Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Serial 73: The Monster of Peladon

Doctor: Jon Pertwee (3rd Doctor)
Companion: Sarah Jane Smith

Written by: Brian Hayles
Directed by: Lennie Mayne

Background & Significance: "The Curse of Peladon" is one of my favourite Jon Pertwee stories. To me, it's a political intrigue story in the vein of Star Trek, featuring not only the return of The Ice Warriors and the introduction of such memorable characters as Alpha Centauri and King Peladon but also some of the best Jo ever, with her being a right bad ass in her a lovely dress and hairstyle. It's a really great story that I love for... so many reasons, not the least of which is because of its elegant simplicity and total departure into the realm of "something different".

Thankfully, I'm not the only one to think so.

After "Curse" went over as a hit, Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks sought to recapture the magic. They re-assembled the Peladon dream team: same writer, director, crew, aliens, cast... Granted, Doctor Who magic is a rare thing. It's like lightning in a bottle. Individual stories tend to be anomalous in their perceived construction, and trying to redo something or recapture the magic in a "sequel" never seems to quite work out. There are exceptions ("Kinda"/"Snakedance"), but recapturing that same first experience is hard to replicate. It's the curse of sequels, I suppose. Dancing the same dance twice. Cliche cliche. All that. Such is the way with "Monster of Peladon", Jon Pertwee's second to last story.

Comparatively, the two are quite similar. Both deal with intrigue surrounding the Federation's plans and involvement in the affairs of Peladon and the various mysteries that come associated with this quirky little society. But while "Curse" was the story of royalty, aristocratic nobles, exotic ambassadors and delegates, courtly intrigue, a mystery in a castle full of guards and secret passageways, and a cage match (dear god that cage match), "Monster" is a story about Marxism, workers' rights, grievances, and a checklist through which we can tick off all of what made the original Peladon so great, none of which is (at least to me) nearly as interesting or compelling. Not only that, but all of the nice surprises in the original Peladon (specifically the Ice Warriors) all go out the window in favour of something that is... so much less special. And with two extra episodes.

In the run-up to "Monster of Peladon", there was a joke around the Classical Gallifrey offices about how "Monster of Peladon" would essentially be "The Curse of Peladon" but with more. "Curse of Peladon" was four episodes? "MONSTER" WILL BE SIX. Instead of two Ice Warriors, THERE WILL BE FOUR. The Doctor gets into a cage match in "Curse of Peladon"? In "Monster", HE WILL BE IN TWO. Well, two out of three ain't bad.

But man, I wish there were two cage matches instead of none.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

Before I start going through this, I guess I should make preface something that I just know is going to come up and a lot: I can’t not compare this to "Curse". I just can’t. So I apologize if I do compare quite a bit, but I just don’t see how I can’t. I’m a HUGE fan of the original, so getting a sequel is exciting but also disenchanting. So if it seems annoying that I’m doing it or you already can feel that this is going to be a gripe fest (which (let me assure you) it won’t be; or at least I’ll try my best not to gripe about it at least too much) you should probably go find another review of this story or something, because I just know this blog is going to be a lot of me talking about "Curse" vs. "Monster".

And let’s be honest. While that might not SEEM fair (every story should stand on its own), this was done with so much focus on being faithful and dependent (in its own way) on the original, that any comparison is apt and valid.

One of the things that strikes me most in this story (at least to start) is how fast it’s moving from minute one, which is strange, especially because it’s a six part story. Six part stories usually take at least two episodes to get moving, but at the start of this things are already moving and moving fairly quickly. We’re introduced to the Federation presence and told about all the interesting facets to the Peladon-Federation relationship and how Peladon is currently being used primarily to mine resources for an ongoing war between the Federation and Galaxy 5. It’s a different shift, and as we’ll see as we go further into the story, Peladon’s acceptance into the Federation has not gone exactly as well as King Peladon previously thought it would.

