Season 8, Story 4 (Overall Series Story #58) | Previous - Next | Index
It doesn't bode well for a story that I know I've seen, even though it would have been around thirty years ago (I still gasp every time I have to write something like because I swear I don't feel that old!), that even after reading up on it and checking out the google image search results I couldn't remember a thing about it. You'd think with how crazy that little priest class alien in the underground city looks at least that would've stuck in mind. I thought maybe the distinctive costume worn by the Master when impersonating the Adjudicator looked familiar, but that memory could've just been from scanning through other image searches as I've been blogging about the stories.
While I can't say it's a classic, it's got enough going on to make it an enjoyable watch despite some evidence that Hulke, or someone involved in the story writing/editing process was asleep at the wheel. It's problematic enough when a character delivers a line this about the planet they've colonized: "There's no animal life, just a few birds and insects;" but, it gets worse when just a moment later we learn the colonists have a truce with the native humanoids, after skirmishing with them upon their arrival. For a supposedly empty planet, that's a lot of life-forms to be dismissive of. Luckily, that sloppiness is early and things tighten up a bit as the story progresses. For a six-parter, this one actually stays pretty fresh as we learn more and more about all the parties involved.
What Hulke does well in this story is present layers of conflict. We start with colonists struggling to survive on an alien world where their crops keep failing, then introducing a more immediate, physical threat in the apparent arrival of some rapacious megafauna, then revealing the presence of a mining concern out to drive the colonists off the planet, then letting us know the "Primitives" are actually the descendants of an advanced civilization, and finally bringing the Master into the mix in search of a doomsday weapon developed by that ancient civilization. Revealing in the opening scene that the Master and the doomsday weapon were eventually going to pop up was dubious plotting, but it seems once the production team had decided the Doctor was going to be sent on assignment as a break from his exile by the Time Lords, they felt they had to explain that up front. I would have preferred they'd handle that differently, not giving away the "surprises" (the presence of the Master is Season 8 is never a true surprise, but still) but instead having the TARDIS start working and whisk the Doctor and Jo away unexpectedly, and only after wrapping up the action revealing that the Time Lords were behind it ... but hindsight is 20/20, isn't it? Having the colonists divided over how to deal with the intrusion of the mining outfit worked well, as did making one of the crew of the miners at least have a conscience, so each camp had internal drama rather than just being homogeneous groups opposed to one another.
The layer of conflict that works least well for me is having the Time Lords basically using the Doctor as a pawn to check the advances of the Master, as they did in Terror of the Autons to kick off the season. It reduces the Doctor to being an agent, instead of taking on trouble on his own terms, and it also makes the Time Lords not very interesting. If they're so numerous, not hampered by being a renegade on the run, why can't they just deal with the Master themselves. That it's a non-interference policy doesn't wash, since by manipulating the Doctor, they are interfering anyways, and if they're just not up to it, well how are they up to maintaining their civilization? This sort of bureaucratic police agency function cheapens them; without satisfactory explanation for why they act as they do, they just feel like a device and quickly become tiresome, when they should be adding an air of mysterious depth.
Back on the positive side of the scale, this is Jo's first time in the TARDIS, and her first off Earth adventure; it's always fun to see those firsts. Manning portrays Jo as both rationally and understandably afraid, but also curious and adventuresome. It helps us warm to this Doctor that he is both patient and encouraging with his young companion, reassuring her as they step out into the unknown together.
Glaring stupidities fixed, a bit of judicious rewriting for dramatic effect (and to remove a reference or two the Doctor casually mentioning offhand that if the local animals prove problematic to colonizing efforts, they can simply be destroyed -- unexpectedly callous and inhumane commentary for his character), and this one's got all the elements a first a rate story. Certainly worth checking out, though despite its flaws.