This story had been hyped as something of another Vengeance on Varos, not particularly
encouraging, since Vengeance on Varos had itself been hyped as another Caves of Androzani.
Nevertheless, the plot of Paradise Towers had various political overtones and took upon
itself to make various political comments; this was a Good Thing, as it indicated a desire
on Stephen Wyatt's part to take advantage of the scope for allegory offered by the sci-fi
genre. Unfortunately, the subjects chosen for comment left a lot to be desired. The theme
of the effects on people of television and televised violence was a rich, untapped vein
which Philip Martin exploited within the Doctor Who format with some degree of success.
What, by contrast, did Paradise Towers have to offer? The concept of vicious urban
anarchy, presided over by a brutally authoritarian "government" that virtually
refuses to even acknowledge the breakdown of society, has been utilised so many times on
film and television in recent years that it has become a tad worn - almost a standard
format, in fact.
True, the microcosmic setting of a once-luxury block of flats, Paradise Towers, was a
very good twist on the stale theme, allowing a few digs to be made at modern
"architecture", but it was an innovation largely negated by the depressingly
lacklustre and antiseptic production values. Suspiciously clean, bright and deserted
corridors proliferated. Roaming gangs consisted of a few extras sporting toy crossbows
which were hardly ever used. In fact, as far as I could tell, the violence and squalor of
a decaying society were meant to be conveyed by the odd bit of graffiti!
This utter lack of any sense of danger underpinned the whole adventure, and in Doctor
Who, no danger = no drama. Consider the "Caretakers". As mentioned above,
futuristic neo-Nazi regimes are a sci-fi cliche, but if you are going to portray one, you
might as well treat the subject with deadly seriousness and so extract its full dramatic
value. Few Doctor Who stories have better encapsulated the thinking behind fascism than
Genesis of the Daleks ; few stories have more brilliantly captured the suffocating,
uncertain terror of actually living in a police state than Inferno. Yes, the subject does
allow for humour; but if the dramatic tension is not to be dissipated the humour should
consist of the sort of blackly funny moments which naturally shed light on the nature of
totalitarianism itself: eg. the Brigade-Leader's fist-brained insistence on following
orders while the world goes up in smoke around him; or General Ravon's habit of launching
into bellowing eulogies on Davros' reinforced concrete. Drama is not sustained by bellhop
uniforms, silly "Hitler moustache" salutes, or such teeth-grittingly unfunny
moments as the Doctor's use of an imaginary clause in the rule-book to trick his guards
into allowing him to escape in episode two. Impossible to take seriously, scenes like this
are not remotely amusing or "witty" - just embarrassing and slapstick.
If the Caretakers were poor villains in conception and presentation, the "Mark 7
Megapodic Cleaners" were bloody awful monsters : stupid plastic Tonka toys trundling
at a snail's pace along the corridors with no visual impact whatsoever. They certainly
didn't stand comparison with the War Machines of twenty-two (count them) years ago. The
War Machines, too, were basically square boxes on wheels, but such was their sheer size
that they packed one helluva visual punch. This formidable bulk, numerous close-ups of
malignantly-glaring sensor lights, and the ever-present electronic battering sound of
their computer systems all combined to create quite a memorable monster. The Megapodic
Cleaners, by contrast, will swiftly join the ever-growing ranks of instantly forgettable
creations, along with the service robot L1. The ludicrous sight of their victims' feet
protruding from their little trailers didn't exactly help in this respect; neither did the
fact that a single crossbow-bolt sufficed to destroy one.
The final unveiling of Croagnon, the "Great Architect" him/itself, did not
exactly compensate for the failure of the Cleaners to provide a credible menace. The
audience having been duly wound up, the "thing lurking in the basement" turned
out to consist, as far as I could make out, of a booming voice, a couple of neon coils and
a few lashings of dry ice. Feeble. If you think I'm making too much of a fuss about
monsters, bear in mind that the presentation of visually fascinating and believable
creations was no small factor in Doctor Who's original success and continuing popularity
among the general public. A nasty vacuum at the heart of this story was the inevitable
outcome of the lack of a decent monster or villain.
But it wasn't all bad. The nuts and bolts of the storyline all seemed to hang together
pretty solidly on the most basic level, with no recourse to reams of meaningless
pseudoscience being produced as a substitute for proper explanations a la Time and the
Rani. (Although I'm not entirely sure why the Great Architect had been banished to the
basement in the first place, or why exactly he wanted to kill off all the residents of
Paradise Towers.) If the basic narrative had any flaw it lay in the reappearance of our
old friend the Story Signpost Syndrome. The idea of Pex being a "scaredy-cat"
was bludgeoned home at every available opportunity, with the result that all but the most
obtuse of viewers soon twigged that he would heroically sacrifice his own life to save the
day - almost as heavy-handed as the plotting of Warriors of the Deep, with its
Hexachromite gas, or The Visitation, where you could literally predict the last shot after
the first episode.
Good acting can usually overcome such trivial flaws in the storyline, however (and I
accept that it was a trivial flaw), and I have to admit that for the first three episodes
solid acting compensated somewhat for the lightweight script and production values. Bonnie
Langford's Mel suddenly seemed to improve with this story, appearing far more natural and
likeable than before, which was a pleasant surprise. Sylvester's performance also seemed
rather more polished - at least here there was no obvious reading of idiot-boards and
staring off-screen for his cue, as in 'Rani - although he still occasionally succumbed to
attacks of the sillies (eg. his facial expressions at the end of part three when being
throttled by a Cleaner).
As for the rest, Pex, the Kangs and the Rezzies were all portrayed surprisingly well
considering the limitations inherent in the scripting (the Kangs' futuristic argot soon
became an obtrusive irritation, while the Rezzies' cannibalism was never really integrated
into the storyline as well as it might have been. And I have to confess that I (initially)
quite enjoyed the Richard Briers/Clive Merrison combination, with both actors (initially)
treading the fine line between drama and comedy quite well. Since, in the event, the
neo-Nazi element was not treated in a grimly realistic manner, more should at least have
been made of the interesting theme that did seem to lie beneath the surface of the script
: the idea of a pair of whining petty bureaucrats placed by circumstances in positions of
great power and lacking the ability to fill the post adequately. Still, I suppose we can't
have everything, and, as I said, the pair's acting was okay in a gently humorous manner (I
particularly liked Briers' vaguely South Efrican eccent).
For the first three episodes, then, decent performances from all concerned sufficed to
retain my interest. Then along came episode four and everything went ape. The spectacle of
Richard Briers lurching around like Herman Munster with constipation, rolling his eyes and
bellowing in a funny voice, was just in a class of its own for sheer transcendental
idiocy. It takes a unique kind of genius among actors and production team to turn
possession into one of the most embarrassing concepts imaginable. A sorry end for what had
been up to then a story almost worth watching.
Overall, I felt Paradise Towers was a rather dreary little adventure, one which will
soon fade into oblivion. It wasn't actually that bad, in spite of part four, just
eminently dull and forgettable - visually drab, slow-moving and too unoriginal in its
attempts to be thought-provoking to provide any intellectual stimulation. However, as a
definite improvement over Time and the Rani, it did, for all its faults, provide some sort
of basis for optimism : would the rest of the twenty-fourth season continue the upward
trend established by Paradise Towers ? That was the question.
"Who strangles in the strings of purse,
Before she mends, must sicken worse"
- Robert Graves, "I, Claudius".
It was great when it all began, by Andrew Day
Time and the Rani review by Ian Levy
Issue two contents
Five Hundred Eyes index