The Doctor regained his freedom at the beginning of this series, and it didn’t take long before we get the obvious approach, now that the Earth-bound format is gone: an old-fashioned bit of sci-fi set in the future with galactic empires at war. What this means for Doctor Who is a lot of getting captured and escaping. This is merged with another attempt from Malcolm Hulke at a lizard men story where the aliens have their own individual motivations, rather than being basically a monster army, which is what we normally get from Doctor Who. It is a good enough idea to be worth repeating, and at last Hulke hits the jackpot and has his intelligent aliens matched with some intelligent design work.
Jon Pertwee always said the Draconians were his favourite aliens because the actors playing them had enough facial movement to be able to act (they can spit pretty well too). A Hulke script is a good time for that to happen. Finally he gets his message across without the designers working against him: these aliens might look different, but they are not monsters. They have individual motivations. Both the president of Earth and the Emperor of Draconia are reasonable people who are being let down by more extreme factions within their own races, and even they have fairly logical motivations. So there is a clear parallel and we are obviously supposed to view this as two races who are being manipulated into conflict, rather than poor innocent humans being attacked by vicious alien monsters (which is what happens in most Doctor Who stories).
In that respect, Hulke manages to subvert the usual xenophobia that monster stories tend to play on, but his message is lacking focus. Something you might have already spotted is that Earth has a president, but Draconia has an emperor. The Draconians are clearly defined as being equivalent to the past of the human race (the obvious comparison is feudal Japan), and they are horribly sexist towards “females”. So if you are aiming for a story that says “aliens aren’t monsters”, it’s an odd decision to make the aliens monsters. Any aliens depicted on Doctor Who that exclude 50% of their population is monstrous, unintentionally or not; maybe not in the same way as ones that go around chanting “exterminate”, but monstrous nonetheless. If you expect Doctor Who to be a programme that can be watched and enjoyed by women, then you can’t expect this story to be understood in terms of two equal groups of individuals. For 50% of the viewers (and any of the other 50% who notice this) what we actually have here are the enlightened humans vs. the monsters clinging onto a horrible discriminatory tradition because they are a bunch of blokes strutting about and holding power and expecting everyone to bow down before the mighty emperor. Even their name is based on a man who created arguably the first modern legal system in the distant past (7th Century BC) and enshrined in law the death penalty for stealing a cabbage.
So we have to abandon at this point most of what everyone says about this story. It tries to be different, but what ends up on screen is not much less xenophobic than any other bunch of Doctor Who monsters. And that’s before we even talk about the Ogrons, which I’m not going to do. This might be trying to be a shining beacon of enlightenment, but it can’t help being the product of the 1970s.
Dragging the story out of the mire once again is the Master, who is there to stir things up and complicate matters just enough to justify a six-episode run. And then the Daleks show up, downgrading the Master to small-time secondary villain and turning the whole story into an extended trailer for the next one, with the plot basically abandoned in favour of something more interesting and a bigger threat. On paper this looks like it should be a mess, but somehow it all works pretty well, and that’s because at this stage everyone is confident about what they are doing. It goes without saying that the three leads have been working together for long enough that they know how to entertain us, but also this is Hulke’s fourth Pertwee story and he has perfected writing for the familiar team. He might get the morality of the story he is trying to tell a bit skewed, but he isn’t going to fail in terms of telling a good, entertaining story in the process.
Before we welcome back a writer from the past in the next story, it is worth noting here the stability of the writing team during the Pertwee era, and the effect that is having. We have mentioned before the Sloman/Letts season finales, but this was not the only area of consistency. With only a couple of exceptions, all the Pertwee stories are written by seven writers or writing teams: Robert Holmes, Don Houghton, Malcolm Hulke, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, Brian Hayles, Terry Nation and the Sloman/Letts team. For an era of 128 episodes that’s exceptional. Leaving aside the writers with two stories each, we have our core Pertwee writing team: Holmes, Hulke, Baker/Martin, Hayles and Sloman/Letts. Those five writers/teams are responsible astonishingly for almost 100 of the Pertwee episodes. What this stability means is that by the time Pertwee’s fourth season rolls around, everyone knows exactly what they are doing, and what works and what doesn’t. So far this year we have seen scripts from Baker/Martin, Holmes, and Hulke, and all of them are at the top of their game where the Third Doctor era is concerned, displaying complete confidence and putting out work that is a huge amount of fun to watch.
