Doctor Who complete reviews: Colony In Space
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Pertwee's Doctor finally gets a break from Earth. In one of Doctor Who's most dismal quarries ever...
After seven stories of being stuck on Earth, The Doctor finally gets the chance to spread his wings and travel to an alien planet. But wouldn’t you know it, it’s all the responsibility of those pesky Time Lords, who want The Doctor to carry out a special mission for them.
Colony In Space marks the big fanfare for the third Doctor’s first proper TARDIS jaunt (let’s disregard the Claws Of Axos trip). When you see Colony In Space though, it’s not so much a fanfare, more a throaty cough. Out of all the wonders of the universe - lush green planets or imaginatively designed futuristic locales - The Doctor gets the short straw by landing on the planet Uxarieus. Which is basically one big quarry.
The Doctor by this point would probably be as giddy as a schoolboy to land in a portaloo, so long as it’s away from Earth. But the viewer at home doesn’t exactly get the chance to share in the Time Lord’s evident delight. As a visual experience, Colony In Space is as dull as you can get. Miles of grey, cloudy sludge as far as the eye can see. Quarries never tend to look outstanding in Doctor Who - or any sci-fi TV programme or film, come to that, but the Uxarieus quarry is relentlessly unattractive. And boring. This is director Michael E Briant’s first Doctor Who, and to be honest, this isn’t his best work. It’s funny; he’d go on to be one of the show’s most assured directors, but evidently, a lacklustre script doesn’t provide the foundation for inspiration - as this story and Revenge Of The Cybermen prove.
"When all you’ve got is a quarry and lots of middle-aged men in fake wigs and beards, there’s nothing you can really do about it"
In Briant’s defence, he does do his best with a couple of action shots. There’s the scene in which The Doctor has a confrontation with the Primitives. And there’s also that well-staged fight between Rogers and Winton, even if it does go on for aeons. But despite this, Briant’s direction is rather flat, lacking the imaginative flair and verve that he’d demonstrate in classics such as The Sea Devils and The Robots Of Death, and even in Death To The Daleks, come to that. When all you’ve got is a quarry and lots of middle-aged men in fake wigs and beards, there’s nothing you can really do about it.
Overall, Colony In Space hasn’t been a favourite of mine. In fact, whenever I’ve tried to sit through it, I’ve always ended up nodding off. In theory this shouldn’t be the case. Malcolm Hulke is normally a dab hand at crafting interesting, well-drawn characters. The Master’s up to his usual dastardly plans. And the third Doctor’s evident enjoyment at travelling through time and space, albeit on the order of the Time Lords, is the most enjoyable part of the story. Despite this, I’ve always ended up missing out on most of the story, because, by and large, it’s boring.
Break Colony In Space down, and it can be described as a prolonged power struggle between quasi-hippy colonists and a group of sneering capitalists who want to drive the colonists from their land. In between this, The Master wants to take control of what the eponymous novel adaptation calls a Doomsday Weapon. Yet this last element (ironically, the more interesting of the two) loses out to the non-stop bickering between the colonists and the IMC men. One minute the colonists gain victory. Then the IMC lot. Then the colonists. Then… Oh, you get the idea. Overall, this repetition just leads to sluggish boredom, and coupled with the drab visuals, I’m not surprised that I keep falling asleep.
But this time, armed with copious amounts of black coffee and a hammer, I actually stayed awake. And a few new things hit me this time. The most notable of these is actually how relevant the premise of Colony In Space is today. Producer Barry Letts always tried to include a moral message in his stories, notably a warning about the dangers of greed. Stahlman. Stevens and BOSS. Even the third Doctor himself. They’re all examples of greed-driven men, but the IMC lot are notable examples of this breed.
The IMC men basically have one thing in mind - money. They get the colonists’ planet and that means that they get profits and whopping great bonuses. For them, life is just one big Monopoly game, a bid to see if they can get all the properties and money that they can get their grubby mitts on. They’re not averse to using sneaky tactics to achieve this either. Dent has a hold on more conscientious worker Caldwell, and when the latter starts protesting about Dent’s plans to kill The Doctor, the truth comes out. Dent threatens him with the sack and also the prospect of never working again, and since Caldwell is up to his eyeballs in debt, it’s a rather scary prospect.
"It’s a scary thought isn’t it? Four more centuries of a now intergalactic Credit Crunch…"
Profits. Bonuses. Debt problems. Sound familiar, people? I wonder if Malcolm Hulke had his very own time machine? He probably built one, travelled forward in time to 2009, gasped in horror, and went back to 1971 to write a warning about what excessive greed could do to you. Dent even casually says that the death toll is high in 2471, as a result of accidents and more pointedly, suicides. I don’t know, it’s a scary thought isn’t it? Four more centuries of a now intergalactic Credit Crunch…
Still, The Master’s got his own designs on the galaxy, by taking charge of the Doomsday Weapon. It’s all typical B-Movie Baddie stuff, but because this is Doctor Who, there’s that extra hint of depth that you wouldn’t get anywhere else. The Master actually offers The Doctor a share in the galaxy, again suggesting that the two were friends in their school days (this would be dealt with again in The Sea Devils). Naturally, The Doctor refuses, saying that he wants to see the universe rather than rule it. It’s an interesting scene though, and it’s a shame that Roger Delgado doesn’t get more to do in Colony In Space. He would have livened up the first couple of episodes no end.
One big plus point of Colony In Space is that we get to see a major step forward in The Doctor-Jo relationship. After the TARDIS first takes off, Jo is scared when she realises that she’s landed on an alien planet, protesting that she wants to go back home. Amazingly, The Doctor doesn’t bite her head off, as he probably would have done in The Mind Of Evil. There’s a warmer relationship between the two with less of The Doctor shouting. Admittedly, The Doctor’s too wrapped up in the ‘happenings’ of the colonists to deliver on his promise to Jo to get her back home. But overall, this is a friendlier, more compassionate Doctor than of late, offering advice to the colonists and helping them to defeat the IMC men. The only time that the angry Doctor returns is when he’s dealing with the IMC goons. “Who the blazes are you?” he bellows at Morgan, as if Morgan’s just puked up on his shiny shoes.
"The Guardian of Uxarieus turns out to be a bloke sticking his head through a piece of fancy cardboard while breathing in helium from a party balloon"
Morgan’s the nastiest of the lot, and is actually quite well played by ex-EastEnders actor Tony Caunter. In fact, all of the acting isn’t half bad. The best again, is Bernard Kay, in his last Doctor Who appearance, this time as the IMC man with a conscience, Caldwell. It’s gratifying to see him progress from a man that obeys without question to a rebel who actually couldn’t care less if he ends up unemployed and bankrupt. Morris Perry is also memorably slimy as Dent, even if he’s saddled with yet another ridiculous haircut. I’d forgotten about Colony In Space when I mentioned Filer’s sad haircut in the previous review, but Dent’s is easily as offensive - a bizarre pudding bowl affair that looks as if it’s going to fly off his head by the time the sixth episode has finished.
On the other side of the tracks, we have some decent performances from Nicholas Pennell as Winton, John Ringham (in a notably understated performance as Ashe - compare to Tlotoxl) and Coronation Street’s Helen Worth looking about 12 years old as Mary Ashe. See? Even before 2010, EastEnders and Coronation Street were on opposing sides of the fence.
So the story’s well acted. It contains a few interesting commentaries on greed and capitalism. It puts a new spin on The Doctor and The Master. Despite this though, Colony In Space is still hampered by its dull surroundings, plodding script and occasional visual faux-pas. The Guardian of Uxarieus turns out to be a bloke sticking his head through a piece of fancy cardboard while breathing in helium from a party balloon. Blake’s 7 fans will note that Briant tried this tack again in the season one episode The Web. The model shots are also awful. The shot of the Master’s Adjudicator ship is basically a toy rocket on strings landing with wobbly imprecision, for example.
On the whole, Colony In Space was actually better than I thought it would be. It’s never going to creep into my Top 10 Doctor Who stories, or even my Top 10 Pertwee stories, come to that. It’s not the most exciting of tales, and the non-stop shenanigans between the two factions drag the story down considerably. But there are one or two nuggets of greatness to be salvaged here, and given the current state of the economy, it’s more ahead of it’s time than you might think.
And I didn‘t doze off once. Now that’s a miracle.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.