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…
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!’
- 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.
- 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