The peace between Earth and Draconia is on the brink of shattering, with each side accusing the other of violating their space borders and attacking their ships. It’s into this volatile situation that the TARDIS inadvertently lands, materializing in the hold of an Earth cargo ship to avoid a collision. When a couple of the crew go down to investigate the new arrivals, they seem to mistake the Doctor and Jo for invading Draconians, and immediately takes them captive at gunpoint. Jo tells the Doctor she heard a strange sound not long after they arrived. It seems someone is using sonic hypnosis to make them see what they most fear. People from Earth see Draconians; Draconians see Earth men. But the Doctor and Jo have seen the true form of the hostiles: Ogrons. Someone is using Ogrons to lead Draconia and Earth into war, and it’s up to the Doctor and Jo to discover who’s behind this plan, and convince the rulers of the two planets they are being duped before it’s too late…
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
“Frontier in Space” is a six-part story written by Malcolm Hulke, broadcast from the end of February through March of 1973. Although pretty much a stand-alone story, it does dovetail into the next serial, “Planet of the Daleks,” creating a 12-part epic saga–sort of. But not really. There are connections between the two stories, but I wouldn’t consider them dependent links. You can watch the two stories as stand-alones.
The premise of a third party trying to manufacture hostilities between two parties makes for a good premise, and the fact that neither the Draconians or the Earth people are easy to convince is credible. Such a roadblock makes for good drama, as we see here. Add to this the fact that the Master is the one stirring trouble, and you have the makings of a good story. I don’t doubt the entrance of the Master in episode 3, posing as a commissioner from Sirius IV to claim jurisdiction over the Doctor and Jo, was a nice surprise for the original audience. We hadn’t seen the Master since the end of the previous season (“The Time Monster”). But, as we learn at the end of episode 6, the Master isn’t working alone. There are hints–some not so subtle–at who the Master is operating on behalf of. Given the Doctor’s statement in “Day of the Daleks” about the mercenary nature of the Ogrons, and how they are often used by the Daleks to do their dirty work, it should not have been a surprise when the pepperpots roll out to take charge of things. To be fair, in 1973 there were no DVDs, videos, or even novelizations of previous stories to remind you what happened before. It was up to the fans to remember, and many might well have forgotten about the Ogron-Dalek relationship.
This is our first and, as far as I recall, last time meeting the Draconians (derogatorily called “Dragons” by the Earth people, which is interesting since the Greek drakôn means “dragon”–that’s where we get the word from). They are presented to us as a race with traditions and a culture, but also mirroring the Earth people with their own hawkish advocate for war, and a ruler not wanting to be hasty and listen to the arguments before jumping to battle. At first we are led to believe they are the “monsters” of the story, but as the tale progresses, we learn they are as much victims of the Master’s scheme as the Earth people. The Draconian costumes are among the best of the era, given the limitations of budget and technology.
There are a few things that didn’t make sense to me. When the rescue party boarded the ship, why didn’t the Doctor and Jo correct their mistaken notion that Draconians had attacked? They saw beneath the Ogrons’ mental trick (Jo, not knowing the Draconians, at first saw instead a drashig from “Carnival of Monsters,” a mutant from “The Mutants,” and a Sea Devil), so they knew the Draconians weren’t to blame. Why not at least try to convince people from the get-go? Also, when Jo is locked in the cell, she digs her way out with a spoon. Granted, it’s a large spoon, but still–really?
There is also some serious plot padding, easy to spot because these parts serve no other purpose than to stretch the story out. The biggest is probably the part where the Doctor is sentence to the moon colony for a year. This rabbit trail takes up almost two episodes, and ends with the Master “rescuing” them. What makes this padding is the fact that this moon colony, and the people the Doctor encounters while held, play no further part in the story. You could cut this entire section out of the story, and have the Master capture the Doctor and Jo by some other means, and you wouldn’t miss it. There are a couple of sequences where the Doctor space walks, first to try to escape from one part of the ship to another, and again later to make a repair. These are not irrelevant to the plot, but they are stretched out unnecessarily (I think) to try to burn some time.
The sonic screwdriver is starting to become part of the Doctor’s standard equipment (though he refers to it as his “ultrasonic screwdriver” in this story). There are also some nice little points of continuity, like when the Doctor starts recounting the end of “The War Games” to Jo while they are trying to break out of their cell, and Jo makes reference to the planet Solos, which they visited in “The Mutants.” And while we’re talking about things I like, I think the Dalek reveal is good. As I said above, while it could have been anticipated, it might not have been if the audience had forgotten the Ogron-Dalek connection. Seeing them appear behind the Master makes for quite a striking visual.
The end sees the Master escape, but in the struggle the Doctor receives a shot (or a blow–I couldn’t quite make out) to the head. It only appears to be a flesh wound, but he needs Jo to help him into the TARDIS where he plugs himself into the telepathic circuits, sends a message to the Time Lords, then collapses on a bed-pallet type thing. I’m a little confused as to why the Doctor acts like he’s been mortally wounded, but there again, he’s a Time Lord so there’s no saying what affects him this way. This scene is repeated at the beginning of the next serial, “Planet of the Daleks,” to provide continuity. We will learn in “Planet” that the Doctor had asked the Time Lords to have the TARDIS follow the Daleks. It seems the chief Dalek (the gold one) had left the planet to prepare the Dalek army for an invasion after the war between Earth and Draconia had run its course–a war that, now, wouldn’t happen. Cue “Planet of the Daleks”…
“Frontier in Space” is entertaining, and not at all disappointing, but not the best Who. Certainly one that can be skipped by the casual viewer.