People In Charge of Those Laws (Colony in Space)
|Never before has standing around in the TARDIS seemed|
such a welcome change.
It’s April 10, 1971. T. Rex is still at number one, and remains so for three more weeks for a total of a six week run at the top. He’s finally unseated by Dave and Ansel Collins’s “Double Barrel,” a reggae track that survives for two weeks. The charts also see Ringo Starr follow his three former bandmates into the top ten, and The Rolling Stones hit number two with “Brown Sugar/Bitch/Let it Rock.” Andy Williams, Olivia Newton-John, and Waldo de los Rios also make the top ten, the latter with a recording of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. And lower down, The Sweet are at number thirteen with “Funny Funny,” another visible sign of glam’s reign.
The news is mostly incremental progress on various fronts. Charles Manson and his followers are sentenced to death, Bangladesh formally comes into being, and, perhaps most significantly, several of the events that will eventually bring down the Bretton Woods system kick up as central banks in several European countries halt currency trading due to an excess of US dollars flooding their markets.
While on television, Doctor Who, the show we’ve been getting used to over the course of the last sixteen months or so, visibly wanders off to be replaced by some other show. The trappings we’ve become used to – UNIT, mainly – make a token appearance in the first episode in the form of the Brigadier, but the bulk of the start of this story is concerned seemingly with dismantling the premise of Doctor Who as the main character runs off in that Police Box he’s been fiddling with, which, improbably, turns out to be a time machine that can take him to other worlds.
This is, of course, being a bit facetious – the function of the TARDIS has, after all, been kept in play. The TARDIS played a major role in the resolution of both The Claws of Axos and Inferno. The idea that the Doctor would stay on Earth forever was looking increasingly strained. But on the other hand, it’s been two years almost exactly since the Doctor had a working TARDIS. The last alien world the Doctor visited was in The Krotons.
The result is a strange position. The show is not doing something unexpected in heading out into space. It’s an event, yes, but not as big of one as something like the revelation of the Doctor’s people or the introduction of his opposite number. But it’s still been so long since the show has done something like this that this is still, in a real sense, a relaunching of the series. Everyone knows Doctor Who is a show that can go to other worlds, but it’s been long enough that the exact mechanics of how that works are forgotten.
And in order to execute this relaunch the series turns to Malcolm Hulke, who, along with Robert Holmes, make up the veteran contingent of the series’ writers at this point. Hulke has also, behind the scenes, been the most vocal critic of the earthbound format, so it’s wholly fitting that he should get the honor of relaunching this aspect of the series. But given that he viewed many of the fundamental concepts of the Pertwee era as ill-conceived mistakes, it’s perhaps not surprising that what we get is one of the most self-consciously retro stories imaginable.
I’ve been praising Tat Wood the last few times I’ve brought About Time up, but here it’s necessary to take him to task, because he completely screws this one up. This may seem like a surprising claim to those who have read About Time, given that he accuses the story of being a warmed over set of cliches, which is fairly close to saying it’s self-consciously retro. Except Wood inexplicably misunderstands the basic premises of this story.
Yes, Colony in Space is old-fashioned. That’s part of the point. Hulke isn’t trying to create a bold new take on the alien planet approach for the 70s. He’s trying to show that the existing approach perfected in the Hartnell and Troughton years is more interesting and mature than what the 70s were doing. He’s not trying to move forward. He’s trying to move backwards and undo what he views as a catastrophic mistake. You can see that from the way the story starts – with the single oldest form of alien world story the program has: the exploration based story. After it gets around to easing us into the idea of the Doctor traveling again, his approach to the planet is the old classic Hartnell approach – wander around until he and Jo get captured by someone. The entire structure of this story is based on the Doctor steadily understanding the rules of the world he’s landed on – figuring out who he can trust and who has what secrets.
Yes, as Wood accuses, there are some real cliches here. But there’s also subversions of the cliches, which Wood largely overlooks. The major one that Wood misses is that he accuses the story of wheeling on the Master to stretch the story out. This is a completely fair and accurate assessment of the story assuming that you start watching when the TARDIS dematerializes. If, however, you actually watch the entire first episode in which the Time Lords tell us that the Master is pursuing a doomsday weapon of some sort and then the Brigadier helpfully reminds us that the Master is still out there, the idea that the Master is “wheeled on” in the fourth episode becomes ridiculous.
