Doctor Who is dead! Long live Doctor Who!
Cartmel's influence can be felt here in a stylistic shift every bit as severe as the Robot/Ark in Space change 12 years before. Then, of course, Bob Holmes knew exactly the direction in which he wanted to take the programme, here Cartmel can do naught but betray his uncertainty. However, the inconsistent tone of Paradise Towers can perhaps be attributed to director rather than script editor. The criticism aimed at the cannibalism of The Two Doctors and Revelation coupled with the "more humour, less violence" directive picked up by Mallett from working on Mysterious Planet the year before leaves director and script at odds from which the serial never recovers.
The script itself is a blackly comic urban thriller, a template that would serve the programme well for its final three years. However, black comedy is a very fragile and complex genre; every time the script aims for this target it is undermined by Mallet's reliance on slapstick.
It's sometimes hard to believe that this is the same director who two years later would pull an excellent performance out of Nicholas Parsons; here every performance is slightly off-key and no one can claim to have put in a good shift. In ninety minutes of television, only two scenes play out as the script intended; Sylvester's escape from the Caretakers and Tilda and Tabby's capture of Mel at the close of part two.
In Sylv's escape from the Caretakers we see the first seeds being sewn of the seventh Doctor's character proper. Subconsciously or not, Sylvester has taken Terrance Dick's "never cruel nor cowardly" edict to heart; acid baths and cyanide traps are a million miles away from this incarnation. His subversion of the Rule Book is the first in a long line of character moments that will eventually encompass talking Kane to death, befuddling Light and refusing to fight the Master. And that's just three I can think of on the hoof.
Then at the close of part two, Mallett hits the perfect note despite himself. For the most part Bonnie Langford is just as uncomfortable here as she was in Time and the Rani, but surrounded by old ladies and scones and tea and knitting she momentarily finds something she can respond to. So when the whole scene takes a turn for the absurd, Bonnie's overplaying is exactly what the script demands.
These two scenes apart the rest of the serial veers wildly between average of absolutely awful. No review of Paradise Towers would be complete without reference to Richard Briers, the man solely responsible for changing the consensus opinion of the serial from "not very good" to "awful." Somebody make him stop. Please. Say what you want about Hale and Pace and Ken Dodd, Richard Briers is the only actor amongst this august quartet and his is the most buttock clenchingly awful performance of the season, nay the era. Like Kate O'Mara's impersonation of Mel just a few weeks before it overshadows the entire serial. It's no wonder that contemporary commentators were already penning the series' obituary.
Richard Briers apart, Paradise Towers does continue Cartmel's steep learning curve. Being the first serial since Vengeance on Varos not to feature any continuity references is ordinarily not cause to celebrate, but this is damning the serial with faint praise. The very ethos of the programme has changed from the turgid navel gazing of season 22; from Paradise Towers onwards Doctor Who is looking forward rather than gazing wistfully behind.
‘Paradise Towers’ is one of those stories that many fans dislike immensely, and like many season twenty-four stories it is widely believed to be a childish and silly run-around. As I stated in my review of another story that this season threw up, ‘Dragonfire’, such criticisms are probably accurate, but then again the production team weren’t aiming for the gothic horror feel of the seventies. They were approaching Doctor Who from a completely different angle, and to a certain extent it was probably designed to be childish and silly. Many fans hated this approach to making Doctor Who. I personally don’t have a problem with this – it is a children’s show after all – as long as there’s an interesting story full of interesting characters lurking underneath all of the fluff. Paradise Towers has that, and so in my eyes redeems itself.
The Doctor and Mel travel to the luxury apartment complex Paradise Towers so that Mel can go for a swim in its pool. Once they land they discover that the towers have fallen into disarray, and that its inhabitants have divided up into factions. There are the Kangs (girl gangs), Caretakers (fascist police) and Rezzies (old ladies). However, something evil is lurking in the basement, and it is up to the Doctor to unite the factions and defeat the evil.
Writer Stephen Wyatt packed his scripts with some fascinating ideas. Indeed, a story featuring cannibalistic old Ladies, killer cleaning robots, fascist caretakers and street gangs has all the right ingredients for a good Doctor Who story, yet in the process of this production going from script to screen something went wrong.
