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Doctor Who: Frontier in Space (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Frontier in Space originally aired in 1973.

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the show, the four-part serial The Three Doctors was produced. However, it was also decided that Jon Pertwee’s fourth season in the role should also contain something quite a bit grander than the average Doctor Who serial. Clearly intended to rival the epic (and lost) Daleks’ Master Plan in terms of scale and scope, an epic twelve-part adventure was conceived that would run across two back-to-back serials. It would open with Frontier in Space, before easing gently into Terry Nation’s Planet of the Daleks.

Unfortunately the adventure was never quite able to measure up to the series’ earlier Dalek epic, primarily due to problems with the second serial. Still, though somewhat weakened by the necessity to dovetail into the story directly following, Frontier in Space remains a rather wonderful example of the series on its largest scale, offering epic space opera with large-scale consequences.

Lost in space…

I’ll be honest and confess that I’m not a huge fan of the six-episode serials. I find that a four-part adventure running about ninety minutes is the perfect length for most classic adventures, and that quite a few of the longer serial contain far too much padding and awkward pacing. It’s a criticism that, to be honest, I would even extend to some of the more popular adventures, even The Talons of Weng-Chiang  – I know that amounts to blasphemy, but it’s the truth. Part of it is, I’ll concede, to do with the way the show was intended to be enjoyed, as it was originally broadcast: in strict one-half-hour-per-week doses. Watching an entire serial back-to-back on DVD obviously diminishes that, with various plot devices and padding seeming far more obvious than it would be if the episodes were more spread out.

There is, I’ll concede, a fair amount of padding in Frontier in Space. I’m not sure, for example, why we needed the monster on the Ogron planet. Or, as effective as the special effects were, a second space-walk in the final episode. In fairness to writer Malcolm Hulke, he tries his best to maintain interest over the six-part story by effectively changing the scenery once per episode. The first installment takes place on a frigate, the second on Earth, with later segments involving a lunar prison colony, the Master’s ship, the Draconian home world and even the Ogron planet. While having the Doctor and Jo spend more than half the serial as the prisoners of one party or another does feel like a convenient excuse to keep shipping the characters around, it does help keep things relatively fresh and interesting, which is quite an accomplishment.

Retro future!

Hulke contributed the script for Doctor Who and the Silurians, one of the most popular of the early Pertwee stories, and he knows what to do with the extended format. He takes the extra space he has been afforded and uses it to sketch a rough outline of this potential future, and of all the parties involved in a potential galactic conflict. There are a whole host of little details scattered throughout the episodes that don’t directly connect with the main plotline, but instead add texture to the social and political realities of this fictional universe, demonstrating just how much thought the writer has put into this adventure.

Although his Earth-based sets are fairly limited, the author manages to create a truly global scale to the adventure, giving us an idea of what life must be like on this version of Earth. It’s implied that the world is over-populated, and that this fact might be fueling aggressive territorial expansion into space – the human race desperately looking for breathing room. We’re informed that the “family allowance will be increased to two children per couple” for those willing to settle in the reclaimed Antarctic region, a wonderful little line that simultaneously suggests continued global warming and also implies that the entire planet has been forced to adopt a “one child” policy out of necessity.

A tough cell…

We’re informed of the global response to the Draconian attacks, including riots in Los Angeles and a fiery American public speaker who calls to mind a televangelist, angrily baying for blood. “Earth will not purchase peace at the price of humiliation!” It’s to Hulke’s credit that the story, filmed on a tiny budget, legitimately feels like the saga of “two great empires spreading their through the galaxy of the Milky Way”, both “sitting on a powder keg.” I honestly think that Frontier in Space stands as the series’ most accomplished attempt to do large-scale space opera, something that seems all the more brilliant for being accomplished on such a miniscule budget.

To be honest, though, the serial actually looks quite good. I never had the same problem with CSO that most critics of the Pertwee era seem to have had. it goes right up there with the suspension of disbelief required to invest in CGI or any other piece of work my mind knows to be fake. In particular, the serial features some lovely model work, some wonderful set design and an impressive space-walk scene. Of course, the future looks very much like the future a seventies fashion designer might have imagined – lots of padding on troops, ridiculously high collars, lots of white for furniture and bright colours for everything else – but that’s part of the charm. I think it’s helped by a sort of “retro futurism”, for lack of a better phrase – the strange nostalgia for the way we used to imagine the future.

