Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Serial 67: Frontier in Space

Doctor: Jon Pertwee (3rd Doctor)
Companion: Jo Grant

Written by: Malcolm Hulke

Directed by: Paul Bernard

Background & Significance: "Frontier in Space" was one of the five stories of Doctor Who's tenth seaso; as such, producer Barry Letts wanted to let out all the stops and do some good old fashioned homaging. He already had a Multi-Doctor crossover, but that wasn't enough. He set his sights on "The Daleks' Master Plan", seeking to challenge that story's record for "The Longest Doctor Who Story of all Time".

Okay. Before moving on... Flaw in his logic? Maybe he should have worried himself with  "Best" Doctor Who story of all time, instead of "Longest". "Daleks' Master Plan" was an overpadded session of ADD, in my opinion. Really good, but way too long.

But enough of that. What of this?

Because twelve episodes is a lot to do, Letts decided to split up this epic twelve parter (TWELVE! Anything longer than FOUR generally fails) into two halves, with each half featuring one of the two [at the time] iconic Doctor Who villains. The first half, (this half, the one we're talking about today) "Frontier in Space" would feature The Master. The second half, "Planet of The Daleks" would feature The Daleks and we'll talk about that at some point in the nearish future. (It's our next Pertwee story).

Inspired by The Cold War, this serial sees the creation of a new race of aliens, The Draconians, the return of the previous season's Ogrons (who were ape-like brainless servants of the Daleks... So... The Jem'Hedar?) from "Day of the Daleks" and also an attempt to turn Doctor Who into a space opera.

It also sees the return of Malcolm Hulke in his second to last story for the series. Also present, some Pertwee-era padding, perhaps the most ridiculous amount of capturing of The Doctor and his companion I've ever seen in a Doctor Who story, and a mostly useless use of The Master. A damn shame, if you ask me, especially considering this is Delgado's final Master story and the last Master story until the greatness that is "The Deadly Assassin".

And yet not so much, especially considering the plan they had for The Master, which I personally would have hated. But enough rambling!

So let's get to it!



Commentary!:

Part 1:


So this at least starts strong.

One of the things that always strikes me about the work of Malcolm Hulke is how consistently strong it is. That’s not to say I think everything he did was a homerun, or even a homerun at all (scratch that, “The War Games” is a grand slam) but it’s a really good average with only a few missteps (“Faceless Ones” and “Colony in Space” are the only ones that come to mind). At the very least he has a good sense of pacing and structure and there’s never the feeling that his stories are spinning their wheels too much. Sure there’s the odd episode that’s weak (Silurians episode six) but at the end of the day what we’re dealing with is some solid, strong storytelling with great structure that keeps moving and awesome good times.

And yet this episode sees The Doctor and Jo captured by the two-man crew of this cargo ship. And then, just as The Doctor and Jo get the door open, one of the crew members shows up and busts them. Meaning they’re recaptured. Already.

This story does a lot of good things, though, not the least of which is, again, Hulke’s ability to construct a strong mystery at the outset. Why are the Draconians attacking human ships? Why are the Draconians denying it? Why are the humans doing it back? Why are Ogrons boarding the cargo ships instead? All great questions that seem to hint at a larger conspiracy moving forward. He also paints a wonderful image of Earth as this fledgling new space empire that’s grappling for space with an equally fledgling Draconian empire.

And he does all this as the b-plot to his twenty five minute first episode. That’s… that’s really awesome to me. It’s a really strong canvas, such so that by the end of this episode you really do have a good understanding of the entire mythology of the future at this point in time.

It’s also an interesting paradigm. We’re already in the middle of this hardcore paradigm of two interstellar powers who are really on the brink of war. I believe the term was “Cold War” (oh wait I used that already I think, oh well, it’s apt) and… yes. That’s just interesting and not the sorta thing I can think of being explored in Doctor Who like this, especially because the stuff happening with the President of Earth (who’s a woman, by the way, badass) is not direct crossover with The Doctor but it’s nonetheless compelling. It’s really compelling political stuff, inherently dramatic and… yes.

And caught in the middle of all this? The Doctor and Jo.

