Doctor Who (Classic): S24E02 “Paradise Towers”

Season 24
Written by Stephen Wyatt
Directed by Nicholas Mallet

In a 2009 poll, “Paradise Towers” was voted the eighth-worst Doctor Who story of all time. In 2013 it had a burst of popularity and ascended the list a whole two places. Last week’s entry “Time And The Rani” held its position three from the bottom, a bad reputation I argued it doesn’t quite deserve but doesn’t particularly transcend, either. “Paradise Towers”, on the other hand, might be the most maligned near-classic in Doctor Who‘s history.

The premise of Paradise Towers is simple. Mel and the Doctor arrive at the Towers looking for a holiday. Mel wants to visit Paradise Towers’ famous rooftop swimming pool, which she saw in the brochure. The Doctor expects to be bored out of his mind. But when they get there, the tower is shabby and rundown (something which immediately cheers up the Doctor). The inhabitants, left behind after an apocalyptic war, have factionalised into the middle-aged Rezzies, the feral teenage Kangs and the fascistic Caretakers. The latter are led by Richard Briers’ Chief Caretaker, who’s secretly letting the cleaning robots murder the inhabitants in order to feed the Thing that lives in the basement. This turns out to be the mind of the long-missing “Great Architect” Kroagnon, imprisoned down there by the Towers’ first residents to subvert his murderous plans for the people dirtying his perfect architectural paradise.

The mysterious entity in the basement.

By this point, the series had been on the air for half a lifetime, and reached the point where childhood viewers of Doctor Who were now writers themselves. But importantly, they brought in outside influence too. They read 2000AD, and one of Andrew Cartmel’s biggest inspirations was Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. And they read New Wave Science Fiction, from people like Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss and JG Ballard. Last time I finished on the note that nobody at the BBC really cared about Doctor Who anymore, as long as it wasn’t actively causing controversy over violent content. This freed up new script editor Andrew Cartmel to push for a radical new creative direction. And producer John Nathan-Turner’s rather public falling-out with Cartmel’s predecessor Eric Saward made him reluctant to work with any associated writers. So they both saw something they liked in Stephen Wyatt, who came via the BBC writers’ workshop.

Wyatt was experienced in radio and stage writing, but a newcomer to television. He also wasn’t really an SF reader, but he and Cartmel found common interest in JG Ballard’s High Rise, a dystopian parable about a community’s descent into savagery in a modernist tower block. He was also lapsed Doctor Who fan. An avid viewer in his childhood, he hadn’t really watched the series since Patrick Troughton left. This was, it turned out, a good thing. Freed from the weight of continuity and mythology, Wyatt’s Doctor is boiled down to the essentials, a clever little anarchist who wanders into broken societies and knocks over the first domino. Already, McCoy’s “Troughton for the Eighties” character is fully formed. Cartmel and Wyatt also had a shared interest in making Doctor Who about something again. And so unlike any of the preceding nine stories, Paradise Towers is about something that viewers would actually recognise – living in a tower block.

The biggest influence on post-war public housing architecture was the Modernists, especially Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier’s vision of cities was “Towers in the Park”, high-rise apartments of efficient, modular precast concrete sections that functioned like a village unto themselves, surrounded by landscaped and natural recreation and community spaces. Of course, what city authorities actually took away from this idea was building precast concrete towers on greenfield sites, and nothing else. Celebrated when they were built, by the late 60s tower blocks were widely emblematic of community breakdown. Pristine white concrete quickly discoloured to dirty brown and grey. Shoddy build quality made them cold, damp and draughty. Isolated from transport links, the bustle of streetlife and usually each other by long, barren stretches of bare grass that quickly became wasteland, places like Pruitt-Igoe in St Louis or Hulme Crescents in Manchester became infamous.

Build High for Happiness!

Everything in Paradise Towers would be recognisable to someone who lived in a tower block, simply dialled up to to 11. Officious Little Hitlers who do nothing to actually keep the place clean but are sticklers for regulations become like actual Nazis. (The Chief Caretaker’s epaulettes featuring a little runic “CC” reminiscent of the lightning-bolt rune “SS” is a great costume touch. And their salute is the playground “Hitler moustache” gesture!) Gangs of feral kids roam the corridors, their childhood games having evolved into warring tribes. They have names like Fire Escape and Bin Liner, Mad Max by way of Grange Hill. Some of the Rezzies – exclusively middle-aged women – have even turned cannibal, a community literally eating itself away. And then there’s Pex, a musclebound lunkhead who’s not quite as musclebound as he thinks he is.

