Doctor Who: Prison in Space

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June 21, 2012 by Aidan

Title: Prison in Space
Author: Dick Sharples, adapted by Simon Guerrier
Director: Lisa Bowerman
Range: The Lost Stories (Second Doctor Box Set; released December 2010)
Characters: Second Doctor, Jamie McCrimmon, Zoe Heriot

The Plot: A relaxing break for the Doctor and his companions Jamie and Zoe becomes something decidedly more sinister when they are arrested for trespass. But what has happened to the planet Earth? And how has the malevolent Chairman Babs gained control? As the Doctor and Jamie are incarcerated in a prison that they can never escape from, Zoe is forced to change sides…

Aye, and that’s a woman’s place – in the kitchen.

The Production: One of the aspects of the Big Finish Lost Stories range I respond to most is the idea that we can hear how different scripts and stories may have taken the series in other exciting new directions had they ever been made. Some, like Farewell, Great Macedon I think would likely have been considered classics had they ever made it to the screen.

Prison in Space is not that sort of a story. I think if it had been recorded it would be regarded as a guilty pleasure for some fans while being seen as an embarrassment by others. A sort of Horns of Nimon for the Troughton generation. Yet it is particularly notable in that it was only weeks away from being filmed, making this a more genuinely ‘lost’ story than most in Big Finish’s range.

You seem to have emasculated every other man on this planet but you won’t bully us into submission!

The story relies on the pretty convoluted world that Dick Sharples’ script imagines, being set on a future Earth where the female population has rebelled against the men and established their own government, turning men into second class citizens. The Doctor and his companions unwittingly stumble into this world and end up being separated, the two men being exiled to a prison space station where they find themselves fronting a revolution against their female captors while Zoe is taken away to be reeducated about Chairman Bab’s new world order.

Quite clearly Sharples intended his story to be something of a satire about the radical feminist movement of the 1960s and some of that material has simply not aged well. Indeed, the CD extras the cast and crew often refer to the story as being a ‘product of its time’ as something of a defense, pointing out that the attitudes it contained would have been a lot more mainstream at the time it was originally written.

Yet as much as audience tastes have certainly changed a lot over the last forty-five years, I do think that the way this story discusses the issues of women’s liberation and gender equality would have been considered clumsy and heavy-handed even in the sixties. Certainly the scenes in which a male protester appears in court charged with distributing seditious material which calls for the vote for men seem really quite silly and I think also reflect the issues women protesters were fighting in the early 1900s rather than the 1960s.

While I certainly don’t like my entertainment to be particularly preachy, I do believe that when a writer tackles a political subject they need to have a clear point of view. Where I think this story ultimately fails is that it fails to have anything approaching a strong opinion on the issues it purports to be discussing, and so it uses them only as a basis for some gags and light action sequences. This is satire for the sake of satire, rather than because of a burning issue in the author’s mind.

That said… Some of the jokes and action sequences are actually quite entertaining. For instance the sequence in which Jamie is forced to dress up in a woman guard’s clothing is very playful and fits the era nicely while there is some really enjoyable banter between the Second Doctor, Zoe and Jamie that is genuinely funny (the exchange between them concerning dinosaurs in the first episode is one of the highlights of this story for me).

She might be glorious to you but to me she is an ugly old bat!

Where the piece is most successful is in its performances which are really excellent. Both Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury are in fine form, doing a wonderful job of bringing their characters back to life for this adventure. Both manage to lighten their voices enough to sound much as they did in the sixties, while Hines once again takes on the part of the Second Doctor doing a marvelous job of capturing the different aspects of Patrick Troughton’s performances such as his sudden moments of excitement or the slowed down-hushed delivery in moments of danger.

What I think makes this all truly uncanny is the excellent use of sound effects and incidental music which do feel like they belong to this era of Who. It really is quite uncanny and definitely left me feeling as though I were listening to an off-air recording of a television adventure.

As for the third voice, Susan Brown is really very good in the part of Chairman Babs. Though admittedly not a great villain in the lines of a Tobias Vaughn, being far too silly to seem frightening or intimidating, she does manage to capture the humor in the role while even managing to give the character a little bit of menace and also a bit of pathos. Unfortunately her performance, as good as it is, is not quite enough for me to overlook the silliness of the character (or the premise for the story) but it does make the material a little more digestible.

In Review: Judged purely as an attempt to create a production that sounds like a sound recording of a Troughton-era episode, Big Finish really succeeds with Prison in Space. Not only are the performances excellent but the sound effects, musical cues and the little gags all feel absolutely right for the era. Sadly though the story isn’t nearly as good, seeming pretty lightweight and also a little confused in its message. Though it has its moments, this is a story that the original production team was probably right not to end up making.

This story can be purchased directly from the Big Finish website as part of the Second Doctor Box Set as either a CD release or as a digital download.

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