Doctor Who: Peladon (Big Finish Review)

Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of a classic Doctor Who story, The Curse of Peladon, this new box set from Big Finish revisits the titular planet and goes deep into its possible, centuries-spanning future. That original story famously satirised Britain’s application for membership of the European Economic Community, within the context of a sci-fi show aimed at families. It was a hot topic in 1972! Borrowing the political focus and far-reaching scope of the Gallifrey series, Peladon tracks the planet’s rise and fall over the centuries: aiming to join their peers as a modern, civilised world, but beset by malefactors both within and without. Fittingly, then, you may not be able to listen without thinking of Brexit.

It’s also another clever ‘soft’ crossover for Big Finish, weaving in the bigger characters from the studio’s current ranges (the Fifth and Sixth Doctors, and River Song). But the stars aren’t just from within the Doctor Who stable: British greats like Meera Syal, Ariyon Bakare and Jason Watkins all make appearances too. With its stacked cast and web of conspiracies, the vibe here is closer to a prestige TV drama than to the basic elements of a classic Doctor Who adventure. 

This four part volume begins with a story featuring a character many listeners will be familiar with: King Peladon, as played by David Troughton, reprising a role he first played on TV in 1972. 

The Ordeal of Peladon

We’re introduced to an older, wiser King Peladon, a ruler who is still looking to the skies to recognise his world’s achievements. To his adviser, Raarlan (David Sturzaker), he sets out his vision for Peladon as a proud member of the Galactic Federation: but sourly notes that he’s failed to convince some Pels of the value of that dream. 

Out there beyond the castle walls, a prophet named Skarn (Ashley Zhangazha) is channeling ‘the old gods’ of Peladon and rallying the people against the plans of the political elite. He’s a healer, and one of his followers, Harfair (Moyo Akandé), takes it upon herself to visit the King to deliver Skarn’s message after witnessing one of his miracles. But to the King, Skarn is a charlatan, and hopes to challenge his influence in the court of public opinion. 

“I will do what must be done. For the greater good. For Peladon.”

Peladon suggests a grand tour to meet the people. Raarlan is sceptical, but Harfair has barely arrived at the castle before she and Peladon are walking on foot to Skarn’s village to receive his message. His timing couldn’t be worse – two Ice Warriors, delegates from the Galactic Federation, have just arrived for a surprise inspection. The royal court scrambles to track him down, believing him to have been kidnapped, while Ixmari (Nicholas Briggs) gives them one day to find him.

En route to Skarn and the Great Lake of Undoing, Peladon learns a great deal about Skarn and his followers. Far from being portrayed as a one-dimensional and regressive cult, Skarn’s philosophy of radical honesty is given a sympathetic ear by writers Jonathan Barnes and Robert Valentine – and contrasted with the vain and secretive politics of the royal palace. Peladon, already a modest man and eager to improve, is gently humbled by Harfair, who claims that the King has virtually isolated himself in the castle for ten years. 

To say more would be to reveal some of the story’s best surprises: there are shocking moments, and we do see a miracle: but perhaps not the one you might have been expecting. It all ends with a dire prediction for the future of Peladon, and quite a tease for the coming chapters. 

The Ordeal of Peladon is a fascinating setup: it conveys us the feeling that Peladon’s peace has lasted for too long to be sustained, and lays the foundations for the tribulations to come. The core structure of a pampered ruler getting out among their people, a story shape which goes back centuries, is nicely subverted here. As the king, David Troughton is terrific – he conveys in just a few scenes who this man is and exactly how he feels about his so-called legacy. 

The first chapter is also the first outing of composer Howard Carter’s wonderful theme music, which mirrors Peladon’s utopian vision for the planet, while honouring the regal themes with a touch of the archaic. 

The Poison of Peladon

We’re a few years down the line in Peladon’s history in the second part. The King is gone, and his daughter Thelira sits on the throne: aided by her high priestess and staunch ally, a dead ringer for our old friend River Song (Alex Kingston). Thelira’s reign is no less troubled than her father’s: her granddaughter is sick with plague, while an alert has been sent from the planet’s trisilicate mines, prompting a visit from the Galactic Federation to investigate. Thelira’s chancellor Gobran (Aaron Neil) is panicked: River suggests it’s because he’s outnumbered by women for the first time. 

The Federation delegation includes Ribble (Justin Salinger), an Arcturan, a human delegate, Father Mendica (Ariyon Baker), and our old friend Alpha Centauri, who appeared briefly in the previous chapter. They arrive for a disastrous dinner, in which River’s frankness manages to offend the sensibilities of Ribble and arouse the suspicions of Gobran.

