Thursday, 27 June 2013

Colony in Space written by Malcolm Hulke and directed by Michael E. Briant

This story in a nutshell: Trapped between miners and colonists, the Doctor tries to negotiate a peace, uncover the secret of the primitives and deal with the Master…

Good Grief: Let’s not forget what an exciting prospect it is for the Doctor to have the (apparent) freedom to travel in time and space again. A rare (for this period of the show) appearance of the Time Lords sees them discussing his worth to them and reveals their plan to dangle a carrot in front of him and see if he will follow it to Exarius. Naturally he jumps at the chance, this being the one liberty he has longed for for nearly two years. Rather than attempting to soothe Jo as she is wrenched away from everything she has ever known, the Doctor seems utterly indifferent to her plight at first, hands in pockets and reacting with smugness to her baffled questions. It’s as if his time trapped amongst humanity has robbed him of his compassion. It’s only when he starts talking wistfully about his life travelling the universe before he was exiled to Earth that I saw something of that Doctorish twinkle in his eye again. The Doctor sums up the colonists plight in about five seconds and throws the harsh truth of their imminent starvation in their faces. He’s not just some kind of scientist, he’s every kind of scientist. Pertwee’s Doctor is so fond of a tipple usually that I was surprised when he was left in a room with a decanter full of something noxious looking that he didn’t break it open and start helping himself. Ever the showman, Pertwee performs a magic trick for the sake of the Primitives although why he does so with blazing madness in his eyes is unknown. He tells his arch nemesis that he is not here on the behest of the Time Lords, that nobody sends him anywhere and he is a free agent. Bless him. The Master attempts to lure the Doctor onto his side by questioning why he should remain loyal to the Time Lords after they exiled him to Earth. It is nice to see this being brought up time and again, it really feels as though the show is serialised now. The mentions of his exile add depth but don’t interfere with the storytelling, much like the Time War in the New Series. The Doctor wants to see the universe and not rule it.

Dippy Agent: There’s an interesting approach to how the Doctor’s assistants join in the early seventies with Liz Shaw not entering the TARDIS at all (at least on screen) and it taking Jo Grant until her fourth story to step through those doors and be whisked off into time and space (or a rather colourless quarry). The norm is for characters to be taken on a whirlwind adventure immediately but in Jo’s case she steps inside an alien spacecraft (Claws of Axos) before she does the TARDIS. It means episode one of Colony in Space takes through those stages of disbelief and horror a full 14 episodes after we first met Jo and gotten to know her, this twist on the usual routine providing a little spike of interest in her character towards the end of her first year. We’ve seen many different reactions to the TARDIS; bafflement (Steven), joy (Vicki), wonder (Ben & Polly), sanctuary (Victoria) and potential (Zoe) but this is the first time since Ian & Barbara tripped over the threshold that a companion has been genuinely terrified by the prospect of being taken from their home, perhaps for good. It is not until Tegan that we again see such a natural reaction to the life changing potential of the TARDIS. After nearly a year of dealing with monsters and villains Jo can spot a bad egg a mile off and has instant suspicions about Winton. This being her first exploration off planet, Jo is appalled to learn that the TARDIS has been lost. Her course in escapology finally comes in handy, on some alien rock tied to an explosive device (I bet she never saw that one coming!). Why is Jo’s automatic reaction to a shock to grab her head with both hands and scream?

