The classic series of Doctor Who lasted for 26 years, and ended over 26 years ago. So for more than half of its existence it has been experienced not as a continuing narrative but as a collection of treats to dip into. This situation has been created by three factors:
- Some episodes are missing, making a marathon viewing difficult. You have to resort to soundtracks or reconstructions to experience the early years, or just skip out episodes.
- There has never been a rerun on what we used to call “terrestrial” television, i.e. the main channels. Repeats have always been odd stories here and there, never a complete run. These have been restricted to the minor digital channels with relatively tiny amounts of people watching. When a run of stories starting with the Pertwee era was attempted, people got bored of it very quickly.
- Both the VHS and DVD ranges took a random approach to releasing the stories, so fans wanting to discover Doctor Who in these ways had to either experience it all out of order, or wait until everything was released (and nobody did the latter!). Of particular interest is how the VHS range released the “best” stories first, leaving things like Colony in Space to last because they were considered to be of lower quality. For a whole generation of fans the worth of any particular Doctor Who story was informed by its year of VHS release.
So most fans will have come to Colony in Space by viewing it in isolation, and doing that probably creates a viewing experience that fails to impress. Superficially it is a run-of-the-mill human colony under attack story, without any particularly memorable colonists. There is no exciting, popular monster. The Master is absent for two-thirds of the story and then spends a lot of his two episodes not being particularly Masterish.
Now here’s what happens when you watch Doctor Who in order, as per the original viewing experience, and here’s the reason why the viewing figures held up well for this story:
The Hartnell and Troughton eras are both utterly fabulous, holding your attention with their infinite variety and compelling and fascinating leading actors. Then you hit the Pertwee era and what you get to begin with is story after story of a bullying grumpy Doctor stuck on Earth. Then you start getting story after story with the same villain. And it all starts to become really tedious. This is where the VHS releases helped the Pertwee era so much. Dipping into the era for an individual story at a time, that original couple of years is brilliant fun. Watching them all in a row is torturous. So you can understand how Colony in Space on original broadcast was a much more enjoyable story than it comes across when experienced as an individual VHS or DVD release, because it rejects the whole established pattern of the Pertwee era and does something completely different. A lot of the “completely different” is actually exactly the same as a black and white era story, but traditional Doctor Who feels radical at this point, and in any case everything you think is predictable is actually twisted into different and interesting shapes.
Let’s take a look at the repetitive Third Doctor era stuff this story rejects, and then see what it does instead.
Rejected from the format:
- The Doctor stuck on Earth.
- UNIT, and the whole idea of the Doctor as an establishment figure, working for the military.
- A monstrous alien race invading, probably in partnership with the Master.
and here’s what it does instead:
- Shows us colonists on a planet that is already inhabited, and then refuses to make the story all about the battle between them. This is not an anti-colonialist story, and the colonists and “primitives” are able to coexist as long as nobody is stirring things up between them.
- Gives us an anti-capitalist parallel, but with the added flavour of the capitalists having a justification in the order of “the greater good”.
- Involves the Master in a genuinely interesting way. If you don’t like the surprise when the Master turns up that’s probably because you are not thinking about the story in its original one-episode-per-week format. You can’t blame a writer for tailoring his story to the format it is going to be shown in instead of some unimagined future viewing experience. We are told about the Master’s inclusion in the first episode. The fact that he keeps failing to appear where you would expect him to, and then finally pops up somewhere unexpected when you have forgotten about him, is the entertaining factor here.
- Shows a race of people destroyed by their own weaponry. This is why the Doctor doesn’t waste any time concerning himself with their fate and has no qualms about being the one to press the button that finally finishes them off. They are already living on borrowed time in the aftermath of destroying their own race.
At the close of the story we are right back to square one with the Doctor stuck back on Earth, but at last it feels like that isn’t going to be everything Doctor Who is going to do from now on. Now that he has had a taste of that former life when he can go off adventuring with his companion, exploring an alien city just like he did in his very first departure from Earth, it seems inevitable that the Doctor will find a way to do that again. And that allows us to relax and enjoy the coziness of the UNIT family, each and every time we return to it. Everything just changed again, and it’s about time. RP
The view from across the pond:
I’ve mentioned in the past that my mom is not a science fiction fan. She likes this thing called “reality”. (Whatever that is!) The obvious result of her questionable taste is that she and I rarely watched TV together. She took me to the movies to see King Kong, ET and Flash Gordon but TV she was less involved with. But there was one day that my sister (around 3 or 4 at the time) had to have her hair combed, or dried, or in some way “done up” and my mom sat in the living room on the floor helping her (read: doing it for her). I was watching Doctor Who.
Imagine my surprise when my mother was still watching 30 minutes later and said something to the effect of “this looks like a good one”! Well, 35+ years later, I still remember that! It was in reference to Jon Pertwee’s Colony in Space. (Look, you don’t forget a thing like that!)
Colony is a strange story and I know why my mom liked it: it’s less science fiction than a colonial dispute. The elements of science fiction are an add-on; a desire to make it feel more like Doctor Who. Colony in Space depicts colonists wanting to hold onto a barren planet (Time-Lord knows why!) and being forced to leave by a stronger, imperial earth force. To add the Scifi elements, there’s an indigenous race that doesn’t speak (ergo: obviously savages) and a hidden complex complete with doomsday weapon that was the bigger brother of the Death Star.
(Why “bigger brother”, you ask? The Death Star went out of its way to look ominous and had to travel to its intended victim which were planets. This thing could wipe out entire stars and never leave its orbit… I’d say it puts the Death Star to shame!)
I’ve mentioned that the formula works when using the ingredients of Pertwee and Delgado; and it does so again. Equally, it’s only fair that I also point out, again, that the Master has a checklist of ways to wipe out… well, everyone. I can’t say I really grasp why though! This time, he steals Time Lord files on the aforementioned Ultra-Death Star and is determined to find this device. The Time Lords, realizing they trapped the Doctor on Earth, decide to send him on a mission but rather than actually telling him what the mission is (or you know… just destroying the thing themselves) they put the Doctor in mortal danger first. (That’s faith right there, huh? Did they just know deep down that he’d be alright? If so, why did they send a fellow Time Lord at the beginning of Terror of the Autons to tell the Doctor that the door was rigged?)
My personal favorite part of the story has absolutely nothing to do with the story itself. The Brigadier sees the Doctor leave at the start of the story and announces, “Doctor, come back at once!” The story concludes with the Doctors return immediately after the Brigadier says this. From Lethbridge-Stewart’s point of view, the Doctor and Jo were barely gone for more than one second. Even as a child, I loved that part because it was such a clever depiction of the value of a time machine!
As for the rest: The Master, sans Scooby Doo mask, is hiding in plain sight as an Adjudicator never expecting the Doctor to turn up; imagine his horror! Morris Perry plays Dent, who is a loathsome character that looks like he’s always smelling something foul. Probably the giant iguana’s dung! Bernard Kay plays Caldwell as a likable bad guy – he’ll kick the colonists off the planet, unless it means killing them. Because you know, space is a kinder alternative… And then there’s the aliens! They’ve been the target of many jokes, but for me, they remind me of what happens when you chew a vitamin C that was not chew-able. (This about right, Paul?)
Colony in Space is most memorable for me because my mom watched some of it with me and enjoyed what she saw. The story itself is another long 6-episode story that could have been tightened up a bit. But at least it serves as a cautionary tale to be careful with Doomsday Devices and always read the labels on vitamins so you’re not caught unawares like these guys! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Daemons