Colony In Space

Written by:
Malcolm Hulke
Directed by: Michael Briant
Starring: Jon Pertwee
Year: 1971
Video Availability: Try

I have a long-standing theory that the best ideas, and the real sense of self, are controlled exclusively via the subconscious mind. All of my best, and most honest decisions have been taken in my sleep, and the best driving lesson I ever had was when I was half asleep and not consciously concentrating. Without my conscious mind really taking an interest, I was free of the nerves, of the anxieties that it puts forward. Your conscious mind just overlays your normal frame of mind with neuroses, insecurity and ego. Which is why, when you're watching a really pants Doctor Who story, there's an auto-voice that comes into your head and says "it's actually not that bad, because…"

Yesterday I fell asleep early in front of the TV and woke to find the night screening of Colony in Space already on. I still wasn't fully awake, and was in that semi-conscious state between dreaming and awareness that we call… The Anorak Zone. Consequently, all of my conscious defences of this tatty old 70s show hadn't kicked in, and I realised with horrible clarity that what I was watching was a festering pile of old arse. Clankily written, stodgily played, and made for a budget of 50p and a packet of crisps. It was atrocious. I can only hope that such realisation only extends to the poorer stories of Who's oeuvre and I don't one day awake to realise it's all terrible.

Morning, and, still shaken by this event, as if the scales have been lifted from my eyes, I watch the tape to find a Time Lord prologue. Is there anything camper and more stiltedly acted, in the whole of Who than a Pertwee Time Lord? "We immobilised his Tardis… took away his freedom to move in space and time." Big up the exposition! Also, for some reason - and I'll give her the benefit of the doubt and say it was down to the director - Katy Manning delivers one of her most grating, stagy performances. We're less than three minutes in, including theme titles, before she says, "what does that mean?" And after the cool interior of the Tardis in the last story, this one utilises the photo backdrops, which looked dodgy enough in black and white, never mind colour. Also depressing how the Tardis, in its first journey for two years*, doesn't warp and fade but just disappear. Next thing you know, Jo's looking at a photo blow up outside and then cutting to a quarry. Also on the cheap side is the "giant lizard" - okay, we later learn in episode three that it's an optical illusion in the story itself (a moment of post-modernism?) but for this week's episode we didn't, and it would just be laughed at.
* Someone pointed out to me, quite rightly, that it did take off in only the previous story. I could of course have edited this line to save me looking like a complete shit for brains, but I'm not proud.

Thankfully the Brigadier is just a cameo in this one, his role becoming ever more ruthlessly thrown at the wall marked "comedy sidekick". The aliens in this one are pretty dire, though again the conscious mind thing comes in to play. Watching them wide-awake I'm telling myself they're not that bad, and are actually a witty racial parable. Yet last night I knew for certain that they were just a cheap pile of tat for five-year-olds.

Next we're joined by some hirsute support characters, probably the hairiest being that mousy old bint off Coronation St. I have another theory that the more false beards there are in a Doctor Who story, the more rubbish it is. In the midst of all this underachieving ineptitude is, surprisingly, Jon Pertwee, who gives a performance several notches beneath his previous standards, but still maintains the kid-friendly cuddly/violent Doctor schtick that some people proclaim to find entertaining. You stroke that chin, Big Nose!

But here's where the story manages to raise itself above the norm, by Malcolm Hulke's subtle commentaries on overpopulation and famine. What's that? Oh, it's not subtle, but rammed down your throat in ten-inch high letters until you want to puke? Oh, okay then…
* * ½

IMC make an appearance here and I really quite like the bloke with the dark tashe. Maybe it's just that he's a cut above the other plankorama populating this tale, or maybe it's just the timbre of his voice that suggests he's not reading it off autocue like the rest. In a story next to Philip Madoc you wouldn't even notice him, but for Colony In Space he's Olivier material. Pertwee also gets a nice reply to his asking if he's some kind of scientist: "I'm every kind of scientist."

"One day you'll wish you listened to me" says one of the hairy supporting characters. Yeah, maybe one day mate, but it's been six years since I first saw this story and that day hasn't come yet. Thankfully, the far more interesting IMC take up the bulk of this episode, and we quickly learn they have the power to shrink themselves, as they live in an old airfix kit. Also nice to see that the technology of the year 2472 features CSO glare, telex machines and basin haircuts. I also like the IMC Captain ("All colonists are eccentric, Morgan, otherwise they wouldn't be colonists.") though Roy Evans is just as crap here as he was in Eastenders. Apparently he was only cast so Pertwee could have a story where he didn't have the biggest lisp. (See also: The Cursssse of Peladon, with David Troughton).

I do sympathise with Malcolm Hulke, though, who wrote this story to make political points. How to blend those points into the narrative? Hmmmmmmm… a toughie. How about having the Doctor watching a ten foot telly with the serial's concerns playing on it? Is this really the same man who wrote The Silurians? Around the fourteen-minute mark and the narrative completely grinds to a halt as we watch our first real Pertwee fight scene. Hey, I'm sorry, Pertwee fans, but - isn't it completely ridiculous? It makes an absolute mockery of the programme, and the sight of an old man - whose hair changes colour whenever he attacks someone - flipping red and green aliens around like ten pins is just plain puerile. What threat is the Master when Pertwee's stuntman can just flip him into a somersault? It totally denigrates the character and the series, and is appalling to watch. For me, it's not a hai! point of the series, but its virtual nadir. And just why does "Jim'll Fix It" get a laugh, when this was made before that programme ever aired? Never did understand that bit…
* * ½

"Don't you realise that without the Tardis we're stranded", says Jo, telling the Doctor something he already knows and filling in the plot for the child audience. However, there are some decent events here, such as the revelation of the colonist double agent contrasting nicely with the believable motivations of Caldwell.

