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Doctor Who - Paradise Towers

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
2 Entertain
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Nicholas Mallett
Sylvester McCoy
Bonnie Langford
Richard Briers
Clive Merrison
Elizabeth Spriggs
Bottom Line: 

A recently regenerated Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) agrees to take his companion Mel (Bonnie Langford) for a relaxing  holiday swim on top of the 22nd century’s most luxurious high-rise construction - known as Paradise Towers. Here, the highest storey reputedly boasts (according to the Tower’s video brochure) a fabulous, glistening open air swimming pool in the sky. So it is a shock when the TARDIS materialises instead in a run-down, ill-lit, rubbish-strewn mid-level recess on Potassium Street -- where the only surrounding colour derives from the graffiti defacing the dingy, stained concrete walls, and where the only sky-facing windows that aren’t dirty or cracked are the broken ones. Far from playing host to the utopian 304 floor paradise advertised in its brochure, the isolated communities who now inhabit the Tower seem to have devolved into hostile factions continually at war with each-other in a dystopian, planet-wide urban hell hole. The Doctor and Mel discover that the claustrophobic warren of grim corridors between floors is being constantly fought over by tribes of novelty punk rock girl gangs known as Red, Blue and Yellow Kangs; the rows of sitcom-style box apartments are inhabited by cannibalistic little old ladies called ‘Rezzies’; and the patrolling, fascistic uniformed caretakers have become as petty urban clean-up squads: hidebound by an excessively elaborate rulebook they treat like a bible as they monitor every level with surveillance cameras, they’re always on the lookout for more evidence of rule-breaking. Also, massive, automated cleaning machines are tidying and clearing away far more than just bags of rubbish in their capacious plastic dust-carts, and even the luxury swimming pool hosts its lethal pool cleaning robot killer.

All the while, somewhere in the building’s lower basement levels, the disembodied Great Architect Kroagnon plots to rid his ‘perfect’ creation of the indignity of having to suffer the presence of actual tenants -- the ‘mobile rubbish’ that only spoil the purity of his grand architectural schemes. The Doctor must unite the seemingly irreconcilable inhabitants of Paradise Towers in order to prevent a genocidal catastrophe, as Kroagnon finally gains the means of going on a murderous rampage to once and for all cleanse his perfect creation of all life  …

Kroagnon the Great Architect and his futuristic high-rise dream turned-nightmare is writer Stephen Wyatt’s camp comic-book take on the legacy of 1950s/1960s urban planning in the UK, when the adoption by the political class of the optimistic belief in the power of ‘White Heat’ science, industry and technology as its best means of modernising the country and purging it of its lingering Victorian-era slum dwellings joined forces with the then-dominance in city planning of Modernist principles  inspired by the 1930s French architect Le Corbusier, with the result that the country’s architectural establishment wholly embraced the functionalist doctrine of Brutalism: a centralised planning programme that characterised the tower block as ‘a machine for living in’ and which envisioned ordered communities flourishing in new towns and housing estates amongst a planned-out landscape of towering flats, concrete avenues and spiralling walkways.

There was good intentioned utopian idealism behind much of this thinking at the time: as the country’s population continued to increase, the surrounding green belt was felt to be coming under increasing threat from urban sprawl.  The creation of ‘streets in the sky’ came to be seen as the perfect positive solution, vertically rehousing whole communities displaced by the necessary slum clearances, while at the same time preserving the surrounding countryside. The poverty, unemployment and spiralling traffic congestion that were by now associated with, and seen as by-products of, the old-fashioned design of Britain’s cities and their gloomy cobbled slums, would be swept away on a tide of social improvement as the  environment was transformed for the better by these sweeping megastructures -- designed to replicate the community feel of neighbourly terraced streets through their adoption of broad stone walkways, often seen stretching the whole length of these new towering sky-scraping buildings. Another attraction of such buildings was their cheapness and the potential ease of construction: prefabricated concrete panels could simply be bolted into place after being winced into position by crane instead of having to be laboriously built by brick and hand.

