Doctor Doctor Who Guide

Reviews


List:
02 Sep 2003Frontier In Space, by Paul Clarke
27 Feb 2005Frontier In Space, by David Koukol
15 Nov 2005Frontier In Space, by Ed Martin

'Frontier in Space' marks the final appearance of the Roger Delgado Master, due to Delgado's tragic death shortly afterwards. Despite some padding, it is on the whole a fine swansong for Delgado, who puts in one of his finest performances. 

The Doctor/Master rivalry reaches its peak here, as for once, the Master comes close to winning. This is reflected in his attitude towards the Doctor from the moment he first appears in Episode Three. As I've noted previously, during his first four stories, the Master was often quick to find excuses not to kill the Doctor, seeming to want his approval. This changed at the end of 'Colony in Space', when the Doctor refused his offer of a half share in the Universe, after which all his attempts to kill the Doctor seemed genuine. Having been repeatedly defeated, we may assume that the Master had finally had enough of being thwarted and decided to stop playing games. Here, the emphasis shifts, as the Master retains the upper hand until the very end of the story. By the time that the Doctor materialises on board the Earth cargo ship in Episode One, the Master has already sown the seeds of war and remains convinced until Episode Six that the Doctor is too late to avert it. He's almost right, as witnessed by the fact that until the Doctor reaches Draconia, nobody except the imprisoned Professor Dale believes his story about Ogrons. As a result, the Master can afford to enjoy his victory, which is precisely what he does. When the Ogrons bring him the Doctor's TARDIS, he immediately sets out to recover both Jo and the Doctor, and on meeting them both he is at his most charming. Indeed, he's almost jovial. This continues until the very end of the story; even when his ship is captured by the Draconians, he remains relaxed because he knows that the Ogrons are on their way to rescue him. He loses his temper briefly when the Ogrons leave one of their number behind, which is just the proof that the Doctor needs to avert the war that he has been fermenting, but on recovering the Ogron - and taking Jo hostage - he soon regains his composure. Even when the Doctor discovers his base he is smug, clearly relishing the idea of springing his allies on the Doctor. It is only at the very end of the story, when General Williams and the Draconian Prince escape and the Doctor reaches his TARDIS that he realises too late that he should have killed the Doctor earlier. Unfortunately, the ending of Episode Six of 'Frontier in Space' is horribly edited, so that this effect is rather lost; the Master loses off a shot at the Doctor and wounds him, but then vanishes. This suggests, rather implausibly, that the Master's own hypnotic device has affected him, resulting in a rather unsatisfactory final scene for Delgado. Nevertheless, overall the finale of the Third Doctor/Master conflict works well, allowing the Master to regain some credibility.

In contrast to the Master, the Doctor has a rather undignified time during 'Frontier in Space', spending most of it either locked up or under interrogation. This is obviously padding, but it is an example of padding that works, thanks to a combination of a good script and excellent performances from Pertwee and Manning. Pertwee still seems to be enjoying himself again, making the most out of the dialogue between the Doctor and Jo, so that their often lengthy conversations whilst locked up work to demonstrate the genuine warmth between the pair of them. In addition, since this is the last appearance of Delgado in the series I found myself thinking back to 'Terror of the Autons', which reminded how far Jo has come. From the easily hypnotized, almost vacuous character she appeared to be in her debut, she has developed into a resourceful companion who now stands up to the Master defiantly (her steadfast refusal to be hypnotized by him in this story is marvellous) and takes being locked up and threatened by Ogrons in her stride. Manning's delivery of the dialogue she's asked to spout whilst the Doctor is making his furtive space walk outside the Master's ship in Episode Four is cringe-worthy, but I assume that this is intentional, since the Master looks bored with it and turns the sound off. Despite being a frequent prisoner here, the Doctor still gets some great moments, particularly when he wins over the Draconian Emperor. Thus, in a story that asks little of them in terms of action, both of the main characters still manage to shine. 

