Doctor Who (Classic): “The Curse Of Peladon”
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Doctor Who (Classic): “The Curse Of Peladon”

“The Curse Of Peladon” (season 9, episodes 5-8. Originally aired Jan. 29-Feb. 19, 1972)

It’s hard to see it if you’re watching Doctor Who out of chronological order like we’re doing in this TV Club series, but “The Curse Of Peladon” was an unusually old-fashioned sort of story for where the series was in 1972, even while it also pointed toward Doctor Who’s future. The heart of the issue comes up as soon as the Doctor makes his appearance: The TARDIS lands on a remote planet and he and his companion get out, having no idea where they are, and immediately get embroiled in an adventure. But what’s weird about that, right? That describes the opening five minutes of almost every Doctor Who story since the very beginning. It’s been the basic format of the show since 1963, and it’s still true today. Ah, but—it wasn’t true in 1972. Because for a couple of years, the Doctor wasn’t a wanderer through time and space, but a convicted criminal sentenced by his people to exile on Earth, where he served as the reluctant employee of a military organization whose job description didn’t involve randomly popping around to anywhere more than 50 miles away from London. 

There was a good reason why that had happened. Two years before, when Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor was replaced by Jon Pertwee’s Third, Doctor Who also made the biggest stylistic shift in its history, making a radical change in format to regain declining viewership and compete with the smart, sophisticated sci-fi shows of the era like Star Trek, The Avengers, and The Prisoner. The show became slicker and smarter itself, most importantly by boosting the sophistication of its writing, with a concerted effort at political and social relevance and a distinct sense that Doctor Who was trying hard not to be seen as just a children’s show anymore. It was a necessary move, and it worked on both the popularity and artistic fronts: Ratings went up, the show wasn’t cancelled, and as a group, season seven’s four stories are easily among the finest Doctor Who ever did.

But at its heart, the show never wanted to stay stuck on Earth. Even the people who had come up with the idea of the Earth exile knew it was eventually going to be a drag on the series—script editor Terrance Dicks noted that it limited the available plots to “alien invasion” and “mad scientist.” Which is not to say you can’t make a great science-fiction show that revolves around those notions—that’s the essential elements of The X-Files and Fringe, both of which have a lot in common with the basic set-up of Doctor Who in its seventh and eighth seasons. But it does eliminate a lot of what makes Doctor Who unique, particularly the fact that the TARDIS can drop the Doctor off anywhere—any time, any place, any genre, any kind of story at all. And since the Earth exile was arguably an unjust punishment, it always hung over the series as unfinished business, something the Doctor was constantly trying to escape. Even though that was sometimes monstrously irresponsible on his part, it was also impossible not to sympathize with him.

And so the show had started to shrug off the exile—in season eight’s “Colony In Space,” the Doctor got a one-time pass off Earth to fight the Master, and something similar happens in “The Curse Of Peladon,” in which we find out at the end that the Time Lords were also ultimately responsible for sending the Doctor to Peladon. But I think it’s important that that explanation feels like it was tacked on to the story at the last minute (and probably was), because “Curse Of Peladon” doesn’t play like a story about the Doctor working reluctantly for someone else’s agenda—instead it’s very much in the vein of a First or Second Doctor story, where he just shows up and gets involved. Especially considering that the exile was lifted for good at the start of the next season with “The Three Doctors,” “Curse Of Peladon” seems like a deliberate swerve back into the old school to see how it might be made to work in the changed atmosphere of the Third Doctor era—test-driving a format that had some new, improved parts in its engine.

And on that score, “Curse Of Peladon” is clearly a success, bringing back the best spirit of the black-and-white era while avoiding the two-dimensional villains that were the main pitfall of the Second Doctor era in general and particularly writer Brian Hayles’ previous story, The Seeds Of Death.” In fact, “The Curse Of Peladon” has to be seen as a reaction against “Seeds Of Death” in particular—it’s rich with nuanced motivations specifically because a big part of its purpose is to rehabilitate one of the Doctor’s most well-known enemies, the Ice Warriors, showing that they might not actually be as evil as we’d been led to believe. Which is a very conscious move away from the simple morality of “The Seeds Of Death,” where the Doctor was perfectly fine with annihilating every Martian reptile-man he encountered, and we viewers were led to agree with him. Here, it’s much harder to blindly accept his distrust of the Ice Warriors—the very same Ice Warriors, in a sense, since Alan Bannion returns to play another Ice Lord, albeit a different character. That deliberate murkiness is echoed in both the story’s setting, the gloomy medieval-gothic planet/kingdom of Peladon, and its basic genre, a murder mystery and political intrigue that riffs on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Star Trek’s Journey To Babel. There are shadows everywhere, and it’s not just because of the BBC’s lighting budget.

