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9x02. The Curse of Peladon
Writer: Brian Hayles
Director: Lennie Mayne
Script Editor: Terrance Dicks
Producer: Barry Letts

Synopsis: With some help from the Time Lords, the Doctor and Jo are dispatched to Peladon, where a conflict is growing over the planet's application to join the Galactic Federation. The two of them soon find themselves impersonating the Earth delegation as a series of mysterious deaths and attacks threaten to provoke an outbreak of war, while King Peladon and his High Priest Hepesh debate whether joining the Federation is the right choice.

Review: The Third Doctor's second venture into outer space proves more interesting than his first, as "The Curse of Peladon" effectively taps into some of the Pertwee era's themes and delivers another tightly-paced four-parter with enough suspense and characterization to keep the viewer involved.

At the time, the crisis in "The Curse of Peladon" was intended as a very specific metaphor for the debate over Britain's application to the European Common Market, but fortunately it doesn't come off as dated. We've seen the conflicts in this serial recurring ever since Jon Pertwee became the Doctor: superstition vs. progress, fear of change vs. a willingness to take risks, and distrust between different species vs. professed good intentions. The High Priest Hepesh, like the Young Silurian or General Carrington, is not motivated by raw malice but by a genuine concern for his people, even if it has led him down the road of deception and murder. Distrustful of outsiders and fiercely protective of his culture's traditions, he truly believes that joining the Federation is the wrong choice for Peladon. An interesting twist is that the Doctor himself is also revealed to hold certain prejudices: he immediately distrusts the Ice Warriors, who have reformed themselves into an aristocratic but peaceful society and have sent a delegate to the conference on Peladon. The difference is that, unlike Hepesh, the Doctor is able to set his prejudices aside and give the Ice Warriors the benefit of the doubt, agreeing to work with them and eventually apologizing for suspecting them of trying to sabotage the conference: in fact, their delegate Izlyr proves to be his most valuable ally among all the delegates. I never thought much of the Ice Warriors as villains, but as ex-villains they serve this story well.

The makers of "The Curse of Peladon" show some imagination in their conception of the various alien races. The residents of Peladon seem more or less human, but the Alpha Centauri delegate is a hermaphrodite with one eye and six arms, and its bizarrely high voice and tendency towards bouts of hysteria make for effective comic relief. Arcturus is also convincingly alien, as he has to live inside a complicated containment unit in order to survive on Peladon, and he's well-concealed as Hepesh's accomplice (which is the main source of the mystery since the audience knows Hepesh is the villain from fairly early on). King Peladon is also an effective character in that he wants to do the right thing for his planet but is somewhat weak and inexperienced: though he's sympathetic to the delegates and interested in joining the Federation, he can't quite bring himself to abandon some of the more primitive customs (such as the one allowing the Doctor to contest his death sentence only by fighting the King's Champion, Grun) or to make a decisive break with Hepesh and his superstitions. His relationship with Jo, like most "companion romances," develops surprisingly quickly, but it at least sort of makes sense given that he's royalty and Jo is pretending to be a princess, and his declaration that he must separate his life as a king and his life as a man rings true.

The Doctor's role in the story, trying to help with the negotiations, investigating the attempts at sabotage, and eventually defending himself against false charges of attempted murder, is fairly predictable, but it's handled well by Jon Pertwee. His best moment, however, might be when he hypnotizes the "monster" Aggedor with a rigged-up rotating mirror on the sonic screwdriver and a Venusian lullaby. In this and most other serials, the Doctor represents what most of us would think of as the best of human values, but he is, all the same, an alien with some very strange powers, and scenes like this effectively remind us of that. Unfortunately, he doesn't have hypnosis on his side when convincing the others that he and Jo are the Earth delegation, and on this note the script is never quite believable. He does have to make up a story about his credentials being missing when they arrive, but it seems that no one has the name or appearance of the Earth delegate on file, and Izlyr apparently doesn't know what kind of government Earth has even though he himself is from Mars (a stone's throw away compared to Alpha Centauri). Of course, mass communication and information exchange would in fact be highly problematic at interstellar distances, but it seems like these difficulties would have to be overcome before a "Galactic Federation" could ever be established in the first place.

Other than that, the main flaw of "The Curse of Peladon" is that things start to taper off towards the end of Episode 3. The Doctor's gladiator-style battle with Grun adds nothing to the plot and strikes me as a bit of pointless sensationalism -- sure, the Doctor chooses to spare Grun's life, but who couldn't have guessed that was how it would end? Also, once Hepesh's conspiracy is exposed (as it is when Arcturus attempts to kill the Doctor), the main plot thread has run its course, and Episode 4 quickly latches onto a new plot in which Hepesh tries to force the king to adopt his preferred course of action. While I can't exactly say I was bored or disinterested, this still has a slightly tacked-on feel to it, and I can't help but wonder if Brian Hayles could have found some other way to fill out 90 minutes. Still, after some stumbling in Season 8, the Pertwee era seems to have regained its footing with three good serials in a row (starting with "The Daemons"). Hopefully the trend will continue as Season 9 rounds out with three six-parters.

Rating: *** (out of four)

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