What’s better than a story featuring space-age feudalism, sexy young monarchs, a mythical monster and a hermaphroditic hexapod diplomat? A trilogy of them, of course.
The template is set by Brian Hayles’ Curse of Peladon, a Third Doctor and Jo Grant story whose grand ambition and scope is signalled by the opening model shots and an array of aliens representing different races in a “federation” negotiating a trisilicate trading deal on a “backwards” planet where superstition and caste are held to be more important than technology or progress. The whole story is played with such conviction, from climbing a (clearly studio based) cliff to the seriousness with which all the characters regard what appears to be a huge green jumping bean wearing a lamp shade, it is impossible not to be swept along through four fast-paced and intriguing episodes. The aliens are interesting and different and the whole serial reeks of imagination and inventiveness. Also it is, probably not intentionally, very, very funny. This is probably the Doctor Who story that has made me laugh the most.
Alas, the same cannot be said of Monster of Peladon, clearly a sequel designed by Hayles to cash in on its predecessor’s popularity. This time the story, which again features the Third Doctor, but accompanied by Sarah Jane Smith, is padded out to six episodes. The “new” element is the industrial relations sub-plot, but there are no new aliens, and it’s just not as fresh or funny. Sarah Jane’s great, and Jon Pertwee does another good turn (his singing voice, with which he lulls the monster aggedor, is beautiful) so it’s not that anyone does anything wrong. Going out two years after Curse viewers may not have noted it’s not as original or well crafted, but watching it straight afterwards on DVD it’s a disappointment.
Thirty-four years later, Big Finish released an audio play The Bride of Peladon in which the Fifth Doctor accompanied by Peri and companion pharaoh Erimem returns to Peladon once more. I recently re-listened to this after seeing the other two stories, but the first time I heard it, Planet Peladon was new to me. Listening to it again, the knowledge of what had occurred in the preceding serials lifted some minor references, adding an extra-dimension to throw-away lines here or there. But Bride is self contained enough to stand up as an excellent story in its own right, especially surprising given that it also acts as a sort of sequel to another TV serial and the audio Eye of the Scorpion (this is the last story for the companion Erimem who joins in that story).
Bride of Peladon uses the range of audio to really open up the scope and scale aimed at in Curse of Peladon. The same aliens make a return, but there are fresh well-developed characters representing these races (as well as Alpha Centauri the hermaphroditic hexapod), and the writer Barnaby Edwards plays on Hayles’ trick in Monster of making us guess which character (familiar or new) from which species is behind a series of murders and accidents. In addition to the traditional elements (the inexperienced monarch, Alpha Centauri, the Ice Warriors, even the monster aggedor – despite the way Monster ends) there’s a Shakespearean twist with a pair of twins and the “ghost” of a parent. The narrative is also particularly well crafted, with effective pre-title sequences for each episode and a perfectly judged final 15 minutes that leaves just the right amount of suspense, is dramatic, touching and funny. A wonderful way to finish the trilogy.