Doctor Who: Frontier in Space

I recently had the pleasure of picking up a ton of Pertwee era Doctor Who episodes via a sale Columbia House was running. Well I guess it wasn’t really my choice, as I nearly let my subscription lapse, but I was going to go for these anyway. Last week I did a write-up for Invasion of the Dinosaurs, and this week I’ll be taking a look at the two parts of the “Dalek War” boxed set. First up we have Frontier in Space, starring he Doctor as played by Jon Pertwee, Jo Grant played by Katy Manning, and The Master portrayed by Roger Delgado.

The Master has been a Doctor Who character that I both love and hate at different times. Sometimes he can be pretty lousy, relying on unrealistic plans reminiscent of your typical Saturday morning cartoon villain. Just like any incompetent James Bond villain, he tells the Doctor his plan, leaves him in a deadly situation, then leaves just enough time to be foiled ten minutes later. Occasionally, we do get the other side of the master, the one that’s actually good.

Frontier in Space doesn’t have the bombastic silliness of the 1980’s Master, but a character that seems to be actually evil, even realistically evil. In the real world, there are very few crazed dictators bent on world domination, but there are a lot of bad people out there. Take war profiteers for instance; any listen to world news lately shows that there is a growing industry for people to go down to Africa and help cause civil unrest. The worse the situation, the more these people can make in bribes, weapon sales, and any other illicit activity. These are the true evil folks in the world – and this is the exact archetype the Master fills in this Doctor Who story.

Rather than being the “main villain” in Frontier in space The Master exists as an agent egging on the two warring sides – The Humans and the Draconians. He uses a hypnosis device to cause confusion as to whether both sides are disregarding a peace pact and starting acts of war. Reports have come in that various ships are being ransacked in a de-militarized zone. In fact, neither the Draconians nor Humans are doing any of this, as it is really a third race, the Orgons doing all the bad deeds. As one can immediately tell, this plot has more to do with a political thriller than your typical epic war episode of today. The plot relies very much on diplomatic dialog between the leaders of all groups, and how they mistrust each other.

Remember that scene where the Doctor got captured? Which one?

Sadly, this isn’t a great episode for the Doctor and Jo, as they spend basically the whole time being locked up in some way. First they materialize on an Earth based spaceship, and are immediately thought to be Draconian spies. They break out and are put back into holding countless times from then on, thus making this episode slightly boring for the most part. While I enjoy having The Master have some intelligent maneuvering in the foreground, I would have liked the Doctor in a less vulnerable position for these six episodes. That’s another problem – six episodes is a bit too much, and seems to have padded out the episode. Had it been a “four-parter”, I think I would have been more engaged in all the arrests and imprisonments.

Any quibbles I might have with the actual serial are definitely outweighed by the great special features held within. This DVD contains the third Doctor iteration of a recurring DVD feature called “Stripped for Action” where they look at the Doctor Who related comic books of the time. Also included is a solid “making of” feature, and one almost unwatchable piece called “Perfect Scenario: Lost Frontier”. This “mockumentary” is designed to resemble a futuristic TV magazine program talking about the episode. Why people, hundreds of years in the future, would be concerned with an ancient TV program to better understand their time is beyond me and really pushes this to absurd levels. This unnecessary bookending makes this feature VERY campy, and ruins any credibility it could have had without all the fluff. I hated when it started talking about 70’s fashion pretending to be from the future, the irony being that this very documentary was doing the same thing that was being ridiculed. I’m not sure if this has been on any other DVDs, or is planned for future ones, but I’ll be skipping it for now on if I run across it!

I can't wait until we dress like this in the future!

Finally, This DVD has some material on Roger Delgado that makes the package. In my opinion, there has been no match whatsoever for Roger Delgado as The Master in the entire run of Doctor Who ever since his untimely death in 1973. Ainley was decent in the role, but relied too much on over the top “mustache twirling”, John Simm had a similar problem with his portrayal, and Eric Roberts….let’s just forget about Eric Roberts, as he definitely doesn’t hold a candle to Delgado! This DVD stands as a sort of memorial to him, as this was sadly his final episode as he died in a car crash whilst filming a feature film in Turkey. Before I even started the DVD, I made sure I switched on “The Master”, one of the special features included on the disk.

