Richard Briers Tribute: Paradise Towers Review

As a tribute to Richard Briers, who passed away on Sunday aged 79, the DWCA feels it appropriate to reproduce a review of Paradise Towers written by Craig Land, news columnist for Data Extract magazine. The original and unabridged version can be found in issue 215 of the magazine, published in Autumn 2012.

“Doctor Who enabled me to overact, and I enjoy that. The producer worried that I wasn't taking the role seriously. He thought that Doctor Who was some kind of classic, which I suppose it was, but he considered it a classic like one of Shakespeare's plays. He thought that I wanted to send up Doctor Who. I think he was frightened that I would start overdoing it...so I did! I thought I had leeway.”

***

Paradise Towers is one of the most intelligent Doctor Who stories ever made. It may look light and frothy on the screen, but it has far darker subject matter than a lot of stories, and has a lot more to say about society, and people, than the entire Steven Moffat era put together.

We live in a society where people are forced to live in council flats because they can’t find anywhere else to live, while their loved ones are away fighting a war which nobody knows much about. Meanwhile, gangs are out on the street, fighting against each other while ignoring the fact that their oppression sources from elsewhere. Sound familiar? Paradise Towers, looked at today, has many unpleasant truths buried within it. Steven Wyatt has cleverly embedded his anger about society’s problems in the 1980s into a magnificently witty script which bounces along at a right old pace.

The story revolves around a simple premise – a group of people are left by their elders and superiors to survive on their own – and runs with it, showing us all the effects of the situation. The Kangs are an exceptionally clever idea; a collection of vicious teenage girl gangs who are just beginning to discover their maturity. As well as the obvious message regarding emotional acceptance of others which the Kangs represent, there are also implications that they are having an ‘awakening’ in another sense as well; a bunch of teenage girls, who don’t know what ‘boys’ are, and have only each other for support… I also like the patheticness of the Caretakers, who live in their rulebook and refuse to accept anything outside the confines of their own narrow perspectives, as well as the depressing story of Pex, who basically gets bullied into committing suicide.

My personal favourite characters are Tilda and Tabby, the cannibal lesbian grannies. They are simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and utterly terrifying, with their dithering around to tidy up their apartment so they can feed Mel up turning to desperate hunger as they try to claim their ‘meal’. As a result, Part 2’s cliffhanger is one of the greatest in the history of the series. They’re both colourful entertaining characters, and fascinating metaphors for what people are forced to do when they are left with nobody to help them.

Unfortunately, the realisation of Paradise Towers’ fantastic script leaves a fair bit to be desired. Director Nicholas Mallet wasn’t in tune with the script’s offbeat, satirical nature, and as a result, the direction is really very gaudy. However, I don’t necessarily see this as a problem. Yes, the interior of Paradise Towers is far from gritty realism, with its crazy lighting and costuming, but it’s not until you have a scene which is outside of the constant corridors that you realise just how claustrophobic the direction is. When you get to the pool scenes at the end of Part 3, it’s like taking deep breaths of fresh air after holding your breath underwater for a lengthy period of time. Mallet is drawing us into the world of Paradise Towers by making this tower block into a surrealistic nightmare, and it actually works pretty well.

What works less well, however, is the music. What was needed was something deeply claustrophobic and haunting, to freak the viewer out and make the weirdness of Paradise Towers even more pronounced. What Keff McCulloch gives us is like game show music, with crashing synths and bopping rhythms. However, with David Snell’s rejected score available on the DVD as an alternative soundtrack, this problem is solved. Snell’s music is heavily repetitive, but that only adds to the creepiness of the story’s atmosphere.

Sylvester McCoy is instantly more interesting here than in his first story, Time and the Rani, wandering around Paradise Towers like a mad professor and getting excited by just about everything he sees. His naughty use of the rulebook to escape from the Caretakers also makes me laugh, giving this Doctor a sense of fun which the show had begun to lose during the Saward years.

This story set out the parameters for what Andrew Cartmel thought that Doctor Who could be, and although on the production side, there’s still clearly a long way to go, the script sparkles with imagination and thematic depth. Paradise Towers is one of my favourite stories for this reason. There’s a lot you have to forgive the story visually, but you can’t fault the story’s integrity. And that’s what really makes awesome Doctor Who.