Perhaps the most common criticism you’ll hear of “Paradise Towers” is that it should have been dark and gritty, that they tried to make a comedy out of a dystopian script. But on the contrary, “Paradise Towers” knows exactly what it is. It’s a horror comedy to its core – witness the grisly recurring gag of a human leg sticking out of the Cleaners’ little carts. It’s an ambitious attempt to adapt High Rise as a teatime panto. And that means an injection of camp. Camp is, perversely, complicated to define but easy to identify. It’s about mixing sincerity with theatricality and artifice, but never where you expect. Taking the kitsch and doing it with stylish seriousness, or taking something serious and making fun out of it. Not making fun of it, as Christopher Isherwood famously defined it, but making fun out of it. “You’re expressing what’s basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice”. Such is what “Paradise Towers” does with its inspiration. It’s about important things, but does it in a light-hearted way.

The Doctor, Mel and the Red Kangs

There’s a long-running psychological complex within SF fandom, a reactionary streak against accusations of immaturity or queerness. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the violent rejection of anything resembling camp. To be silly or “kiddy” or even funny is, to such people, a far worse crime than simply being bad. (The most notable example, of course, is the Adam West Batman series. The 1966 series’ attitude that “superheroes are quite silly, actually” is practically heresy to some people, for whom Batman is serious and psychological drama and nothing else.) Such people were a strong presence in Doctor Who fandom in the late Eighties. Indeed, the problem was that by this point such hardcore fans were virtually the only ones still watching. And so “Paradise Towers” was doomed from the start, a story that aimed for mass appeal, but unfortunately was only being watched by exactly the people who wouldn’t like it.

Nowhere is this “silliness” criticism more easily refuted than in the acting. The common refrain is that it’s overacted. And yes, of course it is. But the important thing is that everyone is acting at this level. (Except for McCoy, interestingly.) There is unity of style, and having the entire cast pulling in one direction is far more important than which direction. “Paradise Towers” is done in a heightened, theatrical mode, and to criticise the acting is like criticising “The Web Planet” because the bugs look like people in costumes – assuming a failure of realism where realism was never the aim. Another commonly held opinion is that Howard Cooke was miscast as Pex, who was supposed to be a hulking Schwarzenegger/Stallone type. When they couldn’t find an actor of the appropriate build, they wisely chose an actor who could act like a bodybuilder, rather than a bodybuilder who couldn’t act at all. And on balance, it’s to the story’s credit. Giving Pex all the iconography of an action hero without the actual shape just underlines how much of a fantasy he lives in. Like the Caretakers resembling a panto version of a Nazi uniform, Pex has become slightly disconnected from reality. His efforts to “put the world of Paradise Towers to rights” basically amounts to minor property damage, because the problems are far more insidious than anything he can handle, rippling muscles or no.

Pex and the Kangs. (Apologies for the low resolution.)

Aside from all these perceived flaws, “Paradise Towers” does have some real flaws too. Cartmel himself points out on the DVD that while he loves the production design, all too often the serial has “flat snooker lighting” instead of something more atmospheric. And there’s some production touches that don’t quite scan. The Caretakers’ absurdly detailed rulebook really sounds like it ought to be a Bible-like tome, yet the props department appear to have given them a pamphlet. And despite the script clearly intending the Caretakers to be the men too old or unfit to fight in the war, the casting department supplied them with young-ish men, which raises the question of where they came from. (There’s a funny moment on the DVD where Cartmel talks about keeping the fittest and burliest Caretakers in the back of group shots, and the weedier ones to the front!) And perhaps the script could have done with one more pass. Even Stephen Wyatt thinks the conclusion is rather rushed in retrospect. And it’s never clear exactly why the Chief Caretaker tends to the thing in the basement when he doesn’t actually know it’s Kroagnon the architect. What does he think it is?

The Good Life‘s Richard Briers as the Chief Caretaker.

That brings us to Richard Briers. Common wisdom was that he “ruined” the story by over-acting. This is rubbish, of course, as the Chief Caretaker has exactly the right Python-esque tone, a vicious, pitch-perfect parody of the tinpot dictator familiar to anyone who’s ever had to “get the man from the Council round to look at it”. On the other hand, there’s his performance as Kroagnon the Great Architect in Part 4, which doesn’t work quite as well. If the Chief Caretaker was turned up to 11, Briers makes the dubious choice to turn Kroagnon up to 12, which mostly consists of gurning and shouting. I’m tempted to think a more interesting decision might have been to underplay the Great Architect instead. One wonders how much scarier his genocidal plan to “purify” the Towers would be if he was instead quietly insidious like Davros. Then, like the Doctor, the contrast between a more naturalistic performance and the cartoonish world of the Towers would generate an interesting tension.