I really like seeing The Doctor and Jo like this. They’re so infinitely comfortable with one another (three years will do that to you) and yet she’s still new to this. I mean… The Doctor hasn’t really taken Jo to the stars very often. Compare her to someone like Sarah Jane who was somewhere new every week. Jo’s still a product of UNIT and is still mostly confined to Earth in her adventures. I mean… "Colony in Space", "Curse of Peladon", and now this. It’s still all new to her isn’t it? Hell, even the TARDIS is a novelty. And yet she does trust him much and is game, but it’s not her scene. It’s weird. Same with The Doctor. You can almost tell he’s rusty or whatever. Which I like. It’s almost like he’s out of his element when he’s not on Earth. Always a little more guarded? I dunno. Something.

But it does leave us on an absolutely rubbish cliffhanger, with The Doctor and Jo being called traitors at gunpoint or whatever. It… man. It does not work for me. At all.

Anyways! Onward!

Part 2:

I know I’m jinxing it, but I’m not sure I have a whole hell of a lot to say about this one.

Really, we’re still in the first act of this big large story about The Frontier in Space and it’s still early early days for Letts’s desired twelve part epic, but we still have some nice progression of the plot even if it is very slow and padded.

The vast majority of this episode is spent at… well… I suppose it’s split between the Draconian Embassy and the Presidential Palace or whatever it is, and a good portion of that is spent seeing The Doctor and Jo switching hands, escaping and getting recaptured, over and over again. I mean, they’re incarcerated in an Earth cell and then The Doctor is captured by a Draconian guard while in transit to the President’s… place and is separated from Jo. And then he escapes from the Draconians and gets recaptured by the humans. And then at the end of the episode Jo and The Doctor are broken out of their cell by Ogrons.

Okay, I know that this is probably going to come up later, but isn’t this a little ridiculous?

I mean, I know Malcolm Hulke has done a lot of stories at this point, and who doesn’t love watching The Doctor escape from a dangerous situation and what’s more dramatic than seeing The Doctor and his companion captured by seemingly nefarious villains? But…. come on. Malcolm Hulke? You’re pulling my leg, right? I’m forty five minutes into this story and The Doctor and Jo have been captured at least four times at this point. That’s a little ridiculous. If you count the two of them separately, that number goes up. So… this has to be satirical, right? I mean, come on. Too bad he doesn’t seem to be aware of it or this could be some “Space Museum” level awesome. And yet it is not, too bad.

But I’m still enjoying this. Despite the fact that… well…

Okay. So, the big dramatic tension in this episode is all about The Doctor and Jo and how they fit into the roles as defined by the President of Earth and the Draconian delegation/embassy. See, the humans think that The Doctor and Jo are Draconian agents sent to earth to spy for the Draconians, and the Draconians think The Doctor and Jo are human spies who were sent to spy on the Draconians or to act as conspirators or something (although how this works is even sketchier). And now tensions between the humans and the Draconians are rising and The Doctor and Jo are caught in the middle, guilty of nothing and blamed and all that.

So all that is… complicated.

I appreciate what Malcolm Hulke is trying to do here, and it’s really setting the sort of tone and atmosphere of this whole place of how both sides are tense and ready to snap at any given moment. It’s a dangerous, tenuous situation.

But ummm… hang on. Why is it that the Draconians think it’s a good idea to extradite The Doctor from Earth custody in order to interrogate him and find out the truth? I mean, I understand that last part, but the Draconians LITERALLY MARCH ON THE EARTH DELEGATION PLACE AND STEAL THE DOCTOR AWAY FROM THE HUMAN GUARDS. No. Really. Draconians marching onto a political place and opening fire on personnel, specifically humans.

Someone tell me the Draconians realize that THIS IS HOW WARS ARE STARTED.

My favourite bit of that is that the humans literally take this to mean that the Draconians are “getting their men back”? Really? Cuz… you could take this as a declaration of war, you know. You really could. An opposing force just marched onto your soil and opened fire. That’s… that’s pretty nuts. AND this was sanctioned by the Draconian ambassador because god knows why. I mean, well, he wanted to interrogate the guy, but come on. Really? This was not a smart move. Especially when you know the situation.

It does lead to good, though. I really do love this whole… location they lined up for this story. It looks futuristic and regal and really spacious. The action is well shot… and… man. I just wish the rest of the story looked this good because the production design on the interiors leaves a lot to be desired.

