>Retro TV Round-Up: Doctor Who

>“Frontier in Space”
One of the big criticisms of the Pertwee era is that a lot of the stories are just too long. There are a lot of six and seven part stories during the third Doctor’s era and while some of them take advantage of the longer running time when it comes to the storytelling (“Mind of Evil”) or find creative ways to hide the padding (“Inferno”), there are still a lot of them end up spinning the wheels in the middle episodes as we wait for the next development and the Doctor to solve whatever crisis is currently unfolding.

But yet it’s a handful of these six-part stories that are among the more fondly remembered and respect from the third Doctor’s era.

Of course, part of that could be that the memory cheats a bit. You can overlook the padding if you only see one installment per week. In the day and age of video and then DVD, watching a six-part story in one sitting isn’t the way these Doctor Who stories were meant to viewed. With a week or even a day’s gap between installments, the necessity of a bit of recap and reminder work well and isn’t quite as obvious. It also helps you forget that certain things are happened over and over again.

For example, the Doctor and Jo spending a lot of time escaping only to be locked up again in the first two installments of “Frontier in Space.”

“Space” is one of the classic series few attempts at doing a genuine space-opera and the results are a pretty mixed bag. The ideas here are interesting and the story attempts to have a bit more epic scale that most Doctor Who stories. Instead of feeling like we’ve only spent a few hours in the future setting, this one could take place over several weeks or even months. The Doctor and Jo arrive in the far future to find the Ogrons are working to start a conflict between the empires of Earth and Draconia. Using a device that feeds on the fear centers of the mind, the Ogrons appear to either side as the other side in the attacks, thus heightening the paranoia and distrust between the two empires and sending the galaxy headed slowly toward war.

The episode does a nice job of setting this up for the first two episodes, though it doesn’t give the Doctor and Jo much to do besides be mistaken for spies and protest that they aren’t the ones behind it all. Things finally get rolling around episode three when the Master shows up, revealing that he is pulling strings and using the Ogrons. But it’s clear he’s working for someone else, which if you’ve read the DVD box-set name, you’ll know who it is long before they show up in episode six for a glorified cameo.

For once, it’s nice to see the Pertwee years tweak the convention of your typical Master story a bit. The usual pattern was for the Master to become involved with some alien group in some kind of scheme to either take over Earth or the universe and to have it all go a bit wrong by the final episode. This left the Doctor to have to come in and form an alliance with the Master to defeat said monster or alien when it was clear the Master hadn’t thought this through all the way. Then, the Master would turn on the Doctor and escape to fight another day.

With “Space” there’s none of that, though there clearly could have been. Once the Daleks show up, it’s clear the Master and the Daleks could have had a banner of a story with each side betraying and one-upping each other as they pursue their plan to bring Earth and Draconia into conflict. By the end of episode six, both sides know they’re being manipulated, but it’s only known to a handful of people, thus leaving open the possibility that there could be greater heights of tension to come. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t follow this path, instead spinning off into “Planet of the Daleks.”

It’s interesting that after the relatively moderate pace of the first three episodes, the final episode is one that feels jammed with revelations and a rushed urgency to wrap it all up so we can go after the Daleks. It’s almost as if once the Daleks come on the scene and everyone figures out the Ogrons are behind the attacks, that should be enough to offer resolution to things. After spending five episodes showing how the two sides distrust each other so and reluctantly have to be worn down and convinced by the Doctor about what’s really going on, an episode with some fallout or follow-through might have been welcome. Instead, the story barrels forward toward a cliffhanger to tie into the next installment.

It’s a shame really because it ends of making “Space” feel like less than the sum of its parts. Or to put it more succinctly, six episodes of set-up for a Dalek story. Given that it’s got some nice model work for the time and that it’s got two of the better realized alien-make up jobs from classic Who (the Ogrons and the Draconians), it’s a shame that the elements introduced over the course of six episodes couldn’t have all added up to something more.

As I was watching it again this time, for the first five episodes (even in the redundancy of the Doctor and Jo being locked up again and again early on), I kept wondering why this one wasn’t more fondly remembered by myself and other fans. Then we get to episode six and I recalled…it’s not a bad story. It just doesn’t have the resolution it should (and it won’t because while the two stories are intended to tie together, “Planet of the Daleks” quickly evolves its own set of tangents and storylines and never addresses some of the fallout and implications raised here).

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