‘Black Archive #61: Paradise Towers’

❉ Excels in its sections about the background of Paradise Towers and its reception both when broadcast and since, writes Don Klees.

“Fan mythology has ensured that the inevitable starting point for discussion of Paradise Towers is J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise. John Toon demonstrates how highlighting this supposed wellspring for Paradise Towers isn’t inaccurate so much as overstated… From there he discusses a variety of past and present media whose echoes can be observed in Paradise Towers, ranging from television and film to The Lord of the Flies and 2000AD.”

Along with the strong standard of writing, one of the key virtues of Obverse Books’ Black Archive series is that despite each volume’s focus on a specific story, they’re about much more than Doctor Who. This is fitting, since Doctor Who at its best tends to be about much more than monsters and mayhem. This was certainly true of the story covered in the previous Black Archive volume, Lewis Baston’s exploration of The Sun Makers, and the one covered in the latest volume about Paradise Towers. Writing about this 1987 serial is returning author John Toon, whose previous contributions to the series include 2018’s excellent book about Full Circle.

It’s relatively rare to have consecutive volumes of The Black Archive focused on stories that are such kindred spirits like The Sun Makers and Paradise Towers. Beyond neither serial being consensus favorites among fans, both display a satirical edge in their portrayal of bureaucratic banality against the backdrop of a fractured society manipulated by a malignant dehumanizing force. They’re also noteworthy as stories where fandom obsesses over a single inspiration at the expense of a broader and generally richer array of ideas.

Fan mythology has ensured that the inevitable starting point for discussion of Paradise Towers is J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise. As Lewis Baston did for The Sun Makers, John Toon demonstrates how highlighting this supposed wellspring for Paradise Towers isn’t inaccurate so much as overstated. “What really sets the two stories apart from each other, though, is that Paradise Towers’ starting position is High-Rise’s endpoint,” the writer notes in the process of illustrating the multitude of contrasts between the works that offset what might be largely unconscious similarities. From there he discusses a variety of past and present media whose echoes can be observed in Paradise Towers, ranging from television and film productions to printed works such as The Lord of the Flies and comics from the magazine 2000AD.

Any readers who feel that High-Rise is getting short shrift might find some solace in the book’s fourth chapter, in which Toon deals in great detail with the shadow that the reality of high rise housing casts on Paradise Towers. Here again, he effectively delves into the historical and cultural background to show what made this aspect of British life a suitably dramatic setting. This is followed by a chapter focused on architects themselves and the frequent dissonance between their approaches to designing buildings and the needs of those who live in (and with) them, especially modernist architects who often seemed to cater to machines more so than people.

In correspondence with John Toon, Paradise Towers’ writer Stephen Wyatt referred to the “arrogance of architects’ decisions about what is good for you,” a quality embodied by the serial’s largely disembodied antagonist, the architect Kroagnon. Among the fictional and real-world examples considered is 20th century architect Le Corbusier, who attempted to impose his ideas about the proper use of urban space in Vichy France and possibly the Stalinist Soviet Union as well. A quintessential example was his 1941 proposal cited by Toon that, “Paris must get rid of its inert crowds, of those who really have nothing to do with the city,” – a view not far removed from Kroagnon’s derision for those inhabiting his buildings.

Though The Black Archive series is often at its best when investigating elements beyond of the series itself, this volume also excels in its sections about the background of Paradise Towers and its reception both when broadcast and since. The former is particularly well handled. Toon neatly summarizes the turbulent behind-the-scenes circumstances – and providing an interesting complement to James Cooray Smith’s Black Archive about The Ultimate Foe – as well as the ways in which the practicalities of TV production sometimes worked against the writer and production team’s intentions.

Near the end of the opening chapter, Toon observes that under the circumstances, “it’s remarkable that Paradise Towers was broadcast in any coherent form at all.” Consciously or not, this evokes John Nathan-Turner’s catch-phrase “the memory cheats”, used by the long-time producer to address the perceived shortcomings between current Doctor Who stories and beloved serials from earlier eras of the series. This comment was obviously self-serving but also apt in its recognition that in a period before Doctor Who’s past was readily available for reappraisal, youthful recollections were prone to exaggerating virtues while downplaying flaws in older stories. The 1980s were the peak (or nadir, depending on one’s perspective) of received opinion for both past and current Doctor Who stories. Fortunately, books like this one – and The Black Archive series in general – are available to redress this balance.


❉ ‘’Black Archive #61: Paradise Towers’ written by John Toon and edited by Paul Driscoll and Matt West is available now in paperback and electronic formats, direct from Obverse Books, RRP £3.99 – £8.99. Buy Black Archive books from the Obverse Books website!

 Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture,  Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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