But, unfortunately, no-one reckoned on the British climate: these structures quickly came to be seen as dark, gloomy, rain-sodden and windswept havens of urban alienation by the people who were forced to live in them. Their concrete walls became damp from the frequent rain that soon left them horribly stained, making the buildings forbidding and ugly-looking monuments to social deprivation; and, even worse, the profit motive which led to more and more of these tower block development schemes springing up, even when it became clear that no-one wanted to live in them, also resulted in cash-hungry private developers replicating the same design flaws up and down the country, along with shoddy construction methods and bad maintenance. By 1968, after the Ronan Point explosion resulted in one whole side of a council flat collapsing with the loss of four lives, public sympathy for the grand schemes of modernist architects had largely dissipated. The original good intentions behind such ventures were soon forgotten and the buildings became associated with larger-than-life characters such as the Hungarian-born architect Ernő Goldfinger (the name was, of course, later immortalised forever by Ian Fleming as a Bond villain) who gave off an air of patrician disdainfulness for the people actually expected to live in what many commentators now considered to be ugly concrete eyesores. The way such architects began to be popularly perceived is perhaps best summed up by a comment attributed to Le Corbusier himself, who was once quoted as saying that the design of cities was far too important to be left to their citizens.

Kroagnon, then, represents a caricature of a view that, by 1987, had become wholly associated with this style of architecture; Prince Charles had recently waded into the debate and modernist architecture and its buildings had come to be seen merely as monolithic ego-boosts to the people who had created them, their designs guilty of -- as the Doctor chides Kroagnon in episode four -- “not making allowances for people”, and of producing a legacy of horror stories about old and infirm residents trapped on the twelfth floor of their block of flats whenever the lifts broke down, and of gangs of aimless youths vandalising and defacing the environment with spray-can graffiti – itself a recent import from the States.

Delinquency and youth alienation had become particularly associated with tower block communities by the late eighties, and writer Stephen Wyatt taps into that with his and Andrew Cartmel’s creation of the tower block tribes of Kangs: girl gangs who roam the corridors, marking their territory with their graffiti ‘wallscraw’ and engaging in battles with competing tribes which, we later learn, are more like the games from their childhood than true delinquency as we would know it.  Meanwhile, robot cleaners and the middle-aged caretakers attempt to hunt them down.

The idea behind the story is that all of the able-bodied males have long ago gone off to fight in a war from which they’ve never returned, and that all the older people and younger female children have been left behind in the giant, planet-sized tower block -- named Paradise Towers by its creator -- to fend for them selves. Here they have grown up in complete isolation and, over time, developed their own culture and argot based completely on the signs and signifiers they see in their everyday surroundings and in half-remembered idioms from their childhood -- which have then muted over time. Wyatt employs a great deal of invention and clever word play in bringing this argot to life; corridors have become “carrydoors” in Kang slang; the childish insult cowardly custard has mutated into “cowardly cutlet” and high fashion has become “high Fabshion”. The names of the gang members themselves have also all been derived from the environment of the tower block – thus we have girl members called things like ‘Bin Liner’, ‘Fire Escape’ and ‘No Exit’; they greet each other by chanting the Paradise Towers slogan ‘Build High for Happiness’ and the inaccessible swimming pool on the top floor has been mythologised as a kind of heaven -- the great swimming pool in the sky, where all the ‘unalive’ go.

A number of fictional antecedents have been used as templates here, culled from dystopian literature such as Anthony Burgess’ invented language of Nasdat, developed for the boy gang the Droogs in his novel “A Clockwork Orange”; and the style of slang that’s used in the graphic novel “The Ballard of Halo Jones” by Alan Moore and Ian Gibson also has echoes in Wyatt’s script. The idea of an isolated community in a tower block developing its own separate culture was initially inspired by JG Ballard’s novel “High-Rise”, while the concept of a tribe of self-governing children comes from the William Golding novel “The Lord of the Flies”.

