Doctor Who Project: The Curse of Peladon

Doctor Who Project: The Curse of Peladon
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Your legend seems violent and unpleasant, and rather too convenient.

The originators of Doctor Who‘s most iconic foes tend to be a bit protective of them (see: Nation, Terry, et al.), making Brian Hayles’ use of his Ice Warriors in “The Curse of Peladon” (Story Production Code MMM) quite refreshing. The Martian militarists’ prior two appearances (“The Ice Warriors” and “The Seeds of Death“) established them as honor-bound but utterly ruthless in their warlike tendencies. Here, in a story set in some vaguely defined far-future where Earth is part of a Galactic Federation, they retain their honorable mores but have committed themselves to…peace?

The Ice Warrior delegation to Peladon

Just so, and the tension between the audience’s expectations that the Ice Warriors will turn out to be the villains in this piece about court intrigues on a primitive planet and their actual motives drives much of the story’s interest. The Doctor himself sustains this uncertainty, darkly warning Jo that he’s dealt with them before, and he flatly accuses Delegate Izlyr of sabotaging the Federation’s efforts at bringing the planet Peladon into the alliance. It’s unlike the Doctor to be wrong like this, and to his credit Hayles never quite allows the Ice Warriors to escape beyond suspicion even after the real foes have been revealed, keeping this four episode story flowing.

Taming the Aggedor

And yet even at the end, the Doctor is never called to task for having mistrusted the Ice Warriors. It’s particularly interesting that the Doctor cannot see past his own admittedly well-earned prejudices where the Martians are concerned in the same story where he seeks to hypnotize and tame a giant beast that has haunted this planet for generations, one that slips out of his control and kills the High Priest of Peladon.

He has more faith in the inherent innocence of this vicious beast than in the possibility that the Ice Warriors could have changed over hundreds (or thousands) of years. Ever since the end of “The War Games,” the Doctor’s attitude towards his traditional foes has been stuck in a rut, where there’s no room for analysis or question; they’re just evil, an evil that must be removed from the universe. Slightly awkward, then, that here the Ice Warriors save the Doctor from disintegration at the hands (er, liquid-filled servo-arms) of a Dalek wannabe.

Totally not a Dalek

The Time Lords use one of the Doctor’s incessant tests of the TARDIS to whisk him and Jo to Peladon, at the precise moment the Doctor later regards as the critical juncture of Peladonian history. This marks the second hijacking of the TARDIS to influence events (the first being the confrontation between colonists and the Intergalactic Mining Corporation in “Colony in Space“). At least some faction of the Time Lords, then, has taken the Doctor’s insistence on interfering with history to heart(s), dispatching him as required to interstellar hotspots.

Our time travellers find themselves mistaken as the Federation delegates from Earth, part of a team sent to integrate this backwards and unsophisticated planet into the Galactic Federation. Joining them are the previously mentioned Ice Warriors, who apparently have little knowledge of Earth’s diplomatic leadership despite being from one planet over in the Solar System; Delegate Arcturus, looking for all the world like a cross between a Dalek, a Quark, and an IMC mining robot (and possibly cobbled together by the effects team from bits of all three); and Delegate Alpha Centauri, a mono-eyed hexapod with a cautious manner.

The assembled delegates

The High Priest of Peladon, Hepesh, has been convinced by Arcturus that Federation membership will spell slavery for Peladon and the end of its ancestral ways, driving the tradition-bound royal adviser to plot against his own king, the young (and eponymous) Peladon. In turn, Arcturus hopes to gain the planet’s prodigious mineral resources for his own planet’s use. The two of them conspire to frame the Ice Warriors, whose reputation certainly preceeds them and who have previously been at war with the Arcturians, with an attempt on Arcturus’ life.

Beware the Aggedor!

The Doctor quickly becomes the greater threat, though, by uncovering hidden passages under the royal castle that Hepesh has been using to hide the Aggedor, a beast of legend from Peladon’s past. Hepesh brings the Aggedor out of hiding in order to scare the king and his retinue into believing that the ancient (and titular) Curse of Peladon has roused the spirit of Aggedor. The proposed alliance with the Federation represents an abandoment of the old ways, and Aggedor will not allow such sacrilege. Hepesh accuses the Doctor of trespassing in sacred areas, the penalty for which is death by combat.

All of this skullduggery leads to the action portion of our proceedings, involving a stuntperson in an unconvincing Jon Pertwee wig in a cage fight with the exceedingly tall Royal Champion, Grun. When, after several minutes of dancing around a roped-in pit, the Doctor bests Grun without once resorting to Venusian Akido, Arcturus decides to eliminate the Doctor himself, but the Ice Warrior aide-de-camp, Sorg, shoots the rogue delegate with a weapon he just happened to bring with him to the trial by combat.