We’re also introduced to another angle to the Peladon mythology that was previously ignored: that of The Workers and the lower classes.
Now, I like this in theory. It’s the sequel and sequels are always supposed to expand the scope of the mythology presented in the original story and they do that here. We get an insight to the working class and see how they live and their superstitions with regards to Peladonian religion (they think the apparition of The Great Aggedor is trying to tell them not to use the mining equipment the Federation wants Peladon to use. And yet, all of this worker stuff is just not the same. Part of what made the intrigue of the original so investing was the level of power amongst all peoples. Everyone (excepting the Doctor and Jo) was an ambassador or a delegate with the story invested in courtly politics of the powerful leaders. Now me, personally, I like that sort of story (it’s what makes The West Wing so good, in my opinion). But this is just… different. It departs from some of the sexiness of the original. There’s no fun to be had when The Doctor is arguing for worker’s rights and the whole thing just has extended metaphors about Marxism.

And all this comes fairly fast, especially when you consider the original’s pacing, in which The Doctor and Jo spend almost the entire first episode just getting to the main chamber, which they don’t leave until the closing seconds of said episode. So it’s weird to see so much of this story move so fast. It’s just… It’s not the same.

All that said, it’s competently done. The direction is solid as is Pertwee’s performance. I love the introduction of Queen Thalira as daughter to King Peladon (and she’s super cute. Doesn’t hurt. Just saying.) and I still can’t stop making fun of the miners’ hairdos, which are like… Badger Fros. Even Gebek, head liaison between the workers and government is totally subjected to “Fro-Brows” (his fro and his eyebrows are the same thing; which is in no way not funny).

And yet, I just can’t seem to care… Granted, I wasn’t huge on "Curse" after the first episode, nor, necessarily should I super care a lot here. The first episode is always inevitably a slow one, concerned with setting up the pieces and putting all of the story into motion and all that lovely, but none of this is terribly interesting to me. I don’t really care about the miners at all (and so much of this story is about the miners. SO much.) and it’s just… not as compelling or interesting to me. Not really. Too much politics, and heavy politics at that. "Curse" got away with politics because it was all based on intrigue and backroom deals, not workers’ rights.

So far, it’s just not really working.

Part 2:

As in part one, part two moves much faster than you’d think it would. By the end of now you already have the miners getting their hands on guns and starting their own revolution while The Doctor rushes to try and get those in charge to listen to the miners’ concerns.

And all of this is well and good but it just isn’t… sexy. Workers’ revolutions just aren’t sexy. It just feels so stayed and so boring and so polemic. Yes, the workers are treated poorly. Yes, the government should do something about it. But it’s just… it’s not sexy. And everything about the original is just so much of that (sexy). Political intrigue is sexy. This isn’t about politics. Nothing that I’ve seen so far has made me think that this Aggedor thing is about political gain or some sort of philosophical debate. In the original, there was a very clear debate about whether or not bringing Peladon into the Federation was a good idea, but here… what are we talking about? We don’t actually find that out for a while. It just feels so boring and unclear. And all of that sexy and the allure and glamour of it is just…. not present.

That’s not, again, to say that there’s nothing to love. One of my favourite things about this serial (and it’s still true even now) is that it made me realize how much I just straight up LOVE Alpha Centauri. There’s something terribly wonderful about the character that just sings with me. Maybe it’s more nostalgia, but I really think that Alpha Centauri got buried in the midst of “Curse”, what with all the OTHER things going on. There, Centauri couldn’t compete with the “chemistry” of Jo and King Peladon or with the political assassination intrigue. There, it was a pushover for people to push around, but here it’s… different. Centauri is much more a major player in what’s going on. It’s the one that vouches for The Doctor’s return, and in this episode it’s being cool pals with Sarah Jane. I never realized how much I love Alpha Centauri. It’s one of my favourite things about this story.

