High density, high anxiety and Paradise Towers (1987)

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Anyone who’s ever lived in a block of apartments will recognise the anxiety about high-density living which Paradise Towers taps into. Life in a flat is compact and convenient, but you share very close quarters with your neighbours. You witness each other’s faintly embarrassing domestic incidents; the hanging out of underwear, the clink of multiple wine bottles in a wheely bin, the muffled arguments audible through walls. There are often undercurrents of tension and resentment which build up over pointless rules and rituals. There’s gossip and goings on. It’s a perfect setting for a Doctor Who story, and one which (for the first time, surprisingly) reflected the living arrangements of many watching at home.

It’s one of Doctor Who‘s many attempts to portray a future dystopia. Those type of stories usually feature an authoritarian regime in place, stifling the basic humanity of the common person. So in Doctor Who terms Nineteen Eightyfour becomes The Sun Makers (kind of). Paradise Towers, however, gives us a world where authority is missing – the folks in charge have gone off to fight a war – and society is left to decay and the Tower’s inhabitants to fend for themselves. Not that I’ve read High-Rise from which this story is famously descended, but I have read Lord of the Flies, so I know the score.

But dystopian fiction is actually not a great match for Doctor Who. The structure of those stories usually involves the eventual corruption of the main character as he (it’s always a he) succumbs to the savagery around him. That can’t happen to the Doctor. Besides that, dystopian stories are just too grim for Doctor Who. The show’s solution is to accentuate the comedy, soften the violence and have the Doctor put the place to rights at story’s end. So stories like The Sun Makers and The Happiness Patrol, and even darker variations like Vengeance on Varos and Frontios create a variety of “safe” dystopias, in which the Doctor can engineer regime change in a few quick episodes.

So it is with Paradise Towers, which despite its serious themes, is a colourful, jokey affair covered by a plasticky, synth pop soundtrack. Its lightness of tone helps take the sting out of the story’s more disturbing implications. By way of example, mumsy residents Tilda (Brenda Bruce) and Tabby (Elizabeth Spriggs) are cartoony cannibals, wanting to eat companion Mel (Bonnie Langford). Their outlandish costumes and exaggerated cutesy way of talking take the edge of the nasty undertone; that the Tower’s most vulnerable inhabitants are starving, and are resorting to killing and eating rats and even people in order to survive. By way of another example, the Kangs are brightly dressed, slang spouting runaway children, with big hair. But the flip side is these are abandoned kids, left to fend for themselves, fighting among themselves and scavenging for food. You don’t have to scratch very far beneath the jolly surface of Paradise Towers to find a very bleak world view.

This seems to me to reflect a modern fear of the effects of poverty on social cohesion. This is a world where young people have no employment, and so form gangs, graffiti walls and perform random acts of vandalism. Old people have no pension, and so are left to go hungry and eke out their days. High-density housing is presented as the arena these polar ends of society co-inhabit and where the impacts of poverty are most clearly shown. Government is absent.

In its place is pointless bureaucracy, another trope of dystopian fiction. This is represented by the Caretakers, sad middle-aged men, slaves to a seemingly never ending cavalcade of rules. They speak in officialese and are janitors at heart, but in the power vacuum of the Towers they’ve been elevated to the kind of mid-weight authority that everyone ignores. Their Chief (Richard Briers) is a mustachioed, permanently outraged figure of fun. He’s crucial to undercutting the nihilism implied by the story’s premise, so is a welcome ingredient of comic villainy. (Although Briers’ outrageous piss take performance as the possessed Chief in Part Four – against the expressed wishes of both director and producer – has been rightly criticised. Had he played it with a Sutekh-like whisper, and a Taren Capel-like calm, this story may now be held in higher fan esteem.)

The Towers are also divided along gender lines. The Caretakers – impotent, drab authority figures – are all men. The Rezzies and the Kangs – colourful, anarchic rule breakers – are all women. We get very few scenes of these groups interacting but a little snippet in Part Three gives an indication of how it works. The Chief has come to inspect the aftermath of Tilda and Tabby’s demise at the hand (well, claw) of something in the disposal chute. There he meets another Rezzie, Maddy (Judy Cornwall) and seeks to buy her silence about the incident:

CHIEF: I would urge you for the moment to keep the matter quiet. We don’t want to alarm people unduly, do we?

MADDY: Well, I’m not really sure I ought to.

CHIEF: Not that I would wish to bribe you to hold your tongue in any way but rules can be made flexible, and it could be arranged for you to move into this flat instead of your own. (His voice becomes a seductive purr) It is substantially larger.

Here in a few sentences, we see the true nature of life in Paradise Towers: making deals and compromising morals, presided over by a corrupt regime. It’s probably not worth contemplating the sex lives of any of the Towers’ inhabitants (male or female) but if we dared, we could come to the conclusion that this is how such arrangements would be made.

Into this male/female divide slips Pex (Howard Cooke), the little boy who stayed behind from the war and grew up into a muscle bound misfit. Much has been made on how Cooke didn’t have the Schwarzenegger-like physique which seems obvious for the character. But making him a slighter, woosier kind of guy actually plays to the story’s theme of the impotence of masculinity. The Chief, for instance, is a fawning, twee Daddy figure his pet monster in the basement. And his Deputy (Clive Merrison), an ineffectual drip, rudderless without his rulebook. These men are hopeless. And even though Pex redeems himself at story’s end with a SACRIFICIAL BLAM! he’s only forced into it because he loses his nerve and stuffs up the Doctor’s (tricky Sylvester McCoy) plan.

In fact, the Doctor is the only competent man in the Towers. He sees and articulates the problem clearly; the various groups within this society won’t face up to its problems. His challenge is to unite the factions and get them to work together to confront their oppressor. In this sense, it’s not so different from the rabble rousing he’s pulled off on Pluto, Peladon and all the rest.

Except here he has also created a community, the element which was missing from Paradise Towers. It’s a neat ending because it’s not just about defeating the villain but also about healing this world’s fundamental wound. This Doctor stands for community, in the face of heartless authority and social division. Because as much as high-density living can be about sniping about clothes lines and complaining about noisy neighbours, it’s also about people living closely, looking out for each other, sharing a laugh and cooperating. Not high anxiety, but high fidelity, to the idea of living together.

LINK TO Terminus. Mark Strickson, who is in Terminus, and Julie Brennan, who is in Paradise Towers, were once married.

NEXT TIME… Now this is really a bit strange. Sit up straight, it’s time to Listen.

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