The Curse of Peladon/The Monster of Peladon

DVDFrom DWM #417. A textbook, nonsense, delaying-writing-about-the-actual-story opener, here. And I remain puzzled to this day as to why Eckersley isn’t a more-loved character in DW lore.

DWM #417The scene: 2 entertain’s offices, late 2009. Enter Grun, King Peladon’s champion. Hair the colour of raspberry ripple, eyes and nipples glistening in agitation. He has a message of great import, but he’s as mute as early reaction to the new  K-9 series.

“What is it, Grun?”

“Gnngh!” he moans. Then he gathers himself. Mime. He can converse through mime, and begins sauntering around in an I-am-a-robot fashion.

“Kamelion? Is it something about Kamelion?”

Yes, nods Grun, frantically, but there’s more. He takes up an imaginary lute and plays a silent madrigal.

“Oh… Kamelion and The King’s Demons. Is that right, Grun? The King’s Demons?”

Yes!

“Well, that’s part of our next Doctor Who DVD box set. It’s going to be coupled with…”

Grun sashays back and forth, cupping his chest.

“…Planet of Fire, yes. There’s a problem?”

“Gnngh!” he confirms and moves into a complicated routine, involving lots of paperwork, rubber-stamping and…

“There are clearance issues regarding the box set, currently scheduled for next January, and that means its release date will have to be put back? Is that what you’re telling us?”

Grun puts his left index finger to his nose, and points forcefully with his right. Correct!

“What to do?”

And lo! With a thunderclap, The Curse of Peladon and its sequel The Monster of Peladon jump menacingly forward in the DVD release schedule.

Originally screened in 1972 and 1974, these stories are utterly interlocked, despite the two-year gap. But while it would be madness to release them separately, it also does them no favours offering them up together. The problem is, Curse and Monster stack up to make 10 episodes of pretty much the same thing happening. By the final part, the saga’s spent so long trailing around that secret passage it’s knackered.

And what about that concealed corridor? Shuttling characters from situation A to situation B and back again, it’s not just a secret passage in the story, it’s a secret passage through the story.

Okay, I’m being terribly disparaging. It’s just that – and readers of a sensitive disposition look away now – both tales are a bit dull. In the former, Peladon’s attempts to ascend to the Galactic Federation prompts a visit from the body’s delegates, and unrest at home (parodying the then uncertainty over the UK joining the Common Market). Monster, meanwhile, riffs on the miners’ strikes of the early seventies, as the planet’s pit workers rebel against working conditions. These are political allegories, but neither need necessarily equate to plodding telly. The problem is, on Peladon the debates are mainly played out by the planet’s ditchwater-like residents.

The insipid Royal Family is central. Take King Peladon (please!). He’s unable to make a single decision and, weirdly, permanently on the cop for a father figure. As soon as High Priest Hepesh is offed, his highness is all over the next silver fox: “Doctor, what should I do?” Mind you, there’s a certain silvery sheen to his patter. “You bring a welcome beauty to a serious occasion,” he tells Jo… albeit in such an earnest manner, he brings an unwelcome seriousness to (what could have been) a beautiful occasion.

We meet his daughter, Queen Thalira, in Monster. A chip off the old block, she proves lack of character is – perversely – the dominant clan trait. Cowed by Ortron, the latest member of the Duplicitous Robed Old Man franchise, her calling card is to whimper “I’m only a girl” and supplicate herself before anyone with a wisp of facial hair. She’s lucky the Master’s on his Who sabbatical.

The serfs also fail to impress. Clad for panto, most project as though they’re competing with a front row of boisterous cub scouts. When they’re not duly (and dully) laying in the plot, they’re shrinking in fear from yet another event they’ve ascribed to ALF-alike deity, Aggedor. Honestly, is no-one around here going to take responsibility for their actions?

And then there are the miners. It’s at this point we find ourselves at this oddest of junctures for a Doctor Who review – having to come up with something cogent to say about hairdressing. Clearly, these chaps are sporting badger-type barnets to denote their work underground. It’s an odd caste system. If Justin Lee Collins arrived at Peladon, would he be denied his TV career and set to work bailing hay? Good times! Whatever, it all denotes a lack of imagination when it comes to the Pels. They’re so silly, so stuffy – they are the planet’s true curse. Let’s never speak of them again, particularly when there’s so much to be enjoyed courtesy of the story’s garish onlookers.

Where to start? Alpha Centuri! A uni-eyed, six-limbed hermaphroditic hexapod, s/he is a one wo/man Channel 5 documentary season. Tottering around, opining shrilly, Alpha is just fabulous. Sometimes a jobsworth (“Mind you, I reserve the right of veto!”), sometimes a snob (forever banging on about “primitive planets”) and sometimes – just sometimes – rather brave (“Thank you Eckersley, but you’re still a traitor!”), s/he’s one of the most successful creations of the Pertwee years.