Master and Commander: Far Side of the Galaxy…

The Draconians feel like pretty poor rip-offs of the Klingons for Star Trek, a fairly one-dimensional honour-bound foil the the expanding human empire. It’s a shame that Hulke couldn’t create a more complex of multi-faceted adversary for Earth in a story like this, as the Draconians do wind up feeling rather underdeveloped in the whole scheme of things. That’s probably intentional, as it allows Hulke to repeat the same sort of tragic notes he brought to Doctor Who and the Silurians, regarding the failed first contact between the two races.

Still, this version of Earth does wind up feeling quite developed and reasonably complex. Without outright stating it, Hulke creates the impression that the planet is on the cusp of becoming a fascist dictatorship, with the Doctor exiled permanently to the moon without trial or appeal. In fact, Hulke seems to treat the Human Empire in this story as something akin to colonial Great Britain, with the Moon serving as a counterpart to the Australian Penal Colony. Like the British Empire, Hulke suggests that the colonial power is in a state of decay or collapse, despite what the blowhards in governments might think. The Master claims to represent a former colony that has achieved “dominion status”, which appears to be some form of devolution. Still, the President’s military advisor insists on calling it “some tinpot colony.”

The Doctor doesn’t seem to mind…

We also get a healthy dose of the Ogrons here, returning from Day of the Daleks. I have to admit, I’m surprised that the creatures never really caught on – because a race too stupid to have their own ambitions seems like a rather clever hook. They also don’t look too bad, especially by the standards of the time, and they provide fairly handy muscle for the Master, who has always seemed to rely on some other force to do his heavy lifting. Maybe doing his own dirty work would ruin his style.

I think that Roger Delgado was the best actor to the Master, and I think that Frontier in Space really works well as a showcase for his version of the character. He’s not as ridiculously or gleefully insane as the versions portrayed by Anthony Ainley, Eric Roberts or John Simm, but is still a character who seems well aware of his nature as a pantomime villain. I think the reason that Delgado’s Master works so well is because he’s the perfect foil to Pertwee’s Doctor – both are very much camp individuals, but they compliment one another. Pertwee’s Doctor effortlessly plays the action hero (effortless swatting the laser pistol out of the Master’s hand), while Delgado’s Master fits perfectly as the suave supervillain (threatening to flush Jo into space unless the Doctor surrenders).

Master of his own destiny?

John Simm’s Master was too similar to David Tennant’s Doctor, and Anthony Ainley never found a proper counterpoint to work against, so I think Delgado and Pertwee had a wonderful chemistry that was never matched. It makes sense that the production team were planning to bring the Master back for Pertwee’s regeneration story, before Delgado’s untimely death made that impossible. It’s a damn shame that the last shot of the character sees him lost in the confusion and accidentally (and clumsily) shooting his archenemy in the head. It’s a really awkward moment that never should have served as the character’s final moment in any story, and it certainly doesn’t feel like a fitting closing scene for the character as a whole.

On the other hand, perhaps the scene might have worked, if it had been shot better, with more clarity and less confusion. After all, there are worse ways to leave a show than finally shooting the hero in the head. It seems a little bit more poetic if you read between the lines and it seems clear that the Master seems to want to sparethe Doctor, despite his bluster. The entire adventure is punctuated by the Master taking every possible opportunity to keep his old foe alive, while still retaining the advantage. Of course, he’ll kill the Doctor if he has to, but one gets the sense that he’d really rather not.

The Master’s masters…

“I’d like to try to take the Doctor alive if possible,” he informs the Ogrons. As they prepare to march out, he feels the need to repeat himself, “And remember, I want the Doctor alive!” When his subjects call him on it (“you do not wish to kill him?”), the Master makes a rather hasty attempt to cover (suggesting that rocket fire “lacks that personal touch”). It’s nonsense, and the character’s smart enough to know he’s giving the Doctor a chance to escape, like always. When the Master’s employers, the Daleks, arrive, they are ready to kill their enemy (“you are in our power, and you will be exterminated!”), until the Master insists, “No, not yet!” Again, he attempts to cover, claiming that he wants the Doctor to suffer before he dies, “leave the Doctor with me and let him see the result of that war.” The key idea being that the Daleks leave the Doctor (and, later, the planet Earth) in the care of the Master.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt the character would take sadistic glee in imprisoning (and maybe even torturing) the Doctor – although perhaps not to the extent the John Simm version did in The Last of the Timelords. However, the Master actually seems to enjoy his foil, and one gets the sense that he’d take great pleasure in winning one of the “games” between them, like some twisted gentleman. The real victory over the Doctor isn’t the death of the character, but an admission that the Master is the better man – at least for the Delgado version at any rate. Of course, he’ll kill and maim humans if they get in his way, but the implication is that he considers the Doctor to be an equal. Hell, the master might even just value the companionship. Of course, like any tough guy, he hides it under a tough shell. “I suppose I should thank you for saving my life,” the Doctor remarks. The Master, trying not to get too emotional, replies, “Not for long, Doctor. It’s going to be a very short war.” of course, it works both ways. A soldier threatens, “Surrender or you’ll be shot down.” The Doctor is quick to step in to save his renegade kinsman, “No, he’s unarmed.” That seems a rather hasty defense, considering the damage the character has caused.