“Paradise Towers” became the first story to be commissioned for DOCTOR WHO by new script editor Andrew Cartmel and he was keen to inject a lot more of the anarchic sensibility of the modern adult comic strip into the series. The weekly sci-fi comic 2000AD is widely perceived to have been hugely influential in establishing the unique tone of the late-eighties’ Sylvester McCoy era, bringing bold social satire, heightened  humour and an ironic postmodern awareness of genre to the show; but the screen realisation of the concept of the Kangs is just one of the many elements in the story that have now begun to look distractingly dated -- in this case by a costume design that depends on garish “Beyond the Thunderdome”-style coloured wigs and the Toyah-Wilcox-punk-lit colour-coded costumes seen being sported en masse by the female cast playing the roles of these girl Kangs, all of whom seem to be in their mid-twenties, at least. The dodgy casting in this story is a theme we’ll return to later.

One of the problems in general with the Sylvester McCoy era for me, is the way in which it seems to have dated much more heavily in retrospect than any other period in the show’s history. Obviously, you can always pin-point each and every decade of DOCTOR WHO fairly easily by the distinctive fashions of the day and the types of technology that were available at the time to be used in the making of its special effects etc. But the DOCTOR WHO of the late eighties always appeared rather too desperate to be seen following the latest cultural trends in order to convince people (more specifically, at this time, BBC controller Michael Grade) that it was still a relevant part of the schedule, even though the production methods being used to make the show were still more or less exactly the same as they had been in 1963 when it started. Thus, there is actually a much greater mismatch in this period between the intent of the stories and their actual on-screen realisation. From the frightfully tasteless pink & purple neon computer graphics of the new opening title sequence (not to mention the horrible plinky-plonky late-‘80s electro-pop re-arrangement of the iconic Ron Grainer theme music) to the misjudged fashions and ludicrously strident incidental music, with its interminable, plonking ,programmable synth bass lines and sampled orchestral stabs, the modern dressing of the show now appears to fall so far short of the modernity it aspired to back then that these stories now seem to exude a sorry air of bathos  that just wasn’t present when we look back at adventures from earlier periods in the show’s history, no matter how limited the resources available to make them.  

In the case of “Paradise Towers” the highly ambitious conceptual framework of the story rarely matches the production’s ability to represent it on the screen. And although fans of 7th Doctor adventures often remind us that this has ever been the case (even current show runner Steven Moffat likes to point out that it doesn’t matter how much money you have to make DOCTOR WHO, the inherently crazy ambition of the universe it strives to represent means that it can never be enough!), the problem, it seems to me, is particularly acute for the type of  self-aware comic-book style of storytelling that began to be favoured under Andrew Cartmel -- and ultimately it’s to the detriment of the programme as a whole. “Paradise Towers” is so keen on its high concept satirical ideas and so woozy on the influence of, say, the then-recently released Terry Gilliam movie “Brazil” (1985), that script editor and writer alike (the latter can hardly be blamed though, considering the short amount of time he was given to come up with and complete the story) forget to bother with characters that have any kind of believable internal logic in them at all, let alone ones you can invest any emotion in as to their eventual fates. And the “plotting” of the story is so thin it’s barely existent -- soon dissolving into a series of broad sketches (some successful, some not) with a rushed, nonsensical conclusion tacked on in the final episode.  

