The Curse of Peladon

curseofpeladonIn 1973 the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC).  Note the word “economic”, because the EEC was little more than a customs union, and a far cry from the open-bordered super state with its own courts, currency and flags that it would eventually become.  A year before the UK joined, Doctor Who gave us The Curse of Peladon, which offers a parallel with the contemporary concerns about joining the EEC, and note how before-its-time it is, showing the Federation as having influence on Peladon society far beyond that of a simple customs union.  But if it is to be seen as an allegory then it is a pretty nasty one, as Peladon is shown as a primitive world, run by a feckless king who is little more than a figurehead, with religion providing the real power behind the throne.  The “Federation”, in contrast, is modern and powerful, and we are left in no doubt about the writer’s opinion that joining is the best way to go and those who disagree are misguided and unenlightened.

So it is not a very pleasant comparison, but then again neither are the delegates, because if they are to be seen as representatives of Europeans, then which race is:

(1) Big-headed, with gender unclear from appearances?
(2) Slimy and shrunken?
(3) A race with a superiority complex, and a history of war-mongering?

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about those.  There is also another allegory at work here: the conflict between religion and science.  But again, it is a nasty little way to approach the subject, because there are absolutely no shades of grey here.  Religion is shown as backwards and baseless, while science is shown as the only sensible route to take.  The religion we are shown is ridiculous.  Religions based on very little are obviously perfectly possible.  They can grow up very quickly, but these are not the kinds of religions which become mainstream.  A long-standing religion of an entire civilisation, which is based on a bear-like animal?  Well, that topples like a house of cards as soon as you come into contact with the real creature, as clearly shown in this story.  The fact that this has not happened at any point until the Doctor arrives is difficult to believe.

…all of which is a bit of a shock, coming from the writer of the magnificent The Ice Warriors and The Seeds of Death, but look a little further into his writing credits and we also find The Celestial Toymaker, a story that was nothing if not entertaining, but rather dodgy in some of its underlying themes to say the least.

And so to the Ice Warriors themselves.  Something happens here that is surprisingly unique in classic Doctor Who, and in the manner in which it is done unique in Doctor Who as a whole, while being quite a common trope in Star Trek.  A former villainous alien race returns to the show, but they are no longer the monstrous baddies.  This provides us with a whodunit that actually functions really well (see Black Orchid for the opposite), but what are the consequences for the Ice Warriors?

Bringing back an enemy and making them not be the enemy any more can be a big risk, because by and large you are going to sacrifice the option of making them the “big bad” (an expression coined by the Buffyverse, but it’s a handy bit of shorthand) in future.  This is what Moffat did with Sontarans and Silurians in a single stroke of the pen by creating the Paternoster Gang.  We haven’t had a Sontaran or Silurian story since, and it is difficult to see how we ever could have, at least not for a very long time, because they are no longer credible as the big bad.  But Hayles is more subtle than that because the Ice Warriors are not turned into comedy aliens, or one-dimensional good-guys.  They are still dangerous and still scary.  They are not the villains here because it does not suit their motivations on this particular occasion, but the story doesn’t do much to take away from their impact as potential future big bads.

While seeking to provide allegories and also rethink a previous monster, The Curse of Peladon also manages to squeeze in a love story.  It is not as realistic as Jo’s eventual departure, as soppy King Peladon is about as opposite a man to the Doctor as you could possibly find, but let’s write it all off as the appeal of becoming a princess.

The Curse of Peladon can be watched on two levels – you can think about all the parallels and political stuff, or you can just enjoy the craziness and sheer fun of it all.  Alpha Centauri and Arcturus are both great, despite being a giant green egg and a puppet in a box, but once again Doctor Who achieves memorable aliens on a shoestring budget, and Alpha in particular owes a lot to the voice acting.  Don’t use this story to introduce somebody to Doctor Who, especially if they are expecting a slick and sophisticated slice of sci-fi drama, because you will be embarrassed.  It’s simply a guilty pleasure to be enjoyed in the context of the colourful joy that is the Pertwee era.   RP

The view from across the pond:

Roger made some great points regarding The Curse of Peladon.  In the spirit of good Science Fiction, Curse was able to speak about current events without speaking about them directly.  Allegory goes a long way in storytelling.  There is benefit of living in the UK where the nuances of the UK joining the EEC would have been on the forefront of everyone’s minds.  It makes for great storytelling when the subject matter is relevant, even if this story came about a year before the actual events.  (Allegory and foresight… a superb combination for SF writing!)

