Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The Dragon And The Hawk

Random thoughts on "Frontier in Space", voted as the best Jo Grant story (herself voted as best Pertwee companion) over in that SFX thread I've been participating in.

Episode 1

Broadcast as the Cold War was raging and the Vietnam War was grinding towards its conclusion, it's not remotely hard to understand where the inspiration for "Frontier in Space" comes from. Two powerful interstellar empires are at the point of a horrifically destructive shooting war, which would be Bad.

The Vietnam influence is a little harder to place, though. If humanity is the west, and the Draconians are the east (which of course they clearly are, though no-one seemed particularly bothered about where in the east, but we'll get to that later), who are the Vietnamese? One option is the Ogrons themselves; apparently "primitive" people effectively waging a war against an apparently vastly superior foe. I don't like that parallel, though, because I think we'd be best off not assigning any nationality to the Ogrons, still less one so demonised during the '60s and '70s.

So let's go for a twist. Who are the Vietnamese here? I think we are. The usual conclusion about Vietnam is that fighting wars to try and demonstrate one's strength and resolve is desperately counter-productive, as all your eally show is that you're willing to piss away massive amounts of blood and treasure for absolutely no concrete gain. The last war between humans and Draconians sounds every bit as costly and violent as Vietnam, and someone is clearly interested in a repeat performance. Someone for whom the vast and bountiful human empire is just some backwater you'd never even think about until it became strategically useful.

So there's maybe a kind of just deserts involved in all of this; the worst instincts of the NATO-era West combined with having to abandon our role as the dominant force in the neighbourhood (certainly the disgraceful way the cargo crew finger the Doctor as the episode ends suggests we're clearly not supposed to consider the Earth Empire the clear heroes).

That would actually be something pretty interesting to play out, but it's probably not surprising that instead we're going to be doing a little mystery-solving. I mean, someone whose military prowess is as far beyond our galactic empire as the US was beyond Vietnam? Who does that sound like?

I do love that the Daleks are namechecked here specifically for the Doctor to dimiss the idea, so that they can appear five weeks later and it be a surprise (especially with the Master showing up as the supposed alpha villain). It's a savvy bit of TV, though it does make me wonder why they bothered with the Ogrons again in the first place (saving money by reusing costumates is the obvious bet, of course). I does bother me that the Ogrons as a species are described as mercenaries. This kind of conflation of a specires with an occupation always feels lazy, and lazy in a potentially harmful way. The fact that we're stereotyping fictional species doesn't entirely remove the problems around the practice.

Speaking of the Ogrons here, though, it's worth exploring an obvious question: why bother with this incredibly complex fear-ray plan in the first place? Not only is it ludicrously convoluted, there's no guarantee it will work every time. Surely at least some of the time people are going to think they're being attacked by house spiders, or a maths exam they haven't revised for? Why not just steal a few Earth/Draconian ships, staff them with renegades, and mount a few raids?

The boring answer is that this would be too, well, boring, especially for the Master. But there's another more important reason - it needs to be made clear that, Dalek fire-stoking notwithstanding,  we're our own worst enemies here. We're so primed to see the Draconians as enemies that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thanks to the fear-ray, we are quite literaly seeing what we expect to see. We're trapped in the self-reinforcing cycle of seeing every action of those we dislike in the worst possible light to justify and increase that dislike so the next action can be viewed even more negatively. Every act we disapprove of is a provokation, every act we might appreciate is a trick. Keeping the lid on this kind of simmering pot of resentment is a tricky propostion. Thank God we have a well-spoken white guy to sort things out...

(Oh, and I always chuckle seeing the Doctor learn the Earth ship will dock in five seconds and then consults his watch. It's in five seconds time, pal; just count, would you? If it's good enough for your son, it's good enough for you.)

Episode 2

In which the plot thickens, or at least congeals. I think my favourite character so far in this story is definitely General Williams. He's just a pitch-perfect blinkered hawk; so utterly convinced the Draconians must be as devious as he is that he won't consider any other possibility. I also think his unstated but rather clear goal of atoning for an unnecessary war by starting another war with the same people reflects just how this kind of person thinks. Why feel bad about a catastrophic death toll when you can retroactively prove it was those damn foreigners' fault all along, casualties be damned?