Characterisation being Hulke's forte, there is plenty on display here. Even minor characters are rendered three dimensional via throwaway lines, so for example the officer who arrests the Doctor and Jo on board the cargo vessel at the start of episode two is present when they are taken to their cell, and promises to arrange some food for them. This is irrelevant to the larger story, but shows this minor character to be more than just a uniform. Similarly, the two members of the cargo ship's crew react differently when they are first threatened by the Ogron ship, the Captain insisting that they make a stand and defend their cargo, whilst his terrified companion begs him to surrender. The script is full of these minor details, which add touches of character to the supporting cast. The two main groups of characters other than the Doctor and Jo and the Master and his Ogrons are of course the Draconian and the human governments. In the case of the humans, we only really see two people of significance, General Williams and the President. Hulke skillfully includes in his script hints of a larger government, with talk of a senate and suggestions that an ineffective President can be removed from office. This avoids the problem of trying to suggest that a President of the entire planet would rule virtually single-handedly, whilst simultaneously allowing for a small cast. Here again also, the characterisation of these characters works well, especially in the case of General Williams. On two occasions, expectations are subverted, first when the General, obviously frustrated with the President, nevertheless makes it clear that he will not betray her, and alter when this supposedly xenophobic warmonger realises that the war he caused previously between Earth and Draconia was the result of a terrible misunderstanding on his part. Impressively, he quickly admits his mistake and apologizes, looking suitably repentant. Admittedly, neither Michael Hawkins nor Vera Fusak put in especially captivating performances, but the scripting shines through nonetheless. 

In the Draconian court, the effect is much the same, with talks of the Emperor depending on the great families for support, and the Emperor (played by the ever-reliable John Woodnutt) palpably older and wiser than his hotheaded but ultimately noble son. Again therefore, Hulke hints at a wider society. Indeed, the Draconian custom that women may not speak in the presence of the Emperor gives us further insight into their society, as does the importance that they place on honour, both providing glimpses of a wider culture. The prisoners on the moon whom the Doctor encounters are also well characterised, from the (rather strange) Peace Party lynchpin Professor Dale, to the idealistic Patel, to the untrustworthy trustee Cross. Even the briefly seen Governor is well characterised, a petty, rather cruel, man basking in the power he holds over his prisoners and inflated with self-importance.

The return of Ogrons is of little importance, given their role as stupid henchmen, but since they served the same role in 'Day of the Daleks', there's no real reason why they might as well not be used. More important is the fact that anyone familiar with their previous appearance might put two and two together and realize who the Master's mysterious employers are. Even with foreknowledge however, the appearance of the Daleks in Episode Six is a great moment, as they glide into view on the cliff-tops and casually gun down the Earth soldiers. Once it becomes clear that the Daleks are behind the attempt to start a war between Earth and Draconia, it immediately offers the potential of an epic story to come, suggesting perhaps that the Daleks on embarking on some campaign on the scale of that in 'The Daleks' Master Plan' or 'The Evil of the Daleks'. The cliffhanger ending to 'Frontier in Space', as the Doctor sets off in pursuit of the Daleks, therefore has tremendous promise. Unfortunately, what it delivers is one of the worst stories of the Pertwee era...

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"Frontier in Space" is a high point from my favorite era of the show. While I adore the UNIT scenario, it is wonderful that the Third DoctorÂ’s exile to Earth ended, freeing him to have adventures such as this. This story is far from perfect, but accentuates the strengths of the Time LordÂ’s third incarnation and casts some interesting light on this entire period in the showÂ’s history.

Doctor Who didnÂ’t attempt a sprawling space opera that often (only "The Dalek Master Plan" leaps to mind). There are many stories set in the future or on board space ships, but few serials present such an epic canvas which the characters are seen to cross: no "star map" of the Earth/Draconian Empires has ever been published by merchandisers, but none is needed: the script, dialogue, and production provide just enough for the viewer to visualize the rest of the landscape in the mindÂ’s eye. Yes, there are several instances of obvious padding but even some of the repetitive escape/capture/escape/recapture sequences lend a feeling of a story happening on a vast scale.

