I suspect my episode-a-day approach may do a disservice to The Monster of Peladon: while it’s only a couple of months since I saw The Curse of Peladon, viewers in 1974 would have had to think back two years to recall the Doctor’s first visit. And so what feels like a tiresome re-tread to me might have felt pleasingly nostalgic to them (or even brand new, to kids who’d started watching in the intervening years). That said, even if the original story isn’t fresh in your mind I think it’s hard to get very inspired by this: it’s so linear, with loads of wandering back and forth between gloomy locations while the poshest miners in the universe orate at each other, Queen Thalira pouts and Chancellor Ortron gets fruitier by the moment.
The premise is fairly unusual: we’ve had “sequels” to previous encounters before (The Celestial Toymaker; Frontier in Space), returning monsters and villains, and even revisited a couple of locations years after an earlier adventure (The Ark; The Evil of the Daleks) but this is the first time the Doctor has consciously gone back somewhere to check up on how things are going. It’s pretty much the first time he’s been able to: in the 1960s he couldn’t steer the TARDIS and even last season he needed the Time Lords’ help to reliably get to the right place and time to defeat the Daleks. But Season 11 has seen him apparently gain a lot more control: reaching the right spot in the Middle Ages, getting Sarah Jane back home (give or take), and now this.
This is possibly the most Star Trek episode of Doctor Who to date. While the Doctor and temporary companion Belal penetrate the interior of the Exxilon city (which has all the design elegance of an NHS hospital corridor circa 1988) to confront the insane computer that has destroyed the Exxilon civilisation and forced the survivors to worship it as a god. Meanwhile, the Daleks are also seeing a way into the heart of Exxilon power, while outside they force the natives into slavery. Replace the Daleks with Klingons, the Doctor with Captain Kirk and Belal with the local beauty and this has all the ingredients for a 1969 DesilLu budget spectacular.
As the masterminds behind the Peruvian temples (at least according to the Doctor), the Exxilons are another of those Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World aliens the series was obsessed with in the early 1970s. It feels like we’ve heard the back-story of the living city of the Exxilons several times before already, and the possibility of the Doctor and Belal braving an Indiana Jones race through Inca traps is quickly put to bed when the puzzles that have confounded so many turn out to be tracing a maze, and (in one of the dumbest cliffhangers ever) avoiding some floor tiles.
All the bits with the Exxilons are fairly dull. Belal’s surprisingly articulate info-dump about their backstory goes on for ages, and the Crystal Maze challenges he and the Doctor face (three wrong turns and it’s an instant lock in) while strangely prescient of the Dark Tower sequences in The Five Doctors, are a typical Terry Nation device for padding out the script (how many pages? That’s ok, bung in another coffee break brain-teaser).
For the first time in the colour era, the Daleks are the most interesting thing about this. When they’re on screen, Briant keep finds interesting, even iconic things to do with them. For example, the location film “root” attack on one of the Dalek guards, culminating in its dome exploding, is spectacular, and the inspiration for the most eye-catching of all the Target book covers. Even the studio work is pretty strong (including another “root” versus Dalek punch-up, weirdly cheered on by the Doctor). But for all Briant’s efforts, he can’t quite turn this sow’s ear into a silk purse.
Next episode: Death to the Daleks – Part Four
I’m raving a bit about Michael E Briant, but he’s the first director of the 1970s to get the Daleks just right. Notice the way they twitch angrily in their first meeting with the humans, giving every impression of containing the ‘living, bubbling lumps of hate’ the Doctor so vividly describes. It’s an impression that’s reinforced when one of the Daleks, unable to exterminate, loses its wits and careens suicidally into a gang of attacking Exxilons. The subsequent image of a burning Dalek is almost as iconic as the ones on Westminster Bridge. Even the voices are finally more or less as good (or, at least, as emotive) as they used to be. To be sure, he’s helped by a script that’s somewhat channelling The Power of the Daleks, with the Daleks having to act more cautiously than usual, and in alliance with lesser beings. But the technical brilliance grudgingly admired by the Doctor is clear from the way they quickly replace their useless ray guns with ‘primitive’ projectile weapons, quickly re-establishing their deadly ascendancy. I even like the Marmite joke of them using a miniature TARDIS as a target.
After the last serial featured a deserted London and attempt to roll back time to a pretend golden age, Death to the Daleks focuses on the search for a vaccine to a plague. It’s all a bit too close to the bone for my liking. This is an excellent, atmospheric opening: a misty, barren quarry; the TARDIS in darkness; loads of handheld camera work and some imaginative fades between scenes (the discussion of a photograph of the Exxilon city transitioning to Sarah Jane outside it). Michael E. Briant is no stranger to quarries posing as alien planets: he directed Colony in Space, which similarly featured a species of “savages” ruled by their High Priests in an ancient city, but his style has developed in the intervening three years and this looks as strong as the show has ever been.
‘Is everybody in this conspiracy,’ asks the Brigadier as the Doctor outlines General Finch’s part in the plot to frame him. The answer, pretty much, is yes. But that’s in part what gives this a modern, paranoid thriller style a long way from the criticised cosiness of something like The Time Monster. This time there’s no Master plotting world domination, or alien invaders to be beaten back. It’s all on us. Even our friend Mike Yates has fallen for the comfortable panacea offered by wiping the slate clean and starting again, to escape from a world that’s ‘too complicated and corrupt’.
Whittaker and Grover wax lyrical about rolling back time to a golden age, promising that although they’ve been misleading their followers, ‘we’re going to bring the past to them’ even if it means condemning the rest of the country while they pursue their dreams of growing their own food, making their own furniture and bringing it all back how it used to be. Their pernicious nostalgia, a pining to duck the difficult decisions and complexities of modern life in favour of clinging to a rose-tinted perception of an easier, happier past, suggests that the real dinosaurs are these fogeys.
This must be one of the thinnest scripts the series has had to date: whole stretches involve the Doctor driving round deserted London and lurking first in an abandoned tube station, and then an underground bunker, all in the name of playing catchup with Sarah Jane – who already discovered all of this last week. As such, it’s fine, but does feel like it’s just noodling on things we already know (for example, Mike Yates complaining again that he never agreed to murder the Doctor), and finishing with the implausible idea that the Doctor could be framed as the mastermind behind the Dinosaur invasion.
While it’s easy to over-state the differences between companions (they’re mostly there to ask questions, get into trouble and be the Doctor’s strength and weakness), the way they each fulfil their role can vary a lot. Dropping Sarah Jane into a UNIT story creates a very different dynamic than with Liz or Jo, both UNIT employees. Sarah needs both a reason to be accepted by the Brigadier, and a reason to want to stick around. Last episode dealt with the former essentially by having the Doctor appoint her his temporary assistant. This episode focuses on what’s in it for Sarah. She’s not getting paid to be the Doctor’s assistant, so she needs a different angle: a story, ideally with some juicy photos of a captive tyrannosaurus. Later, she smells something interesting about a secret nuclear reactor, and goes off to interview Sir Charles Grover MP in a very business-like way. The result in both cases is the same as would have happened with Jo: Sarah gets into danger. But the route to the result is quite different, and spices up what could have been fairly routine.