The Bearded Wonder: It takes him four episodes to show up so you might be forgiven for thinking that his presence is not essential this time around but as soon as there is talk of an Adjudicator suspicions run high. Of course it is a delight to see Roger Delgado and he adds some much needed charm to this faceless cowboys vs Indians tale. One of my favourite moments in the story is when the Master is deliberating on the political nightmare that is taking place on Exarius and is completely unaware of the Doctor and Jo’s presence when they sudden walk through the door and blow his cover. His little cough of embarrassment and the way he tries to cover his surprise is delightful. How he switches sides depending on who is in power and gives him the best chance of uncovering the doomsday weapon made me chuckle. The Master’s TARDIS might be slightly more advanced than the Doctor’s but the only addition I noticed was a rather fetching filing cabinet. I always enjoy when the villainy drops away and the Doctor and the Master engage each other as equals. The last episode features the two Time Lords unpicking the puzzle of the (apparently not so) Primitive City. Although he would never truly take the Master up on his offer of galactic conquest, the arch villain does at least try and tailor his argument with a benevolent spin.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’ve been chained to a bomb, hunted and shot at. As far as I’m concerned the war’s already started!’
‘You’ve just committed professional suicide.’
‘I’m offering you a half share in the universe!’

The Good:
  • I love the design of the colonists dome and individual homes because the designers has resisted the urge to inject an element of space age fashion into the sets because it is set in the future and instead really though through what a base of operations would look like if a rag tag bunch of humans set up on another planet with very few supplies. The look is functional, aesthetically bare and utilitarian. Their clothing is basic, their homes are all fold down beds, flat pack furniture and potted herbs and they carry real hand guns and rifles. The overall effect is an authentic human colony that has reached desperation point.
  • Malcolm Hulke can always be relied to populate his stories with naturalistic characters, people that you can believe in. The rumbling of discontent between the colonists could be horribly clichéd in other writers hands but Hulke uses their mutinous babble to paint a picture of the grey, functional world back on the Earth. When we are informed that the colonists didn’t have any room on the Earth but now they own land (albeit land that is being sabotaged by IMC) you can see why what they have is worth fighting for. Plus the line ‘all our savings have gone into this!’ is the sort of adult prospect that Doctor Who usually avoids. When IMC arrives Morgan informs the audience that there is enough mineral wealth on the planet to build over a million housing units back on Earth, which makes their claim on the planet seem like the more appropriate one. That is until we realise that the planet has become the equivalent of a factory farm, people living in confined spaces because the population has gotten out of all control. The last thing the Earth needs is to become more industrialised. Hulke builds an ugly picture of our future, one which strikes me as realistic if we keep building and procreating at an out of control rate.
  • Briant manages to brew up quite a tight, claustrophobic atmosphere in the first couple of episodes; the Leesons being attacked by some kind of giant reptile (the POV shot as it approaches a screaming Jane Leeson is very dramatic) and The net result is that beyond the hardships of near famine this is an extremely hostile place to live.
  • Malcolm Hulke loves populating his stories with a mass of characters and they are all very well served by pragmatic dialogue and well cast by Michael E. Briant. Whilst I have to continually remind myself that John Ringham played the High Priest of Sacrifice in The Aztecs (a performance so at odds with his one as Ashe they are barely recognisable as being played by the same actor), he turns in a convincing performance as an ineffectual leader and man who refuses to face the problems that his colony is facing. Morris Perry provides a memorable nasty, a truly emotionless corporate face that doesn’t give a shit about the loss of life as long as he gets the job done and the money in his back pocket. He represents everything that the Doctor sets out to defeat; greed, selfishness and deadly. Dent barely betrays a single emotion throughout the story, keeping his boiling rage locked beneath an outwardly relaxed surface. In comparison Bernard Kay’s Caldwell is the odd man out, the one who wound up in the wrong job and is too humane to put into effect the terrible assignments expected by the management. There’s a terrific exchange that shows why Caldwell has sold out: ‘I could exist without IMC’ ‘If you get on our blacklist you’ll never work for anyone again. You’re up to your ears in debt, I checked.’ I liked the sudden appearance of Leeson’s brother, someone who in another story would just be another colonist and how suddenly Morgan turns from a obsequious toady to a moral coward, blaming Dent for the murder of the colonists when he is in danger himself. There’s a terrific moment where Mary Ashe comes alive in episode five, trying to convince Caldwell to help them which is beautifully played by Helen Worth. Ashe might have been fairly ineffectual as a leader but his sacrifice at the conclusion (especially given the fact that it has so little fanfare) proves that he was up to the job.
  • Compared to some robots that we have faced in Doctor Who, the IMC one is one of the less florid and more believable examples. The end of episode one might seem comical in retrospect but Briant paces the scene well so it’s raised metallic claws and sudden appearance are a genuine threat. However once it has the giant organic claws added the effect is almost entirely lost and it is clear that the thing couldn’t hurt a fly.
  • Winton as the killer in the camp comes with an atmosphere all of its own. I wish he hadn’t been outed quite as soon as he was as I really like the idea of the murderous IMC operative pretending to be a terrified colonists and twisting the knife in their backs.
  • It might be a grimmer location but there really isn’t that much different between the gunplay in the muddy dunes in this and the lauded location work in the last episode of Caves of Androzani. I really appreciated the use of automatic weapons rather than some space age alternative. It gives the gunplay a sense of realism, as though the colonists are really fighting for their lives. The shoot outs that occur in this story, especially the one at the end of episode four where the situation breaks into all out warfare are actually extremely impressive. How dirty do Winton and the IMC get during their scrap in the last episode? It’s notable because it is much nastier and filthier than this show dared to be at the time.
  • Do we ever really believe that the colonist are going to be blown up in their ship at the end? Not really, but it’s still a nice conceit and provides a climactic moment when it looks like they have all gone up in smoke.

