An apartment building has its own culture and its own ecosystem, a delicate balance of personalities, schedules and ideals contained in a cramped space. From luxury high rises to slums, the problems of the world work themselves out in a microcosm. There’s violence, lust, sadness, starvation. The full range of the human experience. Throw in killer robots, Nazi-inspired thugs and a visit from the TARDIS and you’re got yourself a hell of a Doctor Who story.
In the making-of feature “Horror on the High Rise”, writer Stephen Wyatt and script editor Andrew Cartmel acknowledge the story’s debt to J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, a novel in which the residents of a luxury descend into madness, but Doctor Who always served as a gateway to other worlds for both its characters and its viewers. Here, the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and Mel (Bonnie Langdon) visit Paradise Towers, a sprawling apartment complex in the 22nd century, when Mel decides she desperately needs to go for a swim. (The TARDIS’s pool had to be abandoned after it sprung a leak.) It’s hardly the most interesting or plausible reason for traveling across the universe, but as a Macguffin it sets the tone for the humorous elements in the story.
They arrive at the Towers to find its promised splendor in disarray. Trash and graffiti line the wide corridors of the massive building. Soon the Doctor and Mel run afoul of a group of Kangs, a color-coded group of young women with names like Fire Escape (Julie Brennon) and Bin Liner (Annabel Yuresha). The Red Kangs’ punk rock hair and Mad Max clothes give them a feral look, and their mangling of language, in which they refer to the dead as “unalive”, lends an alien sheen to their world. Also, given the fashion trends and social strife of Great Britain in the ‘80s, the Kangs seem perilously close to girls from the real world.
The Towers are policed by Caretakers, leather-clad police in jackboots who rush onto the scene and send the Kangs scattering. The Chief Caretaker (Richard Briers) is an obvious Hitler analogue, his pale skin and neat mustache giving the severe intensity seen in footage of the Nazi leader. Brier’s performance also lends the role a needed bit of humor, as his character quotes in rapid fire succession obscure rules and regulations from slim rule book, each of which is enumerated with decimals and subsections.
The Doctor is captured by the Chief Caretaker who, believing the Time Lord to be the Great Architect of the Towers, orders him killed. Mel, meanwhile, drops in on the home of a couple of old ladies, Tilda (Brenda Bruce) and Tabby (Elizabeth Spriggs), who harbor dark secrets. The inevitable chase through the corridors of the Towers suggests a multitude of paths which the story could take. Though we only see a few of them, it’s implied there are people throughout the building, all of them waiting behind closed doors and representing different turns the story might have taken.
These possibilities remain alive as the Doctor escapes to find Mel, while she’s joined buy a do-gooder named Pex (Howard Cooke). The Chief Caretaker is revealed to be a Seymour Krelborn-type, using the ridiculous robot cleaners of the building to help feed a gurgling neon sign in the basement. By the end the story becomes a play on A Nightmare on Elm Street in which the spirit of the Great Architect, imprisoned in the building by the parents of the Kangs, seeks the destruction of the building’s inhabitants.
This narrative turn gives the story a resolution to work toward, something absent from the earlier scenes but not necessarily missing. Like the structure in which it’s set, “Paradise Towers” is often sprawling, ponderous, perhaps even a little lost in its own world. These sound like negatives but they’re not. It’s neither confused or confusing. Instead, it feels like writer Stephen Wyatt is merely enjoying moving his characters around in the the world he’s created. Indeed, Wyatt concedes he was making it up as he went along, playing with the ladies and tigers as he found them behind every opened door.
It’s the tigers, of course, that mark the best scene in the story. Mel returns to the home of Tabby and Tilda, to the great delight of the women. When she tells them it’s time for her to leave their smiling faces, caked with lurid makeup, turn grim. They close in on Mel and Tilda smothers her with a shawl while Tabby menaces her with a hot poker. Both women are soon dispatched by a errant household appliance, of all things, but their brief time as villains is as funny as it is horrifying.
In his second outing as the Doctor Sylvester McCoy had yet to make the character his own. Still, his performance is endearing, a cross between William Hartnell’s cantankerous old man and Tom Baker’s insanity.
“Paradise Towers” is a terrifying story with humorous themes and it is a humorous story with terrifying themes. The tension between these traits gives the story a crazed energy which makes the towers a great place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.
Bonus features include commentary, the making of and a spirited discussion between ‘80s-era companions Tegan (Janet Fielding), Ace (Sophie Aldred) and Nyssa (Sarah Sutton). A great animated opening introduces us to these women as they moderate themselves. They share a very frank discussion about their time on the show and its effect on their careers. It’s like listening to friends talk.
Fielding remarks on the show’s failure to get with the times in treating female characters appropriately, but admits the treatment of women has improved since her time on the show. What she probably didn’t know was that this feature is called “Girls! Girls! Girls!”, a title so condescending that it seems to have arrived out of the ‘60s courtesy of an old man in a blue police box.