Frontier in Space

Region 1
Box Set

Region 2
Box Set
VHS Video

(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).

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.

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 the Draconians, the Ogrons, the Master, and the Daleks, it is set all across the galaxy from the Earth and Moon to Draconia and the Ogron planet on the far side of the Frontier, and it's billed as the first half of a disguised, modernized Dalek Masterplan (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 unbelievably thin motivation to support all of General Williams' hostility. If it can be rectified so easily by a simple conversation, one has to wonder why that conversation hadn't happened right after diplomatic relations re-opened!

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 Master, the Ogrons, or the Daleks, 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 Master and the Ogrons 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 the Master's stolen 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 two empires mistakenly blaming each other for the actions of a calculating third party is actually a good intriguing idea, capable of sustaining about an episode and a half single-handed. Add a mind-altering sound 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.

Master of Acting

Things do get better when the Master arrives on the scene, 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 that the Master throws at her alone on the Ogron planet, 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 Ogron 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. The new version of the Master's sting used on his entrance in the story works more on humorous lines than suspense or threat, while the version of the hypnosis track from "The Mind of Evil" (story no. 56) is perfect backing the Master's attempt to control Jo, neatly and nostalgically reminding viewers of Jo's past experiences and helping to highlight how far she's come since. 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 the spacecraft, then worrying about the repair he did there -> all way off topic. Jo and the Master do 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 on the planet's surface, 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.

The Daleks are a complete surprise to the plain, unhyped narrative, and a completely lame one under Bernard's direction. They simply show up while the Master taunts and laughs. A good shootout should ensue, but the Earth soldiers simply keel over in a negative image, without any footage of any person or creature firing a weapon. Visually illiterate, on top of the lame lacking of visual laser effects or an emotionally energetic action sequence, and it's all over in half a second. So much film wasted in the quarry on idle wandering, and then nothing for the Daleks' only action scene in the story? Unforgivable. No wonder Jon Pertwee is bored asleep with the Daleks.

So the Daleks arrive, unbelievably become completely satisfied with locking the Doctor and the galactic leaders in a cage, and then promptly leave again. What the hell did they even bother showing up for? No motive!

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 turns the tables on the recurring mental deception of the story, and becomes a high ranking Dalek for half a minute, albeit a particularly bored and uncharacteristically automaton one, when an angry and threatening Dalek would be more of what was required. Turning the tables brings a much needed satisfaction to the story on the emotional level, but on the philosophical, it is kind of sad to see Hulke saying that deception works and honesty fails, and lowering his protagonists to the moral level of the villains.

Worst of all, one stupid capture and escape routine is all that is accomplished by the Doctor's party in episode six, and Jo gets the credit for providing her "rescuers" with the fear-box in the first place. Each Ogron ship must have its own fear box, if the Master can demonstrate one box to Jo on the planet while several Ogron ships simultaneously stir up more trouble between the two Empires, and Bernard has squeezed the end of Jo's demo scene and the Ogron report all into one continuous shot. So even if one can say that the Master's little fear box was destroyed in the poorly edited excuse for concluding action, or removed from the time/space scene by the Doctor, there should still be as many as needed to carry out the deception plan.

And nothing else is really resolved either. The heroes of the two Empires have not captured the Ogron base, and may indeed not even make it back to their ships if any of the Ogrons have half a brain. The Master has inexplicably disappeared, his plan barely threatened. His TARDIS has been mysterious by its absence all story; it would have been far more tactically sound for him to disguise it as a police spacecraft and use it to collect the Doctor, instead of stealing a real police spacecraft which is much slower and more vulnerable. "Colony in Space" (story no. 58) was much better off for combining the ideas of Master's TARDIS with disguised spaceship.

The final insult is the ridiculously chopped ending. Trying to link the two halves of this modernized Dalek masterplan with a good cliffhanger is a noble goal, but since Terry Nation's following story "Planet of the Daleks" doesn't go anywhere near the conflict between the Master, the Ogrons, and the two Empires, Doctor Who's writers should have made sure their conflict was 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.

International Titles:

Deutsch: (Grenzkrieg im Weltraum)

Magyar: "Birodalmak az űrben"

Français: (La Frontière dans l'espace)

Русский: "Космическая граница"

English Novelization: "The Space War"

There seems to be a slight variation in the Hungarian title, which leans towards "Empires in Space". Kind of cool, and possibly an improvement as well. The Russian title encompasses both a cosmic "Border" and "Frontier".

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
Box Set
for the U.K.
VHS Video
A in the U.S.
B in the U.S.
in Canada
for the U.K.

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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "Planet of the Daleks"

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