An actor’s second story is often where their interpretation of the Doctor really comes into focus. And so it is here for Sylvester McCoy. Already some of his more extravagant mannerisms have been toned down – he doesn’t mix any metaphors, nor do any clowning. But he’s still a joy to watch, a physical performer who knows how to get the audience’s attention – watch how he returns the Kangs’ greeting with a little flourish, or keeps putting his spare change in his hat. Like Patrick Troughton, he spends a surprising amount of time quietly observing and absorbing before he acts. And like Troughton, he’s an eccentric uncle figure who relates to youth far more than authority. He’s immediately adopted by the Kangs, who recognise him as “high fabshion, and ice hot!” McCoy also manages to bring Richard Briers down to a dangerous simmer in the serial’s best scene, in which the Chief Caretaker attempts to interrogate him. By the end, their positions have physically and psychologically reversed, with the Doctor in the interrogator’s chair having learned far more than he gave away. And in the serial’s funniest scene, he manipulates the Caretakers into letting him go through judicious use of the rulebook, which really has to be seen to be believed.

And once again, there’s Mel. Mel is interesting in this one. McCoy plays the Doctor as quieter and more calculating, and so becomes the rock of sanity on which the viewer’s identification rests. In contrast, Mel is at her most cartoonish in this one. She’s determined to reach the fabled swimming pool at the top of the Towers, and her faith that it will be idyllic never wavers. And despite evading Kangs, Cleaners, Caretakers and cannibals on the way, she still decides to go for a swim! She is promptly attacked by a killer robot. In a way it works, because Mel comes across as broad and monomaniacal as the inhabitants of the Towers. And she gets quite an impressive moment where she plugs the pool robot with Pex’s gun. But she just doesn’t feel like a real human being. It’s increasingly clear that the creative team feel saddled with her, and one wonders if her treatment is deliberate parody, someone who’s too naive and gullible to travel with the Doctor at all.

You’re just not cut out for this, Mel. Don’t worry, Big Finish will be along in thirteen years or so.

“Paradise Towers” is not perfect. But it is the moment in which Doctor Who proves its worth again. It has ambition. It wants to say something, and it’s not afraid to make bold creative decisions and experiment with tone on the way. And it wants to have a wider audience again, to make television that’s not daft space runarounds aimed only at hardcore fans. There’s a few bumps along the road yet, but from this point on, Doctor Who’s legacy is secure. You can draw a straight line from “Paradise Towers” to here.

Stray Observations

  • Best Cliffhanger: Episode 1, where the Chief Caretaker warmly greets the Doctor as the Great Architect… then orders him killed.
  • Mel Fashion Watch: White trousers with blue polka dots, and a top with the same pattern inverted. The collar and cuffs match the trousers.
  • The Kangs’ colours of red, blue and yellow map to the UK’s three biggest political parties. The wipeout of the Yellow Kangs is ironic, since the Liberal party was virtually non-existent when the story was broadcast, but were back in government (in coalition with the Tories) when the commentaries were recorded.
  • At some point during his three-year tenure, Andrew Cartmel actually contacted Alan Moore to see if he’d be interested in pitching an episode.
  • We get an early appearance of the more manipulative Seventh Doctor in Episode 4, where his request for a volunteer to lead Kroagnon into their trap is usefully timed to the Kangs’ mockery of Pex. The Kangs, Caretakers and Rezzies have united – is the Doctor smoothing over the last rough edge by putting Pex in a position to validate himself to the Kangs?
  • It’s interesting to contrast the Doctor’s anarchism with Kroagnon’s modernism. Paradise Towers is a top-down development where things would be “right” if the inhabitants live strictly within the building’s parameters. The Doctor destroys the authority figure and unites the people of Paradise Towers into a bottom-up organisation that’s basically a Residents’ Association. The first step to building community is communicating, and taking joint responsibility.
  • Online reviewer (and Lib Dem) Alex Wilcox remembered this one as the point where Doctor Who Magazine, traditionally the “house organ” for the production team, “put the boot in” in their reviews after years of uncritical praise. This is probably partly why the story’s reputation is so low – a written verdict goes a long way towards becoming making an opinion Official. But of course the Magazine is a self-selecting audience of exactly the people who wouldn’t like this story.
  • If you look closely at the black barrels in the Kangs’ lair, you can still see the imprint of the Weyland-Yutani logo. They’re one of many props from Alien and Aliens that Doctor Who recycled during the Eighties.
  • Clive Merrison, who plays the Deputy Chief Caretaker, is BBC Radio’s Sherlock Holmes and has performed in adaptations of every single Doyle story and a whole host of original ones.
  • Mel and the Doctor split up at the end of Part 1 and don’t meet again till Part 4, their plotlines remaining almost entirely separate. The Doctor never meets Tabby and Tilda at all, and doesn’t meet Pex till the last episode.
  • Pex Lives!