Saturday, 27 June 2009

Doctor Who: Frontier in Space

Part One

“Well, I’m never going in that thing again.”

 I’d always assumed I’d seen this story before at some point in the 90s, but watching this first episode I don’t think I have. So I genuinely don’t know what to expect.

 We start with some superb modelwork, and what I think is the first mention of hyperspace in Doctor Who. This looks set to be our first real space opera since The Space Pirates. And while we’ve seen glimpses of Earth’s future recently with Colony in Space and The Mutants, this is the first indication we get that there’s supposed to be a coherent future history, as the Doctor explain to Jo that these are the early days to the Earth Empire seen in The Mutants.

 This is good; the Draconians look great, the situation is intriguing, and we even get to see a Drashig again. I like the newscast, a tried and tested Hulkean method of doing a bit of world-building.

 Ogrons! Although of course the Doctor is quick to pooh pooh any idea that this necessarily means the Daleks are behind it all.

Part Two

“Jo! Will you stop pacing up and down like a perishing panda!”

 This seems to be a very long reprise. It’s good stuff though, further establishing the premise of the story and making wider hints about the nature of 26th century Earth, which seems to be some kind of Putin-style “managed democracy”. We also get to see a lot of the South Bank of the Thames as it was then!

 The presentation of the Draconians is very well handled- they’re clearly based on Japanese samurai as far as their props and costumes are concerned, and are clearly allegories for Eastern civilisations as seen through western eyes. There’s a particularly good line from the Draconian prince, of humans: “They’re an inscrutable species.”, nicely undercutting a common stereotype.

 Of course, there’s the usual cold war allegory going on as well. Malcolm Hulke did write it, after all.

 Part Three

“Well, I mean, criticise the government and you’re for it, aren’t you?”

 I like the scene with the Doctor and the mind probe, very Doctorish, and this is still very good, but I’m starting to wish the story would start to move on from all these cells and interrogations. There are certainly lots of escapes and recaptures.

The Doctor is sent to a lunar penal colony, without a trial, and it soon becomes clear that it’s a dumping ground for political prisoners, a nicely dystopian touch. And then, of course, there’s the Master. In a position of authority, naturally.

 It’s a relief when the Professor actually believes the Doctor’s story after three episodes of no one doing so. And it’s good to see the story move on. All the same though, the fact that the Doctor and Jo seem to spend all their time in cells, and the slow pace of the story, are surprisingly unproblematic for me, mainly because Hulke’s script has so much good character stuff for the Doctor and Jo.

 Oh, and doesn’t the Doctor’s hair look bushy in his prison uniform?

 Part Four

“I seem to be quite the master criminal, don’t I?”

 Poor Professor- condemned to a year in solitary and then the story forgets about him!

 Firstly there’s a nice scene between the Doctor and the Master in which the Master, played even more brilliantly than usual by Roger Delgado, remarks on the reversal of roles since the Doctor visited him in his cell in The Sea Devils. We also get hints of the Master’s mysterious employers and a sense of the story broadening in scope.

But fundamentally this episode is about the development of Jo, and her relationship with the Doctor. We start with the Doctor briefly summarising the plot of The War Games to Jo, and then we move on to his recent exile, where he met Jo, “and that alone made the exile worthwhile.” By the standards of early ‘70s Who this is practically Bad Wolf Bay territory. I don’t think they’re lovers at any point, but there’s a relationship developing between them. They clearly care a lot about each other, and they’ve both changed as people by being together in a very New Series sort of way. The Doctor has softened notably since meeting Jo, while Jo has developed into a stronger and more confident person. But at the same time, it’s implied that Jo won’t be around for much longer- for the second time this story she tells the Doctor “I’m never going back in that TARDIS with you again.”

Of course, this is all hilariously undercut by a firing-on-all-cylinders Delgado; “In reminiscent mood are you, Doctor? Poor Miss Grant, you have my deepest sympathy.” And just to make things perfect, he’s reading War of the Worlds!

The escape scene between the Doctor and Jo is brilliant, with Jo’s magnificent monologue fully showing the greatness both of Katy Manning and the character, at least when written as well as this. And, of course, the monologue works as a commentary on her own character, how far she’s come since Terror of the Autons, and hints at how she’s very soon not going to need the Doctor any more. It’s an excellent piece of writing.

Part Five

“An emperor who does not rule deposes himself.”

I’m watching this on the Australian version of the video release that I got from eBay a few years ago, and bizarrely it has the Delaware theme for this episode. I’m glad I’ll only be hearing it this once- it’s awful! Still, another good episode. I love the scenes with the Doctor and the Master trying to convince the Draconian Emperor, archly played by John Woodnutt. Interesting that it should be the Draconians, not the humans, who finally believe the Doctor.

The issue of the position of women in Draconian society is admirably summed up with great eloquence and gravitas: “I think it’s about time that Women’s Lib was brought to Draconia.” Surely one of the great dialogue triumphs of the age.

There are problems here: the Doctor is captured again by Earth police; the Ogron masks are a bit poor; and the Draconian prince manages to convince General Wotsisname rather too easily. But there’s also greatness. Delgado is fantastic. And it’s great, and hugely symbolic, to see that Jo can now resist the Master’s hypnotism.

Part Six

“No doubt you’re a qualified space engineer too, Doctor.”


More development for Jo, as she overcomes her fears of several monsters for which the costumes are readily available, and then cheerfully sets about escaping from yet another cell. Unfortunately, the Master may not be able to control her but he’s an, er, master of the art of manipulation.

It’s a satisfying ending, with the Daleks revealed as the Master’s mysterious employers, and turns out to be an appropriate ending for Delgado, whose impression of the Daleks (“stupid tin boxes”) is hilarious. The very final scene is very odd though- it’s not clear whether it’s a cliffhanger or not. And the Doctor seems to be requesting the help of the Time Lords a lot these days.

Overall, great- a brilliant script with great development of the regulars, the Draconians are fantastic, and Delgado bows out at the very top of his game. He’ll be missed. It loses a point for too much time spent in cells, but this isn’t enough to stop this story being very good indeed. 4/5.

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