Maybe it was the casting of Howard Cook in the role of Pex, who just comes off as rather silly. You never find his character funny or sympathetic as was probably intended. Then there is the ever awful Bonnie Langford as Mel. Here, she strives to give what must be her worst ever performance by continually over emphasising every single line. Sylvester McCoy still isn’t coping to well, but at least he’s better here than in Time and the Rani. Then we come to the killer cleaning robots. Now, I know the show was made on a very small budget, but these things look awful, and in the final part we learn that a single arrow hit from a Kang crossbow can destroy them. I find it hard to believe that a whole tribe of Kangs could be wiped out from things so easy to kill. Then there is the padding. This four part adventure should have been condensed into three parts. The writer uses the ploy of the Doctor escaping and then getting recaptured, and pads his scripts further with Mel wandering down corridor after corridor and then getting stuck in a lift. The incidental music is awful, with the production being suited to a much darker score. But hey, that’s Keff McCulloch for you.
On the flip side of the coin, I thought Richard Briers as the chief caretaker was wonderful. Only when his body is inhabited by the great architect Kroagnon does he become embarrassing and unintentionally hilarious. Actually, I rather enjoyed all of the scenes with the caretakers. The idea of fascist caretakers, complete with German world war two era style uniforms, enforcing pointless rules and regulations, is very entertaining.
Also worthy of note is the language used by the Kangs. The idea of young people developing their own language has been seen before, of course, most notably in A Clockwork Orange, but it’s an interesting idea and works well here.
Before I tie this review up, I feel I must mention the one plot hole that this story contains. It is, after all, quite a massive one. Why did the inhabitants of the towers separate Kroagnons brain from his body and imprison him in the basement. He himself says ‘no one knows my paradise towers better than me’, surely it would have made more sense to simply kill him? It also beggars’ belief that they left him with all the technology needed to escape. Clearly more thought should have gone into this.
After watching ‘Paradise Towers’ you always get the feeling of a missed opportunity. The story has the potential to say rather more about urban housing and the effect it has on its inhabitants than it actually does, and treated in a more serious manner by director Nicholas Mallet this could have been a great story, rather than just a fair one. Yes, Paradise Towers has its flaws (no pun intended), but I always find it enjoyable and is one of the better stories of McCoy’s early time on the show.
After the diabolical ‘Time and the Rani’, ‘Paradise Towers’ sees a considerable increase in the quality of scripts, as Stephen Wyatt delivers a dystopian tale of a society in decay. As such, ‘Paradise Towers’ is in some ways more disappointing than its immediate predecessor, as a combination of poor production and bad acting several dents its credibility.
The premise of ‘Paradise Towers’ is highly effective. The concept of a luxury apartment building that has degenerated into barbarism and savagery with residents who have turned to cannibalism and warring gangs of teenagers is a sound one, as is the addition to the mix of the Caretakers, whose response to the situation is to cling obsessively to outdated and pedantic rules in an attempt to cope with their disintegrating world. Wyatt exploits this premise in various ways; the degenerative language used by the Kangs is vaguely reminiscent of the “Nadsat” of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, and clearly some thought has gone into the dialogue. Kang vernacular includes such phrases as “Cowardly cutlet”, “Carrydors”, “Brain quarters”, “Taken to the cleaners” and “How you do”, and although the older characters use such terms as “Rezzies” and “Wall-scrawlers”, the fact that for the most part they speak normally demonstrates the impact of a lack of education and any obvious parental figures on the younger generation. It is also relatively unusual to see gangs composed entirely of girls, but whether their reluctance to actually “make unalive” (a reluctance sadly not shared by real life gang culture) is meant as a slightly sexist attempt to show a gentle feminine nature or merely a constraint of Doctor Who’s traditional target audience is unclear. The Kangs’ names further hint at the state of their lives, including as they do Bin Liner and Fire Escape; it is possible that these are nicknames gained on joining a particular gang, but it also raises the possibility that they were abandoned at such a young age that any real names they once had are long forgotten, and this would be consistent with their seeming lack of education.
The activities of the Rezzies are also rather interesting. On the one hand, they maintain the cosiness of their past lives, knitting table cloths and keeping neat and tidy flats that contrast sharply with the grimy, dilapidated corridors, whilst on the other hand they have resorted to murdering and eating Kangs. What is interesting about this is that is clearly a situation brought about not by an inherent evil in their nature, but by sheer desperation, and their desire to cling on to a semblance of normality throws this dark pastime into stark relief. The Caretakers too are well scripted; their adherence to the rule book boarders on the absurd, and clearly exacerbates the division between the groups within the Towers that the Doctor strives so hard to overcome. Like the Rezzies, they are obviously attempting to cling on to some semblance of normality: the Deputy Chief Caretakers’ moaning about the graffiti in the corridors is an example of him dwelling on what is in the larger scheme of things an utterly trivial issue. Rather than trying to reach out to the disaffected youth within the Towers, they prefer to punish them, although since they never actually manage to capture any Kangs during the course of the story, the question of what they would actually do to them is never made clear. Ironically of course, this fragmenting of society is precisely what the Chief Caretaker exploits as he feeds morsels to his “pet”; since the Kangs have nobody they can report the disappearances to, they are not highlighted, and likewise the disappearance of Caretakers can easily be dealt with by careful manipulation of the rule book. It is significant that when the Cleaners take two Rezzies however, it is reported and the Chief is forced to address the issue, albeit by bribing Maddy with the chance to move into a larger apartment; the Rezzies, clinging on their semblance of normality, clearly feel that the Caretakers should deal with such issues.
