For only the second time, the Master decides to try a scheme that doesn’t involve traveling to 20th century Earth in England. Cool. He ought to have tried it more often, since without the Doctor around early on to stop him, he almost succeeds.
Ok, I’m poking a little fun at the character and the story, but both really are quite good. I’d never seen “Frontier in Space” prior to buying the VHS (having missed most of both “Frontier” and “Planet of the Daleks” when my local PBS station showed them years ago), and I have to admit it was nice to watch a Doctor Who serial that I haven’t seen multiple times. Sometimes I’m just overly familar with a story, such as “Carnival of Monsters”, so that even if I love it to bits, it just doesn’t quite have the same level of enjoyment that it once did. Thankfully, that isn’t the case here. “Frontier in Space” is a story I’ve rarely watched, and it’s been nice to revisit it.
The story throws us right into the thick of the action with a narrowly avoided hyperspace collision between a freighter and the TARDIS, and then an attack on the freighter by Ogrons. The crew have just been discussing the tense situation very nonchalantly, but once the action starts they get quite worked up. Which means that the poor old calm and reasonable Doctor doesn’t stand a chance, and in a pattern that will last for the rest of the story, is locked up. In fact, I don’t think the Doctor’s ever spent as much time locked in a cell somewhere as he does during the six episodes that make up “Frontier in Space”. It’s never less than entertaining, and the location and method of escape, or inability to escape, varies constantly. But for most of the story, it’s very much a case of the Doctor and Jo being thrown in the deep end, surrounded by essentially hostile forces who refuse to believe their story. After awhile, it does start to feel repetitive, so it’s a relief when the Doctor manages to convince the Draconian Emperor just what is going on, allowing him to finally be proactive about midway through the fifth episode.
The basic plot is very sound. It’s very plausible to have someone stirring up trouble between two great empires so those empires will go to war and destroy each other so a third party can come in and take over. Both Earth and Draconia are convinced that the other is causing the trouble, and due to bad blood between them are unwilling to trust each other enough to resolve the problem.
That third party is, of course, the Master. Sadly, this is Roger Delgado’s final outing as the character. He’s a good bit nastier than he was in his prior appearance. His actions were just as bad in “The Time Monster” as they are here, but something about his attitude is a bit more hard-edged for much of this story. He gets a few light moments of course, and the degree of familiarity between the Doctor, Jo and the Master allows for some great dialogue between the characters. A fine example would be the Doctor and Jo discussing the Doctor’s trial while the Master listens in. He can’t help but comment on it. “In a reminescent mood, are you Doctor? Poor Miss Grant, you have my sympathies!” Other great Master moments include the way he casually blackmails the Prison Governor, and the way he’s exasperated with the Ogrons stupidity. And I can’t leave out the way he mocks the Daleks (when they can’t hear him of course) calling them “stupid tin boxes”, pulling a face, and promising “we’ll see who rules the galaxy when this is over.” It’s great! “The Three Doctors” celebrated the anniversary year by teaming up all three lead actors, and “Frontier in Space” celebrates by bringing together two of the Doctor’s biggest enemies. I’d love to have seen more Dalek/Master interactions this entertaining!
Jon Pertwee said on several occasions that the Draconians were his favorite monsters, and they are certainly very credibly presented. Sure, as always, they are actors in rubber masks, but the costume design is good. It’s always enjoyable to see the “people monsters” as I believe Terrance Dicks called them, who are monsters in appearance only, and otherwise have their own point of view and their own culture, and who I’m generally willing to root for as much as the human characters. The Ogrons are well used here, being rather loveably stupid but effective henchmen for the Master.
The ending with a cliffhanger leading directly into the next story is a throwback to the old days when one story often ran directly into another. In fact, my wife just assumed that there was another episode of “Frontier” still to be seen.
“Frontier in Space” is an oddity. It has a very strong story, but the plot isn’t quite enough to fill up the six episodes, leading to a lot of scenes with the Doctor and Jo set in a cell or a prison. It’s the most unique plot filler ever, and thankfully it’s entertaining enough not to drag the story down, but it is repititious. Roger Delgado gets a strong final appearance as the Master, and Jo Grant continues to grow as a companion. It’s well worth your time.