Reviewed by Paul Scoones
Given that Season Twenty-One contains the heavy-weight classic Caves of Androzani, the crowd-pleasing Resurrection of the Daleks, and is by two notorious clangers (Warriors of the Deep and The Twin Dilemma), it is perhaps not surprising that Frontios is often over-looked whenever fandom passes judgement on the best and worst that the programme has to offer. Indeed, the recent DWM Awards - self-proclaimed as “the single largest survey of Doctor Who fan opinion ever undertaken” - places Frontios in 61st place, behind the aforementioned Androzani and Resurrection but nevertheless ahead of the rest of the season's seven stories. Although popular opinion seems to have placed it somewhere just above average, Frontios is worthy of greater acclaim.
It is one of the most atmospheric and visually interesting of the Eighties stories, contains arguably Peter Davison's best performance as the Doctor and has a strong cast of players who give their parts a strong sense of conviction. Even the monsters - a common area of failing in this era - are remarkably well designed and it is only their over-exposure on screen which is their downfall and perhaps scores against this story's hope of ever being labelled a classic. Anyone harbouring thoughts of countering this assertion should first consider Androzani's Magma creature and try to assess the story's ranking in the DWM poll if the creature had been accorded equal screen time.
I regard Frontios very highly although the Target novelisation was initially the source of my appreciation as, thanks to the vagaries of New Zealand TV programming and my lack of video contacts, the novel predated my exposure to the television version by more than three years. Frontios' greatest strength is its story and its greatest weakness is its monster costumes. The book accentuates the strong and obviously conveys nothing of the visual aspects. The television serial when I finally saw it was slightly disappointing for this reason.
Frontios is probably not a good choice to pop in the VCR to show your ‘non-fan’ friends what a fantastic television programme Doctor Who really is - as I discovered when I finally managed to borrow a VHS copy! All will go well enough for the first couple of episodes, but you'll almost certainly loose your potential converts mere moments into Part Three when, after the Doctor throws his torch at them, the Tractators stumble around looking and sounding very comical, and highlighting the unconvincing nature of their costumes.
“Doctor, think of something.”
The Tractators are the story's greatest failing. On paper the Tractators are highly original and most intriguing Doctor Who monsters. As the novelisation clearly demonstrates, writer Christopher H. Bidmead scripted the creatures with flexible bodies and segmented scaled bodies, capable of wrapping themselves into a coil or writhing around the bodies of their captives. The costumes, which I have seen up close at the Longleat exhibition, were unfortunately rigid assemblies of fabric, rubber arid fibreglass, and all they can do is waggle flippers and antennae. That said, when static the Tractators - especially their heads - are visually impressive, and the concept of a race of creatures capable of tractating objects by exerting a gravitational force is both original and intriguing.
Although studio-bound, the production team clearly went to the greatest effort within the confines of their budget to disguise this aspect of the story. Almost all of the sets have split-level or uneven textured floors that effectively distract from the usual completely flat studio surfaces. The underground tunnel sets are assisted by the story's requirement that some of them are meant to look constructed.
The lighting is an important contributing factor. Reviewers of eighties Doctor Who stories often point to the brightness with which the sets are lit as a failing but Frontios is almost always shrouded in varying degrees of gloom, particularly when below ground but also in the colony ship. By shrouding many scenes in a murky semidarkness, the makers of this story effectively compensated for some of the sets' lack of realism.
Sound is also a notable factor in the successful dramatisation of this story. The scenes set on the exterior of the upper hull are rendered that much more convincing through the addition of wind noise, and the contrasting of martial drum beats and lilting pan pipes provides a particularly memorable music score.
“The Doctor's all right. He gets like this sometimes. Nothing to worry about.”
Reviews of this story typically point to Peter Davison's performance as being one of its highlights. It is perhaps not entirely coincidental - and at the same time sadly ironic - that as this story was in rehearsal, Colin Baker was being announced to the press as the new Doctor. Thus it was with Frontios that Davison may have first thought that there was no turning back from his impending departure and perhaps determined to make the very best of what he had left. He was aided of course by a superlative set of scripts for his character, from the pen of Christopher H Bidmead, the man who played a large role in devising the Fifth Doctor's character.