Sadly for Hulke though, this is his last attempt at a race of reptile men who are individuals not monsters, and he still doesn’t quite achieve that. But the attempt itself is a step in an interesting direction. On a superficial level, Hulke has tried to write the same story three times, with variations on a theme. We are about to welcome back another writer who has a familiar story to tell… RP
The view from across the pond:
We’re starting to wrap up the Jon Pertwee era and we come to that epic battle where the Doctor and Jo get tangled up in some intrigue with the Draconians. It’s an odd story called Frontier in Space. What makes it odd is that it doesn’t end, it just sort of stops. The ending is after episode 6: the Doctor sends out a distress call to the Time Lords and escapes the Daleks. And then a new story begins the week later. It was my understanding that this had a lot to do with the untimely demise of the original Master, Roger Delgado. The result is an odd blip in the history of Doctor Who where, in the middle of a good story, things just stop. But the story is quite good. Humans and Draconians are fighting each other because both sides believe the other to be aggressors. What they don’t know is that the Master has teamed up with the Daleks and they are using their slaves, the Ogrons, to attack both sides and frame the other. Conceptually, it’s big, adult and interesting. The execution is pulled off well also. This is one of Pertwee’s stronger stories. It’s one of a very few that maintain the momentum through the 6 episode length.
We are introduced to Jon Pertwee’s favorite monsters, the Draconians. Unfortunately, they never make a comeback! I’d say they did deserve to come back at some point! They are a pretty spectacular race, coming from the same mold of noble warriors that gave us the Ice Warriors. What made them popular with Pertwee was that the actors face was visible; they could use their own mouth and eyes and were not obscured by masks. I loved them because they were not cardboard monsters. They were a noble race, they had dimension. You could easily believe they developed as a species. (I’m still not sold on the Dominators, for example, but these people clearly have culture!) There is a distinctly Japanese aesthetic to them and it gives them so much more dimension than most aliens in Doctor Who; they have honor, nobility, intelligence and history. They are a truly rare treat in the pantheon of aliens in the classic series. The same cannot be said for the Ogrons or the Daleks. While we do discover that the Ogrons have a culture, it entails the worship of a blob but that is never explored further after the Doctor’s unfortunate departure. The Daleks may be a popular race, but they seldom come off as anything more than megalomaniacal monsters. The Master is helping them, however, which does give them more menace; there is a semi-rational mind helping them understand humans!
Let’s get a couple things out of the way. First: Jo gives an Ogron a banana. Maybe this is played for laughs, or maybe Jo just doesn’t understand but it’s a bit prejudicial. Jo sees a creature that looks like an ape, so she offers a banana. It was during my most recent viewing of it that it stood out to me. I really want Doctor Who to be a show that defies prejudice, not supports it. Sure, I don’t see marches in Washington going on for Ogron rights, so maybe no one is really offended because they are not real, but it’s what it represents that I don’t like. Second, having recently reviewed The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Captain Cook reminds us of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor. All he needed to do was say he was once going to meet a giant rabbit, a pink elephant and a purple horse with yellow spots to actually be the Doctor. (Yes, this is something the Doctor claims during this story!) Can the comparison be made any more clearly between the two?
The real similarity I need to draw out however is something I noticed during my last viewing. Quick background: my sons and I most recently watched this story over 2 days in November of 2014. We jumped into Doctor Who after completing a marathon of Babylon 5. This is important because when we learn in Frontier in Space that the Earth/Draconian War started when humans misinterpreted the Draconians as a threat and opened fire, it is exactly what started the Earth/Minbari War in Babylon 5. It seems humans misinterpret things an awful lot, leading to some really bad results! It’s important for me because I consider Babylon 5 to be the strongest science fiction story ever written for TV and I consider Doctor Who to have the single best character in all of Science Fiction history. In other words, my two favorites may very well be intrinsically linked by human ignorance leading to war! I can’t help but wonder if J. Michael Straczynski watched and loved this episode and created that as part of the backstory for Babylon 5.
Pertwee’s era is not my favorite because the stories are often too long, but this story is a solid political action/drama that can entertain both children and adult alike. And my older son and I did speculate: were these events potentially part of what started the Time War? We always assume Genesis of the Daleks was the real start, but the Doctor does call in the Time Lords at the end of this story. One can’t help but wonder if this might have precipitated the Time Lords sending the Doctor back to the creation of the Daleks in the first place. The Doctor does mention his trial during this story and feels he defended himself well. Playing a bit of “connect the dots”, it would make sense that he got the Time Lords thinking during his trial by making them aware that there are races that need to be fought. You all know the quote! He then proves they are too much for him to beat during this story, which raises the flag in their collective minds. They take action by Genesis. It is after Genesis that we see all the in-fighting with the Daleks for several stories and learn about the Movellan War. And finally we get to the Time War. I think this story is more important than people realize!
I just wish the story had more of an ending, and didn’t just… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Planet of the Daleks