Reviewed by Paul Scoones
In its attempt to portray a microcosm of society in a state of moral and social decay, Paradise Towers had a great deal more potential for examining social issues than was realised. Although the script is imaginative, it is far from flawless and although there are touches of style and a few noteworthy performances, the overall impression is one of a missed opportunity for a much better story.
The Kangs, with their imaginatively inventive slang and nicknames are one of the story's saving graces. This and their rituals chanting and fierce competitiveness is the extrapolation of the results of children left to grow up without parental guidance. On the surface their immaturity seems silly and irritating, an impression strengthened by their brightly coloured clean costumes and hair that are at odds with the generally filthy conditions in which they live.
Here we see a version of the Seventh Doctor still very much in a state of flux. It has been well documented that the writers for Season Twenty Four had little impression of the new Doctor's character when they were working on their scripts, and nowhere is this perhaps better illustrated than in Paradise Towers. The Doctor's lines are bland and lacking in individuality, but whilst Sylvester McCoy has clearly yet to decide in his own mind where it is that he wants to take his interpretation of the Time Lord, nonetheless he works hard to seize any opportunity to imbue his character with charismatic charm and comic relief.
The Doctor is alone in questioning the nature of the towers, and persists in his quest to find out who is behind the ongoing disappearances in the face of bumbling bureaucracy from the Caretakers and the Kangs refusal to speak of the horrors around them. There are moments when the Doctor exhibits forcefulness in his quest for the answers, which evokes the darker character into which he later evolves. Certain scenes involving the Doctor stand out; a particular highlight being the sequence in Part Three when the Doctor subtly turns his interrogation by the Chief Caretaker around, so that before the Caretaker realises it, the Doctor is interrogating him.
The Caretakers are comically inept, but then it could be argued that this is at least consistent with a scenario in which all the able-bodied men have gone away to fight in a war. Clive Merrison puts a lot of effort into making his role as the Deputy Chief Caretaker as convincing as the confines of the script will allow. He therefore succeeds in being more realistically menacing than Richard Briers' Chief Caretaker, who obviously interpreted his part as that of a completely over the top unhinged madman, and in this respect plays the role to perfection.
Briers deserves particular mention for his performance in Part Four, in which he plays the Great Architect Kroagnon inhabiting the Chief Caretaker's body. Briers adopts jerky, puppet-like body movements and a slurred speech pattern which marvellously captures the sense of a creature operating an unfamiliar body.
Mel has pathetically little to do in this story. Stephen Wyatt seems to have little need for the companion other than to have her get into trouble and then escape; get into trouble again, and so on. Having employed the standard Doctor Who plot device of splitting up the Doctor and companion mid-way through Part One, Wyatt then has Mel embark on a single-minded quest to reach the swimming pool at the top of the Towers. Along the way her only tangible contribution to the advancement of the plot is to reform Pex from a cowardly macho poser into a genuine hero who ultimately rescues the Doctor and saves the day.
If Paradise Towers had never been made Bonnie Langford's contribution to Doctor Who might be remembered with considerably greater fondness. This story contains undoubtedly her worst performance, as when forced to spend most of the adventure running up and down corridors with only a walking cliché for company, the worst excesses of her acting are all too obvious. Langford is undoubtedly an accomplished and experienced entertainer, but she is clearly out of her depth in a serious dramatic role, dreadfully over-emphasising her lines and delivering them in an unchanging high-pitched breathless croak. Worse still, her bubbly enthusiasm is undaunted by the horrors she encounters. She seems to have little regard for what has come before in the story, and rarely conveys emotions appropriate to her character's situation.
Langford's worst performance comes in Part Three, when, arriving at the pool at the top of the Towers, any slight concern for her safety or that of the Doctor fades away and she is completely entranced by the prospect of a dip in the pool.
Blame for the abject failure of the pool scene to convince the viewer cannot just be placed on Langford. Given the horror of the cleaning robots and the cannibalistic Rezzies that Mel has encountered in her trip she ought to have been more wary of the possible dangers lurking on the pool level, and the writer must take some of the responsibility for this. Worst still, however, is the travesty of the bright yellow cleaning robot lurking on the bottom of the clear blue pool. No matter how hard you try, there is no way to explain how Mel or Pex could have failed to spot this peril well in advance of its attack.
The music is another factor that lets the story down. It seems churlish to be too critical of this element when aware that composer Keff McCulloch had an unreasonably short space of time in which to score the soundtrack following the rejection of the original composer's work but many viewers will be oblivious to this fact and will only notice just how obviously inappropriate it is at certain key points. The initial appearance of a cleaning robot has a upbeat, jaunty theme accompany its passage down a corridor, when the scene would have undoubtedly have been more effective with music conveying a sense of menace. Conversely, the greeting ritual performed by the Doctor and the Red Kang Fire Escape should have had a lighter music track than the threateningly dangerous theme that can be heard at this point. It is nice however to hear a homage to the series theme music as the Doctor explores yet another corridor.
Setting the whole story within the confines of a tower block gives the director the obvious advantage of being able to use the same length of corridor again and again with complete impunity, as the whole point is that be towers are build to a uniform design.
One factor often overlooked by critics of this story, is that unlike a great many other studio-bound stories of the eighties, Paradise Towers is very gloomily lit, thus conveying great atmosphere. Some scenes are illuminated with a deep red or a sickly green that is very effective and eye-catching. Sets such as Tilda and Tabby's apartment are brightly lit, presenting an effective contrast to the gloom of the corridors. Director Nicholas Mallet deserves commendation for simple yet effective stylistic touches in scenes such as one in which the Doctor is almost entirely seen in silhouette, lit from behind by the light coming from the window at the end of the passage.
Paradise Towers is not intended to be taken on face value. Like The Happiness Patrol and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy - for which the frequently applied label of 'oddball story' is a gross over-simplification - the real value of the tale lies beneath the surface. In the case of Paradise Towers, the writer has something serious to say about the behaviour of humanity when ordinary social values no longer apply. As with a later Sylvester McCoy story, the theme is survival of the fittest.
Ultimately however and realistically because this is Doctor Who and not an art house film, Paradise Towers shirks away from the greater implications of these issues. At the story's conclusion the immediate menace to the well-being of the towers inhabitants has been eliminated and three main social groups have formed an uneasy alliance, but the viewer is left feeling far from convinced that all will be sweetness and light for the future of Paradise Towers.
This item appeared in TSV 50 (February 1997).