Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Curse of Peladon - "I wanted to save our world... to preserve the old ways. Perhaps I was wrong, Peladon. I hope so."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Curse of Peladon - Details

Season 9, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #61) | Previous - Next | Index

Image via Flight Through Eternity

For a show to run as long as Doctor Who, stories like this need to work. This isn't a tent-pole story. Neither a season premiere nor a finale. No major new villain is introduced. No companion joins or departs. There is no galactic-scale peril here. The very nature of time itself is not about to come undone. This is, by and large, meat and potatoes Doctor Who. It's not going to make anyone's Top 10 list, nor should it make anyone's Worst Of  Who list either.

If' it's unremarkable by most standards, that's not to say it does nothing either. For one, it's another break from Earth-bound, UNIT stories and brings the TARDIS (and even the Time Lords) back into play. As in "Terror of the Autons" and "Colony in Space", the Doctor is acting as an agent of the Time Lords to tackle some problem they aren't able to meddle in. "Terror" was set on Earth but, like "Colony", "Curse" takes us out into time and space again.

It's also timely. Not only considering the political situation of early-1970s UK and the questions then being debated about whether to join the European Economic Community (EEC). In 2014, the politics are still relevant as the EU wrestles with problems like Greece and the UK itself has Scotland considering independence. The Peladonians are concerned about being bullied by the larger, more advanced civilizations of the Federation (sounds more than a little Star Trek, doesn't it?) should they join. On the other hand, recognizing they could use a leg-up, is the opportunity to benefit from associations with more developed worlds to good to pass up?

In "Curse," Doctor Who seems to be saying joining the Federation (and by extension the EEC in the real world) is progress. Resisting progress based on superstition, xenophobia, fear of other cultures, is characterized as being backwards. I suspect that overtly political tone could alienate some. I'm all for progress, for example, but mineral-rich Peladon would seem to have every reason to be wary. Not all Federations are created equal.

The dynamic between King (well, pending coronation) Peladon and his High Priest Hepesh is well-played. The secular humanist in me can't help but note that the High Priest, whatever his good qualities, is fearful and duplicitous, and he is the one who is on the wrong side of history, as it were. Peladon is more forward-thinking and has the best interests of his people at heart, even as he recognizes Hepesh's concerns.

The TARDIS arrives on storm-ravaged, medieval Peladon just as a committee of delegates is convening to determine Peladon's fitness to join the Galactic Federation and the game is afoot. Who is behind the death of Peladon's Chancellor, is there really a mythical monster returning to punish the wicked, how long can the Doctor and Jo pass themselves off as Earth's delegate and a royal observer?

Oh, and how about those other delegates? Ice Warriors, but not ones bent on conquest; Arcturus, an awful little head in a tank (like a miniature Face of Boe); and the unforgettable spectacle of Alpha Centauri, the hermaphroditic, multi-armed, phallus in a cape. Jo's confustion about how to address her/him/it is quite understandable. Luckily, the Doctor matter-of-factly sets Jo straight and is utterly cool about the encounter. Shades of Nine at the End of the World, Three is quite cosmopolitan here. This may be the most progressive attitude on display and is remarkable for 1972. Of course, it's not exactly like having non-villainous humanoid who is genderqueer, but it's better than presenting as it something to be disgusted by or something to be mistrusted. Small steps.

The dynamic between King Peladon (David Troughton, Patrick's son), Jo, and the Doctor is fun to watch in this story. Despite Peladon's ridiculous high boots and short skirt royal garb, Jo is a bit smitten with him, and he with her. The Doctor also has to act as if Jo, Princess Josephine of TARDIS for purposes of maintaining their deception, is his superior and Pertwee plays his patrician Doctor straining at times to keep it up quite charmingly.

Pertwee also sells the Venusian lullaby and hypnotic aid he uses to tame Aggredor with absolute conviction. He's really very good in this one. All-in-all, I'm a bit shocked this story isn't more widely well thought of. For a less-impressed take, see Wife in Space's take on it. Sue correctly chastises the Doctor for being a bit prejudiced against the Ice Warriors and it's a reminder of how blasé Troughton's Doctor was about routing a ship full of Ice Warriors into the sun that one time.

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