But it’s still fun. It’s fun to watch The Doctor run around like a badass, even if he did have some HORRIBLY dubbed dialogue while he’s karate chopping some Draconians. Like laughably bad. But it’s good. And it’s compelling and it deepens this mystery. I’m certainly interested, aren’t you? I mean, why The Ogrons? Why now? Why do this at all? It’s good even if it is a bit padded for the mo. Also Ogron attack on the facility. That’s awesome to me. Love that.

Part 3:

Also known as “the random trip to the moon.”

Despite the fact that there’s still little forward progression on the story in terms of where it’s actually going, I find that at the very least this story is still entertaining.

Most of this episode is concerned with The Doctor being sent to and his attempts to escape from the Lunar Penal Colony (I say “the” because there is only the one). And while this should be tangential nothing bullsh*t, I find it… awesome. Much like he did when conveying earth society and the central conflict between the humans and Draconians within the span of one episode, so too does Malcolm Hulke convey a completely realized world of this Lunar Penal Colony within the span of just one scene.

It’s masterful, really. By the end of the episode we know a lot about the power structures of this prison, how they treat the prisoners, what the rules are, and that in turn gives us a chance to learn more about this society.

Seriously. I’m loving this. There’s a lot of imperfections in human society at this point in time. The Mind Probe is nothing short of a torture device that the President consents to using against The Doctor. Now, The Doctor is so awesome that he breaks the machine, but I love what it sorta represents. I mean, sci-fi torture is cool, especially because it does nothing to The Doctor and is in essence just a mental polygraph, but at the same time, it’s interesting to see how much more power General Williams is exerting over the situation.

And that mind probe is child’s play compared to what’s really going on on the moon, what with the no rules, people who literally are sent there and never heard of again because it’s all life sentences.

Honestly, it’s like a civilized Escape from New York where the inmates play chess instead of guns.

But seriously, I love the world that Hulke paints here. He turns what is essentially more wheel spinning into something legitimately interesting and world building. I mean, even the big emphasis on the peace party and their role in politics and how they want things, as exemplified by this old school glorified hippy guy prisoner is just… It’s good. I love him and his character. The zen attitude and the calmness really speaks to someone who believes, and I like that.

It’s amazing how well Malcolm Hulke can realize characters and settings in just a few short minutes. I really like that. It’s astounding. I feel like I know a lot about all these characters, how they interact, all that. It’s really fleshed out and smart.

There’s also the continuing corruption of the President as set upon by General Williams (who, speaking of, why does he get the loungey chair?). It’s really obvious to us that General Williams is a bit too hawkish for the situation, a bit too untrusting, a bit too manipulative, a bit too sadistic. And I love how he digs into the President’s head and starts messing with her by saying things like “We used to be close” and then delivering his own twist on the truth, vaguely threatening her power by saying things like “We have to go to war or you’ll be deposed”. It’s really smart and still subtle (although his posture isn’t) and that speaks to really strong writing because it just… works.

Although why General Williams’s desk in the President's office… Do they share an office? Is that a thing cuz they’re short on square footage? What happened to cubicles?

But for all of Malcolm Hulke’s strengths, I’m not sure writing The Master is one of them.

Now, before I go on and elucidate on this, I really like The Master in this story so far. He’s another layer that we’re still peeling back into this huge conspiracy of “who’s doing this” and why. His appearance is definitely an “oh snap” moment, especially if you don’t know he’s coming. But it’s also something of a letdown in this, especially because he descends into a place of mustache twirling and saying to Jo “Mwahahaha yes I did do this, don’t you get it now?”

That’s strange to me. For being so good at the other characters, it’s weird watching Hulke do a good job with him in the scene between the President and General Williams, but then he’s in the cell with Jo and it’s absolute panto. So unfortunate.

All in all this is still just as strong as it’s been. I don’t think it’s getting stronger, but it’s definitely staying fairly consistent. Although for a setup in this cliffhanger about the space suits and not everything being kosher, I woulda been mad suspiscious of the space suits that are based on zipper technology. I’m sorry, but I don’t think that zippers are airtight or pressure proof or whatever. Just something I think The Doctor should realize a little more. I mean. The front is literally just zip-down. HOW ARE YOU GOING TO SURVIVE IN SPACE FOR TEN MINUTES IN THIS?

