Like a lot of classic Who, “The Curse of Peladon” aims far above its limitations. One of these is the simplicity of the sets. Sure, they look like nice corridors, and they’re actually lit well, which certainly wasn’t always the case in the videotape era, but they insist on looking like the throne room and the delegates’ conference rooms are separated by about twenty feet. A major part of the script involves Hepesh keeping knowledge about a network of subterranean tunnels and secret passages from the king. Twice, the story has the opportunity to change direction completely if King Peladon will just walk down the hall and check out the Doctor’s claim that there are hidden doors in the place. Frankly, everything here would make a whole heck of a lot more sense if he did that. Even if the writer, Brian Hayles, were to insist that the entrance is about a mile’s walk away, then the king should still want to do that. Since the designer and director don’t convince me that the entrance isn’t as far away as the man’s own bedroom, it’s even more ridiculous.
The other thing is with the aliens. Now, if you’re six, all these weird beasties are unbelievably effective. Our son has told us that this is one of the scariest Doctor Who stories ever, because it’s not only got a hairy monster who lives under the citadel, but all these freaky alien delegates: the Ice Warriors, Alpha Centauri, and Arcturus. From modern eyes, the delegates are all remarkably garish and plastic, colored in bright Sherwin-Williams green and yellow. About Time contrasts their artificial green with the deep blues and purples of the Peladonian court clothes and calls the result, not unreasonably, “glam rock.” Like “The Claws of Axos” the year before, this is television for British viewers in 1972 who’ve bought their first color television set and want to see something they’ve never seen before. Everything here looks like Roy Wood and Mott the Hoople on Top of the Pops, and the next story is going to look comparatively restrained, but it will sound like Roxy Music’s first album.
I said above that the corridors are lit well, but the monsters aren’t. Arcturus’s tank has a big reflective surface behind his wet globe which shows blue-white strobes from the lights, as does the back of the Ice Warrior’s shell, emphasizing the materials and the paint used to construct it in a spotlight. The result from modern grownup eyes is a constant punch in the ol’ suspension of disbelief gene. (Similarly, there’s a story in season fourteen set in a primitive hut without electricity and I just can’t stop staring at the studio lights reflecting off one actor’s bald head.) But the grownups in 1972 who’d made the investment in a color set had never seen anything like this before, and apparently found the visuals incredibly compelling. And the kids in the audience, once they’d peeked out from behind the sofa to see the Doctor scratching the hairy monster behind the ears, they’re every bit as convinced.
Gah. I like this story, honestly I do, but when the Doctor’s telling the king and Hepesh that he’s been scratching the royal monster behind the ears and Hepesh is yelling “Sacrilege,” any intelligent king would turn to his high priest and say “We are amazed that you, of all people, do not wish to verify this remarkable claim. We would see this supposed animal and these caves for ourselves. Lead the way, Doctor.”