Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Serial 148: Paradise Towers

Doctor: Sylvester McCoy (7th Doctor)
Companion: Mel

Written by: Stephen Wyatt
Directed by: Nicholas Mallett 

Background & Significance: As we said back when we reviewed "Time and the Rani", it's hard to blame McCoy's first season on anyone. It's really more a case of rushed and slapped together delivery. Nathan-Turner wasn't expecting to produce another season of Doctor Who (let alone two more after it), nor did Cartmel have a lot of time to develop a tone or direction going in.

It's really just Doctor Who flying by the seat of its pants.

The best way to judge the season is by judging the things that came on either side of it. Take "Time and the Rani". The Bakers were notoriously mediocre writers (that's putting it mildly) so it's no wonder that story mostly sucked beyond all belief. Andrew Morgan really knocked "Remembrance" out of the park, so he's really just saddled with a bad script and a rushed production, neither of which he can do much with. So too, with "Paradise Towers" we have a writer and director who have great credits on either side of this story. Mallett really did a great job with "The Mysterious Planet" if you ask me, and I quite enjoy the direction on "Fenric", and were it not for "Remembrance", Wyatt's other Doctor Who script ("The Greatest Show in the Galaxy") would easily be the best of its season.

And yet "Paradise Towers" is derided, and on the surface it's not difficult to see why.

For one thing, it's the return of yet another Doctor Who staple: an anti-establishment Doctor bringing down the government he's landed in and tearing down the infrastructures of society so that it can be remade. The difference here is that it's got Mel (whom fandom had already decided they hated; still do by and large, actually) and it's blatantly on the nose about the fact that it's about fascism and the perils and horror therein. It also suffers from the Cartmel direction and while you can see the hints of it starting to poke out, it's still not crystalized so efficiently as it is in McCoy's two subsequent seasons. 

So it's maligned and perhaps unfairly. What do I think? I think I should start talking.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

To be perfectly honest, by the end of part one I totally understand why a whole mess of people who initially watched this story passed it off as “dumb” and “trivial” and “not good.” While they’re not necessarily wrong, I think it’s worth pointing out another perspective.

The most striking thing is taking this story in context after “Greatest Show”. “Greatest Show” proved that Wyatt (who was a playwright before he did Doctor Who) has a full world sketched out in his stories. Sure, other writers do this, but this goes a bit deeper. Every component in “Greatest Show” has a responding correlation to something else that all eventually, when added up, make something wonderfully allegorical.

And this story is clearly allegory. Or at least, it has touchstones in the real world that are impossible to ignore.

Take the Chief Caretaker for instance. The fact that he’s the leader of the eponymous Towers is just about undisputed. But putting him in gray is no accident, nor is it to give him a mustache that (at least initially) is incredibly reminiscent of a “Hitler-stache”. So yeah. He’s the evil fascist leader of the establishment and he’s dressed like a Nazi. So… there you go. To go further, the Caretakers are obsessed with order and bureaucracy and rules to the point where (as we’re going to find out shortly) it gets tremendously silly. All the Caretakers are ludicrously named (such as Caretaker Three-Four-Five-Stroke-Twelve-Subsection-Two or whatever) and that… sure. I get it. It’s lunacy and over the top, but isn’t that the best satire?

Anyway, the Caretakers are all men (and it’s all the men of Paradise Towers, really) and they’re our establishment bad guys. They’re opposed by the Kangs, who are all the women of Paradise Towers…

The thing about the Kangs is that they’re agents of chaos amidst Paradise Towers. They speak in future-babble and use their own vocabulary to communicate. They are separated into colors. They are fiercely loyal tribes. To be honest, I like all of this. It’s fascinating to look at the society and see how it’s fractured into separate people and to see that the Kangs pass their history along with graffiti. Is it an original idea? Perhaps not. I’m sure it was in other places, but it’s still remarkably cool to see. It adds a layer and a wrinkle to the mythology that makes it more… tactile, I suppose. It lets this generic set feel lived in, especially to see the way the Caretakers will white wash over it and pretend like nothing’s happened.

