Moonlighting, re-running and The Monster of Peladon (1974)

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These days, it’s not enough to just make Doctor Who. It’s as if making 13 episodes of a sci-fi behemoth a year leaves you so much surplus time you need to justify your existence. “Stop loitering around that photocopier, Moffat! Get back to work! We’re not paying you to take six months of the year off just because your show’s not in production. I want a new series of Sherlock and something to replace Wizards vs. Aliens before next Friday!”

It wasn’t like this back in the days of classic Doctor Who, where making anything other than the requested set of episodes was almost entirely discouraged. In fact, there are only two examples of a production team branching out into new ventures while still trying to get a season of homely sci-fi TV on before the time and money ran out. The second of these was producer John Nathan-Turner’s attempt at spinning K9 off into his own series. (Oh, K9 and Company. It’s not on my random list. Should it be?) But the first was more substantial. It was Pertwee dream team of producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks’ attempt at serious sci-fi Moonbase 3.

I’ve never seen Moonbase 3, but I think about it when considering Season 11, because it was this season which bore the brunt of its producer and script editor moonlighting (moonbasing?) elsewhere. By this stage, Dicks and Letts knew how to pump out a series of Doctor Who, and to save them from a last minute scurry for scripts, they planned the show’s eleventh production block well in advance. The result is a set of stories which feels familiar, but not at all challenging or ground breaking. It’s the Doctor Who you make while you’re making other plans.

These are stories which feel like the old standards, conceived in the interests of expediency. Six episodes of Malcolm Hulke and UNIT, four episodes of Terry Nation and the Daleks, six episodes of Robert Sloman (and Letts on the sly) and the Master. And in The Monster of Peladon, a sequel to season nine’s The Curse of Peladon.

Dicks and Letts could have made a sequel to any story they’d produced over the previous four years. They chose Curse. They obviously thought it a success, and I think they were right. But it’s an odd success for Doctor Who. A sequel to Curse is a vote of confidence in a particularly talky, studio-bound version of the program. It’s quite different from the Pertwee era’s usual noisy style.

That vote of confidence is almost absolute, if we’re to judge by the number of Cursey elements called back for a victory lap. A tremulous young monarch, a cunning old chief adviser, a huge, mute bodyguard, hairy beast Aggedor, the scaly Ice Warriors and even cock in a frock Alpha Centauri. Bring ‘em all back, says the production team. We’ll have the lot. The early episodes of Monster resemble Curse so closely, contemporary viewers might have thought they were watching a repeat.

And in a way, it’s exactly that. It’s hard to imagine what it was like to watch classic Doctor Who as originally broadcast in the UK, knowing it would probably never get repeated and so this was your only chance to see a story. (In fact, I seem to recall that some viewers might have even missed out on an episode of Curse due to a power cut or something?) So running a similar sequel was really the only way to relive past glories.

But that was then and this is now. Now we have (almost) the entire history of the show at our fingertips and the Peladon stories are often placed as a pair. We view them together, not separately. Like Kinda  and Snakedance, it’s difficult to even consider them separately, so linked are they in our collective mindset. Considered with the modern viewpoint, why do we need a second rate sequel to Curse, when we have Curse? The latter will always be in the shadow of the former.

Curse’s great twist is that notorious bad guys the Ice Warriors, turn out to be on the side of good. It’s a neat trick, but one you can only pull once.  By Monster they have turned back to the dark green side, and so the sequel feels instantly less interesting than the original.

Innovations are hard to find in Monster, but there are a couple. In lieu of the ‘Ice Warriors are actually Nice Warriors’ twist, Monster gives us a human ally in corporate FIFO engineer Eckersley (Donald Gee) who turns out to be the mastermind behind a plan to frighten off the planet’s miners with some CSO and smoke machine. Oh and that’s right, Peladon has gained a whole subclass of miners since Curse, lending the story some topical commentary about industrial relations, which is pretty seriously undermined by the wigs they’re wearing which makes them all look like polyester badgers.

The other major event on Peladon since we last saw it was that it has gained a female population. In Curse, we never saw a Peladonian woman, so it was perhaps unsurprising when King Peladon got excited at the sight of the Doctor’s then companion Jo.

In Monster, the number of women on Peladon has rocketed to two: Queen Thalira (Nina Thomas) and a lineless handmaiden played by the director’s wife. Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) has the sort of strident views about feminism that you’d expect from a character written and conceived by men, so she sets about encouraging the Queen to not let men push her around. There’s something perverse about a story where the ruling monarch of the planet is female, but she’s completely undermined by all the male characters around her, then having her preached at about feminism, and finish the whole thing off with her being dragged around by the wrist by the villain of the piece, to then be rescued by the Doctor.

Still, Monster does have some advantages over its predecessor. Its final three episodes are when the story stops trying to be Curse and picks up the pace. It becomes engaging, and it does at least have a more multifaceted society to explore than the earlier story. And its villains are at least proper, boo-hissable baddies. It makes me think, what we really need is one Peladon story, which takes the best elements of both. The Amalgam of Peladon, perhaps. C’mon internet. Someone mash these two up.

Meanwhile, back in 1974, Dicks and Letts were on their way to pastures new (not, it can be noted, to a second series of Moonbase 3). In their usual methodical way, they planned out a prospective season for their successors, which is thoughtful. Basically, they pulled the season 11 trick again. They pencilled in stories featuring Daleks, Cybermen, the Sontaran costume they used the previous year, and one written by a guy who’d last written for the program nine years before.

They stopped short of proposing another return visit to Peladon. But no doubt it would have featured a tremulous young monarch, a cunning old chief adviser, a huge, mute bodyguard…

LINK TO: The Ambassadors of Death. Both Pertwee stories of course, but the first is edgy and experimental and Monster… well, it’s not. In the first, the Pert is vital and compelling. In the second, he’s clearly already checked out.

NEXT TIME: It’s been fun, but I guess this is goodbye. It’s off to the Game Station for Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways.

 

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