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Frontier in Space

Reviewed by Alistair Hughes

'In a reminiscent mood are we, Doctor..?'

Daleks, the Master, Ogrons, Draconians, a Sea Devil, Drashig, Solonian Mutant... sounds like the role call for an early draft of The Five Doctors, doesn't it?

Add numerous references to the Time Lords, the Doctor's trial and subsequent exile on Earth, the Brigadier and UNIT; surely we must be talking about a 'special' of some kind? In actual fact these were the ingredients for a mid-season six parter from 1973.

Combining concepts from the very beginning of the programme with those as recent as the previous story, Frontier in Space is almost the 'tenth anniversary celebration of Doctor Who' that The Three Doctors only partially succeeded in being. This isn't perhaps unintentional, as it is well known now that Frontier in Space was originally planned as the first half of a twelve-part epic, featuring the Dalek's second 'Master Plan' to conquer the galaxy. This was presented as two separate, but dovetailing stories, Frontier and Planet of the Daleks. Dividing this 'epic' in half was a good idea for production and diversity, but one can't help but wish Terry Nation had condescended to incorporate some elements from Frontier into his Dalek story. Some Ogron guards (or even construction workers) on Spiridon, perhaps? Anything would have been an improvement!

'There is a plot, yes!'

As with most of Malcolm Hulke's stories, Frontier deals with conflict between diverse factions or races, and the deceptively simple concept that neither side is ever completely right or wrong.

In the 20th century, humankind failed to co-exist with one of Malcolm Hulke's intelligent reptile species on our/their own planet. In the 26th century we find ourselves in the same situation, but this time on a galactic scale with the noble Draconian race. (An interesting side-line: I wonder if the Silurians and Sea Devils had their own version of Erich Von Daniken's 'ancient astronauts' theory, believing that their ancestors came originally from the stars: Draconia, perhaps? It would explain why the Sea Devils like to dress up as Samurai in Warriors of the Deep, a race memory from their distant Draconian past?)

The Doctor and Jo arrive at a time when tension is at a peak between the Earth and Draconian Empires, caused by the galactic equivalent of border raids. Interestingly, the audience is let in on what is really happening about ten minutes into the first episode. Would it possibly have been more interesting if we were somehow left to doubt the Draconians along with everyone else, until the Ogrons capture the Doctor and Jo at the end of Episode Two? In this climate it doesn't take long for the Doctor and Jo to be captured, blamed and imprisoned, an action that occurs no less than ten times through the course of this story! Our heroes are held in cells on a cargo ship, Earth, the Moon, a police ship and the Ogron planet. They are kidnapped by Ogrons and Draconians, arrested at least three times, and the Doctor is even subjected to (gasp) the Mind Probe!

A major weakness of the story, the Doctor and Jo's capture, escape, recapture cycle becomes very tedious but does have an interesting side effect. Until the Doctor is finally believed - in Episode Five (!) - he and Jo are reduced to the status of mere spectators, prevented from being key-players in the galactic events around them. I personally find this to be a refreshing change, harkening back to the earliest days of Doctor Who when the TARDIS crew became involved in events mainly as observers, influenced by the situations they found themselves in, and not the other way around.

When the Master appears in Episode Three, adding a new twist and boosting our interest as he always did, the Doctor and Jo are given more to do and the story picks up with interplanetary travel, spacewalks and battles, and a visit to the Imperial Throne room on Draconia. There is also a superb, though brief, fight scene between the Doctor and the Master. Encounters like this are always a highlight of the Pertwee/Delgado stories. On the lunar Penal colony the Doctor encounters the rather sad Earth Peace Party, who serve to illustrate the fact that although Madam President appears to be a compassionate leader, Earth is essentially a police state, ruled by grim-faced militarians like the ever-scowling General Williams. 'Speak out against the Government and you've had it,' one of the political prisoners tells the Doctor.

The serial concludes on the un-named planet of the Ogrons, and although the ending does have a couple of good points, it is generally very frustrating. The cliff top appearance of the Daleks, flanking the triumphant Master, is truly a magic moment if there's ever been one, and the Ogron planet is somehow a more alien looking quarry than others we've seen.

However the Ogron-eating monster, so well described in Hulke's novelisation of this story, turns out to be a giant, feebly billowing colostomy bag. Why it doesn't end up perforated by Ogron gunfire as soon as it appears is a complete mystery. It is also supposed to be the reason for the Ogrons charging about like schoolboys at the end, the hypno-sound device causing them to see the Doctor as the creature. I suppose it's a mercy that we're spared seeing it again.

Saddest of all, the wonderful Roger Delgado's last scene is a tiny cut-away shot, before he inexplicably vanishes with his Ogrons. Admittedly, no-one could have known at the time that this would be our final glimpse of the Master, but what a huge disappointment. Perhaps there is some consolation in the fact that the Master does finally get to shoot the Doctor in this scene, something he'd been trying to do since his first appearance.

'Their ways are devious... they are an inscrutable species.'

The politically tense future presented in this story provides plenty of conflict, which, in turn, is a superb breeding ground for full and engaging characters. In fact, the script and performances combine to give such uniformly believable characters that it's difficult to single any one out. Madam President (Vera Fusek) and General Williams (Michael Hawkins) have a large share of the limelight and flourish in it, particularly the former, whose blend of feminine compassion and strength serve her well as she faces pressure from all sides.

