Prison cells, masks and Frontier in Space (1973)

frontier

There’s an embarrassment of riches when choosing topics about Frontier in Space, but let’s start here: prison cells. They’re a common enough feature of Doctor Who and they provide handy settings for narrative functions such as plot exposition and character development. They also mean either exciting escape attempts or bust outs are just around the corner. They can pad out an under running script. And best of all, they’re cheap.

Frontier must win some prize as the story with the most scenes set in prison cells. The Doctor (Jon Pertwee, deep in his tenure in the role, cloak flapping, white hair radiating like a halo) and plucky assistant Jo Grant (Katy Manning) spend most of the first four episodes going from cell to cell. The Doctor even takes a trip to the moon to visit one. Episode Five is surprisingly incarceration free. But a few minutes into Episode Six, the Master (Roger Delgado) purrs, ‘Show Miss Grant to her room’, which is of course, another cell. Phew! I felt dangerously liberated there for a moment.

Delgado is making his last appearance in the program, and he’s on form here, all charming and inveigling. The scene where he convinces the lunar prison’s governor to hand over the Doctor is a particular delight; in it, the Master starts by seemingly flattering the Governor but slyly moves the conversation to show that he’s deduced that the Governor’s up to no good and is prepared to blackmail him. Delgado pitches this scene just right, silky and debonair, but always in control.

But actually, he’s not always like that. In fact, this is Delgado’s fruitiest performance in the role, a long way from the understated menace we normally attribute to him. It’s 80’s Master Anthony Ainley who’s usually accused of chewing the scenery, but here Delgado gives him a run for his money; there’s hardly a line he doesn’t milk for its full theatrical effect. It seems to me that this is a reaction to the general flamboyance on display around him. Big costumes, big design and of course, the big Doctor.

The Master is always, in no small part, a reaction to the Doctor and Pertwee’s Doctor is overtly attention seeking. He doesn’t so much enter a scene as land in it, big, bold and bouffant, ready for confrontation. How else to play his nemesis, but to match him for bravura? The result is that Delgado’s performance seems subtle in comparison, but is actually painted in the broadest of brushstrokes.

Finally, let’s talk masks. The Draconians’ half masks (designed by John Friedlander) which allow the actors more facial expression than your normal monstery types is rightly famous among Whoheads. But while the design and the freedom it allows is new (unless we count the Menoptera? And hang on, maybe the Ogrons too? They make a return grunty appearance here) the Draconians themselves are equally innovative. They’re aliens who aren’t villians, and it’s surprising that up to this point that’s rare in Doctor Who.

But back to those masks, which are a gift to writer Malcolm Hulke, famous for creative morally ambiguous characters both with and without scales. Because it’s pretty hard to give a nuanced performance when no one can see your face, and Frontier requires its reptilian protagonists to be more than just (to borrow Gary Gillatt’s phrase) squabbling rubber.

Hulke came across this problem in his first solo Who, The Silurians, where the “monsters” of the piece (reptiles again. Someone had a phobia), wore full head masks, completely obscuring the actors’ faces. There was an old, sympathetic Silurian and a young, headstrong one, and any debate between them relied strongly on body language (the yound one had an angry head bobble, if I remember rightly, the old one an elderly stoop) and voice acting to portray any difference between the two.

It’s a problem the Draconians avoid.  In Episode Two there’s a scene, where the Draconians retreat to their embassy after a contretemps with the Earthmen (although one is a woman) and two of them have a highly coded discussion about what next steps to take. It’s startling for Doctor Who; usually when aliens have scenes all to their own, they use them to discuss their nefarious plans and spit threats to camera. But here, something much more subtle is going on: “I must not detain you,” the Draconian Prince (Peter Birrell) hisses towards the end of the scene at an underling. “No doubt you have duties to attend to”. What he’s really saying is “go and rescue the Doctor and Jo” (they’re in a prison cell, natch), but his meaning is clear, helped in no small part because we can see his face.

So those Draconians are game changers and Doctor Who‘s producers realised they were onto a good thing. From here on in designs which merged face and mask became more common and gave us some really memorable grotesques: the Sontarans, the Zygons, Davros. And it’s something the new series is still doing today; look at those 21st Century Silurians, where make up has supplanted the mask because we need to see the actor’s face. No need for an exaggerated head bobble now, so thanks Frontier in Space.

LINKS to The Curse of Fenric: The Russians, seen literally in Fenric, are present as Draconians here, albeit ones dressed in the trappings of Japanese Samurai.

NEXT TIME: Blimey, get a girlfriend Jeff! It’s The Eleventh Hour.

Sex, undercurrents and The Curse of Fenric (1989)

fenric

Fenric, eh? Time to talk undercurrents then.

This story was originally called The Wolves of Fenric, a metaphoric reference to a number of characters in the story whose destinies had been predetermined by this week’s evil from the dawn of time. It was, I think, Producer John Nathan-Turner who suggested that because there weren’t any actual wolves in the story, and no doubt also that the concept isn’t completely explained until Part Four, suggested the titular curse as an alternative.

