The Curse of Peladon

Written by:
Brian Hayles
Directed by: Lennie Mayne
Starring: Jon Pertwee
Year: 1972
Video Availability (NTSC Version): Try

The Curse of Peladon is a Doctor Who story that clearly shouldn't work. Who's attempt to do Star Trek, it's entirely studio bound and features some of those dull ancient cultures that always call each other by their first names. The Ice Warriors return, after a two-year lay-off, and this time they're our pals. Other delegates to Peladon involve a thing in a tank that looks like an onion bhaji, and a rubber pea with Who's most ridiculous voice this side of Bonnie Langford. The third episode even features the - to this date - most padded Pertwee stunt double fight, a two-and-a-half minute time filler. It's crazy, because it's all stuff that clearly shouldn't work - but does.

My new decision to give Pertwee a PMS rating is irrelevant here. While he may stroke his face, Mike Read style, this is more habitual action than forced affectation here. Yes, that's right, in The Curse of Peladon, for the only time in season nine, Jon Pertwee ACTS. Sorry, I guess I should have told you to brace yourselves for the shock of that one. I hope you'll recover. Some of the series' first technobabble - "tiny fault in the interstitial beam synthesiser" - really doesn't matter, as the third Doctor is suddenly likeable again.

Yet Jon isn't the only reason why it works, even though his sole season nine enthusiasm helps. To tell the truth, I don't know why The Curse of Peladon is such a good story. Jo asks just as many silly questions as ever, though seems spunkier somehow. And maybe the detective style of the plot (Jon's wittily wearing a Sherlock Holmes-style costume) compels. But while I could ramble on for hours (and frequently do) about why stinky stories stink, for this one I'm at a loss. It just contains that indefinable "X factor" of what a good Who story is.

Other observations see Jon being accidentally hit with the opening stone door, and a reminder that the last time the Doctor met the Ice Warriors in the series he was committing cold-blooded murder of them. A shame the Ice Lord sounds like Zippy from Rainbow in this one, and they perhaps don't translate well into colour. But a good, fine episode - I just haven't got a clue why…
* * * * ½

It's often been reported that Katy Manning and David "bigger lisp than Pertwee's" Troughton fancied each other in real life, but were too shy to do anything about it. What might have been, eh? Jo getting a character and half a brain is a daring move in this story, and one which rewards immensely. Thankfully it was something they followed up on in season ten, where her development was one of the few positive elements.

I can see how Who purists might not like this story - Alpha Centuri is very, very silly - yet the plot still engages for me, despite the fact that I've already seen it about half a dozen times. In fact, that's the real key - plot. So few Who stories - mid to late Pertwee ones particularly - actually have a plot. Usually they're a bunch of set pieces loosely threaded together with lots of excessive padding, though here it has a fully developed plot and interesting dialogue, not just expositionary chunks. Even the music's cool. It's no classic, certainly, but it does contain that peculiarly "Whoish" element, while Lennie Mayne's direction is never less than thoughtful. Entertaining.
* * * *

One of the disadvantages of doing a review episodically is that you're more naturally drawn to flaws within each 25-minute block rather than the overall picture. So it is that episode three begins with the Doctor being sentenced to fight the king's champion. The fact that he doesn't actually start to fight the champion until the end of the episode must surely qualify it as padding.

That said, it's still very good, despite the fact that Jon is wearing the most 70s shirt I've ever seen in the series. Alpha Centuri's voice is very irritating and high-pitched this instalment, though David Troughton is very good as King Peladon. Quite naturally, considering his father.

Oh. I guess I should mention the story's subtext. Quite obviously it's a parody of Britain's entry into the European Union, which I guess could be read as a UN reference nowadays ("Federation Law only allows unanimous decisions"). To be honest it doesn't really bear thinking about as a political commentary, and while I like Who to reference real social concerns, this one probably works better just viewed as a Who story into itself. It's actually given away who the traitor is ten minutes into this one, but I didn't pick up on it initially, even though it is extraordinarily obvious.

You know, I even like the man in a hunchbacked bearsuit who plays Aggedor in this one. It's silly but it works. Jo getting hypnotised though - how old is that joke? Not as old as when the Brigadier did it again in The Green Death, I guess. One of the worst uses of film stock in the series occurs at the end where, as I said earlier, Jon has to fight to the death. As he does so on film, the events are jarringly witnessed by the delegates and Peladonians on video tape. However, it's a viscous fight that causes the Doctor to start regenerating - note how his hair begins to change as the fight progresses.
* * * *

Pertwee's on his soapbox a bit in this one, but it's still good fun. Just how does the Alpha Centuri eat and hear anyway? Where's its voice coming from when it has no mouth?

Probably the weakest of the four episodes, not least because of Pertwee's polystyrene rock, this one sees events wrapped up after the story has already concluded. We already know whodunnit, so now all that's left is to get the police in and tell them the butler did it. Consequently the dialogue seems less to drive the narrative forward, more to keep it at a standstill until the episode's end. There's also a lot of interminable action sequences there to pad things out, with only David Troughton's acting cutting a swathe through the mediocrity. Just look at the intensity in his eyes - he's almost as good as his dad!

The climax - that Jo and the Doctor were pawns of the Time Lords all along - always struck me as a very clever twist. I guess in retrospect I should have seen it coming, though maybe it's overfamiliarity with the story that tells me this.
* * * *

Despite many disparate elements, the bizarre concoction of The Curse of Peladon somehow creates an excellent story. However, a second attempt to catch lightning in a bottle proved fruitless. The Monster of Peladon recreated this story two years later, though the inexplicable magic this one contains was not present.
* * * *