Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Audio Review 5: Prison in Space, written by Dick Sharples (2010) - 3/10

Released: December 2010
Jamie McCrimmon – Frazer Hines
Zoe Heriot – Wendy Padbury
Chairman Babs – Susan Brown

Story Narration and other characters voiced by Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury

Main Production Credits

Producer and Script Editor – David Richardson
Writer – Dick Sharples (adapted by Simon Guerrier)
Director – Lisa Bowerman
Incidental Music and Sound Design – David Darlington
Recording – Toby Hrycek-Robinson at Moat Studios
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
TARDIS Sounds – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producers – Nicholas Briggs and Jason Haigh-Ellery

Story Summary (SPOILERS!):
The TARDIS trio arrive on a future Earth, ruled over by a predominantly female dictatorship, instigated and overseen by the 122-year old leader, Chairman Babs. Here, men are labelled and treated as inferiors, while women are taught and conditioned to believe in their own superiority. Despite the Doctor’s polite reasoning, Jamie’s barbaric and chauvinistic views get the two of them sent to a correctional space prison, while Zoe is forced to be conditioned into supporting Chairman Babs and believing in female superiority.
The Doctor and Jamie manage to successfully escape their cells and start a revolt from within the prison. After early success, Chairman Bab’s forces eventually outwit them. However, on Chairman Bab’s return to Earth, where the Doctor, Jamie and their allies are to be trialled, the more free-thinking female council stage a revolt of their own to overthrow the Chairman, inspired by the Doctor’s earlier attempt. Jamie breaks Zoe’s conditioning by repeatedly smacking her bottom.

Story Placement
Between Foreign Devils (Telos Novella) and The Krotons (TV Serial).

There are some unmade Doctor Who television stories that were clearly unmade for good reason, a point sadly proven by Prison in Space.
The story appears to be a failed attempt at a Doctor Who twist on the type of comedy tale spun by the Carry On... or Ealing comedy film series. The sexism, both in the script and characters, is so blatant, that even its obvious uses to attempt satirist humour fail to make any impact. The story itself of a future Earth dominated by a mainly female society where men are the inferiors just reeks of male paranoia. It’s unclear whether the story is trying to support the liberation of women and their political rights, or is trying to suggest that the rights, roles and freedoms of men are under threat by the growing feminism movement during the 1960s. The script certainly seems to be critical of the idea of ‘superior’ or independent women, frequently referring to it as “unnatural”; and through Chairman Babs ludicrous lust for the Doctor, promoting the value of ‘masculinity’. Sure, the idea of men not being the child-giver, or the bread-winner in society is a prescient one for the time, as it is certainly a reality now, but the script misses the point of what really matters. In fact, the removal of these roles could almost be said to make relationships purer as they are more about the mutual love of each other, and less about a marriage of personal convenience. If the story’s premise had occurred on an alien or parallel world, minus the overt sexist script, meanings and dialogue, than it may have just passed muster. However, the poor characterisation and some awful plot resolution, betrays the writer’s old-fashioned views.
The awful plot resolution I am referring to is the ludicrous and outrageous method that Jamie uses to successfully free Zoe from her conditioning by putting her “across his knee”. Such is the outrageousness of the event that it’s clear that the writer intended it to be a joke, albeit a chauvinist one in bad taste. Don’t get me wrong, the Ealing and Carry On film comedies may not be among my favourite comedy media, as a child of the 1980s and 1990s, but I still find them amusing. The ‘humour’ in Prison in Space though, falls almost completely flat for me.
Of course none of this is helped by the weak characterisation either. The women are stereotyped as either butch shouty types (that take exception to anything that remotely hints at gender equality) or overly nervous and indecisive types, whereas the men are stereotyped as slightly yobbish, (at times weirdly mockney-like) and at times equally sexist too. In other words – paper thin. This is a real shame as the total lack of depth in characterisation takes away any need to care about what happens, and turns any satirical elements into a total farce. The central characters don’t fare much better. Chairman Babs is nothing more than a croaky pantomime witch that sounds more like a villainous Beryl Reid than the fearsome tyrant who we are supposed to hate. When conditioned, Zoe appears to turn into Chairman Babs’ personal propaganda-spouting robot, and becomes very whiny and annoying during part four. Jamie meanwhile is either the butt of almost every other joke, or the voice-box for the majority of the chauvinistic insults that the writer felt he could get away with, given that Jamie was from the 18th Century. It didn’t feel as bad during The Invasion, because the occasional chauvinism on display was a script device that helped to highlight the strengths of Zoe as a character, but in Prison in Space it is usually a bad attempt at humour. Even the Doctor has an odd moment when he very vocally champions male rights during the prison revolt.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the narrative has problems of its own. For one thing, Prison in Space has probably one of the most basic plots and storylines ever made for Doctor Who, and sadly is the epitome of all the negative excesses of Doctor Who that occurred during the Patrick Troughton era in the 1960s. There is padding to the hilt, a near-endlessly meandering plot that develops at a snail’s pace, far too many corridor scenes, and a convenient last minute plot device to resolve the story (the female councillors stage a last minute revolt on Chairman Babs, inspired by the Doctor’s efforts). I lost count of how many escape and re-capture sequences there were, and each cliff-hanger takes a painfully long time to assert itself (episode one in particular spouts out paragraphs of dialogue when only one or two lines would suffice). Even the Doctor’s gadget that helps the first revolt to work is a contrived one that appears at a convenient moment, having supposedly to have been acquired during The Dominators when the camera wasn’t looking. The result is to take an already badly-written story and turn it into a tiresome and often tedious listen.
Fortunately though, there are some great things about Prison in Space that make it occasionally likeable, even if they stem almost entirely from the production. The only significant good thing to come out of the script is the amusing sequence when The Doctor and Jamie first arrive at the correctional prison, and are chased around the station and even in the shower room till they finally cooperate with the prison authorities. It feels so synonymous with the amusing and fantastically fun camaraderie setup by Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines, between the characters of the Doctor and Jamie during the television series that one can easily picture it and smile, just like so many similar sequences setup in The Invasion and The Dominators.
By extension, one of the equally great parts of this audio are the main narrators themselves, Wendy Padbury and Frazer Hines who like in their recent 2010 audio releases with Colin Baker, effortlessly recreate their characters over 40 years on with great aplomb and enthusiasm. Frazer Hines is particularly impressive, with a near flawless impersonation of Patrick Troughton, channelling the true spirit of the great man himself into a very believable recreation of the 2nd Doctor. One of Frazer’s other brilliant assets is his talent for great comic timing, which still comes across, even if the written jokes aren’t mostly as good as what they should of been.
Meanwhile BIG Finish’s production values, well-directed by Lisa Bowerman are even better here than in Farewell, Great Macedon and truly feels like we are listening to a genuine soundtrack to a 1960s television episode. This feeling is strengthened by the magically poetic and ethereal music composed by David Darlington in one of the best ever BIG Finish scores to date. It is also worth praising Simon Guerrier for taking out some of the worst sexist dialogue, particularly that originally spoken by the Doctor, even though the majority still had to remain in order for the adapted script to remain faithful to the original.
Sadly though, even BIG Finish cannot turn a poorly conceived story such as Prison in Space into a work of art. With the tedious padded narrative, lazy characterisation, overt sexism, and a plot so basic you could write it on a post-it note, this serial was never going to work, either as a drama or a comedy. Even the idea of the correctional prison is ridiculous, feeling positively Victorian, and even more harsh in treatment to the male offenders here than the real-life suffragettes during the first half of the twentieth century. Take away the padding, deeply chauvinist meanings and dialogue in the script and it may have just worked as a light farce. As it stands though, Prison in Space is one of the weakest Doctor Who stories ever written. Fortunately we can count our blessings that this was never made for television, as any of Patrick Troughton’s weaker television serials would be more preferable to experience, even The Underwater Menace, The Dominators and The Space Pirates. We have top class actors, highly imaginative music and sound production, but just as most Doctor Who producers have discovered, it is nigh on impossible to succeed without a good script.

