There’s a line in this episode which goes without comment, but recognises that the new format invented by Derrick Sherwin in 1969 has been abandoned: ‘This is the TARDIS’s first test flight since I got it working again.’ Unlike Colony in Space, which (we’re reminded here) required a set-up scene with the Time Lords, here it’s almost taken for granted that the Doctor is a time and space traveller again (and has bought himself a fancy new orange jacket to celebrate). But for now, to all intents and purposes, the Daleks are back, the Doctor has the ability, however badly, to pilot the TARDIS, and UNIT are nowhere to be seen. Letts and Dicks have successfully reasserted the status quo ante-Sherwin.
It’s quite fun that the first alien planet the TARDIS takes them to looks like medieval Earth, with fur-clad priests, burning torches and stone castles. Which is all blown out of the water in the first lines of dialogue talking about delegates from Alpha Centauri and Earth. It’s the kind of bizarre juxtaposition that the show used to thrive on, and one they’ve never really tried before (most 1960s space stories took place either in harsh alien environments like jungles or ice-worlds, or in gleaming hi-tech futures). I suppose the closest is The Underwater Menace with its odd placement of Zaroff’s scientific laboratory alongside the temple of the Fish God Amdo.
Belying the fact that this was the “cheapie” serial, the alien delegates are a pleasingly odd bunch: not just the Ice Warriors (presumably reasonably familiar to a chunk of the audience), but Arcturus, Medusa in a disco gunk tank, and Alpha Centauri which, in director Lennie Mayne’s words, is a dick in a cloak. It’s sort of Star Trek: Journey to Babel (or, if you like, the Mission to the Unknown). It’s also very Hound of the Baskervilles, with the fourth monster, a barely-glimpsed, huge furry creature enacting a curse on the enemies of Peladon.
I really like all of this. I also really like Jon Pertwee’s performance. He always seems to put in extra effort when he doesn’t have the UNIT Fam hanging about. We saw it in Inferno and Day of the Daleks, and it’s apparent again here. His gay abandon at exploring the cliffside while Jo scrabbles about in her Debenhams gown is great, and his quick, respectful adoption of the local custom of bowing with one hand across the chest is very like Sylvester McCoy’s greeting to the Kangs in Paradise Towers. Best of all is his forlorn expression when Jo flirts with the King (she has a thing for men who are half human on their mother’s side) and describes her arrival on Peladon: ‘The whole affair was most deplorable. The pilot was exceedingly inefficient.’
All the details here work really well, from the Doctor’s instant suspicion of the Ice Warriors, to the neatly established conflict that will drive the plot: Peladon’s conservative and liberal factions pushing for either clinging to the old traditions and superstitions or opting for openness as a member of the Galactic Federation. Anyone who gave this any thought in 1972 or subsequently will recognise the obvious parallels with the EEC membership debate, and, as events continue to prove, the credibly vicious extremism that poisons the discourse. As a candidate planet for the Federation, Peladon does seem too trapped in its own past and xenophobic to be a viable member, and the Draconian attitude towards women is a mark against it.
Next episode: The Curse of Peladon – Episode Two