Doctor Who Project: Colony in Space

The man they arrested last time turned out to be the Spanish ambassador.

One can hardly accuse Malcolm Hulke of burying the lede in “Colony in Space” (Story Production Code HHH)—the very first scene features the Time Lords fretting about the Master, who has discovered the site of a buried Doomsday device. And yet we hear no more of this ominous development for four episodes, during which the Doctor deals with an entirely different set of difficulties involving colonists on an infertile planet and a greedy mining corporation bent on taking the planet from them.

Watching Doctor Who as one does now, with all the episodes available immediately, the omission seems strange, as a Doomsday device should ostensibly be the focus of the story rather than poor cover crop yields and bountiful durilinium deposits. But at the time, when viewers had the show parceled out in weekly chunks, the surprise when the Master is finally revealed carries with it the frisson of remembering that moment from the beginning of the first episode, obscured as it was by the intervening action.

Who did you expect?

It’s certainly not the first time that the Master’s appearance has been teased; “The Claws of Axos,” immediately prior to this story, similarly featured the Master showing up in the middle of the action after his appearance had been suggested at the very beginning of the first episode. In that story, however, the Master was directly connected to the appearance of Axos on Earth and thus to the main thrust of the plot; in “Colony in Space,” he shows up opportunistically, his story arc only tangentially connected to the central plot. Hulke has, essentially, smashed two stories into one here, either of which might have made for a decent story but the sum of the parts not adding up to much at all.

Time Lord Tribunal

The colony arc that gives this story its title starts promisingly enough, with the Doctor and a slightly shanghaied Jo Grant being whisked off to the planet Uxarieus (a quarry, of course, but our first alien quarry-planet in color, one with a lot of mud) at the behest of the Time Lords, who send the TARDIS there so that the Doctor can defeat the Master’s plans. However, the Time Lords don’t actually tell the Doctor to expect the Master, either a signal vote of confidence in his abilities or a fear that he would reject helping them. (Or, perhaps, just a clever narrative elision to extend the story to six episodes.)

The Doctor immediately gets excited to explore the mysteries of why the colony is failing and, with unexplained murders happening right after his arrival, he’s drawn quickly into events, but just to be sure he sticks around, the TARDIS is dragged off by the voiceless “primitives” who are native to the planet. As if the Doctor would try to run away after he realizes that the murders were committed by a mining robot that has fake animal claws attached to it?

We call him Scratchy.

This need to remove or disable the TARDIS feels like a narrative crutch to explain why the Doctor wouldn’t just turn tail and run when confronted with adversity or danger, and yet in all the times this shopworn technique has been employed, the Doctor as he has been developed over three iterations wouldn’t have run anyway. To return to this trope when the Doctor has finally, for the first time in over a year, left planet Earth on the TARDIS, feels like a step backwards, and indeed this is the first Third Doctor story that could just as easily have been a First or Second Doctor story. It’s underdogs versus a corporate-type foe. Substitute the Interplanetary Mining Corporation for Zaroff or International Electromatics and you would be forgiven for expecting Patrick Troughton to show up with his flute.

In short order, the Doctor sides with the colonists against IMC, which murdered the colonists in an attempt to scare them into leaving. The Doctor even goes so far as to help this ragtag band of refugees from an overcrowded Earth infiltrate and attack the IMC spaceship, with all the violence that ensues, arguing that without his help, even more blood would be shed. It’s a new nuance for the Doctor’s always fluid pacifism, and while William Hartnell wielded a mean cane when forced to, Jon Pertwee practically revels in whipping out the ol’ Venusian Akido, utilizing his non-lethal martial arts prowess on multiple occasions.

Up and over you go.

Hulke does a fair job of using a few broad strokes to develop the Earth of this era (helpfully noted as Tuesday, March 3rd, 2472 by a tear-off wall calendar, a standard of on-screen dating established way back in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth“), with the need for the durilinium on Uxarieus portrayed as critical for building a million new dwellings on a planet that is already home to “one hundred thousand million people” and lacking ground even for agriculture. The arrival of an Adjudicator from Earth to hear the competing claims of the colonists and the mining company for the planet seems like a natural end to the story, with the Doctor and the colonists having found evidence implicating IMC in the murders of the colonists. But the Adjudicator turns out to be, of course, the Master. Remember him?