Lots of Doctor Who stories changed titles before transmission, but it seems appropriate for this story, which is as interesting for what it doesn’t say as much as what it does. Fenric is as dense a text as any undergraduate semiotics student ever got their teeth into, and some of its most potent themes, specifically those concerning sexuality, are disguised throughout.

For a start, there’s swimming as a metaphor for sexual awakening. It’s good time girls Jean and Phyllis who succumb to temptation first and dive into the waters at Maidens Bay. “I know what girls who go to Maidens Bay have in mind”, says Miss Hardacre, the shrewish old spinster they’re billeted with. When two girls are transformed into Haemovores, they tempt a Russian soldier into the water, with some heavily loaded dialogue:

JEAN: Blood warm. Nobody’s forcing him. Nobody ever forces you to come into the water.

PHYLLIS: But everybody wants to. Deep down, everybody wants to come into the water.

(Although this is problematic; when Jean and Phyllis go for a swim, they become monsters. By contrast, when Ace dives in at story’s end, the water has a cleansing, emotionally cathartic effect).

But other themes are, like the Viking inscriptions under the church, harder to unearth. Dr Judson, codebreaker and inventor of the Ultima machine is a stand in for WW2 mathematician Alan Turing. Canny viewers may pick up on Judson’s disability (he’s confined to a wheelchair) as a reference to Turing’s personal restriction as a closet homosexual (as noted by writer Ian Briggs in the DVD extra Shattering the Chains). But few, I think, would cotton on to the idea that naval base commander Millington is also gay, and was the cause of Judson’s accident, through an injury inflicted many years before on a rugby field in a fit of jealousy.

For that reading, one has to turn to Briggs’ novelisation. It’s a vivid read if you can track it down Ebay hounds, and reveals a few other juicy morsels, such as Miss Hardacre’s own experiences at Maidens’ Bay (turns out Phyllis’s retort “Just ’cause you’ve never been swimming!” was wrong) and Nurse Crane’s cooperation with the invading Russians (extra points, by the way, if you spotted that Russians are all named after characters in plays by Chekhov). In a way, the book is an admission that there’s more to this story than can be told on television, and more than can be said during family viewing hours.

And on top of the subtexts littered throughout the story, we have the added complication of editing. Fenric ran way over length, and the transmitted version is cut with frenetic pace. Comparing this version with the 2003 Special Edition released on DVD is instructive. The 1989 version features a frantic energy rarely seen in Doctor Who (even by 21st century standards) but scenes start and end abruptly, and characters jump from location to location instantly. It’s an exciting but bewildering ride. The 2003 version reinstates missing scenes and reorders existing ones, and emerges the more coherent version, although it loses some of the exhilaration of the original.

My memories of Fenric are confused between these two versions and the 1991 VHS release which was another, shorter remix. It would take a more dedicated viewer than me to tell you which scenes belong to which version (but actually, just go to DWM369 where David Bryher does just this in The Fact of Fiction). Add this complexity to those thematic undercurrents, and we have something unique in Doctor Who; a choose-your-own-version story, into which you can read as much or as little as you like. It’s Doctor Who to revisit time and time again.

Just a closing word about Millington. He’s a loon, and not just because he’s crazed about the forthcoming end of days. The Doctor and Ace are clearly intruders, but he does nothing to apprehend them (his mate Judson was there when the Doctor forged the letter of introduction, so it’s not like he really thinks they’re from the war office). He’s more concerned with a baby being on base than them. The Doctor only has to mention some Norse mythology and that’s enough for Millington to tell him the Navy’s top secret plans to deploy chemical weapons. He orders the base’s communications equipment to be disabled for no good reason. He orders all chess sets destroyed, even though he could have no idea about the Doctor and Fenric’s unfinished game (and even if he did, what difference does it make to his plans?). Who put this guy in charge? “If this is a naval base”, Ace complains, “I’m Lord Nelson.”  I tend to agree.

Ah, well. At least he meets his end fittingly, shot by the unlikely pairing of a British and a Russian soldier. Which echoes Ace’s solution to the Doctor’s chess puzzle where the black and white pawns gang up on the king. See, there’s another of those undercurrents. This story just can’t help itself.

LINKS to The Dalek Invasion of Earth: World War Two shown thematically in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, is shown literally here. Both feature geniuses in wheelchairs.

NEXT TIME: Thank you Miss Grant, we’ll let you know. Our next random jump takes us to a Frontier in Space.

Kids, heroes and The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964)

dalek invasion

Welcome to the Dalek Invasion of Earth, twenty-one sixty-something AD. Well, actually we’re a bit late for the invasion, that’s all done. This is actually the Dalek Occupation of Earth. Well, I say “Earth”. In fact, we only see London and Bedfordshire. So really, it’s the Dalek Occupation of England. And come to think of it, these Daleks are a bit familiar, what with their one-sucker salutes and their talk of “the final solution”. So really, it’s the Nazi Occupation of England. But with animated robotic corpses and slythery monsters.

