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Doctor Who: Colony in Space

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
2 Entertain
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Michael Briant
Jon Pertwee
Katy Manning
Roger Delgado
Bottom Line: 

 Terrence Dicks and producer Barry Letts were the unwilling inheritors of a decision which had been taken by their predecessors, Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin, at the start of Jon Pertwee’s tenure on DOCTOR WHO; that decision had been to exile the Doctor on Earth, where he would now spent his days reluctantly working as a Quatermass-style scientific adviser for UNIT and battling against a series of monster invasion plots to take over the Home Counties, in what seemed like a sort of alternative version of the 1970s. It had been a restructuring of the series neither of them had been particularly happy with since it did limit their story options to -- as writer Malcolm Hulke once so succinctly put it -- alien invasions or mad scientists. Dicks and Letts rapidly set about trying to free their selves of this restriction by having the Time Lords occasionally intervene to use Pertwee’s flamboyant ulster cape-wearing and karate practicing third Doctor as a sort of intergalactic errand boy whom they would periodically send on missions to other planets on special assignments. This rather sketchy rationale for the Doctor’s occasional forays off-world was always somewhat undermined by the Time Lords rarely making the details of the Doctor’s missions particularly clear to him, frequently plonking him into an inappropriate time period that makes the mission that much more difficult than it needs to be, or leaving him to figure out key elements of exactly what he was supposed to be doing for himself, for no discernible reason other than it helped deliver a few extra episodes of plot.

“Colony in Space” was the very first of these slightly dodgy Jon Pertwee adventures in space and time. Written by series veteran Malcolm Hulke who also novelised it as ‘Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon’, it’s sort of a weird, allegorical version of a frontier Western set in a future where there are still a lot of 1970s filing cabinets hanging about (even inside the Master’s TARDIS!) and where colonised planets look like the usual DOCTOR WHO quarry -- in this case, a clay pit in Plymouth -- with the hapless Earth colonist pioneers trying to forge a new self-sufficient life for themselves having fled the usual over-population, over-regulation and environmental collapse back on Earth. On this planet they’re also left fending off the vestiges of a once advanced native population now reduced to savagery, and the ruthless, jack-booted emissaries of a militaristic mining corporation called IMC, which is intent on driving them out so it can steal their land to mine it for valuable deposits of Duralinium, which is particularly abundant there.

The assigned planet is Uxarieus in the year 2472, and the Doctor is sent there because the Master has apparently stolen files from the Time Lords that relate to a Doomsday Weapon which is supposed to be located somewhere on the planet surface. This is Jo Grant’s (Katy Manning) first trip in the TARDIS and unlike most of the Doctor’s companions, she’s not best pleased with finding herself transported to another galaxy in the far future, and immediately wants to go home again claiming she’s too scared. It’s not entirely surprising since, given the chance to reintroduce the Doctor’s intergalactic wanderings to a new audience, the producers choose a story that’s set on a barren planet and film it in the middle of February in a vast, grim-looking waterlogged clay pit. Unlike much of the glammed-up Pertwee years, this six part story is visually particularly grey and mired in dullness. The farming colonists the Doctor and Jo encounter dress in a utilitarian style, sport lots of 1970s facial hair growth and wild hairstyles (giving the make-up department carte blanche to go mad with the wig box and glued-on false beards) and spend their time pouring over pie charts and shuffling papers in drab communal huts, while they wonder why their crops are always failing. To make matters worse, there seem to be giant lizards cavorting about the place which can appear and disappear at random, causing havoc. The story set-up seems illogical seeing as Uxarieus appears entirely ill-suited to colonisation to begin with; there seems to be nothing there but rocks and mud (lots and lots of mud!) and the colonists never think to ask what the natives themselves must be living on if the soil is so impossible to cultivate.

