Frontier In Space

Written by:
Malcolm Hulke
Directed by: Paul Bernard
Starring: Jon Pertwee
Year: 1973
Video Availability: Try

The one that inspired Groundhog Day, I've always said that Frontier In Space would be a better story if only the Doctor and Jo spent more time being locked up in cells. As it stands, they only get slung behind bars thirty or forty times an episode, surely underplaying such an important narrative device?

The story of negotiations breaking down between two warring factions, as the current repeats of Pertwee stories have played out as a backdrop to the apparently concluding war, I may as well make one last parallel. Here they cast the Chief Dalek as Osama Bin Laden to the Draconians's Iraqis, while the Master is around, determined to provoke war at any cost - and George Bush hadn't even been elected when this was made. And what of the Draconians? People rave about them, completely overlooking the fact that they're one-dimensional, deemed to have a "culture" only by virtue of them saying "honour" every other sentence. I mean, they're rubbish! They're just a bunch of unemployed actors from the Tesco checkout with latex on their faces, and they lisp more than Pertwee. Let's not even mention that their name is a crushingly cheap play on the word Draconian (actually, it's not even a pun, is it?). This is the sort of stuff even Terry Nation wouldn't dare get away with. What next from Malcolm Hulke's pen? The Angryons? The Dictatorons? The Dominators? Oh, wait, they've been done as well…

Yet away from my sniping moans, this first episode is actually very, very entertaining. The presence of a black man and a female President may seem groundbreaking for 70s Who, but for such a homogenised period it's perhaps gimmickry tokenism than anything else. But what's more important is that even though Jon uproots the hilarity, he's actually acting much more than I remembered here. That's two stories in a row, combined with The Green Death, where he actually bothers to give a performance - the poor guy must have been knackered! Add to this a developing backstory of Earth's future culture in Who (The Mutants is referenced) and mentions of parents being only allowed to have two children and this is really quite entertaining. Okay, it's padded out to the cliffhanger a little, but cut it some slack, for this initial instalment, at least, it works.
* * * ½

The leader of security worries that the Doctor and Jo here are "two unfortunate refugees from a Draconian attack, ideally placed for espionage" - is this ironic or what? It's a wonder he didn't accuse them of making Ricin and take away their passports.

Jo's early would-be amusing idea of how to break out of the cell is supposed to be postmodern, but really it just goes to illustrate how formulaic and childish the series had become. Jo's brain has dissolved away once again, and this scene even ends with a tinkly flute sound, just like they used to use on Star Trek when they wanted to convince you Spock and McCoy were actually funny.

Yet what offends me most about this episode is the scene where Jon talks about "mind probes" (!) and "a giant rabbit, pink elephant and a purple horse with yellow spots". It's supposed to be quaint and charming, but it's really about as quaint as having your genitals trapped in a vice while you endure the charm of having a red-hot poker inserted up your back passage. It's just more kid-aimed parochial "cuddly" cack, an over-familiar, cosy stopgap between Basil Brush and The Generation Game.

I'm still enjoying it considerably though, there's some nice location work here, and Dudley's music, however bizarre (at one point it sounds like he's cracking one off over an etch-a-sketch) is entering his less-dated, mid-70s phase. There's also a PMS flourish, where Jon mixes in a cape swish with two mouth scratches. Stylish.
* * *

A woman in a low-cut top massages the female President's face, neck and shoulders at the start of this one. Wahey! Implied girl-on-girl antics ahoy! There's also another of Hulke's "message of the story on a TV screen", but this one's shots of riots works much better in context. Yeah, this is a somewhat silly, plasticcy kid's show, but at least it's trying here.

There's a scene where the Doctor's thoughts are relayed via the mind probe. It's nitpicky, but don't you wonder how, when someone has a flashback, they can always see themselves in it? But that's just an anal observation, and of course I didn't expect them to reshoot the original episode from Jon's POV. Doesn't he look a twat with that mind probe on his head though?

Here we find Jon sent to the moon for no other reason than to fill time. We do get an Asian man in 70s Who (credited only as "Patel"), who Jon has a nice chat with. Can you imagine if this was a Hartnell story? Old Bill would've blanked him, wouldn't he? Allegedly, obviously. "Now, now, now, my good fer… er, fellow, do f*** off, yes, yes, quite so!" But I do love one line of dialogue when Jon accuses a man of being a thief. "That's what I'm in for. Got a trouble maker have we?" "That's what I'm in for." I've noticed also that I often refer to the central character as "Jon" rather than "The Doctor" in my Pertwee reviews. I think it's because this is very much Jon just playing himself in most cases. It doesn't matter what the part requires - if Jon's bored, the Doctor's bored. And of course we'll find that out for real in the next story, but that's for later…

As the Pertwee story that most obviously homages Star Trek, it's only fitting that Patel and another prisoner are seen playing three-dimensional chess. The Master appears here, looking as idiotic as the rest of the cast in his binliner uniform, though interestingly they've amended the overused "Master theme" slightly. I would never say anything in as bad taste as to suggest it was fortuitous for the show that Roger Delgado was killed, but his performances were clearly past their sell-by date during this and The Time Monster. Sick? Maybe, but it's gone too far into lazy ham camp, with none of the edge remaining.

One point of note is when Professor Daly moves off with a "if you'll excuse me, one of our little prison rituals", Jon can clearly be seen looking up and off camera. I wonder what it was catching his eye? Barry Letts up in a gallery, flicking the finger at him maybe?
* * *

Are there just lots of tall actors in this story or does Roger Delgado look unusually short here? This is where the story really begins to fall down actually. While the moon sequences are clearly superfluous, they at least didn't feel like padding, and had some natural momentum. But here the sense of déjà vu is increased when the Master's spaceship is clearly the same set as the first episode's cargo ship, just redressed. And when he places the Doctor and Jo in his cell it's already the tenth time one or both of them have been locked in a cell this story.