River explores the mines with the rest of the delegation, and we learn that the planet is being mined by off-world corporate interests – as alluded to briefly in the previous chapter. There’s more than a shade of Dune, and indeed of the real world, in the fact that Peladon is a poor and debt-ridden planet with rich reserves of a material vital for the running of the rest of the universe. We also learn more about the delegates: Mendica, a tattooed priest, is hiding a ruthless edge. 

Eschewing the perspective of the Pels, this is definitely River and Alpha Centauri’s story as they investigate the source of the alert and uncover a vast conspiracy. While it’s not quite as engaging as the first chapter, focusing more on outsider squabbling than the planet itself, it’s still a rich story of economic exploitation and the inevitable end point of unrestrained capitalism.

“He warned me of the rot. And the need to raise the crown above it”

There are also plenty of memorable scenes: a flashback to a dying King Peladon, in which he instructs Thelira on how to rule well and wisely, is wonderfully emotional. The cast are standouts: even though River Song is relatively restrained, Alex Kingston still brings her A game. As the excitable and high-pitched Alpha Centauri, I found Jane Goddard delightful rather than annoying, but your mileage may vary – they’re in pretty much every scene. Ribble, meanwhile, resembles a toy from an Adam and Joe spoof, somewhat undercutting the more dramatic moments. 

The Death of Peladon

“May Aggedor speed you to your rest”

Even later in Peladon’s story, we’re introduced to Queen Minaris of Peladon (Sara Powell) and her easily vexed daughter Isabelda (Remmie Milner). Isabelda wants her mother to get ready for the arrival of (another) delegation from the Federation, although her daughter’s a little hostile to Ambassador Alpha Centauri – now in semi-retirement. Isabelda claims that the Federation has lost interest in Peladon now that the reserves of trisilicate have been depleted, and the Pels are poorer than ever. 

Meanwhile, the Sixth Doctor and Mel arrive in one of the last working mines beneath the city: the banter is top notch, as always, as they meander through the tunnels. They find a reservoir of blood-red water, as did the King in Part One: a very bad omen indeed. Mel and Six fail to defuse a bomb in the mines, and a massive sinkhole causes hundreds of casualties on the surface. They’re separated, and Mel ends up in the royal castle while the Doctor encounters the angry Helais (Liz White).

Helais maps out, for the Doctor, how Peladon has been depleted along with the triplicate reserves. It’s crunchy stuff: there’s an admirable dedication to exploring weighty real-world matters like political alienation and class consciousness. The Doctor examines the local population, who are slowly being poisoned by trisilicate contamination. 

Mel persuades Minaris to visit the disaster site, gently pushing back on Isabelda’s resistance. There’s an enjoyable incongruity to Minaris’ visit – as she makes a speech, with a dog barking in the background, the Doctor makes a loud and distracting arrival. He persuades her to keep an eye on things in the citadel: he, meanwhile, doesn’t trust Helais. The various threads intertwine and meet with an action-filled assault on the citadel, and a chase through the various secret chambers beneath it. 

Ultimately The Death of Peladon is a story about discontent finally bubbling over, and how far a people can be pushed by the inaction of the political classes, but its ending is ambiguous. The Doctor appeals to calm and the better natures of the rebels, and the uprising is quelled. The resolution doesn’t particularly suggest a happy ending for Peladon, although it’s treated as such. One’s level of faith in the political system might colour their conclusion of the story: do you feel that justice for ordinary people can be obtained only if the people have a sufficient level of representation in politics? Or do you believe that the whole rotten edifice needs to come tumbling down before the real work can begin?

The Truth of Peladon

In a workshop filled with exquisite fabrics, woven from the silk of an extinct spider, Chancellor Barok (Jason Watkins) commissions a cloak for an upcoming coronation ceremony from the expert haberdasher Arla Decanto (Meera Syal). He’s hoping for a smooth transition of power, while Arla is merely hoping that thirty days will be enough time to complete the project and avoid being murdered. 

Expecting an apprentice from the loom house, Arla instead receives the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann). Although she notes that her apprentices are usually younger, the Doctor insists that he has young fingers, and they get to work. It’s an intimate start to the story – just the two characters learning more about Peladon and each other – but it’s totally engaging. We’re not surprised to learn that the Doctor has an ulterior motive, but it’s a shock when Arla is arrested: the night sky depicted on the cloak is that of Arcturus, not Peladon, and Barok takes it as a seditious message. 

Since this is Doctor Who, Arla quickly escapes her jail cell, and she and the Doctor escape the outer walls. There’s a shaggy, unhurried quality to these scenes: although the Doctor is trying to expand Arla’s empathy for her fellow citizens, she’s wedded to her workshop. Patient listeners will be rewarded as more of Arla’s secrets are revealed, as is more of the exploitation which is underpinning the fabric of Peladon: the iconic beasts of Aggedor are really well-integrated into the stories. 

