Written by Brian Hayles
Directed by Lennie Mayne
If there’s one thing about the Third Doctor era that truly surprised me, it was the liberal use of locations. Shooting on location can be expensive and challenging, and “Doctor Who” is best known for its lack of budget. If it wasn’t for the fact that recreating alien worlds on a soundstage is also expensive, the use of locations might not be so attractive.
But it does mean that it’s more than a little jarring when the production moves back indoors, so to speak, as it does with this serial. It took me a moment to adjust to the visual style again. Thankfully, the writers treated this like something of a “bottle show”, so the emphasis is on the characters. Most of them get to shine.
What I really like here is the treatment of the Doctor. The Third Doctor always emphasized the arrogance of the character, and his penchant for playing to the establishment. This is the Doctor at his most aristocratic. So it’s not at all surprising that we learn that the Doctor has deep-seated prejudices, and that he lets them drive his decisions and choices even more than usual.
For example, the Doctor immediately suspects the Ice Warriors of attempted foul play, when there is really no contextual reason for it. It’s entirely a function of previous bad experiences. At first glance, this makes sense, but as the story unfolds, the cracks in the logic appear. It’s easy to forget (especially in this era) that the Doctor is used to traveling in space and time. Wouldn’t he know, better than anyone, that societies can and do change throughout history?
This is one thing that makes the Doctor such a strong character. One might assume that he’s the hero of the tale, but in reality, it’s not that clear cut. More often, the story is about the companions (our POV characters) and how they deal with the Doctor’s adventures, his strengths, and his flaws. Jo is the one that approaches this situation with an open mind, because she has no reason to presuppose guilt or innocence. As a result, the Doctor’s more negative qualities are exposed.
Speaking of Jo, this is easily her best showing thus far. I finally felt like Jo was displaying a personality of her own, instead of just being an expository tool for the writers. The key here is that she takes action and shows initiative, and this renders her relationship to the Doctor less grating. She’s still naive as it gets, and the romance subplot doesn’t help at all, but this is a side of Jo I wish they had shown more often.
The interplay between the young Federation and the “primitive” world of Peladon was interesting enough that I wish it had been given a little more time and scope. We only learn enough about the Federation to give context to the intrigue, both in an overall sense and within Peladon’s court. Only touching on it allows flexibility, but I kept wondering how the Doctor could have been utterly ignorant of its existence. After all, he often references his knowledge of various eras of human endevour and alien empires. So why wouldn’t he know about this alliance?
Whatever the case, the premise of the story is firmly rooted in the contemporary geopolitical state of play. When this serial was written and hit the airwaves, England was struggling with the notion of joining what would evolve into the European Union (it was called something else then, but I forget the name…”Common Market”, maybe?). The Ice Warriors are a fair analogue for Germany, Arcturus for France, and Centauri any number of European states desperate for the union to work. Perhaps unwilling to make a run at the English monarchy too directly, Peladon more closely resembles one of the Eastern Europe nations, perhaps one of the former Warsaw Pact territories.
Despite the obvious issues with the production values for the aliens, I thought most of them were well-characterized and presented clear and distinct perspectives. Arcturus had a really creative design (especially given the constraints), but someone had to know that the Centauri design was just plain silly, right down to the annoying voice! It was the only thing that really took me out of the story.
So far, between this serial and “Day of the Daleks”, the writers seem to have regained some of the narrative ground that was lost in the eighth season. Both stories take the Doctor out of the Earthbound premise into something more liberating, and perhaps that is the difference.
Final Rating: 7/10