign, if your leading man can sleep for most of your final episode and not be missed much. I also love the Doctor’s “what?” when he discovers that the villainous Eckersley has kidnapped the Queen. He might as well just actually say “it’s still not over?”

That said, it’s not all bad. Just a lot of it. To be fair, The Monster of Peladon does give Lis Sladen something to do, which is better than any story since The Time Warrior. Sarah Jane might be the best companion ever, but I don’t think Sladen was well-served during that first season. She was always a great actress, but the series didn’t really find a voice for her in her first year in the role.

Another Monster of Peladon...

Another Monster of Peladon…

Of course, when she ends up alone with Tom Baker, it is suddenly all worth while. Everything clicks into place. Here, we get the first true glimpse of Sladen’s talent, in her short scenes with Alpha Centauri, for example, or her reaction to the Doctor’s supposed death in the final episode, after the victory has been won. In a nice touch, she can’t even muster the enthusiasm to close a secret passage behind her on her way to the body.

It’s also interesting to see the influence that contemporary science-fiction has had on Doctor Who. It’s fascinating how pop cultural perceptions of space have played into the way that the series depicts the cosmos. The early adventures, produced during the height of the space race, present space as virtually (and occasionally literally) buzzing with alien life of all shapes and sizes. However, in the late sixties, as it became clearer that space was a lot quieter than we might have hoped, Doctor Who depicted the universe as increasingly sinister and hostile.

Eye say, doesn't a sequel diminish what was so great about the original?

Eye say, doesn’t a sequel diminish what was so great about the original?

In the seventies however, there was a fascination with interstellar federations and vast empires spanning the gulf of space. You can really see that shift during the Pertwee era. I suspect that Star Trek, with its varied expansive alien empires, was a major influence on the way that the Pertwee era looked at the future of space travel. You can see it in the surrounding stories as well, an attempt to give Pertwee’s science-fiction adventures a sense of galactic scale that is very hard to do on a BBC budget.

So, for example, the planetary adventure of Death to the Daleks suddenly has implications on millions of lives across the cosmos. In Frontier in Space, the Daleks are manipulating two empires to war for their own advantage. Here, the events on Peladon don’t just affect this key planet, they have repercussions about the political landscape of outer space. Once everything is sorted out, Alpha Centauri can’t wait to give everyone the good news. “I have just heard from Federation HQ. The war is over. Once Eckersley and Azaxyr’s scheme had failed, Galaxy Five became most anxious to negotiate a peace treaty.”

Looks like he brought a sword to a laser fight...

Looks like he brought a sword to a laser fight…

This palace intrigue affects the entire universe! It’s something that Hinchcliffe and Holmes would back away from a bit in their stories for the series. The Ark in Space takes place in a universe where mankind has colonised the stars, but is “only” concerned with the last survivors of Earth. The Brain of Morbius is only concerned with one renegade Time Lord, even if the potential fallout is massive. This interest in interstellar empires and the importance of actions on a universal scale seems particular to the Third Doctor.

And, to be fair to The Monster of Peladon, there are points where the script has its heart in the right place, even if it hasn’t necessarily thought through the implications of its plot points. For example, the script inverts the threat in The Curse of Peladon. There we knew of a traitor inside the King’s circle, but had to guess the conspirator among the aliens. The Ice Warriors were the perfect red herring, appearing as villains before.

We can't cave to pressure...

We can’t cave to pressure…

So The Monster of Peladon switches things around a bit. It makes the identity of the conspirator in the court ambiguous, but among the aliens conspicuous. Since the Ice Warriors were the red herrings last time around, it’s the perfect twist to pull a double-bluff and make them honest-to-goodness baddies this time. So when they show up and start acting all evil, we suspect that the script might be trying to put one over on us like it did last time… with the twist being that it isn’t.

That’s a nice piece of writing, structurally. However, it does a great deal of damage to the Ice Warriors. The Ice Warriors are unique among the Doctor’s foes because they have reformed. They’ve gone from being unambiguously bad to being redeemed. You could make an argument that – given the European context of The Curse of Peladon – the Ice Warriors were a metaphor for post-war Germany, a former adversary that could change their society radically and fundamentally.

Azaxyr what I was thinking...

Azaxyr what I was thinking…

To be fair, The Monster of Peladon tries to explain that this is just a fraction of radical Ice Warriors. “Azaxyr’s head of some kind of breakaway group,” Eckersley explains. “He wants to return to the good old days of death or glory.” The problem is that Azaxyr has a sizeable military force that is in a position where it can claim to be official. There’s no other indication of Ice Warrior politics in this story.

Even if they are radicals, they are still a threat within the Federation, vindicating every racist assumption the Doctor made about them in The Curse of Peladon. The inference is that a leopard might be able to cover its spots for a little while, but you probably shouldn’t trust them not to try and eat you. It feels quite at odds with the message of the earlier Peladon story. Then again, it’s not the only thematic element of The Monster of Peladon that feels strangely out of step with its direct predecessor.

