Colony in Space

22 Dec

A review of the DVD for DWM, from 2011

_____________________________________________________________

The 2011 DVD schedule began with a six-part Third Doctor adventure – The Mutants – and ends with another. In many ways, Colony in Space feels like a neat entwining of threads and themes we’ve followed across the year. We find ourselves in roughly the same period of future history as both The Mutants and Day of the Daleks, and again we face fascistic, sadistic human foes. We’re also reminded of The Sun Makers, as Colony in Space offers its own bleak vision of a human race destined to become factory fodder, enslaved to vast corporations. And in another motif shared with The Mutants – along with Kinda and Snakedance this year – we’re dealing with the politics of colonialism, as the pictograms of a primitive people hint at how a great civilisation has collapsed back upon itself. There’s even the cordite tang of The Gunfighters; for Colony in Space is essentially a redressed Western. Bullets ricochet through this story of stout-hearted frontiersmen, inscrutable natives and brutal claim-jumpers. All in all, there’s the raw material for half-a-dozen stories here – and we haven’t even got to the fun stuff.

This viewer was born some months after the original transmission of Colony in Space, so can only imagine how thrilling it must have been for the keen young Doctor Who fans of the time; as intoxicated by the series’ new mythology as any devotee of today’s story arcs. There’s a long-awaited second visit to the Time Lords’ planet! We journey to an alien world in the TARDIS for the first time in two years! Better yet, we get to see inside another TARDIS! In context, this is mind-blowing, compulsive stuff. Even four decades out of context, it packs a wallop. Moments like these are the crystal meth of Doctor Who addiction; a drug so pure and potent that those who taste feel an insatiable hunger for the rest of their lives.

With so much fuel its engine room, we’re left to ponder exactly why Colony in Space has a reputation for being slow, for being dull. I think it’s because, in spite of all this power, its journey is too linear, too predictable. It’s the ultimate ‘dog-bites-man’ Doctor Who adventure. Even the story’s two twists – the involvement of the Master and a Doomsday Weapon – are famously blown in the opening scene. Offering no surprises, Colony in Space makes few demands of us, and so we remain fatally dislocated from it. And that’s a shame, because an excellent cast and an imaginative director are clearly working very hard. The script has moments of sparkle and its characters are well drawn. However, the storyline that must carry all this merely chugs gloomily along until disappearing into a fog in Episode Six. But that’s not to say there isn’t fun to be found on the way.

It’s 2472. We’re on the planet Uxarieus (“and another consonant please, Carol”), where a plucky band of colonists are trying to forge a new life away from the hurly-burly of Earth, which is now home to 100 billion souls. Later we learn that, on Earth, “tens of thousands of people die every day”. The list of major causes of death then runs: “traffic accidents, suicides, pollution…” which suggests that the future of our planet will be styled after modern-day Croydon, and explains why even the benighted badlands of Uxarieus look a welcoming prospect. The Doctor has been sent by the Time Lords, and it’s Jo Grant’s first trip in the TARDIS. One has to admire the gusto with which she takes to space exploration. Looking out over a square mile of a dead planet seemingly squeezed from semi-set cement, Jo spots a single, impossible flower… And then immediately yanks it out by the roots. Not one of your ethical, ‘leave no footprint’ travellers is our Jo. Later, in the colony HQ, a graph of crop yields tells the Doctor a tale of incipient famine. ‘Algae’ is right down and even ‘Fungus’ is suffering. The situation sounds bleak, and not a little repellent. A rumour that a single, precious bloom has recently been glimpsed on the upper marshes has, alas, proven unfounded. Jo, meanwhile, invited to dinner, sniffs at the fact there’s only a soup course.

All the surviving fungus is apparently to be found on the faces of the colonists. They’re a hairy bunch and no mistake. And it’s amazing that their rocket ever achieved escape velocity from Earth with the weight of unlikely wigs they must have had stashed in the hold. The background extras look like they’re here to audition as models for the Danish edition of The Joy of Sex. Colony leader Ashe demands to know who the Doctor is working for, because planets like this are regularly chewed up and spat out by interplanetary mining companies. “I can assure you I’m not working for anybody!” insists the Doctor, not entirely telling the truth. Perhaps that’s why the Doctor makes this claim this while rubbing his neck and turning his back on Ashe. It’s not exactly the kind of body language that encourages trust.