A perfect story, as it turns out, to kick off my random trawl through Doctor Who. Because in lots of ways, this story – the series’ tenth – sets a template for most, if not all, Doctor Who stories to follow. Until this point, Doctor Who stories had been an eclectic bunch, with the Doctor and his companions stumbling into new (or old) situations and being swept along with events. The Dalek Invasion of Earth is very different; the TARDIS crew arrive, find a problem which needs fixing (the aforemetioned alien occupation) and spend the rest of the story fixing it. Once they were travellers. Now they are heroes.

This change is starkest in the Doctor (William Hartnell, playing the role with shambolic relish). When we first met him, back in 100,000BC, he only tolerated planet Earth. Now, his first instinct is to defend it. “We are the masters of Earth”, a Dalek croakingly gloats at him early in Episode Two. “Not for long”, the Doctor promises, with quiet menace. That Dalek will soon wish it had stayed submerged in the Thames.

The change in the Doctor is reinforced by those around him. Yes, he’s still a cranky old goat, but he commands a new found admiration in people. We might expect that his granddaughter Susan might say “he’s a fantastic sort of man”, or even schoolmarmish Barbara to gush that he’s a brilliant scientist. But supporting characters and Dalek rebellers Craddock and Tyler also develop a gradual respect for him, and thus the audience are sent an important signal that this dotty old curmudgeon can take on an army of alien killers spread across the globe and win.

Not single handedly though. Writer Terry Nation, in some of his best scripts for the series, divides his story amongst the regulars and then neatly converges their stories at the end. In the early episodes, he starts with two strands: Ian/The Doctor discovering the Dalek threat and Barbara/Susan befriending the rebels. These two strands are brought together in an attack on a Dalek saucer (the Daleks themselves call their spaceships that, leading to the joyous conclusion that saucers, and presumably tea cups, are not alien to Dalek culture. Somewhere, there’s a Dalek high tea going on.)

The story then divides into three strands, centred on Barbara, Ian and The Doctor/Susan, with each party making its way to the Dalek mine in Bedfordshire. (Daleks love mining and on this occasion, they plan to replace the planet’s core with an engine, and joyride the Earth around the cosmos for reasons which remain unclear.) In the final episode, these three strands fit together snugly to form the story’s resolution. The Doctor comes up with a scheme which disables the Daleks, Barbara reprograms the zombiesque Robomen to attack them and Ian has dislodged their subterranean bomb, meaning its detonation will destroy their base. All three subplots have paid off, thanks to some skillful writing from Nation, pulling off a difficult dramatic trick but making it seem effortless.

The one character who should be the centre of attention is sidelined throughout. This is the Doctor’s grandaughter Susan, who leaves at this point, the first of many comings and goings for the series. Of Doctor Who’s inital quadrille of characters, Susan is the one the writers seem to have the shakiest handle on, and her character varies widely in each story: is she a reckless teenager, a gifted telepath or a helpless screamer? The only constant is one inspired by creator Sydney Newman’s orginial notes when assessing the series’ plans for its regular cast. He scrawled: “need a kid to get into trouble”. “So our other characters can rescue her”, is the unstated extension.

Still, she gets into trouble well. Indeed, she is the instigator of our heroes’ problems when in the first few minutes of the story she falls off a small wall, injures her ankle and somehow brings a bridge down on top of the Ship. Her schoolteachers tsk at her. Her grandfather openly scolds her. “You need a jolly good smacked bottom!”, he rails. Thus the script positions her firmly as a child and a quite useless one at that.

Throughout the story, this uselessness continues. When taken in by the rebels in Episode Two, while it is established that Barbara can contribute by cooking (so liberated!), Susan can only eat. And whereas Ian and Barbara are capable of holding storylines on their own, Susan must always share the limelight with the Doctor or rebel/love interest David Campbell. This enables her to be saved from ticking time bombs and sewer dwelling alligators by the nearest man.

Throughout the story she falls for David, and at the its end, there is the inevitable marriage proposal (directly strangely, with the actors’ backs to the camera). Like the audience, the Doctor has guessed that this is about to happen, and in order to force Susan to accept David’s proposal, he locks his granddaughter out of the Ship.

It’s astonishingly harsh; the subsequent explanation that Susan would never had left him voluntarily serves only to emphasise the point that she has been robbed of coming to that decision herself. “You’re a woman”, the Doctor tells her from inside the spaceship, but she still needs others to make life changing decisions for her, it seems.  This undermines the inference that she’s grown up over the course of the serial. But it hardly matters, because as an audience, we’ve seen no evidence of that. She was never given the chance to show us that.

And if the pay off for growing up is that is that you get to marry the first skinny rebel that comes along, learn how to cook and work on a farm, then it seems a poor exchange indeed. Even to the last, that kid’s still getting into trouble.

NEXT TIME: We play the contest again, as our next randomly selected story is…The Curse of Fenric. 

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