Switching topics a little bit: There’s a political satire lurking just under the surface of the story here that British viewers in 1972 would have picked up on immediately, in that the controversy of whether Peladon joining a Galactic Federation meant progress or death was the same debate Britain was having about whether to join the European Union. Really, aren’t the Germans and French and Italians just as alien as Martians, one-eyed hermaphrodite hexapods, and a green tentacled skull in a jar? Now, I’m not qualified to judge whether “The Curse Of Peladon” has the right take on the EU question (the space in my brain reserved for 40-year-old international trade agreements is occupied instead by back issues of Swamp Thing), but it undeniably has one: The “no” faction is pretty clearly represented by the isolationist conservative priest Hepesh, who’s willing to murder his own brother to stop the accord and is therefore wrong, brother-murdering being a universally accepted sign of an imperfect approach to life that in the end can lead only to being horribly killed by your own sacred one-horned bear-pig. (Perhaps that’s the real moral of the story here; I’ve seen worse.) Hepesh’s goal is literally to keep Peladon in the Dark Ages, preserving the status quo of a planetary capitol that’s chronologically more 1400 AD than the 2400 AD that the alien ambassadors seem to live in—it’s not a spaceport but a windswept, cliff-carved castle with twisty torchlit passageways and shadowy, beast-haunted secret catacombs. Its young king, conveniently if confusingly also named Peladon, dreams of joining a Star Trek-style Federation, but he’s stuck living in Gormenghast. King Peladon represents the hope of a younger generation in a very literal sense, given that he’s played by David Troughton, son of Second Doctor Patrick, and there’s little doubt that the story’s sympathies lie with him, especially since the Doctor and, more importantly, his companion Jo Grant take an immediate liking to him.

Jo, by the way, has evolved from when we first met her in Terror Of The Autons,” when I don’t think the writers had quite figured out what they wanted her character to be. The nascent Emma Peel-style secret-agent aspect has been completely dropped, and Jo is instead written as a high-spirited, sweet but somewhat naïve girl who is unambiguously the Doctor’s assistant and not, as Liz Shaw was in season seven, his equal. Katy Manning was around 22 years old when she played Jo here, and as far as I know Jo is also meant to be 22, but she comes across more like she’s 14 or 15, and a daughter-figure to Pertwee’s paternal Doctor. That’s potentially problematic from a feminist point of view, but there are a couple of factors that keep her character from being some kind of male chauvinist’s dumb-blonde stereotype. One is that despite its successful reinvention into something more sophisticated, Doctor Who was still to a great extent aimed at a juvenile audience (and still is today), and it was important that the companions in general should be characters that kids could relate to and imagine themselves being. In that regard, Jo is practically the quintessential Doctor Who companion. Another factor is that Jo may be naïve and cheerful, but she’s not passive, stupid, or incapable of acting on her own. Indeed, Jo drives the story here to a considerable extent, and her quick thinking and moral conviction counts for more than the love-story angle between her and the young king. She, not the Doctor, is the one who avoids a potentially awkward discovery by pretending she’s of royal blood, she sneaks off and snoops around investigating for clues, she escapes from the Ice Warriors by herself, and she makes good use of King Peladon’s infatuation with her to urge him to be a better ruler and a better person, while resisting her own attraction to him because she knows she can’t stay with him.

Meanwhile, the Doctor’s efforts are more hit-and-miss—since his prejudice against the Ice Warriors blinds him to what’s really happening, he doesn’t even solve the mystery of which ambassador is the secret plotter. Instead, the real bad guy, Arcturus the tentacle-headed, simply reveals himself by trying to kill the Doctor when he wins his trial-by-combat against Grun, the mute Peladonian soldier with the disturbing whimper/croak.

That’s also a weakness of the murder-mystery aspect of the story: There’s no real Sherlock-in-the-drawing-room scene where the mystery’s solution and the story’s resolution are simultaneously revealed, as the genre demands. Instead we get Hepesh’s attempted palace coup dragging out the story and taking up the majority of episode four, which is a shame because he’s probably the least interesting character here. Nor does the story really stick the landing when it comes to the Ice Warriors: It’s a powerful moment when Izlyr tells Jo that he personally forced the other Federation ambassadors to stay and help the Doctor fight his death sentence, revealing that the Doctor was wrong to think poorly of him. But there’s no corresponding scene later where the Doctor acknowledges this or even thanks Izlyr, which is an odd omission considering that the entire point of the Ice Warriors being in this story seems to demand some kind of a handshake-between-former-enemies scene where the Doctor shows that he’s learned from the experience. It’s especially ironic since he’s pretending to be a diplomat.

Stray observations

  • A nice comic moment from Pertwee when he accidentally mesmerizes himself for a moment when he’s building the hypnotic device that will allow him to tame Aggedor.
  • Doctor Who would make a return to Peladon in season 11’s “The Monster Of Peladon,” another politics-laden mystery that riffed on the then-current British miners’ strikes and also featured perhaps the worst wigs in series history. Seriously, they’re like skunks stapled to the actors’ heads.

Upcoming schedule: On April 15, it’s 1975’s “Genesis Of The Daleks,” the first appearance of evil genius Davros, who dominates the Dalek stories of the last decade of Classic-era Doctor Who, and alternating afterwards between Dalek and non-Dalek material:

April 29: “The War Machines”
May 13: “Destiny Of The Daleks”
May 27: “The Claws Of Axos”
June 10: “Resurrection Of The Daleks”
June 24: “The Ribos Operation”
July 8: “Revelation Of The Daleks”
July 22: “Black Orchid”
Aug. 5: “Remembrance Of The Daleks”
Aug. 19: “Ghost Light”
Sept. 2: “The Dominators”

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