And it’s interesting to note that the Kangs are all children. Very specifically, too. They’re just a few hops away from jumping rope as they talk and torment and it’s interesting to see Wyatt create a world in which culture was never allowed to flourish and (in a lot of ways) never moved out of the caves.

To wrinkle the situation further, Wyatt introduces two new elements to the story as a b-plot to the proceedings. The main storyline is, of course, The Doctor and the reconciliation he’s going to have to make with the fractured gender relations within this society. Mel (as the companion) has the B-plot, which is about her adventures in Paradise Towers, which is notably different from The Doctor’s. There’s Tilda and Tabby, two kindly women (called “Rezzies”) who are all about kindness and hospitality and such like and there’s Pex, who’s a macho rough and tumble man’s man who fights for chivalry or some other such silly things.

More than anything Tilda, Tabby, and Pex are fantastic at fleshing out the world of Paradise Towers. The almost casualness that Tilda and Tabby go about treating Mel speaks more to where they came from than what they actually are.

See, if you watched this you know. If you didn’t you don’t. It’s EXTREMELY heavily implied that Tilda and Tabby are cannibals. You know the kind: the nice grandmother kind. And that’s SO impossibly dark for a story that’s full of 20-something women who run around behaving like children and impressionable chaps who follow the rules too closely. To be honest, it’s captivating, because it’s so far beyond the realm of what you think this story is, but it’s… not, is it? This is a story about a society that’s isolated and completely dystopic. Isn’t it within the rules of the world to have the desperate couple who have resorted to eating people?

I love it.

Likewise, Pex is completely over the top. Completely. He’s just obsessed with acting the hero and being a buffoon. It’s charming and wonderful and a delight to see someone so completely perky and independent as Mel is (because she’s not a bad companion) teamed up with this guy who’s completely dependent on someone like Mel to be relevant. And it’s interesting to see the contrast at stake. Isn’t it normal for the square jawed hero dude to be fiercely independent and need no one? And isn’t it like the Doctor’s companion to be the one who’s hopelessly needy in terms of their independence? I love that Wyatt flips the table on the normal situation and does it with one of the most universally hated companions who ever was.

Okay. So maybe I don’t get the hate.

Part 2:

While I don’t quite like part two as much as part one, it’s hard to say it’s not a good episode.  To the contrary, I think there’s a lot to like here. It’s just not got the freshness that comes with a part one to a Doctor Who story.

But the expansion is noticeable, and perhaps never more so than in the stuff with the friend of Tilda and Tabby coming over to gossip about the goings on over in the rest of the Towers. I love the casualness with which they talk about the war between the Kangs and the Caretakers and how they’ve decided to not get stuck in either side. It’s really reminiscent of real life. You know the way. It’s like Harry Potter (it all comes back to Harry Potter) where only about a quarter of the wizards and witches are actively fighting against Voldemort while another quarter are allying themselves with him. The other half of the population is doing what it can to get by. It’s very ensconced in real life, it is. Most people can’t be bothered to get up and affect change in their society

I guess I could just as easily equate that to The American Revolution or something. But I went with Harry Potter. So… that happened.

While not AS influential, I think it’s worth pointing out that Pex is one hundred percent fantastic in this episode. One hundred percent. And it’s the way he mixes the “I’m just going to rip off this lightpost and bend it because I can” aspect to his personality with the emotionally raw “I’m a draft dodger” that we find out later in this episode. For one thing, I totally buy this kid. I wouldn’t want to do this thing either. But at the same time, it pushes the show into a Marxisty, classful society if you will. Compare this to the purportedly classless societies of the future under Saward era and it’s easy to see why this is stronger. It integrates inherent notions of drama and power. In a society with a class structure (which is most societies, I’d like to point out), it gives you a strong sense of who has power and who does not, which is inherently more dramatic.

