The Monster of Peladon was that reasonably rare thing in Doctor Who – a sequel story, showing the advancement of an alien world which acted as a mirror of political events here on Earth, and most particularly in Britain.
The Curse Of Peladon, its predecessor in Season Nine (1972) played out the traumas of a relatively backward planet with a good heart, an overweening love of its own traditions and superstitions, and a feudalistic monarchy, attempting to join a larger trade federation and fit its idiosyncratic rough edges into the federation’s more uniform, more technologically advanced and more fundamentally civilized self.
It was of course a metaphor for Britain’s dithering original entry into the EEC as it then was (the body that became the EU). When we returned to Peladon for Monster, things in the UK had gone from struggling to worse, and Peladon was ripe for another visit to explore the fundamental to and fro of commerce and its impact on the lives of working people.
Peladon, as well as being a feudal society with a medieval reverence for monarchs and lords, was a mining community, and in 1974, that was resonant with Britain as the country faced a miners’ strike, a battle between those who produced the country’s wealth and those who spent it.
The Monster Of Peladon on-screen is rather fun, certainly, but it wears its social conscience right up front on its sleeve, in a way that makes it mystifying when Classic Who fans criticise the ‘liberal agenda’ of 21st century Who.
If anything, the joy about the novelization of the story by Terrance Dicks is that it mellows the social politics out a bit and foregrounds the adventure. It does that with a subtlety that wasn’t usually Dicks’ forte, but here, it works by keeping you focused on the mystery, so that your nose, like that of journalist Sarah-Jane Smith, perks up at the smell of something rotten in the state of Peladon, rather than at man’s immortal economic inhumanity to man.
Visions of Aggedor, the ceremonial beast of Peladon, are being used to stir up trouble among the miners of the planet. There’s a young, relatively inexperienced queen on the throne of this mighty and decidedly macho kingdom, there are the usual Federation busybodies about (including everyone’s favourite, Alpha Centauri), the Federation is at war with Galaxy Five, and Peladon isn’t entirely sure it wants anything to do with such conflicts, despite being the best source of Trisilicate, a mineral which is crucial to fighting and winning that war. And then of course, there’s something extra nasty and complicated going on in the catacombs of Peladon with a breakaway group of aliens, who are behind the whole shebang.
They’re on the cover, which really rather blows the suspense of the thing…
Fine, it’s the Ice Warriors, are you happy now?
Except it’s not so much the Ice Warriors as some Ice Warriors. In a relatively early stab at moving away from the notion that all alien species have a single agenda, what we have here is a breakaway group of Ice Warriors, more or less demanding a rewrite of The Curse Of Peladon, where [spoiler alert] the Ice Warriors, previous stalwart villains of two Troughton-era stories, turned good.
Part of the pleasure of the novelization of The Monster Of Peladon is that it’s less intense political thriller, more roaring good fun with aliens, while still getting in a little feminism around the edges, as Sarah-Jane delivers the immortal line ‘There’s nothing only about being a girl’ to get Queen Thalira to buck up her ideas about what’s happening in her kingdom and what she can do to affect the tide of events.
It’s a story that includes some classic Pertwee toing and froing as power changes hands time and time again, but it handles the shifts better than many did, and certainly in the audiobook version, it’s never quite enough to make you weary of the back and forth.
That’s partially down to Terrance Dicks’ writing style, which seems to have been encapsulated in the notion that you only embellish when it improves the original, and partially to do with a glorious, sympathetic reading by Jon Culshaw.
Yes, the multi-talented impressionist who perhaps first came to geeky prominence for his scarily accurate Fourth Doctor impression.
Since he did the reading of the Five Doctors audiobook (Got that one yet? If not, give yourself a treat), his facility with the Pertwee lisp, not to mention his ability to deliver other characters with a resonance that makes them uncanny has brought Culshaw’s talents more and more to bear in the Doctor Who universe, and here, he’s faultless throughout, even when given quite the range of characters to voice, from haughty beardy Peladonian counsellors, young Queen Thalira, the fanatically fretful and squeaky Alpha Centauri, the Third Doctor, Sarah-Jane Smith, and both an Ice Lord (low but oily) and an Ice Warrior (whispery and sibilant).
Oddly then, while his Pertwee is perfect, one of the most effective voices Culshaw contributes to the whole thing, and certainly one that makes the pace of the reading belt along, is that of an ordinary human by the name of Eckersley.
Eckersley’s so plausible, and so gloriously, slappably Seventies, frequently calling Sarah-Jane ‘love’ in a demeaning way, you almost yeeeeearn for him to turn out to be a bigger league wrong ’un right from the start, for the sheer moral superiority it would bring. He’s never an eminence grise, but he is eminently greasy all the way through, while being unfortunately excellent at what he does, and Culshaw captures the sense of him wonderfully, making him an unexpected stand-out of the reading.
Bottom line – The Monster Of Peladon audiobook whips along, making you chuckle along the way, and never lets you get too confused by a plot which is, at least on the face of it, quite impenetrably complicated. It’s Doctor Who does Scooby Doo, certainly – monster sightings plaguing business as usual and the Doctor and Sarah-Jane getting to the bottom of it – but along the way, there’s so much context and power-swapping even within the adventure, before you even contemplate the political resonances with the Britain of the day, it would have been easy for the book to have become a seething nightmare of ‘Who did what-now?’ It not only doesn’t become that, the combination of Terrance Dicks and Jon ‘Staggeringly Good Value For Money’ Culshaw makes it great mysterious fun which never becomes a drag. Given the right number of hours alone (What isolation protocols?), you can absolutely listen to The Monster Of Peladon at a single sitting.
And if you can, you absolutely should. Tony Fyler