The indispensable Blogtor Who describes “Paradise Towers” as “an absolute stinker, a sign of the times that spewed it – but that’s also what makes it such an intriguing watch. It’s the decline of the Eighties in front of your very eyes.” His discussion is nuanced, appreciative, and ultimately disappointed in the final product. All told, that’s entirely fair, but even though he describes the DVD as a “fascinating release,” the overall impression of his review doesn’t convey that as much of an actual recommendation. I’d like to argue that its ultimate failure makes it almost essential.
“A tremendously wasted opportunity” (a boilerplate paraphrase) is about the best thing I’ve seen said about the story. Most of the complaints lodged against the story that I’ve read I cannot dispute. Richard Briers, a brilliant character actor who delivers two-thirds of the story’s best performance as the Chief Caretaker, also delivers one-third of the story’s worst performance as the Chief Caretaker being controlled by a the malevolent Chief Architect, Kroagnon. With due respect to what Briers was trying to accomplish with the transformation, it is a hideously misguided approach. Similarly, the Cleaners are potentially terrifying clan of robot monsters, but the production design and execution is insurmountably bad — even with the satiric tone, the effect is laughable at best. You’d be better off watching Chopping Mall for a similar monster (and that is not a good thing).
Oh, but there is so much to recommend this story. Inspired by J. G. Ballard and packed with witty dialogue, trenchant scenarios, and a surprisingly poignant heroic arc for one of the story’s supporting characters, “Paradise Towers” is very nearly a prime example of how great Doctor Who can be when it is trying to Say Something. The Doctor and Mel wind up in a labyrinthine high rise that is a cross between a Las Vegas hotel envisioned by Dean Koontz, a council estate from Harry Browne, and the projects from The Warriors. The robots designed to keep it maintained have started killing residents and depositing them in a pit in the basement that keeps insisting on how hungry it is. The crypto-fascist Caretakers (police) are incompetent boobs ruled by nonsensical rules and a Hilteresque Chief in cahoots with the hungry pit. Some of the doily-collecting pepperpots have started eating the other residents, and girl “kangs” keep everyone scared, divided, and indoors, spraying graffiti over everything. Denizens of this dystopia talk of a Great Architect that has abandoned them, and all the middle-aged able bodies are presumed dead somewhere in a war. The Doctor wants to put the whole thing to rights (and/or satisfy his curiosity, who knows what his priorities are?), though Mel just wants to get to the ornate swimming pool atop the towers. A deluded, would-be action hero volunteers to be her guide, but he’s pretty useless, being a coward and all, despite his strength.
As blunt as these allegorical archetypes might seem, the first couple episodes have a tantalizing ambiguity about them. What social ills is the story satirizing, precisely? An overly zealous, brutal law enforcement establishment blinded by hierarchical regulations? The blase, dog-eat-dog mentality of the capitalistic middle class? The aimless, anarchic thuggery of the street gangs engaged in an endless cycle of tribal retaliation? The economic and spiritual cost of war on the home front? The gendered cowardice at the heart of macho bluster? At the outset, it seems as if not all of these strands will be resolved tidily — which is part of the exhilaration. It would make the story harder to pin down and more difficult to relegate to its own era.
The problem is that writer Stephen Wyatt does try to tie these threads together, and the result is miserably irrelevant. There’s some pap about everyone just learning to work together, despite their differences and history of hostility, and while there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, it’s all very pat, and almost totally random. On the one hand, it seems to be a testament to the Doctor’s power as a natural leader and catalyst, but mostly it’s just awkward plotting. Similarly, the backstory of Paradise Towers — the big reveal at the heart of the mystery that the Doctor spends the story trying to unravel — is ridiculously nonsensical, even by Who standards. Worse, by introducing Kroagnon as an aesthete/misanthrope who simply wants his habitations to be free of the pesky humans for which he built them, all the potential allegorical connotations fall flat. Having a single, psychotic megalomaniac with delusions of artistic grandeur as the Big Bad is another one of those perhaps brilliant ideas that simply isn’t fit into place within the story. Is “Paradise Towers” really saying that society’s ills are traceable to the Frank Lloyd Wrights of the world? There’s no doubt that this theme has intriguing possibilities, but as it stands, the story never draws any connections between how and why exactly a mind like that would create a dystopia with the characteristics “Paradise Towers” depicts.