There's really not much to enjoy in this one, though, a Saturday 40s serial of being chained to unexploded bombs and the like. Maybe you'll get a childish snigger out of someone saying to Jo "you'll blow us all sky high" and the IMC buggies are cool… but that's it. With the use of real guns this could have been a hard and gritty Who story, instead of the playground stodge it actually is. Dudley Simpleton's twee, whimsical score doesn't help matters either.

Thankfully Roger Delgado makes his appearance in episode four, so we've that to look forward to. Though his absence this far does mean episode three is monstrously padded…
* * ½

Some say that the Master's presence in this story is superfluous, but imagine how mind-numbingly tedious it would be without him. Perhaps his "surprise" arrival isn't that much of a shock though, given that it was clearly alluded to in episode one.

Here we also learn more of the aliens' culture and heritage… do you think they had real aliens playing them? They look so realistic and all. (I'm being sarcastic - do you see?) Jo screams senselessly when she sees the alien leader with the giant brain. After all, she's never seen a brain before. "That's just what I was thinking" she tells the Doctor when he explains one of his sociological theories. No you weren't, you lying cow - you're not fooling anyone.

Anyway, soon the Adjudicator lands in a spacecraft effect that rivals the opening of The Trial of a Time Lord and cost the BBC a reported 6.8 million pounds to produce. Jon gets to perform a magic trick here in one of his more slappable moments. What worries me is that if the alien is supposed to be telepathic, then how doesn't he know how the trick is being performed? What's more, if he's telepathic, why doesn't he know the Doctor's going to shout "Hai!" and chop him on the back of the neck? I mean, millions of TV viewers knew it was going to happen, so why didn't he? In a moment of stark characterisation that only the most cynical would say was padding, the Doctor escapes, only to be recaptured after a chase. I tell you what, though, I'd be lost if Jo didn't keep delivering exposition every five seconds.

Pertwee moralising to a silly old glove puppet that can't even lip-synch to its own lines is an excruciating moment of television, while the aliens' environment looked like it was designed by the studio staff after a night of heavy drinking. "Come on, Doctor, this is no time for philosophising" says Jo. If only someone said that to him more often. And why can't Roger Delgado even blink his eyelids without getting that silly wibbly-wobbly "Master theme" played? His addition to the story is welcome, but this is still by far the weakest episode so far, its crushing cheapness and innate silliness not helped by the inherent lack of humour therein.
* *

You know, what this story really needs is another shoot-out. When I see most Doctor Who stories for the first time I normally enjoy them on face value, because you're (in most cases) engrossed by the narrative, and want to see what happens next. Seen again, and you become aware of nuances and meaning in the story that you weren't previously aware of… or not, in the case of this one. Completing the downgrading of the third Doctor, this is also the first story since Inferno to use the sonic screwdriver, seen here as a light source detector.

In fact, I'm despising the kid-friendly ineptitude of this one so much I'm seriously considering kicking my TV set in. Some old filing cabinets, a photo backdrop and a photo landscape make up the Master's "superior" Tardis. Meanwhile, what looks like a toilet lid down Santa's grotto opens up with a gas attack. Mercilessly, this isn't the end of the episode, and we've still got over ten minutes to endure. Just think, TV viewers at the time had to spend a month and a half watching this pile of televisual sewage. Ironically, the Doctor has to remove an irrigation pipe in this one (probably feeding script rewrites through) while the Master hopes he's not going to "try anything clever." In this story? Please!
* *

While the Master's involvement clearly peps things up and staves off sleep - just - the last three episodes are also the weakest. Maybe with a greater budget, four episodes and two more drafts this would have been a class story. As it is, for the first Pertwee story not set on Earth (an environment with which Jon never worked well, Curse and Carnival sole exceptions) then this is deeply disappointing.

Have things really got so bad that the Doctor goes around kicking the Master? And if I hear him say "hai!" one more time I'll scream. Though not as nerve-gratingly as Jo, I'll grant you. "Things are going too slowly" says the Captain, and I can't disagree with him there. The notion of a race who sought a machine as their God is the sort of thing that Chris Boucher would have worked wonders with, but in the hands of Malcolm Hulke - again, I can't believe this was the same man who wrote The Silurians - it's trite and stolid.

You'd think a final episode of a serial wouldn't need padding, but here we get a minute-long Blake's 7 style slow fight between two men that at least, by virtue of it being performed in mud, some might find homoerotic. The notion of a doomsday device that can destroy whole galaxies is marvellous, but crippled by the agonisingly condescending dialogue. "You know the Crab Nebula?" "The cloud of cosmic matter that was once a sun - of course." Who actually talks like that???

It is at least nice to see the Doctor tempted by a half share in the universe, one of the last times in the series that Jon's Doctor got any shading of character, no matter how slight. Actually, take that back - "Not only does jussstice prevail on your planet, ssssir... but alssso infinite compasssssssion." Bleurrrrrrrrrrrrrrggggghhhhh... there goes my lunch, add it to the set decor.

Things end with a run around, followed by - surprisingly - a 40-second shoot out. Then it's back in time for tea with some fun and jolly japes with the Brig. Hurrah!
* *

Thank God, a Pertwee tale I get to slag off! I remembered this one as being average, but it really is cheaply made and quite badly written. Some lines shine, but the majority of the script is formulaic and padded, with a crudely grafted political subtext that is not "sub" in the slightest. The full emergence of Jon's Doctor as the all-fighting, all-preaching bore is yet another reason to mourn the death of Doctor Who… at least until 1974. Very poor, as Vic Reeves used to say, very poor.
* *