So the hierarchy is now Pex at the bottom below even the Kangs (who are hunted and killed for sport). And that’s great. It gives Pex a direction to move as a character over the story.

We also get some lovely McCoy, which I’ll just mention briefly. I know that the McCoy era is famous for being all about the grand chess master and that famously doesn’t start until “Remembrance”. And yet it feels like we do get some of that here, albeit in a different form. Yes, he is tremendously comic and buffoony in this, but isn’t there a lot here that points to him sussing out the situation and manipulating events into his favour? I mean, it’s not “Remembrance” or “Greatest Show”, but it’s something, isn’t it? It’s great to watch him tricking the guards into falling for rules that don’t exist. And it’s great to watch him introduce the Red Kangs to generically branded “Fizzade”.

It’s these things that really do make McCoy an excellent Doctor. I love the way he’s working with the Kangs and the way he connects with them on a level no one else seems to. It’s fascinating and gives him a paternal role that he fits really well into (as we find out with Ace when we reach her stories). It’s so… charming to see.

That said, the stuff with the Chief Caretaker is both bizarre and tremendously sinister. Disregarding the fact that he spends a fair amount of time talking to a pair of neon light eyes, it’s fun to watch him try to figure out what to do next with regards to The Doctor. Yeah, he’s tremendously comic but not everything in this story needs to be horribly serious. I mean, it ENDS with Mel held captive by Tilda and Tabby as they seem to be prepared to cook her up and eat her. What’s wrong with some comic satire in here? The Chief Caretaker will be plenty scary later.

So still strong, but not as. The complaints still don’t reach me.

Part 3:

All throughout this story, The Caretakers (and the Chief Caretaker in particular) have been convinced that The Doctor is the so-called Great Architect of Paradise Towers. Given that, they need to kill him to make sure order is maintained.

The revelation in this part (which The Doctor guesses before it’s confirmed in the final moments) is that The Great Architect is actually a dude named Kroagnon, a brilliant architect who moonlights as a sociopath. He’s the dude with the neon eyes, and he’s been living in the basement for a while it seems. ever since the Paradise Towers were opened. Only it’s not him. He somehow managed to put his brain in the body of a giant robot with batty neon eyes. You remember the one. Yeah, that’s Kroagnon, and the Chief Caretaker was worshiping him.

What makes it terribly surprising is that by all rights and purposes, we fully expect The Doctor to be The Great Architect. We’ve seen this sorta thing before. “Face of Evil” is a good example. It’s the notion that The Doctor is making a return to some place after having been there before and this time he’s doing a followup check-in. Or maybe it’s the other way around: that The Doctor went and visited there at some point in his future (but the setting’s past) and he has no idea of the things that were done here that he will do in his own future. With the benefit of hindsight of The Cartmel run of Doctor Who, it’s easy to guess that this is where the story’s going. Granted, they didn’t know that at the time, but it’s not exactly a far stretch for viewers to assume this is The Doctor we’re talking about when we talk about The Great Architect. It just makes sense. And with the hindsight of the “Cartmel Master Plan” or whatever it is you wanna call it, it’s not hard to assume that that’s what Cartmel is doing in this story.

But it’s not. And it’s surprising. No. Kroagnon is a sociopathic architect who builds places for people to go simply so that they won’t go to them. “They’ll mess ‘em up” as his thought process goes.

So in the end of this episode, Kroagnon (completely fed up with The Chief Caretaker and his shenanigans) steps in and makes his move, which is to kill the people of Paradise Towers more quickly because the Chief Caretaker is taking too long to do it. What I like about this is it really rounds out the overly over the top character of the Chief Caretaker in a weird way. He’s not above covering up the odd disappearance/death (as he does with the death of Tilda and Tabby), but the Cleaners going out and killing people willy nilly is totally against the rules. The deaths of the many, many Caretakers is just fine (they are, of course, under his jurisdiction), but killing Kangs and Rezzies is just too far. And he puts down his foot.

