Tuesday, October 11, 2011


DVD Detail: Doctor Who – Colony In Space

There are a lot of fights going on in Colony In Space, last week’s Doctor Who DVD release, with guns, fists and ideologies. The Doctor fights to prevent the Master from gaining control of the most deadly weapon in the galaxy, but that’s not the only battle: individualists versus big business; the DVD versus the book; even EastEnders versus Corrie. But perhaps the toughest is whether the story can overcome its own reputation as long, drab and dull. It’s Jon Pertwee’s first crack at facing the unknown dangers of an alien planet, and it’s a quarry. Is there anything deeper?

I grew up reading the novels of the Pertwee Doctor first, and was inevitably disappointed when I got to see what I could only think of as the TV adaptations: last week I reviewed the newly-reprinted novels of two exceptionally good TV stories that quite lived up to the page; with this story, though, the ‘Pertwee Gap’ is at its widest. Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon was always a thrilling book (now also available on CD), full of character and politics – its TV original, Colony In Space, is grey, with occasional brown highlights. Even the fabled Doctor Who Monster Book’s pictures couldn’t make it look exciting. It came near the end of Doctor Who’s eighth season, in 1971, in which every story featured the Master and more location filming than any other, and is the first Pertwee story to get away from his exile on Earth. Less happily, it’s the first of the six-part stories with too little plot to cover their length that dominate his time (after, surprisingly, starting with three rather brilliant seven-part stories and one earlier action-packed six). If you’ve been watching new TV sci-fi this year, the good news is that it’s still much shorter and more exciting than Outcasts (though not Doctor Who – Frontios, also out on DVD this year), while the trailer for the next DVD release is the same story as Terra Nova. Back in September 2009, Doctor Who Magazine 413 published “The Mighty 200” – 6,700 fans’ votes on all 200ish TV Doctor Who stories to that point – and awarded Colony In Space a lowly 171st place, which isn’t unfair (if anything, slightly too kind). Almost universally, it’s seen as worthy but dull: “like watching socially aware paint dry”, in the words of CornellToppingDay. But it still has its moments, as I go sifting through the mud in search of glints of duralinium…

It’s my usual aim in these ‘tasters’ not to be too spoilery, so you read on without fear of finding out too many key twists from the end. But this time the ending gave me some extra ideas, so be careful to stop at the warning sign if you’ve not seen it.

That Golden Moment
“I’ve got to try and stop this senseless killing!”
“It won’t do any good, Doctor, they won’t listen to you. It’s always the innocent bystander who suffers eventually.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m afraid you are both about to become the victims of stray bullets!”
Roger Delgado’s Master is used relatively sparingly in this story, but lights up the screen, not least because he’s still caught between wanting to kill the Doctor to stop him getting in the way and being desperate to get the Doctor to be in his gang. So the obvious choice for a Golden Moment would be their big scene together in Episode Six, as he offers the Doctor not a rose and some chocolates but a half-share in the Universe; except that I’ve already picked this scene, as it’s quoting not just Goethe but Doctor Who – The War Games, in which the same authors gave us exactly the same ‘villainous seduction’, but done rather better.

So turn, instead, to the end of Episode Four. I wouldn’t usually pick a cliffhanger, for reasons of spoilers, but that this one is neither a surprise (you know the Master’s going to try to kill the Doctor) nor a turning point (you know he isn’t going to manage it). In theory, it’s an example of the least inspired form of cliffhanger, where the episode has no natural climax and so someone points a gun at the Doctor and declaims, ‘I shall kill you – next week!’ before inevitably finding a reason to do nothing of the kind. In practice, it’s remarkably entertaining: swift, stylish, and in character.

The Master has arrived, impersonating an Adjudicator, and made an excellent case against ID cards for the viewer: he has them (forged, of course, but immaculate), and makes the Doctor look shifty by asking to see his credentials. He rules in favour of the nasty mining corporation, IMC; he uses this to prompt the hapless colonist leader to tell him about the alien ruined city that he’s really come for; the other colonists rebel, and start shooting it out with IMC. So what would the Doctor do? Try to stop the killing. And what would the Master do? See it as an opportunity. A perfect little moment.