Another attempt at ironic self-referentiality is attempted here, with the Master reading The War of the Worlds. Yet it's just so obvious, so overstated, that it's almost as unsubtle as poor old H.G. being read over in the 1996 TV movie. Come to think of it, poor old H.G. Wells has suffered some terrible abuse at the hands of the programme he indirectly invented - I mean, just look at Timelash.

Now, I'm not one to knock special effects in Doctor Who. Rubbish special effects go with the territory. But NASA stock footage is only a warm up to the truly horrific site of Jon on the most obvious wires in television history. I mean, Jesus Harry H. Corbett Christ, even Joe 90 didn't look as crap as this! Did they really film it in space? Some good model spaceship shots, though - share prices in Airfix must have rocketed.

The more this one drags on, the more I can see it as a really, really crap episode. There's no more political allegory or scenes on Earth, the large majority of it is just kiddie pleasing twee guff in a cell while Roger Delgado sits around reading a book. Wake me please. And to think they burnt episodes of The Power of the Daleks while this one still exists in the archives. Meanwhile, the cliffhanger is a shot of an Ogron sitting in a chair, a cliffhanger so exciting it nearly broke my knicker elastic.
* * ½

As uncanny as it may seem, a Malcolm Hulke story features Pertwee giving a pious moralising speech to the leader of an alien race. With the Master by his side arguing the toss, it's practically The Sea Devils revisited. Or Colony In Space revisited. Or…

This is still entertaining, but all of the set-up has lapsed into kiddie bobbins, the political angles reduced to the level of schoolyard moralising. The mind probe even gets another mention for good measure, and Jon's soapbox preaching over war takes the moral of the story and forces it down your throat, ignoring your protests as you gag on it.

Katy Manning is unusually stagy for so late in her run, and I've resisted being bitchy and mentioning her skin in this and the proceeding story. But didn't they have Biactol in 2540? Delgado's impression of an Earth policeman as a stereotypical copper is amusing but silly, and can't disguise the fact that this episode is again stretched out to breaking point. A battle with pop guns reminds me of when I used to play cap guns with my granddad. I didn't used to film it and expect 10 million people to watch it though.

The shifting characterisation of the (slightly wooden) General Williams is to be commended, though the Master's new-found habit of quoting old homilies is really starting to annoy, as is the reintroduction of his "theme". Jo claims that by filling "your mind with nonsense" you can't be hypnotised - so how come she's been hypnotised before then? Boom! Boom! And the Master's claim that he was "never very fond of nursery rhymes anyhow" is interesting bearing in mind his chants in The Dæmons were Mary Had A Little Lamb said backwards.
* * ½

This episode opens with a ranting, war-craving American. How unbelievable is that? While episode six does claw back some of the promise of the first three episodes, it falls flat for many reasons. One is that it's almost collapsed under the weight of its own length, whereas a four or five part Frontier In Space would have worked wonders. It also fails by having to be the first part to a twelve-part story, its plot threads going unresolved as it leads into Planet of the Daleks. And of course, the badly-edited finale criminally disappoints. Apparently Mike Reid directed this sequence by shouting out "G-g-g-gooo!"*
* Another obscure UK reference that will mean nothing to people overseas or under 30. He used to be the host of a show called Runaround, you see. Premise of show hopefully self-explanatory.

Jon brings out his wire work again, with not just the wires but their shadows clearly visible. Compare this to all the realistic space shots in The Ambassadors of Death and you have to wonder how they thought they could get away with it. Meanwhile, Jo tries to conjure up Earth security on an old CB radio, while Jon claims to be a "space engineer" - and I thought Terry Nation wasn't writing it until next week. Only - amazingly - Dudley Simpson really excels, his incidental music wittily alluding to Wagner.

An annoying habit of UK Gold for this story is to let the soundtrack play out over their programme idents. I dunno about you, but I always like to hear dialogue over the sound and image of a ringing telephone, don't you? Jon's "old chappisms" are really overplayed in this one, and maybe I should have counted them instead of the amount of times that someone mentions "Draconian Honour", which really isn't that many. (just four). Meanwhile, a bloated, shouting, brightly-coloured creature appears - and I thought Colin Baker wasn't in Who for another ten years.

The shock ending (given away by the VHS cover) would have been a great surprise to anyone watching at time of transmission, though the Daleks - yes, the Daleks!! - are just silly-sounding self-parodies. Even though the Master and the Daleks together is a fanwank dream, you half expect Victoria Wood to walk on at any moment. Out of the forgiving gaze of black and white, the Daleks are shakily moving antiquated bygones. Both the Doctor and the Master get to do their voice, which is funny, but draws attention to how silly they really are. Aside from their three battles opposite both Bakers, the Daleks never reclaimed any dignity in the colour stories. And I see that Stephen Thorne played an Ogron. You know, it's weird, because I was going to say that one of them shouted louder than most. Still, I bet his mum was proud.
* * ½

Ultimately mildly disappointing, this is one of the better anniversary stories, but one that is torn between an adult attempt to relay political ideas and a garish children's series. The fact that the messages are overstated does jar, as does the repetitive nature of the narrative and the heavily truncated ending. In conclusion, Frontier In Space can only be regarded as mediocre.
PMS: 6
Amount of times The Doctor and/or Jo get locked in a cell: 12
* * *