Sorry. Just an observation. But it must be made!

Part 4:

Again, this episode is an example of things that shouldn’t work, but do.

Much like last episode was mostly concerned with what was going on in the prison, this episode is mostly concerned with what’s going on on the Master’s spaceship.

Now this, I think, the first time I was watching it is when the story started to lose me, and if I had to say one episode so far wasn’t working, it’d easily be this episode. I mean, NOTHING happens, even by this story’s standards. The Master picks up The Doctor and Jo and then they travel for a while. It’s fun and entertaining but nothing beyond that happens at all really.

Ah well, even Malcolm Hulke can’t be perfect.

So of this episode, the vast majority of it sees The Doctor and Jo trapped in a small cell on board. It’s a nice sort of device, and it’s a testament to Hulke, who does a good job of writing interesting, compelling stuff without having to resort to any sort of “cheap tricks”. I mean, most of it is Jo giving a monologue, almost a voice over while The Doctor gets free and gets a spacesuit on and does a space walk, but it’s really interesting how it’s not… as boring as that should be. Everything really clips along and it doesn’t feel super stagnant.

Then again, I don’t see how The Doctor should have been able to do the thing with the air vent, especially when the ship was moving that fast. But ah well, that is just a trifle.

Really, there isn’t much to say here except that Pertwee/Delgado is a genius Doctor/Master pairing. There’s something about seeing the two of them square off, watching each one grapple to get the upper hand of any sort of given situation. The Master is ahead, and then The Doctor has the drop on him, no now The Master has the airlock and The Doctor’s defeated. And like… because we’re not at the end of the story we’re assuming The Master wins, but he kinda doesn’t in the end.

By the way, talk about twist endings that aren’t set up. Draconians take over The Master’s space ship because they entered Draconian territory. That’s precious.

But yes. The Doctor. Who went spacewalking. I rather like this. Much like other writers, Hulke is totally imaginative and fun and “wouldn’t it be cool if” and letting things happen organic.  “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a prison colony on the moon?” or “Wouldn’t it be badass if the Doctor went on a spacewalk?” And the answer is yes, they’re cool, but also fleshed out and interesting bits/sequences. I really like the way they turned out, even though the spacewalking is a little slow.

Then again, it is space. And that’s harder. Things are harder in space.

Anyways, yeah. Jo was in it. So were Draconians. The Master read some “War of the Worlds” shit. It was just a good time to be in the Doctor Who story, although I’m ready for the plot to move forward now.

Part 5:

So I figured out the glaring, glaring problem in this story. But I’ll save that for a bit later.

What we have here is some more runaround and in a good way. There’s a big long section set on the Draconian homeworld involving the Draconian emperor and seeing someone finally convinced that this is all just one big conspiracy to what’s going on. It’s nice to see someone finally listening to reason and The Doctor and Jo finally making headway. Also nice to see is the fact that The Doctor spends most of this episode uncaptured from the Draconians now that he has the Draconians’ trust. But I also have to mention that he does spend the beginning of the episode in Draconian custody and the end of the episode in human custody.

That’s not to say anything about Jo Grant being held in Ogron/Master custody for half of this episode and what’s probably the weakest cliffhanger so far of The Master activating the fear device. How many times has she survived it so far?

There’s also some thrilling action in this episode, what with two separate Ogron attacks, one on the Draconian homeworld (seriously, they marched right into the throne room and opened fire. I would execute my security staff for such insolence) and the other in the middle of space when the Ogrons board The Doctor’s ship and steal Jo away. Of the two, I prefer the second one, because it totally feels like Star Wars and I love combat sequences that happen on board a “home turf”, in this case: the corridors of our ship.

I mean, I don’t even like The Doctor using guns, but Pertwee picks up a blaster and defends the place. And it’s pretty rad.

There’s also some nice comedy, what with The Master berating The Pilot Ogron for being a moron (which actually made me laugh out loud; a rarity to be sure) and it’s a shame that there isn’t more of Ogron idiocy because I find it so humorous to have The Master, who’s usually so suave and Moriarty-smart suddenly be undermined by idiotic ape creatures. It’s kind of amazing to see him having to deal with alliances that are beneath him.

So what about an alliance that is on his level? Oh snap! No jumping of the gun!