Her opposite number, the Draconian Emperor, has far less screen time, but John Woodnutt manages to imbue this character with immense dignity and wisdom. He is devoted to 'the importance of due formality', but is open-minded enough to rebuke his son, when the younger Draconian tries to prevent Jo from speaking: 'We must respect the customs of our guests, strange though they may be.'

Where the human characters are mostly unsympathetic and closed minded, the Draconians are shown in a more favourable light, helped rather than hindered by their elaborate make-up. Witness the conversation in Episode Two when the Draconian Ambassador and his aid discuss their plan to kidnap the Doctor and Jo, without actually discussing it. A conversation so subtly full of hidden meaning and irony is rare enough in Doctor Who, but to have it very convincingly carried out by actors with their features completely hidden under masks is further testimony to the success of the Draconians as an entirely believable alien race.

To discuss the performance of 'the regulars' it becomes necessary more than ever to include the Master. Despite his non-existent final scene, he is well served by the script for Frontier in Space, which examines the Doctor-Master-Jo triangle in depth. In fact, Episode Four almost exclusively features these three characters in a confined environment (the Master's stolen Police ship), and the interplay between them is very absorbing. The Master tells the Doctor and Jo to 'hold on' as his ship takes off, concerned for their safety even though, as far as he is concerned, he's flying them to their eventual death. Similarly, he warns them about a potentially bumpy course correction, but is positively delighted to learn that the same course correction may have flung the Doctor to his doom. He is never less than charming when speaking to 'Miss Grant', and when the Master and Doctor converse there is almost never any outward bitterness, only meticulous courtesy that conveys a considerable respect for each other.

Although taking more of a back seat than usual, Pertwee still conveys the moral persistence and resourcefulness that we associate with his Doctor. Delgado gets most, but not all of the best lines, as shown when the Doctor reprimands Cross for his bullying on the lunar penal colony; 'Tsk, tsk, now that's stealing', says the Doctor. 'That's what I'm in for, got a trouble maker have we?' 'That's what I'm in for.'

Losing his TARDIS and been stranded in a distant future which is about to be devastated by a war which he is powerless to prevent is a grim state of affairs, but the Doctor only seems genuinely unsettled at the end, when he senses the presence of his oldest enemies. Even Jo does well out of this story, not only resisting the Master's hypnosis (with nursery rhymes!) but his hallucinogenic device as well. 'Congratulations, Miss Grant, it seems that I've failed again.' 'Yes, you do, don't you?'

Katy Manning's look of sheer horror when the Master unexpectedly appears ('To coin a phrase, Miss Grant, I've come to take you away from all this...'), is well above par. To counterpoint such a grim view of the future, we are treated to some nice moments of humour, mainly involving the stupidity of the Ogrons. A scene in Episode Five when the Master finally loses his patience with his Ogron pilot is a good example. Pursuing another ship, the Master deduces that the Doctor is on board: 'No other ship would be on course for Earth at a time like this.'

'We are on course for Earth' observes the Ogron.

'NATURALLY!,' bellows the Master, 'because we're chasing them!! Oh, keep quiet and let me think...'

Then of course, there's the infamous scene showing the Master passing the time by reading a certain H.G. Wells novel, the title of which is a good summation of the situation which he hopes to create; The War of the Worlds.

'...Rocket fire at long range, somehow it lacks the personal touch.'

Another often cited premise behind Frontier in Space is that the production team wanted to do a 'space opera', based around spacecraft models bought in an auction at Elstree studios. These models had appeared in various Gerry Anderson television programmes and were cannibalised for Frontier in Space.

At least six different ships make an appearance, but ironically the BBC built the only one that leaves much of an impression, the Master's police ship, from scratch. The problem seems to lie in the way the models are filmed and animated. We never get close enough to them to get any sense of scale, and they tend to flit and dart about in a very unspacecraft-like manner, more like minnows!

Also on offer is the Doctor performing not one, but two space-walks (both accompanied by standard seventies 'eerie space music') and we are treated to various 'powder flash' gun battles. One of these features two Ogrons overcoming an entire prison load of Earth security forces to 'spring' the Doctor and Jo, smashing through a door in possibly the serials best effect. Ogrons may have 'no minds to probe', but they evidentially make an excellent SWAT team.

'Right, we'll see who rules the galaxy when this is over...'

Frontier in Space succeeds on many fronts. It gives us the Draconians, an alien race that are still regarded as one of the programmes very best, despite the fact that they only appeared in a single story, over 20 years ago. We are shown a vision of a bleak and credible future, where it is implied that problems such as over-population have necessitated a more authoritarian form of Government. Malcolm Hulke populates this future with believable characters, even when they are bipedal reptiles, and gives them all superb dialogue, particularly Delgado's Master, who makes the most of every urbane syllable.

Paradoxically, for a space opera, Frontier's failings include the model effects work. This can be overlooked, however, because although not outstanding, the effects are not actually poor, either. What is harder to forgive is the unsatisfactory and rushed conclusion, an example of script, direction and circumstances conspiring against the finished product.

This item appeared in TSV 47 (April 1996).

Index nodes: Frontier in Space