Doctor Who Project: Frontier in Space

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Only you could manage to have a traffic accident in space.

Just when you think it’s safe to go back into the water, Roger Delgado returns, the Master’s smile as cutting as a dorsal fin ripping through waves. Series regular Malcolm Hulke’s “Frontier in Space” (Story Production Code QQQ) starts out with verve and pace, dropping the Doctor and Jo immediately into a tangled web of interstellar intrigue. Two great empires of the 26th Century, that of Earth and that of Draconia, find themselves unwittingly lured into war by a mysterious third party employing highly advanced ultrasonic technology that disguises their mercenary Ogrons as the other side. Months of raids by the incognito Ogrons on Earth and Draconian shipping has left tensions between the two powers strained to the breaking point.

Friend or Foe?

By the middle of the third of six episodes, the viewer has been lulled into suspecting one of the characters already introduced—perhaps the warlike Earth General Williams or the honor-bound Draconian Prince—of organizing this subterfuge in order to further some hidden agenda. Two and a half episodes seems like just enough time to wrap up a political potboiler. But then, pretending to be the representative from an outlying Earth colony, swoops in the Master, and the entire story turns on a dime.

Behold, the Master

The strategy of withholding Delgado from the story for so long works brilliantly here, and one is forced to look back at hints the Doctor dropped about the fear-based disguise technology being far too advanced for the Ogrons, essentially just brute muscle, to have developed themselves. One even, perhaps, briefly moots the possibility of the Daleks being in play because of the Ogrons’ prior association with them (in “Day of the Daleks.”) And then, behold, the Master appears, putting rest to all those suppositions. It’s an electrifying moment, a real triumph of pacing and patience and plotting.

And yet, there’s immediately a sense of trepidation. For as pleasant as Roger Delgado’s appearances are, the Master’s plans don’t tend to result in gripping psychological or political drama, nor do they frankly ever make much sense. He’s more often than not a delightfully screen-stealing blowhard who falls prey to his own skulduggery. Will that be the case here?

Well, yes. But only until the real villains show up…

Hello, old friend

With eight minutes left in the final episode, the Master reveals for whom he’s been fomenting the Earth-Draconian war: the Daleks, who roll onto an obligatory quarry/alien planet clifftop to glower (as much as they can glower via eyestalk) at their old nemesis.

It’s really all too much, this double-secret-enemy reveal, most of all because the Daleks have not appeared in a story since the single-shot “Mission to the Unknown” at the beginning of Season Three without having title billing. And, like that single-episode story teaser for the epic “The Daleks’ Master Plan,” it turns out that “Frontier in Space” serves as an elaborate lead-in for a story continued (sort of) in the next six parter, “Planet of the Daleks,” by none other than Terry Nation himself.

Master and Dalek, together at last

Much of the contemporary frisson from seeing the Master and the Daleks appear (in the same story, no less!) might well have been undercut by the Radio Times listings for the serial in March of 1973, clearly listing Delgado for Episode 3 forward and “Dalek Voice” for Episode 6. Doubtless, too, the reappearance of the pepper pots was trumpeted in the press prior to airing, especially given the lead time between shooting (November ’72) and broadcast (March ’73).

Regardless, it’s a striking moment, and this close-to-the-vest approach with the series’ most iconic foe challenges what we’ve come to expect from a Doctor Who story to date (or at least since those heady days of the First Doctor’s reign where they were willing to tell long stories over several months). Relatively short, and certainly self-contained, has been standard operating procedure for years now. Even the Master’s “arc” of stories has been loosely connected at best, with no (pardon the pun) master plan beyond besting the Doctor and being foiled by the same.

Lost in the hubbub of the Daleks and the Master, though, sits what could have been a rather intriguing story in its own right, that of the conflict between the two great empires that the Daleks hope to drive to war (the better to conquer the both of them in the aftermath, natch). From one of the confrontations between the martial General Williams and the haughty Draconian Prince comes the origin of the prior Earth/Draconian war some twenty years prior: a nervous Earth vessel, commanded by Williams, fired on a Draconian warship carrying a diplomatic delegation. Williams feared it was armed, but rather, it was a warship devoid of weaponry, the mighty craft itself being, to the formal Draconian mind, the only suitable ship to ferry a nobleman.

