5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE CURSE OF PELADON
"His manifestation, as you call it, is solid hairy fat!"
Wow! What a gem!
We knew Curse Of Peladon was a budget-driven bottle show, so we weren't expecting too much. After the lavish location shooting of the previous episodes, we thought a studio-based show would seem dull and cramped in comparison, but instead it knocked our socks off.
The virtue-out-of-necessity studio setting creates a fantastic atmosphere of brooding claustrophobia, reinforced by the astonishingly effective scenes set on the sheer cliffs. The scene of the Doctor and Jo barely managing to escape the TARDIS before it falls down the cliff sets the pace right from the outset and makes a refreshing change from the TARDIS crew's usual pattern of becoming more gradually involved in events. (It's also long overdue - isn't it awfully convenient the way the TARDIS always finds a nice flat bit to land on?) And even though we know it's indestructible (if we don't read the BBC books, that is), watching the TARDIS fall is a shocking sight. Apart from the fakey drawing of the citadel, this beginning really is a masterstroke - if the TARDIS had simply landed inside, the story may well have struck us as a lot duller.
After this slam-bang beginning, Curse Of Peladon settles down into a strongly character-driven story dripping with intrigue. Essentially, it's a country house murder mystery with a cute furry teddy bear grafted on, but along the way it manages to plumb some powerful psychological depths. As a pleasant change after countless villains who are evil just because they feel like it, none of the characters here are black and white - Hepesh is driven by his belief in what's best for Peladon, and even Arcturus has his reasons for what he does.
The same goes for the good characters - King Peladon is well-intentioned but weak, and the Ice Warriors are complicated by what we know of their history. And Alpha Centauri's neither noble nor evil, but simply and believably scared - a Vila in large green unfortunately-shaped form. Nice. There's some excellent acting here, too - King Peladon makes a particular impact in the first episode, giving the part an almost Shakespearean gravitas. His dad must have been proud.
And while we're talking about character, how about that Jo, eh? She undergoes a gobsmacking transformation in this, going from a witless moron to a companion who's actually smart and capable. She nips off for a recce behind the delegates' backs without stuffing it up, she deals adroitly with King Peladon, she doesn't stand and scream when she sees Aggedor, and she shows great courage when confronting the Ice Warriors and on the ledge. What a difference from the helpless chick snivelling "I'm frightened!" only a couple of adventures back. (Actually, she reminds us a lot of Sarah Jane.)
And the relationship between the Doctor and Jo is very interesting in this, too. The Third Doctor is probably the most human of all the Doctors, and he certainly wears his hearts on his sleeve here in a way no other Doctor does. It's a lovely moment when he can't deny Jo's accurate accusation of him enjoying "all the chairman delegate stuff", and when he ripostes by asking her how she likes being a Princess, it's done with astonishing affection. And there's a very similar moment at the end when he tells her that if she stayed on Peladon he'd miss her too much.
As ever, it's not perfect, of course. After a very strong first three episodes, the fourth lacks impact - all the important stuff has already been done by then, and things tail off tamely in a welter of lengthy explanations. Aggedor is rather too adorable to be scary. Alpha Centauri - oh, dear. And there are some unfortunate plot holes: why does King Peladon totally ignore the Doctor - twice! - when he tells him about the tunnels underneath the citadel? Why has King Peladon never noticed the entrance to the tunnels in the shrine, which is described as "concealed" but which looks like a whacking great door to us? Are we really supposed to believe that King Peladon and Jo are madly in love when they've only seen each other for total of about five minutes, during half of which Jo's pissed off at him? And why can't Jo stay on Peladon, anyway? But these are minor detractions from what overall is a stonkingly successful adventure.
MORAL: If you can’t lie your way out of a situation, try yodelling.
ELEMENTARY, MY DEAR WATSON
The Doctor's honey-coloured velvet jacket is yummy, but that tartan coat should have been buried under three feet of radioactive slag.
FREEZE. FASHION POLICE
Jo's pink frock throws new confusion on the question of UNIT dating, as we can't believe there's any era in which that would have been considered attractive.
NO, HONESTLY, HE’S REALLY…UM…
Jo says that she's dressed up "for a night on the town with Mike Yates", perpetuating the half-hearted backstory that there's some kind of romance simmering between them. Why did they bother? We might find it more believable if Yates didn't have the dangerous sexual allure of a lump of cold porridge.
BLOWING HOT AND COLD
Just what temperature is it in the citadel? It sort of looks cold, and the Doctor sprawled fetchingly on a bed of fur seems to be evidence for this. On the other hand, the soldiers are very skimpily dressed and the King's tricked out in a chilly (and gigglesome) little skirt. Maybe they don't feel the cold.
There's a fabulous conversation between the Doctor and Hepesh about superstition that makes us forget (again) that this is supposed to be a children's programme.
PUSH PINEAPPLES, SHAKE THE TREE
The whole Aggedor thing is a bit sad. It seems he's only there to fill the compulsory monster quotient, and he really doesn't add much. What's more, it means we're subjected to those embarrassing scenes where the Doctor's crooning at him. A behind the sofa moment if ever there was one.
THAT’S NOT FAIR. AND BESIDES, HE STARTED IT
The Doctor's fight scene is a real tour de force for the director - the combination of overhead shots, terrific angles and Steadicam-type footage are brilliantly done. Why, though, is Hepesh allowed to throw the King's champion a new weapon? And given his adherence to tradition, why doesn't King Peladon insist that they fight to the death?