It’s sad to watch. Kroagnon (being Kroagnon) has no patience for this insolence, and thusly disposes of The Chief Caretaker in a way we’ll surely talk about in the next episode. But it bears repeating that watching the Chief Caretaker lose it at Kroagnon is… fascinating and heartbreaking in its own weird way.

The rest of this episode is your standard third episode stuff. There’s a runaround and The Doctor finds out about Kroagnon as the architect of the place, which is fine. But it’s the Mel and Pex story that I find the most entertaining or interesting. For one thing, it’s fun to watch the two of them interact, both because Pex is both an effective character (in that he effects change) and a comic one and because Mel is so single-minded it’s practically ludicrous. She almost gets eaten by cannibals and the thing she has to say is that she really wants to go to the pool. It’s silly, but also purposeful. And a lot of what makes the Mel and Pex stuff great is that journey and how Mel is not taking anything seriously while Pex takes everything too much.

It’s wildly entertaining and while (again) I understand why it wouldn’t necessarily do anything for some fans and it is massively padded (they do spend just a hair too long in the elevator; although the notion that the Caretakers just hit the buttons randomly for fun makes me laugh), it’s a good time.

I’ll also mention very briefly that putting “Do not enter the basement on pain of death” on the plans of a residential apartment building is not the least bit subtle. Doesn’t that seem like going just a bit too far? Someone stumbles in there and you execute them on site? Maybe the people who approved the plans that Kroagnon drew up shoulda looked at that bit and had a small question for him about it. Where’s the building inspectors and quality assurance people? Who approved this building with that line of thing approved?

This doesn’t seem like a nice place to live. That’s all I’m saying.

Part 4:

So at the end of this story, I can’t not be a little sad. I mean, the story is. It’s designed to be. But at the same time I’d have to say this is the weakest episode of the four.

For me, there’s a disconnect between the two elements that coalesce at the end of the story. On the one hand we have the fantastic story of Pex and the way he’s slowly growing into being not a coward. On the other we have the story of the Chief Caretaker and his possession by Kroagnon. I like one of these. I actively despise the other. Any guesses as to which one is which? I mean, it really shouldn’t be that difficult, especially because one is a gripping tale of one man’s becoming a Gryffindor and the other is an extremely generic portrayal of an extremely generic Doctor Who monster.

Pex is fantastic because he does what no one else can and outstrips all the Kangs with his show of bravery. The Kangs up until this point have been fearless, but in the face of Kroagnon they cower. Except for Pex. Sort of.

What grabs me is the way Wyatt teases the audience’s expectations. One of the first things we learn about Pex is his cowardice, so it only makes sense that he go out in a blaze of glory, being braver than anyone else. So we know that’s going to happen. But then he takes it away from us.. When we’re at the pool and Pex volunteers is a fist pump of a moment. And watching Pex be scared in the face of the Chief Caretaker is nothing short of expected. But then he cowers and sells out The Doctor and the Kangs. It’s a reversal and the last one you expect (although it’s not out of nowhere if you think about it). But then he comes around and throws himself into the Chief Caretaker to kill him, sacrificing his own life in the process.

It’s touching and heartfelt and… tragic. And it’s ultimately satisfying just like when Han returns to help Luke blow up the Death Star. It’s a fist pump and worth it. Only this time, Han dies in the end.

But while Pex’s death is in no way in vain or what have you, it does take out the extremely problematic (in my mind at least) story of Kroagnon and the Chief Caretaker. Kroagnon taking over the Chief Caretaker’s body is a fairly scary moment, but the problem is that I don’t take Kroagnon seriously as a villain. The Chief Caretaker was a vaguely credible threat in light of everything. Kroagnon was just a cranky architect and hardly any sort of real threat given the circumstances, better on paper than he was in execution. And really, he’s just generic as a Doctor Who baddie. The only thing that makes him special is that he wants to clean up his building. It’s extremely one-dimensional and massively unfortunate given everything else.

