Doctor Who: Peladon Tales Review
Story arcs have been a feature of Doctor Who since the beginning: the stories in the first season run continuously, with no downtime between adventures. Apart from the obvious rematches with major adversaries – Dalek, Cybermen – direct sequels were unusual in the early Seventies, when the two stories in this box set were made. Prior to that, you had the two Yeti stories - The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear, with a single surviving episode apiece, and a returning character in Travers (Jack Watling). You could stretch a point and include the reappearance of fellow Time Lord the Monk (Peter Butterworth), originally in The Time Meddler, in three episodes of The Daleks’ Master Plan.
Of writer Brian Hayles’s three earlier Who serials, two had featured The Ice Warriors (The Ice Warriors and The Seeds of Death) and they reappear in The Curse of Peladon too. It’s a nice continuity touch that the Doctor, due to past experience (although he looked like Patrick Troughton then), mistrusts them, but they are on the side of good this time round. Two of the same actors - Alan Bennion and Sonny Caldinez -even reappear from The Seeds of Death, though playing different roles here. We’re on the planet Peladon, ruled by a young king also called Peladon (David Troughton). The occasion is the planet’s application to join the Galactic Federation, and a committee of ambassadors from various planets are present. They include head in glass bowl Arcturus (operated by Murphy Grunbar, voiced by Terry Bale) and the distinctly phallic-looking being with a high-pitched voice, the hermaphroditic hexapod from Alpha Centauri (body Stuart Fell, voice Ysanne Churchman). The Doctor and Jo are mistaken for the emissaries from Earth. The king's Chancellor dies in mysterious circumstances, which High Priest Hepesh (Geoffrey Toone) attributes to the curse of the planet's sacred beast Aggedor. It's not long before the Doctor suspects that someone is trying to sabotage the committee.
While script editor Terrance Dicks and producer Barry Letts might downplay this – and Brian Hayles isn’t around to comment as he died in 1978, aged only forty-eight – it’s not at all difficult to see in this a mirror of the United Kingdom’s situation at the time, when it was preparing to join the Common Market (or European Economic Community, as the European Union was called then). Despite opposition from the right and left wings of Parliament, the UK, under a moderate Conservative government led by Edward Heath, finally joined the EU on 1 January 1973.
Over its four parts, The Curse of Peladon boils down to a hunt-the-traitor plot, and despite one piece of deliberate indirection, it’s not too hard to work out who it is. The story is memorable for its setting and its characters. Dicks and Letts were keen to get the Doctor back into space again, after the Earth exile they inherited from their predecessors, and this story had the budgetary advantage of having no location shooting for the first time in the Pertwee era, though there was some filming done at Ealing Studios.
The performances are solid, and it’s a definite plus that the chemistry between Jo and King Peladon was genuine between the two actors (around the same age) off screen. However, it’s the larger than usual variety of alien beings you remember. Alan Bennion is all silky sibilant menace as Izlyr the Ice Lord: you can see why the Doctor doesn’t quite trust him. Aggedor (Nick Hobbs), while basically an actor in a bear suit with tusks, is effective enough in his brief appearances. Yet the one everyone remembers is Alpha Centauri. This is a melding of body and voice by two actors, Stuart Fell’s nervous shuffling movements in the costume augmenting Ysanne Churchman’s fluting voice, apparently requested by director Lennie Mayne to evoke a gay civil servant. As well as its return appearance in The Monster of Peladon (of which more later), Alpha Centauri even made a guest appearance on an episode of The Black and White Minstrel Show. (As un-PC as that show is now, a clip would be nice, though it could be that it was wiped.)
Even before it finished broadcasting, it was clear that The Curse of Peladon was a success. Barry Letts kept the sets in storage for a planned revisit to Peladon. That was The Monster of Peladon, which followed two years later, as the penultimate Third Doctor story. Again written by Brian Hayles (his last work for Who) and directed by Lennie Mayne, this time the episode count went up from four to six.
