Paradise Towers, by John Toon (and Stephen Wyatt)

Paradise Towers was first broadcast at the point that I was an undergraduate and no longer watching Doctor Who regularly, so I did not see it until 2008 when I watched the whole of Season 24. I wrote then:

I actually loved Paradise Towers, apart from the music and one ill-inspired character. The whole concept of the abandoned tower block with its feral inhabitants is done, not fantastically well I admit, but at least with the courage of its convictions. Richard Briers as guest star clicks with the show in a way that Paul Darrow utterly failed to do in Timelash. The Kang chants and warping of familiar phrases are also great, and Mel actually gets something to do. This is more like Doctor Who than anything broadcast since The Caves of Androzani. (The two flies in the ointment are the awful music and the character of Pex – some blame Howard Cooke for his performance, but basically Pex doesn’t fit awfully well with the setting.) 

When I came back to it for my Great Rewatch three years later, I wrote:

And suddenly we seem to have a complete step change with Paradise Towers, a glorious story which merges comedy and horror – Richard Briers dressed up as a Hitler-like bureaucrat; girl gangs with extraordinary slogans; cannibalistic little old ladies; a hero who isn’t terribly heroic; an evil architect and a swimming pool. I don’t know what it is, but there is a sudden injection of energy and confidence into the show at this point that, in my view, lasts for most of the rest of Old Who’s run. The Doctor may not have much of a clue as to what is going on, but we are urging him to work it out and we get there at much the same time as he does. My daily watching of the old episodes has become a pleasure again, rather than a chore.

I’m interested to see that on both occasions, watching the story in sequence with those before and after, I noticed what a different beast it is to its predecessors. I wrote in 2011 that “I don’t know what it is”, but since then, I have read Andrew Cartmel’s reminiscences so it’s clear that Paradise Towers was his first real commission as script editor, and that he was successfully stamping his mark on the show.

This time round was the first time I had watched the story in isolation – both in 2008 and 2011 I watched it in sequence. I was pleasantly surprised by how well it held up. Yes, the production values are poor, but the story actually lampshades it by referencing the decaying tower block environment. Richard Briers is a delight and so are the two old ladies. Pex annoys me less every time; I find the character easier to accept as a send-up of hero tropes. And I actually found the music easier on the ear, especially the riff on the them tune of the show while the Caretakers are holding the Doctor captive in Episode Two.

The one thing that jumped out at me this time is that all the speaking characters, though not all the people we see on screen, are white. That is an opportunity missed. Several of the non-speaking Kangs (and one of the Janitors) are clearly of African or Asian descent, including Nisha Nayar who got a small speaking role in the Ninth Doctor two-parter Bad Wolf / The Parting of the Ways and has done a fair amount of Big Finish work.

The other really important thing to note is that Stephen Wyatt is the only graduate of Clare College, Cambridge to have written a Doctor Who story – so far. (The only Clare alum to have directed a Doctor Who story is Dan Zeff, who I served with on the 1988-89 JCR Committee.) Wyatt also wrote the novelisation of the story, and the second paragraph of its third chapter is:

At first Mel thought she was hearing things. She was sitting dejectedly in a grimy ill-lit corridor in Paradise Towers and someone was offering her a cup of tea. It was so unlikely Mel thought her mind must be going.

I read it at the same time as first watching it in 2008, and wrote:

Wyatt has the courage of his convictions here: a reasonably strong story in the first place, and the opportunity to overcome the weaknesses of the production (the Kangs on paper can be teenagers, and we don’t get the awful music, though Pex as a character is still an anomaly). An easy pass for the Bechdel test, with the scene where the old ladies are about to eat Mel a particular delight. 

Nothing to add to that; an above-average novelisation, just about. You can get it here.

As noted above, both TV story and novelisation easily pass the Bechdel test.

John Toon’s Black Archive monograph on Paradise Towers won the Sir Julius Vogel Award last year (2023), as his previous volume on the Fourth Doctor story Full Circle had done in 2019. I complained about the Full Circle analysis that I would have liked more on the actual production of the show; and the Paradise Towers volume delivers that, for a very satisfying read. It has been richly informed by extensive correspondence between Toon and Wyatt, so that we hear the original author’s voice more clearly than in most Doctor Who analyses.

The first chapter, ‘Reception’, starts by pointing out something I had not realised – not everyone liked Paradise Towers as much as I did. I often find that alleged classic stories are not to my taste, but it’s much rarer to discover that a story I rather admire is not held in such high esteem by fandom. Toon argues that the story’s reputation has improved dramatically in the last couple of years, basically since the Blu-Ray was released, but he shows convincingly that it went down badly at the time and since – featuring at 193 out of 200 in the DWM poll of 2009, for instance.

Toon then goes on to explain the rushed process of writing and production. It all makes a lot more sense when you realise that Pex actually was supposed to be a muscle man, but they couldn’t find one in time who could actually act and were left with Howard Cooke; and that the Caretakers apart from Richard Briers were supposed to be overweight and middle-aged; and that the music was hastily rewritten because the originally commissioned score didn’t fit the way the story was going.

The second and longest chapter, ‘The Foudnations’, looks in detail at the similarities and differences between Paradise Towers and J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise, and a few other sources: 2000 AD for the mega-city, A Clockwork Orange and Lord of the Flies for the youth gangs, Toyah Willcox for the Kangs’ style.

The third chapter, ‘Windows’, makes the cases successively for interpreting Paradise Towers as a queer story, a camp story and a Gothic story. (I vote for all three.) Its second paragraph is:

There’s an anecdote often told by Andrew Cartmel about a script conference between himself, Stephen Wyatt and John Nathan-Turner that took place on 16 March 19871. According to Cartmel’s recollection, Nathan-Turner expressed concern about the cannibalistic habits of Tilda and Tabby, in response to which Wyatt confided, ‘You realise that they’re also lesbians?’ Wyatt corroborates this story, and further recalls that he suggested Nathan-Turner might tempt the tabloid press with the headline ‘Dr Who in Lesbian Cannibal Bondage Horror’2. This suggests a creative team keeping a wry eye on opportunities for sensationalism rather than seeking to give representation, sympathetic or otherwise, to non-heteronormative lifestyles. And yet Paradise Towers does lend itself readily to queer interpretation. In large part, this is likely due to the nature of Doctor Who itself in 1987.
1  See, for example, Cartmel, Script Doctor, p53.
2  Email conversation with author. The ‘bondage’ in this case would be Tilda restraining Mel with her knitting, but more on that anon.

The fourth chapter, ‘The Towers’, begins by pointing out that it’s really rare for Doctor Who to address architecture as a topic, and then goes on to sketch the appalling history of Brutalism and the British high-rise block.

The fifth chapter, ‘The Great Architect’, chases the architecture theme still further, with glances at Le Corbusier, Peter and Alison Smithson, Ayn Rand and Margaret Thatcher, in a very satisfying hunt for truth.

A brief conclusion pulls it all together.

Driven to produce a set of scripts quickly to break ground on Doctor Who’s 24th season, Wyatt and Cartmel created a story as rough-edged yet multi-faceted as the concrete estates they wanted to comment on. It overlays serious issues of shoddy social housing and uncaring architects with comedy fascist Caretakers, punk gang children in their twenties and cuddly teatime cannibals. But for all that, it has a comfortable charm. Be it ever so humble, some of us call it home.

Recommended for fans of the Seventh Doctor era, and of architecture. You can get it here.