Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Frontier In Space


I may be a little prejudiced here.  I see a model spaceship flying through the stars, and I'm pretty much instantly sold.  Add on that it's not just a backdrop, but the story is actually an epic Space Opera about intergalactic war, complete with futuristic blaster/gunfights, guys in elaborate rubber masks playing aliens, and a chase through hyperspace, and you basically have a story that was written just for me.  You have to try really, really hard to not make me happy with that.

But regardless, Frontier In Space is a typically intelligent, complex adventure from Malcolm Hulke, well realized by the production team, an excellent showing for both Jo and the Master, and overall one of the highlights of the Third Doctor's era.

Part of Frontier's excellent comes from Hulke's skill with writing exciting serialized yarns.  Throughout six episodes, the stakes and locations are constantly changing.  In the opening episode, the Doctor and Jo stumble onto a ship to find the crew pointing guns at them and locking them up because they think they're "Dragons"... and Jo is horrified to see not the humans the Doctor sees, but a Drashig.  Soon, the ship is under attack, apparently by the Draconians, a race with an empire to rival Earth's...

...but once they get onboard, the Doctor sees not Draconians, but Ogrons, the mercenary race from Day of the Daleks.

After the attack, the Doctor and Jo are accused of being spies for the Draconians and brought to Earth, where they must clear their names and find out who's behind all this before either the Earthlings or the Draconians manage to execute them.

And for all the gunfights and chases and the more intellectual cat-and-mouse games in Frontier, beneath the action and thrills is a terrific story.  The world-building is superb; Hulke develops both cultures with tremendous depth and thought, showing a whole range of believable political ideologies and actions on both sides.  He fills it with little details and textures, like the Earth's restriction of one child per family to combat overpopulation except in special colonies looking for population growth.  The production team matches him, with terrific sets, costumes and props making these world come alive.

Hulke particularly excels at the political aspect.  He put a lot of effort in his previous stories to develop alien creatures with complexity and individuality, to make them more than just monsters, but this is the one where he really nails it.   

The Silurians was a very strong attempt, but we really only saw one Silurian interested in not attempting to wipe out the human race.  The Sea Devils did a better job with the complexity, but it was more a general racial complexity; none of them quite stood out as individuals.  But Frontier pulls it off superbly.  The Draconian Ambassador, Emperor, and Prince all come across as genuine individuals, with differing views on the conflict and real individuality.  Hulke give them a lot of personality, but he gives them enough to be differentiated, and he must be commended for getting as far with them as he did.

The Draconians are just as well-realized by the production team; they're incredibly well-designed and well-executed.

Hulke makes the humans just as complex; it's not as simple as "aliens good, humans bad."  General Williams certainly pushes very strongly for war, but his reasoning is ultimately understandable, and once he learns certain secrets about the past, he not only aids the Doctor, but he insists on leading a dangerous mission to ensure peace personally.

The Earth President is a sympathetic character struggling with very difficult decisions, feeling believably like a politician strong enough to lead an empire and trying to lead it right.  Yet as sympathetic as she is, she sends any political dissenters of any kind to a lifetime sentence on the moon.  It's a future both Utopian and Dystopian in equal measures, with a government in some ways tyrannical but deeply human.

Which is where the main complaint about this story comes in.  Frontier has a reputation for being slow and padded.  The feel of the pacing probably varies from person to person, but for a '70s TV story, it moves along very quickly; the locations, supporting cast, situation, and stakes are changing constantly.  It doesn't waste time getting from location to location; it does whatever plot developments, world-building, character-building, or action it has for the scene, then moves on as soon as it's over.  A lot of stuff happens in a very short amount of time throughout the story.

The padding is a more difficult question.  After all, from a purely plot perspective, most of episode three and virtually all of episode four could have been cut out.  Much of three is spent with the Doctor being interrogated, which he doesn't respond to, after which he's taken to the Lunar Penal Colony.  The Master then shows up, takes Jo from Earth, and spends the opening scenes of episode four getting the Doctor out of the prison.  As far as advancing the core plot, the Master could have shown up before the interrogation and taken them right away.

But while the moon scenes aren't crucial from a plot perspective, they add tremendously to the world-building.  We see political prisoners, some of whom were merely imprisoned for protesting, serving out life sentences.  And because the Doctor is put there, too, we feel the injustice.  We also get a clearer picture of some of the political opposition to the president than we could have gotten from the conversations in the President's office or mere news reports.  By making the world deeper and more convincing, Hulke makes the meaning and impact of the story more potent; removing the Lunar scenes leaves us with a much less intriguing universe.

Four is a different matter.  Much of Episode Four regards Jo and the Doctor trying to escape the Master's clutches in a spacecraft hurtling them toward his home base, where he has plans for them.  Eventually, they effect a daring escape, leading to a thrilling fight and a  tense showdown... at which point the Draconians board the ship and take them to Draconia.  From the point of view of the plot, they could have been boarded almost immediately, and the whole episode could have been cut.

 ... except Episode Four is the best part of the story.  The Cat-and-Mouse game between the Doctor and the Master is one of the finest Doctor/Master sequences in the entire series.  Hulke always writes excellent material for Roger Delgado, but here he surpasses himself.  This Master is an intelligent, urbane, charming villain, and Delgado plays the material magnificently.  The Doctor and Jo work together beautifully to outwit him, giving Jo some of her best scenes.  All three actors and characters are at their zenith.  And the fight between the Doctor and the Master is a thrilling cap.  Episode Four sizzles like no other Doctor/Master confrontation.  It's an absolute blast.  And as far as Frontier's story is concerned, it increases the tension and stakes between Heroes and Villain as could only be done by showing them face off at their best.  So, really, the third and fourth episodes aren't padding at all except by the strictest of definitions - that plot must take precedence over world-building, excitement, and characterization.  But stories are made of those elements every bit as much as of plot - more so, perhaps, especially on television.

