I think this joke’s gone far enough
The degree to which Doctor Who has changed since Peter Davison took on the title role can best be seen through the lens of Christopher H. Bidmead’s “Frontios” (Story Production Code 6N), given the extent to which this story, by a former series script editor during Tom Baker’s run, feels completely out of sync with the tone and tenor of the Fifth Doctor’s past two seasons. As with Bidmead’s last script, “Castrovalva,” the Fifth Doctor’s inaugural story, “Frontios” is as much about creating a deep and rich world as it is about how the Doctor deals with the narrative dilemmas created by the same. There’s little to no character development across the four episodes on offer here, no room for the Doctor or his companions to reflect or pause; every scene pushes the action forward or establishes the complex setting, filled as it is with multiple speaking guest stars and a veritable mob of extras. And that’s even before Bidmead introduces the pillbug-like Tractators, the most alien-seeming creatures since the Menoptra from “The Web Planet,” strange precisely because of their vague familiarity and slow, dance-like movements (and, like the Menoptra, played by dancers rather than actors).
Everything about “Frontios” suggests grandeur, with several large, elaborate sets depicting a wrecked colony ship and an extensive tunnel system, all effectively filmed by veteran director Ron Jones to create a palpable sense of size and scope. Even the narrative setup, with the TARDIS triggering a temporal “boundary error” alarm as it enters the Veruna system in the far future, home to the sole surviving human outpost after the Earth is destroyed by its sun, bespeaks a tendency to set the stakes as high as possible. This is, to put it plainly, Fourth Doctor stuff—the last of this, the first of that, the end of the entire human species—for real this time. The Fifth Doctor has certainly confronted major crises, having averted the destruction of Earth in the 21st century just two stories before, but the scale of his confrontations has always leaned towards the intimate, the intricate. Not so “Frontios,” where the Doctor employs his words for deception and humor in a sweeping manner rather than diplomacy and empathy on an individual level.
A powerful gravity beam pulls the TARDIS to the site where, forty years prior, a colony ship from Earth crashed on the planet Frontios in mysterious circumstances. The Doctor wants nothing to do with the situation, emphasizing that the Time Lords forbid him to intervene with such a delicate pivot in time, but seeing people wounded by a meteorite bombardment that coincides with the blue box’s forced landing causes him to stay and help. He, Tegan, and Turlough quickly find themselves accused of helping to perpetuate an invasion of the planet, in league with the unknown force that has been saturating the colony site with space rocks for thirty years. Led by the callow Plantagenet (Jeff Rawle), son of the original expedition leader, Captain Revere, the colony teeters on the brink of extinction, with people mysteriously vanishing; eager to establish his command after the recent death of his father, the youngster prepares to have the Doctor executed, but neither the Time Lord nor the audience really notices. Bidmead, with the approval if not outright urging or instigation of producer John Nathan-Turner, goes where no story has gone before: he destroys the TARDIS…
As far as first episode cliffhangers go, this one ranks right up there with the initial appearance of the Daleks just for pure shock value. The Doctor has lost or otherwise been separated from the TARDIS many, many times before, but to have the characters see it explode during a bombardment heightens the impact on viewers. All that remains is the hat rack from the console room that the Doctor was pointedly fussing over at the start of the story. Such an immediate increase of the stakes, again, feels at odds with the general tone of the past two seasons; when the Fifth Doctor lost Adric, in “Earthshock,” the entire narrative built to that point, but here, the Doctor suffers a major loss that is immediately ignored, because he’s summarily threatened with death before curiosity convinces Plantagenet to learn what this mysterious traveller knows.
It turns out that the Doctor doesn’t know much of anything at all. Indeed, shades of “Castrovalva,” which sees Peter Davison sidelined for almost the entire story, here the companions shoulder most of the narrative lifting, with Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson finally helping to drive a story again. Given access to the colony ship’s research facility, Turlough and Norna (Lesley Dunlop), daughter of the colony’s chief scientist, stumble into a hidden set of tunnels beneath the ship. Turlough starts to have flashes of “ancestral” memories, culminating in his frothing at the bit (almost literally) and screaming about the Tractators, who manage to capture both Norna and the Doctor in a purple gravity field.
Tegan, meanwhile, has seen Plantagenet drawn into the ground much as happened to his father at the beginning of the story. Desperate to keep the knowledge hidden given the precarious political situation, the colony’s security chief Brazen (Peter Gilmore) tries to capture her, but Tegan manages to block the door handles with a metal rod that Brazen conveniently dropped after threatening a band of looters. Our long-serving companion clambers through the tunnels after the Doctor in her ill-considered black leather skirt and heels but only complicates matters for the Doctor. Luckily the glow-lights used for illumination by the colonists explode when thrown, letting them escape into the tunnels, where the Doctor returns to his cricketing roots (established by Bidmead in Castrovalva), pushing a giant ball into a pair of Tractators after imparting some “spin,” calling out “Owzat?” like a proper bowler.
The introduction of the Tractators at the halfway point of the story feels far too late, but in truth, they lack sufficient depth to carry the narrative on their own, their insectoid appearance presumed to suffice as shorthand for their devious nature. Still, Brazen’s insistence on a drumhead court, complete with new characters, to try chief scientist Range (William Lucas) for hiding the facts about the “deaths unaccountable” over the years feels like padding, or possibly a case of Bidmead being so enamored with the world he created that he wants to develop it further even at the cost of slowing down the pace. But once Turlough indicates, through his atavistic memory of what the Tractators did to his still-unnamed world ages past, that Plantagenet might still be alive—because the beasts need living captives—Brazen releases everyone and begins an assault on the tunnels.