As for what doesn’t work? I dunno, the whole religion aspect feels weird. It’s strange that Queen Thalira is such a pushover, especially given the role and influence of religion in the first story and how King Peladon made such an attempt to overturn High Priest Hepesh, aka he-who-betrayed-everyone. You’d think that such a unilateral power wouldn’t stand (no one can do anything in the chapel of Aggedor or whatever), especially because Otron manages to condemn The Doctor and Sarah to death at the wave of his arm with no explanation to the Queen.

I do love her marching in and ordering him to stop. It’s too late, but really it’s the effort that counts. We all know how The Doctor’s going to get out of facing the Aggedor anyways.

But I’m still not compelled. The Doctor’s still running around like some man of the people (which I guess is fitting) but it just… the sexy isn’t here. It’s very stayed, very… Hartnell, really. And "Curse of Peladon" was so good because it played to the diplomacy that only Pertwee could really excel at. Here he’s a mediator rather than a diplomat, and that’s just… it’s still not as compelling as "Curse", which is just all about the diplomacy and political intrigue. That charm is missing here. Still. And it really…. I keep waiting for it to show up, but it’s disappointing to be constantly aware that it won’t.

Part 3:

Before starting on this episode, I just have to point out that the Pertwee era has a crazy habit of having eating/food scenes. And that scene is totally here when Sarah Jane, The Doctor, and Queen Thalira have a nice discussion. Great stuff.

Beyond just the food, though, that scene is actually really interesting. For one thing, the scene comes after Thalira orders The Doctor and Sarah removed from Otron’s pit, which is kinda this really great moment of power for her when she finally gets to actually exert some control over the goings on rather than just being a total pushover the whole time. I like that, really. For one thing I really like Thalira (at least in concept) and the change of person on the throne is really well done if you ask me. And yet her arc is very similar to that of King Peladon’s, which is a shame because his was done much better and more convincingly, if only because he was actually, you know, trying to be a good king.

And then there’s Sarah Jane, whom I haven’t really mentioned all that much yet, but… there’s a reason for that.

See, when it comes to Jon Pertwee, I’m all about the Jo. I think she’s just fantastic and she totally works with his incarnation of The Doctor… better than any other companion probably would (except maybe Peri, but even then…), but here you have Sarah Jane, who’s a fantastic companion in her own right but… never really works with Jon Pertwee for me. Their relationship is fine enough, but she’s so much more acclimated to Tom Baker’s Doctor and that whole ethos that here it’s just… not the same. The adventure and feel of it is totally different. I find it strange in particular that most of this story sees her (at least so far) spending MUCH more time with Alpha Centauri than she does with The Doctor as his companion or whatever. Which is fine and which works to a degree, but it’s… I dunno if it works so much for Peladon. Because the story is six parts there’s only so many things you can have going on as you push the story towards its endpoint.

Speaking of pushing the story forward. Ice Warriors in the cliffhanger. We’ll talk about them more coming up (because how can you not? So disappointing), but for now it’s still a good cliffhanger.

I also find it terribly amusing that the people in power are so trusting of those who so clearly aren’t. The best example of this is, again, Thalira, who keeps Otron in power despite the fact that he’s being something of a rogue element, exerting power where he clearly doesn’t have the right and in the face of her protestations. It’s all just… kinda funny. I mean, CLEARLY Otron is doing some pretty crazy power grabbing executive shit and no one’s calling him on it? I mean, I guess that’s the point because Thalira will eventually do that, but in the meantime Otron’s running around like he owns the place and he’s kind of a nuisance (but he is supposed to be).

Otron is, of course, the same sort of character Hepesh was in “Curse”, although I found Hepesh a much more interesting character there than Otron is here. What made Hepesh interesting was his focus on the ways of old and his attempts to prevent Peladon from joining Federation. To add to the interesting, most of his actions (at least until the final episode of “Curse”) were all done above the board and totally legally. He was using the system and it never felt forced. Here, Otron feels forced and very clearly not doing things that are kosher. It works in the sense of it being a misdirect, but it’s still not the same as Hepesh, which, again, is where story definitely suffers.