All this only makes the inherent problems with the actualisation of the world of Paradise Towers even more acute. The concept of ‘the Cleaners’ – automated robotic corridor cleaners and rubbish removers that have migrated to eliminating the tower’s inhabitants instead – is a promising one, but the lumbering, slow-moving dodgem-like vehicles that we actually see on screen are hopelessly unconvincing in their task of portraying lethal exterminators. We might be tempted to put this down wholly to the inadequacies of the budget, but the problem of believability is later revealed as going much deeper than just a hurried design job and a lack of money. Near the end of episode four, when the Rezzies (the little old ladies who populate the rows of apartments up and down the many floors – although we only ever see a handful of them) join with the other inhabitants and rebel against these robot agents of the Great Architect, they’re shown immobilising the cleaners using only wool nets that they’ve made using their skills of crochet! Although this is a good joke, the idea that these machines were ever the implacable killing machine threat we’ve been led to believe they were up until this point immediately dissipates and is revealed as a nonsense -- thereby rendering much of the previous storyline as gibberish.

It doesn’t matter particularly that the idea behind the story is outrageous far-fetched fantasy – plenty of DOCTOR WHO stories have been, obviously. But when many of the characters are such ciphers and the story so lacks in logic that the guest cast can’t even be bothered to pretend to treat the whole thing as anything other than a joke, you know something has gone seriously wrong. This brings us to the much discussed performance of Richard Briers, who plays the major role of the Chief Caretaker in this story.

The caretakers were envisioned by Wyatt as a race made up of all the middle-aged and unfit men who would have been left behind when the rest of the males went off to war. This idea doesn’t really come across on screen, though, because evidently no-one thought to inform director Nicholas Mallett about this rationale, so he simply cast standard, fit-looking security guard types instead. The idea is fundamentally a satirical one which intends to make a joke out of over-zealous officialdom and pointless bureaucracy. The caretakers all sport uniforms that give them a partly militaristic, partly policeman-ish appearance, and Richard Briers and Clive Merrison (who plays the Deputy Chief) start off by performing both roles with a sitcom comedy precision -- Briers’ Hitler moustache only emphasising the obvious inspiration behind this bunch of small-minded petty officials. Originally left to oversee the smooth running of the towers, they have over time evolved their own police state guided by a ludicrous book of pointless house rules.

Briers was and is a well-regarded actor, famous at the time for playing a similarly rule obsessed character in the 1980s sitcom “Ever Decreasing Circles”; it’s reasonable to assume that he was cast in the role of the Chief Caretaker to bring something of the same spirit to “Paradise Towers”. Briers’ reading of the script evidently saw all the characters and the situation they were in as being akin to something that might be presented in a play by Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter: none of them made any sense outside of the ludicrously constricted environment that had been artificially created for them; they had no credible pasts or believable emotional lives; in short they belonged in the Theatre of the Absurd. This thought is actually backed up in sequences such as the one in which the Doctor outwits the Deputy Chief and a caretaker guard (after they have just taken him prisoner and are escorting him to his execution) by persuading them both that they have to let him escape because it says so in the rule book, the general sitcom-style absurdist tone of the story ensures that we at least partly buy such a ridiculous notion; certainly there are few other DOCTOR WHO stories that would even attempt to get away with such a silly scene.

Similarly, the Chief Caretaker is later revealed to be secretly feeding the residents and stray Knags to a monstrous rubbish compactor that resides, amid glowing neon and billowing dry ice, on the basement floor (it’s actually the trapped and disembodied Great Architect Kroagnon himself, but the Chief Caretaker doesn’t know that) and which he addresses with endearments such as ‘my pet’ while eliciting information from it with phrases such as ‘talk to daddy’. Such scenes are highly reminiscent of the film and stage play “The Little Shop of Horrors” and are written and played in a similarly broad comic style with the mechanical beast booming out ‘HUNGRY!’ in resounding semi-operatic tones. It’s no wonder, then, that Briers came to the conclusion that the whole adventure was something of a piss-take.