Something Else To Look Out For
With Meglos the first ‘classic’ Doctor Who DVD release of 2011 and this the last, the year starts and ends with doomsday weapons, but this does a rather better job of setting one up. Colony In Space even has multiple prologues: with the Time Lords on screen; with the old Keeper in the book; even in comic strip form in the Radio Times. You know which is the coolest, as the several stunning pages of Frank Bellamy art here on pdf show (certainly my highlight). With the Doctor still exiled to Earth and just an undignified cameo for the Brigadier, the Time Lords are responsible for getting the TARDIS working, temporarily, to cover up one of their cock-ups, though this story does its best to convince us we don’t really want travels in time and space back after all.

Remarkably, being on a new world again suits Pertwee’s Doctor: his desire for adventure and exploration fulfilled for a moment, he’s much more enthusiastic and much less of a git to Jo, if still insufferably smug to the colonists. Though he does get several pointless ‘action’ scenes in the style of the Batman TV series which make you worry for his companion: in her big stripy top, she looks like one of the Penguin’s henchmen, and could be in danger of a ‘Kerpow’. Hilariously, the Penguin’s actual henchman, Morgan, beeps the Doctor after one fight as if to say, ‘Oh, get on with it!’ Though Jo’s top is clearly a popular style, as the alien city’s decked out in just the same scheme, in tackier plastic (her home-made titanium chastity belt hasn’t caught on, though). The Master, meanwhile, gets a simply enormous frock that he can’t wait to get out of, clearly deciding that keeping his disguise comes second to not banging his head on his own collar. He has his dim moments, notably an incredibly slow-moving ‘cliffhanger finger’ that you’ll know when you see it, but for once has learnt from an earlier mistake: after the Doctor broke into his TARDIS in Terror of the Autons, he’s had an alarm fitted (Jo, on the other hand, tempts fate by staring right into a giant plastic flower, having clearly learnt nothing). And with this release, there are now only two more Master stories to go on DVD, both from the same season and both exceptionally good.

I can’t beat Tachyon TV’s review of the colonists as all men with mid-life crises (and WH Auden), and though characters called “Norton” and “Winton” aren’t as camp as you might think, this is surely the Who story with the largest proportion of ’taches, among both the pioneers and the miners (when Caldwell, with his hard hat and ’tache, is tempted away from his duty by Winton’s winsome charms, he’s already dressed to sing ‘IMCA’). There’s much detail of the overcrowded, authoritarian life back on Earth from which the colonists have escaped to set up their own lives amid the stars, and I suspect reading the book gave me an early mistrust of giant corporations, though no great love of rugged pioneers. The IMC Captain Dent is a superbly dead-eyed and threatening boss (though less a pointy-haired than a completely-unbelievably-haired one). And perhaps no moment is better-characterised than when IMC think they’ve won and have a piss-up, something very few villains take time to do on Who. And just to reinforce the rivalry between the two sides, one actor on each side does indeed become a major character in, respectively, EastEnders and Coronation Street.