Having said goodbye to Jo Grant the previous year (see The Green Death), the Doctor takes his new companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) to Peladon. Unfortunately the TARDIS has overshot by some fifty years. Peladon’s daughter Thalira (Nina Thomas) is on the throne, with Ortron (Frank Gatliff) taking the Hepesh role this time. Also still around is Alpha Centauri (again played by Churchman and Fell), clearly a long-lived creature, as is Aggedor (Nick Hobbs again). Someone else makes a return appearance, but if you don’t know who that is, I won’t spoil it for you. When the Doctor is arrested for trespassing, it’s Alpha Centauri (clearly with a good memory for faces) who vouches for him.
Aggedor has been making ghostlike appearances in Peladon's trisilicate mines. Deaths have resulted and unrest simmers among the miners (who sport daft badger haircuts) as a result. (If the first serial evoked Britain joining the EU, then this follow-up was made at at time of real-life miners' strikes.) Someone is plotting to seize the trisilicate deposits – but who? .
Monster of Peladon is not the equal of its predecessor, and is not the only Pertwee serial that would have benefited from being reduced from six parts to four. Much of the running time is given over to political intrigue, and Thalira is not the most forceful of characters to say the least. (Sarah Jane is around to talk Seventies feminism, again something in contemporary Britain beginning to be reflected in its popular entertainment.) I had seen this once before since its original broadcast, as a UK Gold omnibus; watching again on DVD, I found it benefited from being watched the intended one episode at a time (two maybe) instead of all two and a half hours in one go.
Pertwee’s final season was much anticipated at the time – not least due to the previews in the Radio Times Tenth Anniversary special – but the results are often a little flat, with no real classic among the five stories, something becoming clearer by rewatching them as they emerge on DVD (two down, three to go). Monster is not the worst of the Pertwee era, but it’s pretty undistinguished all the same.
Peladon Tales is a box set of three dual-layered discs released by 2 Entertain. Curse takes up one disc, Monster two. The first disc of the latter is encoded for Regions 2 and 4, the other two discs in the set are Region 2 only. All three discs have optional audio navigation.
Many Pertwee stories pose particular challenges for DVD restoration, as many of them had their original videotapes wiped by the BBC. While no Third Doctor episodes are lost entirely, some of them pose particular challenges, and developments in restoration technology have arisen to meet them. Black and white film recordings can be recoloured by means of the colour signal from an off-air video recording (see Doctor Who and the Silurians for more detail) or from the chroma dots embedded in the film recording (see Planet of the Daleks). Meanwhile, an episode returned from overseas in a NTSC standards-converted tape can undergo Reverse Standards Conversion (see The Claws of Axos). The Curse of Peladon had all four episode tapes wiped, but survives in colour as NTSC tapes returned from Canada. However, episode three was in particularly bad condition and to safeguard it, a master copy was created from it which was converted back to PAL as a heavily artefacted double conversion. That the Restoration Team was able to use the original poor-condition tape and to produce results on a par with the RSC-ed other three episodes is pretty close to miraculous. The screengrab above is from the third episode. (For further details see the Restoration Team website here.) The Monster of Peladon survives in its original VTRs for all six episodes, so restoration was less challenging, and is up to the standard we have come to expect. Inevitably, native PAL looks sharper than RSC's PAL, but short of an original PAL tape for Curse turning up, this is as good as it is likely to get. Needless to say, all the episodes are in the original 4:3 ratio.
The soundtrack is mono, as it always has been, and suitably cleaned up and well balanced. You can now be certain that Jon Pertwee is not uttering a rude word at the cliffhanger of Monster Part One! Subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are available for both serials and all the extras apart from the commentaries. In addition, there are the ever-useful information subtitles, provided this time by Martin Wiggins.
