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11 January 2014 @ 05:43 pm
The Randomizer: Frontier in Space  
I've always vaguely imagined that Frontier in Space would be worthy but dull. It has a reputation, in Doctor Who circles, for containing one of the best realised alien cultures in the show and its plot centres around the build-up to an inter-galactic war. I was expecting a lot of talk.

Let's start with the alien culture. Hmm…, well the most that can be said for Draconian culture is that someone thought "Emperor! Lizards!" and, possibly, "Japan!" and then had the cunning idea not to make them baddies. It is true that, as alien cultures in Doctor Who go, especially one's fronted by obvious non-humans, the Draconians are pretty good. It is also true that they don't have a very high bar to clear here. Taken together with The Curse of Peladon (which famously gives a culture to the Ice Warriors), it is clear that the production team of the time were thinking out of the Doctor Who box when it came to "monsters" but I'm not sure it is anything to get wildly excited about. The Draconian costumes have sadly not aged well - ten years later Star Trek:The Next Generation was wise enough to avoid full facial prosthetics for aliens who are required to speak extensively.

On the bright side, the, in reality, very sketchy approach to Draconian culture meant there was a lot less discussion of Draconian politics and philosophy than I had feared.

The Earth (implied) mono-culture against which the Draconians are arraigned is given more detail though I'm not convinced it was the result of careful thought more than filling bits in as the plot required. We have a female Earth president (something made much of, as I recall, in the DWM of the 1980s) who is very ably played by Vera Fusek in a performance I found very reminiscent of Roslin in the revamped BSG (or, at least, what I saw of it). She gives the impression of being both a good person and an able politician with a wider view of the political realities around her than her antagonistic General (right up until his rather unlikely conversion to the side of peace on learning that he had started the earlier Earth-Draconian war by mistake - in a plot point later stolen, and handled much better, by Babylon 5). In these scenes we are generally invited to believe in a future Earth government run on benign and democratic lines. On the other hand, the entirety of one episode (pretty much) is spent on what turns out to be an Earth penal colony for political dissidents. It does appear to be a fairly genteel prison, I rather got the impression the inmates spent their days playing chess and discussing political philosophy, but nevertheless the point is made that this is an Earth government that has no time for freedom of speech. Oddly the story seems entirely unaware of this contradiction and the Doctor quite happily ignores the whole issue once he has escaped from the prison.

The joy of the story, however, is in the interactions between the Doctor, Jo and the Master. There are many great moments and it is tempting to list some of them but I shall resist. It made me feel that I've often under-rated Jo as a companion. I think the character's main failings are that she was immediately followed by Sarah Jane and that, in being given an actual arc, she tends to be associated with the over-eager but accident prone character she is in her first appearance, not the capable person she becomes. She shines here in many ways, and is "kick-ass" while remaining enthusiastic and sunny. I think this is also my favourite of Delgardo's performances as the Master (at least of those I've seen). He's given more opportunities to interact with the Doctor and Jo than in many stories I've seen, and that lets him move away from the fairly limited roles of "fooling bumbling idiots" and "bossing subordinates around". He's much better than anyone else who has played the Master.

This is also a story with extended sequences set on space craft as they travel between planets. Again this has the potential to be very dull but is mostly enlivened by the way this tends to focus the action down to the Doctor, Jo and the Master. It is also interesting to see, in these sequences, where money was being spent and where it was being saved. I'd guess there were entirely two spaceship sets (a bridge, and a hold) which are pressed into service as at least three different craft. At the same time money has been spent on a flying rig in order to have a sequence in which the Doctor goes for a space walk. Personally, I'd have jettisoned the space walk and spent more on the sets but that may be because the space walk has not aged terribly well (or possibly not survived the transfer to modern digital media well) since Jon Pertwee is very obviously held up by wires, meanwhile the corners cut set-dressing the interiors are also painfully obvious.

This is a surprisingly engaging story, given all the potential it had to be slow-moving and over-impressed with itself. At lot of this is down to the performances of Jon Pertwee, Katy Manning and Roger Delgardo and the time the script spends in allowing their characters to interact with each other.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/108938.html.
daniel_saunders: Leekleydaniel_saunders on January 12th, 2014 12:04 am (UTC)
a plot point later stolen, and handled much better, by Babylon 5

You probably know this, but Michael J. Straczynski is on record as being a big fan of British TV science fiction, long before it was fashionable in the US.

I've never seen the Earth government in this as democratic and benign. I think I saw a tension between autocrats (General Williams) and reformers moving tentatively towards liberalization (the President), somewhat like the USSR a decade after this aired.

I think Jo's character varies a lot according to the writers. Malcolm Hulke and some others saw her as a highly-trained spy; Robert Holmes and "Robert Sloman" seemed to see her as a stereotyped ditzy blonde.

There is a theory that one of the problems with the mid-Pertwee era is that the Master is a much more enjoyable character than the Doctor!

the space walk has not aged terribly well (or possibly not survived the transfer to modern digital media well) since Jon Pertwee is very obviously held up by wires

IIRC, he also has a space helmet with big holes...
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on January 12th, 2014 11:06 am (UTC)
I knew Straczynski was a Who fan and the plot point seems so similar I can't believe he didn't borrow it. In fact, it occurs to me, that there are a lot of similarities between the Draconians and the Minbari.

I'm not sure the Master is a more enjoyable character per se. He works very well as an antagonist here, but I think he's at his best interacting with the Doctor and Jo, with all the other characters (and the Ogrons) he's a fairly generic villain.