Companion: Jo Grant
Written by: Malcolm Hulke
Directed by: Michael E. Briant
Background & Significance: After "The War Games", the Doctor Who production team very famously (and wisely) decided to confine The Doctor to Earth. Teaming him up with the international military force UNIT, the goal was to limit the cost and scope of Doctor Who in order to save money. In a way, you could think of it as them putting Doctor Who on something of a diet, with them being responsible about their boundaries and such.
Let's call this their first chocolate cake.
Written by Doctor Who stalwart Malcolm Hulke (the only writer to contribute at least one story to each Pertwee season) and directed by Michael E. Briant (famous for such high points as "The Sea Devils" and "Robots of Death" and such low points as "Death to the Daleks" and "Revenge of the Cybermen"), "The Colony in Space" has something of a mixed reputation. Sure, it's notable because The 3rd Doctor FINALLY leaves Earth (although I'd hardly call that a problem), but beyond that...
What I find most interesting is how long it took them to get us to this point. The 3rd Doctor is really only confined to Earth for about a season and a half before he's given permission to leave. Sure, he's on a leash by the Time Lords (how else would he get off the planet?), but it doesn't change the fact that this is the start of the end for the UNIT era in a lot of ways. Sure, there's plenty more great UNIT stories to go after this, but allowing The Doctor to go off and have adventures on his own is something of a betrayal of the core concept of his era if you ask me. And... well.. we should probably talk about how well it fares because... well... is it just a minor cramp or a full on flu virus thing?
Ugh. Enough with the metaphors.
So let's get to it!
Malcolm Hulke is one of the strongest writers in Classic Doctor Who. He’s always reliable to do a good, solid structure and to slowly build a six part story towards good strong conclusions. His stories are always rather engaging and exciting, they have good, three-dimensional characters, and even when they’re impossibly wheel-spinny (“Frontier in Space”, which is six episodes of spinnin’ wheels) they’re nothing if not at least very entertaining.
The War Games” where he’s constantly throwing new “Big Bads” at the screen for ten episodes, to the point where we think each and every character we meet is the main antagonist of the story, or in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” when he tells us in episode two WHO is responsible for the dinosaur attacks and even goes so far as to start giving them their own individual B-stories right in that very same episode.
Here it’s much the same thing. At the end of this episode, he introduces The Doctor to the very kind and wonderful lizard alien species who we’ll be seeing more of in the rest of the story. What makes it so subversive is Briant’s (very wise choice) of making them seem sinister and evil (the evil aliens of the story, if you will). Look at the way he shoots them sneaking around the colony looking at trinkets, or the way he portrays them looking at our heroes from afar. It’s deliberately playing with our expectations, teaching us to not trust the aliens because… well… let’s face it. We’ve seen Doctor Who a lot and we know when to not trust people.
Which is also deliberate.
The aliens sneaking around the colony comes twenty minutes into the episode. We know we’re reaching the end and we half expect them to be our cliffhanger. But they’re not. That giant thrasher robot (that’s a thing, right? They go to raves?) appearing out of nowhere and attacking The Doctor is. But we’re not expecting it because we’re expecting it to be the aliens (there was an attack on one of the colonists, remember) and when that’s diffused the robot is something of a “WTF” surprise because it comes seemingly out of nowhere.
But let’s talk about other things.
One of the things I love about this episode is seeing the 3rd Doctor let out into the backyard to play. I love the way he interacts with Jo and how he becomes positively giddy at the possibility of freedom and exploring a new planet. Hell, it could be the worst planet in the world. At least it’s a change of scenery. And I love how Pertwee plays it. It’s a cautious, constrained optimism and it works really well for him.
Tomb of the Cybermen”) and I think Katy Manning does a good job of proving her mettle as an interstellar companion as well as a real, bona fide human being of a character. It’s one of the strongest things about this episode.
It’s a fair question and one that makes this episode a good starting point for the story.
As a writer, I find myself enjoying Hulke’s six part stories quite a bit, and it takes a deft hand to make a seven or even ten part story as engaging as he can make them. Of course, it takes a lot of tricks like a series of parallel storylines (at least three) and a myriad of set pieces to stretch out six parts effectively, and if you look at the rest of Hulke’s storylines, you can see that he does that all fairly well with those elements fairly often. Plenty of engaging storylines, plenty of good strong set pieces, throw in some good strong sci-fi elements and you’ve got yourself a standard Malcolm Hulke story.