The Bad:
  • Wow, the TARDIS is filthy, even before they land on the chalky mire known as Exarius. Clearly the Doctor has been more interested in its inner workings than its external appearance. Future incarnations are much more fastidious in its presentation. It has been so long since the old girl has done it (materialised, I mean) that she pops into existence with dramatic abruptness rather than the usual fading nonchalance of the past.
  • I rather like the drab aesthetic of this story because it does suggest a hardship and desperation that the colonist are facing but Jo discovering that hideous plastic flower that has apparently been growing amongst the chalky white mulch is just absurd. As soon as the location was chosen I would have excised this scene. The Doctor suggests the mining with turn the planet into a slag heap…it’s hardly a lush paradise as it stands!
  • The primitives are the literal interpretation of that cursed Doctor Who cliché, the rubber monster. It is easy to detect all the joins in the costume and there is no natural movement or fluidity in any of it. It looks precisely what it is – a man struggling in a cumbersome costume.
  • I’m quite the fan of Dudley Simpson’s electronic music in season eight (although I will accept that it can be hideously melodramatic and discordant at times) but Colony in Space easily features the worst score of the year. At times it feels as if Simpson has leant a little too hard on the knobs of his tuner and the result is a screaming wail that would outshine a cat on heat.
  • The IMC ship is clearly a miniature and the way it is shot only serves to increase the feeling that it is a small scale model. The shot of the Adjudicators ship landing, wobbling precariously over the polystyrene miniature might just be the worst piece of model work in the show. And that is facing stiff competition from the Dalek saucer in Dalek Invasion of the Earth and the Cyberman paper plate ships in The Moonbase. When you think that the impressive Anderson-esque model work is due in Frontier in Space in less than two years  you have to wonder what went wrong here.
  • Colony in Space is a story that isn’t exactly packed with surprises and when the story does attempt to astonish it has already signposted itself so obviously that it encourages little more than sighs from the audience. Norton is an IMC spy? Morgan is responsible for killing the colonists? Caldwell turns against his own people? All of these could be much bigger shocks if the script and direction hadn’t gone to great lengths to point them out before they are revealed. Even the appearance of the Master (as welcome as that is) is gutted by the fact that he has turned up in every story this season like a bad smell. It would be more of a surprise if he didn’t turn up to get involved.
  • The story is progressing quite nicely in the first two episodes. It is slow, even for the period, but the story builds nicely and adds many convincing complications as you would imagine from a story written by Hulke and script edited by Dicks. It is during episode three when the tension between IMC and the colonists is unveiled where things start to get a bit tedious, around the time that Jo is kidnapped by the primitives. This would have made quite a tidy four parter, I think. At six episodes Malcolm Hulke has the time to make this story as exotic as possible, to add in the sequences in the primitive ruins. Perhaps if the design of the creatures that Jo discovers down there were creepier and more effective and the sets looked less like an 80s Santa’s grotto and more atmospheric then the cliffhanger of Jo walking through a rock in the wall would be more effective. As it stands these bizarre sequences are a testament to the limitations of Doctor Who in outer space, both financially and in storytelling terms. Perhaps the show was better off hanging around on Earth. Why is it with these ancient civilisations that the chronicles painted on the walls always look like something that a kid has knocked up for a school project (The Twin Dilemma suffers from the same aesthetic). The mute Elders wandering around look startlingly like my nan (you know, the one I don’t like), especially glammed up with the big collar and what is the deal with the puppet baby that emerges from the wall for a natter? I think that Letts/Dicks’ second attempt at a monster menagerie (Curse of Peladon) is much more successful. The end result of their visit to the primitive city is that it winds up being blown to pieces. That’s a bit grim, isn’t it?
  • The Doctor and Jo crawling under the security beam in the Master’s TARDIS has to be seen to be believed.
  • You have to wonder if there is a much more gripping story waiting to be told about a doomsday weapon, especially considering this story fails to mention it in the first five episodes and it is dropped rather casually into conversation between the Master and the Doctor. It feels as though the story should have built up to this revelation but instead it just feels like an excuse to allow the Master to get involved with the story. As good as the sequence where the Master offers the Doctor a share in his blackmail of the galaxy is, it feels as though it is a scene that has been removed from another, much more climactic story.

