Welcome to the thirty-fifth instalment of Who Review, my ongoing quest to review all available episodes of TV’s longest running SF series, Doctor Who. This week, the Doctor returns to space to unlock the mystery of The Curse of Peladon.
The Curse of Peladon
29 January – 19 February 1972
In the royal castle on the planet Peladon, the heir to the throne King Peladon confers with his most trusted advisors, Chancellor Torbis and High Priest Hepesh. The planet is on the verge of joining the Galactic Federation, and delegates from several planets have arrived to evaluate Peladon’s application for membership. Hepesh is opposed to joining the Federation, believing it will lead to the abandonment of Peladon’s traditions. Such abandonment will invoke the wrath of Aggedor, the Royal Beast of Peladon who is worshipped as a vengeful God. Torbis is at odds with Hepesh, supporting membership in the Federation.
When Torbis is killed by a huge, ferocious creature, the delegates call for the cancellation of the conference. Fortunately, the King manages to persuade the delegates to continue.
Outside the castle, the TARDIS materialises on the edge of a cliff. The Doctor and Jo barely make it out of the TARDIS before it tumbles off the edge of the cliff into onto the rocks below. Seeing a castle above, they begin the slow and dangerous climb up the cliff face. Fortunately, they find an entrance leading to a series of tunnels beneath the castle.
Exploring the tunnels, they find a shrine containing a statue of the monstrous Aggedor but also discover a hidden doorway leading into the castle. They encounter an Ice Warrior and hide, but are captured by guards and taken to the King. They interrupt a meeting of the delegates, and the Doctor discovers that the Ice Lord Izlyr and his off-sider Ssorg are delegates from Mars. They mistake the Doctor for the delegate from Earth. The Doctor plays along with this, claiming that his shuttle crashed and his credentials were lost. He introduces Jo as “Princess Josephine of TARDIS”, a neutral royal observer from Earth, and Jo plays along with the charade. The King is clearly attracted to Jo.
Leaving the conference room, an attempt is made on the delegate’s lives, but The Doctor is able to save them. The attempted assassin, the King’s mute Champion Grun, manages to escape unnoticed. Hepesh blames the ghost of Aggedor and the curse. However, Jo discovers an electronic component dropped by the would-be assassin, suggesting a less supernatural explanation. The Doctor examines it and determines it is an electronic key, possibly for a space ship.
While The Doctor talks with the delegates, King Peladon and Jo bond. He seeks her aid in persuading the delegates to stay. Meanwhile, the architect of the assassination attempt is revealed; Grun was following the orders of Hepesh! Hepesh tells Grun that Aggador wants him to kill the Doctor.
Examining the component Jo found, The Doctor discovers that it is an electronic key to the Ice Warrior’s spaceship. He naturally suspects the Martians. Before he can investigate further, an attempt on the life of the delegate from Acturus distracts him. Fortunately, the Doctor is able to save the delegate.
With the crisis averted, The Doctor is taken by Grun down into the tunnels, but the mute Champion flees at the sound of a great howling that echoes through the area. The Doctor finds his way back to the shrine of Aggador, but is captured by Hepesh. He soon realises the High Priest is behind the assassination attempts.
Meanwhile, Jo searches the Ice Warrior’s chamber, but is captured by Ssorg. Escaping, she barely manages to avoid the creature that is haunting the halls of the castle, but runs into Izlyr. The Ice Lord believes Jo and the Doctor are responsible for the assassination attempts. She accuses him of the act, but he explains to her that the Ice Warriors are no longer a violent race; they have embraced peaceful ways.
Hepesh brings the Doctor before the King, accusing him of sacrilege. Despite his misgivings, King Peladon is forced to follow his world’s laws and execute the Doctor. As per Federation law, the delegates cannot intervene. However, the King is able to offer an alternative: a trial by combat against the King’s Champion. The Doctor is taken away to await the trail in his cell.
When the delegates leave, Jo pleads with the King to spare the Doctor’s life, but her efforts fall on deaf ears. She then turns to the delegates but finds no support there either, even though the death of the Doctor – as Earth’s delegate – will result in war. The delegates for Alpha Centauri and Arcturus want to depart Peladon before hostilities begin, but such a decision needs to be unanimous by all the delegates, and Izlyr votes to stay.
In his cell, The Doctor receives a visit from Hepesh, who informs him that his “shuttle” has been recovered. The High Priest offers him an escape route but the Doctor is naturally skeptical, believing Hepesh will kill him should he try to escape. Hepesh explains his motivation; he believes the Federation will exploit Peladon’s mineral wealth. He presents the Doctor with a map to aid his escape.
Later, the Doctor fixes a spinning mirror to his sonic screwdriver. He leaves his cell, following Hepesh’s map into the tunnels below the castle. There, he encounters the monster again and uses the mirror and strains ofa Venusian lullaby to hypnotise the creature. Jo stumbles upon them and scares the creature off with a torch, much to the Doctor’s chagrin.
