Doctor Who: The Curse of Peladon (s09e02, pts. 1 – 4)

3 out of 5

Directed by: Lennie Mayne

While the novelty of the Earth-bound adventures during the Pertwee years got the third doctor off to a great start, this settled into its own form of repetition, generally involving The Master. Day of the Daleks was a refreshing kick-off to the ninth season, and the long-awaited return to true time- / space-traveling antics in the second episode is pretty much immediately exciting, especially with the pretty daring – and well-executed! – effect of having the TARDIS materialize on a cliff side, with the Doc and Jo stepping off just as it tumbles downward. But fear not, writers – the TARDIS is indestructible, so we just need to figure out how to get back to it at a later point. For now, The Curse of Peladon can cut back and forth between our Doc and partner climbing up the storm-beaten mountain and finding respite in some caves, and King Peladon (David Troughton) and his advisor, religious zealot Hepesh (Geoffrey Toone), discussing the upcoming conclave on their planet – er, also named Peladon, okay – regarding their joining the galactic federation.

This is all utterly cool. Doc and Jo seem to be interacting on equal grounds, with the former not especially treating the latter as a little girl, and their mountain scaling is well shot – it actually feels like a pretty fraught venture; Peladon and Hepesh are both a little stiff, but I dig their popped-collar outfits and funky hairstyles and their revisionist vs. traditionalist back-and-forth has some meat to it (based, as it likely was, on the chatter about 70s Britain joining the European Economic Community), all of it giving the planet Peladon an actual sense of history. When the setup begins to formalize, Curse is shaping up to be a lot of fun: other members of the conclave arrive, and it was like a dare to DW’s production / costuming team: we get a head-in-a-jar Dalek-like creature (who even speaks like daleks); Ice Warriors; and an Alpha Centauri 6-limbed, single-eyeball creature (when “it” speaks in a high pitched giggly blur, try not to do a spit take); there’s also to be an Earth representative, who hasn’t arrived yet… Hm…

So, yes, it’s a classic Who mistaken-identity gambit, with Pertwee and Jo inserting themselves into this dialogue and sussing out a conspiracy which seems to be geared toward keeping Peladon out of the federation. But there are some really great tweaks to this formula which maintain the serial’s sense of uniqueness: in this time, which is some later point than the Doc’s last encounter with the Ice Warriors, they are no longer a race of warriors, but Pertwee can’t let go of his enmity towards them; and the equality experienced between the Doc and Jo is maintained as she is immediately recognized as the Earth representative – a princess – with the Doctor as her assistant. Jo picks up on this right away, and plays the game perfectly. In fact, she’s responsible for quite a bit of the progress in these episodes, and there’s no disconnect there: Katy Manning steps into a more decisive version of her character easily, and makes me hope / wish we stick with capable partners and writers who are not overly sexist in how they pair the male Doc with a younger female assistant.

Some loose ends pop up in the first three parts of this set, where “drama” is created by illogic – someone not speaking up to say something obvious at a key point. And the Alpha Centauri definitely begins to grate a bit, cool costume aside. But there’s great momentum, and I really appreciated the pacing, which didn’t use any fakeout cliffhangers between endings, rather building up to truly punctuating bits before dropping the credits.

…Until the fourth part. By the fourth part, all of the little offenses shift to the foreground, and the episode practically grinds to a halt behind stalling tactics and silliness. The modern day parable has played itself out; all that’s left is for some questionable cat and mouse with the bad guys, in which both the cat and mouse take frequent breaks and then proceed in their chase at a walking speed. In other words, the conclusion is rather one big delay just to get us to four parts – it’s a story that probably could’ve been cut down to three, with some sharper writing – with weaker elements, like a Jo / Peladon pointless romance subplot, getting unnecessary focus. Although the spot of comedy that encourages Doc and his companion to make their exit is good for a final laugh.