While often considered one of the Doctor more ‘physical’ incarnations, Jon Pertwee was never really a man for unnecessary actorly ‘business’. Generally, his left hand remains out of sight at all times, jammed in a pocket, only to emerge when in range of a gear stick or to provide the necessary leverage to spin Pat Gorman about his minor axis. Pertwee’s right hand, meanwhile, assumes a natural resting position, pincer-like, at chest height – in the manner of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. This hand is employed to seize passing props – tools, gadgets, but preferably a sandwich – and can strike with the same speed and general trajectory as Rod Hull’s Emu. When called upon to help signify the Doctor’s pondering of a particularly knotty problem, this right hand will rub its owner’s chin or, at times of maximum stress, the back of his neck – both of which moves having the useful side effect of drawing attention to Pertwee in a two-shot. But a bit of modest hand acting falls a long way short of a full Matt Smith pirouette. For a man in a cape, frilly shirt and a seemingly self-illuminating hairdo, Pertwee gives a remarkably understated performance as the Doctor. And this stillness, this earnestness, can make entire fictional worlds real for us. Pertwee can deliver lines like “Unless I’m very much mistaken, you’ve got far more to worry about than mineralogists” with such calm conviction that we don’t register that it really is a peculiar thing for anyone to say. And he brings out the same quality in his co-stars; his sobriety is contagious. It’s all the straight faces and the earnest delivery that help make Pertwee era seem so charming today. And it can be very funny if you tune your ear to it. One of the joys of Colony in Space, for example, is the overuse of prosaic first names. Everyone is a Tony, a Jim or John. Even when characters bicker about murder or the finer points of interstellar property law, it’s all: “Now look here, Robert” and “Get out of my way, David”. Writer Malcolm Hulke is trying to make this distant future feel familiar, but it soon starts to sound very camp indeed. Perhaps Hulke’s heavy freelance workload was starting to blur for him. He was also writing for Crossroads at the time, where every other line was “Get out of my way, David.”

Robert, David and the other colonists are correct in their suspicion that dark forces are moving against them. When two of their number are killed, apparently by a massive lizard, it requires the Doctor to point out that a 20ft iguana couldn’t have squeezed through the 6ft entrance to the crime scene – a deduction so self evident it’s clear that this colony would have been doomed if the Doctor hadn’t popped by. The deaths, we learn, are the work of a robot controlled by the men of the Interplanetary Mining Corporation, who are trying to scare away the settlers with a scam so ridiculous that even they can’t be bothered to see it through.

The IMC team are the most entertaining characters in Colony in Space. Best is their boss, the amoral Captain Dent, thanks in part to some neat writing but chiefly due to a brilliant performance by Morris Perry. He’s wonderful to watch – with his hooded eyes and pouty Mick Jagger lips – and he downplays his dialogue brilliantly. This really helps ‘sell’ the IMC operation to us, by making its cruelty and cynicism seem perfectly mundane to those working within it. When Dent orders the colonists to leave the planet in their rocket, Ashe warns him: “there’s a fair chance it will blow up on the ground.” Ashe is appealing to Dent’s humanity, but Dent simply turns to an underling and says: “Make sure all IMC personnel are clear of the area before take off, will you?” Perry even copes brilliantly when Dent’s dialogue makes a sudden slip into verse. “You can sit in your ship till you rot,” she says. “Try to get off and you’ll be shot on the spot.” Best of all is how he manages all this from beneath one of most bizarre haircuts in Doctor Who history; a giant scallop-shell of fringe and sideburns combed forward from the top of his head. You feel it might rise at any moment with a malign purpose all its own, like the pneumatic octopus that once winked at Ian Chesterton from the Lake of Mutations.

For much of its first four episodes, Colony in Space is a tit-for-tat skirmish between our would-be farmers and the men of IMC. Things pep up with the not-unanticipated arrival of the Master, who is passing himself of as an Adjudicator from Earth, here to settle the rival claims to Uxarieus. Although Colony is one of the Master’s lesser capers, Roger Delgado is as delicious as ever. But more exciting even than the Master is the opportunity we get for a good poke around his TARDIS. He clearly ordered his ship with the super-villain package of extras: a laser alarm system, poison gas chambers and filing cabinets for his secret plans. It is in one of these that the Doctor finds the records of the real Earth Adjudicator (called Martin), but it’s a shame he didn’t rummage deeper. Close to the folder marked ‘Doomsday Weapon’ the Doctor may have found ‘Daemons’, ‘Daleks’ and ‘Devils (Sea)’, and saved himself a lot of future grief.