While we’re on things that are re-hashed, Aggedor shows up in this episode. And The Doctor “disposes” of him with the exact same lullaby. Fun fact: it was much cooler in “Curse”.

Also, I just wanted to point out that for some reason this Sonic Lance thing (the equipment the Federation leased out to the Peladon people; which, by the way, lease agreement probably didn’t go as well as Peladon had hoped; read what you sign, kids, that’s all I’m saying) is apparently so powerful that at its highest setting it could destroy the entire citadel. I dunno about you, but that doesn’t sound like the best of technologies to fall into the hands of an angry Proletariat. Did these people learn nothing from Marx? DON’T GIVE THEM THE POWER.

Honestly, someone needs to read some Machiavelli.

Part 4:

I said this in part one, but it’s also probably even more valid here: a LOT happens part four. You have the arrival of The Ice Warriors and Ettis’s plot.

To start off, I guess we should talk about The Ice Warriors a bit. My current hangups aside (I’m in a place of Ice Warrior overload at the moment), I really like The Ice Warriors and I do honestly think that they have never been used better than they were in the original “Curse of Peladon” (granted I haven’t seen their titular story, but I will at some point) if only because it’s a complete subversion of what you’d expect from an old Doctor Who foe. They have actually become legitimate good guys and aren’t the nemesis in the story (or really the nemesis at all in any way).

Here, it’s different. Almost instantly The Ice Warriors march in and place Peladon under Martial Law and… well… I’ll just spoil it. They’re bad guys in this.

And this is… okay, I guess. I mean, it’s really not Peladon if there’s no Ice Warriors. Peladon was the excuse to bring them back in the first place; and yet this suffers by comparisons. The Ice Warriors in the original were much more interesting (again, because it was fresh), but here you have Ice Warriors with ulterior motives and they’re the bad guys again. It’s a total case of sequelitis. They’re not even bad here, I think they’re good foes, but it’s…. it’s not the same.

To make things more interesting, the rebellion against their martial law happens almost instantly. Before the end of this episode the miners have already taken up arms against The Ice Warriors (which was possible because The Doctor stopped ventilating the mine, turning up the heat, which is The Ice Warriors’ one and major weaknes, which… really? I mean, come on. Brian Hayles (Peladon writer) created The Ice Warriors, but EVERY SINGLE TIME anyone faces them, they just use heat to defeat them. It’s weak, and I know this is only The Ice Warriors’ fourth appearance and no one would have seen it in “Curse” (because they weren’t the bad guys), but that’s just so lazy. Come up with a new weakness to exploit. It’s like Kryptonite but worse.

But I do like that rebellion takes literally no time at all. It does give the story a sense of forward motion. Thank god, too, because the Pertwee era is full of nothing but six part stories that never seem to go anywhere or, if they do, they take forever to get to said place.

Here, “Monster” moves stunningly fast and it’s not... it’s not boring. But I can’t help but feel that there’s almost too much going on. Are we telling a story about Federation involvement or are we telling a story about unjustices that go on towards miners and such? I don’t think this story can decide and that’s a problem. On top of that, there’s Miner Ettis who’s prepping the Sonic Lance to fire at the citadel. It does, of course, lead to an awesome sword fight between Ettis and The Doctor in which Ettis doesn’t play under gentlemanly rules (The Doctor’s failing, I think) and sets off the Sonic Lance, exploding it and falling into The Ice Warriors’ trap.

While this is cool and it’s moving… I still just don’t care. There’s just too much going on and it’s not really possible to figure out where the story is going. That’s a problem. The goals or objectives should be clear cut (at the very least, in hindsight) and it’s… it’s just kinda messy.

Part 5:

With the penultimate part we finally get some traction into what is actually going on in Peladon: The Ice Warriors are making a move.

See, this was all carefully orchestrated in an alliance between The Ice Warriors and the as-yet-undiscussed Eckersley, whom I’ve been avoiding talking about because, really, the end of this is all his moment to really, truly shine. What’s interesting about actor-who-plays-Eckersley Donald Gee is because the guy looks and kinda sounds like Tom Baker. It’s very… proto what the audience would be seeing on the show in just a few short months.