Malcolm HulkeÂ’s script is quite good. There are occasional moments of embarrassing dialogue (The Doctor referring to Jo as a "perishing panda" and his anecdote concerning mind probes are best forgotten; as are, indeed, the very cliche of "mind probes"), but these are rare gaffes. Far better are the sequences on the lunar penal colony (The scenes between the Doctor and the other prisoners there are full of great character moments, and the DoctorÂ’s exchange with Cross is very memorable. "Doctor: (after Cross confiscates another prisonerÂ’s chocolate bar): ThatÂ’s stealing, you know. Cross: ThatÂ’s what IÂ’m in for ... Got a troublemaker, have we? Doctor: ThatÂ’s what IÂ’m in for." In fact, watching this serial now, it is interesting to note how it anticipates the opening episodes of Terry NationÂ’s BlakeÂ’s 7 in many ways.

The Draconians are a well-realized alien race: the scenes in their embassy on Earth and their home world suggest a well-thought out society, with plenty of room for further exploration. This, coupled with the excellent costume design, makes one wonder why they never featured in Doctor Who again. The Master is strangely comical in this outing: reading H.G. Wells and mocking everyone from the Doctor to the Daleks with equal scorn. ItÂ’s well played by Roger Delgado but perhaps the Master could have been written in a slightly more sinister vein. This is a minor complaint, however, and DelgadoÂ’s swan song is very entertaining, nonetheless.

The Doctor is fascinating here; this incarnation is justifiably linked to UNIT in the minds of so many people, but it is always interesting to see him operating without the organization to fall back on. It is easy to forget that, whereas UNIT depends upon the Doctor, in the UNIT stories the Doctor himself also depends on UNIT for support and/or rescue. Without them, he and Jo are refreshingly on their own, depending upon their wits and whatever allies they can find to escape and win another day. PertweeÂ’s Doctor is not only the stylish moral crusader, but one of the most physically active incarnations of the character, engaging in hand-to-hand combat with Earth soldiers, Draconians, and the Master, undertaking several space walks to repair and or escape from assorted space vessels, and so on throughout the tale. Storylines are obviously tailored for whatever Doctor is incumbent at the time, but it is interesting to ponder how well Doctors would have fare if placed in some of their counterpartÂ’s serials.

As for Jo Grant... Hmmm. I am partial to Liz Shaw, myself, but Jo doesnÂ’t come off too badly in this story. She resists the MasterÂ’s hypnotic effects and diverts attention from one of the DoctorÂ’s escape plans (for a while, at least), proving herself far more capable than I have considered her in the past. In Episode One, she even deduces that the Daleks might be in command of the Ogrons, only to be shot down by the DoctorÂ’s contention that Ogrons have many employers. All right, the Master was guiding the Ogrons, but the Daleks were ultimately involved as well! Perhaps itÂ’s time for me to re-evaluate Jo Grant?

Perhaps the only disappointing feature for me is the final sequence. It provides the cliffhanger lead-in to "Planet of the Daleks" well enough, but, in a piece of poor (one might even say bizarre) editing, the Master simply disappears! He shoots the Doctor one moment, and then the Ogrons flee, leaving Jo to help the wounded Doctor into the TARDIS. In an eyeblink, the Master is nowhere to be seen! Where did he go, and why? This always puzzled me, and, coming right at the end of the story, it closes out the tale on a slightly unsatisfactory note. Nevertheless, director Paul Bernard does a fine job otherwise, and "Frontier In Space" remains, for me, one of the greatest successes of the Pertwee era.

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Frontier In Space has the dubious distinction of being the only serial of Doctor Who that my sister has watched all the way through, and that was only because she was too ill to move. She passionately hated it, finding it boring, but it's actually a pretty decent story and probably second only to The Green Death in the programme's tenth season. However, it does tend to go round in circles a bit: I can tell you that over the course of the six episodes one or more characters gets incarcerated in a prison cell no less than seventeen times, including the lunar penal colony. Still, over-the-top lazy writer's devices are what the Jon Pertwee era is all about (more on that when we get to Planet Of The Spiders).

The first thing notable about this episode is the superb quality of the special effects, which is not something you can say very often about a Barry Letts production. This is particularly evident in the model shots of spacecraft flying about which, although looking slightly Thunderbirds-esque at times, certainly pass muster. As well as this though there is very little CSO present in this episode, being used only to create the television footage in the President's office. This is good, as the quality of the CSO is one of the most consistently poor aspects of Letts's time as producer. This may sound like I'm setting Letts up for a rough ride during the course of my reviews (for future reference, this is my first Pertwee review). Wait and see.