Confrontation

Somehow, the fact of the ship’s lack of weaponry never came to light in the intervening years, the Prince himself only recently learning of it. Williams (Michael Hawkins), to this point in the story a war-seeking hawk, seems utterly mortified, having heretofore considered his actions proper. The Prince (Peter Birrel) sees the pain in his face, and the two, previously ready to go to war, come to a tacit agreement to prevent the next one by teaming up with the Doctor to go after the Master and his Ogron army.

Indeed, Hulke’s strong world building in “Frontier in Space” comes to naught but set dressing, with no denouement to speak of. The Ogrons run away, the Master vanishes, the Doctor takes a glancing shot to the head from a ray gun, and roll credits.

That's all the story we get?

All the buildup of 26th century Earth, an Empire with dominions and colonies spread across the solar system (and beyond?), a government with a ruthless habit of imprisoning political dissidents for life on the Moon and strict population controls, remains unexplored. The joint Draconian-Earth resistance against the Daleks? Unresolved, ignored, and squandered, all so the Daleks could be pushed into the spotlight for the Pepper-Potapalooza to come.

And the next story (not to give anything away, but it is a Terry Nation story) has nothing at all to do with the events of this one other than explaining the Doctor’s incapacitation at its start. These sorts of story-to-story segues are not new, but at least when the Doctor needed a dentist we got to see him defeat the Celestial Toymaker first.

While we might regret losing any deeper exploration of guilt, grief, and forgiveness between empires, to say nothing of the potential pyrotechnics between the shoulder-padded human forces, the well-conceived Draconian troops, and the Daleks, what stands in its place should not be disregarded. Once the Master appears on screen, Delgado’s chemistry with Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning reminds us immediately how much we’ve missed him—and will here forward, for this story represents the final appearance of Roger Delgado on the show. He passed away in an automobile accident later in 1973. This being Doctor Who, the Master will eventually regenerate, but without casting aspersions on later actors to fill the role, Delgado set the bar impossibly high for this lovable, if borderline inept, scoundrel.

A sadly final confrontation

Delgado and Manning’s interactions in particular stand out from this story. Jo resists both the Master’s hypnotic powers and his ultrasonic fear device (shades of “The Mind of Evil“), earning her some grudging respect; he knows better than to keep at it in the face of her determined resistance, and their banter lightens what could be an otherwise unpleasant attempt at torture.

Jo also neatly sums up her experience as a companion to date:

Jo: Oh, well that’s simple then. I mean, all we’ve got to do is find out what’s going on, who’s behind the Ogrons, where they’ve taken the TARDIS, go and get it back, and then we can all go home. Right?

The Doctor: Right!

Jo: Oh, I don’t know what I’ve been worrying about.

With several seasons under her ever-changing belt now, she’s certainly figured out how it all works.

The preferred term of art for her status seems cemented as “companion” at this point, with it being used twice in the story, once by the Doctor and in a separate conversation by a Draconian:

The Doctor: I must say it’s very nice of you gentlemen to invite me here. And where is Miss Grant?

Draconian Aide: Your companion is still with your fellow Earthmen.

The Doctor proves willing, once more, to wield weapons against the Ogrons without a second thought. Though he’s not shown to actually fire at an Ogron (let alone kill one, as in “Day of the Daleks,”) his continued maltreatment of them raises some questions about the depths of his pacifism. His preferred non-lethal Venusian Aikido gets several more demonstrations here, at least, as Pertwee continues to revel in the physical aspects of his version of the Doctor. He even gets two separate death/injury gurnings, a record for him.

Curse of the nonfatal death.

Hulke liberally sprinkles references to prior stories into this one while continuing to ladle on new, throwaway backstory, most significantly the Doctor having helped the Draconians some five hundred years prior, giving him knowledge of their courtly ways that allows him to sway the formal reptilians. He also has the Doctor recount both his initial leave taking from the Time Lords and the trial that saw him exiled to Earth, a bit of verbal filler while undertaking an escape attempt under the less-than-watchful eye of the Master.

A quiet moment

Ultimately, “Frontier in Space” stands as a lackluster, bifurcated experiment. Strip out the Master and the Daleks, and the makings of a compelling story exist. With both of these scene-hogging foes in the mix, the final episode feels crammed and unsatisfying—too many cooks, spoiled broth, and all that. Though no one knew it at the time, Roger Delgado deserved a more finely crafted send-off from the show than this. Given a proper sixth episode, “Frontier in Space” could stand with the best of the Pertwee era, but as it stands, it’s a weak advertisement for the dodgy Dalek tale to come.

(Previous Story: Carnival of Monsters)

(Next Story: Planet of the Daleks)

Post 69 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project

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