Bidmead's idea was that the Fifth Doctor should be portrayed as an old and wise man trapped in the body of a youthful man who is therefore seldom taken as seriously as he would like by those he meets. This is undoubtedly a challenge to convey successfully on screen. Bidmead's script editor successors Antony Root and Eric Saward obviously thought so, as they did not endeavour to uphold this element of the Fifth Doctor's character, but Frontios is a testament to the fact that it could be done, and that Davison was up to the part. Here we have a Doctor much less the vulnerable innocent of the preceding stories of his era, instead a decisive, quick-witted and occasionally even slightly tetchy Fifth Doctor - a Doctor in other words which we have rarely seen since Castrovalva. The reappearance of his seldom-used half-frame spectacles helps to accentuate the concept of a Time Lord whose youthful appearance belies obvious intellect and wisdom.
The Doctor's sudden anger at Plantagenet's ridiculous accusations, are in stark contrast to his normally placid self. “I think - and you did ask what I think - I think your colony of Earth people is in grave danger of extinction,” he snaps aggressively, and Plantagenet is suitably rendered momentarily speechless by the Time Lord's outburst.
“If anyone happens to ask whether I made any material difference to the welfare of this planet you can tell them I came and went like a summer cloud.”
The Doctor is however at little at adds with the character we've come to know over many previous stories, the first hint of which comes in the opening TARDIS scene in which he's preoccupied with disposing of the hat stand. It's eccentric behaviour for this usually so straightforward thinking of Doctors. Then there's the Hartnell-esque over-riding preoccupation with not changing the course of history on Frontios. Though of course being post-War Games this is not so much a concern with altering future events, as the risk of being ‘found out’ - “Not a word to the Time Lords”. This in itself is a little odd in light of the fact that at this point in the Doctor's life he has relatively recently been appointed President of the Time Lords. Also rather unusual is the Doctor's apparent lack of concern at the supposed destruction of the TARDIS, not to mention why he should be so certain of its unwitnessed demise in the first place. He declares at one point to Tegan in a curiously unperturbed manner, “I think you can forget about the TARDIS. It's probably scattered in little pieces across the whole of Frontios.”
“Come and see the TARDIS. As an offensive weapon it's about as offensive as a chicken vol-au-vent ... its lack of armaments can be a positive embarrassment at times.”
In contrast with most stories where the TARDIS is no more than the means to arrive at and depart from the scene of the adventure, the ship plays a key role in each of Christopher H Bidmead's serials. Even more unusually, the ship's interior serves as a setting for a significant part of the proceedings for both Logopolis and Castrovalva. Perhaps mindful of this, the writer removes the TARDIS from the adventure in a fairly alarming fashion.
The Doctor is faced with a community in desperate need of power, food and medical supplies - all of which exist in abundance in the TARDIS stores. A situation of this nature exists in many Doctor Who stories and the possibility of providing some assistance from the TARDIS is usually overlooked to avoid expediting the plot's speedy resolution. In Frontios however, the issue of help from the TARDIS for the colonists' predicament is addressed from the outset. At first the Doctor's noninterventionist stance governs his reluctance to provide supplies. When he becomes aware of the extent of the colonists' plight he consents to using items from the TARDIS, only for Tegan and Turlough to discover that the inner door is jammed, conveniently removing any possibility of help. Finally, when the Doctor decides to show the sceptical Plantagenet and Brazen his ship as proof that he is not the invader they fear, the ship is apparently destroyed in a meteorite shower.
“Someone else thinks this is their territory.”
Frontios plays with viewers' expectations. The planet is a war zone, under siege with bombardments from the sky by an as yet unseen alien invader. The Doctor arrives in time to take stock of the situation before the invaders arrive - we anticipate that they will follow shortly on his heels. Only they don't and the Doctor and his companions spend the first half of the story becoming involved with the colonists predicament in an apparently fairly permanent fashion, and fending off accusations that they themselves are the invaders. The monsters do finally show up near the end of the second episode but not from above but below ground, and in a scenario reminiscent of the Silurians and Sea Devils, we learn that the Tractators have a prior claim to the planet.
