Tony Fyler feels HUNGRY!
Paradise Towers, by Stephen Wyatt, is a strange beast, born of relative confusion. Sylvester McCoy had been cast as the Seventh Doctor ostensibly to reverse the tone of the last few years – less violence, more humour, drawing on his eclectic but largely comedic background to add a lightness of tone to the Doctor’s persona. The irony being that McCoy and Script Editor Andrew Cartmel had plans to make the Doctor more mysterious and generally ‘darker’ (though anything would have been darker than Colin Baker’s coat). But Paradise Towers feels like a story with a dark heart, produced by a team still under orders to lighten everything.
The idea of Paradise Towers is said largely to stem from High Rise, by JG Ballard. Said by everyone bar Wyatt himself, who cites his own experience in a large grim tower block as the core of the idea. Whatever is true about its origins, there’s a tightness to the idea that pleases – a great architect builds exquisite creations, goes mad, refuses to let his architectural art be sullied by anything so vulgar as people. Instead of moving out, he’s trapped as a disembodied brain in the basement of one of his own creations. Meanwhile, a great war takes out a whole generation of people – the middle generation – allowing young girls to run feral in gangs, older residents to live and potentially starve to death in the tower block, and the towers’ caretakers to essentially establish a kind of martial law, subject to the dictates of their rule book. Meanwhile, the caretakers’ automated cleaning robots trundle about the place in a never-ending war against grime and wall-scrawl (that’s graffiti to you and me). It’s not spectacularly logical if you take timelines into account – how long have the Kangs been on the streets to develop their lingo? And when did the war take the middle generation away? What are we calling a middle generation? Do the Kangs breed? Certainly not with Pex, the cowardly cutlet, but with Rezzies? Unlikely, meaning the whole thing feels like its mystical war can only have taken place in some time while all the Kangs we meet have been alive, which somehow doesn’t feel long enough ago for the dystopia we see to have developed.
Nevertheless, if you switch off your rational brain and just enjoy, Paradise Towers is not above giving you treats. Firstly, the groups in the dystopian world of the towers are brightly distinct. Secondly, there’s a delicious grotesquerie to the whole thing – pensioners going Lord of the Flies and eating people. We’re never particularly let in to what everybody else eats, but the Kangs are not above sending people to the cleaners, though they do show far more remorse for the dead among themselves and among their rival Kangs. The caretakers are solidly satirical of every time-serving, rule-enforcing git you’ve ever known, and it’s supremely enjoyable that the chief caretaker himself is a Hitler parody – in a way, the satire here is the same as it is with the Sontarans. Yes, they’re funny and petty and stupid – but the funny and petty and stupid can still kill you: it’s that sort of a universe.
Into all this trip the Doctor and Mel – he still in his early days of comedic Spoonerisms and playing the spoons, she, in this story, not having a character so much as a monomaniac drive to find a swimming pool. Seriously, if you watch this story, Mel is like a pool-seeking missile.
Meanwhile, the robotic cleaners are killing people (mostly, it has to be admitted, by having people pull their claws around their own necks), and taking them down to the basement where Kroagnon (the great demented architect) is…what? We’re never entirely sure. Feeding his brain by turning them into nutrient soup? Trying to perfect transfer of his mind into their dead bodies? All we know is that he’s a) hungry, and b) made of some very dodgy neon tube-lighting.
This is really the main reason people tend not to look back on Paradise Towers with more affection. Certainly, it’s light years ahead of previous story Time and the Rani in terms of idea-richness and coherence. And it has some great British actors selling the fiction of Paradise Towers as hard as they possibly can – Richard Briers as the chief caretaker, while he still IS the chief caretaker, is a delicious blend of every Rotary Club pedant you ever knew (or his previous character Martin, from Ever Decreasing Circles) and a monstrous dictator, like Hitler. Clive Merrison as the deputy chief caretaker pitches the exhausted, rule-governed despair of the role very well. Judy Cornwell, Brenda Bruce and Elizabeth Spriggs could hardly be bettered in terms of creepy old lady cannibals (though the script occasionally doesn’t help them). But Paradise Towers does have the disadvantage of having the production values of 1987. That means neon tubing and smoke for the villain. It means a deeply dodgy bright yellow plastic robot crab, and cleaner robots that, while owing a certain something to The War Machines in their essential look, don’t actually look like they could clean if their robotic lives depended on it – where was the cleaner with the feather duster attachment, that’s what I’d like to know. And while we’re about it, what the hell did they need a drill for? They also couldn’t convincingly menace, leading McCoy to have to force himself into their grip and then do comedy ‘I’m being throttle to death’ acting.
What’s more, Howard Cooke as Pex delivered what was in the script, but gave it a degree of blandness that meant it was difficult to sell the tragedy of Pex the coward (not for nothing, but he also looks to be of an age with most of the Kangs, so again, the timeline feels very messed-up). The music cues are very punchy, and often overloud (there’s a whole other feature to be written about the drama of the musical score – check the DVD if you don’t believe me), annnnd then there’s Richard Briers, post possession. To be absolutely fair to one of Britain’s greatest theatrical and TV actors, you can absolutely see what he’s going for – Kroagnon’s been a disembodied brain for a decade or more. He’s new in a body that doesn’t technically belong to him, and the robots that presumably put him in that body are more used to picking up rubbish and giving the place a good going over with the Mr Sheen than they are advanced neurosurgery – so he’s a bit sluggish, a bit zombified, a bit, frankly, drunk-feeling and exhausted at the same time as he tries to power this new body to movement, speech and staggering acts of carnage. Perhaps the point is that the whole world needed to be conjured in more creepy dystopian terms – the lighting dim and flickering, rather than bright and cheery, the sound design a thing of brokenness and decay, rather than Keff McCulloch’s electronic stings and stabs, Kroagnon more essentially Frankensteinian than neon and the whole tone of the world more spooky – the Kangs should have had more of A Clockwork Orange about them, the Rezzies’ flats should have been less bright – in order for Briers’ interpretation to make sense. Again, the confusion surfaces between the script of Paradise Towers and its realisation on-screen.
Perversely, if Paradise Towers had been made a season later, when McCoy but more importantly the Production Team and the audience were more in tune with bringing out the Doctor’s darkness, it would have been a whole different – and frankly, let’s face it, a better story. Paradise Towers needs to have its darkness and its shadows to really work, and simply by virtue of the production values of the day and the decisions of a Production Team still under orders to lighten the Doctor up rather than darken him down, it watches as confused. Most Doctor Who stories require a degree of suspension of disbelief to make them work to the best of their ability. Paradise Towers is no different in that respect. The tragedy of the towers though is that a fundamentally good script was rendered on screen in such a way that it frequently requires too much suspension of everything you see and hear, and its replacement with a version that conjures the central vision, for it to be fun.
Personally speaking, I can still slip Paradise Towers into my DVD player and have a much happier couple of hours than I can ever get from some of the actual Dark Doctor McCoy stories – try smiling during Ghost Light and see how you get on – but with nearly thirty years on the clock, Paradise Towers, in common with the rest of the stories of McCoy’s first season, feels like a story out of time and out of place, with a Doctor that has yet to become himself and a range of production decisions that fight against the creepy darkness of the central idea.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk