Without beating about the bush: this serial doesn’t have a very good reputation, described variously as ‘tedious’ and ‘leaden and unengaging’. In context, it’s neither of these things: it’s the first time Jo has gone into space (she gets a lovely moment of wonder as she gazes out of the porthole of the Skybase), and the first time the show treats the breaking of the Earth exile format as routine (there’s none of the lengthy set-up of Colony in Space, the Doctor accepts he can travel in the TARDIS so long as it’s as an agent of the Time Lords, and Jo has no qualms about going with him).
A lot of the set up is intriguing. The scenes on Solos are great: wreathed in thick mist, with characters suddenly lurching out of the fog, and the murder of a “mutt” being covered up ‘as usual’. The political situation is unusually direct: the Doctor comments on the racial segregation, and explicitly talks about the rise and fall of Empire. The Earth anthem is dismissed as a ‘bombastic signature tune’, and the imperial myth of providing ‘strong and stable’ government to the colonies is mocked. Geoffrey Palmer’s cynical space civil servant, wearily accepting the end of Earth’s colonial phase and taking a sort of grim pleasure in demoting the pompous Marshal to a filing clerk, is great.
The background details are really memorable – the description of Earth’s ‘Grey cities linked by grey highways across grey deserts’ is poetic, and inspires a whole load of 1990s New Adventures that explored the end-point of the 1970s environmental catastrophe. The working class characters, Stubbs and Cotton, are from Liverpool and the Caribbean – two sides of the same British imperial coin, both full of exploited proles. Jo’s conversation with Stubbs about his family back on Earth is the inspiration for Rose’s conversations with the “little people” like Raffalo. In its details, this could be part of the 2005 series.
But there are issues. This is the first time in the colour era that a large chunk of story happens in a space station, and what worked in 405-line black & white doesn’t work in 625-line colour. Skybase looks cheap, and because it’s overlit, everything looks flat. This is a problem the show (and every BBC sci-fi show of the 1970s and 80s) will struggle with, right through to 1987 when they give up doing these kind of stories. They got away with it in Colony in Space because everything was meant to look cobbled together, and the IMC ship was just one of many locations. They got away with it in The Curse of Peladon because they made it look medieval and lit it accordingly. But they don’t get away with it here.
The other issue is, unusually, the performances. Paul Whitsun-Jones is a fun, bombastic, Blake’s 7 space opera figure – probably what you need to add some life into the flat boringness of the Skybase. But his performance is so far off the same page as Garrick Hagon’s earnest young rebel (a role he pretty much repeats in Star Wars) that it’s not even in the same book. At least Christopher Coll and Rick James as Stubbs and Cotton, a proto-Holmesian double act/Rosencrantz and Guildenstern chorus, are meant to be a contrast to the grandiloquent Overlords.
The outcome is a production that’s lacking a sense of place, and without a consistent tone. Plus, the Doctor and Jo are passive – dispatched as glorified DHL drivers, and literally locked out of the important moments in the story. It’s interesting, but so far it’s also a bit shoddy.
Next episode: The Mutants – Episode Two