Frontier in Space

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Region 1
Box Set

DVD PAL
Region 2
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(Doctor Who Story No. 67, starring Jon Pertwee)
  • written by Malcolm Hulke
  • directed by Paul Bernard
  • produced by Barry Letts
  • music by Dudley Simpson
  • 6 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: An air of distrust has brewed up between the galactic empires of Earth and Draconia, fueled by violence and accusations of piracy, and the Doctor and Jo find themselves caught in the middle. Who really stands to benefit if war were to break out? And what is behind the strange hypnotic sound experienced by the pirate victims?

DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by Katy Manning (Jo Grant), producer Barry Letts, and script editor Terrance Dicks. Moderated by Clayton Hickman.
  • "The Space War" making-of featurette (18 min.) with Manning, Vera Fusek (President of Earth), Michael Hawkins (General Williams), and
    visual effects designers John Friedlander and Mat Irvine.
  • "Roger Delgado: The Master" biography featurette (32 min.)
  • "Perfect Scenario: Lost Frontier" featurette (30 min.)
  • Featurette on the third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) in comics (16 min.)
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • Photo Gallery
  • bundled with "Planet of the Daleks" (the next story).

Buyers' Guide Review

by Martin Izsak

(A more in-depth analysis, containing "SPOILERS" and intended for those who have already seen the program, can be accessed here.)


In concept, this story has a huge load of selling points going for it. It's got a pro-peace sociological message struggling through a highly emotional conspiracy, it's got many significant alien races and arch enemies of the Doctor both old and new, it is set all across the galaxy from the Earth and Moon to several planets on the far side of the Frontier, and it's billed as the first half of a disguised, modernized "Masterplan"-sized epic (see story no. 21). And so, the audience's anticipation is huge, and remains huge all throughout a first viewing/reading of the story. BUT.... (and this but is bigger than ever), from scripting to directing to music and effects and heavy post-production fixes, "Frontier in Space" does not deliver well, becoming in my opinion one of the lowest quality and slowest-paced stories in the entire Jon Pertwee era. This view may be an upset against the opinions of many other fans who love this space opera crusade for peace, truth, and justice from the noble, societally-conscious pen of well-meaning Malcolm Hulke, but the gulf, between what the story desperately wants to be and what it actually is, is too wide to be ignored.


Plotting Potholes

By far the biggest design flaw in the writing of this story is that, no matter where in the galaxy the story takes us, it finds a jail cell from within which to tell itself. The excitement of the characters and the conspiracy is rapidly eaten away by the persistence of the capture and escape routines that occupy a bulk of the screen time. But Hulke's trademark flaws are also in full swing: even with all the effort to make the characters individual in their beliefs and motivations, they are all unbelievably excruciatingly bad listeners, and many times the Doctor pathetically gives up even trying to explain himself to the characters of the outside world, and has a nice little faithless "they'd never believe us" chat with Jo in some cell somewhere.

The Draconian race fulfills for this particular script Hulke's need to include reptiles in all that he writes solo. Everyone seems to love the Draconians, and with good reason. The combination of costume, mask, and make-up is extremely effective, and in comparison with regular Earth people, the Draconians are different and equal, and kind of cool at that. They're almost a template for the modern Klingon, only less brutal. But I have never heard praise for any individual Draconian characters. Like their Earthling counterparts, they rather blandly dig their heels into their prejudices and drag the plot out with overdrawn arguments that make little progress. Of course progress must be made eventually, and for this Hulke has created a misunderstood incident which comes off as an unbelievable thin motivation to support all of General Williams' hostility.

