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10x3. Frontier in Space
Writer: Malcolm Hulke
Director: Paul Bernard
Script Editor: Terrance Dicks
Producer: Barry Letts

Synopsis: The Doctor and Jo arrive in the 26th century, where a growing Earth Empire is in the midst of an escalating conflict with the Draconians. The two of them are suspected by each side of spying for the other, while the hawkish General Williams presses the Earth President to declare war and similar pressure mount on the Draconian side. In fact, the conflict is being orchestrated by the Master and the Ogrons, who are working for the Daleks in an attempt to wipe out the other major galactic powers.

Review: "Frontier in Space" strikes me as a case of the creative team being so intent on telling a "big" story that they forgot such "little" concerns as interesting characters and original plot mechanics. It hops back and forth between outer space, Earth, the Moon, Draconia, and the Ogrons' planet, and the possibility of a devastating galactic war is ever-present, and yet the story is told largely by having the Doctor and Jo locked in prison over and over again.

One part of me says that it's unfair to pick on Doctor Who for problems that can be attributed to budgetary constraints. Certainly "Frontier in Space" suffers from the inherent problems of trying to do space opera on a low budget, and I can imagine that part of the reason for keeping the Doctor and Jo locked up was that they simply didn't have the technical resources to portray what was actually happening outside the prison cells. The other part of me, however, says that a TV series should know its limitations, and that in the case of Doctor Who, something like this probably shouldn't be attempted unless the plotting and characterization can sustain it on their own. Unfortunately, "Frontier" is full of contrived plotting that seems designed just to take up time. The Doctor's two "space walks," for example, are mere diversions that simply set the story back where it was already headed, and most of the prison breaks result from laughably inept security procedures. Does it not occur to anyone that they should actually pay attention to what the Doctor and Jo are doing while inside their cells? And if they can't be bothered to do that, couldn't they at least check their pockets (at least two escapes are only possible because one of them has snuck in a gadget) or separate them so they can't plan an escape together?

The Earth/Draconia conflict has the beginnings of an interesting story. Twenty-sixth century Earth, which the script explicitly states is in the early days of the empire we saw in "The Mutants," is a rather unsettling place. Despite the moderate tone espoused by the President, thousands of members of the "Peace Party" have been imprisoned on a lunar penal colony, and from the opposite side, many political leaders are now urging all-out war with the Draconians. General Williams, despite keeping to his pledge of personal loyalty to the President, strongly disagrees with her decisions and warns that some are calling for a military dictatorship. Draconia is in a similar political situation, with its leaders hesitant to declare war but fearing it may be inevitable. The Master's manipulations naturally take root in this distrustful atmosphere, and here the script calls to attention the issue of how precarious negotations can be in this atmosphere. Unfortunately, most of these concepts and characters are only developed to the extent necessary for us to understand their immediate roles in the plot. One could certainly infer that the impriosning of anti-war activists contributed to the poisonous political atmosphere on Earth, for example, but these sorts of issues rarely assume center stage in the script, which usually seems more occupied with the mechanics of the next jail-break.

There's a scene towards the end which both undermines the whole Earth/Draconia backstory and illustrates the flimsy way in which the script's tougher issues are handled. The Draconian Prince reveals that General Williams actually started the first war between the two empires by mistakenly firing upon a Draconian battlecruiser on a rescue mission (the ship was carrying a Draconian aristocrat and had its missile tanks empty). Surprisingly, Williams simply accepts this story at face value, apologizes, and becomes a full supporter of peace in the space of about five minutes. Not only does this render his character rather unbelievable, but it also makes both sides look generally idiotic. Does it really make sense that they fought a prolonged war instead of just checking first to see if there had been an accident or misunderstanding? And that no one has thought to investigate the causes of the first war until now? If the leadership of both worlds were really this foolish, I'd have a hard time believing they could have built up these empires in the first place. Moreover, after setting up both sides as believably flawed and paranoid, it makes the solution too easy. The outbreak of xenophobia on both worlds and the silencing of anti-war voices on Earth don't ultimately matter that much, because all that was really needed was for Williams and the Draconian Prince to have a five-minute conversation that they could have had at any randmo moment (despite all the suspicion, the leaders of both sides were still talking to each other the entire time).

The portrayal of the Master is a step up from what it was in his last two appearances. His animus against the Doctor is better developed: he laments that killing the Doctor with a long-range missile might lack the desired personal touch, and he later asks the Daleks to keep the Doctor alive long enough to see the universe in ruins. The script also moves away from the motif of his assisting an in-progress attack on Earth without going over the top like "The Time Monster" and having him try to seize control of the entire universe. We see that he's savvy enough to meddle effectively in interplanetary politics, and that he's capable of fooling the Daleks into accepting him as a loyal servant (he clearly plans to hold the upper hand over everyone when the dust settles, though he doesn't explain exactly how). I also thought that both he and Jo were well-served by their interactions in Episode 6, when, after she proves resistant to his attempts at hypnosis and deception using his "fear box," he then uses her resourcefulness to his own advantage by giving her the means to escape her cell and rigging the communications array so that the message she sends functions as a trap for the Doctor. I've enjoyed seeing Jo become more and more of a force to reckon with, and the scene in which she uses nursery rhymes to block out the Master's tiresome "YOU WILL O-BEY ME" hypnosis routine literally earned a round of applause from me. At the same time, it would be unrealistic for her to outmaneuver the Master at every turn, and I think this turn of events strikes the right balance.

Unfortunately, there's a fair amount in the final episode that doesn't work. The Ogrons' stupidity and the Master's exasperation with them sometimes works as a gag, but the monster that scares them off when they're about to attack the Doctor and his allies proves to be another underdeveloped idea. The Doctor later discovers a cave painting that leads him to believe that the Ogrons see this creature as their god, but that's as far as it goes. Like so much of the social/political background material in "Frontier in Space," this is a potentially interesting concept that's left hanging out there. We don't know if the creature cares about or even understands the conflict at hand, why the Ogrons worship it, or why it's even there, other than to prolong the cat-and-mouse games on the planet long enough for the Daleks to arrive. The sixth episode also suffers from a scene edited so poorly as to be almost incomprehensible. The Master and the Ogrons have the Doctor and Jo surrounded, the Doctor activates the Master's "fear box" which drives the Ogrons crazy, a general melée ensues, during which the Doctor is shot and the Master just...vanishes. I've watched the scene twice, and Master is literally there in one shot and then simply absent in the next, leaving us with no idea where he went or why or even how. I realize it's not the creative team's fault that this turned out to be Delgado's swan song, but certainly they knew he wasn't going to appear in the next serial, and this is a deeply unsatisfactory way to have him exit the story. (Reportedly, the script originally called for an ending involving an illusion of the monster, with Williams and the Draconian Prince chasing the Master while the Doctor and Jo leave to pursue the Daleks. Barry Letts scrapped it because the monster was unconvincing, but personally I'd have preferred more of the silly-looking monster in exchange for a more coherent ending.)

I'm aware that my tone has perhaps been excessively harsh, and if this had been a Hartnell or Troughton serial, I might have gone easier on it. But if the Doctor Who team didn't know their limitations at first, it seems like they should have figured out by the tenth season what they could and couldn't do, or at least come up with a better way to cut corners than to have the Doctor and Jo spend half the story in jail. Still, whatever the faults of "Frontier in Space," I'll give it this much: when it was over, I was half-tempted to cue up "Planet of the Daleks" right away to see what came next.

Rating: ** (out of four)

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