All in all I’m still liking this, although it is a bit contrived in places. The stuff about this war between Earth and Draconia and tension is all a string of various miscommunications. Why didn’t the humans just ask the Draconians why they showed up in a battlecruiser to a peace conference instead of simply assuming the worst? Why didn’t the Draconians just hail people and say “We’re traveling in style but it’s unarmed we swear”? And isn’t there a better explanation for all this that’s better than just saying “the battlecruiser’s communications dish went out because we flew through a neutron storm”? Isn’t that a little silly?

I mean me, I’d just be glad we made it through a neutron storm.

But we see a nice reversal on General Williams, who’s basically a giant massive dick who has no business working for a President he’s constantly undermining. But he gets a moment of redemption when he allows The Doctor a search party to go find Jo, The Master, and The Ogrons, especially considering he’s leading said expedition. Although he’s SUCH a prick for no reason, especially when confronted with all these random things that basically (as said above) amount to miscommunication that have bubbled into almost an all-out war and then denied that these things are possible. Maybe he’s just not meta-aware enough. Regardless, he’s still turned into a nice switch on a character whom I just kinda can’t stand. At least now I’m excited to see what happens next again.

Oh and by the way… what does happen next?

Part 6:

The Daleks show up.

So in this, the last episode, we discover that all of this is really a Dalek plot in an attempt to have the humans and the Draconians wipe each other out in a massive war so the Daleks could come in and take over the galaxy. And that’s… that’s fine, but doesn’t it really underestimate The Dalek influence/strength? Couldn’t the Daleks easily wipe out the humans at any point in time? Same with them vs. the Draconians. I mean, all they’d need to worry about is not a joint force of humans and Draconians. And then the Daleks will be the supreme beings or whatever. I dunno. It just makes sense for The Daleks to do this before the humans and Draconians develop space flight.

It also means that The Master has been working for The Daleks the whole time, which explains the Ogrons, because they’re Dalek minions and thusly working with The Master and blah blah.

Okay… ummm… I’m sick of this. And I know this is not really Malcolm Hulke’s story and it’s all a sorta thing where it’s a larger editorial mandate where the first half has to feature The Master and the second half has to feature The Daleks, but seriously. Talk about completely undercutting The Master right from the start of the story, especially because going into the next story, we see The Doctor out to thwart the Dalek plot to take over the universe and The Master is never mentioned again. So we’ve gone from The Master is a badass all the way down to “he’s a lackey for the biggest of badasses.”

I find that a disservice to the character, especially one who we would possibly never see again after this.

This is Delgado’s last story as The Master and as such I can’t help but think he’s gone out on a bit of a whimper. He doesn’t play into anything beyond this. He doesn’t quip. He doesn’t have a final sendoff. He doesn’t even laugh and say “I’ll be back”. We have the shot to our right, which is the last shot or mention of The Master in Doctor Who until he appears again in “The Deadly Assassin” under a completely new mantra and a completely new everything. And in this, his last appearance, we’re left with him playing second fiddle to The Daleks. Just like he supposedly played second fiddle to The Rani, which we all know is utter rubbish, right?

And that’s a sadness. I’m sure I would have hated The Master’s supposed final story, that “Final Solution” final story of Pertwee’s in which The Master and The Doctor team up and The Master sacrifices himself. That woulda been awesome, and the focus on The Master would have been great. Sure it would have lost me in the bits where they take it too far, where they say The Master is The Id and The Doctor The Ego and they’re two halves of the same coin… That goes too far for me. Why can’t a character just stand on his own and be out for his own gain? I mean, it’s moot because Delgado, Pertwee, and Letts are all dead now and Terrence Dicks and Robert Sloman are old and this story is probably a distant memory, especially because The Master was allowed to go in his own directions and be a character on his own…

But Delgado, man. Man he was good. I just wish he had a better farewell than this, which just… ends on a great cliffhanger of The Doctor calling for The Time Lords and then collapsing. That’s good. But it has nothing to do with The Master.

The rest of this is solid. It’s more running around and Jo somehow manages to dig her way out of her soil-floored cell with a spoon because they’re foolish enough to give that to her (which they do deal with, I’ll give them credit for that) and The Doctor manages to get to the planet okay and there’s some cool strong stuff with him out doing that spacewalk thing again WHERE YOU TOTALLY CAN’T SEE THE WIRES, so it’s all… decent stuff. Solid, I’d say. About as consistent as everything else we’ve seen from this story.

