“Paradise Towers” (Season 24, episodes 5-8. Originally broadcast Oct. 5-26, 1987.)
The important thing about “Paradise Towers,” I think, is not whether it’s particularly good. It’s not. It has serious flaws at all levels of its production, including some truly dreadful acting—most notably, an embarrassing turn by guest star Richard Briers—and a script that seems to lose sight of what it was trying to say. It falls apart into a tiresome mess by the end. But “Paradise Towers” also points the way towards the future of Doctor Who. Shaky though it is, it’s a harbinger of everything that would be great about Sylvester McCoy’s upcoming three seasons as the Seventh Doctor, and a big improvement over the Sixth Doctor years.
The first episode of “Paradise Towers” is particularly promising—it’s better, or at least promises to lead into something better, than anything the series had done in years. It’s smart, imaginative, fun, a little scary, with some biting social satire and a refreshingly serious-minded insistence that Doctor Who works best when it aspires to being more than just a silly kids’ show with zapguns and monsters. But as the story creeps on toward the fourth and final installment, the cumulative weight of all its bad choices sinks it in a swamp of stupidity. So: Encouraging and frustrating at the same time.
Sometimes it’s a Doctor’s second story, not his debut, that really establishes his era. Fourth Doctor Tom Baker’s introduction in “Robot,” for example, was really a leftover from the Third Doctor’s time with the Fourth shoehorned in, made by the old production team and co-starring the old sidekicks in a typically Third Doctor-era Earth-based story. The next story, “The Ark In Space,” is where the spirit animating Baker’s first few seasons truly shows itself—sci-fi/horror set in the great unknown of outer space. That’s the case with “Paradise Towers” as well. McCoy’s debut, “Time And The Rani,” was campy, inane, and simplistic, presenting the new Doctor as a clownish buffoon more suited to star in some goofy Sid & Marty Krofft show like Far Out Space Nuts. But in “Paradise Towers,” you can see some of the best characteristics of the Seventh Doctor’s run emerging. For one thing, the Doctor is starting to be more formidable. While McCoy would always play Seven as something of a clown and apparent fool, there’s an emerging sense from here onwards that he’s smarter and more dangerous than he appears, and is underestimated at his enemies’ peril. And new script editor Andrew Cartmel, despite his own inexperience, makes a concerted effort to pull off the tricky balancing act that would define his approach: conceptual horror, light satire verging on camp, and science-fantasy that tries to intelligently comment on real-world issues. If he doesn’t quite pull it together, it’s clear he’s on the right track, which puts him way ahead of where the show had been during “The Trial Of A Time Lord” the previous year. And he’d only keep getting better.
Here, Cartmel and scriptwriter Stephen Wyatt made a decisive move away from kid-show territory with a story inspired by cerebral sci-fi novelist J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, set in a futuristic residential tower block which has descended into a hell of barbarism and chaos, the exact opposite of the utopian community promised in the brochure.
The Doctor and his traveling companion, the bubbly Mel, known nothing about the reality of Paradise Towers. It’s the brochure that’s attracted Mel’s attention: She wants to go swimming and is ecstatic about visiting Paradise Towers’ rooftop garden pool. The Doctor is clearly bored by the idea, even slightly sarcastic, and it’s hard to see why he wouldn’t be. This is the first of several points where you can only get the intended effect of the story by imagining what the script implies about what we’re supposed to see, as opposed to what’s actually on the screen. In this case, the pool should have looked like a vision out of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon—as the capstone of the mysterious genius Kroagnon’s design, it should have give us a first impression of Paradise Towers as a glorious, stunningly beautiful achievement. Instead, either out of low budget or poor imagination, we get a pleasant but entirely ordinary pool no more impressive than your local Holiday Inn. Consequently, Mel comes off as a bit of an overenthusiastic idiot, which is exacerbated by Bonnie Langford’s chirpy performance, enthusiastically raving about the magnificent pool that she apparently sees in her head.
From the moment the Doctor and his companion Mel land the TARDIS in the lobby of the Towers, it’s obvious that something terrible has happened. Instead of a paradise, it’s post-apocalyptic. Graffiti and trash are everywhere. All-girl street gangs—the color-coded Red, Blue and Yellow Kangs—run rampant and war against each other. The Kangs are teenage delinquents left to survive on their own without adult help, and have created a feral, primitive society built out of the ruins around them, even drawing their names from ordinary objects like “ Bin Liner” and “Fire Escape.” There is no food, no industry, no civilization left to speak of, and the retirement-age old ladies hunkered behind their doors survive by trapping and cannibalizing unwary Kangs. All these people have literally been abandoned by society: All the grown-ups (and and all but one of the young men) are missing, perhaps taken away by war. What little order there is comes from a small cadre of fascistic Caretakers, led by Briers’ Hitlerian chief, who are insanely focused on following the bylaws in their rulebook instead of making Paradise Towers liveable. And then there’s the cleaning robots, which have started to murder people for no apparent reason, dragging their bodies down to the thing that lurks in the basement... It’s actually not too different from the dystopian satires like “Vengeance On Varos” that the Sixth Doctor era went in for, but the presentation isn’t so grim, which makes a big difference—acidic though its humor is, ”Paradise Towers” is still fun to watch.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of the story is Mel’s insanely unflappable, Pollyannaish optimism, insisting despite the squalor all around her that the pool must be what it looked like in the brochure, and insists on going for a swim. If this characterization is weird, it’s also very consistent—the Doctor gains a little more depth and darkness over the story, reacting to the horrors he encounters along the way, but Mel is absurdly unable to see the dangers around her. It’s possible to see this as a devastating critique of Mel herself by Cartmel and Wyatt—her naivete belongs to the simpler, shallower kiddie version of Doctor Who that writers Pip and Jane Baker had gone for before Cartmel was hired, and it’s brutally at odds with the reality of Paradise Towers’ decline. It’s hard to shake the impression that Cartmel felt a certain amount of contempt for Mel, who he’d inherited from other writers and may have felt stuck with.