See, there’s only two storylines in this episode. And fine. Sure. That’s exactly what should happen this early. He hasn’t had time to introduce later developments and storylines that come once the story has had enough time to introduce them. So in this episode, we get The Doctor carted off to the mining corporation’s headquarters (which is just a spaceship that looks way smaller on the outside than it actually is on the inside) and the implementation of Norton’s sedition and attempts to get the colonists to rebel against the lizard people, whom he actively reviles.
On the mining, though, I can’t be so kind.
The biggest reason I know this episode was a wheel-spinning, expository waste of time is because The Doctor starts the story in one of the Colony domes and ends the story in that exact same dome, facing the exact same cliffhanger only there’s now a gun pointed at him and the Thrasher Robot (he took some ecstasy) now has giant monster hands on him (which is nothing short of mind f*ckingly hilarious and looks like he's about ready to dance to "Thriller").
In it we do get some interesting stuff, like the things about the mining company having powers to black list you from work and the way the gaunt looking Captain Dent has no time for insubordination. He, as it turns out, is a really bad dude who cares about nothing except profits and power. It’s the sorta really evil bad guy that works in Doctor Who, especially in Malcolm Hulke stories because he’s not so black-and-white evil that he doesn’t have some dimensionality to him. And that makes him scary.
One of the tricks of Hulke’s stories is how he economically and efficiently parses out information. It’s an extremely delicate balance that he needs to get just right, somewhere between “too much information such that the story will have to slow down around episode four or five” and “not enough information, such that this story feels like a total waste of my time right now.” And then within these extremes the information we get has to actually be quality information (i.e. not a waste of time). Likewise, the level of action and movement of the plot needs to be enough that we don’t feel bored but not so much that we’ll end up getting bored later.
As a result, it’s a lot of running around and not much movement. The rescue of Jo should not be the sorta thing that takes too terribly long (then again this is Doctor Who, so I shouldn’t be surprised). But there’s a lot of time spent arguing about how exactly the colonists are going to rescue Jo. Do they do a full-out assault (which is foolish; they really should know better; they are outgunned) or go for something different? Likewise The Doctor spends a lot of his time trying to convince them of the “something different” option, but his motion in this story is largely arrested in its development.
This is a good development, and a strong direction for the story to take, especially that this episode marks the halfway point. It introduces a new, otherwise neglected storyline that we’ve not really focused on so much in this story: what’s going on with the lizards. And who knew early on that they would end up being a force like this later in the story? It’s inevitable in retrospect, but it’s a good, strong, new direction for the story to take, especially after being such a wheel-spinner for the past two episodes.
But the main highlight of this episode for me is the guard named Allen, who works for the mining corporation. Allen, as it turns out, is something of an awesome dude who goes turncoat and starts helping out the colonists because he cannot abide by the ruling principles of the mining corporation. He manages to save one of the colonists by faking an execution and he helps Jo escape when the time comes.
And that makes them dangerous, the story more intriguing, and the rest of us pumped to see the next episode.
That is, assuming you’re still on board for the ride.
To continue on the vein of talking about Malcolm Hulke first, I think it necessary to point out yet another thing about his style that… isn’t necessarily the best of things. I mean, sure, if you wanted to model yourself after a Doctor Who writer, you couldn’t really pick a better or more consistent one than Malcolm Hulke, but a lot of what makes him good (as we’ve said previously) involves treading a fine, fine line between boring and engaging. This story, I’m convinced, isn’t nearly as engaging as it could or should be.
As with your typical, usual Doctor Who story, this involves both Jo and The Doctor being captured by an enemy force. As a result, they affect their escape as they always do (in this case with some sleight of hand trickery by The Doctor). As usual, they are re-captured and brought back to their holding room…. And this is like… it’s fine, I guess. We find out some stuff about the Uxarieans, but the problem with the Uxarieans is that they’re…. how do I say this… they feel rough and undefined.
Spearhead from Space"? But if not then, "The War Games" before that.
The aliens here are much the same. There hasn’t been nearly as many aliens in the Pertwee era as you might expect (especially because of the basic story premise of “aliens invade and UNIT fights them” so inherent to the UNIT era), and this is the first appearance of real aliens on an alien planet since… gosh. Maybe “The Dominators”, and if not, then going all the way back to… “The Macra Terror” maybe? (Can’t count stories starring Daleks, Cybermen, robots, or stories set on Earth; you actually gotta go far back). So this is still fairly new territory for both Hulke and Terrance Dicks (who wasn’t really creatively overseeing anything during “The Dominators” or before ) and the rest of this production team, so we get to have a little fun with it.