The “monsters,” on the other hand, aren’t a terrific success. The “giant lizards” have an excellent reason not to be (unlike all the other dodgy giant lizards in this period of Who); the “Primitives” are all right, with interestingly gnarled faces and green-with-red-tracery bodies; their priests stumble about uselessly; and their ultimate ‘Guardian’ looks like a glove puppet in a toga, even though the ‘Making Of’ astoundingly reveals that there was an actor behind the face. His lines, pretty much those of a starchy Star Trek alien, are no better than his looks, though at least there’s some amusement to be had at the end of a particularly bad dialogue with the Doctor when our hero, having been let off scot-free, proclaims himself “overjoyed to find that justice prevails” in a tone suggesting the Guardian’s just crapped on his breakfast. It’s the “Primitives” that are the main problem, despite that, and not just because – in a score that’s easily among Dudley Simpson’s worst – they’re accompanied by exceptionally awful music. The planet is a bit of a mash-up of American colonial history, less the stereotypical Wild West than Puritans versus corporate land-grabs, with each side populated by different grumbling ’70s middle-class Britons, the ultimate evolutionary forms of the Goods and the Leadbetters. In this context, the deliberate lie against the “Primitives” that “They’re all the same, treacherous,” is very much playing on fears of stereotypical “Red Indians”… But Malcolm Hulke’s attempt to portray them as other than dumb villains is slightly undermined by none of them being able to talk, and their acting villainously. Some of the other politics in the story works, though there’s plenty crammed in: dystopia, overpopulation, capitalism, nuclear power, starvation, colonialism, one of the series’ earliest takes on ecology… Though not sexism, as none of the three women colonists get to do anything, there are no female “Primitives”, and BBC sexism infamously banned a woman IMC thug as “kinky”.

This was the first story directed by Michael E Briant, one of the series’ most enthusiastic and inventive directors and a lovely man to meet, and though he goes on to do far better, there are moments: great lighting as Jo is taken inside the city; an extraordinary fight in the mud (the poor actors); some interesting angles on location. He’s the star of the (pretty awesome ensemble) commentary and ‘Making Of’, too, particularly paired with Graeme Harper, his assistant on this and later another of the series’ most enthusiastic and inventive directors both in the 1980s and the 2000s. Even they can’t liven up such stretched-out plots as gunfight-wait-fifteen-minutes-swap-places-another-gunfight, though, and most of the design is pretty poor. The colonists’ geodesic domes are all right, but an astoundingly rubbish robot, a very cheap-looking alien city, and all the worst of the ’70s on the IMC ship fail to impress. While Pertwee’s UNIT stories have dated relatively ordinarily as ‘the day after tomorrow’ they aimed for became ‘the day before yesterday’, here Earth’s technology of “five hundred years in the future” sticks out like a giant claw: film projectors; open-reel tape recorders; and all the villains have an exciting new gadget they’d clearly only just heard of called a remote control.
“Grow a moustache, and see the stars!”
The ‘Making Of’ documentary IMC Needs You! is hugely entertaining all the way from its Fanfare For the Common Man knock-off and South Park-style IMC men, steering exactly the right course between enthusiasm and mockery, with an impressive array of writers, actors and directors. Poor Katy Manning on the portaloo… Though I now wonder if Excelis was inspired by her real handbag. Michael, lovely, voluble chap that he is, is very much the star of this, though, particularly as he brightly recalls how it absolutely had to be shot in Tenerife (a clue: no) or just why he wept at Hello, Dolly! The commentary has most of the same people in a lively mix; there are text notes throughout; several minutes of extra film sequences; the story itself has four seconds ‘restored’ to it that I’ve never seen before, but I haven’t a clue which; and, as I’ve already mentioned, just about the best Radio Times ever – several pages of comic adaptation, two in full colour, with much more sinister Time Lords and a groovy time vortex.

Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon
“As Dent sat there, touching the controls of the IMC spaceship, he felt happy and secure in the fact that he was an IMC man, with an IMC wife, IMC children, with a beautiful four room IMC home. His present and his future were as secure as IMC, and IMC would go on for ever.”
Malcolm Hulke’s renamed novelisation, on the other hand, was a triumph. One of the reasons I like his work is that, while several of his scripts don’t really cut it, a few years later he’s had a chance to mull them over and does far better second drafts in book form – I like to think about things for a bit, too! And this one was amazingly influential, first in offering the “chameleon quality” of TARDISes which Terrance Dicks then named “chameleon circuits” in another book and which eventually made it to the telly, but not least in providing the first part of a Pertwee era ‘future history’ of Earth and its Empire, in expansion and then decline: an innovation picked up in the ’90s for the superb New Adventures, with Adjudicators in such novels as Lucifer Rising, Original Sin and Cold Fusion, and even joining the Doctor on his travels. Even on its own, it’s still one of my half-dozen or so favourites of all the Target Books, and now Master Geoffrey Beevers does a silkily brilliant job of bringing it to life on CD, too (though Roger Delgado graces Jeff Cummins’ striking cover).