This is not an incidental detail. Rather, it’s key to how Hulke is structuring this story. At two key points in the story Hulke uses a very savvy trick in which he reveals something to the audience and then trusts the audience to forget about it by the time the revelation matters. Then when the revelation comes into play, it’s a surprise even though it’s completely fair. (The zenith of this approach, of course, comes in The End of Time Part II, where the climax of the story depends on the audience forgetting about Wilf.) The first is that the audience is trusted to forget that the Master is going to be involved by the time he actually appears. Hulke actually handles this pretty deftly. A viewer looking for the Master but not knowing in advance where he’ll be is almost certain to assume that the Master will turn out to be behind the lizard attacks, and when we discover that IMC is behind it, we are meant to immediately assume that the Master will turn out to be in charge of IMC.
In other words, Hulke sets us up to make a wrong guess, and then trusts that when we find out that guess is wrong we’ll be so caught up in the implications of what’s actually happening that we’ll forget to make another guess. As a result, when the Adjudicator strides on in episode four, arriving in what appears to be a normal spaceship, we aren’t looking for the Master anymore. But when he arrives it’s still, as we talked about Friday, not the revelation we’re used to in later Master stories. The revelation is “Oh no, it’s been the Master all along.” It’s “Ahhh, so that’s where he was hiding.”
The other hidden twist comes in the handling of the city of the indigenous Uxariens. The Doctor spends a good portion of episode four in the city trying to rescue Jo as the Master steadily ingratiates himself with both the colonists and the IMC. The result is a fairly normal tension for Doctor Who – bad things are happening at point A while the Doctor is stuck at point B. The show uses this trick almost every story. But here there’s another subversion. Not long after the Doctor catches up with the Master we discover that the real action was back at point A in the primitive city. But again, Hulke trusts that we will be so eager to see the Doctor get to where the Master is that we won’t stop to think about why nearly a full episode was spent dealing with the indigenous Uxariens when there’s no obvious relevance to the larger plot.
The result is a plot that manages, particularly when taken in discrete chunks (as all Doctor Who should be – my first and foremost advice in watching the classic series is never, ever to watch two episodes back to back), to remain surprising and interesting. Hulke keeps us from understanding the world we’re looking at until the absolute end. There are some problems with this – it’s never quite explained why the Master was looking for planets high in the same mineral IMC is looking for. Presumably there’s some connection between that mineral and the Uxariens, but the nature of it is obscure. And the question of why mining and agriculture are an either/or proposition on a planetary scale is a mystery throughout the story. But for all the flaws here, there’s a complexity to the plot.
Whether the characters live up to this is somewhat more ambiguous. There are, in essence, three levels to which characters in a Doctor Who story can be developed. The first is in terms of competence. This is the sort of characterization we got through most of the Troughton bases under siege, and it’s where a lot of the more programmatic characterization ends up in stories like The Claws of Axos. In it, the characters have no particular character traits beyond whether they are good or evil and how good they are at being good or evil.
The second level, which is where Hulke ends up, expands on the sense of morality. Instead of simply being good or evil, characters have a somewhat nuanced moral worldview. So, for instance, Ashe believes in using the existing structures of government and power to protect the colony, whereas Winston believes in the use of violent revolution. Dent believes in doing what is necessary to crush the colonists while Caldwell is willing to exploit but not actively harm the colonists. The ways in which this is more interesting than the first level should be clear.
It’s tempting to criticize Hulke for failing to make it to the third level, which is characteristic of the new series. A story like The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People, for instance, hinges not only on the ethics and ideologies of characters, but on specific and seemingly arbitrary characters traits – the fact that one is a father, or one imagined a stronger, better version of herself when growing up. This is the most mature and interesting level of characterization. But it’s difficult to criticize Hulke for not reaching it given that Robert Holmes, who has gone the furthest in this direction, has still just begun to scratch the surface of this approach. Faulting Hulke for not going further than any writer has ever gone before in Doctor Who seems unfair. Especially because the second level of characterization is already well ahead of what almost any other writer in this era is capable of.