Well… he denies it a bit, doesn’t he? And yet he doesn’t do that at all. He gives us information about the aliens, but he does it without spoonfeeding. We get pictograms. We get cave walls. We see the history and we extrapolate what’s going on through a narrative of pictures (in other words: comics), but beyond that we’re left out in the cold to figure it out. We also don’t know… or at least I don’t. Okay, fine. I don’t know which way this is going to go, or at least, it’s kept specifically shrouded in mystery. I’ve watched enough Doctor Who to know that the show tends to go for an “aliens are usually good but horribly misunderstood” approach. In another word: benevolent.
The rest of this episode features the revelation that the promised Adjudicator is The Master, come to do something or another and plot plot plan plan mystery mystery blah. It’s an interesting development, but I can’t help but feel it’s a little too out of left field to be throwing in in the back half of the story. Doesn’t help that The Master’s been in every story so far this season, and his appearance here (opposite The Doctor AGAIN) is something of a convenience and contrivance… and I can’t say I’m a fan of all that, especially because it’s one more obfuscation on the pile of this story, arguably something this story does not need.
So I guess I can forgive it. I just question the need to arbitrarily raise the stakes? Hope they have something equally or more interesting coming up to justify not putting off the big showdown till episode six.
So it’s by this point that I can comfortably say that "Colony in Space" is something of a failure. It’s one of the few times that Hulke manages to drop the ball and drop it so completely. I understand what he’s done in this, and there’s been some well-done structure. The problem is that… when you come right down on it, this structure has not worked for this story. There is, quite simply, not enough going on. It’s too much back and forth with not enough forward momentum towards any story.
Unfortunately, by this point it feels like this story has been doing this for too long and I’ve actually lost interest. Sure it’s bad that the colonists are about to be shoved in their about-to-explode spaceship and killed. And sure, the captain’s response of “Let’s make sure none of our men are near that ship when it takes off” is a moment of dark humour and bleak outlook, but it’s still… It’s just not that interesting. AND it doesn’t help that I’m fairly certain this is not the conflict of the story, or at least…. Not the main conflict.
See, in episode one we got a scene with some Time Lords talking about some doomsday weapon on some planet and how they were going to outsource the work to The Doctor so that he can do some cool stuff with it and implement what would be a “Time Lord solution” to what’s going on on the planet. Unfortunately, this so called Doomsday weapon has not made any sort of impact on the plot as far as we can see, nor is it the sort of thing that’s driving us towards some big climax (again, as far as we can tell). And it seems (in this episode) that The Doctor and Jo are onto The Master and some cool thing that might happen with him (and possibly probably The Doomsday Weapon SPOILER SPOILER) in the future.
It’s a shame, too, because Pertwee and Delgado are electric (as they are here, although it’s not the best of them, to be certain) and I really want to be invested in what they’re doing… but it’s… It’s just not enough, and I want more out of this story, but it’s not giving it to me. This Hulke structure just ended up not engaging enough with the main plot, muddying it with the [easier to wheel-spin] colonist subplot, and to be honest, I don’t watch Doctor Who for its subplots. I just don’t.
And that’s the problem with this. It just hasn’t done anything special. The only thing “remotely special” about this story are the Uxarieans and they’re not even in this part (except to drop a boulder, which is funny). They’ve been sidelined (probably because this story would work better as a four-part story to give them (ironically) relevantly more time to develop.
Sigh. Thank goodness there’s only one more part.
Like the other episodes, this story is split between two storylines: The Doctor and The Master infiltrating the Uxarieans’ City and the final uprising of the colonists against the evil mining corporation. Unlike the other episodes, the Doctor/Master storyline is given the majority of the focus and the colonist storyline is mostly backgrounded as the mining corporation prepares to load all the colonists up into the ship so they can take off from the planet and (subsequently) explode.
The Doctor and Master storyline doesn’t work because (quite honestly) it’s too much too late. Most of the first leg of this story involves The Master essentially info-dumping what the cave paintings from episode whatever-that-was (four?) actually mean. You remember those? Oh yeah. Right. The ones that happened two episodes ago? Well they get explained because it’s time for that to happen, and they’re explained by The Master who basically crib-noted all of The Time Lord’s records of this planet.
