Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The Monster of Peladon

1 Jun 2009, 12:19 am

Monster of Peladon 1:

There ain’t much love for the Monster of Peladon.

Whilst never exactly one of the stories obviously regarded as a turkey, it’s hard not to feel that it remains far from the most liked of tales. Often held up as dull, it probably manages to avoid wider distaste by not being the grand operatic folly of the major series disasters, merely being considered flat.

But I dunno – I’ve always been rather fond of it. Not sure why. I don’t think I’ve watched it since becoming aware of its less than stellar reputation, something I’ve never quite got, and am wondering if the rewatch will crystalise why I’m fond of this somewhat dismissed tale.

Certainly, I think that as first episodes go, this one is rather enjoyable. Obviously it helps that we’re comparatively familiar with the planet, but even with that as a given the story does kick off at remarkably high gear. There are loads of Doctor Who stories where there are armed rebellions (either successful or merely attempted) but I can’t think of any other where they take place in the first episode. And bear in mind that we also have three people killed off by a suspected apparition, the Doctor suspected of treason, and a lovely scene with Sarah accidentally hurting an alien’s feelings, so you’ll see that there’s a lot going on.

Now this is all with one proviso – the general tone of the piece is a touch unsophisticated. Everyone talks in the same sort of cod-sci-fi speak, for example. In comparison to the witty sophistication of the Time Warrior, say, or the quasi realism of Invasion of the Dinosaurs it comes off badly (although it has more colour than Death to the Daleks). But I remain unconvinced that this is automatically a problem. As long as it is committed to, as it is here, there’s an enjoyable pulpy quality to it. And yes, the wigs (especially those of the miners) are a little odd… but as far as a shorthand for a different species they’re neat enough. Indeed, the differing stripes per caste is a neat little touch. In many ways, I prefer this as a technique to any number of random prostetics (for some reason I find the stripey hair more convincing than any number of Trekkian nose ridges or odd ears…perhaps because it’s more about implying cultural differences than tying everything down to a sole physical difference). And, much as he’s mocked, I even like Vega Nexos!

So, not the classiest production in the show’s history, but if you’re in the mood for a rollicking bit of hokum, this is as solid as first episodes get.

And why no MoP avatars, eh? Hmm?

#829 4 Jun 2009, 4:21 pm
The Secretive Bus

I'm a fan of Monster of Peladon, like you for reasons I can't quite fathom. It's a fun story well told and it's got lots of fun aliens. Your comment that unsophisticated doesn't automatically mean bad is spot - so long as everybody's putting their all into it then it's going to be far more enjoyable than something that's perhaps a lot more literate but being performed by actors who aren't fussed. And Donald Gee's Eckersley is excellent. Looks a lot like a young Tom Baker in many of his close-ups.


#833 9 Jun 2009, 3:12 pm

Monster of Peladon 2:

Two episodes in and this story is still moving at a rapid pace. The attempted coup of the first episode is turning into full scale armed revolution. The story continues to develop and intrigue. You begin to wonder if this momentum can be sustained for another four episodes. Where exactly can the plot go from here?

Well, one of the advantages is that what appears to be the central thread of the story (the terrorising and manipulation of the mining forces) is relegated to almost a sub-plot with the miner’s reaction to it leading the script. And there remains carefully layering of this main plot in the background, adding levels of intrigue - Sarah’s discovery of the supposedly unoccupied mining facility, for example, now complete with mysterious figure inside, keeps the mystery going under the surface as the Doctor investigates. And this means we do meet with a fairly action packed episode. OK, on a few occasions it has to pad it out a touch, but for the most part this shows how you fill a long script – you could argue that this story has really committed to its padding, if you like, as that’s essentially what it is. The main story can’t really take up too much time, so let’s fill in the missing minutes in as large scale a manner as possible. And it does fairly simply and quickly establish the political forces at work on Peladon.

However, even as it does that, it does become fairly obvious that there are a few elements sacrificed. I spoke last time about the story being basically unsophisticated, and whilst I’m not totally against that, it does mean that there are a few blunt edges here and there. Most of the guest cast aren’t really characters, as such, as opposed to plot functions. Eckersley is probably an exception – he’s hard to pin down as any distinct type – and possibly Alpha Centauri too… but everyone else appears almost to have had one word character descriptions given to them. Gebek is noble, for example. Ettis, reckless. Again, the story almost gets away with it when they allow the story to move naturally (if nothing’s deep, shallow characters aren’t a major issue), but when they characters are so determinedly one note that they retain that position in the face of all logic or sense, you can feel the plot creaking desperately. The big point this becomes obvious in episode two is when Ortron (‘distrustful’) decides that Sarah-Jane is a traitor against all evidence, presumably for no better reason than to facilitate a cliffhanger. The only way this could happen is if Ortron isn’t actually a character at all, but an attitude, nothing that resembles a real person at all.

It’s a shame, because when it’s on form the story is a delightful romp. Albeit one painted in broad strokes.

