Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Frontier in Space written by Malcolm Hulke and directed by Paul Bernard

This story in a nutshell: War between Earth and Draconia lingers and the Master is the one firing the shots...

Good Grief: 'Only you could manage to have a traffic accident in space!' There is such an easiness between the Doctor and Jo at this stage and Pertwee has developed the Doctor into a far more genial version of the snappy, insulting scientist that she first met a few years back. Perhaps she has had a humanizing effect on him just as Ian and Barbara had with the first Doctor. I love the idea that that he is off out in space once again after his prolonged exile on Earth, there was something very exciting about this season where the Doctor could once again go anywhere from story to story (but never quite forgetting he has a new family back on Earth). I love his perky one lines when it appears he is in the shit (he escapes a prison cell and walks straight into a guard to 'oh how very embarrassing...'). Rather brilliantly when one disgruntled security officer first claps eyes on the Doctor he ask if they are having a fancy dress party (that guard is a great character actually, coming across as a real person rather than just somebody to shuttle the Doctor and Jo about). There's a very funny gag that plays out across the first four episodes of Frontier in Space where the Doctor and Jo are constantly mistaken for agents of a foreign power, depending on who they are captured by. No matter how much the Doctor protests his innocence (and Pertwee's charm offensive is on full power), his captors are convinced that he is a traitor. When he finally does get someone to listen he practically gives them a big kiss even if it is just a fellow prisoner on the moon. It's not just Jon Pertwee who is an engaging storyteller, the Doctor is at it too. Although perhaps it's best we never met the Medusoids given his description of them (a hairy jellyfish with claws, teeth and a leg), or the delegates from the conference come to think of it (a giant rabbit, a pink elephant and a purple horse with yellow spots). Imagine those being concocted on a Doctor Who budget? He's not exactly telling the truth when he says he hasn't been employed by anyone, is he? Pertwee plays his comic explanation of how he tried to kill himself by depressurising the area from the outside whilst he was suffocating inside deadly straight which makes it all the funnier. He is all charm when addressing the Emperor of Draconia, using his previous history with the planet to form a relationship based on trust and honour. He really isn't unrecognisable from the overbearing bully from the beginning of his tenure, isn't he?

Hippy Chick: Two and a half seasons into her time with the Doctor and Jo is more confident than ever. Something wonderful happened with the advent of season ten where Jo stopped playing the hanger on and developed and matured into a very capable young woman in her own right. When watching the show in order I would say that Jo has more development than many other companions, she's still ditzy and gobby but she has a sense of maturity and the feeling that she can handle herself in her latter adventures that was often missing when she screamed her way through season eight. She practically saunters out of the TARDIS, chewing gum and exploring the landing site without the Doctor. This is a Jo with swagger. Watch as she reels off a number of escape plans in episode two, the Doctor picking holes in her logic. She's learnt from her experiences and she is taking those lessons and applying them to what comes next. Most companions lose impetus the longer they are in the show, having a strong introduction but falling into a certain pattern of behaviour. Jo shows how genuine character growth can invigorate the series. The greatest sign of her development is demonstrated in her scenes with the Master. Back in season eight she was susceptible to his hypnotism, terrified of his schemes and constantly falling into one of his traps. Now she stands up to him with some vigour, brushes off his attempts to beguile her mind and is capable of finding her way out of the many prisons he locks her into. I don't think I have ever loved Jo Grant more than when she is babbling on about her friends assuming that her spy lifestyle is a glamorous one, dashing about in sports cars with handsome agents. And she's stuck with Pertwee in Bessie. Running around, making tea and being a general dogsbody. I like the fact that Master's plan relied on her resourcefulness in escaping from her cell, even he can see how smart she is these days. Not smart enough to realise she has walked into a trap anyway, but pretty smart all the same.

