In 1994 I found this book boring. Ten years later I discovered things I liked about it, but I still couldn't really care about its characters or its story.
The characters are the biggest problem. First Frontier's humans are goons from the US army, being manipulated by everyone and played for chumps. They're stupid, unimaginative, rulebound and incapable of working out what's going on for themselves. They're losers. However unfortunately the non-humans, the Tzun, are also pretty tedious. Not only are they as straight-laced and unimaginative as the humans, but they're nearly as stupid. They have more technology, but they're dopes. This story is about losers being outwitted by losers, with both sides being played for chumps by the TARDIS crew and Major Kreer.
If you're looking for characters, there's Kreer and his assistant Stoker. That's about it, really. Nyby is sometimes allowed a personality and I quite liked Major Marion Davison (yes, Davison), but even Nyby is still a goon and Davison barely does anything but follow around the Doctor as a temporary companion. In fairness I suppose there wasn't much scope for making this a character-based piece, since the humans are clueless and the Tzun are nominally bad guys.
However worst of all was the ending. With nearly fifty pages to go, the bad guys give up and head for home! A certain person takes over as primo villain, but even so it's not exactly thrill-a-minute. Will the alien invaders defeat the Master or will they be destroyed? Why I should care? It's another Two Alien Factions story in fancy dress, with the humans and heroes relegated to the sidelines. Those last fifty pages are surreal, as if the Master is suddenly the hero and we're meant to cheer his evil. (Face of the Enemy tried a similar trick, but far more successfully.) The big Doctor-Master scene is predictable and dull. There are a few good scenes towards the end, but by that point I was flicking through the pages.
The TARDIS crew are good, though. The 7th Doctor is very Sylvester McCoy, more like the goofball TV version than in any other McIntee book. Sometimes it's almost disconcerting. Benny and New Ace are both good too, the latter being a huge improvement on the Ace of White Darkness. I liked that.
There's other good stuff too. The Master is great, as always, and he's specifically Ainley rather than Delgado. I also liked the Tzun's background. McIntee wanted to play with stories of alien abduction and X-Files-eque 'Greys' but also make his aliens look human. The easy option would have been to make them shapeshifters or disguised with holographic technology, but the different Tzun races here are much more interesting. Finally this is a McIntee historical (if 1957 counts as 'historical') with the usual high level of research and detail. That's all laudable.
Unfortunately McIntee seems to think he's writing Bond-esque action, though you'd never guess that from reading the bloody thing. It's as exciting and fast-paced as the same author's Lords of the Storm (i.e. not even slightly). There was potential for fun with the alien abduction angle and X-Files-ish atmosphere, but that falls flat too. It's hard for aliens to seem spooky when Tzun point-of-view cutaways mean you've just overheard them saying: "Ph'Sor specimen #337. Execute collection as per Precept 1765-3." There are a few alien-abduction scenes, one of them slightly amusing, but for the most part this isn't what the book's about. A shame. I reckon this material had potential.
I nearly choked on the in-jokes. "Kreer" is the name of a character played by Roger Delgado in an Avengers episode. Stoker smells like a King's Demons reference. Many soldiers are named after the creators of fifties SF films - Jack Finney and Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Ed Wood (Plan 9 >From Outer Space) and Christian Nyby (credited for The Thing From Another World, though it was really directed by Howard Hawks). There's Lovecraft wank on p110 and a Dimensions in Time sideswipe on p54. And as for 'Nykortny' Cosmodrome... Stop, please, stop!
As a conclusion to McIntee's Master trilogy (but the first-written), it works surprisingly well. It resurrects the Tzun-Veltrochni stuff from The Dark Path (though in real life 'twas the other way around) and even has a Face of the Enemy reference on p107. I don't know what that was meant to be, but that's what it looks like. Unfortunately First Frontier is slap-bang in the middle of the train wreck that is the Master's post-Survival continuity, along with The Eight Doctors, Perry-Tucker, the TVM, the DWM comic strip and more. It's not McIntee's fault. He got here first. But it's not even good enough to pretend that the Master's lying on p264, since a certain plot development means this must follow 'Stop the Pigeon' and Prime Time in the 7th Doctor's timeline. Ah well.
There's plenty to like in First Frontier, if you're in the right mood. The Master, the Virgin regulars and the period detail are all good. Unfortunately it's a stodgy tale that thinks it's an action movie and doesn't have much in the way of characters to hold your attention.