The opening scene with the freighter crew is obviously designed to set the story, but even though it lays on the exposition very thick it gets by by following the first rule of plot development: the characters actually have a reason to be talking to each other. There they are, two crewmembers of an unarmed ship that as far as they know could be attacked at any moment - why shouldn't they discuss the threat? The first scene with the Doctor and Jo shows Pertwee arguably not trying, stroking his lip and scratching his neck less than a minute after emerging from the TARDIS. However, Jo's characterisation improved considerably over her tenure (in inverse proportion to UNIT's) and so she's much less annoying here than she used to be, although the thought of a Katy Manning DVD commentary still fills me with horror. The pulsing spacecraft fills the episode with a sense of mystery - something common then but rare now in these days when everything has to be jammed into a forty-five minute space - which is always a good start.

Dudley Simpson's electronic score is very intrusive; Simpson often produced good work when using conventional instruments (which do feature in this story), but his output when using squeaky early-1970s synthesisers was rarely up to much. Still, there have been worse scores for the show, both by him and others.

The story is set in the 26th century, but I could have sworn it was 1973. More to the point, 1973's idea of what the 26th century would look like, viz, the fashions of 1973 but in spandex, perspex and a lot of other things ending in ex (I've watched Dalek a lot recently). The location work is well shot but the buildings they chose look so 1970s that the effect is spoiled, with what looks like a concrete leisure centre doubling as Earth control. It's like watching Doctor Who done on the set of Get Carter. Pertwee was right though when he said that the Draconians were great looking aliens, even though their 'honourable foe' characterisation seems slightly dated now having been done a billion times in Star Trek. It has to be said that Peter Birrel looks like he's struggling under his make up and his acting is very stagy; he is eclipsed in his scenes by Karol Hagar, playing his secretary. Louis Mahoney as the newscaster presents a largely successful attempt to show a wider universe (half 1984 and half The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy) beyond the confines of the serial's sets and locations, once you get over the shock of seeing a non-Caucasian in 1970s Doctor Who.

Back in space, the Doctor and Jo are locked up (a state in which they spend most of the episode). The mystery of the attacking Draconians is explained early on, which is rare, but done to set up a conspiracy storyline rather than a mystery. However, showing the Ogrons before the dramatic reveal as they burst through the airlock door does spoil the effect a bit, as well as making it fairly predicable that the Daleks are going to turn up at some point (it was stated by Vorg in only the previous story Carnival Of Monsters that the Ogrons worked for the Daleks). That said it is a nice twist to see them again and they are excellently designed monsters, looking like a cross between an ape and Little Red Riding Hood's gran. Also, their mercenary status and idiot characterisation make them more original than the usual "resistance is useless" job.

Episode two has a long reprise which is followed by the Doctor and Jo getting locked up; an appropriate beginning for an episode that goes nowhere. However, there is some funny dialogue to introduce the concept of a mind probe, although the "pink horse with yellow spots on" sounds like an insult from Arnold Rimmer. The argument between the Draconians and the humans ends as it began, with stalemate, and their refusal to believe the Doctor means that the third party storyline takes ages to get going. By the time of episode three not much has changed, but the dialogue is well written and just about hold sup across the serials' six episodes, saving the story from feeling overlong.

The mind probe looks like a little pork pie on a dish, but it's a great scene and it showcases the excellently characterised General Williams, who completely blots out what he doesn't want to hear even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Pertwee's face is a picture as the probe blows up, although shouldn't it take his brain with it?

The Doctor's relocation to the lunar penal colony is a good trick for preventing the story faltering along its length; changing the setting keeps the story fresh. Events are moved on further by the introduction of the Master, supposedly revealing himself to be the aforementioned third party. Having these plot points paced gradually over the story helps the plot no end as it means that we don't get one or two scenes of "what's happening Doctor?" hackery, and it also means that viewers at the time weren't required to remember everything that had happened six weeks previously. Having said that, the "only politicals get the moon" scene is not exactly subtle.