You Will Obey Me: 'Nobody could be more devoted to the cause of peace than I...' We've reached a stage in the Pertwee era where his regular appearances have become a lot more sporadic than they were in his first season and therefore much more of a surprise. I have smile outwardly every time Roger Delgado appears on screen because I know that I am going to be in for some fine acting and cutting ripostes. The mystery generating the situation seems to vanish as soon as the Master appears...he's obviously stirring up trouble for some crackpot scheme. Actually what Hulke is doing is disguising who is really responsible behind a well established recurring character, using the Master as a expert red herring. Once he had showed up I thought all the surprises Frontier in Space had were exhausted. How wrong was I? He's almost drunk with pleasure when he informs Jo that he is a credited official and she and the Doctor are criminals being handed into his custody. An exact reversal of their situation last year. As much as he gets off on that, it is nothing compared to the pleasure of being able to reel off the list of criminal offences that the Doctor has committed. I wonder if the Master allying himself with the Daleks counted against him when it came to the Time War? Was he enlisted because he had special insight into the creatures? Scenes of the Master attempting to explain his plans to the Ogrons are comic gold, his incensed attitude to their natural stupidity had me falling about ('We are on a course for Earth!' 'Well naturally that's because we're chasing them!'). Dispatching the Doctor via rocket fire at long range, somehow it lacks that personal touch. When the Master steps in stops the Daleks from exterminating the Doctor is it because cares about the fellow Time Lord or does he genuinely want him to see the Earth in ruins (shades of John Simms' Master there) before he is finally exterminated? It is such a shame that Delgado's tragic death should rob us of a dramatic final showdown between the Master and the Doctor and that his final appearance should be such an awkwardly directed moment (especially since he has been at his absolute best in this story until then). It is difficult to figure out what is going on; he shoots the Doctor and then runs off it appears but I couldn't be entirely sure. All I know is that between this abrupt exit and his next appearance he suffers a horrific accident that leaves his flesh hanging from the bone. Still at least he gets to call the Daleks 'stupid tin boxes' before he goes. Raise your glass to Roger Delgado, still the classiest and, in my mind, the best Master.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'An Emperor who does not rule deposes himself!'
'The Ogrons have got the finest defence mechanism of all - stupidity!'
'I was never very fond of nursery rhymes...'

The Good:

*   Much like The Space Pirates before it, the modelwork is of a very high standard through Frontier in Space (although in my opinion not quite as good) and you only have to watch the documentaries on the DVD to see how a lot of these models were cobbled together in desperation and from parts of other shows. It doesn't show and the wealth of good modelwork (still my preference over CGI I have to say) really helps to sell the scale of this story and give a sense of journey between the many destinations we visit. A huge round of applause to the effect team.
*   Mac Hulke really shows his contempories how these futuristic adventures should be written right from the off by allowing the 26th Century characters to talk like normal, every day people from the 20th Century. Watch the first scene, through two people having a chat at work about the current Earth/Draconian you get some clever world building, a healthy injection of character and a sense that these are real people with jobs and dreams of a better life. That kind of earthy realism is spread throughout the story to every character.
*   He might have The Time Monster on his record (although I would still say there are some effectively realised moments throughout that story) but I think that Paul Bernard is quite an underrated director (certainly by Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks on the DVD commentaries). He might be using old school techniques but that is because they work and I love his excessive reliance on zooms, pans and fades to created a feeling of movement and time passing in the story. It means that although the Doctor and Jo spend the majority of this six parter in an assortment of prison cells that there is a swift stride to the tale that keeps it moving. With relatively little money he manages to assemble a creative team that carves out a vision of the future that really stands out, taking us to alien planets, prisons on the moon and a corporate version of the Earth. Black news casters (unheard of at the time) spreading propaganda, stock footage of riots, broadcasts of politicians calling for war, reports of conflict around the world ('In Los Angeles demonstrators burnt an effigy of you!') - so many smart little details that help to build an impressive picture of a planet on the verge of war. Between this and Day of the Daleks, Bernard carves himself out as a director to watch. What a shame he would never work on the show again.
*   Bernard clearly has a decent hand on the actors since this story is packed full of terrific performances, enhanced by Hulke's memorable dialogue. Vera Fusek (the President) and Michael Hawkins (General Williams) have both been extremely well cast, both actors hinting a relationship beyond what we see on screen and enjoy both fraught and gentle moments trying to hold the volatile situation on Earth together. It took several viewings of this to realise that Cross was played by the same actor who delighted us with Governor Lobos in The Space Museum. This a chance to see him having a stab a more animated role and the results are so different. There's an unspoken relationship between Cross and the Governor of the lunar prison as well, which rears its ugly head when he fails to kill the Professor.
*   The beauty of the set design cannot be ignored either with the designers having to live up to the challenge of bringing to life three very different cultures. With Bernard shooting the sets to their maximum capacity there is a real sense of space to the story which helps with its operatic feel. I doubt there was much more money thrown at this than your average six parter but with so many different sets in different locations, all of them pulled off with some style, it just feels like there is a greater budget. On Earth, the exteriors create a sense of this story taking place at a later date, opting for a very concrete, build up utopia, all straight lines and tall gantries (on a location that was probably considered very futuristic at the time). Function over aesthetics. This depressing, washed out view of the future was adopted by Blake's 7 for practically its entire 4 year run.
*   Isn't it astonishing that the Draconians have never appeared in Doctor Who since Frontier in Space (beyond a couple of appearances in spin off material) given their critical success? Given JNT's love of giving the fans a hand job to the past and the current wealth of classic series creations being re-invented in the new series, this species is something of a glaring omission to those who have been given another chance to shine. John Friedlander's masks are extraordinarily good, allowing the actors facial movement (trust me this wasn't always the case) and the chance to emote and the emerald green Samurai aesthetic that the designers have gone for really makes the race stand out in rich colours and stylish design. They have the look and feel of a race that enjoys its own culture and identity and has a life away from the programme. Most alien cultures feel as though they have been custom made for a Doctor Who story and wouldn't have the substance to last beyond it. Not so the Draconians.
*   The return of the Ogrons is a great surprise, not least because they hint at the true masterminds behind this operation as far back as episode one. Hulke cleverly subverts this by mentioning the Daleks and throwing the audience off the scent. They are something to be pointed and laughed at in Frontier in Space (usually by the Master) although it is fair to say that they are effective muscle too. And what an entrance, blasting onto the cargo ship, shooting the Doctor in the back and towering over Jo (this really feels like it should have been a cliff-hanger). The great lumbering oafs come crashing through doors (clearly they haven't been taught how to use a handle) and massacre a ton of guards like swatting flies in their attempt to capture the Doctor and Jo.
*   The political manoeuvres that play out between Earth and Draconia with the Master in the middle winding them both up are exquisitely handled so that it is simple enough for children to understand but complex enough to engage the adults too. This is space opera on a grand scale (with monsters, alien planets, shoot outs and space battles) but much of the political wrangling is fairly sophisticated too. It helps that the actors are driving every nuance out of the script that they can find. The President intends to cling onto diplomatic relations with the Draconians as long as possible and watching how far the Master will go to test her resolve is half the fun. Williams' history with the Draconians, firing a shot in haste which started the first Draconian conflict, adds some depth to his presence and opinion. He tries to make excuses for his actions when called upon but he knows that he acted rashly. Was he trying to use this conflict as an explanation for what happened before. He proves himself to be the better man ultimately by apologising and agreeing to set the record straight this time around.
*   When the escape/capture routine is just on the verge of getting dull we are flung to a spanking new location, this time a prison on the moon. It's another vivid setting, I especially love the screens that looks out on the desolate lunar surface. It feels like Hulke has sketched out this corner of the galaxy in vivid detail. Thousands of political prisoners who have criticized the government incarcerated in one place they can't cause any more trouble.. 'I sometimes think there are more members of the peace party than back on Earth...' Adding details of Sirius IV, 'a tin pot' colony as General Williams calls it and how it has been granted Dominion status generates more interest in this sector. Have we ever enjoyed a more comprehensive setting outside of a Robert Holmes script? 