Yeah, I hate Williams here, but there's no character here who better represents what this story is railing against.

Compare Williams to the attaché of the Draconian Ambassador, though. Is he just as trigger-happy? Or just desperately stupid? I love how he presents his plan to his boss as "prisoners somehow escape" and delivers "Draconian troops murder humans in cold blood* and in broad daylight". That's so utterly unacceptable I can't fault Williams in the slightest for insisting on the severing of diplomatic ties. The embassy is lucky not to have been stormed, and indeed it's likely that the gathering Earth troops had in mind before the Doctor helpfully escaped.

The actions scenes here seem a little on the strange side. People keep running past their enemies, who then helpfully let them pass without shooting them in the back. The Ogrons in particular are lucky the presidential complex is guarded by men who rigidly follow the Queensbury Rules for blasting at each other with invisible lasers.

The other thing that strikes me as off-kilter is the external sets, which just don't look like they belong in the same story. Yes, this is obviously in part a budget issue, but the problem isn't how contemporary these places look, it's that they clash with the aesthetic of the internal sets and the costumes. Vast concrete edifices and English country gardens are entirely imaginable within a futuristic context, but not if you also want your soldiers to wear plastic balls over their ears.

But for every complaint, there is something wonderful here. We get one of my favourite Jo scenes in this episode, where she's desperately trying to improvise escape plans. It's a real shame when the Doctor shushes her; she was going great guns. The best Jo moments are those that you can't imagine any other companion coming up with, and this is one of them (though in broad strokes it reminds me a little of Vicki, and who could claim that to be a bad thing).

Also, too; the "ran out of mind-probes" story is brilliant.

* We pause for the obligatory Far Side joke: "Of course I killed him in cold blood, you idiot! I'm a reptile!" 

Episode 3

This installment is a curious beast, in as much as it features almost no curious beasts at all. Once the Ogrons are summarily dispatched in the initial moments - purely to do away with last week's cliffhanger - there are no aliens in this entire episode other than the Doctor and the Master, neither one of which the viewer is supposed to consider alien in the Who meaning of the word.

It's not often this happens post "The Highlanders", and it's interesting to see what Hulke does with it, which is to spend an episode lurking within the future he's constructed, showing us some of its darker corners. The lunar penal colony (complete with sippy-cup dinners that rather remind me of Bill the Galactic Hero) is a gulag in all but name; exactly the sort of solution to dissent you'd expect a galaxy-spanning Earth Empire to adopt. What's interesting here though is that once the colony is introduced, it gets harder to view the human characters as representing the west in this Cold War analogy. The US has its share of black marks in its ledger over its behaviour during the Cold War, but they never took dissenters and threw them in jail forever (the FBI was causing an awful lot of trouble for peaceniks, of course, but I don't think Hulke could have known about the scale of that when he was writing this).

So now the Earth Empire is starting to look more like the USSR. In a sense this is a shame, because it weakens what would otherwise be a fairly nice attack on our own prejudices and failings. Once the gulags show up we can shrug our shoulders and say "Well, we'd never do anything like that anyway" (given the help we gave the Americans set up their CIA black sites and the general reaction to Guantanamo Bay, it's not like we can pat ourselves on the back too hard, of course, but whatever crimes our government committed against due process and human rights, a political prisoner is not a suspected terrorist). It would be interesting to see how well "Frontier in Space" maps onto the souring relationship between the USSR and China after their brief honeymoon period, but that would require someone far more versed in history than I. It hardly helps that this entire plotline is summarily dropped a few minutes into Episode 4, of course.

On the other hand, a new analogy arises from the ashes, regarding the difficulty a leader committed to peace finds maintaining that peace in the face of overwhelming sytemic pressure to declare war. And for all the standard hawkish BS reasons, too. It's maddening to me that Williams can get away with spouting crap like "there is one thing worse than war... defeat!" and there be no-one around to point out that defeat is not some horrifying looming threat that will be guaranteed forever if you don't launch the missiles in the next eight minutes. It is at heart the same nonsense forever haunting US foreign policy, where the country must show "resolve" through incredibly wasteful and badly-defined military action every half hour, because otherwise people might doubt that the US is willing to use force when their interests actually are threatened. This is of course roughly equivalent to insisting if you don't punch everyone who knocks on your door in the face you're inviting a burglary, but somehow the idea never goes out of fashion.