From my point of view, I did not see this until the mid-80s so any links to what was going on at the time of its broadcast were lost on me.  What I did get out of the story however was the dichotomy between the religious and the scientific as it features heavily.  The fact that the religion in question is so skewed to the side of superstition makes the case for science much stronger.  But whether this was just part of the writer’s creation or a statement about religion as a whole, we can’t say.

But the most impressive thing about this episode is the Ice Warriors themselves.  I’d argue that this is the best Ice Warrior story because it did something special for the Ice Warriors: it made them believable; it added depth.  Gone were the warmongering villains, and it their stead, a race of proud warriors stand.  This is a turning point for the species in the Whoniverse.  In the first two Ice Warrior stories they are villains intent on destroying mankind.  Though we get one more villainous outing with our favorite Martians (pun completely intended), we would not see them again until the Matt Smith era with Cold War and later with Peter Capaldi’s The Empress of Mars.  I’d argue that the latter two would never have happened without The Curse of Peladon because this was the first time we saw them as more than just villains.  They are still a threat and something to be feared, however, they respond to a code.  They are ethical.  They want to understand and be understood.  They can be ruthless in their way, but reasonable when presented a case.  This is the story that broke the mold, because it kept a “big baddie” scary without making them monomaniacal villains, which are rarely believable.

We are also introduced to the wonderful Alpha Centauri who somehow becomes a favorite even though his/her/its arms are clearly connected using invisible string and whose voice is initially somewhat off-putting.  And Alpha is introduced as a hexapod – great, we see all 6 feet… so how is he/she/it moving?  Perhaps octopod might have been a better choice?  I have heard that during wartime, it is possible to lose count of how many legs one has…

Moving on… By the time of his/her/its return in The Monster of Peladon, one can’t help feel like we’ve been reunited with an old, much-loved, friend.

unnamedUnfortunately the episode embarrasses on more than the single count of a king who falls in love with the first woman he meets.  The hairdos of the Peladonians are beyond awful.  Sack your planet’s hairdressers, King P…  You simply can’t watch this episode around Doctor Who naysayers or they’d be making fun of it the moment those hairdos show up on screen!  It really is cringe-worthy!  And Jo Grant was not my favorite companion… She gets hypnotized by the Doctor while he is trying to hypnotize the giant bear-dog, Aggedor!  And she goes mountain climbing in high heels!  Though that opening on the side of the mountain is wonderful.  Here I found myself moving from the Universal horror movies to the Hammer Horror films in style and imagery.

Doctor Who is nothing if not fun!  This story features one of my favorite endings in the classic series.  When the Earth Delegate finally arrives, she is somewhat thrown by whoever Izlyr is talking about as the “other” earth delegate.  “Doctor?  What Doctor?  Doctor Who?”   (No, we’re not at my favorite bit yet!)  They walk into the room where the Doctor should be only to see the TARDIS.  Izlyr’s reaction is perfectly acted.  He jolts his whole body, “WHAT…. IS…. THAT?” he intones while pointing rather violently at the slowly dematerializing box.  They are all left standing with mouths agape!  You can’t watch the episode without smiling at that ending.

Now, I’m getting a bit sleepy as I’m listening to an old Venusian lullaby… that sounds suspiciously like God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen..

(Again, Venusians: the race that gave us a form of Karate, hopscotch, and now God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen!)  ML

Read next in the Junkyard… The Sea Devils

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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1 Response to The Curse of Peladon

  1. Mike Basil says:

    As Star Trek proved, an SF story that can virtually be no more than a contemporarily recognizable story about political issues, even with obvious aliens and SF production values, can be amazingly effective as Trek achieved even further with TNG and DS9. So naturally Dr. Who could prove the same when the 3rd Doctor with Jo had his second beyond-the-Earth story on Peladon. Given the Ice Warriors’ involvement on a friendlier note this time around, that was indeed a bonus.

    Unlike Trek’s Journey To Babel though, we could at least have more exotic aliens and certainly so with Alpha-Centauri and Arcturus. But Pertwee gets a great opportunity to show the 3rd Doctor in such a moral light when he proves that Aggedor is more than an otherwise savage beast. For me The Curse Of Peladon works as a finely down-to-basics Dr. Who story, like Vengeance On Varos, and yet with ample opportunity to broaden Peladon’s potential for adventurous thrills when the 3rd Doctor returns with Sarah. So the Peladon Tales (the DVD Box Set Label) is a staple for how Dr. Who succeeded in those arguably rare moments when critics or even fans might have considered otherwise.

    Thanks for your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

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