Deja Vu. That’s the feeling I get while watching “The Monster of Peladon”. It’s hardly a bad story. In fact, it’s quite nice to see the Doctor deliberately pay a return visit to a planet he remembers fondly, and which I remember fondly as well, having really enjoyed “The Curse of Peladon”. But while there are quite a few new ideas and subplots going on, there is a lot that’s overly familiar here as well.
Chancellor Ortron might as well be Hepesh, since the two characters are virtually identical and fulfill the same plot function. Ortron is a proud, stubborn and subversive Chancellor who exercises his influence over a weak ruler, in this case Queen Thalira rather than King Peladon. Sarah Jane sums up Ortron perfectly when she calls him a “pompous old idiot”, and I heartily agree. This is a man with a totally closed mind, who always jumps to the worst conclusion and never lets facts convince him otherwise. He is a throughly annoying character. Watching him thwart the Doctor’s attempt to investigate the mysterious deaths caused by “Aggedor” is very much like watching a re-run of “Curse of Peladon” where the Doctor attempts to investigate the mysterious deaths caused by… um, Aggedor.
To be fair, it’s not quite the same plot, since in the first story it really is Aggedor, and he’s being controlled by Hepesh who is afraid of the changes that membership in the Federation will bring to Peladon. In “Monster” the appearances of Aggedor are caused by a different enemy, for an entirely different purpose. But superficially it’s much the same, leading to that feeling of deja vu that I mentioned.
One entirely welcome return is that of Alpha Centauri, one of the funniest and most strangely endearing aliens to appear on the show. Centauri’s odd appearance along with the nervous disposition and high-pitched voice just crack me up. I think Alpha Centauri is absolutely hilarious, particularly when telling Sarah “You should follow the correct procedure!” or “Violence is distressing!”
A subplot that is entirely new to “Monster” is introduced in the form of the miners and the effects of Federation membership on them. The disparity between social classes was not addressed at all in “Curse”, and the miners and their problems carry the first half of the story. Fed up with poor working conditions and driven to desperation by the attacks of the ersatz Aggedor, the miners rebel and attack the citadel several times, eventually making off with energy weapons taken from the Federation armory. The leader among the miners, Gebek, is played by Rex Robinson, and though he does a good job in the part, I can’t watch him without thinking either of Doctor Tyler from “The Three Doctors” or Robinson’s similar character from “The Hand of Fear”. (While I’m mentioning familiar faces, Bert the miner from “The Green Death” makes an appearance as yet another miner, and Terry Walsh plays yet another bit part, as he does in just about every Pertwee story). While Gebek is a decent character, Ettis, the typical rabble-rouser, is an unbelievably rash and impulsive character, and is every bit as annoying to watch as Ortron. I’m not to sad when he gets what’s coming to him. Without Ettis and Ortron doing stupid things, the problems of Peladon would have been solved halfway through episode one! It’s unfortunate that the plot hinges on continual mistakes by two of the main characters to sustain it. The first half of the story does get a bit tedious at times for this reason.
As an aside, if you lip read Pertwee at the end of episode one, he says “What the blazes is it?” when the false Aggedor appears and kills the Queen’s champion. I’ve seen claims that he’s cursing here, but that’s not the case.
Stirring up trouble is precisely what the true villains of “Monster” intend, and they finally appear at the end of part three. Of course, it’s the Ice Warriors in what will sadly be their final appearance in Doctor Who. If you know what you’re looking at, the face of one is visible in the refinery in part 2 after Eckersley and Alpha Centauri leave with Sarah, but it’s still quite a thrill when the Doctor opens the refinery door at the end of part three and there’s Sskel holding his sonic disruptor. I like the Ice Warriors, though it’s still strange to see them in color somehow. They get a good final outing here.
The story really picks up the pace in episode four. This really is a story of two halves, and the viewer is rewarded for sticking with the slower first half of the story as various plot threads begin to pay off nicely. As enjoyable as it was to make the Ice Warriors the good guys for once in “Curse”, it’s great to have them back to their old villainous ways here, and Commander Azaxyr is an excellent villain. He’s utterly ruthless but maintains an air of charm despite that. He’s no fool either, realizing rather quickly that the too-easy capitulation of the miners is too good to be true, and singling out the Doctor as a threat. However, the episode loses points for falling back on the old “turn up the heat” trick that the Doctor wheels out to soften up the Ice Warriors so that the miners can successfully attack them. The tactic may be tried and true, but it’s been done before and I’d like to have seen something else. Ettis loses his mind (there’s a shock) and tries to destroy the citadel, a contingency for which Azaxyr has prepared. Someone wasn’t paying attention in the editing booth at this point, because Terry Walsh’s face is clearly visible in one of the shots where he’s standing in for the Doctor. And the same film is used for the reprise at the beginning of part five, repeating the mistake!
The final two episodes are quite good, as everything is revealed. It’s really odd seeing Ortron turn into this noble and almost humble character who gives his life trying to help Queen Thalira after he’s been such a thickheaded jerk up to this point. It’s not a surprise when Eckersley is revealed to have been a traitor all the time, and to have been killing the miners in order to stir up trouble so that the Ice Warriors would be called in. I really enjoyed seeing the Doctor turn the tables and use the Aggedor weapon to attack the Ice Warriors and rally the Pels. There’s some foreshadowing to “Planet of the Spiders” with the “a tear Sarah Jane?” and “While there’s life….” lines. I found Sarah’s description of the Doctor as “the most alive person I’ve ever met” to be a very touching indication of her feelings for him. The two of them seem closer than the Doctor and Jo did since Sarah is more mature and independent, making the Doctor more of a friend to her rather than the more “student-mentor” type relationship he had with Jo.
The resolution to the story is rather sad, with Aggedor killed by Eckersley, which seems rather pointless to me. After featuring heavily in “Curse”, Aggedor barely appears at all in “Monster” and then he’s finished off. The Doctor turns down an offer to stay and become Chancellor, having an aversion to high office and responsibility.
I want to address Jon Pertwee’s performance for a moment. I’ve read reviews in the discussion forum and elsewhere that he’s on “autopilot” for much of season eleven. With all due respect towards other opinions, I see no evidence for that point of view. Pertwee’s performance here and elsewhere in this season is as charming as ever. He is absolutely the most straightforward of all the actors who have played the Doctor, making the character honest and direct, and often quite diplomatic and reasonable. Troughton and Baker often try to get under the skin of their opponents, but Pertwee often simply tries to turn on the charm. The man is a natural actor, who hardly ever seems stagy or forced in his performance. His acting in “Monster of Peladon” is no exception. He’s charming to the queen, confident with Ortron and Azaxyr, and grimly determined when operating Aggedor while under pressure from the alarm system in the refinery. And he’s always dignified, at least as much as he can be given the various circumstances in which he finds himself. I saw very little indication that he was “phoning it in” as it were, and I often think people who accuse him of that are just projecting their own negative feelings about the story onto his performance rather than judging the performance on its own merits.
Overall: “The Monster of Peladon” is entertaining and enjoyable, but doesn’t bring as many new ideas to the table as I would have preferred as a follow-up to the excellent “The Curse of Peladon”. It’s notable for being one of the few genuine sequels to an earlier story in the classic series, and for being the final appearance of the Ice Warriors. It’s a story of two halves, with the second half being faster-paced and more action-packed than the first. This isn’t the strongest serial of season eleven, but it’s still worth watching.