Anyway, in her attempts to steer policy away from William's belligerence (and note how quickly he shifts from "this is good for Earth" to "this is good for your political career" when the former doesn't wash), the President represents a lone voice for calm at the top of the pyramid, and is learning all too well how little difference that can make. If we are to view this as a commentary on the USSR, then this could almost be said to predicting Gorbachev two decades ahead of time, which is impressive. It also casts the voice of reason as a woman, which has its advantages - seeing two ladies discuss the running of an entire Empire without a man in sight is a rather nice touch, though I can't help thinking the massuese would be better off employed calming Williams down. I suppose one could colour an argument that says having a man as the shouty warmonger and a woman as the calming influence is falling into gender stereotypes, and that even when a gender label is broadly positive (as in "doesn't want to start insanely bloody wars for no damn reason at all") it's still a form of sexism, but this is 1973 and I'll take it.

I'll finish off by talking a bit about the Master. Yes, this is Delgado's last performance, but of course no-one knew that at the time, so this is very much business as usual - which of course is to say charisma in spades. I wonder what the fascination the Master has with this period of "history" is (and consequently wonder if the Time Lords nudged the TARDIS here to help out, basically recreating the set-up of "Colony In Space" with added plausible deniability), but I'm glad he's here.

That doesn't mean I approve of Jo's choice, though. Life in a prison cell is wretched, I'm sure, but she has peace and quiet and time to think, enlivened by the occasional chat with the President or an alien attack. Say what you want about her unfriendly hosts, but none of them has tried to hypnotise her into killing herself or her friends. I say suck it up and do your porridge, young lady.

Episode 4

This is pretty clearly a bridging episode between no-one on Earth listening to the Doctor and (almost) no-one on Draconia listening to the Doctor. Just as with the Ogrons in the opening minutes of last episode, the script wraps up the loose ends from the cliffhanger as quickly as possible to get on to something else.

(I do like the Master's deductions about who tried to kill the professor and the Doctor, though. He'd make a brilliant detective if he wasn't so busy causing trouble. They should have him fight crime in a spin-off show: call it Git Sherlock. I'm copyrighting that now, by the way. You cannot have it.)

Still, as with the lunar pit-stop, there's plenty to love about the Master's attempts to maintain control of his vessel. I love Jo here, employed to emit a constant stream of nonsense to keep the Master both unsuspicious and uninterested. I bet that's harder than it looks. Some of her dialogue is great, too; lambasting the Doctor for not being nicer to the Master and saying he should help out once in a while, and complaining about the bitterly diffiicult job of UNIT filing.

(Which might sound a bit problematic - the pretty blonde asked to talk for as long as possible and rapidly moves on to how she's terrible at organisation. But really, I bet UNIT filing really is hard as hell. Do "clawed antimatter blobs" get filed under "C", "A", or "B"? Did that memo ever arrive from HQ about whether we were classifying Primords as a type of werewolf? It must be a nightmare.)

Also during this trip we learn at last that the Master is working for someone else. If this reveal had happened at an equivalent point in a modern two-parter, we'd all have been pretty clued in that it would have to be somebody we've met before (a new race about to become a major part of upcoming stories is really the only other option) because that's how television works now. Back in the glorious '70s, of course, television was far less predicatable about such things, simply because no-one had got around to codifying this sort of stuff. Even so, I wonder how many people worked it out at the time.

Personally, what I want to know is what the Daleks are actually paying him. It probably gets explained later in the story, but right now I'm imagining a monthly pay packet arriving at the end of a sink-plunger. "HERE IS YOUR CHRISTMAS BONUS!"

(Jeebus, imagine how terrible Dalek HR would be. 98% evil, 2% gob-smacking incompetence.)

I always love the irony in how this episode ends. Three installments earlier an Earthling ship is boarded by people mistaken for Draconians, and the Doctor is mistakenly accused of helping them. This time an Earthling ship is boarded by actual Draconians, and the first thing the Doctor does is offer to help.

Well played, Malcolm. Well played.