I must confess that, having kept the Master’s imminent arrival in the story in mind the whole time, I suspected that Norton, a bedraggled survivor of “another colony” on the planet who stumbled into the colony and warned of the primitives attacking, was in fact the Master in disguise. The director (Michael Briant) has Norton jump in shock when he hears that “the Doctor” has arrived in the colony, but in truth Norton works for IMC, just another component of the plan to drive off the colonists. It’s a nice bit of presumably intentional misdirection, given the Master’s penchant for disguise.

The problem with the Master’s arrival, and with it the resumption of the plot about the Doomsday device, is that the arc involving the colonists and IMC becomes, in essence, filler. There are three gunfights, lots of hostage taking, and interminable scenes of quasi-judicial proceedings between the colonists and IMC, when all anyone really cares about is the super-weapon. Captain Dent and his IMC goons have no redeeming qualities, their desire for the needed minerals being driven by greed, not altruism; and the feckless protests of colony leader Ashe cause anyone to wonder how he thought he could lead a group of people to the stars in the first place, his ultimate sacrifice for the colony at story’s end notwithstanding. With Roger Delgado and Jon Pertwee dueling for screen time once they’re both on the scene, other actors stood little chance of keeping anyone’s attention.

Doomsday device, with cakes!

The Doomsday device rests in the deepest recesses of the primitives’ city, a forbidden place where an overcaste directs the more limited, spear-wielding green-skinned native inhabitants of Uxarieus. Once they were a great civilization, and at their peak they created a device capable of aging a star—any star—instantly to the point of going nova. The Master purloined this knowledge from the Time Lords, noting, “The files of a Time Lord are very comprehensive,” and these files are apparently literal, for the Master’s TARDIS features a set of filing cabinets that the Doctor and Jo riffle through before being captured.

Filed under D for Doomsday.

The return of the Time Lords as a framing device makes sense in a story by Malcolm Hulke, as he (with Terrance Dicks) effectively introduced them as an on-screen presence in “The War Games.” Too, he reemphasizes their essentially apathetic/observatory nature by having the Master tempt the Doctor with limitless power, via the Doomsday device, to effect change for good in the galaxy. The Master simply cannot understand why the Doctor would turn down the ability to change the universe, given how directly he has earned the Time Lords’ ire through his incessant intervention.

The Doctor will have none of it, though, and convinces the leader of the decayed primitive species to destroy the Doomsday device to prevent it falling into the Master’s hands. However, this destruction also promises to destroy the remnants of that civilization by exploding their city, a monumental decision that receives no focus or attention at all. The Doctor throws the switch on the self-destruct mechanism and condemns the remainder of a people to apparent death. It’s a striking moment that deserves to have been dwelled on far longer, yet the story cuts instead to yet another gun fight in a quarry.

Exit, stage left.

During said explode-o-rama, the Master takes his leave, sneaking off to twist the ends of his mustache and plan his next diabolical scheme. The Doctor and Jo also slip out quietly after seeing some form of justice done for the colonists, who finally overcome the mining corporation and await an uncertain, though hopeful, outcome when the real Adjudicator finally arrives. With the destruction of the Doomsday device, the planet should become fertile again, according to the Doctor, as its radiation caused the difficulties with plant growth, allowing for a successful colony at last.

Indeed, it all wraps up too tidily, with none of the interesting questions really answered or explored, rounding out the final episode with a jape at the Brigadier’s expense. Equally ill used, Katy Manning fell back into the prototypical female companion role yet again, being captured and held hostage not once but twice, as well as being forced into domestic roles (helping with the cooking at the colony) and generally quavering at the first sign of danger. At least Hulke has the decency to comment on the absurdity of companions being captured frequently:

Doctor: I take it Miss Grant is to be held here as a hostage? You know you really are most unimaginative.

Master: Tried and true methods are the best.

On the plus side, we do get to see the Jo Grant’s reaction when entering the TARDIS for the first time, all cleaned up (er, the TARDIS, not Jo) after the events of “The Claws of Axos, and the Doctor proclaims himself to be “every kind of scientist,” explaining his faculty with agriculture. Too, the return of the Time Lords promises an expanded sphere of action and intrigue for the Doctor, for it’s by no means clear that the Doctor sees himself on their side—nor they on his.

A bit, er, sparse.

And so, with all of time and space potentially back on offer, where does the Doctor go from here? Well, contemporary Southwest England, of course…

(Previous Story: The Claws of Axos)

(Next Story: The Daemons)

Post 60 of the Doctor Who Project

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