By using this sort of characterization, Hulke manages to lend an ethical weight to this story that has been lacking from other stories. The result is a story that doesn’t fit well into the glam or action tendencies of the Pertwee years. It’s not a story about exciting things happening, nor is it a story about unusual images happening. It’s a moral parable, about people with differing worldviews and the consequences of those worldviews.
Because the Pertwee era is so schizoid, one can’t make broad conclusions about its ethics and worldview. But given that Hulke is one of the major architects of the Pertwee era, in particular responsible for many of the best-remembered early novelizations, pinning down his ethics is still very much worth taking the time to do. To some extent this is easy – Hulke was an active communist. But being a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1970s isn’t as great a clue as one might hope, because the CPGB was ludicrously factionalized. The main two factions were the traditional trade union-based faction and a newer faction inspired by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Unfortunately, no source I can find actually says which camp he belongs to.
That said, looking at Colony in Space, I think it’s very hard to argue seriously that Hulke is not a Gramscian. Central to Gramsci’s work is the idea of hegemony. I should pause here and explain something basic about Marxism in the 20th century. I’ve talked about this a bit before, but basically, after its early phase concerned primarily with “how do we go about staging an effective revolution,” Marxism turned to the somewhat more interesting question of why it’s been failing to successfully have a revolution. Hegemony is Gramsci’s explanation for this. Basically, it holds that the bourgeois, to survive, cannot simply pursue their economic interests, but must instead create intellectual and moral justifications for its sustenance. This larger system, in which economic and social forces work together to sustain capitalism, is called hegemony.
This describes almost perfectly how IMC functions, complete with Hulke appropriating Charles Erwin Wilson’s famous (albeit misquoted) claim about General Motors and having a character declare that what’s good for IMC is good for Earth. IMC, in other words, has become a moral force unto itself, required to function not just for its own profit but because Earth needs it. What is so toxic about IMC is that it has integrated itself into the political system, finding gaps in the law and enforcement that allow it to function in a corrupt fashion without fear of reprisal.
Opposed to this are two forces. The first are the colonists. A lot of commenters get it a bit wrong in terms of how the colonists work, assuming Colony in Space to be a western of some sort. It’s not. The colonists do not display rugged individualist traits in the classic Western style. Instead, they act like Puritans. Again, we probably need to pause and point a few things out, particularly for those whose primary associations with the word “Puritan” are the Salem Witch Trials or something like that. Although it was Puritans doing the nasty things there, the Salem Witch Trials are not your average Puritans.
For the most part, the Puritans were an intellectual movement committed to religious reform. They became colonists because it became increasingly clear that it was easier to go set up a utopian community on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean than it was to reform existing structures. In Colony in Space, this is made particularly clear when the colonists talk of returning to Earth and of the problems with Earth. The colonists mostly want to be left alone to build the world they want to build. The only major difference is that instead of being motivated by religious ideology, the colonists appear to be pragmatic scientist sorts.
Remember, though, that in the 60s and 70s there was a sense of scientists as a privileged class who should be looked to for leadership. They were, in other words, a new sort of clergy, and labcoats were the new collar. These are science Puritans. Which is where the Doctor fits into this worldview. Even though he is superficially a member of the bourgeois (though remember the subversion of this offered by the glam Pertwee), the Doctor is perfectly suited to the role of science vicar.
Note also that the role of science vicar is not one where the authority is inherent. The Doctor’s authority does not stem from the fact that he is the Doctor, but rather from the fact that is is clever and right. This is the central difference between him and the Master, who outfoxes him in episode four by rubbing the Doctor’s face in the fact that he isn’t as good as the Master at manipulating identity papers and systems of government. The Master’s authority comes from his ability to work within existing systems of power and claim roles and identities that have power. The Doctor, on the other hand, takes no special identity and instead gains power through his actions.
The final piece of this moral puzzle, of course, comes from the indigenous Uxariens. Or, as they’re called throughout the story, the primitives. It’s tempting to read them as a parable about the oppression of indigenous people. But to do so is to confuse our morality with the script’s. The script clearly does not much care about them – the Doctor is downright blasé about killing them, and doesn’t seem worried at all when they all die in an explosive inferno at the end. The point of the script is not that IMC or the colonists mistreat them. No. They’re doing something else.
