24.2 – “Paradise Towers”
Fitness fanatic but otherwise paper-thin sketch of a human being Mel fancies a dip in the pool, so a grumbling Doctor has brought her to the luxury spa on the top floor of Paradise Towers. This being Doctor Who, all is not well in paradise; the youth has gone feral, the OAPs want to eat you and the cleaning robots are better at rubbing out people than wallscrawl. But Mel still finds time in Episode 4 to get into her swimming cossie and do a few lengths. Worst. Companion. Ever.
Should we say that this is where the Cartmel Masterplan begins in earnest? On paper, “Paradise Towers” looks like a bit of a winner. Shorn of the endlessly diminishing returns of mid-1980’s continuity porn, the show can instead give us a witty retelling of JG Ballard’s dystopian sci-fi novel High Rise, a trenchant satire on 80’s Britain. “There is no such thing as society,” Prime Minister Thatcher was telling the nation pretty much contemporaneously to this and Paradise Towers itself is a non-society to warm her shrivelled heart; red and blue factions engaged in interminable point-scoring and playground taunting of each other, the yellows all but spent as a force (a 21st century re-staging would have the Yellow and Blue Kangs in an uneasy coalition, of course); those tasked with protecting society mired in pointless bureaucracy and pettiness; the older generation, fortunate enough to own their own homes and with some money in the bank, at war with the young, fearing and feeding off them in equal measure. And then we have the soul and raison d’être of the story, Pex – what do you do as a flawed and fallible human being in a society that’s going down the tubes before your eyes, and doesn’t care about you anyway? Smash stuff up or try to make it better?
Unfortunately this potentially classic story stayed on paper. Almost nobody involved seems to have been remotely interested in producing the taut, atmospheric drama that “Paradise Towers” might have been and the level of effort and competence on display here is at a near-historic low. How does it disappoint? Oh, let us count the ways…
As already mentioned, the outline of Stephen Wyatt’s script has oodles of potential, but the script itself is a big damp squib. The Doctor and Mel meander about Paradise Towers for what feels like hours, encountering the quirky inhabitants of the high-rise, but there seems to be barely anything actually going on until the final episode when the Grand Architect arises for not entirely translucent reasons. And then is quickly polished off by a character dying in an explosion. We’d grown to expect this kind of thing from Eric Saward, but oh, the Cartmel era, you’re meant to be smarter than this.
Speaking of which, Cartmel may have encouraged a fresh team of writing talent to discard the old foes and formulas and derive wacky and wonderful inspiration from the likes of 2000AD instead; but there’s not much sign of any Masterplans brewing here beyond that. The Doctor turns up, a few episodes of brightly-coloured silliness and running around ensues, the end. Eight episodes into a fourteen episode season, it’s pretty clear that this type of good-natured romping isn’t everything that Doctor Who is capable of being.
And then there’s the actors. Aside from McCoy managing to be adequately Doctorish in trying circumstances and a persuasive turn from Clive Merrison as the officious Deputy Chief Caretaker, no one covers themselves with much glory here. The Kangs are squawking stage school brats to a girl (and what’s with bothering to make Paradise Towers a multicultural society and then only giving lines to the whitest available specimens?) and Tilda and Tabby might have been terrifying but most of the potential for hinting at cannibalistic horror is lost as the two lovable old dears mince around their brightly-lit apartment. As for the latest instance of stunt-casting, in the form of the much-reviled Richard Briers, I actually think his nightmarishly narrow-minded and rulebound Chief Caretaker is rather good for the first three episodes. Then he’s called upon to be possessed by Kroagnon and spends an episode imitating a cross between a Monty Python Gumby, a stroke victim, and a zombie. Scary it’s not. Good it’s definitely not.
But the worst offence is the casting of walking charisma vacuum Howard Cooke as Pex. The character is the story, or as close as we’re going to get out of this particular script. But we get someone who doesn’t manage to be impressive or weedy, funny or tragic, mysterious or heroic. He wanders around Paradise Towers just kind of existing. Does anyone really care about his (possibly accidental) self-sacrifice at the end of the story? I sometimes wonder if the “Pex Lives” graffito that is this story’s closing shot is just because no one could actually tell the difference between him being alive or not.
If the actors are bad, the monsters are worse. Kroagnon, before Richard Briers takes the laws of acting into his own hands, is a pair of glowing coat hangers vaguely suggestive of eyes and as for the cleaning robots… it’s hard to be impressed by killers whose modus operandi is to trundle very, very slowly in your direction, flailing their appendages wetly, and requiring you to carefully manoeuvre your neck into their flaccid pincer before any damage whatsoever seems liable to be inflicted.
There are some good jokes in here. I’m very fond of Pex’s dramatic entrance. “Are these old ladies annoying you? No? Are you annoying these old ladies?” The Chief Caretaker very dramatically and menacingly turning the light of a small anglepoise lamp onto The Doctor in the interrogation scene is rather lovely. But mostly we get endless repetition of the “Caretaker number three four five stroke twelve subsection three” gag in place of wit. Quite funny the first time round, a bit less so the thirtieth.
“It displays exactly what everyone says is your usual failure as an architect. Not making allowances for people.” Ballard’s high rise story worked by showing that people, in confined situations, turn selfish and animalistic, jostling for the status of the higher floors. “Paradise Towers” has no such depth to its message. Quirky characters are quirky, then come together in a spirit of decency and mutual respect at the first sign of a real crisis to blow up tyranny with one convenient stick of dynamite. It doesn’t mean anywhere near as much as it needs to and pretty much everyone, from the director, to the writers, the actors and the designers, deserves a portion of the blame. At this point we’re finally starting to emerge from the dreadfulness of the Saward era but, sadly, we’re still only halfway out of the dark. A halfway-there 5/10.
Written and edited by Matthew Marcus