The Curse of Peladon

The Doctor:…You slap the Federation in the face by sabotaging the Commission – why?
Hepesh: Because I’m afraid.
The Doctor: Afraid? Afraid of what? The Federation is your safeguard.
Hepesh: That is not true! I know the Federation’s real intent!
The Doctor: The Federation’s real intent is to help you.
Hepesh: No! They will exploit us for our minerals, enslave us with their machines, corrupt us with their technology… The face of Peladon will be changed, the past swept away. And everything that I know and value will have gone.
The Doctor: The progress that they offer – that we offer – isn’t like that.
Hepesh: I would rather be a cave-dweller and free!
The Doctor: Free!?! With your people imprisoned by ritual and superstition?

This story, first shown in 1972, brings the Third Doctor and Jo Grant to the barbarous and wind-swept planet of Peladon, ruled by a young king (also called Peladon), which is seeking admission to a Galactic Federation including the future Earth, for whose commission delegates the Doctor and Jo are mistaken.

The story is widely seen as a reference to Britain’s entry into the Common Market, now the European Union; the UK’s accession treaty was signed a week before the first episode was shown. I wonder how explicit this was at the time? Both Peladon and the Galactic Federation have a number of interesting features that seem to me to be drawn from elsewhere in history or literature, and which make the Peladon=Britain, Federation=Europe reading not especially straightforward.

First off, what is really striking is that Peladon seeks to join the Federation from a position of weakness, not strength. It is a formerly closed society opening up to the outside world, a minor player seeking to be admitted to the big leagues, being dragged out of barbarity towards modernity by the young and idealistic (but weak) king. I can’t quite believe that many in newly post-imperial Britain in 1972 saw the country’s geopolitical position in that light. (King Peladon=Edward Heath? I think not.)

Combined with the question of mineral resources (the delegate from Arcturus wants to cut a side deal with Peladon’s high priest, Hepesh, giving his planet exclusive access to Peladon’s minerals but keeping them out of the Federation), the story actually has more resonances for me with the process of decolonisation, the Federation being the UN rather than the EU, and the young king’s heroism reflecting the media lionisation of the leaders of newly independent countries at the time; or perhaps even going slightly further back, King Peladon=the young Haile Selassie, getting into the League of Nations in 1923 and getting satirised for his pains by Evelyn Waugh.

The main plot revolves around conservative forces trying to prevent the modernisation process from happening, by exploiting traditional religious beliefs and using violence to undermine the state. From England in 1972, one just has to look across the water to Northern Ireland for a contemporary example; Hepesh=Ian Paisley, on this reading. Though by the time the programme was shown, the Northern Ireland conflict had slipped from debates about the modernisation of society to much older patterns of behaviour: Bloody Sunday was the day after the first episode of the Curse of Peladon, and Stormont was abolished a few weeks after the story finished. The Doctor’s taming of the mystical/mythical beast Aggedor and using him to bring about a good ending is not so very far from the aspirations of the Corrymeela community to use religion as a unifying rather than dividing force back home.

Of course, the story also reflects a general assumption of the time that federations are better than going it alone; see also the setting of the 1967 Star Trek story, Journey to Babel. Is this still as generally held a view? Would the story would carry more resonance in today’s Britain if Hepesh were the hero, defending his planet’s priceless assets against the greedy aliens, opposing the young and deluded king’s shallow fascination with the latest interplanetary political gadgetry? (And how did the royal family get to where they are, anyway? As says, “Whenever I hear about a planet with just one government I start asking about mass graves.”)

The final geopolitical point that struck me was the necessity for all the galactic delegates to agree before force could be used – in this case, to defend King Peladon’s authority against Hepesh’s rebel forces. This is a classic case of Chapter VII intervention, and thus strengthens the Federation=UN rather than Federation=EEC reading; the question of a European army, which remains even now a bit of a red herring, was surely not being discussed by anyone in 1972. Of course (as sometimes happens) the procedures are fudged – Arcturus has already been killed by the Ice Warriors, so his vote is not needed for unanimity; but nobody raises this procedural point.

Apart from that, I rather enjoyed the story. It is interesting to see the Doctor actually make a mistake: normally, he spots the danger before anyone else does, but in this case his suspicions of the Ice Warriors turn out to be ill-founded. He redeems himself by performing the Venusian lullaby, “Klokkleda partha mennin klatch”, to the tune of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”. Jo gets (I think) her first romantic plot-line, with King Peladon, and is all the better for it. The citadel (as far as we can tell, the only inhabited spot on the entire planet!) is nicely conveyed (indeed, the whole thing looks great). I actually like the “Doctor Who?” gag at the end a well. Minor problem: the story effectively ends at the start of episode 4 rather than the end, which would have been better planning. Major problem: Alpha Centauri (no need to explain why).

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