The most important thing to remember about Paradise Towers, is not whether it is actually any good. Because its not. It has a number of problems with its production side and there are some truly terrible performances from all involved, most notably from the main guest star, Richard Briars and the script seems to loose interest in where its going towards the end. But Paradise Towers also points the way to the future of Doctor Who. And shaky though this story is, it is a good precursor to what the era of the Seventh Doctor would look like and already, it is a big improvement over the Sixth Doctor years.
The first episode of Paradise Towers is the story at its most promising as it teases at a story that could possibly be better than anything in a number of years. It is smart, fun, imaginative and a little scary littered with biting social satire for the time and shows you that Doctor Who works best when it isn't being treated as a children's show. But as the story creeps towards its fourth and final episode, the culmination of all its silly ideas and bad choices sink in and the story ends up being encouraging and frustrating as a result.
What is often the case with Doctor Who is that it is the second story sets the tone for their era. The introduction for the Fourth Doctor, Robot was obviously a Third Doctor story and he got into his groove in The Ark in Space. And this is the case with Paradise Towers. The first story, Time and the Rani was a goofy story that didn't suit the darker tone of the Seventh Doctor we get glimpses of here. The Doctor here is far more formidable and while Sylvester McCoy would always play the Doctor as a clown and buffoon, there was always a sense he was a lot more cunning and intelligent than he would let on. The enemies would underestimate him at their peril. And the script editor, despite his inexperience at the time, would make an effort to pull of this tricky balancing act with conceptual horror, satire that bored on camp but some science fiction that tried to balance some real world issues at the same time. And while all of that might not come off well with Paradise Towers, the effort he is making is visible and he'd keep getting better until the show's cancellation in 1989.
Paradise Towers sees Andrew Cartmell and author, Stephen Wyatt make the decision to move away from the children's show the programme had become and set the tale in a tower-block which had fallen into barbarism, cannibalism and chaos. The exact opposite of the paradise the advertising brochure promises.
It is that brochure that attracts the Doctor and his companion, the bubbly Mel, to the towers. Mel has seen the pool and can't wait to go for a swim. The Doctor however is clearly bored with the idea and it is hard to see why he would be. But this is destined to be the first of several stories where you only get the intended effect of it by imagining what the script implies we are supposed to be seeing. The image of the swimming pool is something that would have been found in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and is the crown jewel of Kroagnon's design and it should give us the view of his stunning final vision. But what we get instead is a swimming pool that wouldn't be out of place in your local hotel. Mel comes off as quite the overenthusiastic idiot, something which isn't helped by Bonnie Langford's performance as she is clearly propelled by what she had imagined the pool to actually look like!
From the moment the Doctor and Mel leave the TARDIS and step out into the hotel lobby, it is clear something has gone horribly wrong. Instead of finding a paradise they find something akin to the apocalypse. Graffiti litters the walls, rubbish lines the corridors and passageways and then there are the all girl gangs, the Red Kangs, Blue Kangs and deceased Yellow Kangs. Essentially, the Kangs are a bunch of teenagers who haven't had an adult to help them grow up. There is no food, no civilisation and no hope in the Towers, all the elderly residents have become the Rezzies, people who live behind reinforced closed doors and cannibalise the occasional Kang. All of these people have been abandoned by the outside society. All grown ups have gone missing, most called away to a nearby war. What little order is left comes at the hands of the Caretakers, who are insanely focused on following their precious rulebook. Finally there's the cleaning robots, which have begun to murder people for no apparent reason, dragging their bodies down to whatever lurks in the basement. This story isn't so different from Vengeance on Varos when it comes to dystopian societies only this one isn't quite so bleak, which makes a big difference as Paradise Towers is still fun to watch.
Certainly the strangest part of this story is Mel's unflappable optimism, insisting that despite what is around her, the pool will be the best thing since sliced bread. If this characterisation comes across as insanely weird, it does remain consistent. The Doctor is given a little more depth and becomes more and more despaired with what is happening but Mel seems strangely unable to see the dangers around her. It is possible that this was kept in as Cartmel and Wyatt wanted to show how Mel was keeping the show being something for kiddies, as it is brutally at odds with the dystopia around them all. And it is hard to shake the feeling that Cartmel had more than a little contempt for Mel whom he had been stuck with from the previous regime.
But then it is difficult to tell because Paradise Towers does just go downhill rapidly. Part of this is the scripts fault because it sets up such a promising beginning but looses itself in its complicated culture and then struggles to move towards an ending. The Caretaker's beliefs never move beyond their reciting the rules which begins as amusing but quickly become very maddening. And the final battle with Kroagnon in his basement throws out whatever might have been interesting about his character in favour of the cheap satisfaction of only seeing the monster in the final episode. This ultimately neuters the whole concept of Paradise Towers which should have been about how toxic the building was supposed to be in the first place, even before Kroagnon went psychotic.
There are other problems here too, like the staging, the pool subplot and the dodgy acting from some of the cast. The character of Pex was obviously written as a parody of someone like Rambo with the twist being despite his size and muscles, he was a coward. The main problem they ran into was getting someone who was actually the right size. The actor they chose, Howard Cooke is a rather scrawny guy with the physique of someone who writes for the internet. Of course this might have worked had it been about what Pex sees about himself and what everyone else sees. But Cooke's performance just isn't strong enough to pick that up. He is meant to be playing someone who is trying to be brave despite being terrified but he can't convincingly play scared.
Sadly though, Richard Briars is the worst offender in this story. Unfortunately he was cast against type as the Chief Caretaker, an uppity bureaucrat who comes across looking like Hitler. Briars is usually a terrific actor and for the first three episodes, he plays the Chief Caretaker brilliantly as well. It is in the fourth episode when he is possessed by essence of Kroagnon that it becomes painfully obvious he has no idea how to play that sort of thing. He becomes stiff and awkward and it is clear he is playing a character.
That is a great shame as there is a lot to enjoy here, the first episode is generally enjoyable and well done. And the new Seventh Doctor has finally found his groove with McCoy giving a much improved performance from Time and the Rani, it is him who practically holds this story together. Paradise Towers also proves he was right for the role, giving role a deceptive slyness, something along the lines of Patrick Troughton's seemingly harmless characterisation. We also get a few hints that he had known what to expect before arriving at the Towers, beginning the idea that this Doctor was something of a chess-player and used his companions for his own ends. It feels like a fresh new start for the show, following the bombast of Colin Baker's performance, it is nice to have a Doctor who knows what he is doing.
So whatever flaws the story has, Paradise Towers is an enjoyable story with ambitions, even if the main idea didn't quite work itself out. After all the mess of The Trial of a Time Lord and Time and the Rani, it finally felt like there was a light at the end of the tunnel. It was also a clear sign that no matter how far the show had fallen in the public eye in the late eighties, it could be raised again if they got things on the right track...