*   Has there ever been a Doctor Who story where the padding as pleasurable as this? With Terrance Dicks on hand with his quick fix solutions to any plot problem, the Doctor and Jo could easily escape their any confinements much sooner than they do. However Hulke and Dicks know they have to pad out six episodes half the fun of this story is the dialogue they share when they are incarcerated. Cue outrageous tales of peace conferences, insane escape plan ideas, the Doctor recounting his trial by the Time Lords (and putting his own egotistical spin on it), Jo's glorious babbling when she is trying to distract the Master whilst the Doctor is flying about outside the prison ship (basically giving him a stiff telling off for giving the Master such a hard time when he keeps offering him a share of the galaxy) and Jo's very funny prison scenes with an Ogron who chomps on her banana. These dialogue scenes are some of my favourite in the whole story, showing off actors who are extremely comfortable with each other ('Thank you Miss Grant, we'll let you know...').
*   Yes you can see the string that is holding Pertwee up in some scenes (although I like to think that is some kind of tether so the astronaut cannot fly too far away from the ship) but the sequences of the Doctor out in space clinging on the side of the ship are very nicely realised. Shot on film, atmospherically lit and for once a character is put in a spacesuit that looks genuinely functional rather than sparkly and fashionable. Very nicely done and another feather in the cap for Frontier in Space.
*   Usually at the end of a long Doctor Who story the money starts to run out but there is no sign of that in this tale with a visit to two planets in the final two episodes. The Draconian scenes are based around the throne room with its billowing emerald green curtains, incense wafting in the air and an impressive sized throne for the Emperor to sit on and lord it up to his subjects. With John Woodnutt turning up and pouring every ounce of Shakespeare into his performance as the Emperor, it is a refreshingly exotic setting and the one where the Master attempts to stage his greatest coup. An attack on the palace with Ogrons disguised as human soldiers.
*   There aren't many scenes in Doctor Who that make you goosebumps all over like the one at the end of Frontier in Space where the Master reveals that his allies are the Daleks, gliding dramatically to the edge of a precipice. We are used to seeing the Daleks being given a gosh wow introduction at the end of episode one but is this the first time since The Space Museum where they have turned up to shock us at the end of the tale? It's a fantastic twist because it adds a whole new dimension to the story (which was pretty complex to start with) and kick starts a whole new story to take place after this one. It puts the whole twelve part storyline on a pretty ambitious scale, the Daleks weakening the two strongest powers in this corner of the galaxy by setting them at each other and then coming at them both with 10,000 strong army of Daleks. A shame that the Doctor put a spanner in the works with both plans because that would have been one hell of a fight.

