DVD Review: Doctor Who - Colony In Space

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Review: Doctor Who - Colony in Space (PG) / Directed by: Michael E Briant / Script by: Malcolm Hulke / Starring: Jon Pertwee, Katy Manning, Roger Delgado, Morris Perry, Bernard Kay, John Ringham, Helen Worth, Nicholas Pennell

When Russell T Davies resurrected ‘Doctor Who’ in 2005 he made it quite clear that when the Doctor voyaged into Space and visited alien planets, there was going to be a human presence out there. His vision of the show’s future-vision saw the human race as front and centre amongst the stars, forging out into the Universe to inhabit new worlds and investigate the mysteries of space. It’d be a dirty job but Mankind had to do it. Cold, greasy, grubby and mechanical, the human race would be depicted as struggling to gain a foothold in an environment which wasn’t their own. It’s hard to imagine that the 1971 serial ‘Colony in Space’ wasn’t lurking somewhere in the back of his mind as in many ways it’s a rough template for 21st century stories like ‘The Impossible Planet’ and ‘42’ which depicted its human protagonists battling against the odds to survive in hostile, difficult environments and in the face of extreme adversity.

In 1971, tiring of the ‘Doctor-in-exile’ format imposed upon them in order to keep ‘Doctor Who’ alive, then-producer Barry Letts and his script editor Terrance Dicks, itching to get the Doctor back out into Space, created a simple but efficient (and oft-repeated) plot device  whereby the Time Lords use the Doctor as their ‘secret agent’, dispatching him off into Space in a remotely-controlled TARDIS to tidy up some dirty work they’d rather not be seen interfering with. ‘Colony in Space’ was the first fruits of this idea and, whilst not exactly a classic story of its era, it’s certainly one which has been much-maligned and often just summarily dismissed over the years and it’s long-overdue the sort of reappraisal this smart DVD release ought to bring it.

The Time Lords send the Doctor and Jo to the planet Uxarious, where ragged beardy human colonists from the 25th century are battling to avoid starvation (and none of them look even remotely starving, most of them being well-fed middle-to-upper class early 1970s BBC thesps) on the grey and unwelcoming surface of a planet which stubbornly refuses to support their crops. There’s murder afoot too, as sightings of giant lizards on the surface lead to the death of colonists living in outlying habitation domes. But the planet has attracted attention from elsewhere; rich in a valuable mineral, the Intergalactic Mining Corporation (IMC) with their red-and-black uniformed officers and guards, are also on the scene, declaring exclusive mineral rights and trying to force the colonists off the planet by fair means or foul. The planet is also home to green-skinned, spear-wielding primitives and some rather more unusual inhabitants below the surface, guardians of a secret Doomsday weapon which the Doctor’s old enemy the Master (Roger Delgado), posing as an Earth Adjudicator sent to sort out the dispute between the colonists and the miners, has got his beady eye on for his own nefarious purposes.

‘Colony in Space’, like so much ‘Doctor Who’ is ambitious way beyond its budget and its capabilities. This is space opera on a shoestring and yet it’s huge fun, combining the novelty of seeing Pertwee’s urbane Doctor in the TARDIS and travelling to another world with the barren, genuinely alien-looking environment (in reality a china clay pit in Cornwall), a few weirdy-looking aliens and, fairly typically from 1970s writer Malcolm Hulke, a script which rails against the relentless power of big business corporations and the desperate hopelessness of a few grubby, shabby humans with stuck-on beards grizzling about failing crops. From a 2011 perspective, Hulke’s hippie idealism seems quaint and a bit naive but some of his core concerns are as pertinent now as ever they were.

In common with many six-part stories of the era, ‘Colony in Space’ can’t help but feel a bit padded on occasion as there’s so very rarely enough story to accommodate 6 twenty-five minute instalments and the appearance of the Master in episode four gives the serial a bit of a lift when it’s starting to sag a little. But this remains a well-written, earnestly-performed piece (yes, that is Gail out of ‘Coronation Street’) with good location footage, some effective action sequences (Pertwee always enjoyed a good bit of rough’n’tumble and there’s a startlingly realistic fight scene in the last episode between a colonist and an IMC guard, splashing around in the mud knocking seven bells out of one another) and a real frontier spirit as the well-meaning colonists refuse to give up to the bully boys who want to take their new home away from them.

It’s good to see ‘Colony in Space’ out on DVD at last because this is a story that’s been overlooked for far too long. The picture restoration is decent enough (but not as pinpoint sharp as many other ’classic’ releases as the prints were recovered from episodes sold abroad and cleaned up for commercial release) and more than enough to remind this veteran fan of the innocent 1971 thrill of seeing the TARDIS taking the Doctor out amongst the stars again for the first time in two years. Rattlingly-good fun.

Special features:  ‘IMC Needs You’ is a fairly typical ‘making of’ feature, there’s 20 minutes of unused ‘film trims’ from the location footage (love that catchy backgound music!), photo gallery, commentary, information titles and more.

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Doctor Who: Colony in Space’ is out on DVD in the UK now.

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