Aired 24 February – 31 March 1973
Assuredly a conscious decision to celebrate the return of the Third Doctor to his free and exploratory ways, ‘Frontier in Space’ sets out to form the first half of a twelve-part epic tale that is concluded in ‘Planet of the Daleks.’ While the two stories as a whole may not quite reach the lofty heights of the previous lengthy epic ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan,’ ‘Frontier in Space’ by itself is a wonderful example of Doctor Who on its largest scale, showcasing tremendous consequences in a vast space opera.
As with any six-part story, there is occasional superfluous padding to fill out the running time. While having the Doctor and Jo shunted off as prisoners of different groups for the majority of the story may feel like a convenient plot contrivance, though, it also helps to ensure setting changes that keeps the pacing and revelations brisk enough to maintain interest without ever dragging excessively. In fact, writer Malcolm Hulke exploits the extended running time to effectively flesh out this future filled with galactic conflict. Few of the details scattered throughout the script directly relate to the plot, but it’s refreshing to see just how well-conceived this particular universe is. As such, suggestions that the overpopulation of Earth has led to aggressive space colonization as well as the adoption of a one-child rule add incredible detail to the story at hand without feeling forced or unnecessary.
‘Frontier in Space’ also introduces the Draconians, and though they end up being a somewhat underdeveloped honour-bound race, they certainly act as a formidable foil for Earth and its plans going forward. The distrust between and failings of both races make for a fascinatingly uneasy tone, both sides potentially ready to take more extreme actions, and this serial certainly accomplishes the general sensibilities of a space opera more effectively than any preceding it. This, accordingly, helps draw attention to the implied fascist notions of the humans’ empire at this time while also showcasing that there is at least some degree of dissent among its many colonies.
Roger Delgado also returns as the Master here, his easy chemistry with Pertwee gloriously on display from the outset. ‘Frontier in Space’ has several very strong moments for the character who clearly has the upper hand for most of the serial and yet seems to constantly go out of his way to keep his arch enemy alive. He seems to revel in winning a series of games against the Doctor, treating him as an equal and almost as a friend despite his malicious intent and his understated glee at having the Doctor imprisoned. Importantly, though, just as hastily as the Master makes up excuses to protect the Doctor from the likes of the Ogrons and even the Daleks as they arrive, the Doctor also goes out of his way to protect the Master when given the opportunity by claiming that the Master is unarmed and defenseless. There are also some more light-hearted but insightful moments into the Master as he turns down the volume on the speaker as Jo is berating him and when he finally admits that Jo has beaten his attempts at mind control. There’s almost a feeling of family amongst these three characters, and that sentiment truly carries the weight and brunt of the story, especially with the Doctor maintaining his peaceful and apolitical affiliations and as Jo continues to bring out softer and more caring side of this incarnation.
The revelation of the Daleks being behind the scheme to start a war is handled well, subtle clues being dropped as early as the first episode about their identity. While it’s unfortunate that more of the scheming between the Master and the Daleks is not explored and it does rob ‘Frontier in Space’ of its own ending to its very intriguing story, it unquestionably sets up the concluding half of this epic in grand fashion. As a whole, ‘Frontier in Space’ is a superb example of just how grand the scope of Doctor Who can be, relying on its leads and core villain to carry an intriguing tale of two powerhouses on the brink of total destruction.