Written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin
Directed by Christopher Barry
This is one of those perfect examples of a Classic Who serial that probably would work really well on paper, but just falls apart completely on-screen. Only part of it is due to budget limitations. Even then, the story has a number of issues, only some of which ultimately matter.
Let’s cover the good part first. This is another example of the writers taking a contemporary issue, namely the fall of British colonialism in Africa, and setting it in a science fiction setting. The Earth Empire is beginning to fade on the galactic stage, and as such, it is granting independence to subjugated “colonies” that can no longer be controlled. The local Marshal decides that this is the perfect opportunity to create his own personal fiefdom. Unfortunately, the oppressed native population is rebelling, and some of them are turning into “mutants” that the Marshal wants to destroy.
The first real problem with the story comes with the manner in which the Doctor gets involved. He is given an odd message pod from the Time Lords, the TARDIS is activated, and the Doctor is expected to take this pod to some unknown individual in whatever time and place the Time Lords want. It’s rather silly as framing devices go, and the Time Lords’ motivations are never explained. As such, while the moral implications of the situation are certainly right up the Doctor’s alley, his personal stake is almost always connected to threats to Jo.
One could argue that the Time Lords wanted to ensure that the Solonians, the native species, undergo their natural metamorphosis into semi-corporeal beings of enormous power. After all, without the Doctor, the changes to the planet ordered by the Marshal would have continued to cause problems for the Solonians, eventually to the point of genocide. But like many such stories, it opens up issues of paradox and other such temporal oddities.
The story wears its metaphorical underpinnings on its sleeve, right down to the point of casting an African actor in a prominent role and naming him “Cotton”. Some mistook the man’s terrible line delivery as bad acting; I think it’s also a matter of unfamiliar language. Whatever the case, it’s hardly the only casting problem. Just about everyone other than the Doctor and Jo is either chewing the scenery or stumbling over single lines of dialogue.
The script does them no favors. So much of the dialogue is ham-fisted that the actors can’t help but come across as idiots or third-rate Bond villains. As I said, the historical metaphor is blatant, so the characters tend to embody certain elements of the societal and political conflict, rather than being characters that happen to have adopted certain attitudes and positions. That may sound like a subtle difference, but it’s starkly apparent when viewing the episode.
The story also feels rather padded, stretching over six episodes when it could have easily been done in four. I wound up watching these over the space of a week to keep myself from losing interest. It’s a fair bit worse than “The Sea Devils”, overall, and continues the slide from initial quality that has been the hallmark of the ninth season.
Final Rating: 4/10