The Bad:
*   Weirdly the Drashigs don't work half as well in this story as they did in Carnival of Monsters. It's a good thing that they are contained to a few seconds of hallucinatory madness on Jo's part.
*   The end of episode five isn't so much a cliff-hanger as a pause in the action. Unless we are supposed to be shocked that the Ogrons are attempting to rescue the Master?
*   'One dominant life form. A large and savage reptile...' or more like an orange duvet having a conniption fit and grunting with ecstasy. Not quite the least convincing monster this show has ever put out but it ranks pretty high all the same. Bernard was right to limit its exposure as much as possible.
*   I complained in my previous review about not bothering to give certain characters and plots the ending they deserved, instead leaving their fates unresolved. The same thing happens in Frontier in Space but it doesn't bother me anywhere near as much because this is the first half of a twelve episode epic. Williams and the Prince Regent head off to tell their respective societies the truth and restore peace so they can fight the Daleks. We can only assume they made it because it is never mentioned again. It is quite remiss of Terrance Dicks, I would have expected him to at least have had a mention in Planet of the Daleks that the status quo had been restored.
*   As for the direction of that final scene? Actually it is the editing which is mostly at fault, cutting away from the action too quickly before we have figured out what has happened. The Master simply vanishes and the Doctor is dragged into the TARDIS by Jo in a terminal condition. It's a shame that such an lucid, well presented story should end on a confusing hiccup like this.

Result: Hugely entertaining for a story that is essentially the Doctor and Jo being thrown into one cell after another, Frontier in Space is Doctor Who's finest space opera and one of the few stories where the padding is as enjoyable as the rest of the material. The scale of this story feels huge both in term of its setting and its production. In setting terms we get a detailed account of Earth in the 26th Century, visit Draconia and the home world of the Ogrons, a penal colony on the moon and several spaceships along the way. As far as the production is concerned there are impressive sets that have a particular aesthetic depending on which race we are visiting, stylish modelwork that charters the journey between each location, plenty of location work to give the planets a sense of realism, space walking scenes and some exciting shoot outs. Holding all this together is Paul Bernard's strong direction which keeps the whole thing skipping along with excitement. All of this gloss would be for nought if the script didn't hold water but Hulke has delivered a real humdinger of a plot, one involving the Master (working for unknown allies) trying to drive humanity and the Draconians to war. His trademark gift for dialogue really helps to make the characters come alive and sound more like people and not like ciphers, from the President of Earth right down to the lowliest guard and Ogron. I wonder if the production is so solid because Hulke created such a vivid setting, carving out this corner of the galaxy in rich detail. They didn't want to let his ambitious vision down. Best of all though is the Doctor and Jo and what a team they are at this stage of the game. You'll rarely see two actors so in sync and enjoying their time together as you do with Pertwee and Manning in season ten and it comes off the screen in wafts. Add Delgado to the mix, oozing charisma and good humour and you have a six part story that actually gets better in the second half where most of them start lagging terribly. The story even has a whopper of a surprise in store for the audience in the last episode that reveals that this is just the first half of an even bigger epic. Planet of the Daleks might fail to live up to the promise of Frontier in Space but this is some exceptional build up. It is padded in places but the dialogue in those scenes sings which papers over the pauses. I love Frontier in Space, it is one of my favourite Pertwee's. Space opera ahoy!: 9/10


Paolo said...

Cracking review as ever. Makes me want to fire this one up and watch it soon. cheers Paolo

colin-john rodgers said...

Well, that does it! The DVD comes out on the weekend for a viewing! Would be great to see the Draconians back on our screens in the new series but it comes down to the writing and how they'd work in today's WHO. Excellent review, Joe ��