#835 11 Jun 2009, 11:50 am
Monster of Peladon 3:

Well, that’s a shame.

A blatant time marking episode, part three is the kind of episode where no-one gets around to doing very much at all, and takes an awful lot of time doing it.

Actually, that’s not exactly true. Because some of the time things happen a little too quickly – the Doctor and Sarah resolving the cliffhanger is as swift as can be (and rather underlines its arbitrary nature), and then we have the faintly ridiculous sequence of Ortron confining the Doctor to the citadel for about ten seconds (yes, the Doctor’s attempted escape is a perfectly natural thing for him to do, if remarkably stupid, but given that it’s a trap by Ortron that is sprung almost immediately, there’s clearly no reason to bother with it). I am left with the inescapable conclusion that I actually prefer long scenes of padding that actually pretend to be filling the time somehow as opposed to padding that just consists of a few random events being flung at the screen.

You see, this is the problem with the first two episodes being as pacey as they are. The rebel miners are armed. But the script can’t take that anywhere, so they mainly stand around doing nothing. There’s a set piece with the sonic lance, sure, but it is, again, slightly arbitrary. Eckersley’s only remembered it about a minute ago. That’s the thing with this episode. It’s all about people not quite managing to do anything. The Doctor is sent to fetch Gebek for the Queen, but then gets confined to the citadel. Tries again, gets put in a cell. Gets released by Gebek, but then never actually gets him to her, heading off somewhere completely different. Equally, Sarah is consistently being told to stop what she’s doing and go somewhere else. Eckersley remembers the sonic lance and fails to remove it. We’ve had all the set up, but the story can’t really move forward until the Ice Warriors turn up. (Though when they do, in a relatively good cliffhanger, it’s in a context that means they might as well hold up a sign saying ‘we’re the surprise villains’. It’s almost as bad as the slow close up on Eckersley at the end of the scene just before it – the ‘Palpatine at the end of Phantom Menace’ giveaway shot - that Donald Gee at least knows blows everything and so underplays to the degree you might not actually have the plot ruined for you by odd direction).

The only bit of the episode that really plays against this water-treading mentality is the, somewhat infamous, women’s lib scene. Now, perhaps surprisingly, I don’t really mind this bit of the story. Yes, it’s rather cringeworthy and patronising from our modern perspective (though, at least, not as morally suspect as similar scenes in 21st century Who, like ‘The Unquiet Dead’), but its heart is in the right place and, at least, it demonstrates an interest in using character to advance plot – which in the face of Ortron’s resolute determination to retain the depth of a rizzler is probably a good thing.

So, a fairly flat episode, but the story still has enough of a general air of entertainment to hold on.

#836 15 Jun 2009, 11:45 am

Monster of Peladon 4:

It’s something of a relief ten minutes into this episode when the Doctor basically points the finger at Azaxyr as a self-interest and manipulative sort who’s clearly up to no good (and all but blames him for the Aggedor manifestations). On paper it sounds like it’s a massive blowing of the plot but on screen, in keeping with the general ‘one-word characterisation’ of the script, Azaxyr is such a dyed in the wool psychotic nutcase from the get go (and his lieutenants so obviously the hiders in the refinery) that your main worry is whether they’re going to spend another couple of episodes thinking we haven’t figured it out.

Having said all that, the arrival of the Ice Warriors does provide a welcome kick in the backside for the story, through Azaxyr’s villainy in particular. Barging in, threatening to kill people at the drop of hat (he decides to kill the Doctor for no reason other than pretty much just to be on the safe side) adds a certain demented energy to proceedings, raising the stakes and making the petty little squabbles of the previous episodes look a little flat in comparison. The story is no longer union negotiation, it’s an invasion story (albeit a back-door invasion) and immense fun for that. And beyond that, it helps in other areas - the prescence of the Ice Warriors make Ortron and Gebek appear to have actual personalities. They suddenly seem more layered and complicated when there’s another threat. In other words, this is a revitalised episode that almost feels like a different story entirely.

It is a nice touch that the main plotline of the preceding few episodes – Ettis and his revolution - isn’t dropped immediately, making this two related four parters that cross over rather than two three parters. There is a faint problem with the Ettis storyline though. Halfway through, Roy Evans’ second miner in less than a year says Ettis has gone mad, and it seems to me that actor Ralph Watson has taken this way too literally. Ettis is now genuinely a loon, all wide goggling eyes and consistently at the point of demented laughter… but it doesn’t really make sense on a plot level. Why has he gone mad? Nothing much has happened to him, nothing to make him snap. Surely it’s more likely that the script intends that he’s just lost all sense of perspective – more psychosis than dementia, if you like. Watson’s performance is fun, but it doesn’t really connect to anything – although it does, perhaps, explain one of the more baffling elements of the story – untrained fighter Ettis being able to beat the crap out of the Doctor for the sake of a cliffhanger.

#837 27 Jun 2009, 3:58 pm
Monster of Peladon 5:

There’s a camera in the refinery. With full sound.