No surprise that, by Wyatt’s own account in the featurette on the DVD, he basically made everything up as he went along. This explains the disappointing resolution, but it simultaneously amazes me. Given that the story was not planned meticulously, it is astonishing that it turned out as well as it did.
This frisson between the production and the aesthetic qualities of the narrative find a parallel in Sylvester McCoy’s performance. This was his second story as the Doctor, and he invests it with as much authority as he can muster while still slipping in sly moments of comedy that emphasize the Doctor’s arrogance and addiction to spinning as many plates in the air as possible. A few moments fall flat, such as an unfortunate bit of pantomime when a Cleaner gets is claws around his neck (too much tongue, Syl) or some longish scenes with the Kangs in which he delivers his lines with conviction, but doesn’t seem to know what to do with his physical presence. This may have been a lack of imagination in the blocking of the scenes (which would fall on the shoulders of Nicholas Mallett), or maybe McCoy just didn’t trust himself to stand there and emote authority, as he did to great effect later on.
Regardless, this story is a good fit for McCoy’s take on the Doctor, which was much more mercurial, slippery, and given to outlandish, mordant humor than his two predecessors. Later stories would be just as concerned with social criticism, but the satire wasn’t as overtly comedic. Brazil is an easy point of reference for this story (and has been, apparently since it’s initial airing); Dr. Strangelove might be another. Later stories were more in the Star Trek vein, perhaps a bit campy, but more straight-faced (as camp often is), with the Doctor supplying the anchor for the intersection between the bizarre, exaggerated conceits and the seriousness of tone. Here, the ideas are serious, but played more broadly; the result is more grotesque, advertising its subversive potential with glee. (And don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the story’s tone in its own right.) McCoy’s spin on the Doctor is in his element, rather than subverting it or exerting subtle mastery over it. Script editor Andrew Cartmel is correct in saying that this was the first true hint of where the show would be going, but the calibration of the show’s tone to McCoy’s clearly brilliant performance had yet to be fine-tuned.
That process of discovery — the thrill of the unknown — is part of the appeal of the show. More importantly, even if some choices in the production of this story diminished its impact, the reliance on wit is what makes it Who and not some other science fiction show. I don’t want to argue that “Paradise Towers” is actually a misunderstood gem by virtue of the fact that its own production mirrors the sense of adventure exemplified by the program. It would be a gem simply because it is an entertaining, go-for-broke performance piece bursting with clever ideas. It is fascinating because of the meta-level on which it can appreciated. Stories like this are a huge reason why I love Doctor Who in general and McCoy’s era in particular. Not every TV show can get away with throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, but Who does (more often than not) because of both the quality of the stuff being thrown at the wall and because the show isn’t just throwing stuff; it’s taking aim.
While “Paradise Towers” ultimately wanders from a point, it would be untrue to suggest that there was no vision driving it. Perhaps that vision had yet to be articulated stridently, but the right mix of people was coming together, and the show’s rebranded identity was very much in keeping with its legacy while beginning to play to the strengths of its new star. Does the story fall short of greatness? No doubt about it. Is it a worthwhile Doctor Who story? Absolutely. Few shows attack a premise this rich with potential with anywhere near the verve, temerity, and raw talent. The fact that the scope and aesthetics of this particular story were a bit beyond the team at the time doesn’t belittle what they actually accomplished. They’d stick the landing later on, and “Paradise Towers” is an integral ingredient in the path to those later, greater achievements. ☕