Unfortunately, in episode four, Wyatt’s plot requires Kroagnon to take over the body of the Chief Caretaker; it’s an ill-conceived and poorly thought out plot development, born out of Wyatt’s rush to finish the script without ever having had any clear plan as to where the story was going when he started. Briers seems to have concluded, quite reasonably given what had gone before, that this too was intended as overstated absurdist parody of generic sci-fi plotting, when it was actually just the writer trying to come up with an exciting, credible ending and largely failing.  He thus decides to play the possessed Chief Caretaker as a lurching zombie who speaks in a voice reminiscent of a gumpy (‘my brain hurts’) from “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”! It’s one of the most embarrassing performances in the show’s history, the end result of which is to emphasise the myriad deficiencies of the story to such an extent that no sane viewer can seriously have retained any remaining faith in the story by this point.

The creeping feeling that parody comes increasingly to undermine the internal logic of the story is drummed home further by its inclusion of the joke action hero figure called Pex (Howard Cook). Wyatt intended Pex to be a muscle-bound Sylvester Stallone/Arnold Schwarzenegger action man who looked like a capable, strong masculine hero, and who presented himself as someone who ‘puts the world of Paradise Towers to rights’, but who actually turns out to be a coward, only present in the Tower because he was too scared to go off to war with all the other younger men. Now he spends his days running around breaking down doors and offering to save people, but everyone just sees him as a nuisance and the Kangs always mock him as ‘a cowardly cutlet’. The attempt at parody completely falls flat because, just as the caretakers were cast with normal-looking male actors as opposed to older, unfit and gone-to-seed specimens as the screenplay originally specified, so Pex is being played here by Howard Cook -- who has a completely average build and doesn’t look in the least muscle-bound or heroic! The plot’s uncalled for addition of a parody of action movie heroics seems an unnecessary extra theme anyway, and the climax of the story, in which Pex attempts to redeem himself by helping the Doctor lead Kroagnon into a trap, results in one of the most risible sequences in the whole story, with Briers in full groaning zombie mode overacting horribly and Pex, who never rises above the non-serious role he was created to embody, only emphasising the broad camp of what should be a dramatic climactic struggle.

Still, despite the inherent weaknesses of this adventure, there are isolated little oases of positivity to be gleaned from it, such as the performances of Elizabeth Spriggs and Brenda Bruce who play the apparently cuddly little old lady tower block-dwelling ‘Rezzies’, Tabby & Tilda. They and their environment look like they’ve both emerged from a sitcom version of a particularly evil-minded Roald Dahl story. They also provide an appropriate context for Bonnie Langford’s distinctive style of performance as the Doctor’s companion Mel -- which always previously looked like it belongs more in a children’s fairy story rather than a science fiction based show. Tabby and Tilda invite Mel into their little flat and ply her with endless fairy cakes, cups of tea and oversized cookies, the two veteran actresses essaying some marvellous comic performances that are for once truly amusing rather than simply excruciating.  But it turns out that the two biddies’ motives are less than pure; in fact, they merely want to feed up the winsome innocent Mel before they eat her! Many of the other Rezzies have taken to eating the rats for protein in the decaying Towers, but Tabby and Tilda have gone a little bit further and are now eagerly turning to human cannibalism in order to supplement their diet.

 Although, Cartmel and John Nathan-Turner got into trouble for it, the scenes in which the apparently harmless old ladies suddenly threaten Mel with a toasting fork and then a carving knife are the most striking in the whole story and Wyatt’s whimsical approach works better here than it does anywhere else in these episodes: Tabby and Tilda get their comeuppance in spectacular fashion when the Kroagnon-controlled waste disposal unit in their tiny flat eventually devours them, and we see a Cleaner disappearing down a corridor with a protruding leg, a pink furry house slipper on the end of the foot that’s sticking out of the back of the rubbish cart!