In the end, this all adds up to an extremely slow pace in the final script: a parade of moronic characters who aren't very interesting and get nowhere when they talk to each other, plus lots of marching to and from jail cells, sitting in jail cells, escaping from jail cells to get recaptured, and then more tiring fruitless arguments. The conspiracy angle is not spot on in this one. The Earthlings and Draconians are insufferably ignorant, but as such, taking the Doctor and Jo prisoner is logical for them as they are diplomatically civilized. It is not logical for the behind-the-scenes enemies to do the same later on, because permanently shutting up any potential leaks to keep their masterplan secret should be their priority, but of course it is not permitted for them to knock off the main character of the TV show. For this reason, the Doctor and Jo would be put to better use freely investigating the behind-the-scenes plot while the enemy forces erase their leads and informants. Malcolm Hulke in particular is usually far better at writing this dynamic, but he doesn't get it remotely right this time. The Doctor and Jo should also be using the TARDIS to go anywhere in the galaxy that a clue should lead them, just as they might use Bessie to travel all over England in a UNIT story, but for this story the TARDIS too is stuck in the "Marco Polo"-style capture-and-escape plot mistake (see story no. 4). No, we're doing spacecraft for vehicles of choice this story, and the production team somehow believe that spacecraft are so interesting and sci-fi that this already slow story can still afford to stop periodically to allow someone to slowly wander about outside the spacecraft. Not this time, for Dudley Simpson, Paul Bernard, and the film/video editors can't manage to make such sequences interesting or well-paced. The spacecraft models are also quite a letdown, even if they were created from Gerry Anderson's usually excellent leftovers, because the script pivots on the idea that the spacecraft are clearly, recognizably different from each other along racial lines, and the model maker has fashioned them all to be essentially shaped like one boring long tube. Only one unique police ship seems to be recognizably different, and even that's not by much.

The story does have its share of plusses. The idea of the main deception in the story is actually a good intriguing idea, capable of sustaining about an episode and a half single-handed. Do this through a new technology to be discovered, explored, and defeated, and it may give you two good episodes. It just doesn't work if you stretch it out to five and a half episodes, and have no other quality plot elements working along side it.


Acting

Things do get better in episode three, not because the plot or the pace picks up at all (it in fact slows down some in my opinion), but because Roger Delgado is the one actor inspired enough and talented enough to put a really enjoyable performance into this production. Jo Grant's character has been written to continue her recent trend of being far more clever and capable than in her season eight and nine antics, best evidenced by her overcoming most of the challenges she faces when not under the Doctor's protective wing, and it is in her scenes opposite Delgado that Katy Manning seems to shine as an actress. Most of her other scenes are typically average Jo, good but prone to be a bit flippy, with extra ham on the screaming bits. Jon Pertwee seems largely bored with this story, perhaps with good reason, but this is dangerous since it will encourage the same in the audience.

Even though supplied with an inferior script, director Paul Bernard himself seems to have let many elements slump, particularly the timing and pacing of the story. Too much time is given to captivity and moving to and from captivity, whereas more could be spent on planning and executing better action sequences (in the video studios if money for outdoor film is tight), and on getting the Doctor's dialogue scenes in the out-of-jail world to display juicy, dramatic acting performances that are worth savouring on screen a little longer. This might have made the adjusted episode endings more justified; as it stands I think they are more the result of poor pace planning. Plus Bernard went on the cheap with regards to a visual TARDIS materialization, eating into his visual literacy marks. Even worse, he neglects to show any open space on the other side of the airlock door in episode five. Without any dialogue either to prepare the audience, the whole sequence of the Doctor and the Draconian Prince trying to close the airlock is very confusing until it is all over. And as far as the bright orange inflatable raft monster on the quarry planet goes, what were its designers thinking in the first place?

