❉ With brilliant writing and great performances, this is Doctor Who at the top of its game, writes Ezekiel Thorp.
Fifty years ago this month, Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor first landed on the planet Peladon, a world rich in colourful aliens and political analogies. The Doctor made another visit on screens in 1974, and has returned many, many times in various spin-offs over the years. The latest of these is Peladon, a four story box set from Big Finish exploring the history of the planet, and more specifically the connection the Doctors and their allies share with it.
Listeners hoping from the cover to hear an epic “Sixth Doctor meets Eighth Doctor meets River Song” crossover will probably be disappointed, however. Instead, it’s an anthology release with each hour long tale focusing on a certain era of the planet’s history, but this is a format perfectly suited to such a release and the stories are definitely all the stronger for it.
The set opens with The Ordeal of Peladon by Jonathan Barnes and Robert Valentine, with David Troughton reprising his role as King Peladon from that 1972 original. Pleasingly, Ordeal is set many years after Curse so there’s no awkward attempt to make Troughton sound like a young man again, and he’s allowed to perform the part without the restrictions of exactly re-creating the part he played half a century ago.
Links to The Curse of Peladon are also kept by Peladon’s company in this first story. The Ice Warriors and Alpha Centauri were both key parts of the original Peladon stories on TV, so it’s no surprise they’re joining our King in this opener. As on TV, the Ice Warriors are brought to colourful life by Nicholas Briggs, and whilst some fans may be disappointed Ysanne Churchman isn’t playing Alpha this time round, Jane Goddard is a very good vocal match and gives a great performance.
Although gentler and less action-packed than a lot of Big Finish’s output, Ordeal is an opener that richly evokes the spirit of its source material Curse, and even if you’re finding it a bit slow, it’s DEFINITELY worth sticking with for those last ten minutes alone!
The second story is Lizzie Hopley’s The Poison of Peladon, set many years later during the reign of Queen Thalira from the TV show’s 1974 sequel The Monster of Peladon. Originally played as a bit of a wet blanket on TV by Nina Thomas, Deborah Findley gives a much more rounded performance here. Her Thalira is strong, devious and manipulative, and yet simultaneously caring and compassionate, and combined with Hopley’s delicious writing, she’s truly a treat to listen to.
Of course, perhaps the main attraction to this story is the inclusion of River Song, with the Doctor’s erstwhile wife going undercover as an ambassador on the plane. Putting the time-travelling archaeologist with a character as different as Alpha Centauri might seem like something of an unusual choice, but the pairing works brilliantly, and leads to a much-appreciated discussion around pronouns that was missing (or rather, mishandled) in the original Peladon stories.
With themes of socialism, animal cruelty and a strong message about protecting the environment, Peladon comes off here as a truly rounded world and brought to life with brilliant writing and great performances.
The Death of Peladon by Mark Wright is more traditional Doctor Who fare, being a story that happens to be set on Peladon rather than a story about Peladon. Now in the reign of Queen Minaris, this time it’s the Sixth Doctor and Mel landing on the planet, being very quickly thrown into a traditional Doctor Who mystery of a dead body and potentially poisoned water, and it’s also not long before another Doctor Who cliché strikes and they’re forced apart…
Split up for most of the story, the Doctor finds a temporary companion in the recently bereaved Helais, and Mel spends a lot of her time in this episode with Alpha Centauri. Helais is strong and likeable, and as with the story before it, Alpha really shines here when paired with another of the Doctor’s associates. The scenes where the Doctor and Mel believe the other to be dead bring out touching performances from the two leads, perhaps their finest work for Big Finish thus far.
Along with revisitation of the environmental message, the analogy of this story is a focus on mining culture, a theme also strongly featured in TV sequel The Monster of Peladon and now further emphasised with a guest cast comprised of Northern accents. With parallels as significant now as they were fifty years ago, this is another worthy piece, and it’s always welcome to hear more from that underused TARDIS team of the Sixth Doctor and Mel.
Tim Foley’s The Truth of Peladon rounds off the set, and Big Finish have definitely saved the best til last. It’s a small cast, but one that would make many big name shows and films envious, and it’s a story that deserves to be recognised as one of the very best audios produced by Big Finish.
Meera Syal plays seamstress Arla Decanto, commissioned by Jason Watkins’ slimy Chancellor Borak to craft a cloak for the latest ruler’s coronation. But to get it finished in time, she’ll need an apprentice, and no prizes for guessing who it’s going to be…
Paul McGann gives us a perfect Doctor from the off, coming into Decanto’s quarters with that perfect childlike wonder every Doctor should have, making a brilliant foil for Syal’s Decanto whose iconic voice gives real gravitas to lines that could have sounded like sci-fi babble in a lesser actor’s hands. Watkins is also electric in this story, being used sparingly but effectively and giving his villainous all to the character, in what basically amounts to a few short but important scenes.
With richly written characters and a genuinely engrossing plot, this is Doctor Who at the top of its game. Important, emotional, and delivered with one of the most impactful ending scenes ever recorded at Big Finish, and when it’s being read by a quartet of the finest actors the country’s got to offer, you can’t help but love it. Marvellous stuff.
Overall, Peladon is an intriguing box set, taking that fondly remembered planet from two half-century old Doctor Whos and doing more with it than many would have thought possible. Not everything works, but what does works brilliantly, and it’s a brilliant celebration not just of the central planet, but of some of the best things Doctor Who’s got to offer.
DOCTOR WHO – PELADON
Director: Barnaby Kay
Producer: David Richardson
Assistant Producer: Dominic G Martin
Script Editor: Robert Valentine
Written by: Jonathan Barnes & Robert Valentine, Lizzie Hopley, Mark Wright, Tim Foley
Executive Producers: Nicholas Briggs, Jason Haigh-Ellery
Duration: 312 minutes approx.
Released: 28 January 2022, exclusively from the Big Finish website.
❉ ‘Doctor Who – Peladon’ is now available to own as a collector’s edition box set (on CD + download, at £24.99) or digital (download only, at £19.99), exclusively from the Big Finish website. General release: £34.99 (collector’s edition CD) £29.99 (download).
Please note that Big Finish is currently operating a digital-first release schedule. The mailout of collector’s edition CDs will be delayed, but all purchases of this release unlock a digital copy that can be immediately downloaded or played on the Big Finish app from the release date.
❉ This is Ezekiel Thorp’s second article for We Are Cult. When not listening to audios, Ezekiel can be found running through every issue of Doctor Who Adventures on his Twitter @Praxeus_stan and keeping up with as much Casualty as he can manage.