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23 December 2013

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 357: Frontier in Space, Episode One

Dear diary,

It’s not something I say a lot at the moment… but I’ve really been looking forward to this one. Frontier in Space is another one of those Doctor Who black spots for me, where I only know a few very scant details. I know that it features the Draconians. I know that it’s Roger Delgado’s final hurrah as the Master. I know that it ends with some Daleks turning up and leading neatly into the next story. That’s all I’ve got.

But I’m excited by the very thought of it. A twelve-part (in some ways) epic featuring the Daleks (for half of it) for the first time since The Daleks’ Master Plan. I think it appeals to me now, so soon after musing about my sudden nostalgia for the older stories.

It even feels a bit like a 1960s story right from the word ‘go’, with some lovely shots of model spaceships hanging in space, before the TARDIS arrives on board and the Doctor steps out to explore with his companion. They get to look around a bit in private before someone points a gun at them and they find themselves separated from the Police Box. From the off, the episode caught my attention, and it didn’t let it go easily.

It helps that there’s quite a lot visually to draw my attention in, too. The model spaceships really are very well done (all I seem to do at the moment is point out what a great job the model-builders are doing for the programme, but it’s true! Their work deserves to be pointed out every week), some of the sets look fantastic – I’m thinking specifically of the cargo hold where the TARDIS materialises, there’s a great sense of scale to it, especially in some later shots where the familiar blue box is positioned far in the background and it feels like it’s miles away!

But everyone knows what I’m going to be drawing attention to – the Draconian make up. Jon Pertwee used to tell an anecdote that during the recording of this story, he sat down with one of the Draconian actors for a conversation, and that by the end he’d completely forgotten that there was a person underneath all that. I’ve always been a little sceptical of the claim, and when we get our first look at one of the creatures staring out from a screen I was completely unconvinced.

Then we get a lengthy scene in which a Draconian holds a conversation with the Earth President and I was sold. Not only is it a great design, but it really has been applied expertly. It looks stunning even in the close ups, and I almost couldn’t believe just how well it worked. It’s a design that I’m surprised we’ve not seen again in the modern series, and I’d certainly love to see the new Doctor coming face-to-face with the creatures if we could make them look half as good now as they do here!

I think the real stamp of approval came from my friend Emma, watching the episode with me. It was her first exposure to ‘classic’ Doctor Who, and I wasn’t entirely sure if Frontier in Space would be a good first impression to the series. Knowing so little about it, I worried that it could swing either way. ‘Don’t worry,’ she assured me, ‘I watch enough original Star Trek to know what to expect….’

It should have put my mind at ease, really. I’d recently given her a list of DVDs from which to pick my Christmas present, all of them from pre-1968. She ended up buying four titles from the list – all of them ones which she wanted to see. Ah, but, I explained, Star Trek had a budget per episode that was probably about the same as the one Doctor Who had for a full year. I went into typical Doctor Who fan mode – automatically preparing for the worst reaction.

Emma was broadly quiet as we watched, but when I expressed surprise at just how good the Draconian make-up looked, she admitted that it was very impressive, though she stopped short of saying it was better than Star Trek! The real proof of the quality came as the cliffhanger sting echoed around the room and she asked if we could move right on to the next episode.

There’s several other things in my notes that I just haven’t had a chance to draw attention to. From the first shot of the TARDIS almost colliding with the ship in space (the way it fades in on the screen is stunning - right up there with the best CGI effects we get in the new series), the return of everyone’s favourite default ‘space’ font (you know the one), a surprise reappearance of the Drashigs (and there I thought they’d only ever appeared during Carnival of Monsters!), Ogrons arriving on the scene (no complications)… I could go on for a while. I’ll save it for now, though, as I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say over the rest of the week, but it’s a good start for a story I know so little about…

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