Monday, 25 February 2013

67: Frontier In Space - Doctor Who Does Space Opera?

Written by: Malcolm Hulke.
Companions: The Doctor, Jo Grant.
Monsters/Villains: Draconians, Humans, Ogrons, The Master, The Daleks.
Brief Synopsis:  In the 26th century the Doctor and Jo get embroiled in the stirrings of a war between the great empires of Earth and Draconia.
Rating: 5/10.

Frontier In Space started it's life as a 12-parter planned by Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks as an extravaganza to rival The Dalek's Master Plan. It was later decided to split the story into two 6-parters which left us with The Frontier In Space and... well let's not get ahead of ourselves.

My favourite Doctor Who writer penned this Space Opera, but is it his best work? The story is exciting and challenging but the finished product often comes off as a little repetitive and clunky. With too many scenes of space ships attaching and detaching, the Doctor and Jo being locked in various prison cells, and numerous never ending space walks the narrative becomes, at times, muddled. It feels like Doctor Who as a programme takes a step back in it's development.

One to many stilted space walks, ay Doctor?
But we're ticking lots of boxes. We've got the return of the Ogrons, we've got Roger Delgado as the Master (although sadly for the last time), we've got a new alien race, the Draconians, but yet it just feels like something isn't quite right. I'm a sucker for 50s, 60s, and 70s ideas and expectations of the 'future.' There are some weird and wonderful designs, including futuristic collars. The then newly built National Theatre was used as a location and the Doctor goes on a tangential visit to a lunar penal colony, or "Moon Jail," if you will. There are also some lovely little touches that ground the piece in reality; like the pin-up girl posters in the Cargo ship control room. As always Hulke's characters are fully rendered and non-stereotypical. They're not goodies and baddies, they're all believable people with motives and ambitions. But how does that fit with the Space Opera style?

Vera Fusek as the President of Earth.
You can tell writer Malcolm Hulke, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks had some say in the casting for this one. Vera Fusek a Czechoslovakian woman was cast as the President of Earth; something that at the time would have been so far from possible that even the representation of the idea of it on a programme like Doctor Who would have been shocking.

Louis Mahoney would later go on to play the
older version of Billy Shipton in Blink.
The casting of black actor Louis Mahoney would also prove to be fortuitous. Frontier In Space was broadcast 24 February-31st March 1973. In that very same year Trevor McDonald would become the first black Newsreader. It has sometimes been suggested that Malcolm Hulke was a communist; whether or not that is true he was certainly a progressive man. Like all of his stories Malcolm Hulke has loaded Frontier In Space with real world implications. Instead of his more usual moral dilemmas  Hulke here delves in to the world of politics and it's ramifications on war. It feels like he's pushing against the melodrama of the Space Opera setting.

There's a clue to who he's working for on his chest!
One of the saddest parts of this story is that it would transpire to be the last appearance of Roger Delgado as the Master. He died whilst on location in Turkey when a chauffeur-driven car in which he was travelling came off the road and plunged into a ravine. Jon Pertwee often remarked that it was Delgado's untimely death that led to his departure from Doctor Who. Delgado gives an excellent final performance, but sadly isn't given the farewell he deserves.

Jon Pertwee often named the Draconian as his favourite 'Who' Monster,
due to their design and use of the actors actual eyes and mouth.
So it transpires that the Ogrons are working for the Master, who is using a sonic device that makes people see what they fear most. This feels like Hulke and also fits the Space Opera style. The device causes the Draconians to see the Ogrons as Earthmen and the Earthmen to see them Draconians. The Master is trying to start a war between the two great empires so that... dun... dun... dun... the Daleks can sweep in and take over the Galaxy in the confusion.

The first time we met the Ogrons they were working for the Daleks but the Doctor explains that they are mercenaries, which neatly keeps the surprise of the Daleks showing up right until the end of the last episode. The Draconians make excellent characters. They have a sort of oriental, honour, dragon feel to them in design terms and each actor uses sibilance beautifully. They are one of the alien races that I believe most deserve a come-back in the current series. They were named-dropped as part of the Alliance to trap the Doctor in the Pandorica in The Big Bang in 2010 but didn't make an appearance on screen.

I love Peter Birrel as the Draconian Prince.
In the end an Ogron shoots the Doctor, who manages to escape back to the TARDIS with Jo. He uses the telepathic circuits of the TARDIS to contact the Time Lords, telling them to help him follow a fleeing Dalek ship before collapsing. It's a big cliffhanger, which is emphasised more by the fact it comes at the end of the story. So on the hole Frontier In Space isn't bad. It's let down by it's lengthiness and sometimes repetitive production. It feels like Hulke wants to write a straight drama highlighting the connections between polotics and war, but he's stuck with the melodrama, adventure and technological aspects of a Space Opera. At times the two synthesise and blend, but at others they clash horribly. 

It doesn't work on a consistent level, but there will always be a place in my heart for this story.

Join me next time for the continuation of this story in The Planet of The Daleks.

1 comment:

Graal said...

Fotr some reason this is still one of my favourites. Pertwee at his best I think, and I love the Draconians.