It’s On Randomiser: Doctor Who Reviews #6 Colony in Space (1971)

“Jim’ll fix it”

It’s frightening to consider the future that scriptwriter Malcolm Hulke envisages here. That in 2472, kids will still know who Jimmy Savile was…and not for the reasons that we are all familiar with now. Then again, I like the idea of these little catchphrases and slogans still being in popular usage hundreds of years on, presumably with no real frame of reference or understanding. I mean, whilst it’s far from hundreds of years old, who exactly can recall what ‘Gone for a Burton’ refers to now without actually looking it up? And then of course there’s ‘the Full Monty’, which I guess is the daddy of those idioms that we all use, but we don’t necessarily know the meaning of.

So yes, Colony in Space is a Malcolm Hulke story so we at least know what that means. The Communist Party member is going to give us a political allegory. But just because this story involves mining, don’t expect it to draw many parallels with contemporary disputes between the NUM and Heath’s Tory government. In reality, Hulke’s narrative is a universal one about the perils of capitalism and its influence stretches all the way back to the traditional horse opera. What we have here is the standard story of plucky pioneers who have made a home for themselves in a wild, new world. Enter ‘the company’, a big business interest that represents progress and who are determined to rid themselves of these homesteads because their plot of land is potentially very lucrative to them. In your standard western (and specifically those of the spaghetti variety, which were heavily politicised and very popular in the late 60s and early 70s) the capitalist and corrupt corporation that arrives in town could be eyeing up the land for the railroad, for oil or maybe even gold. Here in Doctor Who, it’s a scarce mineral that a depleted and heavily polluted, totalitarian Earth requires in order to survive. This immediately brings about an interesting ethical dilemma to the proceedings because, whilst we – and the Doctor – are understandably on the side of the colonists from Earth who have made the planet their home, rather than the murderous capitalist Interplanetary Mining Corporation (IMC), when we learn how precious the mineral is for the preservation of Earth itself, it makes it less black and white and more morally grey. Hulke then immediately crafts on another morally complex issue, with the introduction of the planet’s indigenous population; mute, spear-carrying ‘savages’ who immediately bring to mind Native Americans (which of course continues the tale’s echo to the old West) and has us reconsider, to some extent, the actions of the earth colonists we are immediately set up to sympathise with. IMC may be the land claim villains, but you could argue that the colonists are too, shunting the natives off into a desperate, nomadic and rapidly dwindling existence.

As you can see, there’s lot to unpack here and, as a six-parter, you think the potential for that would be there. But Hulke is also tasked with fitting that season’s recurring nemesis, the Master, into the proceedings too which just about threatens to unbalance the whole affair. In fairness to Hulke, he handles this rather well, keeping Roger Delgado out of the action until episode four and, when he does arrive, he’s using an alias that moves the story forward. Faced with a political impasse, the colonists and the IMC resort to communicating with Earth to pass a judgement of Solomon on who has the rights to the planet and its valuable resources (though, given how desperate Earth must be, I can’t imagine any judgement being without bias on their part). Enter, a representative of the Adjucators Bureau (like a futuristic ACAS or Citizen’s Advice I guess) tasked with listening to both sides before delivering his verdict. And it’s only the bloody Master isn’t it?

Now obviously, the Master has no interest in resolving a dispute between humans on a remote planet. No, he’s here for an ulterior motive; the planet holds a remarkable ‘doomsday weapon’ which will give him absolute power over the universe. Which is how come the Doctor is (unwittingly) there too, having had his exile temporarily lifted by the Time Lords who believe that the Doctor alone can thwart the Master’s plans. In a neat call back, one of the Time Lords is Graham Leaman last seen at the trial of the second Doctor in The War Games.

Given script editor Terrence Dicks and producer Barry Letts’ dislike of six-parters, it’s not surprising that Colony in Space doesn’t really work. The first four episodes are dominated by Hulke’s land claim/politically aware parable (the kind of story that ‘fans’ today slander as ‘woke’ and claim never existed until they had the temerity to have a female Doctor and two brown-faced companions) and it’s intelligent yes, but a little dull. Once the Master arrives for the final three episodes, it becomes a typical Pertwee v Delgado runaround, the kind which must have started to wear thin for audiences at the time. No disrespect to either actor, who handle their roles and the material with aplomb as per, but I do sympathise with 1971 viewers who must, at that stage, have wondered how many more times the Master would threaten to kill the Doctor, only to back out at the last moment as they’re forced to co-operate, whereupon he attempts to welch him out, before his evil scheme comes to naught and he’s forced to flee again.

Another big problem with Colony in Space is that it’s not particularly visually interesting. This is the first time that Doctor Who has the opportunity to go to outer space in the colour series, and we land in a deeply grey quarry that may as well be shot in black and white after all. Some people quibble at the rather antiquated stuff on display in a colony purporting to have left Earth in 2471, but I rather like the fact that the guns are clearly of the 20th century, that they still use tear-off day calendars, that the colonist’s leader Ashe (John Ringham) has a framed black and white photo of his wife on his desk, and that even the mighty IMC still use tape spools. Given how dangerously polluted and depleted the Earth is it’s clear that something catastrophic has occurred along the line which has halted technological advancements and sent us back centuries. Costume however is similarly limited and lacking in vision; the colonists are all wearing long haired wigs and beards (and that’s just the women ho ho ho) to suggest a sort of hippyish freedom in which they have shaken free of the shackles of Earth’s restrictive control, whilst the IMC – Earth’s bully boys – are very modish with their hair styled and combed forward, topped off by their fascistic red and black militia uniforms. Unfortunately, if you’re going to go for the aesthetic of hair being brushed that way, at least cast some actors with enough to make it a look. Poor Bernard Kay and Tony Caunter are both too thin up top to pull it off, leaving only Morris Perry to achieve the look and, unfortunately, stand out as a result. Arguably Colony In Space‘s greatest success is also it’s strangest; the peculiar look of the indigenous Exarien leader. Dwarf-like in stature, with a head far too big for its body and resembling testicles after a long soak in the bath, this half-blind, psychic creature would make even the motley ‘EU’ crew of the Peladon serials appear normal.

Earnest is probably a word I’d use to describe Colony in Space. It’s not the worst example of Who, classic or otherwise, but it’s not the most energising one either and is definitely best recommended in stages rather than one indigestible sitting. It’s hard to see why a return to space adventures could have been greenlit given how torpid this is in comparison to the Bond and Quatermass-like earthbound stories that surround it. It’s perhaps best known now for an interesting bit of casting; the young Helen Worth, the future Gail Tilsley/Platt/whatever of Coronation Street, appears as Ashe’s daughter. Though quite why this detail is remarked upon when yhe redoubtable and instantly recognisable Pat Gorman is playing at least three parts in this serial – only one of which keeps his face hidden – is beyond me.

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