The commentary on Curse maintains the same lineup through all four episodes. The moderator is Toby Hadoke, who begins by saying he wasn't born when the serial was first broadcast. The participants are Katy Manning, Barry Letts, Terrance Dicks and production assistant Chris D'Oyly-John. By now Letts and Dicks are an established double-act in commentaries like this – Letts is sadly no longer with us, but this commentary is unlikely to be last we'll hear from him. Katy Manning makes this an enjoyable reunion of old friends, though Chris D'Oyly-John is somewhat overshadowed by the other three. On Monster, Hadoke moderates throughout. For the first three episodes he is joined by Letts and Dicks, plus Nina Thomas, Ralph Watson and Donald Gee. For the last two, Letts, Dicks and Gee return and are joined by Stuart Fell (who doesn't have a great deal to say). However, for the fourth episode there is something different: a fan commentary from Rob Shearman (also a new series writer), Mark Aldridge, Kate Du-Rose and Philip Newman. I'm not convinced this adds a great deal, and one episode of it is enough.
The making-of documentary is in two parts, one on the Curse disc, the other on the Monster extras disc. It covers both serials in each part, the division being due more to themes. Part one of “The Peladon Saga” is subtitled “The Markets and the Miners” (23:25). Part two is subtitled “The Monsters and the Monarchs” (22:11).
“Warriors of Mars” (14:56) is a look at the Ice Warriors, narrated by Donald Gee, with extracts from all the Martians' stories. The interviewees include the late Bernard Bresslaw, who played the leader Varga in The Ice Warriors, from an archive audio recording. Other interviewees include make-up designer Sylvia James and the still-living actors Alan Bennion and Sonny Caldinez, Seeds of Deathdirector Michael Ferguson and Dicks and Letts.
“Jon and Katy” (7:09) considers the “special relationship” and three-year partnership of the Doctor and Jo Grant. As Jon Pertwee is no longer with us, Katy Manning dominates this short featurette, though Letts and Dicks contribute.
The Curse disc continues with a comparison of visual effects designer Ian Scoones's storyboards for the opening sequence with the scene as broadcast. This runs 2:19. It ends with a self-navigating stills gallery (7:32), PDFs of BBC Enterprises's sales literature and Radio Times listings, and a Coming Soon trailer for The Masque of Mandragora (1:00).
On the Monster extras disc, there is a deleted scene (1:45). This survives as audio only so is reconstructed with the aid of stills, and extracts from the scenes on either side of it.
Ysanne Churchman is still alive, in her mid-eighties, as I write this but was presumably unavailable for any of the new extras on this DVD. Instead, we have an extract (2:29) from a 1980 programme called “Where Are They Now?” Her famous role as Grace Archer (who died in a fire on the night of ITV's launch, in a deliberate pre-emptive strike by the BBC) is mentioned, then, after a clip from Monster she talks about Alpha Centauri and demonstrates a Brummie accent.
“On Target” is another in the series of featurettes about the line of paperback novelisations of Who adventures. For many a young fan in the early 70s, myself included, this was an opportunity to experience to some extent the stories that predated us, and which we couldn't then see – and in some cases can't see now. Sometimes the TV serial didn't live up to our picture of it from the novelisations. Most of these were written by Terrance Dicks, and it's his turn to be profiled (21:28). Dicks has been profiled before, on the Horror of Fang Rock. That also covered his work as a writer and script editor on the TV series, but this focuses on his work for Target, both as prolific writer and template for other writers to follow. Dicks is interviewed and there are tributes from Paul Cornell, David J. Howe and others, with readings from the books by Caroline John, Katy Manning and David Troughton.
The disc also includes a self-navigating stills gallery (8:21) a the same Coming Soon trailer as on the Curse disc and three items as PDFs: BBC Enterprises' sales literature, Radio Times listings, a studio floorplan and listings from Radio Times, which advertise that tenth-anniversary special, available from newsagents for all of 30p.
There are no Easter eggs on the Curse disc, but the Monster extras disc has two. Click left from “Deleted scenes” and click on the logo that appears. This is a short extract from the BBC News from May 1973 (0:32) in which Jon Pertwee races Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. For the second egg, go to “PDF Materials” and highlight the logo in the top left. This takes you to 5:08 of sound recordings from the Ealing Studios shoot.
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