...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, October 19, 2009

Day 3206: MYSTERIES OF DOCTOR WHO #21: Frontier in Space… What Happened Next?


If the answer is "Planet of the Daleks" there's something wrong with the QUESTION!

Let us look at what has been going on: Space… the final frontier… these are the voyages of Dr Woo in a space-going prison flown by Mr the Master.

"Frontier in Space" is Mr Mac "the incredible" Hulke's contribution to the all-singing, all-dancing (well occasionally, during "Carnival of Monsters") Tenth Anniversary of Doctor Who, and is also the first half of an EPIC twelve episode cross-over adventure that sees the Master and the Daleks team up to actually not meet the Cybermen for contractual reasons.

…available now on DVD under an exciting "Dalek War" wrapper!

This double-story celebration of the series' greatest villains is a twelve-part homage to the mighty "The Daleks' Master Plan", Mr Dr Billy's great adventure that also took place over the course of twelve weeks, and likewise features a Dalek scheme to conquer the galaxy, this time with added beardy villainy, making this actually: "The Master's Dalek Plan".

Then as now, the "epic" was split into two distinct halves: one part written by Mr Terry National Lottery and the other by someone who could actually write. Er. The DIFFERENCE is that last time, Mr Terry came up with a title, some character names and the mystery space elephant element Terrynationerum later shortened to Tarranium before handing it all in a manila envelope to the series script editor and jumping into a taxi for Heathrow. THIS time, Mr Terry insisted on writing it all himself. Which he did… in 1963 when it was called "The Daleks". Still, you couldn't get DVDs in those days so a "remake" in colour was actually a rather SMART way for new viewers to see what they missed back in the beginning. (Also available as, er, "The Beginning".)

What I'm trying to say is this: "Frontier in Space" is actually really good. REALLY good. Especially if you watch it one episode at a time. Certainly it entails Dr Woo being locked up in a whole succession of prison cells, but it's actually all rather clever the way that it escalates the sense of galactic threat: first he's just put in a cell on a space freighter that's come under attack; then he's locked up on Earth; then he's locked up on the MOON; then he's handed over to Mr the Master… and locked up; then he's locked up by the alien Draconians; and THEN he's locked up on the Ogron planet and it turns out that the DALEKS are in charge! The President of Earth, the Emperor of Draconia, the Master, the Earth-Minbari War, er… all sorts of huge characters and huge politics are cleverly presented to us as Dr Woo struggles to get ANYONE to listen to him. Meanwhile Jo Jo Grant finally proves herself when her pluck resists the Master's hypno-powers.

All of this build-up leaves you as tightly wound as a spring, expecting a big, big, BIG conclusion.

And then you get Planet of the Daleks. I'm just saying.

But SERIOUSLY, at the end of part six, there's a bit of a MYSTERY as to what is going on. Dr Woo has used Mr the Master's own "fear box" to escape from his (most recent) prison cell, he has freed Earth leader General Williams and the Crown Prince of Draconia and seen that they escape but on trying to get back to the TARDIS (stolen in part one by the Ogrons) he runs into the Master and a large group of his gorilla-like hench-lifeforms. Mr the Master pulls a gun and SHOOTS Dr Woo…

What, as they say, happened next?

Well, what we ACTUALLY see is that Mr the Master is suddenly gone, the Ogrons are scattered and a sobbing Jo Jo – now armed with Mr the Master's gun – is dragging Dr Woo into the TARDIS.

What is MISSING is clearly the intervention of the Ogron Eater, a being known – for reasons I am too young and fluffy to understand – as the "Giant Ogron Bollock Monster". We've seen it once, in the distance, attacking one of Mister the Master's goons. Mr General Williams describes it as a large, aggressive reptile, which suggests that either HE has never seen a large aggressive reptile (unlikely; he's stood next to the Draconian Prince) or the DESIGNER wasn't paying attention.

We see another, or rather a huge mural of it, in the Ogron's shrine, and it's clearly SUPPOSED to be establishing something for a big reveal at the end… Chekhov's Giant Ogron Bollock Monster if you will… but that reveal never comes. Probably because Jo Jo turning into an enormous hairy testicle was considered UNBROADCASTABLE. (This IS thirty years before TORCHWOOD, remember.)

But that's clearly what was SUPPOSED to happen: with Dr Woo out for the count, Jo Jo grabs the "fear box" and turns on. SOMETHING appears, terrifying the Ogrons setting them running. Mr the Master is knocked flying; Jo Jo gets hold of his pistol; and he does a runner. The rest you know.

