Paradise Towers

Region 1

Region 2
VHS Video
(Doctor Who Story No. 149, starring Sylvester McCoy)
  • written by Stephen Wyatt
  • directed by Nicholas Mallett
  • produced by John Nathan-Turner
  • music by Keff McCulloch
  • 4 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: In her search for a swimming pool holiday, Melanie persuades the Doctor to visit the Paradise Towers complex on a man-made planet. But society there seems to have degenerated. Rival gangs terrorize the corridors, residents have developed strange eating habits, the militaristic caretakers religiously revere their long-missing architect, and the cleaning robots are beginning to run out of control. What is the secret kept in the cellar that no one will talk about?

DVD Extras include:

  • Audio Commentary by writer Stephen Wyatt, actress Judy Cornwell (Maddy), Dick Mills (special sound), and moderator Mark Ayres.
  • "Horror on the High Rise" making-of featurette (34 min.) with Wyatt, Richard Briers (Chief Caretaker), Howard Cooke (Pex),
    Catherine Cusack (Blue Kang Leader), script editor Andrew Cartmel, and composers David Snell and Keff McCulloch.
  • Deleted and Extended Scenes (8 min.)
  • optional alternate incidental music by David Snell.
  • "Casting Sylvester" featurette (4 min.) with Clive Doig.
  • Photo Gallery
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • featurette on 1980's companions (22 min.), with Sophie Aldred, Janet Fielding, and Sarah Sutton.

Buyers' Guide Review

by Martin Izsak

(A more in-depth analysis, containing "SPOILERS" and intended for those who have already seen the program, can be accessed here.)

Beginning here, the Sylvester McCoy / Andrew Cartmel era settles into a style where complicated artistic symbology, metaphors, and parodies seem to have priority, while a sense of reality and suspension of disbelief are nearly ignored. Curiously enough, the stories of this era all seemed to make great novels when converted to the written format, but suffered numerous flaws and lack of clarity and believability on television. TV production is probably just too fast a workplace to allow directors and actors to properly wrap their heads around the ideas attempted here, and then bring them to the screen on time with clarity and impact, with "The Happiness Patrol" (story no. 153) perhaps being the most obvious example. As novels though, each of these stories seems to receive all that it was due. Is it really surprising that Doctor Who moved off of television after this era, and continued as a series of "New Adventure" books?

"Paradise Towers" also initiates this era's hefty indulgence in the "Candy-Horror" subgenre in Doctor Who, which hasn't really had more than two substantial outings in the previous 23 years. In such stories, not only are things one would normally regard as cute or sweet now much more deadly, but in accommodating this they go so far as appearing that the rules of normal reality don't seem to apply. However, both "The Celestial Toymaker" (story no. 24), and "The Mind Robber" (story no. 45) utilize the freedom of mental-based dimensions to make credible the idea that such rules won't apply. Finding reasons as good in the Sylvester McCoy Era is not nearly as easy.

"Paradise Towers" thrusts the viewer into its bizarre, degenerated society while neglecting to do much to set up any good level of believability in it. A Doctor and his companion are usually good at formulaically establishing such things as they begin to explore, yet the Doctor and Mel's early scenes in this story are truncated to extremely short snippets that leave a lot of essential information out. Instead we focus on sacrificial extra characters going through the predictable motions without much originality, and we get stylistic dialogue that fails to impart any actual information.

One of the first questions that goes both unanswered and unasked is, just where in creation are we today? No doubt some viewers will choose to believe that the story takes place in some run-down building on Earth in the future, while I initially came to my recent viewing prepared to build a case that the story more likely takes place on another colonized planet, where it would enjoy greater artistic freedoms. In the televised story, Melanie makes mention that if they can't find a suitable swimming pool here, they'll have to try yet another planet, which is the best indication that we're not on Earth today, and the Doctor rattles off a few names of other planets they might go to. Great, but why don't they tell us where we are, instead of where we aren't?

All this becomes a moot point when one picks up writer Stephen Wyatt's novelization. Both the back-cover blurb and the prose on page 1 establish Paradise Towers as the main feature on a man-made planet. Awesome sci-fi concept! Well worth exploring! Why isn't that anywhere in the TV episodes? With this tale's obsession with architecture, you have to wonder why such good bits get so ignored.

Another untackled point is whether the story is populated with Earth humans, or aliens of some other humanoid race. The scene of the Doctor and Mel meeting the Red Kangs exemplifies this, as it proceeds along lines best suited for creatures with whom one shares no common type of language. If they are human beings, our regulars' first contact with them is unbelievable in its complexity. If they are aliens, cultural differences can take up some slack - and this needs to be properly set-up to prevent the tale from flopping. Perhaps they speak too much good English already for communication to be the big problem that it is. Another idea for making them more believable (though perhaps only slightly so) would be to have them played by actual children, indicating a sort of "Lord of the Flies" situation. The story "Miri" from original Star Trek's first season was much more successful at hitting the right note. But, the Red Kangs feature so heavily, that with extra rules governing the work time of child actors and Doctor Who's schedule being so cramped already, this wouldn't automatically be feasible.