In the throne room, Hepesh reveals to the King that the Doctor has escaped, and presents this as proof of the Doctor’s guilt. The Doctor and Jo enter, revealing the existence of the tunnels and the true nature of the Aggador beast and how it is being used to sabotage the conference. Hepesh has the Doctor arrested and taken away to face Grun in combat.
In the pit, the Doctor and Grun battle as the King, Hepesh, Jo and the delegates watch. The Doctor defeats the King’s champion, sparing his life. Suddenly, Arcturus powers up his energy weapon, but is killed by Ssorg before he can fire. Hepesh flees in the ensuing chaos.
The full extent of Hepesh’s plan is now revealed – the attempt on Arcturus’ life was faked and evidence planted to make the Ice Warriors look complicit in the assassination. Hepesh must have made an agreement with Arcturus for his aid in return for access to Peladon’s mineral deposits.
Meanwhile, Hepesh gathers his forces and leads them in an attack on the throne room, reminding them that the King must not be harmed. While the delegates are discussing the possibility of Federation intervention in the matter, Hepesh’s forces seize control of the throne room and take the King and the delegates hostage. He tells the delegates to leave Peladon as the planet does not wish to join the Federation.
Meanwhile, the Doctor and Grun make their way into the tunnels to find the Aggedor beast. The Doctor tames the creature and brings it to the throne room, where he accuses Hepesh of betraying the King. The guards are awed by the presence of the creature, but Hepesh denounces it and claims to control the beast. To prove his claim, he orders it to kill the Doctor. The beast turns on him instead, killing him.
With the crisis averted and the new King’s coronation approaching, the Doctor returns to the TARDIS. He realises that his trip to Peladon was no coincidence; once again, the Time Lords have guided him to a crisis point. He still has no control over his time machine.
Before the coronation, the King asks Jo to stay with him. She and the Doctor stay for the coronation, but Jo decides it would be better for her to return to Earth. The TARDIS departs as the actual delegate from Earth arrives.
Much like Colony in Space in the previous season, The Curse of Peladon has the Doctor once again venturing out into space, and as with the previous storyline, it’s a welcome sight. Producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrence Dicks always wanted to return the Doctor to space, but they were still working under the budgetary restrictions laid down by the BBC. Curse seems to be yet another test run to see whether space stories were a viable option. If so, it’s a fantastic showcase of why the Doctor is at his best when exploring strange and wondrous new worlds.
At its core, Curse is a tale of political intrigue. Screenwriter Brian Hayleshas created a political and cultural structure for Peladon and the Federation that is both rich and complex. He couples this with an absorbing mystery, an interesting cast of characters and enough twists and turns to keep you guessing. The use of the Ice Warriors is particularly well executed, as I believed they were the villains of the piece from the moment they first appeared. I was shocked when it was revealed that the Warriors were now a peaceful race.
The Curse of Peladon contains almost all of the best elements of a Who serial: a fascinating alien environment, an intriguing mystery, healthy doses of action and comedy and a strong supporting cast.
For me, The Doctor is always at his best when presented with a mystery to solve. This is no more prevalent than during the Pertwee-era, where the Doctor’s role within UNIT often has him serving as a modern-day Sherlock Holmes. Fortunately, Curse plays up this aspect of his character perfectly, presenting a classic story of political murder and conspiracy that calls on the Doctor to draw on his vast intelligence, knowledge and intuition to unravel the mystery of the curse and the machinations of Hepesh.
In many of the Pertwee-era episodes, Jo Grant is overshadowed by the presence of the Brigadier and UNIT. Traditionally, the Doctor’s companions have been the only people he can turn to in times of trouble, but with the exile to Earth and his position within UNIT, neither Jo nor Liz before her have too many opportunities to really stand out, especially when compared to the Brigadier.
Without UNIT’s presence, Jo really gets a chance to shine in Curse and shows just how resourceful she really is. Like a good amateur detective, she tracks down clues and follows leads, often placing herself in potential danger in pursuit of the truth. Her efforts may lead her astray, but she never stops trying to aid the Doctor in his endeavours.
Her standout moments, though, come from her interaction with King Peladon. Her roleplaying as royalty is funny and entertaining, while her attempts to show the King a better and more noble path are genuinely moving.
Hepesh is the perfect villain for a story of this nature. He is not genuinely evil like many of the Who villains, nor is he manipulating others for personal gain. He merely seeks to protect the core values of his world and protect it from possible exploitation. His goals are in many ways quite understandable, even noble, but the manner in which he achieves those goals is what makes him the villain of the piece.
Hepesh’s manipulation of the religious beliefs of his people adds an interesting element rarely seen in Doctor Who to this point. He exploits the primal fears that lie at the core of Peladon’s culture, promoting traditional values and isolationism. While he and his world are alien, his methods are all too human, making him a villain relevant to the modern world.
The Curse of Peladon is both an enthralling mystery and a much welcomed space adventure.
The Doctor returns to Earth only to battle both the Master and an offshoot of the Silurians in The Sea Devils.