CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: Paradise Towers / DVD Review

Paradise Towers
October 1987

"People don't just vanish, do they?"
"Of course not. There's always something left behind"

Following hot on Kate O'Mara's heels in the opening story of the 1987 season, Time and the Rani, was Stephen Wyatt's Paradise Towers. If the previous story had been considered by many as a pretty underwhelming and rather embarrassing slice of Doctor Who, then Wyatt's story didn't do a huge amount to improve the series's lot even if it signaled ever so faintly that the beached production was about to float freer on higher tides. It was the first proper commission handled by incoming script editor Andrew Cartmel and even though it was a terribly executed production there were glimmers of interesting ideas and directions buried beneath a mound of over-earnest design and the broadest performances imaginable.

Paradise Towers allows in a chink of creative light that the series certainly needed, until then more or less depending on abundant referencing and reuse of its past glories to tell stories. Wyatt's basic ideas and themes are imaginative, clever and, above all, free of the dogged reliance on formulaic continuity. It's terribly obvious about half way in that Wyatt is making this up as he goes along, freely admitting so in the commentary that accompanies the episodes on this disc, and struggled to find a suitable conclusion. The ideas, reflecting a myriad of themes about the destruction and devolution of communities at the hands of developers and planners, the disparity between the designs of modern architectural practices and the desire and comforts of the people that live or work in their creations and the effects of rampant petty bureaucracy, are implicit rather than explicit.

... a reflection of the 1980s obsession with surface, the empty rhetoric of structures.
Paradise Towers was transmitted in a period when the subject of postmodern architecture was on the lips of the chattering classes, where the bricolage approach to modern buildings was a reflection of the 1980s obsession with surface, the empty rhetoric of structures. In fact, it's ironic to note that the Paradise Towers promotional video we get a glimpse of in the TARDIS at the beginning of the story was put together using clips from Robert Hughes heavyweight modern art series from 1980 The Shock of the New that in its final episode had itself examined the decline of modernism.

This is a serial thats dips a very nervous toe into the waters of what was once one of the major tenets in the Letts/Dicks era of the 1970s: social commentary. Wyatt's themes do connect with the Thatcher government's transformation of the Isle Of Dogs area by the London Docklands Development Corporation, where its original East End communities ended up dispossessed from the elitist luxury developments that appeared, and with Prince Charles's infamous lambasting of the 'monstrous carbuncle' approach of 1980s architects. Along with these contemporary economic and social changes, he finds as much inspiration in J.G Ballard's High Rise, Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985), William Golding's Lord of the Flies and Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) for their own depictions of tribal antagonisms, urban decay and bureaucratic nightmare.

There have been many suggestions that the satirical, and often political, science fiction of IPC's 2000AD was an influence on Cartmel's vision for the series but on the basis of Paradise Towers you'd be hard pressed to see it quite like that. Judge Dredd and Halo Jones may well have been on Cartmel's mind but Wyatt's script ends up as a reflection of the end of the 1960s dream of 'Cities in the Sky' (symbolised by the Poulson corruption scandal and his arrest in 1973) but by dint of containing them within the trappings of Keeping Up Appearances and Ever Decreasing Circles, especially in the tug of war between these ideas and the limitations of traditional multi-camera, studio based productions of the period, the schizophrenic nature of the story's design and serious miscasting for the Chief Caretaker and Pex. In the end, the story as realised on screen never really satisfies any of these imperatives, it just doffs its sparkly Chief Caretaker's cap at them.
... a silver Hitler cum Monty Python Gumby.
It's a wildly inconsistent tone that greets the viewer with set design that both mimics the collage of architectural styles of the period and offers a nod to the horrendous postmodern bricolage that was typical of game shows of the period, where the Blankety Blank set comes to mind. Designer Martin Collins does go for scale though and his multilevel designs open out the drama to a great degree. These sets are then populated by gangs of supposedly feral girls, the Red and Blue Kangs, who strut about unconvincingly in garish and badly fitting wigs and then try to convince us of their anti-social status with the mongrel language they use. While the use of "ice hot", "high fabshion" and "taken to the Cleaners" may have some semantic cleverness to it, the Kangs wouldn't stand a chance facing up to the kind of gangs that were terrorising the estates of Moss Side, Chapeltown and Broadwater Farm in the 1980s. Thus the tensions and exaggerations in the use of camp, melodrama and science fiction thriller are what warp Paradise Towers out of shape both narratively and aesthetically.

If we're talking about uneven tone then on the one hand we have the Rezzies - Tabby, Tilda and Maddy (played by Elizabeth Spriggs, Brenda Bruce and Judy Cornwell in what was surely a sit-com in waiting) - threatening Mel (Bonnie Langford, who, as the years pass, I feel more and more sorry for as she's struggling to just be herself, lumbered with a series of horrible costumes and no character whatsoever) with knives and toasting forks and on the other we have gloomy hallways prowled by robot cleaners who couldn't overtake a milk float. You'd also be forgiven for thinking that the Caretakers, particularly the younger ones (cast against type according to the descriptions in Wyatt's original script), had wandered in from a leather bar. Clive Merrison, fortunately, makes the Deputy Chief Caretaker as believable as he can in contrast to Richard Briers, as the Chief Caretaker, recreating his Martin Bryce character from Ever Decreasing Circles, who then transforms himself into a silver Hitler cum Monty Python Gumby.

Design, music and performance are instrumental in undercutting the dark themes attempting to rise to the surface in the story You get the sense that the actual ideas deserve better treatment. Visually much of it is in quotation marks, as typically self referential as a Norman Foster or James Stirling building, where for every beautifully lit corridor you still have Bonnie Langford in an excruciating blue and white polka-dot costume that reinforces the notion that she specifically remain a child and not become a woman. The big neon eyes of Kroagnon trapped in the basement, the pantomime aspects of the Chief Caretaker's outfit, the pool dwelling creatures... are all designs noting their own and the serial's sense of artifice, needlessly overwrought and as much concerned with depth and surface just as the tone of the story wildly vacillates between sit-com, variety act and dystopian science fiction.
... he gives himself licence to go over the top and round the other side
To add insult to injury there's an insensitive score from Keff McCulloch that equally bludgeons to death any kind of tension the story attempts to generate. Granted it was a replacement for a score that was deemed unsuitable (something that's actually much subtler from David Snell) but this crashes and hyperventilates through scenes that don't need it. Its use of sampling also closely fits in with the way design ideas for the serial are cherry-picked and bolted together and its construction from the technology of the day truly dates the story more than anything else.

The story's allusions are its strength but this doesn't help the plotting particularly, which by the last two episodes leaves Wyatt's story written into a corner. It isn't quite clear why Kroagnon is locked up in a building that he knows inside out and can therefore escape from. And why imprison him in the first place when it would be simpler to kill him? And considering the potentially threatening aspects of the story elements - cannibalistic old ladies, street gangs, marauding cleaning machines etc - why is it directed and presented in such an underwhelming way? It is clear that director Nicholas Mallet didn't quite know how to get the tone right on this and even at its paciest, where tension should be generated, arch performances and a lack of real visual punch undermine his efforts.

As much as the gritty, darker mood struggles to gain a hold, it is also interesting to note that amongst the chaos McCoy himself is coming on leaps and bounds as the Doctor, putting in a half decent performance that is miles away from the prat-falling variety act in search of character that Time and the Rani burned into our collective memories. The scene where he uses the Caretakers' rule book against them to make his escape is thoughtfully acted and it is again a theme - confuse the enemy into self-doubt or destruction - that the McCoy era runs with.

It also clearly went wrong in the casting. I'll get back to Briers again in a minute. The idea of subverting the masculine cliches of say Rambo and Top Gun with the character of Pex is a clever one - on paper - but Howard Cooke, bless him, is simply not the right actor for it. It needs big physicality to make it work, especially if you're peeling away the pumped up machismo, independence, competition, emotional detachment, aggression and violence to reveal sensitivities that the bluff of exaggerated maleness wants to cover up. Cooke is too slight physically to carry this off and the contrast between Pex and Mel, which the script is keen to acknowledge, isn't striking enough and Cooke's reading of the role is perhaps one that self-consciously fails to demonstrate that contrast sharply enough.

Richard Briers, often noted as a great natural actor, is wasted in the role of Chief Caretaker. There's a suggestion here of producer John Nathan-Turner's penchant for stunt casting and clearly the idea of playing the script's more fanciful elements absolutely straight is one that didn't find its way into the memo sent to Briers. Petty bureaucracy transformed into the monstrous is very much his forte - look at his performance as Martyn Bryce in Ever Decreasing Circles and you'll see how he can understand such a role - but in Doctor Who he gives himself licence to go over the top and round the other side. Many actors say this opportunity to play it over the top is often a reason why they took roles in the series. However, it often means they feel they can get away with murder. It also shows again that the director and producer didn't have the foresight to take Briers aside and say, "Richard, are you really going to play it like that?"

With Season 24, McCoy's era takes some time to get to grips with what must have been Cartmel's desire to abandon rigid genre distinctions and emphasise pastiche, parody, bricolage, irony, and playfulness in the series. Paradise Towers, beneath the reliance on Nathan-Turner's exhausted light entertainment motifs, is an attempt to strike out in those directions. Cartmel's desire to get science fiction ideas into the series while struggling against the fallout from the previous season makes it a dull but interesting failure. Falteringly, the series can be seen evolving again but has yet to shake off the 'light entertainment' trappings that its producer believes it should have and with a better script and a more sensitive approach to design and direction Wyatt's ideas could have taken flight. 

Special features
Commentary With Judy Cornwell, writer Stephen Wyatt, special sounds supervisor Dick Mills and moderated by composer/Radiophonic Workshop archivist Mark Ayres. Wyatt is honest about the script's failings and his problems in writing a satisfactory conclusion while Cornwell makes some pertinent observations about performing in Doctor Who, provides some Briers-centred anecdotes and recollections of working in the industry at the time. Mills doesn't have an awful lot to say, unfortunately, but Ayres is a decent moderator and keeps the conversation going across all four episodes.
Horror on the High Rise Ayres presents a look at the making of the story with actors Richard Briers, Howard Cooke and Catherine Cusack, writer Stephen Wyatt, script editor Andrew Cartmel, original score composer David Snell and replacement score composer Keff McCulloch. Effectively covers a lot of the story's ideas and influences, script development, the production and casting (especially Cooke as Pex) and the debacle over the incidental music. Ayres treads around composer David Snell sensitively considering all his hard work was abandoned by the production and was replaced by McCulloch's sampling hell. Fans can finally hear Snell's work on the episodes with the alternative score option available here.
Deleted and extended scenes from the first edit of the story.
Continuity announcements from the story’s original transmission.
Girls! Girls! Girls!: The Eighties - Peter Purves introduces three actresses who played companions in the 1980s - Sophie Aldred, Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton - to discuss between themselves the trials and tribulations of being a Doctor Who girl. This is a refreshing change from the talking heads style features and allows the three women (well, Fielding mostly) to opine on sexism in the series and the role of women characters in the drama. Some interesting explorations of their backgrounds and their initiation into the series but Fielding overdoes it on the axe-grinding. Yes, we know it was tough on women in the industry and it still is. The most glaring thing is the complete absence of Nicola Bryant.
Casting Sylvester - Producer Clive Doig explains his relationship with Sylvester McCoy and his role in the actor’s casting as the Seventh Doctor. A short but enlightening little piece that provides a bit of background about McCoy's previous television experience working for Doig on Vision On and Jigsaw.
Photo gallery of production, design and publicity photos from the story.
Trailer for the forthcoming The Sun Makers DVD release.
Radio Times listings in Adobe PDF format.
Subtitle Production Notes

Paradise Towers
BBC 1987
2 | entertain / Released 18 July 2011 / BBCDVD3002 / Duration: 100 mins approx / Cert: PG

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One Response to “CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: Paradise Towers / DVD Review”
  1. KAOS says:

    Fantastic review - this was one of those fondly remembered childhood stories, for me, and I'd hoped for better rewatching it as an adult. I fully concur with your thoughts.

    Season 24, for me, was just a rehearsal for the brilliance of Season 25/26 - The Happiness Patrol and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy can't come soon enough!

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