Sunday, January 27, 2013

Cowboys & Aliens

Another alien world, another quarry. Ah, but what we see in the six-part Doctor Who adventure, Colony In Space, isn’t a quarry – it’s the china clay pits near St Austell in my home county of Cornwall.

Apparently filmed in winter and it shows, lending the location shots a bleak, grey cast which wouldn’t do the tourist industry any favours but we locals know it well. You can’t help but imagine how different it might have looked with a spot of sunshine, but it highlights how dismal things must be back on 25th century Earth and how desperate the poor colonists must be, to have sought a new life on this desolate and miserable mudball.

It’s the planet Exarius, as the Doctor observes knowledgably and pensively on first seeing it on the TARDIS scanner. Curious indeed, because while recognising the planet on sight he subsequently seems to know precious little about the place throughout the adventure.

Adventure is the operative word here. It’s an unabashed Western in space, with mean IMC thugs trying to drive hard-grafting pioneers off their mineral-rich claim. Gunfights and fisticuffs and dirty tricks abound, but this being a Hulke script it’s not without weight.

There’s a great human story at its core, the struggle for an honest life free from greed-fuelled corporations and bureaucracy, culminating in one individual paying the ultimate price to purchase that freedom for others. There’s actually quite a high body count along the way, but none of the deaths mean so much as Robert Ashe’s selfless act of sacrifice. The rest, for the most part, seem like throwaways, just more toppled bodies in the string of stunt sequences.

The ‘senseless killing’ is remarked on but it’s staggering that, with six episodes of runtime to play with, more is not made of the deaths on both sides. Gunfights over, bodies are carried away or quietly glossed over and, especially with the interior battles (on the set of colonists’ main dome), it reinforces a sense of everyone play-acting at violence. Not very convincing – and more crucially, it doesn’t really sit well to have Pertwee’s Doctor on the sidelines of these (admittedly bloodless) bloodbaths without some more substantive comment at least. All it would have needed was a moment or two along the way, shots of the graves, something of that nature.

Still, the Doctor does have other issues on his mind. Threaded through the  adventure is an intriguing little scifi plot involving a doomsday weapon (its radiation the answer to the mystery of the barren soil), a once-advanced civilisation fallen into primitivism (the ‘injuns’ of this Western scenario) and, of course, the Master’s attempt to seize control of aforesaid weapon.

Goes without saying, Delgado is supreme, never mind that the Master’s plan is a bit half-baked. He’s improvising, I guess, since assuming the role of the Adjudicator from Earth must be something of an opportunistic move. He shows up late in the day and – incredibly – the reveal isn’t reserved for an episode cliffhanger.

The cliffhangers aren’t at their best, with episodes one and two essentially offering up the same recipe, the second helping with added claws, that’s all. (But it’s all part of perhaps the tale’s weakest element – IMC’s fake-monster ploy really comes across as a bit Scooby Doo. Perhaps if the technology involved had been more sophisticated, if the mining robot had looked a little less clunky, or the dinosaur claws looked a little less rubbery...) The Master’s intention to shoot the Doctor and Jo and attribute their deaths to stray bullets seems like a rushed decision based solely on the realisation that there’s an episode ending approaching and a dash of heightened dramatic tension is needed, stat. For me, the best of the bunch is an understated close-up on Jo’s terrified gaze as she is marched into the darkness of the Primitives’ city to face the unknown.

That unknown turns out to be not so bad, although the natives very unreasonably sentence trespassers to death, even when they bring said trespassers to their city against their will. For all their rough justice, however, they are an interesting race – or races. The Primitives are pretty well-realised, humanoid but with crudely distorted features, presumably suggesting generations of mutation; it’s only a slight shame the masks don’t have more flexibility. Then you have the Priests, infantile figures, mute and near-blind. And yes, they’re quite horribly wrinkly and appear to wear their brains on the outside, but it’s very un-pc and superficial of Jo to scream on first seeing one. Not everyone in the galaxy can be as pretty as you, Miss Grant. Finally, at the top of the local hierarchy sits the shrivelled ancient-infant figure, externalised brain as standard and uglier than all the rest put together. Indeed, I remember this little figure gave me nightmares and made me feel faintly queasy when I was a child. These days, the puppetry is more transparent, but just about gets away with the illusion. And, as I say, taken together, they suggest a fascinating culture – or remnants thereof.

Who subsequently all get blown up, but what can you do when your doomsday device’s self-destruct sequence is as complex as pulling a single lever. Again, the death of these people – the Primitives seen stumbling around in the dark – goes by with inadequate effort or recognition on the Doctor’s part.

Another missed opportunity in a longish list. Such as, for instance, according to the extras, Morgan was originally intended to be played by a woman but somebody shied away from having a female commit the atrocities in the character’s repertoire. Which is a shame, because it would’ve been more interesting and a counterbalance to the sexist role allocations for Jo Grant and Mary Ashe within the colony.

EastEnder to-be, Tony Caunter, does a reasonable job as your conniving thug type and always gives an impression there’s plenty of calculation going on alongside the callousness. Dent appears made of stone, probably a well-judged persona for a company man born in a machine age, but leads to a limited range of expression – except on those occasions where he shows a real temper. Caldwell is the star of the IMC crew, Bernard Kay being given the plum role and clearly warming to it, conveying the compassion and struggles with his conscience that are as much at the heart of this story as the colonists’ own struggles.

Among the colonists, John Ringham brings weight and conviction to the role of Ashe, with all the qualities of a well-meaning leader facing loss of authority as his people grow uncertain and impatient. Winton reminds me a bit of Paul Morrow in Space:1999 but Nicholas Pennell is thankfully more tempered and restrained than Prentis Hancock. Helen Worth does okay as Mary, but it’s hard not to think of her as Gail from Coronation Street and the actress is given nothing meaty to work with – not even a scene to mourn the death of her father.

On the whole, the materials are all present for an enjoyable and quite filling six-parter, but one that could use some trimming here and there and allow occasional room for some of the underlying depth and weight to take centre-stage, even if only for a few select moments. Hulke’s Target novelisation (Doctor Who And TheDoomsday Weapon) is much better in this respect, as I recall.

Visually - apart from the grey slurry and mud! – it’s quite colourful and memorable, the IMC uniforms and those nippy buggies painting a Gerry Anderson/Captain Scarlet sort of future – while the story itself strongly suggests a much bleaker picture of things at home on Earth. And in the end there’s enough in the mix to win me over for each of the 25-minute instalments.

Unfortunately, despite its merits, the story does contain the immortal line “Jim’ll fix it” and can therefore expect to face a public outcry and clamouring for all DVD copies to be recalled and destroyed.

But that’s the 21st century for you.


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