 Episode 5

I mentioned a while back that I'd want to mention the East Asian cultural scraps that have been stapled together to form the Draconians, and this seems like the perfect the opportunity. The problem I have here is that I myself am not well versed enough in the various Chinese and Japanese imperial dynasties (which of course varied significantly from family to family and century to century) to know what here is a direct lift from history and what is just accumulated cultural assumption and stereotype. Were there any emperors who refused to have women speak in front of them? Are emperors usually referred to by number rather than name? I'm just not sure. All I can really say is that if I wanted to base a species on East Asia under imperial rule, I probably wouldn't give them all droopy black moustaches. At a certain point, you're just taking the piss. I'm told Hulke himself was aiming to replicate the Hapsburg Court, but so far as I can see little of that has made it to screen, though again I must confess my comparative ignorance on such matters.

On the other hand, wherever the disgraceful sexism of the Draconian approach comes from, it's certainly fun watching Jo just rip straight through it. At least, it's fun seeing her take such pleasure in it (another reason this story was chosen as the best Jo story, I'd guess). There is a problem here, though, which is that I'm not entirely keen on the idea of a western white guy - a man born in England whilst it was still a major imperial power no less - lecturing other cultures on their treatment of women. Not because such criticisms aren't necessarily correct, but because choosing to level your vitriol against ingrained sexism in other cultures often means you're ignoring the problems in your own one. Who itself had an obvious problem with sexism at the time, which makes an attempt to use it as a vehicle to criticise foreign approaches to women's lib look like an opportunity for smug grandstanding rather than an actual commitment to feminism (though in fairness I don't think much of the general gender politics issues of the show at the time can be blamed on Hulke).

Dear God, the Ogrons are idiots, aren't they? I mean, the Doctor's comments about them "[not having] a mind to probe" come across as kinda jerky, but he quite obviously has a point. But then it's a bad workman who blames his (obvious) tools. Giving the Master command of the Ogrons was a clear mistake on the Daleks' part, and it's just as ridiculous that the Master went along with it. It's mind-blowing that the plot got as far as it did if the Ogrons can't even be trusted to drag their wounded away with them. I guess the only explanation here is that since the Master is, like, 0 for 7 regarding alliances with alien intelligences, because they always betray him, he's figured better loyal idiots than smart plotters.

Three cheers for General Williams! I really love how quickly he turns around once he realises the depth of his screw-up. I never quite got why he immediately believes the Draconian prince - and it seems hard to credit that the Draconian side of events never got back to him before - but fair play; the guy might be a neocon, but he's still less of a caricature than the actual neocons that actually exist in the US.

Episode 6

By the Fifteenth Emperor, that was abrupt.

Don't get me wrong; I appreciate the production team taking the time to set up one of fiction's few examples of Chekov's Gelatinous Blob, but having spent five episodes watching our heroes try to stop an interstellar shooting war, it'd be nice to know if an interstellar shooting war had, in fact, been stopped.

What makes this so frustrating is how easy a fix there was.  One ten-second scene of Williams and his new Draconian bestie on the scout ship, crowing about escaping and/or firing off a warning message to their respective civilisations, and the job is done. Instead, not a sausage.  Not even an Ogron bowl of chocolate Angel Delight.  We don't even know if the deus ex telepathica managed to get the job done.

It's the kind of hilarious narrative ball-drop you hardly ever see in our golden age of television.  So I guess it's at least historically interesting. And I am aware that after forty-plus years, there are limits to how upset I can sensibly get about dangling plot threads.

So let's talk about the episode's strengths. By which I mean Jo, of course.  She's wonderful here.  The fact that the Master facilitated her escape in no way takes away from her resourcefulness in acheiving it.  Indeed, given the Master's extreme narcissism and nested superiority complexes, his reliance on Jo's initiative is actually quite the compliment. And, based upon her impressive performance in resisting his various forms of mind-trickery, you can see his point.

Which, really, is all I can think of to say about this episode.  It's like you can feel it crumbling away in front of you as the Daleks arrive and announce this ongoing, Dalek-less stoy is now over. Like "Army of Ghosts" thirty four years later, a standard story simply can't withstand a Dalek arrival; everything has to be reshaped to fit.

Which is a real shame, because I was kind of enjoying the story they interrupted.

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