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The traditional science-fiction style of Frontier in Space makes this 1973 story something of a rarity in the Doctor Who canon. So why has the series presented so few space operas?

Science-fiction is a big genre but it can be broken down into a number of smaller classifications, or sub-genres, based on generic storylines or narrative elements. Doctor Who is a big series and across its history has made use of most of these sub-genres, from time travel to mad scientists, monster horror to alien first contact, psychic powers to alternative universes.

Yet what is probably the most popular of all science-fiction sub-genres is surprisingly rare in Doctor Who: space opera. The term was coined by author Wilson Tucker in 1941 as a derogatory label for stories he considered to be second-rate “hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn[s]”. He was inspired by the dismissive labelling of US radio serials as ‘soap operas’. The space opera label initially came to be connected with the more action-packed, space-adventuring style of story, and slowly it lost its pejorative associations.

Exact definitions of space opera have shifted over the decades, but there’s broad consensus as to its most obvious characteristics, so let’s stick to those. Space opera is a narrative form in which the vastness of space is exploited to tell large-scale stories. Space operas typically feature lengthy journeys across great tracts of space, and often focus on interplanetary conflict between disparate space-going civilisations, or other more prosaic belligerents. These components make space opera one of the most visually compelling forms of science-fiction, leading to its dominance of the genre on screen. In television alone, we can see this in some of the most popular science-fiction offerings. Star Trek (originally 1966-69), Blake’s 7 (1978-81), Battlestar Galactica (originally 1978-79), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-81) – space operas all.

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About Doctor Who Magazine

“Space: the final frontier. Final, because it wants to kill us...” The TARDIS doesn’t just travel through time – stories set in space have been an essential part of Doctor Who for six decades. The inhospitable void between the stars has served as the backdrop to epic space operas and nerve-racking thrillers, while harbouring some of the most dangerous adversaries the Doctor has ever encountered. This lavish publication navigates a revealing course through the space lanes of Doctor Who, with exclusive interviews, rare images, and guides to some of the most memorable episodes.