Score: 3/10


  1. "Putting her across his knee - such is the outrageousness of the event"
    "Blatent sexism"
    "chauvinism"... and on and on.

    Godsake, get over yourself! Doctor Who is (or was back then) kiddies entertainment, not a social critic on modern individualism through the linguistic shaping of gender, though I suspect a few politically correct woodenheads would like it to be so.

    Troughton is an excellent Doctor. I suggest the "epitome of all the negative excesses" need to be beaten out of the author of this ridiculous review, preferably by someone putting him across their knee...

  2. I'm sorry, but I take the revisionist view that Doctor Who was never meant to be exclusively a children's show, and actually looking into this during my university studies it surprised me a great deal that actually Doctor Who was a far more adult show than many of the so-called Adult programmes made at the same time in the 1960s. Sure there's a soft side to it, I love that too, but Doctor Who is one of the great televisional works of art and drama, and far more than just the throwaway cultural ephemera of the time (yes TV can be art).

    I suspect the main reason that I went so hard on this review, was that it was a modern production, not a contemporary original, which would have been more understandable, even if just as toxic. BIG Finish could easily have adapted this more radically, and approached the story differently. I don't expect Doctor Who to be a social commentary, but that doesn't mean that it can't be if that's what the writer wants it to be, and actually the writer of Prison in Space, I believe, was unconsciously making it so. Doctor Who was never just escapism, even the Hartnell era, as well as the later Pertwee, Tom Baker, and so on, eras, often had more to them than just the surface fun of the adventure, and I've always enjoyed that added complexity, and make no apology for it, its one of Doctor Who's strengths.

    I would just like to add that Troughton is actually one of my favourite Doctors, the "negative excesses" I was referring to was the extended padding, even worse than the Hartnell era, the cardboard characters (and companions, in some cases), and the fact that the producers and script editors of the Troughton era, particularly Gerry Davis and Innes Lloyd, "dumbed down" the original Hartnell format of the show, in many cases, removing entirely some of those other layers, so some episodes, were entirely escapism only.

    I confess to being politically correct most of the time, yes, but there's a reason so much culture has been left behind in the past to be forgotten, although I never hold that against past societies that didn't know any better, but because its a modern 21st century production, I believe it can and should be critiqued in this way. It probably doesn't help that Dick Sharples used his escapism as a clear, misunderstood and reactionary attack on feminism, so Sharples was trying to use Doctor Who as social commentary, inviting political critique.

    I'm sorry if I sound so patronising, but as you can tell, I'm passionate about politics as well as Doctor Who. Sadly, I completely disagree with you, as I'm sure you do with me.