I feel like I’ve just spent six episodes waiting for a story to really kick off, only to discover that this was never on the cards. Instead of ending with The Doctor having averted war and defeated The Master, we get a cliffhanger leading into the next serial. I’m a big fan of the way the serials used to link together in the first few seasons, but here it just feels like Frontier In Space has been abandoned – left unresolved in the pursuit of the next adventure, without a satisfying conclusion of its own.
It’s a cracking cliffhanger for sure, and it feels similar to the way some modern two-parters have the first episode purely there as build-up to the second (Dark Water, The Magician’s Apprentice), but the difference there is that it’s 45 minutes of build-up, rather than six lots of 25. And although they couldn’t have known it at the time, it’s such a shame that this is the last we see of Roger Delgado’s Master. The character really deserved a much more climactic send off than this, and I feel bereft that I’ve got no more performances to look forward to, but obviously that’s nothing compared to the tragic loss of the man himself.
Still, before it all peters out towards the end, the serial itself is perfectly enjoyable. The sheer number of different settings is impressive, and the production value is high. There are some lovely sets on display – and many of the spaceships featured have a similar aesthetic to the earliest series of Red Dwarf – along with good model work. The Draconians look great, and while I’m concerned to note that there appear to still be only three Dalek props, this was covered up by the direction far more effectively than it was last time.
The high production values aren’t always matched by the story, though. The overall concept of The Master engineering a war between two races is solid and well executed, with both the humans and Draconians displaying the necessary moral grey areas for the type of engaging, unpredictable story we’ve come to expect from Malcolm Hulke. But then the plot takes so many detours that it soon becomes clear that there’s not enough story to cover a six-parter, let alone form part of a Masterplan-esque twelve-episode mega-serial. And the padding is all so repetitive – turn up somewhere, get imprisoned, escape, try to convince everyone that there’s a conspiracy going on, head for the next place, turn up, get imprisoned… Seriously, the amount of imprisoning going on here is out of control.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the journey isn’t enjoyable. There are some great moments, like The Doctor and Jo concealing their ongoing efforts to escape from The Master’s custody by talking complete bollocks for ages until he stops paying attention. Or Jo resisting all the mind control power The Master can throw at her, further underlying how much she’s developed since she first met both Time Lords. I think she might have overtaken Jamie and Zoe as my favourite companion so far.
So it’s far from a bad serial, but overall I can’t help feel my enjoyment was hampered by the preconceptions I took into it. The DVD comes in a package called Dalek War with a picture of the The Master on the front, so I spent the first two episodes pretty much just waiting for my Delgado fix. Then the rest of the serial was spent wondering when the Daleks were going to show up, having assumed they’d have a much bigger role to play than what was essentially an extended cameo. It’s absolutely unavoidable I know, but it is a shame that the one thing missing from this experience is the element of surprise. I wish I’d been born thirty years earlier.
PS. I’ve just realised – Monday 26th October marked one year since I started this watch through. Subsequently, I’ve further realised that I’m 24 days behind schedule. Oh well – it’ll make it last even longer…