“Your minds are being eaten away by this daily disaster we call Frontios.”
A problem with the story is that it does not build towards an exciting final episode. The most involving and interesting sequences are all above ground in the first half of the adventure. Like Tegan, we are intrigued to learn how well the last survivors of the doomed planet Earth are faring in this inhospitable environment.
The colonists' community is at breaking point; their supplies are running out people are disappearing or being killed almost daily and they have no defence against their unknown attackers. The reason for all of their problems is literally under their feet and in a curious turn of events, it gradually becomes clear that the leaders of the colony already have part of the answer, but have chosen to hush things up. A conspiracy of silence exists on Frontios. Scientific inquiry is regarded as subversive in the aftermath of Captain Revere's ‘death’ and all investigation below ground is forbidden. Chief Orderly Brazen has swept the mystery under the carpet in the hope it will all go away. It takes the Doctor and his companions to reopen the mystery and ultimately resolve the situation; such as Tegan's discovery of Range's ‘Death's Unaccountable’ file and Turlough's realisation that some of the geological samples in the research room postdate the excavations ban.
“We people of Frontios are vulnerable, Doctor. Desperate, frightened even, but we are not fools.”
The disappearance of Captain Revere at the story's outset places his young and inexperienced son Plantagenet in the role of colony leader. Plantagenet is a weak and uncertain leader, guided by his replacement father figure and close adviser Chief Orderly Brazen, a blustering totalitarian who attempts to assert authority through a series of bullyboy threats. Plantagenet and Brazen blindly cling to the last orders of the departed Captain Revere, even against the best interests of the colony, which is crumbling by the hour, as more people die in the bombardments, are sucked into the earth, or become Retrogrades, the colonists' term for looters and deserters. Cockerill, an apparently once-trusted orderly who has been stealing rations and eventually deserts, represents the Retrogrades. Whereas Brazen steadfastly insists on keeping order but doing nothing else to help the situation, Cockerill is interested in his own personal gain and survival, and therefore perhaps best represents the role of the ordinary individual in the story. At one point Cockerill tells Brazen: “This colony is finished, and everyone knows it except those who're too stupid to think for themselves,” a personal insult which Brazen either chooses to ignore or more likely fails to recognise. Although Brazen is portrayed as foolish and stubborn, he ultimately redeems himself by sacrificing himself heroically.
Science Officer Range's daughter Norna is somewhat reminiscent of Nyssa, as the concerned and caring daughter of a respected figure in the community who shares her father's interest in science. It is therefore no surprise that she accepts the TARDIS crew with the least hesitation of any of the colonists and slips easily into the role of surrogate companion when teamed with either the Doctor or Turlough.
“Don't torture yourself. Nobody expects you to go back down there.”
In common with the story's own strong characters, the Doctor's companions are unusually well written and utilised, particularly Turlough, a character sadly neglected in all but a handful of his stories. It is Turlough who discovers the concealed entrance to the tunnels and first ventures below ground, and who provides the information that enables the Doctor to defeat the Gravis. Mark Strickson plays his role with obvious relish, from his taunting of Tegan by reading aloud from the TARDIS records of Earth's destruction, to the trauma of the resurfacing of race memories and his frank self-admission of his cowardly nature. Strickson's performance is generally very good, although he descends into overacting when in the throes of recalling his race memories of the Tractators, during which he unfortunately does an uncanny impersonation of Ade Edmondson's Vyv from The Young Ones.
“When the time comes do exactly as I say.”
With less on screen presence for the Tractators and a greater emphasis on the colonists' fight for survival and political manoeuvring, this story might have been hailed a classic. As it is Frontios is still worthy of much attention and appreciation. It is easily one of the best stories of the Fifth Doctor era for its combination of a solid script sparkling dialogue, strong performances and a particularly notable delivery by Peter Davison. These attributes all describe The Caves of Androzani, but they are equally applicable to that other classic of the twenty-first season.
This item appeared in TSV 55 (October 1998).