Review by Jacob Licklider
The 1963-1989 run of Doctor Who is fascinating in the fact that in the 160 serials (including The TV Movie in 1996), there are few stories that are direct sequels to previous stories, much less sequels within the same production team. Generally the closest you would get are stories like Attack of the Cybermen doing a sequel to The Tenth Planet and Attack of the Cybermen over a decade after the prequel’s release or Snakedance to Kinda and Mindwarp to Vengeance on Varos essentially being extensions of the themes of the previous story, but doing its own thing. The Curse of Peladon and The Monster of Peladon are an oddity as they both share the same setting, several of the characters, and feel like a natural extension of the same story. Peladon being the setting of both is a big factor in why the two stories feel so connected, the sets are the same and it feels like the planet is evolving and changing. The Curse of Peladon aired as the second story from Season 9 beginning at the end of January 1972, so as it is the 50th anniversary of Episode One while I am writing this, Big Finish Productions are celebrating with Peladon, a four story box set revisiting the planet throughout its history as well as continue the spirit of Peladon stories in reflecting the politics of the real world using allegory for a stark contrast of the good and bad of today’s world.
David Troughton’s King Peladon returns in the opening story of the set, The Ordeal of Peladon from Jonathan Barnes and Robert Valentine. This was the story the set was initially pitched on, the implication being that David Troughton would be leading all four stories. Sadly, he only appears here, but Barnes and Valentine leave it open so if there is a sequel set he can return. The Ordeal of Peladon is a direct sequel to The Curse of Peladon, set years after, and representing the benevolent monarch. King Peladon is a monarch who cares for his people and is active in attempts to help his people. This story mainly tells of one such instance where he leaves his keep and goes among the common men, becoming embroiled in a religious cult worshiping Skarn, a religious prophet who apparently can perform miracles (and the miracle performed is surprising), which sets up much of the box set where Peladon is set to devolve, partially due to the fact that they do not move on from monarchy. Skarn is an interesting character as Barnes and Valentine write him as this fanatic, and Ashley Zhangazha’s performance is this nice mix of threatening and religious fervour. It is David Troughton, however, who steals the show and leads the performance, proving that if he wished he could lead an entire box set, making it a slight shame that he doesn’t. The theme for King Peladon is wishing to be both a good ruler and a good father, in doing both attempting to ensure that Peladon will be in the safe hands of his daughter, Thalira, who will be queen in The Monster of Peladon and the second story of the box set. Nicholas Briggs is also brilliant here and in the other stories where he appears as various Ice Warriors, getting to give the Martians incredible range throughout the set. There is a twist to the story which while enjoyable to listen to feels ever so slightly forced as it involves a surprise appearance which is acted well and written well, but has the problem of taking the listener out of the story. Still, the tone is set and the themes for Peladon are laid out wonderfully. 8/10.
The Poison of Peladon continues the set with Lizzie Hopley shifting from an intimate character drama to a political thriller starring River Song, Alpha Centauri, and Queen Thalira. Thalira is here played by Deborah Findlay with Jane Goddard returning as Alpha Centauri. Like The Ordeal of Peladon, The Poison of Peladon includes themes of religion leading to uprising as River disguises herself for much of the first half of the story as a high priestess while rumours of an uprising create a danger. As the title suggests, there is a poisoning, although it goes awry in the end, it builds up the political intrigue. The chemistry between Alex Kingston and Jane Goddard is the highlight of the story, it ranging from flirty to friendly to adversarial throughout the story which makes for some interesting character work from Hopley. As a story, The Poison of Peladon is perhaps the most derivative of The Curse of Peladon and The Monster of Peladon, especially with how Alpha Centauri is used as a representative for the Federation and much of the story relying on themes of women’s liberation, building off The Monster of Peladon, and Peladon entering the Federation in The Curse of Peladon. Having the focus on River for the story does much to mitigate this just being a retread of other Peladon stories, elevating it above what it could easily have become. Hopley’s script also delights in creating political intrigue as there are red herrings in the plot as to who could be doing the poisoning, with the supporting cast having their own motivations as to why they might wish to poison the queen. It makes for a very fun little piece of political drama. 7/10.
Mark Wright’s The Death of Peladon moves things past anything in the timeline of Peladon we have seen on television and is where the political commentary of the set begins to kick into high gear. The first two stories mainly have been musing on what it means to be an effective leader, while Wright’s script shifts dramatically to an anti-capitalist story about the overuse of resources and climate change. Peladon is an Earth-like planet and trisilicate is used as our resource of choice, and the Doctor and Mel Bush arrive to find a once green forest on Peladon a barren landscape while the Federation just takes and takes, and workers who in The Monster of Peladon did everything in their power to gain rights, have had those rights stripped away from them bit by bit, slowly over the course of many years before being replaced with slaves, reflecting the current attitudes of labor being replaced to cheaper alternatives as well as comments on how large corporations will use slave labor. It is a biting hour long episode, but all told through an almost optimistic lens. Using Mel Bush as a companion helps this optimism as that is the character trait that defines her and Bonnie Langford gives one of her best performances in the role. Gone is the screamer, and in her place is the level headed computer programmer ready to fight for what is right in the universe. Langford’s chemistry with Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor also shines through, even when they are split up for much of the episode with the Doctor in the court and Mel seeing the effects of over-mining of trisilicate first hand including the water pollution which has been slowly killing the planet. It is a brilliant hour long piece from start to finish, bolstered by what comes next. 10/10.
Peladon ends with The Truth of Peladon by Tim Foley and while The Death of Peladon showed what happened to cause environmental disaster, Tim Foley approaches similar situations with a look on apathy. This story is about how the apathy of the people of a civilisation can be equally responsible for the downfall. While fascist regimes may have their charismatic leader and loyal followers, it is the apathetic who find themselves responsible and this story explores that through Arla Deanto, played by Meera Syal, a seamstress who keeps her head to the ground as her planet continues to fall down dark days into a fascist monarchy. She is commissioned by Chancellor Bartok, played by Jason Watkins, to weave a cloak out of the fur of Aggedor for the new monarch as the old ruler is dead (even if the public do not know that yet). She has been given an assistant in a stranger known only as the Doctor, played by Paul McGann, who seems to have contacts with Martian and Federation insurgents (Ice Warriors played by Nicholas Briggs). Only using four performers for this story means that the intimacy of Foley’s script is brought to the forefront, as well as a genuine sense of discomfort for the listener as they must also come to reckon with Arla what they are doing in their society, are they being apathetic or are they contributing to make the world a better place? McGann gives this brilliant little speech at the end about the responsibilities of being alive and having to reckon with the actions of the past, beautifully written and performed, which reflects much of what is happening in the world. We are living in the third year of a pandemic, the United States is a year out from an attempted coup, and another war seems to be brewing, but a story like this is essentially a call to action, to rise above a state of apathy and not just sit idly by. 10/10.
Peladon is a thematic set which eventually ends with a story that contextualises everything that has come before. There are beautiful performances, places to go for a potential sequel just as engaging as the original, and an elevation above simply retreading the two Peladon television stories. 8.75/10.
Order on CD/Download from Big Finish
Order on CD from Forbidden Planet
Check out the rest of our Big Finish reviews!