Director Michael Briant calls upon a repertory list of strong character actors to try and make this somewhat hazy scenario work. Bernard Kay, veteran of both the Hartnell and the Troughton eras and a regular guest artist in shows such as “Z Cars” and “Coronation Street”, and who still appears today in the odd episode of “Causality” or “Foyle’s War”, is particularly strong as the conflicted IMC mineralogist Caldwell, while Morris Perry plays the pitiless IMC head Captain Dent with a control and understatement which makes the character’s total ruthlessness all the more effective. Viewers will be amused to see a young Helen Worth from “Coronation Street” as one of the beleaguered colonists and Roy Skelton, iconic voice of Daleks, Cybermen and Zippy from “Rainbow”, gets a prominent on-screen role as a devious IMC infiltrator who poses as the survivor of a previous colonisation attempt, albeit hidden behind a bushy fake beard.

The story flits along agreeably enough for three episodes, with the Doctor slowly uncovering the dirty tricks of the IMC, which turns out to be behind some fake monster attacks designed to scare off the colonists, but which go too far for Caldwell after Dent turns out to be prepared to authorise murder in order to make them more convincing. The scene where the IMC’s adapted servo-robot (piloted by Dalek operator, John Scott Martin) is revealed to be the ’monster’ with giant fake animal claws attached to ill-controlled arm rods which thrash about to mimic the injuries that supposedly might be caused by the holographic projection of a giant lizard beamed from the IMC spaceship, is one of the more ridiculous sequences from 1970s DOCTOR WHO, making the cleaners from 1987’s “Paradise Towers” seem like the height of sophistication in comparison.

Halfway through, Hulke brings the Master (Roger Delgado) into the equation, posing as an Adjudicator from Earth, supposedly sent to decide on the dispute between the evil mining corporation and the downtrodden earth colonists, but really only there to seek out that Doomsday Weapon the Time Lords have rather negligently left lying about with all their info on it contained in a paper file, and no doubt stowed away in the back of a Gallifreyan filing cabinet somewhere until the Master somehow stole it. The Master arrives in a TARDIS disguised as the real Adjudicator’s ship – in actuality a model brought over by effects designer Ian Scoones from an episode of Gerry Anderson’s marionette show “Joe 90” that he’d previously worked on. It’s odd that, after making such a fuss about the limited nature of the earth-based storytelling during Pertwee’s first two seasons, Letts, Dicks and Hulke should allow the story to revert to yet another plot by the Master to hold the Universe to ransom. Jo Grant is particularly ill-served by this story and is made to behave in an excessively ditzy fashion even by her standards. She gets taken hostage by literally everybody over the course of the six episodes: first by IMC, then the Master (after triggering an alarm in the Master’s TARDIS, even though she’s already been warned about it literally seconds before by the Doctor!) and finally by the primitive natives who are played by members of the HAVOC stunt team that regularly appeared on the series during the seventies, and who are here dressed in adapted frogmen’s suits painted green with ill-fitting loin cloths attached that have the habit of flapping up or going skewwhiff and making these spear-carrying aliens look like a race of habitual flashers.

The Doomsday Weapon itself is later revealed to be the radiation-leaking power source of the primitives’ civilisation, the race now worshipping it as a sacred religious icon. A crude, cartoon-like frieze in their underground cave dwelling reveals to the Doctor a once-sophisticated race of beings who genetically engineered themselves into a super-race that built the weapon which then caused their civilisation to decay, and which the regressive, green-skinned, bulbous headed primitives now make the centre of a cargo cult-like religion. The race is divided into these basic warrior types and a shorter, blind, voiceless walnut-headed priestly class with telepathic powers that guard access to the object of worship (shades of “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” here) and protect the Guardian – an even more effete, shrivelled being with total mind control over the weapon, who is played by a concealed Norman Atkyns with his head attached to a pipe cleaner puppet body! The story goes completely off the rails in the final episode with the Guardian destroying the Doomsday Weapon at the request of the Doctor (lots of Irwin Allen-style shaking camera acting from the cast as the weapon explodes) in order to stop the Master getting his mitts on it, but in doing so completely wiping out its own race and presumably making the planet impossible to farm from the radiation pollution which would surely result from the explosion (it was radiation leakage from the Doomsday Weapon that had been causing the agricultural problems of the colonists in the first place, so surely blowing the whole thing up will make things a whole lot worse?) Briant, whose debut directing job for the show is generally well handled, stages a couple of efficient fight scenes, one between the Doctor and the Primitives, allowing Pertwee to go crazy with his Venusian aikido chops, and another that becomes a particularly wretched and desperate looking slugging match on location in the wet mud of the clay pits, between Nicholas Pennell and Terry Walsh. But generally, this is a drab illogical story that feels like not enough fundamental thought has gone into the basic scenario. That said, it fills its allotted six episodes comfortably enough with various intrigues, plots and mysteries and some good performances all round from the cast who sell the silliness pretty convincingly.