The Shallow Bit: With all those hideous moustaches on display and drab, comatose colours, Colony in Space might just be the most seventies story that the show ever presented, fashion wise.

Result: Cowboys and Indians in a quarry! I think that Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks had a good point about four episodes being the ideal length of a Doctor Who story…so it baffles me why they kept commissioning overlong six part stories! With the fat trimmed away Colony in Space would be a pretty decent little story; there is a solid dilemma at its heart, some strong characterisation and the idea of the Doctor and Jo exploring a new world is even more exciting than usual given he has been grounded for the past year and a half. With those two extra episodes however the story seems to go around in circles with the power baton constantly being passed between the colonists and IMC, the diversion into the primitive city proving a diversion into panto land and the tedious scenes of the Doctor and Jo in danger in the Master’s TARDIS. At four episodes this would be much tighter, pacier and excise a lot of it’s detracting elements. The twin narratives, the secrets of the primitive city and the fight for the planet run side by side but never dovetail at any point which makes me question why they were part of the same story. However I maintain that there are some very engaging elements in this story; the realistic plight of the colonists, the grim picture painted of life back on Earth, the performance of the IMC bullies that you can hiss and sneer at, the authentically functional design of the sets and the expected appearance of the Master which comes with all of Roger Delgado’s charm and charisma. I enjoy the early claustrophobia of the colonists under attack from within (Norton) and without (IMC) and the gunplay and fight sequences (especially the scrap in the clay) impress. It is the one story in season eight where Pertwee doesn’t strut about preening his ego and Manning seems to enjoy the chance to stretch Jo’s experiences on another world, although the temptation to turn her into a whimpering victim seems irresistible for the writer. Ultimately this story will never be considered one of the shows greatest successes but I refuse to place amongst its greatest failures either, it is a deeply flawed tale that needs pruning to highlight its many strengths (as it is they are hidden amongst much dross) and is perhaps a little too visually lifeless to keep your attention for its running time. What really stands out are the efforts of Pertwee, Manning, Delgado, Ringham, Pennell, Kay and Cautner. They are the ones that make you believe in this world: 6/10

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