Establishment, anti-establishment and The Curse of Peladon (1972)

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Is Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, he of the sweeping capes, velvet jackets and patrician tone, anti-establishment or deeply embedded in it? Some people (late producer Verity Lambert among them) have argued that by aligning himself with UNIT and setting up base on Earth, the Doctor became part of our society’s power structures and quite different to the anarchic force for change he had been previously.

Others (like writer Gareth Roberts) have argued that he’s utterly anti-establishment, that barely a story goes by without him clashing with bureaucrats and soldiers and anyone who represents the powers-that-be. I’m not sure that being anti-authority precludes you from being part of the establishment, but I think the Doctor’s flamboyant presence among the suits and uniforms around him is a potent contrast. If the Doctor has sold out, it doesn’t sit comfortably with him.

You could read it either way. But it surprises me to find on this random trip through Who that the more I see of him, the more it’s clear that the Third Doctor is a tricky character to pigeon hole.

Most recently, I’ve accompanied him and dolly bird assistant Jo Grant (played by dolly bird Katy Manning) to the stormy planet of Peladon. It’s only the second time the Doctor has managed to slip the Time Lord shackles which have grounded him on planet Earth, so it’s a rare trip to another world. But while in the confines of a UNIT laboratory the Doctor may have sneered at enough civil servants to convince us he’s still a maverick at heart, I have to report that once on Peladon, he becomes a resounding advocate for the establishment.

Peladon is a rustic kind of place. Its cavernous citadel is lit by fiery torches and its soldiers dress like Romans and carry swords. It’s governed by a King, who’s advised by long robed lords. Like its mascot, the furry fanged beast Aggedor, Peladon’s an untamed beast. But civilisation beckons, in the form of a Galactic Federation of planets. To assess Peladon’s application to join the Federation, representative delegates have been sent, all of them green: Ice Warriors, Arcturus (an alien head in a mobile jukebox) and Alpha Centauri (a phallic hexapod).

(A quick diversion – Alpha Centauri, WTF? It is the oddest thing: it looks like a cock, sounds like a woman and is labelled a hermaphrodite. It’s every gender you can think of, with six tentacles and wrapped in a cloak. It pulls focus in every scene it’s in: Katy Manning even throws in a cheeky ad lib about it upstaging everyone. But putting aside its sheer mind boggling weirdness, I wonder if there’s an argument for Alpha Centauri being the first queer character in Doctor Who. After all, actor Ysanne Churchman was instructed to give it the voice of ‘a homosexual civil servant’. And is there something uncomfortable in positioning gays as bizarre, unearthly creatures?)

The Earth delegate is missing, but the Doctor is on hand to adopt the role. And he’s clearly a method actor, because he utterly embeds himself in the part. So much so, that he adopts an unquestioning support for Peladon joining the Federation. So fervent is his belief in this cause, he seems to forget that he’s not actually there to ensure it happens.

In Episode Three, this unusually committed impostor talks to chief recalcitrant Hepesh (Geoffrey Toome):

DOCTOR: You slap the Federation in the face by sabotaging the commission. Why?
HEPESH: Because I’m afraid.
DOCTOR: Afraid? Afraid of what? The Federation is your safeguard.
HEPESH: That is not true! I know the Federation’s real intent.
DOCTOR: The Federation’s real intent is to help you.
HEPESH: No! They’ll exploit us for our minerals, enslave us with their machines, corrupt us with their technology. The face of Peladon will be changed, the past swept away, and everything that I know and value will have gone.
DOCTOR: The progress that they offer, that we offer, isn’t like that.

How does he know? Does he know about the Federation from some previous adventure? If not, how can he be so sure it’s the benign force for progress he paints it as? Hepesh’s argument, though paranoid and fear-driven, might have some merit. Unusually for the Doctor, he doesn’t give the other side of the argument any consideration.

Compare this to Curse‘s Season Nine stablemate,The Mutants. In that story, the planet Solos is fighting for its independence from an imperialist regime. In that adventure, the Doctor is firmly on the side of self-determination. Sure we’re dealing with two different allegories here; The Mutants rails against colonialism, whereas Curse reflects tensions about the UK joining the European economic community. Peladon is making a choice of its own, whereas Solos is occupied. But still, it’s odd to see the Doctor urging one society of strength in unity, while pointing out to another the strength of standing alone.

I suppose though it depends what we’re calling ‘the establishment’. The Doctor is certainly against Hepesh’s attempts to keep Peladon shackled to tradition and the old power structures. In this sense, he’s a true advocate for change and firmly questioning the wisdom of sticking with the status quo.

But I can’t help wondering how Peladon’s going to fare in this galactic federation. It’s a feudal society, lacking in technological sophistication but rich in natural resources. Surely there’s a possibility it’s going to extorted and bullied by its more advanced co-signatories. Hmm Doctor? Hmm?

Curse has a sequel, the quite similar, but two episodes longer, The Monster of Peladon. It concerns itself with rebellious miners mostly, so perhaps writer Brian Hayles missed a trick. What if 50 years later, Peladon finds itself wanting out of the Federation? What if Hepesh’s fears were borne out? The Doctor would have to face the consequences of his actions and perhaps strive for the opposite outcome he sought in Curse. There’d have to be Ice Warriors and Aggedor and funny hairstyles, natch.

At the end of the adventure the Doctor tells Jo that he suspects their arrival on Peladon was no coincidence. He reckons it was those wily old birds the Time Lords sending him on another mission. What possible benefit they see in Peladon joining the Federation remains unknown, but they had their man in the field go and sort things out. Once again, the Doctor’s on hand to do the establishment’s bidding. Whether he likes it or not.

LINK to Blink. Both feature deadly statues. And as it happens…

NEXT TIME… You might want to find something to hang on to. It’s back to not blinking for The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone.

AND ONE LAST THING… The Curse of Peladon means that Season 9 is the first season to be completed on Randomwhoness! You can find links to its stable mates, and indeed all my posts, right here.

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4 thoughts on “Establishment, anti-establishment and The Curse of Peladon (1972)”

  1. “is there something uncomfortable in positioning gays as bizarre, unearthly creatures?”

    Yes, but…Alpha is also the most straightforwardly trustworthy character in the piece, and well-liked enough to bring back for a return engagement. I’ll take it!

    Found your blog at random (appropriate) and I’m really enjoying it!

    1. Thanks for commenting!

      Good point about Alpha. For me, there’s something of the comedy gay man about him/her which doesn’t sit quite right with me… but that’s outweighed by the sheer bizarreness of him. I mean, a penis in a cloak on the telly. Only on Doctor who.

      1. Perhaps Alpha was meant as a kind of intergalactic Mr. Humphries, though that classically camp character wouldn’t debut until later in the year. IDK. I’m gay, and watching this as a teenager neither the “gay” aspect for the “penis” thing came to me until it was pointed out, with a snicker, by others. I took Alpha at face value – a sort of hermaphroditic caterpillar with a gender neutral voice. The cowardice and flailing seems more of an obvious gay stereotype in retrospect – the poor dear even has limp (wire-actuated) wrists. But still and all, Alpha was one of the good ‘uns, like C-3PO – and treated with more affection than the droid, as well.

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