Friday, 10 April 2015

Frontier in Space

Frontier in Space is by no means the greatest of Doctor Who stories, or even the greatest of Pertwee era stories. Yet it certainly feels unique. In large part this is because it pursues the genre of epic planet-hopping Space Opera far more than any other serial. In this story we visit no less than three planets, as well as the moon and various spaceships. In this modern era, when Doctor Who stories are set on Earth, particularly in Twenty-First Century England, this stands out a lot. The mood of this story also feels different, with the rich political intrigue and the heavy political overtones, even if these are a little heavy-handed.

Most significantly, more than any other story, Frontier in Space makes the future feel like a real place. So many things contribute to this, such as the news reports, with their accounts of Finland and Japan. We get the delightful scene with the female president getting a massage. We get buildings that are seen from outside and which therefore do not feel like television sets. We get some nice costume designs, most notably the decision to put Jon Pertwee's Doctor in a prison uniform. This small costume change is such a massive dose of realism. We see the Doctor locked up all the time. We are used to seeing him threatened and in danger. Yet we seldom see him stripped of his visual identity as the Doctor.

The story has other things going for it; a visually interesting set of aliens in the Draconians, a script that plays to Pertwee's strengths and some fantastic performances. Chief of all of these is the superb last appearance of the Delgado Master. Sadly, Delgado would pass away in an automobile accident not long after this was made, but he had saved his best for last. Here we see the Master as the ultimate cosmic manipulator, trying to control events on a galactic stage, but doing it with an ever present sense of humour.

Unfortunately, Frontier in Space does have some significant weaknesses, particularly relating to its plot. Most obviously is the common complaint that Jo and the Doctor spend so much time in this story locked up in one jail cell after another. This feels almost parody of the Doctor Who staple of capture and escape routines. This would probably have been less obvious to the original viewers who saw the seven episodes over a considerable period of time, but it is irritating to those watching the DVD in one sitting. The conclusion is also disappointing and fails to give the Master the send-off he deserves. Yet despite these and other small faults, Frontier has a tremendous sense of grandeur that sets it above many other Doctor Who stories.

This is a story that tends to get overlooked in assessments and overviews of the Pertwee era. Phil Sandifer has pointed out at least once that most people who talk about the Pertwee era don't really appreciate its richness. People tend to view this era through the lens of Season 7 and forget how often the Third Doctor left the Earth. The BBC Wales Doctors have all spent far more time in England then Pertwee ever did.

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