The documentary includes a sit-down interview with his wife and other people close to Roger and really paints him as the exact opposite of his on-screen persona. I know this is a cliché whilst doing documentaries for deceased actors that played villains, but it’s nice to see how Delgado acted out in public, and adds to the sadness that he passed on the top of his game.

While the story was a bit padded for my tastes, this is still a solid DVD to own, and I’m really excited to see the second part of the set, Planet of the Daleks.

A for Andromeda (2006)

I first heard about A for Andromeda in an unlikely, although not surprising, place. I had never heard of the original 1961 television series for two reasons, first, one can blame the fact that I am American and was born in 1982, secondly, one can look to the loss of most of the original program via the old BBC “who gives a crap” archival policy on filmed material. This was the very same policy that destroyed countless old Doctor Who episodes and many other historically important shows. There was a Documentary on a DVD set called Lost in Time, in which orphaned Doctor Who episodes were pulled together so that they could be released in some way. This documentary filled me in on this “junking” situation and mentioned more things lost forever, including a show called A for Andromeda, touted as being one of the first BBC science fiction programs. I must have gone to Wikipedia or some such, as I had quickly discovered that a remake was out there….and here we are.

The serial opens with a “zooming in on the earth” shot eerily similar to the one from Rose, a 2005 episode of the resurrected Doctor Who. This shot was re-used on that show, and its spinoffs, countless times in the last few years; this really makes me wonder if the BBC had to keep using it for some reason. Like maybe the BBC spent a ton of money for it and needed to make ends meet by using it hundreds of times? Maybe a test group rated it the best part of the program so that drove its implementation on every show? I think it’ll be one of the great mysteries of our time.

Much like 2005’s Quatermass Experiment (which I need to review as well), A for Andromeda has an inexpensive look and feel, and yet stays away from a “cheap” appearance. Shows like Hyperdrive go the opposite route and try to look “BIG!” on a budget, and end up looking incredibly dated and cheap in the process. The use of “shaky cams” and small sets gives it a far less cinematic vibe than Doctor Who, but makes each scene interesting. In many cases the camera is right in the middle of dialog, as if you are somehow part of a conversation taking place. This makes the production remind me of an independent film, and makes it more charming in many ways. If you’re one of those people reading this and asking “why should I watch a six-year-old TV special that looks like an indie film?” there might be something of interest here. The main character, John Fleming, is played by none other than a pre-muscular Tom Hardy. It’s almost comical seeing him play a scrawny scientist considering his “tough guy” roles he has been getting lately. This show really proves that he is a very versatile actor, and could easily become a superstar in the future.

The story of A for Andromeda follows a group of scientists that discover a microwave signal coming from the Andromeda Galaxy. Once decoded, this signal is turned into a computer program that could be a huge breakthrough for all mankind – or be its undoing. The plot is a fairly hard science fiction (as in scientifically sound) story without all the bells and whistles that decorate many modern productions. Most British science fiction relies on concepts and dialog rather than sheer spectacle, and I believe this very program is a good case for this distinction between British sci-fi and US sci-fi. While this story is one of the productions biggest strengths, it is also a huge fault in the grand scheme of things.

Hard sci-fi relies on realistic takes on the genre, so one would imagine dialog and concepts that show great care in “keeping it real”. Instead we get material in a similar vein to all those procedural crime dramas on U.S. TV. A scientist pounds on the keyboard, says some technobabble, and *boom* something amazing happens that is truly unrealistic to modern science. It is in this way that while A for Andromeda tries to be “hard sci-fi” it’s really more of a drama – Like sci-fi for the CSI crowd.

I really liked this show despite its over-simplification of things, and it’s resemblance to a type of TV that I really do not enjoy. The acting is great, the direction is good considering the budget, and the actors involved all do a great job. For me, the highlight really was seeing Tom Hardy playing something different from a gangster or assassin, and fans of his should really check this out.