And yet it’s hard to say whether the joke was intentional, because “Paradise Towers” gradually just goes downhill. In part this is the script’s fault—though it starts with a great premise, and strives to create a complicated culture in the ruins of the Towers, it struggles to move to an ending. The Caretakers’ bureaucratic insistence on rule-following is never developed beyond having them endlessly cite regulations made up of long strings of letters and numbers—which is amusing the first few times, but eventually turns maddening. And the final threat of the evil Kroagnon in his basement prison throws out whatever was interesting about that character in favor of a cheap satisfaction of Doctor Who’s formulaic requirement that a grotesque monster should appear in the final episode. This neuters the central concept of the story—“Paradise Towers” should have been about a building that was toxic despite its creator’s best intention, but that doesn’t work if Kroagnon’s obviously psychotic.
But there are plenty of other issues here—unimaginative staging like the issue with the pool, and a lot of amateurish acting. The character of Pex, for example, was written as a parody of burly strongman heroes like Rambo, the twist being that despite his powerful musculature and his swagger, he’s actually all too easy to frighten. The first problem is that instead of getting an actor that looks like, well, Rambo, Howard Cooke is a scrawny dude with the physique of someone who writes reviews of television shows on the Internet. This opposite casting could have worked, by highlighting the difference between what Pex sees himself as and what he actually is, but Cooke’s performance isn’t strong enough for it. He’s meant to play a coward who’s desperately pretending to be brave, but he can’t convincingly act afraid.
Richard Briers, sadly enough, is the worst offender in this regard. Best known as the affable star of the affable sitcom The Good Life, he’s cast against type here as the Chief Caretaker, a jumped-up bureaucrat who, thanks to some perhaps too-on-the-nose costuming, is quite literally a little Hitler. He’s usually a terrific actor, and he’s great for three-fourths of “Paradise Towers” as well. Creditably, he resists the temptation to play the Chief as a straight-up cartoon, despite his deliberately ridiculous costume, and he absolutely nails the first episode’s cliffhanger scene, heaping high praise on the Doctor, who he thinks is the returned Great Architect, and then suddenly, viciously ordering his death. But then in the fourth episode, the Chief is possessed by the evil spirit of Kroagnon, and it becomes painfully clear that Briers has no idea how to play that kind of thing—he’s stiff and awkward and all too clearly trying to pretend he’s the character.
It’s too bad, because there is much here that is genuinely clever, and that first episode is genuinely great, and marvelously threads together ideas not just from High Rise, but Terry Gilliam’s Brazil with the Caretakers’ crazy bureaucracy, and A Clockwork Orange with the Kangs’ elaborate future-slang words like like “unalive” and “brainquarters.”
And the new Seventh Doctor has clearly found his groove. McCoy is hugely improved over his debut in “Time and the Rani.” He’s basically holding the story together himself. He proves that he’s right for the role here, giving the Doctor an intelligence and slyness that is perfect for the character, and very much echoes Patrick Troughton’s deceptively harmless-seeming Second Doctor. There are even hints that he suspected what the Towers might have been like even before arriving, presaging the manipulative chessmaster that the Seventh will grow into in later seasons. It’s a real breath of fresh air, after the bombastic arrogance and pomposity of the Sixth Doctor, to have a Doctor back who seems like he knows what he’s doing. (I’m still not sold on the affectation of rolling his R’s, though.)
Whatever flaws it may have, “Paradise Towers” is at least a story with ambition, and a great idea that doesn’t quite get worked out. After all the mess of “Trial Of A Time Lord” and the unpromising “Time And The Rani,” there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a clear sign that despite how bad the show has been for the last couple of years, Doctor Who still has the potential for greatness, if only they can get it on the right track.
• “Are these antiques dotted around all over the building? It really is a splendid piece of auditoryarchitectatonicalmetrasyncocity.” A nicely eccentric bit of dialogue that is perfectly in tune with the Doctor’s overall character and yet is something that that only the Seventh incarnation would be likely to say.
• Upcoming schedule:
• Doctor Who Classic reviews will publish monthly at 2 p.m. CST on the first Saturday of the month. For the next few months, every other review will tackle the Fourth Doctor’s “Key To Time” arc from 1978, skipping around to other seasons inbetween. Coming up:
[UPDATE: As some of you guys have noticed, the September review of “The Stones Of Blood” is late. My apologies. At this point, I’m just going to kick the schedule forward a notch, so here’s the revised version:
• Oct. 4: The third Key To Time story, “The Stones Of Blood.”
• Nov. 1: ”The Keys Of Marinus.”
• Dec. 6: “The Androids Of Tara.”
• Jan. 3: Something from the Third or Fifth Doctors, perhaps, or maybe the Fourth’s “The Robots Of Death.”