I also think it’s worth pointing out that it’s TREMENDOUSLY silly to assume that NONE of the other Caretakers would expect something’s wrong with the Chief Caretaker given that he’s… you know… painted silver all over.

The rest of it is actually fairly cathartic and I really like the entire pool sequence because of all the silly that’s going into it. The Caretaker showing up when he does is priceless, as is the Rezzies’ apologies to the Kangs for [cannibalizing all the people they find]. But it’s also extremely cathartic. It’s wonderful to see all the various elements of Paradise Towers reconcile and team up for the good of the city and it’s nice to see The Doctor bring them all together. Just seeing the mass of people is rather wonderful and exciting and gets me excited for the ending.

Then again, that just brings us a sequence in which some Rezzies throw a shawl over a Cleaner to slow it down. And it works. Oh Doctor Who....

Final Thoughts?: So while "Paradise Towers" is hardly anywhere near a fantastic story, I hardly think it's fair that it turns up in the bottom ten of the most recent massive Doctor Who poll.

No. It's just a fun little romp that's tremendously silly.

Really, there's a lot to love. The world as sketched out by Wyatt is charming and delightful in its details and watching all the different elements bounce off each other is fantastic. Sure it's no "Greatest Show" (what is?) but it's fun to see the Caretakers vs the Kangs and the Doctor bounce between the two. It's also a delight to see the Rezzies stuck in as an extra sidebar of family-friendly cannibalism just to demonstrate how difficult it can be when you happen to be living in Paradise Towers. Each element is very well put together by Mallett, who also does a great job of framing and shooting in a lot of the situations. So it's a great little piece.

I also just need to mention that the story is absolutely worth watching if only for Pex and Mel, both of whom are great (even though Mel really does suffer from a severe case of "one-track mind".

But yes. It's a gem, I'd say. It's not the best story of the McCoy era by any means, nor is it even the best of the season (gotta hand it to "Delta and the Bannermen" for being so completely bat shit insane), but it is extremely unfairly derided and especially by fans of the era who only seem to see McCoy's Doctor in his early days as something of a generic clown or what have you. To the contrary, while this is absolutely nowhere near McCoy's best story, it's worth pointing out that it's leaps and bounds better than "Time and the Rani" and you can tell that McCoy both has more to play with here AND is more interested in playing something that isn't just for laughs. Lots of laughs are here, yes. But he also does great at being manipulative and interrogative and not "just a clown."

No. "Paradise Towers" is not a failure. Considering the conditions under which it was made, that it comes out as extremely watchable and enjoyable is perhaps its greatest accomplishment and really does preview the bounceback that Doctor Who was going to see in its forthcoming renaissance.

Next Time!: 4th Doctor! A lack of K-9! Daleks! A poor Davros! Movellans! Logic puzzles! And the very last of Terry Nation we're going to see on this blog. And with his last story for Doctor Who no less. Hallelujah. Everybody celebrate. It's "Destiny of the Daleks"! Coming Next Tuesday!

1 comment:

  1. The other day I compared Time-Heist to Paradise Towers. Neither of them are bad, but they could be so much better. For me Paradise Towers was the episode that killed Mel - I accidentally saw Delta and the Bannermen first, and thought she was good. And in Paradise Towers she joins the UnHoly trinity of Companions: Peri, Dodo and Mel - poor beginnings, poor ends, poor characterisation and poor development. plus a very shrill voice. All the time she was with the Rezzies, trying to get us to feel worried for Mel and the fact she's about to be put in a cassarole, all I could think was "Don't Run off" "Stranger Danger". How long has she been travelling with the Doctor? Long enough, surely to realise that not everybody in the universe wants to ply you with scones all day long, surely. surely.