The key thing about them is that they are a fallen civilization. Or, more to the point, that they are a civilization that fell because they created a doomsday weapon. Here Hulke is reverting to a more traditional mode of communism – one that believes in a historically inevitable progression that will eventually bring down capitalist systems. The Uxariens fell because creating a doomsday weapon is something that destroys worlds. Similarly, look at their leader. He is the leader for the simple reason that he retained the ability to talk and other advanced functions – like the Doctor, he’s the leader for what he does, not who he is. And what he does is understand. And he understands the dialectical progress of history and that the doomsday weapon is a curse. He understands that destructive hegemonies must be avoided.
By taking this approach, Hulke becomes the first writer to fully answer the challenge he set out at the end of The War Games. Here the Doctor comes upon a situation and has to disentangle it not by fighting monsters but by sorting through ideologies. The climax is an argument over the inevitable arc of history and about how civilization works.
Stopping the bad guys isn’t sufficient in this world. The Doctor has to go further and find a way to make society work. This is everything that was lacking in the Troughton era – a sense of morality where good is not just fighting monsters and opposing evil, but a positive action – something that has to be worked towards. Other writers will take differing views of what that positive action is, but Hulke has made major progress in the ethics of the series by demanding that positive action exist in the first place.
And he did it by tossing most of the trappings of the previous seven stories out and telling a slightly modified Hartnell story. Because once you’ve taken a wrong turn, going backwards is progress. This is two ways now that the Pertwee era can work on a level beyond flashy action thrills. Steadily, the series is finding its feet again.
August 1, 2011 @ 7:33 am
I first saw "Colony" when I was 9, and all I really remembered afterwards was being a bit scared of the little wrinkly bloke in the fancy chair. I later got re-acquainted with the story through Hulke's novelisation, which I still think is one of the best novelisations in the series. I like that you give Hulke the credit for being the highly skilful writer that he was. The only criticism I would make of him is that, left to himself (as in the novelisations) his ethical exploration of his stories could make him a bit preachy.
I'd be interested in your reaction to a couple of questions. First, how do you think the role of "science vicar" (brilliant!) has developed down to the present day? And secondly, do you think from this story onwards that the characterisation of the Third Doctor changes, the more that he's away from Earth? In other words (and I'm not sure about this myself) could it be that some of the annoying character traits you've mentioned recently could come out of the Doctor's frustration at being Earth-bound?
August 2, 2011 @ 9:51 pm
Has no one here yet made the obligatory "incredible Hulke" joke?
August 2, 2011 @ 11:56 pm
I'm really glad that you're finally able to enjoy what you're finding in Pertwee's stories. It's lifted the whole atmosphere of this blog – you were seemingly finding early Pertwee a bit of a strain, and I'd hate it to go the same way as The Nintendo Project.
August 3, 2011 @ 8:32 am
There was thankfully no real worry about that. Whatever my frustrations with the Pertwee era (and I knew going into it that I was going to have some issues with it, but also that it improved from seasons 8-10), unlike the Nintendo Project, I know that after the Pertwee era comes a run of ten seasons that I mostly love.
It's also worth noting that the general arc I'm tracing is one that Letts ultimately traces as well. Ultimately, he opts to frame the Pertwee era as a parable of spiritual enlightenment. I think that in a lot of ways Planet of the Spiders makes many of the same critiques of the Pertwee era that I already have. But as Adeodatus points out, there is a turning point as well. I'm about halfway through season nine in my watching now, and there's no question in my mind that the series is changing and learning, and that many of the things I've been complaining about are being consciously addressed.
IMFI Pty. Ltd.
August 29, 2011 @ 9:45 pm
Sometimes a western in space is just a western in space.
October 30, 2013 @ 4:01 am
Well I'm now back to agreeing with you. Which is nice. I used to enjoy that back in the day…
The last episode is something of a disappointment with the rather cavalier way that the remains of a civilisation are blown up (and one wonders why they would wait until the Master found the weapon before deciding, in the space of 60 seconds, that it was a horrible thing that absolutely must be disposed of), but apart from that I found this quite enjoyable.
And that was down to the quality of the characters. As you say, they are nuanced. I found it particularly rewarding seeing the contrast between one IMC subordinate who would merrily do whatever his ruthless leader wanted, and the other who visibly wrestled with his conscience and would do what he could to subvert the worst effects of his leader's edicts.