Here, though… it’s just too damn big and way too damn abstract. The Master suddenly says he has a machine that can eradicate and destroy the sun because… it can. But because there’s literally never a demonstration of its power, the story suffers as a result. Compare what happens here to what The Master does in “Logopolis”, in which he harnesses the power of Logopolis and holds the entire universe ransom. It’s basically the same thing, only in “Logopolis” The Master out and out starts destroying entire solar systems (including, most famously, Traken).
There’s two reasons why this doesn’t work: for one thing, how is The Doctor going to be content with only ONE HALF of the entire universe? Clearly he should be out there to do more, especially if his one goal is exploration and seeing the rest of the universe. How will he ever see the half he doesn’t control? That just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. The Master should know better. It’s either all the universe or none of the universe. Maybe they could co-rule or something.
The other is the fact that we JUST SAW THIS in the last story. In “The Claws of Axos” The Master offers The Doctor to team up and take over Axos. The Doctor betrayed him then, saying it was a weak move to consider that he would even think about helping him. Now, inherent problems to “Claws of Axos” aside, it’s worth it to mention that trying to make the same problem twice in the span of two stories is a poor move. It’s redundant and it doesn’t really fool anyone. Honestly, it’s a waste of my time.
But none of this holds together. Like I said, it’s too little too late, and it’s unclear if this is the point of the story, especially when you consider that the vast majority of this storyline didn’t kick in till episode four and was only a sidenote in episode five. There’s no development of the Uxarieans and we never really get any sort of empathy for them or what they’re doing. It’s… it’s less than good and not the sorta thing I expect from Malcolm Hulke.
At the end of the last episode, the colonists are defeated and the Captain orders them onto their ship so they can leave. This will destroy the colonists, of course, but no one seems to care.
This is fixed in the end. The mining corp only leaves one dude in charge of the rocket, pulling all his men away (because he doesn’t want to lose any in the resultant explosion). This allows Winton (who was left behind) to do a knock-down, drag-out fight in the mud against the lone guard in a brave attempt to stop the launch. But he doesn’t. The ship takes off, explodes, and everyone dies.
The trick to a good character death is you have to make it count. You have to make it resonate and you have to make people care about the death. Ashe’s death is not that. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s not that at all. Not even close. It’s literally mentioned in the last five minutes in a “oh man doesn’t that suck” sorta way, which hardly does justice to such a cool, noble character. I understand why it happened (because it needed to; and it brings Ashe’s character full circle; he dies to keep everyone alive and on the planet, which is rather beautiful when you get right down to it), but that doesn’t change the fact that I think it’s poorly handled or what have you.
And… none of this holds water after six episodes. It’s just too much crazy insanity happening at the end that makes me wonder what the hell they were wasting my time with with the middle four episodes.
Final Thoughts?: So this goes down for me as possibly the only time Malcolm Hulke has legitimately let me down.
Part of that comes down to keeping it interesting, and sure, Hulke does an admirable job of keeping this story interesting week-to-week what with all of the miner-colonist struggles. Sure it's a bit lumbering at times (episode two in particular), but that is an admirable attempt to keep the flow going. The only problem is this storyline of colonists vs. miners has little to nothing to do with the given conceit of why The Doctor's on the planet in the first place. As such, the story suffers because the ending of the story IS what's set up in the opening minutes, but has little to do with what's been the main thrust of the previous five episodes.
So what we're left with is jumbled and uneven and not nearly what it probably should be. But that happens, I think. Hulke probably didn't know there wouldn't be enough to maintain the story by the time this story was approved and it wasn't until he was too far into it that he realized it didn't work (if he even realized it at all). Then again, a little integration was all it needed to make it stronger. Or, it could have been reduced to four parts. That probably would have helped it as well.
So really, this story falls somewhere in the range of "staunchly mediocre". It's by no means the worst Pertwee story I've ever seen (cough "The Mutants" cough "The Time Monster" cough cough "Monster of Peladon" cough") but it is definitely in the "not great" pile. How unfortunate, I think. I wish the story wasn't, especially because it's The 3rd Doctor's first journey off world and that should be something special. This... this isn't anything special ("Curse of Peladon", though....) and while it has some cool stuff (the colonists have this cool western/hippies vibe that I rather love; it's a cool pioneers-in-space feel, as I said earlier) it ultimately just isn't what it probably could/should be.
Ah well. Can't win them all, and even if only this one and "The Faceless Ones" are Hulke's weakest stories and they're total washes, Hulke's still at a solid 75% in terms of stories hitting, and for a guy who did so many stories that were so impossibly long, that's no mean feat.