Also known as: "Close Encounters of the Master's Kind"
Best known for: the return of the Master, the introduction of the Tzun
Importance to the range: both the new Master and the Tzun will face the Doctor again. There are ties to the Venusians to promote the missing adventure, Venusian Lullaby.
My opinion: First Frontier is Doctor Who's first real foray into UFO-lore. There are alien abductions, experimentations, secret military bases in the deserts and so on. Frankly, this is long overdue. Doctor Who always does well when it wears its influences on its sleeve, and the premise of First Frontier is no exception, as the Doctor, Ace, and Benny find themselves mixed up in 1950's paranoia, body-snatching aliens, and the return of the Master. First Frontier is written very much like an action movie and therein lie both its strengths and weaknesses.
The story itself seems to shift gears about a third of the way through. It starts as a spooky, Close Encounters of the Third Kind type of story with people being abducted by aliens, strange lights in the sky, and sinister goings-on at a nearby military installation. However, about halfway through, it becomes something more like a Tom Clancy thriller with averting nuclear disasters and lots of military hardware. The action sequences are well-written and get the point across well, but it seems the plot and characterization get lost in the process. The action sequences become padding as characters just shift from location to location. Some prominent characters are written out or not mentioned for huge amounts of pages at a time, so much that they seem superfluous. I do feel that there could have been some tightening up of the plot done here. David McIntee's books are usually very well plotted, and this book seems to be the exception to the rule.
There are some little points here and there in the book that I want to point out. Ace dresses in shades, black, and a duster overcoat, so she's either part of The Matrix cast or the infamous "trenchcoat mafia." There is a sort of "pre-credits" sequence that is probably an homage to From Russia, With Love. There are also plenty of jokes and reference lines. I caught a few from Rocky Horror Picture Show, several from the Star Wars films, notably, "It's a good bet the Confederacy knows we're here", and, best of all, a joke referencing the Bond film, A View to a Kill: "And I'm Dick Tracy and you're still under arrest!" Wonderful. You get the sense that David McIntee really enjoyed writing this book, and for the most part, that enjoyment is shared by the reader.
One of the best aspects of First Frontier is the characterization of Ace and Benny. We know that after No Future, they were friends again, but in almost every subsequent book, the two characters are separated and we don't ever get to see that friendship and how these two women have grown to deeply care about each other. First Frontier rectifies this, and we have wonderful sequences where Ace and Benny commandeer a Hercules aircraft, join in gun battles, and exchange consoling thoughts and emotional support. Finally, we are shown, as opposed to being told, that these two characters have forged a strong loyal friendship. They appreciate and understand each other's differences and they complement each other nicely. The Ace/Benny relationship is, by far, my favorite aspect of First Frontier.
My second favorite aspect of First Frontier is the presence of the Master. David McIntee picks right up from where Survival left off, including the Master's cheetah affliction. The Master is a bit of a controversial figure. Some people love him, others seem him as an embarrassment. David both lovingly mocks the parts of the Master which deserve mockery, but also makes him a totally believable and worthy adversary to the Doctor. Particularly after his regeneration, the Master comes across as a smooth, sophisticated equal. There is an awesome moral argument between the Doctor and the Master, highlighting the Doctor's attitude towards violence and pacifism. What makes this sequence work for me so well is that, in my opinion, the Master does indeed win the argument. The Doctor IS a hypocrite. He says he opposes violence, but he really doesn't. He only opposes direct violence where he has to take an active part, yet has no compunction about destroying things from afar. The Doctor can't respond to these charges other than to spout off various moral platitudes. It's upsetting, but it does actually fit with what we've seen in the TV series, particularly the McCoy era where he destroys entire solar systems in one story and tells other characters to throw away their guns in the next.
The supporting cast is not served nearly as well. Characters seem to be forgotten. Marion is an excellent character but then she sort of disappears. The same can be said with Finney. Nyby, on the other hand, is a complete stereotype of the way-too-patriotic near-insane military commander, the sort usually played by Donald Sutherland. Although David McIntee seems to enjoy writing about military hardware, he makes the same mistake of falling into the typical cliches regarding the military that many of the other NAs make. Are military types really that lacking in the imagination department? Considering the vast advances that militaries have made, I think this tired, worn-out, and cliched view of the unimaginative, closed military mind has got to go. It's not funny, it's not witty, it's not even realistic, and it's long overstayed its welcome.
Overall, First Frontier is definitely worth reading, particularly for the scenes with Ace, Benny, and the Master. I did find myself skimming some of the action sequences--they'd look better on film than in prose. However, the Tzun are interesting, there are some great set pieces, and the return of the Master is very welcome.