One has to really take a step back from the bizarreness of this tale, try and figure out what it is trying to do artistically with its global metaphors, and judge it based on that first and foremost. And "Paradise Towers" remains slippery even here, saturated with examples of what doesn't work in society (or on television for that matter). There is one point that does inject something worthwhile into the tale, but coming as it does near the end of the story, I'll save such a spoiler for the in-depth analysis version of this review. Suffice to say, I don't think it really redeems the adventure, nor counterbalances all the other things that reveal the tale aimed itself in the wrong direction.

The bulk of the story's main premise actually seems more concerned with fostering corny old horror ideas and literally adorning them with rubbish. A major turning point in the second half becomes the biggest central flop in that premise, not resulting in anything that works well on screen for the adventure. And there really isn't anything else in the story that can really justify the level of insanity that most other characters have degenerated into.

Build High for Happiness

Indeed, the whole premise is urbanized to a degree that it doesn't even remember how to aim for any naturally good ideals. When discovering how to operate a soda-pop vending machine becomes a social highlight in a story, your values are in real trouble.

The one segment of this tale that seems to automatically have a level of audience understanding built into it is in one of the subplots, which easily seems to have come straight out of a fairy tale. But equating a Doctor Who subplot with a fairy tale is no compliment, as it slots the show backwards into the juvenile, children's show stereotype that others have fought so hard to keep it out of in public perception. Doctor Who should instead be advancing forward into the science-fiction adventure drama label that a franchise of its promise and longevity deserves.

Although many of the performances here end up being cringeful at times, largely due to the audience having no way to find credibility or empathy with the bizarreness of it, every once in a while the actors are able to pull off some really nice moments. In fact, I actually quite like Clive Merrison in this one, who has a chance to make much more of a close-up impression here than in his minor role in "The Tomb of the Cybermen" (story no. 37). Elizabeth Spriggs as Tabby also delivers a large quantity of good moments, balancing her range of character aspects quite nicely. Richard Briers has his moments as the Chief Caretaker whenever intentionally humorous moments come to the fore, but much of the rest of what he has to do flops pretty badly.

The villainous forces aren't really working in this tale in any form. At least the script builds a bit of mystery for a while, but there's really only one episode throughout which the mystery continues to work. The cleaner robots also fail to inspire the menace that they are clearly meant to. The design is too artsy where it should simply focus on functionality first, and its three arms prove incapable of succeeding at any task - not surprising as they're attached to the rest of the robot as if it were in a couch-potato posture. This alone lets down much of the action and drama here, even if it isn't the adventure's most fundamental flaw. If you want to see good action from the cleaners, you're better off looking for them in fan modifications of Doom II, or other such sideline by-products.

But when all is said and done, I do like Sylvester McCoy in this one. He is getting a firm handle on his version of the character here, and injecting a lot of good moments of drama and humour into the show, even if he can't manage to salvage the action with the cleaners.

This story is also a bit of a tour-de-force for composer Keff McCulloch, as he creates many of his most memorable pieces for Doctor Who for this tale. "Towers El Paradiso" is amongst the very best of his Doctor Who related music, but strangely it can't seem to find a decent place to air during the show, settling for snippets of just a few seconds as the Tower is advertised on the TARDIS scanner, or later near the end of part three. "Newsreel Past" is another good piece of listening music that only the CD will give you the full version of. Of the selection on CD, the best piece that does manage to fit well into the story is "Guards of Silence", which includes the iconic theme for the cleaners as well as a really nice ambling variation of the Doctor Who theme. Though the theme seems slightly out of place when it first comes on, it helps perfectly conclude the scene when it comes back after a pause.
Music by Keff McCulloch
The Season 24 opening and closing
Doctor Who themes,
"Towers El Paradiso", "Drinksmat Dawning",
"Guards of Silence", "Newsreel Past",
"The Making of Pex", and
"Goodbye Doctor" feature on:
Audio CD - The Doctor Who 25th Anniversary Album
BBC CD 707

More info & buying options

Part Two of Paradise Towers is probably the best episode, where most of the things that can work well are showcased, and enough unknowns are still alive that one can hope for answers that will excuse the things that don't appear to make sense.

However, this story really put very little on the screen that viewers like me tune in to see - not even in terms of the oft-referred-to architecture. The grubby corridors profusely littered with garbage are the opposite of the eye-candy I usually appreciate, and with Wyatt thinking the story would have been better with an even more dilapidated look, I think he and I are at cross-purposes with our hopes for this show.

In the end, this isn't really a story that works well on any worthwhile level. It will not only win the Wooden Turkey award for worst season 24 story, but has also decidedly sat at the bottom of my rankings for Sylvester McCoy stories for a long time. The good news is, it can only get better from here on, and writer Stephen Wyatt does largely redeem himself when he writes for Doctor Who again the following year....

This story has become available on DVD and VHS video.
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Read the Buyers' Guide Review for the next story: "Delta and the Bannermen"

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