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Paradise Towers


By Gary Russell

The Bottom Ten No.8
DWM Score: 49.55%
DWM Placing: 152nd

There are, it seems, just those poor, unfortunate stories that no matter how hard they try, don't gel very well. Paradise Towers is such a beast: let's face it, it had everything going for it: Stephen Wyatt - no slouch of a writer; Nic Mallett - no slouch as a director, either, and a guest cast of the sort that a Sunday night classic period drama would weep blood to get.

So what went wrong? Why is Paradise Towers considered such a failure? Well, first up, it's not actually a failure at all. Like any other good Doctor Who adventure, it has four reasonably well-paced episodes, some highs, some lows, and a good range of characters to brighten it up. If the story lacked anything in those realms, it lacked variety. Everyone in Paradise Towers is a caricature of sorts - even the Doctor falls into this, through no fault of anyone, simply because Sylvester McCoy still hadn't found "his" Doctor. And why should he? It was only his second story. The trouble with peppering your adventure with a ‘kerr-azie’ set of people is that the normal ones (i.e. the Doctor and companion, in this case Mel) have to be exceptionally normal and overcompensate otherwise the viewer gets a little lost. Neither McCoy nor Bonnie Langford as Mel were exactly quiet, run-of-the-mill studious types, and thus the audience could not really hold onto anyone to hope and pray for.

“Nothing's just rubbish if you have an inquiring mind.”
- The Doctor

The story of Paradise Towers itself is actually rather splendid and witty. All the men have gone to fight in the "war", leaving behind a bunch of overgrown school kids, the local OAPs and the battle-shirking council officials with their Hitler-complexes. It's like an episode of The Bill gone wrong.

There's also another, far more important subplot that is often overlooked in condemning the story. It's about self-respect, about knowing that what you do makes a difference. In that respect, the true hero of the story is Pex. One cannot help but think how much more effective the story would have been if Pex, and the Kangs, had been played by actors five years younger. Pex really needed to be a fourteen year old, left behind, eager to please as his hormones kick in and he is surrounded by girl gangs. What fourteen-year-old wouldn't feel a need to impress, to show how grown-up and manly he was by kicking doors down, breaking lampposts and being over-protective. Similarly, we all know how vicious, spiteful and catty girl gangs can be - there's nothing more frightening than a bunch of denim-clad 15-year-old schoolgirls bunched together. Any man between 12 and 20 is going to be the object of their scorn/derision/lust/jokes. Had the casting been done in this way, Paradise Towers might have stood on the merits of its scripts rather than falling into this (possibly the only true Doctor Who) pantomime-esque state.

When, at the end, we see the wall-scrawl claiming ‘Pex Lives’, it's not about the hero being still around, it's a statement that the essence of what he stood for. It's a reminder that although he was as brash and over-compensating as any 14 year old might be, he did what was right by everyone else. He stood up for what he believed in - and died for it. Perhaps the concept of a 14 year old boy sacrificing himself for others would not have been acceptable at teatime in 1987, but that's the shame of it. The fact is that the whole story is about Pex - what he is, what he wants to be (one of the gang, ie Kangs) and what he needs to avoid becoming (one of the Caretakers, loutish, thick and unpleasant). Paradise Towers is about his journey and ultimately his death defending the only place he calls home.

The Kangs also represent another side of Pex - what he would be like if he let go of his dreams, his idealism. The Kangs represent the uncaring side of Paradise Towers. If Pex wants to keep it clean and straight and decent, they want anarchy. With their bizarre names and sub-Burgess speech patterns, they are the very antithesis of Pex, and yet they represent exactly the people he wants to keep happy - he wants to fit in with them and be accepted.

[Chief Caretaker]

On the other hand, there are the Caretakers, the representation of authority. But it's an authority even more out of control than the Kangs are. To the Caretakers, authority is the ultimate regression of quoting rules and regulations to the end of all else. Perhaps we might feel sorry for them - today's police are forever having to play "by the book" while their villains do less so. In a society where a policeman can lose his job for apprehending a dangerous knife-wielding criminal too roughly and be counter-sued, it is no wonder that these Caretakers of the future are so hide-bound by their regulations. One slip up, and they could be for the chop. The ultimate irony of that of course is that there is no higher authority to which they are answerable other than their Chief, himself the biggest rule-quoter of the lot. However, the Chief possesses one thing no one else has - a sense of evil. When he accuses the Doctor of being the Great Architect, it's a supremely clever moment of truth-manipulation. All these years people have asked about Kroagnon, believed he would return to rescue them from Paradise Towers - their own self-inflicted prison. Only the Chief knows where Kroagnon really is and so by disposing of the stranger, he can claim the Great Architect has indeed returned and must be destroyed, thus freeing them from their service. In doing so, the Chief Caretaker not only solves the problem of people believing Kroagnon is responsible for the spate of deaths and truculent machines but frees up his own time to serve Kroagnon because no one will ask further questions about him.

The Rezzies, on the other hand, are one of those rare moments in Doctor Who where stepping out of the ordinary really works. We are taught today that our old folk are harmless, deserving of our charity and our respect. Here that whole concept is turned on its head - Mel believes this, she sees no problem in sharing tea and buns with two dotty old ladies with too much time on their hands. Probably the sort of thing her mother would do as a member of the local WI. But here, the truth is that the OAPs of Paradise Towers are the most self-sufficient of the lot. Obviously the malignant machinery isn't the only scourge of the Kangs or caretakers. How many other innocent people have they "cooeed" into their apartment and subsequently mashed up and eaten?

It is these little quirks, these sudden twists on what the viewers expect of these characters that makes Paradise Towers so much fun. And much more clever than most people give it credit for. The SF trappings of out-of-control cleaning robots and the appalling deus ex machina of having Kroagnon absorb the Chief Caretaker (a misjudged performance by the normally excellent Richard Briers - having been so over the top as the Chief, maybe he should have underplayed Kroagnon, thus heightening the menace instead of trying to out do his previous three episodes) are irrelevant. These SF trappings are there to say ‘Hey, remember kids, this is Doctor Who.’ Paradise Towers is really a template for The Happiness Patrol, which takes studio-bound off-the-wall storytelling to a new height. The following year, they refined the processes that made Paradise Towers - which meant using Stephen Wyatt's script as a testing ground, to see how far they could stretch the format. It has often been said that Doctor Who's boundaries are limitless (a load of tosh, but it sounds good) - well, Paradise Towers certainly gave a good run up to the perimeter wall, even if it discovered it couldn't quite scale it. For that novelty alone, for daring to offer an adult human drama, it should be applauded not castigated.

#7 : Underworld

This item appeared in TSV 56 (October 1998).

Index nodes: Paradise Towers