Two men enter, you know the rest

Jo questions the Ice Warriors as to why they have gone to such lengths to save the Doctor, and Delegate Izlyr seems surprised, noting that he owes his life to the Doctor for previously saving him from a falling statue (one of Hepesh’s early attempts to sabotage the Federation delegation). As an Ice Warrior, he simply could not let that debt go unpaid.

Unlike with the Daleks or Cybermen, there’s no collective memory of a foe named “the Doctor,” apparently, despite the Second Doctor having condemned an entire fleet of Ice Warriors to a fiery death in the sun (and possibly having condemned the species to extinction on a dying Mars). It’s a convenient elision in canon, explicable via the uncertain time that has elapsed between “The Seeds of Death” and “The Curse of Peladon,” perhaps, but nevertheless, the Doctor’s last encounter with the Ice Warriors ranks up there with his more ruthless actions. You’d think the Ice Warriors would at least remember the guy’s nom de guerre.

Regardless, I’m pleased that they have either forgiven or forgotten, because the ability of the series to change the attitude of a quasi-iconic foe bodes well for more nuanced “villains” in the future. In part, credit must go to Brian Hayles, whose original Ice Warrior story similarly avoided stark black and white delineations. And, as he demonstrated in his second Ice Warrior story with the figure of Gia Kelly, he has a deft touch with writing strong roles for female actors.

Here, he gives Katy Manning her finest opportunity to date, with Jo Grant firmly central to the plot. She only gets captured once, even!

King Peladon and Jo

From the beginning of the story, Jo’s quick thinking keeps her and the Doctor safe. Upon being warned that the penalty for women of non-royal blood being in the throne room is death, she insists that the Doctor immediately introduce her to the king. The Doctor takes her lead, and thus “Princess Josephine of TARDIS” is christened on the spot. Luckily she was going out on a date with Mike Yates prior to being caught up in the quick test flight of the TARDIS that led them here, as she looks the part of a princess in a long flowing pink dress.

The Doctor, usually sparing with compliments, calls her “brave,” as she charges at an almost-tamed Aggedor. Though it ruins what the Doctor was attempting, he sees her willingness to risk her own life to save him; even the mighty Grun cowers at the sight of this beast. Further, he entrusts her with significant responsibilities throughout the course of the story. At one crucial juncture, where the Federation delegates must agree unanimously to intervene in a potential civil war on Peladon, he says:

Doctor: Jo, I want you to go ahead and take charge of the conference. Work on Centauri. Once you’ve got an unanimous decision, act.

Finally, here, Jo and the Doctor are working as effective co-equals, for the first time in her seven stories to date, and Jo receives a great deal of independent screen time. When she has to leave King Peladon, who has taken quite a fancy to her (and, sorry, Mike Yates, but it seems mutual), the parting has weight. For all the romantic attachments that companions have been shoehorned into, usually as a pretext for getting them off the show, this one, not taken, resonates most strongly thanks to Manning’s acting and Hayles’ writing.

A somber moment

Jon Pertwee, by contrast, sort of floats through this story, possibly because of the extra focus given to Jo Grant. He’s adept and competent, but there are no real stand-out moments for him in this story, aside, perhaps, from the Venusian lullabies he sings to the Aggedor to make it docile. It’s a restrained performance, and given the losses at the end of the story, partially his fault, the restraint feels appropriate.

Hayles also manages to use the term “companion” to describe Jo Grant, marking a continued resurgence of the word in the series:

King Peladon: Present the Chairman Delegate from Earth, and his companion.

Eventually such usage will cease to be noteworthy, but even at this relatively late date, it has not become the established term of art yet.

Friend or foe?

By subverting the expectations the audience has when seeing the Ice Warriors on the screen, turning them from monomaniacal villains to nuanced players on the galactic stage, Brian Hayles neatly transforms what would have been a relatively by-the-numbers story of sabotage and subterfuge into a fairly taut and intriguing tale. “The Curse of Peladon” fully benefits from existing within the established Doctor Who canon, indeed is a story that can only be told via Doctor Who—precisely because he turns that canonicity on its head by changing the nature of the Ice Warriors.

It’s the same sort of visceral shock you would expect from finding the Silurians, whom the Doctor has eulogized as an essentially peaceful and advanced species, teaming up with the Master to conquer the Earth. Oh, wait, that’s next story…

(Previous Story: Day of the Daleks)

(Next Story: The Sea Devils)

Post 63 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project

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