I really like Eckersley. He’s kind of a dick as a character and he’s definitely been moonlighting in the background, so this betrayal isn’t exactly so much of a shock, or at least it definitely feels there and built in and all that great stuff, which is good. I will say that his “I get Earth” statement is totally random and very… blasé and standard. But oh well. We can’t all be perfect and we certainly can’t all have everything. Also, despite being such a jerk he’s still got some heart to him. He does call off The Ice Warriors from killing Alpha Centauri, which leads to the totally fantastic “Thank you Eckersley, but you’re still a traitor!” line… which is probably my favourite in the whole damn thing.

So they’re both Galaxy 5 agents. But… I dunno. It still feels like there’s too much going on. The Secret Agent angle just… It’s not working for me (and I love all that spy and secret agent stuff). There’s really no hint as to “maybe there could be spies” or “we have known that Galaxy 5 has people working within the system” or whatever. That element just feels out of left field. And yet I do like it on some level. They’ve been scaring everyone using a projection of The Aggedor and… All that works but it… it’s just lacking some cohesion. All the miner stuff has been completely dropped from this episode.

Oh and then there’s the death of Otron. Noble Otron. You died well, protecting your Queen. You were still a dick.

Honestly, I can’t imagine there’s much more to say about this part (much less this whole story). There’s just… I dunno. It’s Peladonesque, but it isn’t *Peladon* in every sense of what makes the original so good. If it was all Federation maybe? But they should have a plot to assassinate Queen Thalira and place a new person on the throne in order to engender support for a new regime. Placing a planet under martial law doesn’t win anything, but show people a leader they are supposed to like and you can stall the inevitable uprising. At least temporarily. They should have worked to bring some Peladon puppet ruler. That would be SO much more interesting than this, if you ask me. I just… I have little interest in this at the moment.

It just doesn’t have the sexy, and Peladon needs to be sexy.

Part 6:

And for part six, Eckersley is the bad guy.

It’s hard to really talk about episodes that are entirely runaround. What made the conversation on the first few episodes so good (in my opinion. Who knows? It might have been tosh) is the focus on characters and situation. But about half of this episode is the chase after Eckersley after he “kills” The Doctor and captures Queen Thalira and I don’t know exactly what to say about it except that it happens and The Doctor smartly uses the Aggedor to chase after Eckersley (but how they catch up with them at that pace I’ll never know. Magic winged feet perhaps?). And then Aggedor gives Eckersley a huge hug and Eckersley shoots Aggedor and then they both die. Which is sad.

Seriously, kids. Eckersley is a total bastard. In the best of ways. It’s rare for Doctor Who to have such an interesting bad guy, and yet… There’s still flaws that come as a result of the basic narrative structure of the show. Eckersley has no qualms about mind zapping The Doctor into a coma (or to death as Eckersley thought the case was), nor does he have a qualm about shooting one of the miners in cold blood in the hallway. And yet he leaves Sarah Jane alive and locks her in the communications room. I know it never would have happened, but it’s much more convincing (and dark) if he kills her. And yet he doesn’t. Oh well. Guess he doesn’t want to be a memorable villain.

But then there’s a Doctor problem in this episode. See, in the last episode The Doctor got control of the Aggedor device that was sending the Aggedor apparition around the caves and the palace, killing people indiscriminately. Here, when The Doctor gets control of it, he uses it to vaporize multiple Ice Warriors on multiple occasions and with no regard for the morality of all that. It’s interesting, even here, to see how much of The Doctor’s sense of morality is still as yet undefined. I guess that comes with the territory, though. The Classic Series never had a defined vision of The Doctor or whatever. The Doctor’s killing of people or aliens is much more fluid here. I can excuse it in that sense, but it still lacks… It doesn’t feel Doctory, is what it is.