I must have gone through three different phases of falling in love with the book, for three different reasons, roughly every 15 years or so: on first reading it in 1979 and loving it for itself; on seeing the actual story at last sometime in the mid-’90s, and realising how much better the book is; and then that gorgeous new audiobook reading a couple of years ago. For the book itself, I loved the characters – most of all Captain Dent’s three-page biography, but everyone down to the sarkier, sparkier Jo (who gets a different ‘origin’ here) and the scene-stealingly urbane, charming and rather camp Master (Malcolm Hulke seemed to love writing gayish villains). It’s so compellingly but readably written that it just sweeps you along – while the moral arguments at the end, something at which you’d expect the actors to have the edge, are given far more force on the page once Mac had had a few years to decide how to improve his very under-par scripting. Though one moral element that’s rather a surprise is how much old communist Mr Hulke adds not just an anti-capitalist tone but a religious one; like the novel of The Aztecs (coincidentally another story with the excellent John Ringham on TV), it brings in Christian preaching, though here at least the contrast is with Dent parrot-quoting every word of his IMC rulebook while Ashe is provoked to think about his.

The CD’s one of the best interpretations in the range, too – with the added bonus that while on TV you think, ‘Oh, it’s the Master (again),’ here you think, ‘Ooh! It’s the Master!’ when he turns up and lets Mr Beevers really get going. There’s one moment that sticks in my mind for adding something to the book, and one that strikes me as not quite as good as I’d imagined, so here are both. Mr Beevers has a great piece of delivery that gives a line an added meaning: when Captain Dent asks the Master for ID on first meeting him, he’s told “I am the… Adjudicator for this section of the galaxy”, which I’d always read simply as him putting Dent in his place, but here is given more than a hint of “I am the Master, and you will obey me” – after which nearly-the-magic words, Dent forgets to ask for his ID again, as if hypnotised. On the other hand, one line that had always stuck in my head has a reading that doesn’t quite fit for me; the Master’s “The Doomsday Weapon. It will never be mine” is desperate and a little high-pitched, rather than deep, bitter and slightly stunned, as I’d always imagined it. But that’s just down to individual interpretation, so I’m not going to say it’s “wrong,” like David Howe’s imaginationlessly pedantic liner notes about Chris Achilleos’ illustration of the Guardian. Yeah, it’s “wrong” for the TV. Or, alternatively, it’s the way it’s described in the book, and – more importantly, like the title, and much of the story – better.

Something Interesting About the Doomsday Weapon (Spoilers)
This hasn’t been a very surprising (or even exciting) Doctor Who story, and many of its metaphors have somehow managed to be both dull and unsubtle. But there’s something about the story that’s at least worth a second look. The end – I’m not sure it’s quite the ‘climax’ – does something very odd with the planet’s inhabitants; the “Primitives”, the Native Uxarieans, whatever you call them. And it’s even odder when you consider that the script’s by the same author as the previous year’s Doctor Who and the Silurians, in which he pioneered the idea that green scaly people are people too, and much odder still in retrospect compared to ‘usual’ Doctor Who. There’s this alien race… And the Doctor’s pretty much happy to see them all die at the end, in fact suggesting it. How jarring this is is particularly obvious in the TV version that you can now watch on DVD, as the Doctor’s moral ‘debate’ with the Guardian of the Doomsday Weapon / City is very poorly thought through by comparison to that in the book that I grew up with (the dialogue’s so bloody awful it doesn’t even stand much comparison with Doctor Who – The Dæmons, the story which followed it on television and the infamous ending of which it closely resembles). Particularly before Russell T Davies’ weary last Time Lord, how often did the Doctor just gently ask moderate, if not benign, aliens to die, and they just think about it and say, ‘Oh, all right, then’?