The Doctor courts public opinion…

It goes without saying that Hulke understands the character of the Doctor. After all, Doctor Who and the Silurians stands as perhaps the most perfect illustration of the character’s pacifist tendencies, and captures the tragedy of a world where they can’t be fully realised. There are some wonderful exchanges on the Lunar Colony, where the Doctor first disavows any political affiliation, save one very crucial one. “You are a political, aren’t you?” a fellow prisoner asks, only to get the response, “Not particularly.” The other prisoner follows up with, “You a member of the Peace Party?” Pertwee’s Doctor, a man who hides the truth in witticisms, concedes, “Well, you might put it like that, yes.” Very much a product of its time, the Doctor spends the rest of his time in prison flashing the “peace” sign.

As with a lot of Pertwee serials, the chemistry between the cast does a lot of the heavy listing. There’s a sense that the large cast of characters are something of a family group (the “UNIT family” as it is known), a grouping that – I’d argue – includes Delgado’s Master. There’s something incredibly hilarious about the way Delgado’s Master treats Jo Grant, almost as if she’s the price of playing his deadly games with the Doctor – he’ll grudgingly allow her to take part because it means he gets to play with his friend, but he doesn’t have to like it. Choice moments involve the character turning down the volume on a speaker while Jo is rambling, so he can enjoy The War of the Worlds, and the incredibly frustrated manner in which he concedes she’s beaten his mind control (“all right!” he protests, like somebody called a foul in a friendly game of soccer, “all right!”).

Starship troopers…

I’ve never been especially fond of Jo Grant as a companion, but I don’t actively dislike her. She’s hardly an example of a proactive companion. Still, I do like what she brings out in Pertwee, and I think she’s perfectly suited to him – his version of the Doctor needs a character bring out his more caring and protective side in order to soften the more prickly tendencies he has. There’s something very sweet, for example, in his attempts to allay her fears about the mind probe, or in the way that he remarks that he would never have met her if he hadn’t been stranded on Earth “and that alone made the exile worthwhile.”

It’s moments like that which make Pertwee’s character seem sympathetic, particularly when he seems to get as frustrated with Jo as the audience (and the Master), advising her to “stop pacing up and down like a perishing panda” or rolling his eyes when she begins her brilliant escape plan with the line, “I saw this film once…” I especially love the line where Jo is contemplating hijacking the ship to fly them back to Earth when the Doctor politely reminds her, “Jo, this ship’s already going back to Earth.” There’s a sense that the two really do care for one another. While I prefer Liz Shaw, I do concede that Pertwee’s Doctor worked best with Jo.

Into the void…

The story ends with the revelation that the Daleks are behind the plan to start the war. I have to admit that I could really have done with more of the relationship between the Master and the Daleks, if only because of the sheer level of scheming that one might expect. It feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity. I do like the hints that serial drops, allowing a discerning viewer to pick up on the identity of the bad guys as early as the first episode – it features hypnosis as a weapon (who do we know uses that?) and the imposter ship has a rather unique speaking pattern (who do we know speaks like that?). None of it is too obvious, but it’s a nice touch that stands to the episode’s credit, meaning that none of the revelations come too far out of left-field.

Unfortunately, the involvement of the Daleks also means that the serial as a whole is robbed of an ending, which is more than a little disappointing – as the Master would not follow the Daleks into the next story. It’s also a shame, because it ties the resolution of this story to the incredibly disappointing Planet of the Daleks. It’s a damn shame, particularly because the writing team were attempting to construct a story to match The Daleks’ Master Plan.

Rocky road ahead…

Still, you can’t win them all. If you can look past the admittedly limited budget and the need to tie into a larger plot, as well as the lack of resolution that brings, Frontier in Space stands as perhaps the series’ finest example of large-scale space opera.

You might be interested in our reviews of the tenth season of the classic television show:

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