Well THAT was easy… for an encore I shall prove that BLACK is WHITE… or rather in COLOUR these days (and the restored episode three of Planet of the Daleks actually look really good, especially – to daddy's surprise – the ICE tunnels, where you would have thought black and white pretty much covered it, but in fact they look much better, with a kind of depth to the polystyrene set that the B&W flattens and deadens. Well done all round; hope they have the cash for the other episodes that need colour restored.)

But what is actually WRONG with Planet of the Daleks?

Well, actually, there's a list as long as my rather magnificent nose… starting with the TARDIS air supply, and "infected by the fungoids"; via some of Dr Woo's most patronising lectures ever; via some of Jo Jo's truly astonishing stealth in Dalek control (there's a Dalek looking RIGHT AT HER when she slips out of her hidey-hole) not to mention her hiding the Thals' explosives BEHIND A FROND; via some of the WORST space-dialogue in the history of this part of the space-galaxy(!); via some of the most WOEFUL glowing-eyes-in-the-jungle effects you ever did see outside of a Scooby Doo cartoon; via all the random invisible aliens, space-plagues, countdowns and other Flash Gordon plot coupons Mr Terry so loves to use; through to a conclusion involving literally dozens of tricky-action Dalek toys and a gallon of wallpaper paste that just cannot be described in polite company!

But what is ACTUALLY actually wrong with it is that it's NOT parts seven to twelve of the promised epic.

Let's flash back to "The Daleks Master Plan" again. With Mr Terry writing – or rather NOT-so-very-much writing – the first half, they could let Mr Spennis Dooner write what he wanted for the huge impressive conclusion and director Mr Dougie "Colonel" Camfield and script editor Mr Donald "this is" Tosh could make up what they wanted so long as they finished where he started.

This time out, Mr Mac writes a tremendous political thriller building up to the outbreak of all-out war with the Daleks poised to sweep in and conquer what's left of the galaxy and Dr Woo calling on the Time Lords themselves to intervene… and then Mr Terry writes an ordinary six-parter where Dr Woo is SURPRISED to find that there are Daleks on this Planet.

There's nothing to connect this to the bigger picture that we've just spent a month-and-a-half developing; this adventure is essentially self-contained and almost "small scale", with the big picture further undermined by the underwhelming revelation that the greatest Dalek army ever assembled (subject to Time War revision) consists of a mere ten THOUSAND of the metal menaces. Ten MILLION maybe, would be a threat to the galaxy – though it would make the concluding Icecano-gunking even more improbable a method of stopping 'em – but ten thousand? With Earth, Draconia, Sirius III and IV mentioned in "Frontier in Space" ALONE, that's only twenty-five hundred per planet (assuming the Ogron world can be counted as "under control" already!).

I know "one Dalek is capable of exterminating ALL!!!!" but really!

Half the problem is having the Thals in it AT ALL. Apart from anything else it makes doing Dalek history a REAL pain, as this bunch of wet warriors REMEMBER the events of "The Daleks", a story that finishes with, er, the death of all the Daleks.

The Thals come from the Planet Skaro, and have only recently (it's now the Twenty-Sixth Century) developed space flight. The Daleks ALSO come from the Planet Skaro – yes, that's the REAL "planet of the Daleks" – and have had space flight since at least the Twenty-Second Century when they invade the Earth (in, er, "The Dalek Invasion of Earth"). That's a technological head-start of at least FOUR HUNDRED YEARS.

It's not IMPOSSIBLE to imagine a planet with two competing civilisations each developing space travel… like Russialand and Americaland did in the 1950s and 1960s. But NOT if one of those civilisations is the DALEKS. That would be the "exterminate all other species" Daleks. Even if they have no sentimental reason to re-colonise their homeworld, wouldn't they at least have used their MASSIVE space superiority to BOMB the Thals into extinction FROM ORBIT?

(…like they ACTUALLY do to Earth in "The Dalek Invasion of Earth" and, well, Spiridon in, frankly, "Planet of the Daleks"!)

The solution is obvious: the party who have crashed on the "Planet of the Daleks" should NOT be Thals. In fact, they should be a party of humans and Draconians – following on from the end of "Frontier in Space", the Earth Empire and the Draconians should have allied themselves and sent out a force of scouts to search for the real enemy of both sides, now revealed to be the Daleks. Then, rather than references to "mythical figures" of Susan and Ian and Barbara it is Dr Woo's PERSONAL knowledge of Mr General Williams and Mr the Draconian Crown Prince that gets him in the team's good books.