The new music in this story lacks emotional teeth, both in composition and instrumentation. The only really good bits are the ones that Dudley Simpson composed way back in season eight. Some of the new variations work more on humorous lines than suspense or threat, while others neatly appear in their original versions as nostalgic reminders highlighting the characters' journeys and growth. Considering the transitional style of much of this story's footage, one would have thought that Simpson could step up and help fill the emotional gaps, as he did so excellently in "The Ambassadors of Death" (story no. 53), but the job is either not attempted or poorly done here. There seems to be an overall theme for the story or the Earth forces, but it sounds irritating and doesn't really work.
"Frontier in Space" Episode One (1:46) and
"Hypnosis Music" (0:36) are available on:
Audio CD - Doctor Who:
The 50th Anniversary Collection
4-disc version (2013)

More info & buying options

"Frontier in Space" Episodes One & Two (5:37) and
"Hypnosis Music" (0:36) were released on:
Audio CD - Doctor Who:
The 50th Anniversary Collection
11-disc version (2014)

More info


Illusions of Progress

Episode five begins a breath of fresh air for the story, as the Doctor manages to stay out of obvious captivity for more than five minutes at a time, and actually makes some progress resolving the main misunderstanding at hand. Unfortunately, the progress is short lived, because episode six is mostly dead in the water all over again. With so much at stake on the galactic stage, and with Hulke having knocked his protagonists back to square one so often, there is a lot of good stuff needing to be taken care of. But what conflicts do we spend our screen time combatting? The Doctor farts around floating outside a spacecraft, then worrying about the repair he did there -> all way off topic. Jo is involved in yet another overcomplicated captivity number just to bring the Doctor to the scene, which is really unnecessary since he's coming anyway. The action should be at its most serious in the final setting, yet it remains silly and is probably the most boring location footage in the entire Jon Pertwee era. You can still do exploration in the final episode of a Doctor Who, but I think exploration at a leisurely pace won't work well after the midpoint of a story, particularly if the Doctor's party and the audience already have all the answers to all the questions so far posed by the narrative.

There are many more reasons to consider the final episode lame which involve spoilers, so I'll save the discussion of them for the in-depth analysis version of this review. Suffice it to say that the portions that should be emotional rush by too quickly, have no teeth and/or quality visual effects, and/or make no logical sense for character motivations and/or plot. All this after so much film was wasted on idle wandering. Unforgivable. No wonder Jon Pertwee is bored asleep with this tale.


Unresolved and Unlinked

Episode Six conflict remains as poor as a pauper, as our protagonists are confronted with the overused escape from jail problem for the millionth time in one story. The solution is unique this time around, and is the only remotely entertaining scene of the story's conclusion. Jon Pertwee still doesn't quite muster up the right emotional quality for the scene. And though it brings a much needed satisfaction to the story on the emotional level, on the philosophical, it is kind of sad to see Hulke requiring his protagonists to sink to the moral level of the villains in order to get out of their predicament.

Worst of all, none of the characters we've come to root for really accomplish anything in the final episode. The villains are suddenly no longer there, their plans barely threatened. Nothing else is really resolved.

The final insult is the ridiculously chopped ending. Trying to link the end of this story into the beginning of the next with a good cliffhanger is a noble goal, but since the following story doesn't go anywhere near the conflicts raised in this one, Doctor Who's writers should have made sure those conflicts were resolved somewhere at some point in the series. Instead, they further destroyed what little resolution "Frontier in Space" had.

Question: Does the original ending taped by Paul Bernard still survive, or was it taped over by the new ending, without ever being duplicated or transmitted or archived or telesnapped or anything? It may at least shed some welcome light on the motives behind the creation of this story, and would make a great DVD extra. However, it looks like we'll be settling for more talk about the ending on the 2009/2010 DVD, rather than seeing the original ending for ourselves.


In the end, I think I have to say that this is Malcolm Hulke's least successful Dr. Who script, one small good story idea with great scope, underdeveloped and overblown into a long, boring, and essentially unresolved mess that failed to inspire quality or ingenuity from most of the rest of the production staff.



This story is available on DVD (bundled with the next story) and VHS video.
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DVD NTSC Region 1 Box Set
for the North American market
in the U.S.
in Canada
DVD PAL Region 2
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for the U.K.
VHS Video
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B in the U.S.
in Canada
for the U.K.


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Read the Buyers' Guide Review for the next story: "Planet of the Daleks"



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