And that’s a shame because I like Pertwee’s Doctor. A lot.

Also, if I can point out one thing? There’s this part where the miners attack the citadel (again) and the Ice Warriors (again) but then The Ice Warriors weapon the miners and then the miners run away but then The Doctor Aggedors the Ice Warriors (vaporizing them into oblivion, think about that) and then Gebek rallies his troops (who didn’t see the Aggedorring) and manages to turn them around with a “Aggedor is with us!” which is… what? They didn’t even see it! I should use that just to be heresaying or whatever. “No! Really! God is on our side, dudes! He was right there! You just missed him.”

Ah that amuses me.

Oh, and Eckersley knocks down Alpha Centauri and then it flails on its back and it’s sad. Eckersley is such a bastard. Jerk.

Final Thoughts?:
"Monster of Peladon" ultimately suffers from being a sequel.

Textbookially, it's proof of why sequels tend to not work. It's not that the story's bad, but it just doesn't capture the magic or the feel of the original and you can just FEEL how much of it is capitalizing on the original. There's a lot to love, at least conceptually. I really like how the story expands the scope of Peladon itself. It does bring up the fact that the state of Peladon following on the first story was not necessarily going to be the best of things. We do get to see all of our old friends (I cannot tell you how much I LOVE Alpha Centauri. Everything about it is just magic and it was nice to see The Ice Warriors again), but it just... it never really feels like the spark of sheer originality that was "Curse". "Curse" was strong because it was totally Classic Who meets Classic Trek. But is this a Trek story? It's really not. It's much more Doctor Who than anything else. I mean, how many times have we seen this same exact variation on a theme thing? What with uprisings and something of a Civil War and The Doctor being a champion of the people and a force for good...

I think what it comes down to is that "Curse of Peladon" is just so... different. And this just isn't. Not that there's anything wrong with those stories that aren't "different", but Doctor Who as an institution is... well... it's old. It's been fifty years running almost and the formula is the same. The Doctor travels with his companion in a Big Blue Box. They get out. They get involved in what's currently going on. They have an adventure. They save the day (or don't). They fly off. That's every single Doctor Who story ever; every story is just variations on that theme. And because it's really hard to make that interesting or compelling, it's those stories that do something unique with that format by telling stories that are a bit different that really shoot life into the show and make for a compelling story. The three great examples of this that I can currently think of are "Kinda", "Enlightenment", and "Warriors' Gate"; those take the standard format and tell very interesting, compelling stories. "Curse of Peladon" totally works that way. It's a story about courtly politics that's very restrained and very confined.

"Monster of Peladon" departs from that and gives us what is nothing more than... fairly standard Doctor Who fare, but in a Peladon setting. There are elements of what made "Curse" so genius. But it doesn't have the heart or soul. It's too dense. It's too compacted. There's too much going on. It's polemic. The characters and situations are not as compelling. The Doctor is not as suave. There is no cage match. And what was the point, really? I mean... yeah we went back to Peladon and had some laughs, but take this story and place it anywhere and it doesn't really change anything. It doesn't.... I dunno. I guess Peladon is one of those stories that you can't ever do again. Or, at least, if you're going to do it again, go for the spirit of the piece. Not a checklist. Sequels based on checklists NEVER work. The best sequels are the ones that capture the nostalgia of the original while still telling a completely unique story. What this should have been is the "Snakedance" to "Curse's" "Kinda". Alas.

Ah well. At least it wasn't "Pyramids of Mars" in a Peladon context.

Next Time!: 7th Doctor! As Merlin? Arthurian Legend! Swords and Sorcery! UNIT! Big epic battles! AND THE MOTHER FRAKKIN BRIGADIER! Cassandra's coming at you next week for the ever-so-wonderful "Battlefield!"

1 comment:

  1. Alpha Centauri is good, but otherwise this story is a charmless attempt at remaking Curse of Peladon.

    Gary Russell's New Adventure novel 'Legacy' does the same thing.