This doesn't just tie IN with "Frontier in Space", but also ties UP the loose ends at the end – it neatly tells us that the Prince and the General DID escape, and that the Earth-Draconia War is OFF. By giving us a threat of ten (cough cough) million Daleks, enough to smash the Empires even if they DO unite, then the story gets bigger and becomes a vital race to give the new alliance a fighting chance.

Oh, and if the Dalek War has already started, then you can have the scout ships being SHOT DOWN by Dalek Saucers, rather than crashing. TWICE. (In the story as shown, we have to assume that the Thals have discovered space FLIGHT but not space LANDING; even then, it's an GINORMOUS coincidence that both rockets crash in the same small area of a rather large planet!)

You can even change the concluding moral homily from:

"when you tell your people this story, don't GLORIFY it; don't make it as an exciting space adventure in six weekly episodes…er…"


"we haven't won the war; we haven't even won the first battle; we've just given ourselves a fighting chance…"

and by this you can imply that this is a small, but vital, skirmish part of a much larger, much broader history, consistent with the view from "Frontier in Space". (Plus get rid of more ghastly patronisation!)

Of course if you really, actually, desperately NEED to have the Thals in it… well, there's a solution to that too: you set the "Planet of the Daleks" actually ON the planet of the Daleks, namely Skaro, and the "random invisible aliens" turn out to be none other than the THALS themselves!

It would actually make more SENSE than that the Spiridons… er, Spiridonians… er, Spiridon-people have evolved/developed invisibility for no apparent (sorry, pun) reason.

The PEACE-LOVING Thals on a planet full of murderous (not to mention, post "The Daleks", vengeful and really quite p…ed off) pepperpots would need to find a way of staying hidden, and we already know that they have had some rather, er, peculiar evolution not to mention an affinity with drugs that affect radiation. Acquiring the ability to "fold" light around themselves would be a positive requirement and, frankly, not MUCH weirder than anything else that happens on Skaro.

It could also explain why Thal scientist Mr Codal knows what an "anti-reflecting light wave" might be!

Now, all you need to do is make sure that the designer doesn't install Dalek control panels with buttons that can only be worked if you have fingers (and not, say, sink plungers) and you're away!

Doctor Who's tenth anniversary came in the middle of the five year period when the series was produced by Mr Barry Letts, and we have heard from Mr Andrew and Mr Will that, sadly, he has passed away.

Mr Barry took over when Doctor Who was a series that had very nearly been cancelled at the end of the Black and White era, and along with his charismatic star, Mr Jon Pertwee, he turned it around and made it once again a National Institution.

Ideas and icons of the series introduced in his era have lasted through to today: okay, it's true that UNIT and Autons were ACTUALLY invented just before he took over, but they are closely associated with the show that he made, and you cannot deny him the creation of Mr the Master. The very shape of Doctor Who's future history, Earth's Empire, and its deep past, the Silurian legacy, were founded in these years, and even poorly regarded stories, such as "The Time Monster" (which, like "The Dæmons" before and "The Green Death" and "Planet of the Spiders" after, he covertly co-wrote), have left a legacy of powerful images, such as the god-like Chronovores or the TARDISes inside one another, which have influenced fans ever since, not least the great big lovely Welsh fan who – at least until Christmas – currently runs the show.

But more than that, the series that he inherited had become a shadow of the cutting-edge drama in space and time first developed by Ms Verity Lambert and Mr Sydney Newman, reduced to, a lot of the time, chasing monsters up and down corridors. Mr Barry put some HEART back into the series, introducing a thread of stories – like "The Curse of Peladon" or "The Green Death" – that were ABOUT something, and by having other stories – like "The Mind of Evil" and "Day of the Daleks" – play out against topical concerns about a possible World War Part III.

"Satire" today is often seen as just mocking and mickey-taking, particularly of those in power or the public eye, and we've rather lost the more important element of taking a critical view of society, even trying to correct it. It used to be the duty of the BBC to INFORM as well as to ENTERTAIN: Mr Barry clearly thought that that meant getting people to THINK, and that is a praise-worthy effort in itself.

I'm not going to say "rest in peace" because Mr Barry was a Buddhist. I'm not sure whether "come back soon" is appropriate either. Daddy Alex met him on several occasions and apparently he was lovely. Thank you Mr Barry.


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