Sunday, 31 January 2010

DVD Review: Dr Who - Peladon Tales

When it comes to DVDs of the 'classic' Dr Who series I tend to operate a pretty rigid rule of thumb; if it's pre-1981 you can't go far wrong. The black-and-white stuff is often better than you might imagine/remember (the underfunded 1960s episodes are bristling with good ideas even if the production is sometimes clunky to modern eyes) and the 1970s...well, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker? What's not to love even in their (rare) duff stories? But after about 1981...well, you're on your own there and you get what you pay for.

2 Entertain are rattling through archive Dr Who now, presumably in their haste to go back to the beginning and repackage early releases with the sort of in-depth features we've become spoiled by and used to these last few years. Random and often vaguely-themed episodes are nowadays bundled together in boxset form - a forthcoming 'Myths and Legends' set collects one of the worst Pertwee stories ('The Time Monster') with a couple of shonky late-period Bakers ('Underworld' and 'Horns of Nimon') and frankly they'd have to give Lalla Ward away as a free gift to persuade me to part with my pennies for that one - but the recent 'Peladon Tales' release, if not exactly an must-have purchase, is a set worth investigating if you're in the mood for some 1970s Who and you're fascinated by Jon Pertwee's bouffant hair.

Back in 1972 Dr Who's producer (the late Barry Letts) and script editor (Terrance Dicks) were becoming increasingly frustrated by the format imposed upon the show by the previous production team who, for creative as well as budgetary reasons, had decided to make the show a bit more earthbound in order to give it a new lease of life as it blundered, weary and unloved, into the 1970s to await the delights of colour TV and improving visual effects technology. With the regenerated Doctor (Jon Pertwee) now exiled to Earth the show was becoming uncomfortably restricted in terms of the sorts of stories it could tell. Teamed up with the six-man UNIT army led by the redoubtable Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, the Doctor found himself fighting an assortment of mad scientists and hostile invading aliens. Every week. Letts and Dicks yearned for the broader canvas of outer space and, in 1971, had concocted a method to get the Doctor off world every now and again. They came up with the concept of the Time Lords using the Doctor as a covert secret agent, reactivating his TARDIS so they could dispatch him to some cosmic trouble spot where he could put things right before they catapulted him back to Earth again. The idea had worked well enough in 1971's under-rated 'Colony in Space' (itself long-overdue a DVD brush-up) so it was wheeled out again in 1972's ninth season. This time writer Brian Hayles, creator of the Ice Warriors back in the 1960s, was charged with sending the Doctor back into space - albeit briefly - and in doing so he crafted a story which was popular enough to generate a sequel a couple of years later. Both stories - 'The Curse of Peladon' and 'The Monster of Peladon' - are now bound together in this handy little boxset along with the usual number of eclectic special features.

Of the two stories 'The Curse of Peladon' is the more accomplished. The TARDIS arrives, balancing precariously halfway up the mountain of the Citadel of Peladon and the Doctor and Jo Grant (Katy Manning) find themselves caught up in the courtly intrigue and guttering flambeaux of a nervy, superstitious planet struggling to emerge from its own barbaric Middle Ages by joining the Galactic Federation. But there's infamy afoot as someone's out to sabotage the delicate negotiations. But is it Hepesh (Geoffrey Toone), booming voiced Chancellor to the court of the fey King Peladon (David Troughton)? Hepesh is fiercely loyal to the old ways and he distrusts outsiders - especially head-in-a-box ambassador Arcturus and the eye-popping cloaked hermaphrodite hexapod Alpha Centauri. What about the Ice Warriors? The lumbering reptilian Martian reptiles claim to have abandoned their warlike ways for the sake of the Galactic alliance but does a big green reptile really change its spots? Or has the Curse of Aggedor - a legendary big roaring bear-like beast - really struck again?

'Curse of Peladon', with its shadowy corridors, throne rooms and its motley assortment of aliens, is a startling contrast to most of the Pertwee stories to date which had been ferociously Earthbound. It's a well-written, atmospheric piece with some good effects sequences - the TARDIS toppling from the cliff is particularly well-realised - and whilst the aliens suffer from the constraints of the budget (no show on Earth would put something like Alpha Centauri before the cameras today) it's a serial which demonstrates Dr Who's ability to overcome its shortcomings by presenting good stories well told. It even coaxes a halfway decent performance out of the shrill Manning which was no mean feat in itself...

Two years later the Doctor, now accompanied by the legendary Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) returns to Peladon and things are no longer the same. It's fifty years later, Peladon's daughter Thalira (Nina Thomas) is on the throne and the planet is being mined for its valuable mineral resources. Trouble is, the miners are revolting, rebelling against the introduction of alien technology and there's something nasty hiding behind the refinery door with its own agenda. Where the earlier story was short and punchy and to the point, 'Monster of Peladon' has the luxury of two extra episodes and frankly it's a luxury the rather thin and dreary story neither requires nor demands. Peladon's lost its appeal second time around - we saw this done two years earlier and it was done a lot better. Hayles' script wanders all around the houses before the Big Reveal of the baddies we've all been waiting to see at the end of episode three and much of the rest of the story seems to consist of badger-haired miners racing around tunnels indulging in unconvincing sword fights and spouting rhetoric about miners rights and blah de blah, all very contemporary in a strike-bedevilled UK of 1974 but really just so much desperate shouting 36 years later. Sarah Jane in 1974 was a feisty feminist and the script gives her the odd opportunity to encourage the limp Thalira to stand up for Wimmin's Rights and not be made a doormat of. But not long afterwards Sarah Jane is screaming her head off as something green looms over her and the end of an episode fast approaches...

Where 'Curse of Peladon' seemed fresh and vibrant, 'Monster' just seems tired and perfunctory. Pertwee, visibly older, looks a bit bored (by this time he was just weeks away from his final appearance in the series and obviously the actor was clearly demob happy and just twiddling his thumbs by this point in production) and many of the supporting actors are either unconvincing (Thalira) or embarrased (anyone wearing a badger on their head). The whole affair perks up a bit when the Ice Warriors appear, reverting to type, but it's really too little too late and by the time we stagger to the end of episode six we're probably quite happy to wave bye-bye forever to Peladon and its cut-price Shakespearean histrionics.

'Peladon Tales' presents a couple, of uncharacteristic 1970s Dr Who stories which, although they've hardly stood the test of time and can occasionally be an ordeal to wade through, are still worth a look because, let's be honest, even the duffest of 1970s Who is worth so much more of your time than anything from the 'classic' series from about 1985 onwards.

The DVDs: And of course here's where the set becomes a bit more essential. 'Curse', previously presented in a fuzzy, indistinct print rescued from some overseas broadcaster, has been spruced up a bit here and looks sharper than I've seen it since it was first broadcast. It's not outstanding quality, no, but it looks as good as it's ever likely to. 'Monster' looks good, a clean, crisp image which sadly only serves to highlight some laziness in the production (was Pertwee's stunt double Terry Walsh ever more obvious than in the Doctor's fight with the miners at the end of episode four?). The special features are the usual delight. The 'making of' is split into two sections, obviously, but there's other good stuff including short pieces on Pertwee and Manning's on-screen relationship, a piece on the Ice Warriors, a reconstructed 'deleted scene' from the second story and a charming feature on the importance and impact of all those lightweight Terrance Dicks Target Books novelisations of stories we never thought we'd ever be able to see again, let alone pick up off the shelf at WH Smith's on shiny silver discs. Add to all this the usual commentaries and trailers and photos and you've got another set which more than does justice to two of the lesser stories from Dr Who's long and colourful history.

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