So really I’m not left with super crazy much. Only the notion that I basically watched a six part prelude, especially because I know that where The Doctor is going next is to fight The Daleks in a Terry Nation story and this story will be… well… forgotten and never referenced really. Next time it’s a new game and a new scene and that’s… a little disappointing, especially because Malcolm Hulke does such a good job setting everything up here and creating this fully realized status quo of the future and then come next time it’s a Terry Nation runaround that’s all about The Daleks and only the Daleks because god forbid Terry Nation actually do good work that helps Doctor Who or whatever.

Sigh.

Final Thoughts?: So this is strong, but unfortunate because it doesn’t quite hold together all on its own.

In the end of this, I must say I was too hard on it in the initial. It's not entirely my fault, though. This is basically six episodes of wheel spinning.

Now, it's really good wheel spinning. There's a lot of really strong characters, really cool drama and set pieces, really strong structure, a whole lotta fun.. But... at the end of this... What did The Doctor and Jo do exactly? I mean, seriously? And this is a problem I didn't really notice until I'd watched episode four again. The Doctor and Jo don't do a god damn thing in this. Not one god damn thing. I mean, they're caught in the middle of the action and the drama of the human/Draconian conflict, but that's all they do. They're caught in the middle. They don't really have any sort of vehicle to explore except to get free of wherever it is they're incarcerated.

Compare this to something like "The Caves of Androzani", which is really basically the same thing. The Doctor and Peri are caught in the middle a bunch of groups in an impossible situation they can't seem to escape from.

Again, this is jumping the gun on Caves a bit, but what makes Caves so rich and compelling is that everyone in that story is driven to some action. Peri just wants to leave. The Doctor just wants to leave and get Peri to safety (that's all he wants and it drives his entire character until his bitter end). Sharez Jek wants revenge on Morgus. Morgus wants the Spectrox. Stotz wants money. Chellak wants to bring down Sharez Jek. All these characters have very core motivators that are constantly propelling them forward through the action of the story and they keep bouncing off one another, creating conflict, tension, and drama, which is really what ends up making it the best Doctor Who story ever made.

But here, there's none of that. The Doctor and Jo keep bouncing around and exchanging hands. They just want to prevent what's going on, but they aren't very active in taking care of it (The Doctor is pretty resigned once people shut him down just one time). The Master is helping The Daleks, but that's also a weaker motivation for him as a character. The President and Draconian Emperor are completely paralyzed for fear of plunging their respective empires into war and thusly can't do anything. Sure, there's a drama in the tension both parties feel, and it's palpable, but they're not nearly as clearly defined as that umph of something like "Caves". The only character who actually has any sort of real drive is General Williams, who is constantly berating The President and trying to get the humans to go to war. Because he wants to defend his borders. That's a strong narrative drive where other characters don't have.

And at the end of this The Doctor and Jo are left bouncing around constantly off their game and removed from the major thrust of the action. It's just like "The Space Pirates". JUST like "The Space Pirates". The Doctor and his companions spend the ENTIRE story removed from the major events and in the end it just makes me not care. Compare that to "Caves". The Doctor and his companion just WANT to leave, but they can't seem to ever make that work. Ever. At all. They're stuck in the middle of all this action. And it's mad compelling. MAD compelling. Here it's not. And that's a problem.

The only reason this story gets away with this is because Malcolm Hulke really is a great writer. He creates strong, memorable characters. He creates a strong, memorable race. He creates strong, memorable episodes. I'd still not forgotten about the prison episode. Or really any episode. They all kinda blend together when you watch it all as one big omnibus, but here each episode stands alone and is strong taken in pieces, but on the whole... well... he just wrote one big prologue to whatever's coming next.

And I hate that. I wish that wasn't the case. But it just goes to show you that if you have to write six episodes of running in place, set-uppy, drawn out prologue... You could do far far worse than Malcolm Hulke.


Next Time!: 1st Doctor! Six shooters! Doc Holliday! Dentists! Salloons! Music and lyrics?! Laughs! Gunplay! Shootouts! AND THE OLD GOD DAMN WEST! "The Gunfighters!" Coming Next Tuesday!

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