Just ponder that for a second. A camera in the refinery, the room from which Eckersley and Azaxyr are contriving and operating their entire plan, the image from which can be found quite easily just by scrolling through the options on a screen in an easily accessible room elsewhere, by anyone. Did neither of them think, just for a second ‘hold on – this is a bit friggin’ stupid, isn’t it? We’re bound to get caught!’

Other than that, it’s not a bad episode. One of the major criticisms of this story is that it has pretty much the same plot as Curse. Now, I’m sorry, but I think that’s an over-simplification. It probably fits if you make your decision on the story an episode or two in, but the further it gets in the more it drifts away. In many ways it acts as a subversion of the previous story, setting itself up with all the same tropes and then undermining them (which is possibly a pun, but not a very good one, so be assured it’s not deliberate).

The big clue to this is Ortron. Initially very much cut from the same cloth as Hepesh, if the story followed it’s predecessor’s pattern, he would turn out to be the bad guy behind everything. But for all his bluster, the moment a major league problem turns up he shifts onto the side of right and joins in with his previous foes, the miners. And, in some ways, his distrust of the Federation and the mining is proved perfectly correct – it causes more trouble to Peladon than it appears to solve.

Now, there’s a degree to which this means the story is in two halfs, one of which is pretty much redundant the moment the Ice Warriors turn up. Certainly, Ortron and Ettis – the main driving forces of the revolution plot – are killed off as swiftly as possible. In Ortron’s case this is a particular shock (again, the joy of rewatching these stories so rarely is that twists can still surprise you), but it does mean that that whole thread isn’t really going to get resolved. The whole of the first three episodes are a maguffin, a smokescreen to disguise the real plot – they’re all about getting the Ice Warriors into the thing.

Still, it’s turning into a good fun, and somewhat different, alien invasion story, with the rarity of seeing an occupying force (and an ostensibly peaceful one!). In deed, the whole thing does seem more than a little relevant to modern times more than once…

Monster of Peladon 6:

Anyone who regularly troubles themselves with looking at my reviews here may remember that something I’m fond of in a story is a slightly downbeat bad guy. The famous banality of evil thing. There’s something about the more grandiose plans of super-villains like the Master that places them at a remove. On one level their schemes are gloriously entertaining, but they always work on a fantasy, and therefore ‘fun’, level.

Whereas Eckersley and his Ice Warrior cohorts hark back to villains like Bennett – they’re just nasty pieces of work out for themselves. It’s rather telling that when, in episode five, Eckersley announces that he’s been promised he’ll be ruler of the Earth that it seems utterly ludicrous – these bad guys are far more down and dirty than that. It has all the hallmarks of someone desperately trying to ‘Who-up’ something that really doesn’t need to be changed.

And it’s a shame because they’re so much more interesting than that. One of my favourite moments in this episode is a slight and totally irrelevant little moment. When Thalira is being dragged as a hostage through the tunnels by Eckersley she comes across a group of the dead and shouts at Eckersley to look at what he’s done. Eckersley’s response isn’t a melodramatic justification, or a big speech, it’s a callous ‘Never mind’ before yanking her away again. It’s a chilling character touch that reminds you precisely how pathetic and ordinary (and therefore deeply unpleasant) this particular bad guy is. A man organizing mass murder for the shallowest ideals. Fab.

Azaxyr also gets a bit of this too. I was initially a bit grumpy that his death, during a messy scramble in the throne room was at the hands of an un-named and unidentifiable miner, rather than the more obviously apt Gebek… but that could almost be the point. This representative of a race defined by nobility has demonstrated his utter lack of honour throughout the story – an honour he, ironically, claims to crave. So it’s somehow appropriate that his death, mere minutes after his holding a woman hostage, comes in a manner without significance or grace – on the knife of a faceless man he would think nothing of. He dies as he lived.

Elsewhere this is something of a standard final episode. Enough threads have been set up that it’s just a matter of tying them all off. The use of the villain’s own weapon in order to defeat them is a lovely touch, as is the use of Aggedor himself to defeat and kill his effective blasphemer, meaning that the entire ending has a great sense of just desserts. Some of it doesn’t entirely work – Eckersley’s sparing of Sarah’s life seems massively weird, especially since he then goes on to need a hostage. And if there’s a better and more obvious example of the same actor being blatantly killed twice by different people in about five minutes then I don’t know what it is. But it’s all pacey and fun, and manages to tie everything up in a satisfying manner. A generally under-rated story I reckon.

1 comment:

  1. Happy Newish Year, John!

    With shiny new silver Who discs just released, I’ve just written my own piece on Peladon Tales, and thought of you. I know this is as far as you got before the old Forum was vandalised to death, but surely now is an ideal moment for you to turn your attention to that final episode… And, perhaps, beyond.

    So I’m imagining that leonine mane you had last time I saw you with bold badger stripes running through it, and giving you a poke. {Threat}I’ve linked to you now, so there may even be other people reading{/threat}…