The addition to the plot of Kroagnon is also potentially interesting. The presence of a threat that is hostile to everyone within Paradise Towers forces the residents to unite against the common threat, offering hope for the future as a result. It is also worth noting that whilst Kroagnon is on one hand a typical megalomaniac, his motivation is novel; an obsessive architect whose opinion of his work is so great that he doesn’t want it to spoiled by tenants is one that has not previously appeared in the series. It gradually becomes clear that Kroagnon’s legacy has contributed to the dire state of the Towers, albeit as a minor aside rather than the main cause; the presence of the robotic crab in the swimming pool prompts the Doctor to note that this is how the Towers would have been had Kroagnon had his way: “a killer in every corner”. The script even gives a knowing wink to the clichés of the Doctor Who format: there is scene in which Mel hopes that the lift won’t malfunction, only for the lights to start flashing on and off and for the gears to stall. When Pex asks her what she said, she repeats her worry, and the lift grinds to a halt. It could easily be a very silly moment, but the script handles it in such a way that there is a knowing irony to the scene.
‘Paradise Towers’ also works well because it is the first story in which Sylvester McCoy really shines as the Doctor. During the early TARDIS scenes, he looks on glumly as Mel looks forward to a holiday, and complains, “That’s the trouble with young people today – no sense of adventure”, a line which McCoy delivers with an impressive air of weariness. It is also rather interesting just how much the Doctor perks up when he finds the Towers in a state of obvious neglect, which does rather highlight just how much he thrives on the misfortune of others; it is a slightly disturbing aspect of the Doctor’s character, and one that McCoy (and the script) suddenly emphasizes. McCoy suddenly seems to have settled into the role, and it clearly shows; the Doctor’s doffing of his hat at the advancing Cleaner as the lift doors close is a supremely confident moment. McCoy is conveys a sense of authority with ease when he confronts the Chief Caretaker and snaps that since the Chief is going to kill him anyway, so he might as well listen to him first. He delivers the line in such a way that death threats seem like a minor inconvenience to the Doctor, which of course they often are. His subsequent contemptuous dismissal of the Deputy is another case in point, as the Deputy pleads with him for no further tricks with the rulebook, only to be told in no uncertain terms that the Doctor has far more important things to worry about than him. Suddenly, the Seventh Doctor is a man who can quickly set his mind to defeating monsters, but who can also charm his way into the Kangs’ affections. McCoy’s Doctor switches moods in an instant here, and his apology to Mel for making her jump in Episode Four sounds just as sincere as his contempt for the Deputy an episode earlier. Mention of the rule book brings me to the Doctor’s initial escape from the Caretakers, as he exploits their blind obedience to rules, and persuades his captors to close their eyes and walk away form him so that he can sneak out of the door; the Deputy eventually realises that “rules should always make sense”, but he’s so used to blind obedience that it takes him too long to realize this. Unfortunately, where McCoy’s acting does fall down is at the climax, as the Doctor has to confront Kroagnon sooner than he expected and is forced to improvise; he immediately resorts to the sort of pratfall clowning that marred his first scenes in ‘Time and the Rani’, the Doctor’s bluster and anger sounding purely like lines learnt hurriedly by an actor, rather than words flowing natural from the mouth of a character. For the most part though, McCoy is very good here, and it shows him starting to cement his portrayal of the Doctor.
Despite all of this clever scripting and a generally decent performance from the lead actor however, ‘Paradise Towers’ is nearly ruined by almost everything else. Firstly, this story highlights the reasons why some many fans detest Mel; presumably, the character’s failings here are a result of the otherwise impressive scripts, but she is utterly cloying. Langford is fine; she isn’t noticeable better or worse than usual, and she is good at conveying Mel’s usual optimism, which prompts her to look for the best in people and get upset when she’s disappointed by them. Unfortunately, this largely manifests here in such a way that she just seems mad; in the midst of a tower block filled with lunatics, having been attacked by murderous old ladies and chased by robotic cleaning machines, she decides to strip to her swimming costume and go for a dip. It doesn’t help that Mel is paired for much of the story with Pex, an utterly clichéd character who is a coward given the chance to redeem himself at the very end in a suitably noble sacrifice. Wyatt scripts this stereotype in such a way that he could work (Pex’s delight in Episode Three when he realises that he has actually saved somebody for the first time is rather touching), but the miscast Howard Cooke delivers his lines in such a stilted fashion that the character is thoroughly unconvincing, and his attempts to lie to Kroagnon in Episode Four are deeply embarrassing.
