There’s no small measure of irony in the fact that when the Time Lords finally allow the Doctor (the Pert, in imposing form) a temporary respite from his exile on Earth, they send him to the drabbest planet around. It’s the grey old world Uxareius and although Jo (perky Katy Manning) finds a sole multicoloured flower to spark her interest, all else is bleak. Our heroes soon come across some pioneering colonists from Earth, who are wondering why their crops won’t grow. I can tell them why: their planet’s a clay pit.
The colonists, a dowdy group of would-be farmers with unlikely facial hair (well, the blokes at least) are also being terrorised by giant lizards, because after all, this is a Malcolm Hulke script. (When we catch a glimpse of the creatures, the production team wisely uses some back projection of existing reptile footage. Unfortunately the footage is a of a friendly looking iguana.) The lizards, it transpires, are being faked by some new arrivals, a survey team from intergalactic mining concern IMC, and the battle for control of this mudball of a planet is on.
The arrival of the men from IMC in Episode Two kicks the story into second gear. Hulke (let’s call him Mac, like we knew him an’ all) is often praised (even by me) for bringing a moral complexity to his Doctor Who scripts, and creating characters whose motivations are a mix of good and bad. Not here, though. Here there are stark boundaries between good and evil. Colonists are good, miners – or more specifically the world of big business they represent – are bad. They resort to intimidation, infiltration, blackmail, environmental degradation and murder in pursuit of profit. They’re bad ‘uns, through and through.
Their chief is Captain Dent, played with sombre gravitas by Morris Perry. Dent has a steely glare underneath a bizarre combed forward fringe, and even when under pressure, he never raises his voice beyond a quiet ruthlessness. His first meeting with the Doctor is played like aristocratic Generals exchanging pleasantries prior to engaging in battle. And though it soon becomes clear that they’re each other’s enemies, neither loses their cool.
DENT: I can see we’re on opposite sides, Doctor.
DOCTOR: Perhaps. (Toasts with what appears to be a tall glass of Ribena) Your health, sir!
Dent’s the kind of man who flies his spaceship a couple of kilometres to the colonists’ dome because he doesn’t like walking. He engineers a situation where the colonists are forced to blast off from Planet Sludge in a spaceship which is bound to explode, and his only care is that IMC personnel are cleared from the blast site. He facilitates/suffers the various shifts in fortune between miners and colonists which see saw through the story, so it’s a shame that when we reach the climax, he seems to get forgotten. He doesn’t get to go out in a blaze of glory. The last we see of him he’s sitting behind a desk and then events move on without him.
Dent’s the embodiment of cold, calculating villainy, played in contrast to the story’s other bad guy, the Master (stylish Roger Delgado). The Master’s in charge of the story’s subplot, which is far more cartoony and fun than the tit for tat between colonists and miners. He arrives to search for an ancient alien civilisation and steal its galactic doomsday weapon so that he might take over the universe. Pulp sci-fi stuff it might be, but this is the section of Colony in Space which is most engaging. I think Mac himself realised that when he was considering the title for his novelisation of this story, and plumbed for Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon, instead of Doctor Who and the Quarrel in the Quarry.
Mac is often credited by script editor Terrance Dicks as the insightful fella who first saw the plot limitations inherent in the show’s early 70s format whereby the Doctor’s stuck on earth and allied with UNIT. Alien invasion or mad scientist was all the series could offer its viewer, he predicted. If only he was as quick to spot the problems with having the Master turn up on a regular basis. “Well Terrance, you have two plots: Master aligns himself with big alien baddies or Master attempts to gain control of some powerful gizmo.” And that generally fits for every Master story until, what, The Five Doctors?
Mac goes for the latter here, and said powerful gizmo is hidden within a underground society with a three strata of aliens: the green, mute Primitives (whose bulbous faces make them look like they’re suffering a nut allergy), the short, mute High Priests (whose even more bulbous faces look like a stone fruit left in a bath) and the Guardian, a… what exactly? A bulbous head on a puppet toddler’s body dressed in a toga. It emerges and retracts into a hatch in the wall with that wavy video effect which usually signifies a bizarre dream sequence, which, to be fair, is what it feels like you’re experiencing this far into Colony in Space. And it speaks like a teenage boy with a ring modulator. All in all, a surprising creature to leave in charge of a device which could destroy the universe.
But then, any surprising incidents are welcome in this sedate six parter. The best parts are when Pertwee and Delgado get to thesp at each other in equal pomposity. While locked in an underground office with some helpful plot-explaining frescos, they stumble across a secret of this long diminished civilisation. Apparently after developing the Doomsday Weapon…
DOCTOR: the super race became priests of a lunatic religion worshipping machines instead of gods.
Oh Mac! Tell us that story! That one sounds interesting!
MY FAVOURITE PIECE OF EXPOSITION IN COLONY IN SPACE AND PERHAPS ALL OF DOCTOR WHO:
MASTER: You know the Crab Nebula?
DOCTOR: The cloud of cosmic matter that was once a sun? Of course.
I think this style of dialogue should make a comeback:
MASTER: You know the foot bone?
DOCTOR: The bone which is connected to both the ankle bone and, via that, to the leg bone? Of course.
But here’s the best bit. Recently, Mrs Spandrell and I went to Uluru in central Australia (if you’re thinking of going, do. It’s amazing). There we went on a excursion to view the night sky with an astronomer as a guide. And half way through, I shit you not, this is what he said to our little group of star gazers.
ASTRONOMER: Has anyone heard of the Crab Nebula?
Folks, I felt as if all my Christmases had come at once. I put on my best Pertwee impression and boomed:
ME: The cloud of cosmic matter that was once a sun? Of course!
No, I didn’t. Of course, I didn’t.
But I really wished I had.
I bet Mrs Spandrell would have loved it.
LINK TO Nightmare in Silver: er, is it un-PC to say little people?
NEXT TIME I shall not be so lenient! We swash our buckles with The Androids of Tara.