Sylvester McCoy is evidently still tentatively figuring out how to play the Doctor in this early story from his tenure. Because Wyatt didn’t know who was going to be cast in the role at the time he wrote it, McCoy is largely left alone to add his own little bits of business to the proceedings; there begins to emerge some sense here of the seventh Doctor’s puckish personality, although it’s still in a very rudimentary stage at this point. Unfortunately, the whole enterprise just doesn’t hold up all these years later; the story is nonsensical and rushed, there is no consistency in the cast’s varying performance styles and although designer Martin Collins puts together an impressive multi-level set, with ill-lit corridors and heaps of rubbish piled up against discoloured walls (and graffiti that looks like the markings on prehistoric caves, and which can be ‘read’ as such by the Doctor to understand the Tower’s history and culture), the general cheapness of the studio look of the production contributes to the impoverished air that hangs heavy over the whole thing, something which not even Keff McCulloch’s over-wrought synthesised incidental music can overcome.


The commentary track, which is moderated by composer Mark Ayres, features writer Stephen Wyatt in the first episode, later to be joined first by actress Judy Cornwell and then by special sound effects supervisor Dick Mills for the final two episodes. It’s a fairly honest commentary in which Wyatt is up front about some of the deficiencies of the production, and admits that the story has always been hugely unpopular with fans. He puts this down to his determination to avoid all the continuity which he felt had started to bog down the show during this period, making many of the stories all but incompressible to anyone who wasn’t up to speed on the entire history of the show. Judy Cornwell played one of the more sweet-natured Rezzies and is very complimentary about the satirical elements of the story, pointing out also that her character is something of a dry run for the character of Daisy, which she played in the sitcom “Keeping Up Appearances”. She also talks about her friendship with WHO producer Verity Lambert in the early-sixties. Unusually for DOCTOR WHO DVD extras, there are words of praise for producer John Nathan-Turner here, and Wyatt recalls a conversation between himself and JNT during which reservations about the Rezzies were brought up. ‘They’re cannibals, aren’t they’, the producer queried. ‘Yes,’ Wyatt claims to have responded, ‘and they’re lesbians, too!’ Dick Mills joins the fray for the last two episodes, but admits that his sound effects contributions are buried under the blaring incidental music soundtrack!

Another issue tackled in the commentary track relates to the original rejected soundtrack which was composed by David Snell but rejected by John Nathan-Turner. Wyatt claims to find it too insistent in a way that kills some of the scenes stone dead, but it is included here as an extra soundtrack, taken from John Nathan-Turner’s VHS test copy, for those who want to contrast it with McCulloch’s efforts. Snell is gracious enough to contribute his thoughts on the matter in the 35 minute making of documentary “Horror on the High-Rise” which is a thorough production history job that includes interviews with Chief Caretaker Richard Briers, Howard Cooke who played Pex and Catherine Cusack who played the Blue Kang leader. Stephen Wyat pops up again to talk about the commissioning of the story, along with script editor Andrew Cartmel who was trying to establish his own take on the Doctor Who universe after being forced to accept the already commissioned McCoy regeneration story “Time and the Rani”. Composer Keff McCulloch also contributes and Mark Ayres narrates.

“Girls! Girls! Girls! –The Eighties” is an amusing little featurette introduced by former sixties companion Peter Purves, which consists of three DOCTOR WHO companions from the 1980s discussing what it felt like to be part of the show during that period. Rather than talking heads edited together from interview sessions, Sophie Aldred (Ace), Sarah Sutton (Nyssa) and Janet Fielding (Tegan) are filmed having a discussion about their highly variable experiences of working on the show. It is fascinating stuff, but strange that Nicola Bryant and Bonnie Langford are not included.

“Casting Sylvester McCoy” is a short interview segment featuring Jigsaw producer Clive Doig explaining his role in the actor’s eventual casting as the seventh Doctor.

A selection of deleted scenes, continuity announcements, a photo gallery, text production notes, PDF files of Radio Times listings and a coming soon trailer for the Tom Baker story “The Sun Makers” round things off nicely.

“Paradise Towers” is not a very inspiring example of DOCTOR WHO in the 1980s but 2 Entertain have made the DVD experience of it something worth investing in thanks to their usual high standard of analysis and contextual scene setting. Yet this is one for the completest, I fear!

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