There is a worrying amount of dodgy acting on display here; the Rezzies and the Kangs are adequate if unspectacular, but the Caretakers do nothing for the story’s credibility. It doesn’t really help that costume designer Janet Tharby makes them look (as The Discontinuity Guide puts it) like rejects from the Village People (the Kangs incidentally, also look ludicrous), but this was no excuse to have them salute by putting their hands under their noses in mock-Hitler fashion. Just in case we don’t get the message, the Chief Caretaker actually has a Hitler-style moustache. But to get back to the actual performances, whilst Clive Merrison is at times all right as a petty man with petty powers, he often crosses the line into ham, delivering certain lines in strange nasal falsetto that sounds incredibly strange. This pales into insignificance compared to Richard Briars; defenders of ‘Paradise Towers’ like to point out that Briars is a Shakespearean actor. This is true, but then so is Brian Blessed, but he was still bloody terribly in ‘Mindwarp’. Briars sends his performance as far over the top as is possible, managing to ham it up even over a walkie-talkie in Episode One. For the rest of the first three episodes he confuses psychopath with imbecile and thereby destroys the believability of one the story’s main villains. By Episode Four, he gets even worse; having briefly redeemed himself by conveying terror even through the ham as the Chief is dragged screaming towards Kroagnon (and the Chief’s fate is, on paper at least, quite disturbing), he emerges from a cloud of dry ice in the final episode as a gurning zombie, lurching around as though drunk. Which he perhaps was. Anyone who has read Stephen Wyatt’s novelisation of ‘Paradise Towers’ will know that he imagined Kroagnon in the Chief’s body as a ghastly animated cadaver with a sinister deathly voice, rather than a silver faced tosser who roles his eyes at every opportunity and delivers his lines like he’s gargling
Very few Doctor Who stories get as bad a reputation as "Paradise Towers". There are quite a few reasons for the insults given to the story. Keff McCulloch's music is abysmal, for one thing, never being as dark and eerie as it should be for a story as dark as this one. The production is given a comical nature, rather than a dark, stylish production similar to that of Season 26. Then there's the fact that Bonnie Langford gives her second-worst performance as the irritating Mel Bush (her worst being in Time and the Rani). All these things, plus directions and casting going against the writer's intentions, lead to dragging this story down. Yet, underneath this garbled mess of a pantomime, is a story that is still watchable and, to me, enjoyable.
Stephen Wyatt had written a very dark and disturbing story. The Paradise Towers are full of cannibalistic old ladies, fascist caretakers, murdering cleaner robots, and a decaying environment. The setting and the situations of Paradise Towers makes one think of "Vengeance on Varos", which was often criticized for the violence, black humor and cannibalism within. Yet, "Paradise Towers" is filled with just as many horrifying, grotesque ideas as the aforementioned "Vengeance on Varos". If Nicholas Mallett hadn't treated this story like a silly comic book, and if Mark Ayres or Dominic Glynn had composed the music, this tale would be remebered with a far greater fondness from fans. Instead, it's treated as one of the worst stories of any era of Doctor Who.
Another reason that Wyatt's first story wasn't remembered as fondly as his later story is the acting. "Paradise Towers" boasts a great deal of characters, many of whom are acting terribly. Richard Briers' moustache and voice are almost as irritating as Mel's screaming and cheery optimism. Howard Cooke seems rather silly in his part, as it was designed for someone of a great build.The Kangs are a tad annoying, but their degradation of language and acting from the people who played Fire Escape and Bin Liner more than make up for the terrible hairdos and costumes. The Rezzies are quite creepy as intended, and come off all right. Sylvester McCoy, the most important one of the bunch, is far better here than in his previous story, and performs with much more confidence.
So, overall, despite some bad casting and the barely adequate production values (those Cleaners are rather silly), Paradise Towers is a story that I still enjoy. For me, it's actually the best one of Season 24. If you want a 1980's story from before Seaon 25 with a dark story and no continuity mentions, then this is the obne you should watch. Just fast forward through all the bits with Howard Cooke and Bonnie Langford, and you're all set.