Five Hundred Eyes

Paradise Towers

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
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