Peladon is a planet that featured in two stories during the 3rd Doctor’s run during the 1970s. These Big Finish audio four stories carry on the drama on Peladon — the environmental issues, the political intrigue both on the planet and among interested parties elsewhere in the galaxy, and the lives of various characters seen in Curse of Peladon and Monster of Peladon.
Just a note before I begin: I haven’t seen either of the two Peladon episodes in years and my memories of story details are vague.
The Ordeal of Peladon
This first story is set near the end of the reign of King Peladon (David Troughton, who played the young prince way back in the 1970s). Aging, he’s been in semi-seclusion for the past ten years and lets his chancellor Raarlan do most of the work of administration for the kingdom. Unfortunately, this enables Raarlan to do as he likes and keep things from the king. For example, the new mines that have recently opened up in the desert provinces.
King Peladon is worried about a holy man named Skarn who is also in the desert provinces and is developing a cult following due to his claims that the old gods are speaking through him. The king wants to know more about Skarn and wants to understand what the people see in him.
When a woman offers to take him to meet Skarn, the king is eager to go. This means leaving the citadel and taking a long walk out into the desert, with an adventure or two along the way. The meeting is not what the king was hoping for, but then Skarn’s new prophet-like powers aren’t what he imagines them to be either — as the surprise cameo appearance of a Doctor not appearing on the cover art makes clear when he pops up in a flashback and explains the situation.
Toxic mineral contamination from the new mines seeping into the water supply plays a part in what’s happening. Environmental issues on Peladon will be the main theme that continues on through the subsequent stories, but I’m disappointed that the cult of Skarn’s followers doesn’t reappear. The Doctor says that Skarn is the one who begins it all, but that seems to mean that he’s the first person on Peladon to be exposed to toxic chemicals, not that his visions foment a religious or rebellious movement.
While all this is going on, representatives of the Planetary Federation have come on an inspection visit; as a member of the Federation, Peladon has certain standards of living to uphold even though they’re a planet just emerging from feudalism into an industrial and technological civilization.
Among the Feds is Alpha Centauri, the same one who featured in the old Peladon stories (although voiced by someone else). Alpha Centauri, the only character besides the Doctor with the longevity to appear in more than one of these stories, is a sweetheart and has an interest in Peladon’s development beyond mineral exploitation.
While Raarlan tries to stall the visitors during the king’s absence, Alpha Centauri sends a friend, a Martian Ice Warrior, to locate the wandering king first. The Ice Warrior’s adventures with the king, and his wry but tolerant attitude during the tense situations they face together are the best part of this story.
The Poison of Peladon
The second story takes place during the reign of King Peladon’s daughter, Thalira, during a time fraught with personal and political difficulties. Her granddaughter Selana is very ill with a mysterious plague that’s spreading recently. Her daughter has already died of it.
In addition, Peladon’s people are still sexist enough to think that a woman doesn’t have the strength to rule without a man beside her — as Thalira’s chancellor Gobran keeps reminding her and offering to take the position of manly regent himself. But Sarah Jane Smith had taught Thalira a thing or two about “women’s lib” back when she visited the planet with the Doctor, so Thalira is standing as firm as she can.
There’s also a new high priestess called Kantika at the court, who supports and advises the queen as well as officiates at the temple of Aggador. Since she’s voiced by Alex Kingston, it’s pretty obvious to the listener that this is River Song in disguise. She alludes to a dear friend who’s interested in the planet, so we may assume the Doctor asked her to drop in and check on the current situation.
Federation delegates have returned to review the planet’s progress. Alpha Centauri is back, along with rugged Father Mendica, who flirts rather openly with River, and a particularly suspect Arcturan. River’s conversations with Alpha Centauri and her flirty repartee with Mendica are the highpoints of this story.
The Arcturan is of the opinion that Peladon is a “cesspit of plague on the verge of political revolution” and is probably interested in plundering the troubled planet for its mineral resources. Alpha Centauri, on the other hand, believes that if the people want a democratic government, then it’s the Federation’s duty to assist in a smooth transition of power.
The delegates, accompanied by River and Gobran, tour the mines and visit the new water recycling and purifying system that’s meant to remove all those nasty toxic chemicals. They also drop in to see the temple.
Although they were told that the Aggador beasts, the royal animal of Peladon, are now extinct, it turns out that a pair are kept subdued in cages at the ancient temple. Thalira believes that, like the plague, the weakening of the traditionally fierce Aggador beasts is a sign from the old gods, symbolic of the planet’s problems; River responds that, like all problems, Peladon’s come from people, not gods. We’ll soon see which one is right.
It’s during the visit to the temple that all the spying and intrigue come to a head. Alpha Centauri is poisoned with a drink of water meant for the queen, and River is blamed and imprisoned.
Don’t worry; Alpha Centauri is okay and will help River not only escape, but figure things out. The plague, no surprise, isn’t really a disease, and contaminated water is once again at the heart of the matter. Is the same person who tried to poison the queen responsible for the princess’s illness?
The Death of Peladon
Many years have passed. Thalira is long gone and another elderly queen, Minaris, is on the throne. How she is related to the previous monarchs isn’t established–a daughter or granddaughter of Selana, perhaps? Minaris is reclusive and possibly in the early stages of dementia, focusing most of her attention on an antique music box that King Peladon gave to Thalira when she was a girl, and showing no interest in the ongoing plight of her people. The mines have been about mined out of any valuable deposits by this time and the mining communities are suffering from lack of work.
Minaris’s daughter and heir, Isabelda, is a nasty, selfish piece of work, not merely indifferent to Peladon’s citizens but actively involved in exploiting the planet and people… as long as she has a way off Peladon once the damage is done.
Alpha Centauri is visiting again; hundreds of years old, they are semi-retired now but still interested in the future of Peladon. Isabelda is openly hostile to the visitor and the Federation in general.
Meanwhile, the sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) arrives with his companion Mel in the mines amidst a jumble of disused equipment. The tunnels are abandoned but the lights are still on, the body of a recently murdered man lies on the floor, and a thermic detonator is set to explode shortly. The Doctor attempts to defuse the detonator, but has to run before it goes off. He and Mel are separated by the explosion.
While the Doctor is rescued by the people who lived in a mining village which was destroyed when the mine below caved in. He searches for Mel and his Tardis among the wreckage as the villagers look for other survivors and the bodies of those killed by the disaster. When he’s offered a drink of water, he notices that the water is still contaminated. Everyone’s been drinking the stuff for decades and it probably explains the recent death of the mining leader’s grandmother as well as Minaris’s mental state.
Mel, who has been found by the captain of the guard, is brought to the citadel where the queen and her daughter are in conference with Alpha Centauri. She immediately name-drops the Doctor, which grabs Alpha Centauri’s attention. Alpha Centauri wants to arrange a Federation search for the Doctor and disaster relief for the miners. Minaris dithers over making a decision about this.
The queen reluctantly goes to the site of the mine collapse, even though Isabelda urges her mother against it. It’s the unsympathetic attitude of the royal family toward the dead and injured, and the queen’s declared intention to do nothing to help in spite of both the Doctor’s and Alpha Centauri’s advice, that’s the last straw as far as the miners are concerned. Revolution underway, the miners storm the citadel.
It’s up to the Doctor to try and prevent another bloody and ugly disaster at the citadel as well as find answers to a few questions: Who killed that man in the mine and set off the explosion? And who has provided the miners with offworld energy weapons for their revolt?
The Truth of Peladon
The Peladon theme music in this boxed set sounds something like a Victorian Christmas carol, so it’s fitting that this final story resembles the Dickens tale at least in structure. It’s my favorite story of the set.
More years have passed since Minaris’s reign, and the coronation of a new king is about to occur. The new king, like his most recent predecessor, is a figurehead rather than a figure of true authority; we know nothing about him except that he’s very young, may in fact still be a child. The real power lies behind the throne, in the hands of Chancellor Barak. Under Barak, Peladon has become a police state, with a few privileged persons living in comfort while the rest are impoverished and starving.
One of these privileged persons is Peladon’s last seamstress, the famous Arla Decanto. Barak personally requests that she make a traditional coronation cloak for the king. Arla has recently lost her apprentice — under circumstances that will become clear as the story unfolds — but a man, looking older than the usual youths who apply for the coveted position, comes forward just then. His name, he says, is the Doctor (Paul McGann this time) and since he can make amazingly quick alterations and hot soup for dinner, the seamstress takes him on.
The Christmas Carol analogy comes in after Arla is arrested for (inadvertently) putting a controversial star pattern on the coronation cloak. The Doctor visits her in her not-the-worst-level dungeon cell for three nights in a row.
What he shows her isn’t her own past, present, and future, but some truth about Peladon that she probably already knows but refuses to acknowledge to herself.
- On the first night, they visit the great weaving looms within the citadel, one of the few Peladon trades still in business, so that Arla can see the miserable living and working conditions of the people there.
- On the second night, they go out to the desert, which is uninhabitable by this time, to see the last of the surviving Aggador beasts who, like the people, are still being poisoned by the toxic minerals seeping from the mines into the water. The Doctor comforts the poor, mangy, dispirited creatures by singing them an old Irish lullaby.
- On the final night, they enter the heart of the citadel so that Arla can overhear what Barak’s true plans are for the planet. Although the mines are officially closed, a new technology can beam the remaining mineral deposits directly from the ground to Arcturus, a process which will do the planet no good structurally.
The question before Arla now is will she continue to ignore these situations on Peladon, or will she take a stand and play a part in the revolution that’s been building covertly for years?
Arla Decanto makes her choice on the day of the coronation, but that doesn’t mean that the Doctor has forgiven her for sins committed before he arrived at her shop, or any that might have occurred on that coronation day.
The ending leaves the question of how much Arla might have to pay for her sins open, but concludes on a optimistic note.
Will there be more stories from Peladon? The final note is hopeful, but the general thematic trend of this set of stories is cyclical–in spite of the Doctor’s repeated efforts and Alpha Centauri’s best intentions, each time we return to the planet, things have gotten worse rather than better. The water remains contaminated, the planet’s resources are exploited to the point of endangering the planet itself, more people live in poverty, and the formerly mighty Aggador beast hovers on the brink of extinction. As the Doctor himself notes, in a corrupt system the same problems recur again and again. Who can say what the future will bring?