If you come to this having seen a lot of later Doctor Who, particularly the Hinchcliffe years of the mid-’70s (or even read Harry Potter), you’ll see what’s deeply strange about it. In one of the most-told types of Doctor Who story, ancient forces of evil – either races or individuals – try to conquer or kill all before them, are to all intents and purposes killed, and then ages later turn out not to have been killed quite enough and try to rise from the grave to pick up where they left off. This is usually where the Doctor arrives, and spends a long time trying to explain to everyone else in the story that this ancient evil is, in Tat Wood’s phrase, insufficiently dead, and has to convince them all in a race against time while the ancient evil is becoming less sufficiently dead by the episode. And, usually, for the ancient evil to rise, it needs to get something back: a new body to walk around in (someone else’s will do); an old body rebuilt; or get hold of its all-powerful doomsday weapon so that it can carry on laying waste to the Universe in the way it was before it was so rudely interrupted. And the Doctor’s job is generally to make sure that old interruption is permanent this time.

But Colony In Space turns this whole theme on its head. And, confusingly (as with a comedy reference to Jim’ll Fix It before that programme started), it does this before it became perhaps Doctor Who’s best-known trope. Take Doctor Who – Meglos, for example: far from Doctor Who’s best ‘ancient evil rising’ story, but the one I reviewed most recently, and the other bookend to this year’s DVD releases. It follows several of the standard patterns to the point of cliché: the last survivor of an ancient race, buried for aeons on “the dead planet”; suddenly wakes up and possesses someone else’s body; once had an hideously powerful doomsday weapon which has since been picked up by someone else who doesn’t realise its true potential, and spends the story attempting to reclaim it and, with it, his position of megalomaniac supremacy. Colony In Space has many things in common: a megalomaniac super-villain; a planet that something has mysteriously laid waste to; an ancient but fallen alien race; and another planet-blasting doomsday weapon, so famous that they named the book after it. But just this once, these elements all appear in the wrong order.

The key to it is that there wasn’t some heroic battle by the forces of light that almost but not quite killed the ancient evil, so it hasn’t spent all the time since slowly regathering its strength. It isn’t really even evil, and it hasn’t lost its doomsday weapon. And the brutal capitalists and the inept drop-outs aren’t the only representations of ‘us’ in the story. Perhaps Malcolm Hulke doesn’t try hard to defend the natives from colonialism here because these aliens are ‘us’, too, having risen to a technological peak, discovered how to build a doomsday weapon, built it… And, rather than hearing about how they went on a terrible war of conquest and devastation that eventually provoked their victims to rise against them and cast them down, simply building the weapon meant they’d created a power source that would slowly poison them (picking one of the author’s many subtitles at random: A BIT LIKE NUCLEAR WASTE, DO YOU SEE?). They weren’t suddenly blasted to an inch of death and spent the centuries crawling back; they were just slowly eaten away until they forgot who they were. They didn’t disappear to vanishing point, only left as an ancient fear, and they didn’t lose their doomsday weapon; they’re still there, just ignored as they decline, and it’s been there all along, not being used as a weapon, but still very gradually killing them and their planet bit by bit, the series’ only doomsday weapon that does, indeed, destroy worlds, but not just in the way you expect. They weren’t – as far as we know – megalomaniacs, and they’re now no longer capable of producing megalomaniacs; the megalomaniac villain has to come in from somewhere else and try to exploit what’s left. But the Master doesn’t understand this story: it’s saying that even wanting empires consumes you, that a doomsday weapon isn’t about power but simply extinction, and that the Uxarieans have been sliding down and don’t want to soar back up to terrible glory. They’re no longer capable even of imagining it. The Doctor doesn’t try to kill the ancient evil again: he just asks it, understanding its lingering decline, knowing it’s not really evil at all, whether – after all this time painfully dying – it might be time to just die.

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