Those Brexit parallels are back in full force, as independence from foreign control is on everyone’s minds. And although the main agent meddling with Peladon over the years is quite plainly the Doctor, the climax handily repels any accusations of colonial-style tampering – suggesting that the work of change must always be in the hands of the people. 

Cumulatively, the stories remind us that progress is not a one-way street, with Peladon taking two backward steps for every forward stride. It’s sophisticated, grown-up stuff – world-weary but ultimately hopeful – that doesn’t feel like it could have emerged from any other political moment. Peladon may be a love letter to a neglected corner of the Doctor Who universe, but it’s not beholden to the past. 

I can’t wrap up the review without noting just how polished the whole package feels. Lots of Big Finish stories have great care taken in their production, but this box set shows it. As well as the very long list of distinguished cast members, Howard Carter’s music really gives us the feel of an epic. His score shines during the climax of The Truth of Peladon – employing an organ for an immediate sense of scale and grandeur. Meanwhile, the writers have all equally shared the task of establishing Peladon as a tangible, long-lasting society. Outstanding. 

Peladon is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here, and goes on general release on the 28th February 2022.

Special Features

David Richardson, the producer of Peladon, notes that this box set is timed to celebrate the anniversary of the original Peladon story, and that he and the team “got carried away” with their excitement. 

The influences behind the stories are delved into: The Crown, another story of the passage of power over generations, is invoked by Rob Valentine (script editor) and Jonathan Barnes (writer, The Ordeal of Peladon). Valentine reveals that an unofficial history of Peladon – spanning both the TV and audio adventures – was provided to each writer. 

We also hear from the actors. David Troughton, we learn, expected a reprise of his original role and was excited to catch up with King Peladon later in his life – perhaps with the same naivety and optimism as his younger self. Alex Kingston and Paul McGann, meanwhile both compliment Peladon’s contrast with the regular fast-paced, action-focused Big Finish fare.

Synopsis

Journey to Peladon, member world of the Galactic Federation and home to intrigue and adventure. With each passing generation, the toll of industrial exploitation and deadly political games is taking its toll on the planet. Can the Doctor and his allies guide the course of history towards a hopeful future? Or is Peladon’s fate in the lap of the gods?

1. The Ordeal of Peladon by Jonathan Barnes & Robert Valentine
When King Peladon hears of a holy man with seemingly magical powers and the gift of foresight, he resolves to discover the truth of it for himself. But his quest to understand the shifting loyalties of his people is one from which he cannot return unchanged.

2. The Poison of Peladon by Lizzie Hopley
River Song has infiltrated the court of Queen Thalira in the guise of a high priestess. With rumours swirling that Peladon is on the brink of a republican uprising, River joins forces with her new best friend, Alpha Centauri, to get to the bottom of the mystery

3. The Death of Peladon by Mark Wright
The Sixth Doctor and Mel arrive on Peladon to discover a world on the brink of environmental disaster. Civil war looms and a dark plot brews in the shadows of the court. Unless they can help avert catastrophe, there seems to be little hope left for one of the Doctor’s favourite planets.

4. The Truth of Peladon by Tim Foley
Arla, last of Peladon’s great seamstresses, is commissioned to make a great cloak for the latest coronation. She’ll need a new assistant to complete her work in time, and one appears: the Eighth Doctor! Determined to show Arla the truth of Peladon, the delicate threads he’s drawing together will change Peladon forever.

Cast

Colin Baker (The Doctor)
Paul McGann (The Doctor)
Alex Kingston (River Song)
Bonnie Langford (Melanie Bush)
David Troughton (Peladon)
Moyo Akandé (Harfair / Skanlar)
Ariyon Bakare (Father Mendica)
Nicholas Briggs (Ixmari / Ssilas)
Deborah Findlay (Queen Thalira)
Jane Goddard (Alpha Centauri / Guard Captain)
Remmie Milner (Isabelda)
Aaron Neil (Gobran)
Sara Powell (Queen Minaris)
Justin Salinger (Ribble)
David Sturzaker (Raarlan)
Meera Syal (Arla Decanto)
Jason Watkins (Chancellor Barok)
Liz White (Helais)
Ashley Zhangazha (Skarn / Guard Captain)

Production Credits

Written by Robert Valentine, Lizzie Hopley, Mark Wright, Tim Foley, Jonathan Barnes
Assistant Producer Dominic Martin
Cover Art by Oliver Chenery
Director Barnaby Kay
Executive Producer Nicholas Briggs, Jason Haigh-Ellery
Music by Howard Carter
Producer David Richardson
Script Editor Robert Valentine
Sound Design by Howard Carter

Recommended Listening

Gallifrey: Weapon of Choice

Doctor Who: The Bride of Peladon

Leave a Reply

Further reading

Subscribe

%d bloggers like this: