Like the rest of S24, Paradise Towers remains somewhat unloved by Doctor Who fandom. Out of 241 stories, the 2014 DWM poll places Time and the Rani at 239, Paradise Towers at 230, Delta at the Bannermen at 217 and Dragonfire at 215.
Is Paradise Towers really the 11th worst Doctor Who story of all time? I don’t think so, and whilst it has serious faults (hello Richard Briers, especially in episode four!) there’s plenty of things that do work.
Firstly, Sylvester McCoy is very good. His performance is far removed from the prat-falling Doctor seen in Time and the Rani. Here, the Doctor is content to watch and listen, and at times there’s a nice sense of stillness from him. As will become clear when we move through his era, McCoy is at his best when he’s downplaying and at his worst when he has to shout and emote.
Most of his best scenes are with the Caretakers, and this one is a particular favourite.
DOCTOR: I suppose how you guard me is in that rulebook.
DEPUTY: Yes. Rule forty five B stroke two subsection five.
DOCTOR: I wouldn’t mind having a look at that rulebook, if that’s not against the rules. I mean, after all, I am a condemned man.
(The Deputy consults the rule book.)
DEPUTY: Yes, we can count that as your last request. You’re entitled to one if you’re to undergo a three two seven appendix three subsection nine death. Not a pretty way to go.
(The Deputy passes over the rule book and the Doctor leafs through it.)
DOCTOR: How extraordinary. No, no. It can’t be true.
DEPUTY: What’s that?
DOCTOR: Oh no, no. It’s. You couldn’t possibly.
DEPUTY: If it’s there, it’s true. Rules are rules. Orders are orders.
DOCTOR: If you say so. I don’t want to make a fool of you.
DEPUTY: Read out what it says.
DOCTOR: Oh, very well, but I find it hard to credit
DEPUTY: Read it!
DOCTOR: It says here about a three two seven appendix three subsection nine death, that after you’ve been guarding the condemned prisoner for (checks his wristwatch) thirty five minutes, you must all stand up.
DEPUTY: But if we
DOCTOR: Yes, I know, I know, I find it extraordinary. I don’t really expect you to do it. But it is in there.
(The Deputy and the Caretaker stand up.)
DOCTOR: The Caretakers present must then move five paces away from the prisoner.
(They do so.)
DOCTOR: Five. Close their eyes and put their hands above their head.
(The Doctor tiptoes up to the back of the Deputy and carefully picks his trouser pocket, removing his wallet containing a selection of cards.)
DEPUTY: How long do we do this for?
DOCTOR: For about a minute and a half. You see, that’s how long the prisoner needs.
(The Doctor takes his umbrella from the Caretaker.)
DEPUTY: To do what?
DOCTOR: Find the key card to the door and escape.
DOCTOR: Find the key card to the door and escape.
Clive Merrison, as the Deputy Chief Caretaker, gives a lovely comic performance throughout. As everybody’s come up against the relentless grind of bureaucracy at some time, the rule-book spouting Deputy is something of a joy. Richard Briers, as the Chief Caretaker, is pretty good in the first three episodes (although there are signs of the problems to come) but everything falls to pieces when he gets to episode four.
Once the Chief has been taken over by Kroagnon, Briers’ performance goes into free-fall. It’s astonishingly bad and the question has to be why did JNT and director Nick Mallet allow him to do it? This is probably the reason why the story is so poorly regarded, but even so, there’s some good material and performances in the rest of the story.
Tilda (Brenda Bruce) and Tabby (Elizabeth Spriggs) are great fun as the two old dears who want Mel to stay for lunch, as it were. Their eventual fate (vanishing down the waste-disposal unit) is one of many points in the story which signify that this isn’t a Doctor Who that’s operating on a realistic level. The tone of the piece and the performances are pitched more in the style of a slightly twisted fairy tale rather than the straight-ahead realism of, say, The Caves of Androzani.
The Kangs are interesting, with a slang language all of their own – but the casting seems a little off. They appear have been written as gangs of teenage girls, but the actresses playing them look too old and sound too middle-class. There’s possibly nothing that could really have been done though, since younger actresses would have had limitations on the hours they could have worked, which would have been a problem for the production.
There’s some nice satirical points in the story, particularly on the problems of urban decay. At one time, tower blocks were seen as the only solution to the post-war housing problem, but only a few years after they were built they had become virtual prisons for some of their inhabitants. Kroagnon’s opinion that Paradise Towers would be fine if only it wasn’t full of people is one that was shared by certain other architects. But a building has to be designed to be lived in, not just to exist as a form of modern sculpture.
This type of tale is naturally not going to be to everyone’s tastes. A frequent criticism of Paradise Towers is that it looks and feels like a children’s programme (an odd comment to make about a Doctor Who story surely) but I’d sooner have something like this, which is attempting something different, than another Dalek or Cybermen story.
Back in the late 1980’s, a term was coined for these types of stories – “Oddball”. And whilst the series would later give the fans some of the things they wanted – the return of the Daleks, Cybermen, the Brigadier, etc – they would also throw a few Oddball stories into the mix. And some of the Oddballs have aged pretty well, certainly they stand up to scrutiny better than the likes of Silver Nemesis or Battlefield.
It’s hard to imagine Paradise Towers ever being reclaimed as a classic (or even a halfway decent story) by most people, but thanks to some good performances (McCoy and Merrison particularly) it’s well worth pulling off the shelf and revisiting.