Pictured: Padding, apparently.

Frontier In Space certainly forms one of the finest Jo Grant stories.  Jo is so often labelled a useless companion, and she's nothing of the sort.  I think the misconception comes from a couple of weak early stories with her and the inexplicable popularity of her last story, The Green Death, which does portray her as nothing more than a screaming girl in peril.  The thing is, outside of a handful of episodes, she's a fantastic companion: brave, loyal, very funny, and totally active.  She has a surface of doofy silliness, but underneath that - and not far underneath it - is a wonderful heroine made only more charming by her ditziness.  And Katy Manning's chemistry with Jon Pertwee can't be underestimated.  The affection between them is one of the warmest of all Doctor/companion relationships.

Right from the beginning of Frontier, she's at her best.  When she and the Doctor are captured and being taken to Earth, she immediately begins thinking of escape plans, and only stops when the Doctor tells her that, for once, he doesn't want to escape - this is part of his (new) plan.  And when the Master shows up in Episode Three, her face-down of him is fantastic.

Through Episode Four, she does a terrific job helping the Doctor take over the Master's ship, bravely continuing the plan after fearing the Doctor has been killed in his spacewalk.   But perhaps her finest moment comes near the end of the story, as the Master has her captured and attempts to put her under his control... and she totally defeats his hypnosis.

Impressed, but undeterred, the Master uses his fear device on her.

Seriously, why is this the last time these things show up?
... and she talks herself out of it.

And having defeated the Master's fear device that has thrown entire empires into war, she brushes it off with a casual, "Well, you can't win them all, can you?"  Her brilliant heroism and general awesomeness continue as she digs her way out of her jail cell and sneaks around the Master's headquarters until she finds a communication area, and sends a message into deep space to make sure the Master's location is known.

... except that was the Master's plan.  Finally realizing he had underestimated her, he set up something much more difficult and elaborate, counting on her bravery and ingenuity to set a trap for her and the Doctor.  How many companions has the Master treated with that level of respect?

Delgado's Master is at his finest in this story, charming and manipulating his way through the galaxy with style.  Hulke always gave Delgado his best material, and this is his peak.  The Master's list of crimes he claims the Doctor has committed on Sirius IV as part of his scheme?  Hilarious.  I also love his over-the-top show of calm at the beginning of episode V.  Every scene he gets is a gem.

MASTER: I, too, welcome your wisdom, your majesty.  Nobody could be more devoted to the cause of peace than I.  As a commissioner of Earth's Interplanetary Police, I have devoted my life to the cause of law and order, and law and order can only exist in a time of peace.

DOCTOR: You feeling all right, old chap?

He goes on to defy his allies, the Daleks, by stopping them from killing the Doctor... so that he can give him a much worse punishment: force him to watch his plans come to fruition, destroying both empires and killing billions.  Then kill him.  Of course, it doesn't work (largely because, again, Jo is awesome), but it's still a deliciously evil plan.
Due to a tragic car accident, this was Delgado's last appearance on the show, and while it's not written as a send-off - he was supposed to return one last time in the next season - it's nonetheless a good final story simply because it's his best.  Delgado is magnificent.

Frontier does fall a bit flat at the end.  Episode Six is certainly exciting, what with Jo's awesomeness, the hyperspace missile battles, and the Doctor rewiring the Master's fear device to make the Ogrons think he's a Dalek...

...but the ending is abrupt and confused.  Granted, part of that is the appearance of the Daleks, leaving this story to cliffhanger into the next one, Planet of the Daleks, but it still seems at least something could have been wrapped up.  As the Doctor leaves to deal with the Daleks, the Earth/Draconia conflict, while near a solution, is still in the air; the fates of General Williams and the Draconian Prince are forgotten; and the Master simply disappears after a poorly-edited gunfight.  It wouldn't have taken more than a minute to give these threads some manner of closing.  As it is, Frontier is a terrific story that ends in an oddly unsatisfying manner, and not really because of its cliffhanger.  After all, that cliffhanger, directed by Planet's director, David Maloney, is an intense and gripping scene in itself.

Still, Frontier In Space stands tall as one of the finest Doctor Who stories of its era, a highlight for the Third Doctor, Jo Grant, and the Master, and beautifully and impressively succeeding at both thrilling pulp adventure and complex political thriller.


* * * ½


  • The sexual politics are interesting - not only is the Earth president a woman, but the Lunar Penal colony is apparently co-ed!  In both cases, I love that it shows these things, but never comments on them; it makes the world much more believable and well-rounded.
  • Doctor: "Madam, I can assure you I've never been employed by anybody."  So, what's UNIT, chopped liver?
  • The whole thing has a slightly Star Trek-ish feel, from the semi-galactic empires to General Williams to Dudley Simpson's music, although, being Doctor Who, it's bit more cynical about the future.
  • The Master's fear device seems like the most appropriate sci-fi device to create a war.  After all, how many wars have been fought at least partly because of fear of the adversary?  As the Doctor says, "Fear breeds hatred."
  • Again, I love the model work in this story, and it's clear director Paul Bernard did, as well, given how much (and how effectively) he uses them.  The episode two replay of episode one's cliffhanger runs about a minute longer than usual almost certainly to put as much space stuff in there as possible.

  • Besides the model shots, the location footage is excellent -- brilliantly chosen locations to give a real sense of scale.  Barry Letts increased the production values and stretched the budgets to their limits during his tenure as producer, and it really pays off in this one.  Frontier really is set on a grand scale.

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