The grumpy old delegate from Arcturus is almost a match. Voice burbling impotently, he’s ensconced in a life support machine (or “box of tricks” – sensitively put, Doctor), complete with its own disco lights. With water trickling through the dome, it looks like he’s working up towards a full on Ibiza foam party in there. It’s a shame he never makes it to the second story, instead ending up looking like a discarded hankie when Ice Warrior Ssorg opens fire.

So what of the Ice Warriors? Neither of the stories feel as though they belong to the Martians, whose slow sibilant whispering and lumbering movements (Warriors’ gait, anyone?) leave them trailing a little behind the rest of the menagerie. They clearly get a better innings in Curse, which creatively posits them as the surprise good guys of the piece – and it’s interesting this state of affairs is made clear to us before the Doctor cottons on. Not often we get the jump on him.

Lord Izlyr is a fine ambassador indeed, politicking hard and summing up his colleagues with a nice, arch line: “Arcturus is a coward by logic and Centuri is a coward by instinct.” His counterpart in Monster, Azaxyr, can’t quite live up to that. Much more old school, it’s revealed his overriding ambition is simply a return to “the good old days of death or glory”.

And then there’s Eckersley. The human in charge of the trisilicate refinery in Monster, he may have the dullest brief, but he’s the best thing about the whole 10 episodes, gifted lovely breezy lines like: “Sorry chum, I’ve got too much to do!” while blasting an innocent. When Azaxyr takes command in part four, the engineer chirpily disassociates himself with all the controversies, saying: “All this argy-bargy is nothing to do with me!” Even when he’s revealed to be a wrong ‘un, Eckersley mooches around, hand in pocket, smiling pleasantly. His finest moment, though, is when it appears the Doctor’s copped it. “He should never have got involved in local politics,” he sighs. Quoted, as they say, for truth.

With this colourful array you’d think the Time Lord might be sidelined. Oh no. He’s there in the thick of it, injecting himself into court life – all regal flourishes and bows – and making friends with Aggedor, courtesy of a Venusian lullaby (presumably denizens of that planet need something to settle themselves after a high energy day of karate). And by the way, come Monster, aren’t the Pels merchandising the hell out of the Royal Beast? His tusky visage appearing on drapes, walls… maybe even sweatshirts, available in all shades: blue, yellow and, of course, maroon, maroon, maroon.

Monster’s sequel status also allows us the opportunity to measure the Doctor’s tall stories against reality. When he tells Sarah Jane what a good pal he became with King Peladon, you can’t help reflect that, really, they weren’t that close. Then he greets Alpha Centuri: “My dear fella!” Again, were they ever more than acquaintances? Stop over-egging it, man! Although, how he’d sugar-coat the unprecedented beating he took from manic miner Ettis at the end of part four is almost reason enough for a third TV return to Peladon.

Almost.

DVD extras

The big deal here is two-part documentary, The Peladon Saga, which puts the stories in the political context of the time. Plus we also learn about their production; the omnipresent torches got soot on the lights and were technically a fire hazard, and even the hairspray used was illegal. Meanwhile Ettis actor Ralph Watson is still glowing from the mighty duffing-up he administered to Jon Pertwee. “Who else has done what I did to Doctor Who?”

Jon and Katy looks at the relationship between… well guess. Katy Manning is effusive, not just about her co-worker, but – refreshingly for a former Who companion – her character, whom she felt grew over her time in the series.

Then: “There were other monsters in Doctor Who, but none of them were as frightening as the Ice Warriors.” Sonny Caldinez, there, who played Ssorg and Sskel in the Peladon stories. Interviewed for Warriors of Mars – a profile of the Martian meanies – he’s laying it on a bit thick, but you can’t fault his fidelity to his former screen species. “You looked at them,” he continues, “and you thought to yourself, ‘Jesus, they are grotesque!’.”

The final weighty feature is On Target: Terrance Dicks, a tribute to the man’s huge body of work in Doctor Who novelisations. It’s a warm-hearted piece, with latter day ‘Who writer Paul Cornell enthusing: “Terrance Dicks is Doctor Who!” Best bit is when the pleasant, open faced Cornell fatally over-thinks things, and challenges Dicks on his stock description of the Fifth Doctor, suspecting El Tel had cleverly worked a cricketing pun into that pen portrait. Dicks’ reaction? Amused befuddlement.

Photo galleries, a deleted scene (rebuilt with photos and an audio off-cut) and a comparison between storyboard and the opening of Curse flesh out the release (the commentary track wasn’t available for review as DWM went to press). But, much as she did during the whole Peladon saga, it’s Ysanne Churchman – the voice of Alpha Centuri – who steals the show. In a short sequence nicked from David Jacobs’ Where Are They Now?, she recalls her brief for the role: “We want the pure voice of a young boy, with the mentality of a homosexual civil servant.”

And do you know what? They got it.

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