Knights of Peladon...

Knights of Peladon…

If The Curse of Peladon was a metaphor for Britain’s involvement in the EEC, it was a heart felt plea for engagement and integration with Europe, a very sincere appeal to join with other nations for the greater good. In contrast, The Monster of Peladon seems a bit more cynical. Peladon’s membership of the Federation has apparently done absolutely everything that Euroskeptics dread. The planet is involved in an interstellar war that it has no say about, the workers are exploited to meet obligations to the Federation. It’s not mentioned, but I suspect taxes are higher and abortion laws have been radically re-written as well.

In short, The Monster of Peladon seems to suggest that Peladon got kinda screwed when it signed up to this interstellar organisation. “Now there is war with Galaxy Five and our people have to make sacrifices,” Ortron explains. The Queen responds, “Yes, but in quarrel not their own.” Ortron replies, “We have to accept the duties of Federation membership, as well as the benefits.” There really don’t seem to be too many benefits. Indeed, Federation soldiers wind up occupying Peladon, even if it is all just a ruse.

Pretty dark subject matter...

Pretty dark subject matter…

“When my father signed treaties with the Federation, he could not have known it would lead to nothing but bloodshed,” the Queen remarks later on. “However, we must accept the consequences.” That’s hardly the most optimistic way of looking at involvement in an interstellar cooperative body. It’s more “well, we’re stuck with it now.” When the Doctor shows, Orton even tries to hold his involvement in Peladon’s membership of the Federation against him. “Even if he is the Doctor, he was the one who persuaded King Peladon to join the Federation and caused our present troubles.”

That said, to describe The Monster of Peladon as “politically confused” is to make a massive understatement. It was written as a response to the Miners’ Strikes of 1972 and 1974 in Great Britain. These industrial disagreements led to the introduction of a three-day working week, and a state of emergency in the country, eventually leading to a general election that saw the Conservative government replaced by Labour. In 1974, this was a particularly thorny issue for a television series about a mad man in a box.

Courting danger...

Courting danger…

However, The Monster of Peladon could be forgiven if it took a stance on the issue. If it supported the miners, or if it condemned them outright, at least it would be able to structure a story around it. However, the script seems to try to have it both ways, appearing to genuinely and sincerely believe the miners deserve better treatment, but condemning their industrial action as manipulation by outside sources. Still, perhaps that’s not as outlandish a belief as it might appear. Apparently the secret services in Great Britain were inherently suspicious of trade union activity during the Cold War. The irony, of course, being that the Communist Party apparently tried unsuccessfully to be a soothing influence during the 1984-5 strike.

The result is somewhat patronising. The script is clearly sympathetic to the miners. “Look,” the Doctor explains, “it’s fifty years now since Peladon joined the Galactic Federation, and what have the miners got to show for it? Harder work for the same rewards.” Alpha Centauri is surprisingly condescending when appraising the workers. “Most of the Pels are still close to barbarism. They have a great distrust of progress.” Sarah Jane corrects him, “Well, maybe that’s because they’re not getting anything out of it. You’ve got to show them that progress will give them a better life.”

Sarah Jane is as sharp as ever...

Sarah Jane is as sharp as ever…

However, there’s a sense throughout that the miners are just well-intentioned idiots being manipulated by more sinister forces. They’re a primitive and superstitious lot who refuse to use advanced tools because their god won’t allow it. They are threatening, in the Doctor’s words, “revolution and civil war” because they allow themselves to be exploited by foreign agents. Indeed, the Doctor appeals to Ettis as if speaking to a child, “If you use that sonic lance, you’ll be killing your own Queen and a lot of your own people. Now most of the Ice Warriors are in that mine. The Peladonians are fighting them, Ettis, soldiers and miners together, and they’re winning!”

The result is not only a bit wishy-washy, but also a little condescending. The script seems to suggest that the miners deserve better treatment, but that taking action to secure those better conditions amounts to little more than treachery. It also seems to suggest that the miners aren’t aware of the implications of their own actions, which is pretty insulting. It is a very naive way of looking at things, one that tries to walk the middle-ground without taking one side or the other.

Solid as a rock...

Solid as a rock…

Then again, you could argue that it’s an example of the show’s optimistic world view, an attempt to reimagine the dispute as something that can be worked out amicably without one side being vilified. Of course, that’s not how these sorts of situations work out, and the show has to contort a great deal to avoid coming down on one side or the other. The result is that The Monster of Peladon feels a bit misguided. It’s hard to condemn the serial’s politics, even if there’s a sense that it’s just trying very hard to avoid taking sides.

So The Monster of Peladon is awkward structured, ill-advised and politically confused. It’s hard to really consider this a success on any level. I suppose the production design looks nice, even if the Ice Warriors are still the silliest monsters to return to the show. I never thought I’d be so ready to see the end of the Jon Pertwee era.

You might be interested in our reviews of the eleventh season of the classic television show:

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