[25 June 2010]
I’m still learning to watch Doctor Who. As a novice with just a few serials under my belt, I’m struck by what seems to be a total absence of the tidy moral lesson at the end of the story, or even of the humorous tag like those seen at the end of most episodes of the original Star Trek. There are lessons and simple summaries of good and evil, but stories like The Monster of Peladon deliver these almost without notice. They slip in over the course of the episodes, and maybe the viewer can’t easily articulate what they’ve learned, but the lesson is still there.
In this story, the Doctor (Jon Pertwee) revisits the planet Peladon 50 years after the events of “The Curse of Peladon” to find the King dead and his daughter, Thalira (Nina Thomas), ruling in his place. Thalira’s position is only ceremonial due to her being a female, she says. The real power lies with Chancellor Ortron (Frank Gatliff), a dastardly aristocrat with a striped red and white beard and flowing purple robes.
When the Doctor and his companion Sara Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) arrive, a dispute is brewing between the aristocratic class and the working class miners. Working conditions are bad and wages are low for the miners, and they’re unhappy about mining a special ore that will help the Galactic Federation in its war with Galaxy Five. Relations between the aristocrats and miners deteriorate further when a ghostly apparition of the Peladonian holy beast Aggedor (Nick Hobbs) appears in the mines and beings killing the workers. Sarah and the Doctor investigate and uncover a conspiracy that threatens the lives of all the citizens of Peladon.
The debate between the miners and aristocrats brings to mind the political nonsense that composed the plot to the first Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace. There are talks of embargoes and labor strikes, hardly the kind of thing one would generally associate with exciting science fiction. Here, though, there are plenty of double crosses and unlikely team-ups, as well as humor, something sorely missing from The Phantom Menace.
The action, cramped sword fights between the furry-headed miners and the Queen’s soldiers, has a clumsy realism that balances out all the political intrigue. Much of the action takes place off screen, creating a palpable sense of action that permeates every scene.
The Monster of Peladon is broken into six episodes instead of the usual four, giving the story more time to develop and allowing the plot to continue to twist toward its resolution. The cliffhanger structure of each episode gives the story a propulsive feeling, but the length of the story at times overwhelms the plot. The Doctor is believed dead not once but twice in the six episodes, a move designed to wring a few more scenes out of the story as it’s winding down.
As the story continues, the miners and the aristocrats join forces against corrupt Federation representative Azaxyr (Alan Bennion) and Eckersley (Donald Gee), the engineer in charge of extracting the ore from the mountains of Peladon. Sarah Jane, looking like a cross between Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde, gives Thalira a lesson in women’s liberation—“There’s nothing only about being a girl!”—giving the Queen the will to stand up for herself and her people.
There’s a great beat at the end in which the Doctor advises the Queen to invite Gebek (Rex Robinson), leader of the miners, to replace the deceased Chancellor Ortron. When the Doctor and Sarah leave, Thalira calls to Gebek. He turns to her and says, “Yes, your Majesty?” and the camera cuts away. We know what happens, of course, but are spared any platitudes about equality and the meaninglessness of class or rank. Again, the lesson is there, but it’s up to the viewer to learn it.
This is a big and sprawling story. Some themes—sexism, tradition versus progress—are dropped then picked back up before being resolved or abandoned entirely, giving the impression the story might have gone in a completely different direction if time weren’t an issue. The Monster of Peladon is an exciting story that, despite a few stumbles, never falls into the narrative traps in its way.
Bonus features include a lengthy making-of featurette, audio commentary with Nina Thomas, Donald Gee and others, as well as an appreciation of script editor and Doctor Who novelist Terrance Dicks.