Tower of Half Power

Doctor Who- Paradise Towers, recently out on dvd reviewed by Chris Arnsby

The furious fan reaction to series twenty four of Doctor Who casts a long shadow. Even now, twenty four years later -appropriately enough- writing a negative review feels like conforming to fan opinion while being positive seems deliberately contrary. And the problem is `Paradise Towers` doesn't deserve either slagging off or praising as an undiscovered classic. It's like `The Sun Makers`, or `Underworld`, or `The Mutants`, or `The Invisible Enemy`, or any of those stories which knock around mid-chart when someone does a survey of fan opinion. In short, it's average. A fun story with moments of inspiration let down by questionable production decisions and compromises due to budget and resources.

Stephen Wyatt's script is frequently very clever especially when it comes to inventing Kang slang; “ice hot”, “alleviator”, and “carrydors” It brings to mind the use of language in science-fiction to initially alienate but ultimately create a sense of a different place and time, as with Alan Moore's use of slang in Halo Jones or Jonn Brunner's books The Shockwave Rider, The Sheep Look Up and especially Stand On Zanzibar.

Wyatt's script is also frequently funny - “are these old ladies annoying you?”, “no”, “are you annoying these old ladies?” - but it's not all gold and what's needed is a script editor willing to go in and chop moments when dialogue becomes over-ripe; a prime example being the scene between Pex and Mel in the lift where they talk about what could go wrong, “if the lift gets stuck completely between floors”,just before each thing occurs.

As designer, Martin Collins has produced some really interesting multi-levelled sets. Studio bound stories normally take place on one level so it feels unusual to have sets where you are looking up, or down, on places you've already seen; the steep steps leading into the Kang's headquarters are a particularly inspired idea and the director uses them well in the action. Martin Collins also acknowledges the script's references to urban decay with some fantastic dusty and dirty corridors. Better still someone has told the lighting department to light the corridors sympathetically so we have a few scenes which look nice and atmospheric. But then costume go and spoil it all by making sure everyone in this collapsed society looks clean and well laundered, and dress Mel in blue polka dots, and the Chief Caretaker -in the `About Time` book's memorable phrase-  as a competitor in the SS Ice Dance finals.

This is of course 'the one with Richard Briers in', joining 'the one with the maggots', and 'the one with the spiders' in fan shorthand as if rather than the Chief Caretaker or Kroagnon, Richard Briers himself was the monster; and he probably was to some people. At the time it was very good casting, Ever Decreasing Circles was just about to start a fourth series and Briers was well known for playing this kind of petty rule loving character. For any casual viewers tuning in it was a good piece of publicity and useful character shorthand, not that there were many casual viewers in 1987 sadly. These days Richard Briers is more famous for The Good Life and Ever Decreasing Circles is largely, and undeservedly, forgotten so his casting just seems like another of John Nathan-Turner's questionable decisions; although again it already was to some people Personally I think Briers is walking a very fine line between overacting and extracting the maximum possible humour from the part. It doesn't always work and the costume means the audience regards the part as a send up from the moment the Chief Caretaker appears on screen.

Director Nicholas Mallet produces better work than he did on `The Mysterious Planet` where atmospheric location filming contrasted disappointingly with boring studio work. There's a lovely moment in part 3 when Mel and Pex run into a lift. Mel jabs the lift button, to close the door as a cleaner trundles towards them. Written down it's nothing special but  in studio Nicholas Mallet positions what must be a hand-held camera in the lift so that in one unbroken shot the audience sees Mel and Pex run into the lift, and then our viewpoint moves to look over their shoulders at the cleaner -moving at a fair old speed down the corridor (I wonder if they sped up the footage?). Then, once the door slides closed, Pex steps towards the back of the lift and the cameraman has to move out of his way, a simple but effective way of bringing the audience into the story.

That lift scene occurs just before the one I complained about where Mel and Pex share some duff banter. And that's` Paradise Tower`s, a nice moment being undercut by a poor one. There's another in part 4 after Kroagnon has taken over the Chief Caretaker's body. I can see that Briers is trying to play the part like someone struggling in an unfamiliar body, and I can see that the grey make-up on his face makes him look like a freshly dead corpse. But what we get on screen is Briers flailing around and grunting, wearing that costume, while the lighting makes his face look silver painted. Like the tenth Doctor I just want to say, “no, don't do that,” to everyone concerned. Even Stephen Wyatt's decision to name the character Kroagnon doesn't help. It sounds like the sort of stupid name Douglas Adams used to come up with when he couldn't be bothered to have another bath or make a fresh cup of tea.

`Paradise Towers` represents the series in transition. All the regulars involved will produce better work later on. Nicholas Mallet will direct `The Curse Of Fenric`. Stephen Wyatt will write `The Greatest Show In The Galaxy`. Andrew Cartmel will start moving the series in a new direction. John Nathan-Turner's guest casting policy will produce unexpected results with Nicholas Parsons and Hale and Pace. Sylvester McCoy will really get a grip on the part once Sophie Aldred arrives. Even Bonnie Langford will be better in `Delta And The Bannermen` and `Dragonfire`. `Paradise Towers` may not be a good story but it's a great foundation.

"I 'ate you  Doctor!"

1 comment:

  1. Didn't Briers play a broadly similar (though not alien) character in a Minder guest spot?