The DVD release from 2 Entertain features the best possible restoration of a story that only existed as a NTSC to PAL conversion after the original tapes at the BBC were wiped. It doesn’t look as sharp or clear as many other adventures, even given the variable quality of the Pertwee years, but the slightly below par visuals are by no means excessively distracting. Toby Hadoke moderates a lively commentary track featuring combinations of various participants including director Michael Briant; actors Katy Manning, Bernard Kay and Morris Perr;, script editor Terrence Dicks; and assistant floor manager at the time Graeme Harper. Here Briant owns up to the mistake of the TARDIS dematerialisation effect being botched because he’d forgotten how it was done. He also talks about his original intention of casting the evil IMC agent Morgan (eventually played by Tony Caunter) to be played by a woman, and Terrence Dicks explains how this decision earned him a black mark with the BBC bigwigs, who nixed the idea for being too kinky – saying a lot about early-1970s sexual politics! Harper talks about the buggies he rented, which the IMC troops use to get around on the quarry pit’s damp, muddy surface, and how these Haflingers caused extra expense for the BBC after one of them was badly dented by a polystyrene boulder which had stage weights placed inside it to stop it bouncing unrealistically when pushed down a slope, leading to Harper losing his £80 deposit on the vehicles! Manning is here to indulge in fulsome praise of Pertwee and to regale the listener with tales of bad weather while on location and the embarrassment of having a portaloo tent blown away by the wind in front of the crew while she was still on the toilet! Bernard Kay is singularly unimpressed with the whole production and spends most of the time pointing out its accumulating instances of preposterousness and the lapses in logic that hobble the whole story, while Terrence Dicks splutters indignantly at such nit picking. Meanwhile Morris Perry looks back at his younger self and finds his performance lacking, despite high praise from everyone else in the room.

Augmenting this informative track is a 25 minute featurette entitled “IMC Needs You!” which starts with an amusing animated recruitment film for the fictional intergalactic mining company and then runs through most of the information already heard in the commentary but in a more condensed form, with contributions from Katy Manning, Bernard Kay, Michael Briant, Barry Letts recorded in 2009, Terrence Dicks and Graeme Harper. “From the Cutting Room Floor” features some recently discovered silent 16mm film footage of trims from the location shoot and model filming sessions, set to music with on-screen explanatory text. Text production notes, a photo gallery of production design and publicity photos from the story, programme subtitles and Adobe PDF files of the 1971 Radio Times Listings are also included, this last holding an extra special treat in store this time as they also include a full colour comic strip version of the first ten minutes of episode one, drawn by the Eagle and TV21 artist Frank Bellamy, which appeared in the Radio Times as a ‘teaser’ for the new adventure. There is also an 1971 article about the appeal to adults of DOCTOR WHO with quotes from Barry Letts, who had at that time been producer for only eighteen months. Plus the usual Radio Times episode listings are included.

Finally, a ‘Coming Soon’ trailer announces the forthcoming release of the UNIT boxed set, featuring “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” and “The Android Invasion”, which is due for release in early 2012.


Check out more from Black Gloves at his new blog, Nothing But the Night!!

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