The Master is here to find the secret hidden at the heart of the lost civilisation of this planet. By this point we’ve met three different flavours of indigenous life, with each addition to the menagerie putting a greater strain on our credulity. This unlovely trio and will surely comprise the final Doctor Who action figure set ever to be released, just a few months after the end of time itself. Your basic Primitive is a green, lumpy-faced fellow with tufts of curly hair, and looks like the final incarnation of Colonel Gadaffi. He wears a knitted loincloth to protect his modesty, which only serves to raise the question of what might be hidden beneath. All one dares imagine is something akin to a small floret of broccoli. Ruling the Primitives are the High Priests. These little chaps stand nose to nipple with the Doctor, gesticulate wildly, and in their flash Vegas robes have the air of Liberace waiting for the bandages to come off. Finally there’s the Guardian, who lives in a drawer beside the Doomsday Weapon, where he sits on a tiny throne. He has the body of a doll and a head like a partially inflated paper bag, and in his first scene his little dressing gown is pulled up alarmingly high, giving us a Sharon Stone style insight into the limitations of his private life. When the Doctor and Jo meet the Guardian and his gang, and reverentially negotiate their way out of their own execution, it really is – if we’re honest – as ridiculous a scene as any you will find in Doctor Who. And for that reason, it is also completely brilliant. Once again, it is Pertwee’s wonderful earnestness that keeps the whole glorious confection afloat. He looks this crazy little creature straight in the eye and calls it “Sir”. He dares us to believe in it. He helps us to hang on to this reality with our fingertips. It’s such a transcendentally joyous thing; it makes you want to cheer.

Colony in Space ends with a big bang but little emotional impact after the Doctor, rather blithely, allows the Guardian to destroy his entire race just to keep the Doomsday Weapon out of the Master’s hands. Elective genocide seems rather large a sacrifice for a race that has been muddling along fine, minding its own business, for the last few thousand years, and the Doctor really should have made more effort to talk them out of it and tidy up the Time Lords’ mess himself. Especially given the hissy fit he had about the Silurians.

The other curious thing about the climax of this story is that it entirely misplaces its most interesting character. Last seen congratulating himself for having cleared the colonists from the planet, Captain Dent simply disappears from the narrative. No one spares him a single thought. And given that he was responsible for several murders here – and untold deaths on other worlds, it’s hinted – it is the most serious case of a villain going unpunished in Doctor Who history.

Which all gets this viewer to thinking. Since its return to TV in 2005, Doctor Who has been rather short on hissable villains of the calibre of Dent. In six years, only the Krillitane headmaster and Madame Kovarian have delivered his grade of unapologetic wickedness. And as actor Morris Perry is still with us, perhaps it’s time that Captain Dent returned – to wreak his revenge! Or if that’s too wild an idea for the telly, then maybe Big Finish could take the bait? As a special feature on the CD, Dent could do some more of his poetry.

Four decades on from those thoughtless Time Lord spoilers, Colony in Space might yet deliver a twist in its tale.

_____________________________________________________________

DVD extras

Toby Hadoke skilfully moderates an exuberant commentary, full of amusing and informative contributions from lovely mix of cast and crew. The most intriguing remarks come from actor Bernard Kay – good-guy IMC man Caldwell – who makes the production sound far more exotic than we might hitherto have expected, as he recalls lively evenings in a swimming pool with “a beautiful Czechoslovakian wardrobe girl with an amazing figure” and teases us with “a story of Derek Ware and two horses that can’t be repeated.” One is too terrified even to imagine.

Good value on both commentary and the production documentary are director Michael Briant and his former assistant Graeme Harper – long since a beloved Doctor Who director himself. On Colony in Space, they were clearly determined to make the very best television they could, in difficult circumstances, while never losing their sense of humour. And it shows. Colony, along with all their later work, is a credit to their skill and dedication.

From the Cutting Room Floor collects together some lovely snippets from the story’s location and model filming. The footage is silent and set to an instrumental track, so these fragments take on rather a mournful air. As we watch Pertwee grin, glower and mouth curses while fighting a stuntman dressed as big bogey – on a grey afternoon in a clay pit in Cornwall over 40 years ago – one can only imagine the tall stories he might have told of that day, had he lived into the era of DVD commentaries.

I was lucky enough to meet Jon Pertwee several times, but unfortunately it was all too early for me and too late for him. I hadn’t, at that point, come to understand quite how wonderful he was. I’m sad I took so long to join the party, but very glad I got there in the end.

Advertisements

2 Responses to “Colony in Space”

  1. John December 22, 2011 at 3:58 pm #

    The Dr Who novelisation of this story, by Malcolm Hulke and illustrated by Chris Achilleos, is one of my favourites. The author drew out the Christian underpinning of the story. Thus, in the book version Hulke has John Ringham reading the Bible, which leads to the decision to sacrifice himself to save the rest of the colonists. Another nice touch is the emergence of green plants from the parched soil, following the destruction of the radioactive Doomsday Weapon.

  2. paulfcockburn November 28, 2012 at 8:18 pm #

    I was only a few months past my seventh birthday when this story was first broadcast, so there was certainly great excitement on my part about the Doctor and Jo travelling to an alien world (as highlighted by a full colour comic strip in that week’s Radio Times; having only started watching the show the previous year with Spearhead from Space, Uxarieus was the first alien world I’d seen in Doctor Who, and it certainly struck me as weird looking at the time. But also a tad less exciting than I’d hoped. Thankfully, though, after a month the Master turned up and things got a little more exciting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: