Companion: Jo Grant
Written by: Terry Nation
Directed by: David Maloney
Background & Significance: Doctor Who's tenth season was a very basic season. It has a wonderful Doctor team-up anniversary story, a very excellent, iconic Robert Holmes story, a quite enjoyable UNIT story that sees the departure of the lovely Jo Grant, and... a very very long story.
Frontier in Space" was designed to be the first half of Barry Letts's attempt to match "The Daleks' Master Plan" for the crowning champion glory record thing known as "the longest Doctor Who story of all time."
This was probably not the best idea, though. The Pertwee era is notorious for having overly long stories and stories that you can easily squeeze most of the air out of. This, of course, helped with cost (two six part stories is cheaper than three four part stories) but led to a little too much wheel spinning and really hurt the era as a whole, if you ask me. And now Letts wanted to do a twelve part story? (Jesus. How much padding would that take?) To offset the perceived wheel spinning and to alleviate some of the inevitable padding that would come from having that twelve part story, Letts broke the story in half with the first half seeing the return of fan-favourite villain The Master in Roger Delgado's final performance (although it wasn't supposed to be), while the second half saw the return of fan-favourite other villains The Daleks. See? Popular monsters! Tenth anniversary! Everybody wins!
But that also leads to problems with this story. For one thing, after loudly voicing his disapproval of the interim three Dalek stories written in his absence ("Power of the Daleks", "Evil of the Daleks", and "Day of the Daleks") Nation was given the right of first refusal to write the Daleks anytime Doctor Who wanted to do a Dalek story. So in this case, Nation didn't refuse and got to pen yet another Dalek story seeking to come back with a vengeance, wanting to write The Daleks "as they should have been written". Unfortunately, you can just tell that Terry Nation doesn't know anything new or original to do with them (think Steven Moffat using The Silence in "The Wedding of River Song"). Not that he needs to. By creating the Daleks, he's almost allowed to coast on the fumes of their creation at this point because it is the most important/standout thing he ever did and nothing he ever did after creating them would be more important or more iconic, no matter how much he tried.
So what we're left with is Terry Nation writing a Daleks story that comes long after the time when he stopped taking his marvelously devilish creations seriously. Really, "Planet of the Daleks" is just an excuse to lazily rehash and repeat things he'd already done with the Daleks back in other stories with them. Granted, this works in 1973, because most of the people watching Doctor Who barely remembered the original Dalek adventure (if they had even seen it at all) and what worked then would surely work now. So rehash and enjoy, Nation said. It was new to some people.
Death to the Daleks" are not), but to hate them because David Whittaker did something new, original, and terrifyingly evil while you can't seem to get your head out of similar tropes? That's just bad. Be HAPPY for your creations being expanded into new territories and into vastly terrifying situations.
But Terry Nation couldn't do that, and what we're left with is this. Six episodes into Letts's supposed twelve part story, hopefully the wheels have stopped spinning (after the first six episodes which seemed like nothing but) and we can just move forward and The Doctor can foil The Dalek plan to take over the galaxy. Hopefully.
So let's get to it!
I’m sure I’m not the first person to say something like that. It’s not very often that Doctor Who relies purely on its principals to carry an entire story and whenever it happens it’s always quite a sight to behold, and I have to at the very least admire the ambition of it. Terry Nation, of course, is not a stranger to this sorta opening, as it’s very reminiscent of his first two Dalek stories, in which the only people who appear are The Doctor and his companions. Sure, in those stories there’s some Robomen and the occasional creepy random ass hand, but that hardly counts, I think. The point of the thing is that the entire dramatic, narrative vehicle by which the first episode operates is entirely on the shoulders of your leads.
One of the problems with Nation’s choice to do that, though, is the fact that he incapacitates The Doctor and separates Doctor and Companion almost immediately, leaving the reason for anything that happens unclear. I have to wonder why Jo left the TARDIS (you’d think she’d know better) and Jo walking through the forest is fascinating if not a bit undramatic. Honestly, that’s a Nation problem, though. He always seems obsessed with showing off his vision and ideas rather than focusing on characters (despite seeming evidence to the contrary) and that inevitably always seems to hamper his story.
The rest of this is fine. It’s the opening shot of a six parter so it’s definitely much slower than I’d like it to be, but the appearance of Bernard Horsfall helps. Really helps. Honestly, I forgot he was in this and I’m just reminded by how much I really like him in Doctor Who and for no reason. I loved his turn as Gulliver in “The Mind Robber” and his roles as Goth in “The War Games” and “The Deadly Assassin” are memorable for some reason. And he’s cool here. As a Thal, which is fine, I suppose, with a gun and looking like Han Solo. So yes. That. Win? I guess. I don’t know. I am typing words.
According to the Thals The Doctor meets in this episode, The Doctor, his Companions, and the TARDIS are legends among the Thal people. The Doctor even name-checks Susan, Barbara, and Ian to make sure that everyone’s clear that they’re talking about the first ever Dalek adventure, what with the Thals talking about their help in the Dalek civil war and the Thal’s ultimate defeat of the Daleks. Now, again, I try not to parse out continuity and deal with all that triviality because in the end it doesn’t matter. All that matters in Doctor Who REALLY is watching a story and enjoying it. When it takes place in terms of the grand scope of the universe is not that necessary and really it’s just semantics. Besides, trying to make sense of Doctor Who from a this happened when perspective is a headache if you get too into it.
Then again, saying that you’re The Doctor and that you’re thousands of years old is so implausible I think I’d have to believe it. Why would you lie about that, anyways? Oh wait. Maybe because it works.
And regardless of The Doctor’s intentions, for his sake, thank goodness it does.
So I really thought part one was solid. Now, solid isn’t good. Solid is solid. Solid means it got the job done. It means a steady foundation from which the rest of the story can build. It means it wasn’t amaze balls. It means it didn’t bore me too too much. But here, man… Suddenly all the cool and good will that Terry Nation might have built up in the first episode (I said might) has been squandered in the face of… well… part two of a six part story that’s being written by Terry Nation. Nothing exciting happens (okay three exciting things, but that’s it) and the rest is all talking heads.
It’s just dull. And normally I try not to get too negative or blasé this early in the story, but… it really can’t be helped. There’s no drama to any scene. There’s no tension. There’s no stakes (although we find them out at the end of the episode) and it just comes out as whitewashed boring across the walls. The Daleks don’t do anything in this except obliterate the ship in which Jo Grant was hanging out, but she got rescued by an invisible Spirodonian so all that “oh mah gah!” moment falls into dramatic irony that I just don’t care about. The Doctor is devastated, but I can’t be. I know better.
Jo herself is simply a repository for information in this episode. She meets a Spirodonian. The Spirodonian heals her (so much for the “WE HAVE TO CURE JO” possibility this story could have played with). The Spirodonian unloads a metric assload of exposition, which is [basically] all exposition we already know or assume to know. The Daleks are here on Spirodon because they want to be invisible (oh no!) and the Thals are too little of number for the Spirodonians to join up with effectively, especially because the Spirodonians are small in numbers themselves (the resistance, anyways; most are Dalek slaves).
The Dalek Invasion of Earth”. The small band of resistance fighters banding together to rise up against The Daleks is something we saw in “The Daleks” (as well as “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”), and for that matter the companion getting exposition from a key member of that resistance happened in “The Daleks” as well, except back then it was Susan instead of Jo. Same also with The Doctor trapped in a cell by the Daleks in episode two.
I feel like that rather sets up how I feel about this part. There’s a great sense of urgency, but in the end you realize that all you really did was spin your wheels and watched some fun runaround action without really accomplishing anything. I mean, okay. So. At the end of the last part the random Thal chick arrived and said “THERE ARE TEN THOUSAND DALEKS ON SPRIODON” which made Bernard Horsfall go “WTF” and now at the end of this episode The Doctor sees that the Daleks are underground, held in… stasis? (we’ll find out later) which means that they spent a whole episode not dealing with the fact that they told us something and then at the end of the episode SHOW us that very same thing they weren’t dealing with.
In Classic Doctor Who you get a LOT of leeway in terms of telling the viewer what’s happening (I feel like I’ve said this before, but eh, whatever, we’re allowed leeway because whatever). Most of this comes down to budgetary constraints. They can’t show the war that’s going on lest they make it about three pairs of extras squaring off in opposing colors, which isn’t quite the promise they’ve built up to. They can’t show the special effects of the dog fight so they have to tell us how it goes. They can’t show us the missle destroying the Cybermen’s Cyberbomb so they have a guy look at a view screen and say very anti-climactically “They’ve done it!”).
BUT that does not mean that’s the way it should be. Writing is based on showing, not telling. That’s how you convince the viewer/experiencer of a particular truth you wish to convey. A writer can tell me something through dialogue, but that doesn’t mean I have to buy it. Example: you can have a character say “Beth is the kindest person in the world when it comes to homeless people”, but if all I see is Beth jacking homeless dudes and broads in the face I think I’d be inclined to think otherwise. Likewise, Steven Moffat can say it’s the greatest victory The Doctor’s ever had. That doesn’t mean I’ll believe it. You make something convincing by showing it happening.
He tells us in the first place because it’s a way to end the episode (and I’ll give him that; it’s a strong beat to end on) but he reintroduces the notion now to point out that “yeah, we’re going to deal with this so don’t forget about it” which means that, yes, that’s right, NOTHING TO DO WITH THE TEN THOUSAND STRONG DALEK ARMY WAS TOUCHED UPON IN THIS EPISODE. And that’s sad and pathetic. There’s nothing really engaging about any of this. It’s just the Thals breaking into the Dalek city through one of the cooling ducts (which is cool) and then attempting to break out with The Doctor as soon as they’ve gotten in; similarly The Doctor spends the entire episode attempting to escape through tons of running through corridors and all that lovely.
But maybe it’s supposed to be. Maybe this is one of those stories that I should just take my brain out for (perish the thought) and enjoy a rollicking good runaround with Daleks and Thals on a planet full of invisible creatures in purple fur coats (PETA went nuts), molten ice floes (is that even a thing?) and a seemingly endless city full of twists and turns and such like. I mean Terry Nation has never really written “up” to the audience and aspired to anything higher than children and a purely base entertainment level (“Genesis of the Daleks” does not count). Honestly, if it weren’t for the direction of David Maloney (which is very strong and fast paced and such) this would be a lot more duller and boring than it actually is. So… I guess I could watch for that too.
Anything to alleviate the chronic boredom I get while watching this story.
It’s weird how while watching something a story will seemingly “get good out of nowhere” when in actuality it was always good it just kicked it up a notch (see the first season of Game of Thrones). That’s not exactly the case here (I still don’t think this story’s very good), but somewhere about a third of the way through this episode Terry Nation stopped dragging my chain around and resorted to the stuff that’s cheaper and not as thrill in the aim of getting more into the characters and who they are.
Taron, of course, is played by the lovely aforementioned Bernard Horsfall and this really gives Horsfall the opportunity to stretch his acting muscles and not be the stalwart leader he’s been so far through all this. No. Now we get a human side of him, and a very human side at that. Again, it’s far from perfect. His profession of love to Rebec is telegraphed from a mile away and the line “Because I’m in love with you” is just about as on the nose and lacking of subtlety as you can get (it’s only because Horsfall rocks that the line comes with the sort of sobering that would come from such a word vomit moment of weakness) and the scene in which The Doctor delineates the difference between Taron (and the Thals) and The Daleks (as machines) is likewise about as ham as it can be.
It’s a small thing, but it’s something engaging and capturing, something to hold onto and it’s all in the subtle moments, like watching Taron allow Rebec to sleep on his shoulder while he stays awake, still processing everything about this command he doesn’t want. It’s also strong to watch the constant questioning of his orders by the insolent little punk bitch Vaber erupt into violence amidst the ranks. It’s the sort of moment that unsettles Taron and makes him question his effectiveness. I like all this and finally the story has come to a slow enough point that it can start to make me really care about stuff like this because… I love this.
It’s interesting how in all of this, what with the focus on the Thals and Taron, The Doctor and Jo kinda… take a back seat to the whole thing. It reminds me of someone like Eric Saward, honestly, where he’d go out of his way to remove The Doctor and his companion from the proceedings, or perhaps not remove them so much as delay their entrance while other elements developed to the point where “Revelation of The Daleks” is almost completely inconsequential to The Doctor and Peri. But here it feels different. Besides the fact that The Doctor is actively working to stop The Daleks from advancing the plans that were revealed(?) in “Frontier in Space”, it’s almost as if The Doctor is a gun-for-hire (bad term; rephrase) or independent contractor who’s there to aid in the Thal take-down of the Daleks. He’s playing a key and very active role in what’s going on, but it’s weird to not see The Doctor in some sort of leading role in a Dalek story.
So that’s all well and good, but beyond that? My oh my this episode is batty.
Okay. Couple of things, it is TOTALLY random that Jo gets JACKED on the head by a giant boulder JUST as she’s about to blow up the third detonator. And for what? So the Daleks won’t go hunting for the other bombs? That’s silly. Also silly is the fact that Jo manages to wake up JUST in the nick of time so she can grab the two deactivated bombs just in time to get away before the Daleks see her. What a crazy random happenstance.
And can I mention real quick how absolutely ludicrous it is where Jo stored the bombs? That’s one of those things that is only ever done in a show like this and in a child-tone where Jo is talking so much about how she hid the bombs and isn’t it totally rad that she did that and good for Jo she musta hid them so no one would ever find them and far away so they wouldn’t go off. No. Nothing like that. They’re in the bushes about a foot and a half from where The Doctor and her are talking about them. It even leads to a moment of “I’ll go get them, Doctor” and then she walks about a step and a half and then reaches down and pulls them out of the bushes.
Also silly? Okay, I’m a sucker for certain things: backlots, scale models, practical makeup effects… but nothing gets me going more than vertical space. I loves me some vertical space, so I love that part of the plot to escape from the Dalek city is to reverse parachute up a ventilation shaft. Only there’s one problem, Terry Nation. I’VE SEEN THIS BEFORE. I know this is pre-reruns, but COME ON. I’ve seen this exact urgency scene you did ten years ago. “Hurry up and get up here!” the people at the top yell while the elevator ascends! “Something down there is coming up!” and sure enough it’s rising, and we get a sweet overhead shot of it. Yeah. I like that, but you did that in “The Daleks” and you even solved it in exactly the same way. People threw rocks. The thing smashed.
And then to end this part on a bad note, this cliffhanger of Vaber getting captured is stupid. I don’t give a shit about Vaber. He’s a douche and I wouldn’t mind him getting taken to the Daleks. Also, these bombs aren’t super powerful so I don’t really care about them either even though you say they’re all strong I JUST DON’T BUY IT.
Anyways. Moving on.
I guess the excuse in the last episode in which Nation had to chill out a bit and not write so much action is really why that episode ended up rocking so hard. When you don’t have a budget to rely on with all your flashy whiz bangs and danger explosionies, you’re forced to rely more on character and story and get to something that’s really entertaining without being run and gun on a big budget. Now I like the big budget stuff, but it’s gotta be with someone who deserves to get the most out of the big budget and doesn’t forget the rules and awesomes of storytelling and sells out for a cheap buck.
So it turns out that went away and now Terry Nation has the big budget to throw some Daleks into some molten ice ponds in a quarry and there’s budget for Dalek wrestling and all sorts and other wrestling but of the Spirodonian kind and stuff involving a RIDICULOUSLY dangerous biological warfare weapon and of course more dead purple minks from which the production team can buy the luxurious Spirodonian cloaks (the ones that tell you where they are because they’re invisible, remember? Only with this cloak, not really).
So… okay. The plan is to sneak into the Dalek city through two paths. The Doctor, Taron, and the other Thal guy (who is the next most candidate to be a red shirt) all sneak in by wearing the purple mink Spirodonian cloak while Jo and the dude who’s massively crushing on Jo sneak in through that service vent they snuck into back all the way in episode three. You remember the one. The one that almost flooded with that molten ice (that’s still a thing, by the way) which is in no way super dangerous. And then they’re going to blow the place sky high because… they will.
I mean, you know it’s bad when the cliffhanger to your penultimate episode is literally a “oh no The Doctor and others have been spotted” cliffhanger, which is not where you want to be as you’re “racing towards the climax”, and honestly the cliffhangers in this haven’t been super stellar. Vaber getting caught was lame. The Dalek reveal was lackluster. The “10,000 Daleks” was something they recycled twice…. It just feels lazy, this does. I mean, Terry Nation can’t even suffer to give me a good runaround. Jo and the Thal-who-totally-isn’t-into-Jo literally lead The Daleks around for not very long and then come back and go “We did what we could.”
This is just all over the place and would be way more messy were it not for David Maloney, and alas. I can’t find myself interested too much anymore. Now if only there wasn’t one more part to go through.
So basically this was more of the same and I should be ashamed of myself for assuming it would be anything different. Of course a story that’s this ensconced in Terry Nation’s vision of the Daleks and Doctor Who for kids would end like this, what with the running around and then the blowing up of the undercity and flooding the area with molten ice to stop the Dalek fleet from ever getting free just feels like exactly the level of “take your brain out and nom some slushie and popcorn” that this story’s been the whole time. I’m just… yeah. I shouldn't have expected different.
Anyways. It’s telling how the things that I gravitate to are all the things that Terry Nation clearly doesn’t. For one thing, there’s the entire angle about how The Thals are treating this like a suicide mission, what with the fact that they don’t expect to go home and that, in turn, is coloring all their decisions. But that’s not exactly accurate, is it? I mean, aside from Taron (who made this point back in the nostalgically gloriously wonderful episode four that the arrival of Rebec clouded his judgment and forced him to make decisions that he wouldn’t have made because he was in love with her and concerned for her safety and thusly his leadership was called into question CUE THE AWESOME OF EPISODE FOUR) this angle has not been played at all. These Thals seem neither recklessly fatalistic nor conservatively cautious.
Sigh. No. This is all plot plot here’s the attack and more Daleks running around and bomb bomb set up the bomb climb through the Daleks posture posture quote message moral false ending open ending Jo ending la la la. No. Going for the thematic isn’t really something that Nation does or is interested in. And that’s a shame because there’s a world of good, solid ideas in here. There’s the idea that the Daleks on Spirodon are not doing a good enough job and need to be held to a higher standard by the flashlight of the Dalek Supreme…
No wait, someone already did) and then there’s a beat at the end when Jo gets to say she wants to go home to Earth, which is actually a nice bit of foreshadowing to the fact that this really is her last time in the TARDIS and that Earth is where she’ll stay from now on, trapped forever on earth after the events of the next story.
Also that one Thal fell in love with Jo and Jo rejected him. I don’t know who’s the worst in this situation. Jo or the Thal? My vote’s on Terry Nation, but only because he made me ask that question by writing a quintessentially camp scene in which everyone falls in love because they’re in the same situation together.
Maybe if he had made the guy act more cautious as a result of loving Jo, I would like it a bit more. As such it’s just unnecessary plot development. Alas.
Final Thoughts?: Sigh.
This, though. This is no exception. It's is absolutely 100% generic when it comes to the Daleks. You could replace The Daleks in this story with just about anything--Cybermen, Sontarans, Ood--and it wouldn't make a lick of difference. Thinking about the other non-Nation Dalek stories that came before this... at least those were strong and attempting to push the Daleks into new and unexplored territories. The David Whitaker stories really made an attempt to get under the hood and turn the Daleks into something truly unique and memorable.
Because this is Terry Nation's first crack at his creations again since "Master Plan" and the the first since Whitaker "bastardized" the Daleks with "Power" and "Evil", you'd think it would be Nation's attempts to almost reboot the Daleks from scratch or at least do something cool and clever with them, but that's... that's just not the case. The Daleks in this are no more special than any other generic species you get in any other story. They still go up the elevator. They still shoot. They get blown up. They get pulled around and teased. They're not taken seriously and that's just... that's lame. I'm sorry, but it is.
Me, though? I don't like Doctor Who that talks down to people. I don't like Doctor Who that wastes my time and makes me feel like "What was the point of that" or "that story was a waste" or "those Daleks were a waste". That's the last thing I want. Doctor Who deserves to be so much more than that, don't you think? I think so. It's just a bummer that they got hauled off to Terry Nation for half of their stories where they writhed around in mediocrity for their time there until they could be dusted out by the occasional person who had a new and clever take on the most famous aliens from Skaro...
Which didn't really payoff anything.
So really, I guess I can sum it up by saying "Mad Man Terry Nation strikes again".
Next Time!: 6th Doctor! HG Wells! (Oops forget I said that!) A warped face alien! MOAR CONTINUITY! A false ending! Boredom! Anger! BLOOD! DROOL! ANGST! (the last five from the blogger, I mean...) Cassandra's stepping in next Tuesday for a quick trip down the "Timelash!" Coming Next Tuesday!