Professor Dale is very well acted by Harold Goldblatt. He reminds me sometimes of a less irritable version of William Hartnell's Doctor; in fact, he even performs a tribute to Hartnell by fluffing a line. On the subject of acting I should say that Roger Delgado is terrific in what turned out tragically to be his last appearance, especially as he had ended his last performance in The Time Monster hamming it up in a manner worthy of Anthony Ainley: the scenes where he confronts Jo for the first time and later when he blackmails the prison governor into relinquishing the Doctor are a joy to watch.

Episode four ties with episode two in seeing someone locked up the most times, with five counts of a character being shut in a cell. I should note that a boom mike shadow appears in the first cell-scene in this episode, and doesn't the Doctor say that he lost his sonic screwdriver in the penal colony? This would explain the new-look screwdriver from season eleven onwards. Glaring stock footage of the moon landing is used for when the Master's ship takes off but the model work generally is, as always in this story, excellent. Also, the Master reading War Of The Worlds is a nice touch, the kind of subtle self-referentiality that Russell T. Davies can never get the hang of. The spacewalk scene shows some very dodgy science but is visually impressive, although the Doctor does appear to swing about when supposed to be floating in the void - almost as if he's suspended on wires. He pulls out his oxygen pipe, but conveniently it only starts to propel him when he's pointing it in the right direction.

On my video episode five has the alternative Delaware arrangement of the theme music, so this seems an appropriate time to talk about it: it's awful, and it shows Barry Lett's thoughtlessness that he ever truly believed anything would ever top the original version - a mistake made by John Nathan-Turner ten years later, who when trying to make the show as modern as possible failed to realise that modern doesn't stay modern forever. It's hard to believe that the two versions of the music were actually made by the same person, which just goes to show what can happen when too much equipment is available; Delia Derbyshire really had to work to make the original, and that makes it what it is. The first time I heard the Delaware version, I thought I'd been slipped something.

The Draconian court is seen for the first time this episode, and obvious parallels are drawn up between the two camps: Draconia has the warmongering prince and the moderate emperor, while Earth has the aggressive General Williams and the rational president. The legend of the Doctor is a very Terry Nation style piece of work, and in fact one that would be repeated by Nation in the very next story. The raid by the Ogrons on the stolen ship is simple but effective, although the Doctor fires a gun without any qualm at all which is something very hard to equate with his character. I suppose something about the Ogrons brings out his violent side.

The Ogron planet is revealed, and it's a quarry. There are many clichés about Doctor Who, and the one hardest to defend against is that quarries were used left, right and centre to provide alien planets. It has to be said though that most of the time (like now) the script did call for a barren wasteland, with the exception of The Three Doctors which just showed the production team not trying in the locations department. The final episode is largely set here, and there is some nice continuity as monsters from the last season are paraded before Jo. Back on Earth, the American calling for war when the audience knows it is unjustified may be a commentary on Vietnam, or maybe that's just me getting too analytical.

Typical of an episode set in a quarry, the visuals pall slightly in this episode: there are obvious wires in the spacewalk scene, and the Ogron eater looks like a soiled mattress. Is it me, or is the Doctor's scanner the same prop that was later used in The Mark Of The Rani? There is a well staged action scene though, that leads to the big reveal the Daleks are the masterminds behind the whole plot (in deference to this I have hidden a "bad wolf" reference in this review. Try and find it, conspiracy lovers!). Pertwee seems very unconcerned that his least favourite monsters have returned, and like I said earlier the presence of the Ogrons makes it less of a surprise than it could and should have been. Their voices are excellent: very smooth, but also totally electronic and tinny (although I prefer the harshness of the early Daleks and now the new series too). Also, Michael Wisher is an excellent voice artist, falling behind only Nicholas Briggs and the grand daddy of them all, Peter Hawkins; he's leagues ahead of Roy Skelton. However, the actors have trouble moving the props even on the smooth studio floors.

This all leads to an unusual cliffhanger ending leading directly into the next story, Planet Of The Daleks, but due to the tacky production and Terry Nation's derivative script the season's twelve-part centrepiece was less effective than it deserved to be: it's certainly nowhere near the quality of The Daleks' Master Plan, for which Frontier In Space and Planet Of The Daleks were conceived to rival. Still, this first half is sprawling, slow paced but also intelligent, mature and enjoyable and stands up as one of the better stories of Pertwee's last two seasons.

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