So little do the Tractators have to offer, in fact, that the Doctor doesn’t even encounter them properly until the third episode cliffhanger, where he and Tegan are herded into the Tractators’ central chamber by the digging machine, the biggest moment of body horror since the original Mondasian Cybermen. Occupied in this case by the near-dead Captain Revere (John Beardmore, uncredited), the digging machine cybernetically yokes a living being to drive the device, responsible for, um, hollowing out tunnels to enable the Tractators to use their inherent gravitational powers to drive Frontios around the galaxy to find new planets to plunder. (Yes, the Daleks did it first, and even Douglas Adams made fun of the concept.)
The final episode, then, consists mostly of the Fifth Doctor trying to inveigle the head of the Tractators, the Gravis (John Gillett), into revealing their plans while simultaneously trying to prevent them from realizing that Tegan is a living being—pretending that she is a Gallifreyan robot servant, much to her dismay, to prevent her from being plugged into the machine—and attempting to save Plantagenet for a similar fate. Gravis somehow knows of the Doctor by reputation and assumes he was sent by the Time Lords to prevent their planetary plunder, which he conceived of in the five hundred years the Tractators have been marooned on Frontios. Only when they were able to draw the colony ship (and subsequent meteorites) to crash on the planet did the needed elements for the scheme all fall into place.
In one of those moments where the writer realizes there are only ten minutes left to wrap everything up, Brazen interrupts everything with his assault (but not before being harnessed to the digging machine himself, sending it on a rampage) and the Doctor and companions find various pieces of the TARDIS scattered throughout the tunnels. Turlough lets the Doctor know that if the Gravis can be separated from the “guard” Tractators, they all become harmless, so the Doctor tricks the Gravis into using his immense gravitational powers to re-assemble the pieces of the TARDIS into a functional whole. Once back together, the plasmic walls of the TARDIS, responsible for its (occasional) inviolability, reactivate, separating the blue box into its own dimension and severing the connections between the Tractators. A quick stop on an uninhabited planet sees the Gravis out of harm’s way and then our time travellers can be on their way as well, with the Doctor admonishing the colonists to not breathe a word of this little adventure to the Time Lords.
Given the crowded screen, the guest stars make solid if not spectacular contributions. Jeff Rawle and Peter Gilmore play the paranoid Plantagenet and Brazen with admirable zeal, enhancing the sense that there’s a mass of people ready to revolt over conditions in the deteriorating colony. The team of dancers who played the various Tractators (George Campbell, Michael Malcolm, Stephen Speed, William Bowen, and Hedi Khursandi) imbue the bug beasts with a shambling menace, but not unlike the pantomime Myrka from “Warriors of the Deep,” their efforts remain constrained by the realization of the costumes. John Gillett provides Gravis not quite gravity—with Bidmead’s Nation-esque need to name the Tractators (tractors) and Gravis after their main power robbing them of much, ah, gravitas—but a fair bit of single-minded focus. It’s not hard to imagine Gravis’ desire to possess the unlimited travel capability of the TARDIS enabling him to pull the broken box together through sheer willpower alone.
Though sidelined for fair bits of the story, Peter Davison does expand his range somewhat in “Frontios,” continuing to develop the Fifth Doctor’s lighter side, and the return of cricketing references makes for a knowing nod to the character’s initial appearance. Too, the incessant anxiety the Fifth Doctor shows over the possibility of the Time Lords discovering his intervention adds a curious dimension to the character, particuarly given his relative dismissal of their power after the events of “The Five Doctors” that saw him appointed as Lord President.
As noted, Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson return to a more prominent role after several stories relegating them to decidedly minor parts. Of the two, Strickson’s Turlough features quite prominently due to the decision to have the alien teenager remember everything necessary to defeat the Tractators, but it’s a double-edged sword, as most of his close-ups are of a near-catatonic face flecked with spittle. There’s no exploration at all of the trauma that Turlough endures to summon up these collective memories, nor of what happened to his planet. Tegan, likewise, faces perilous situations constantly throughout the story, certainly helping to explain why the character decides to call it quits next time out after the longest run, by stories, of a companion since Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith. It still beggars belief, though, that writers don’t recognize the length of this teamwork with the Fifth Doctor and continually have Tegan misunderstand his intentions and subterfuges, as when he tries to convince the Gravis that she is a robot.
Taken as a whole, “Frontios” is not what we’ve come to expect over the course of Seasons Nineteen and Twenty. Oh, there have been too-pat endings and too-pithy resolutions, but there’s no room here for some keen solution nor wise discourse. It’s just all too easy, too flippant—which is not to say that it isn’t fun in its way. But the high stakes are paired with an arch humor last seen when Tom Baker trod the floor at Television Centre. The TARDIS, after all, gets destroyed, and everyone is just too busy to mention it except in passing. There’s a core of seriousness, of intentionality, missing from this story.
Still, precisely because “Frontios” feels so different from the recent stories that preceded it on Doctor Who, it stands out as something remarkable, even if on closer inspection the core conceit falls flat—an insect-like species with gravitational powers sufficient to destroy the TARDIS and also put it back together exactly as before who want to drive a planet around the galaxy but need humans to guide their excavators, so they sit around for five hundred years until they find some. Much as Turough’s convenient atavistic memory helps solve the plot, the ancestral memory, if you will, of what Doctor Who used to be like provides “Frontios” with so much of its power: bold for the sake of spectacle, loud for the sake of delight, happy memories of an earlier time.
As a pure viewing experience, untethered to concerns about whether any of it makes sense within the context of over twenty years of continuity, “Frontios” delivers a rousing ninety-six minutes of action, wonder, and adventure. If the majority of John Nathan-Turner’s production tenure, and of Peter Davison’s turn as the Fifth Doctor, has been about providing long-term viewers with a reward for their patience, attention to detail, and appreciation of a more refined lead character, “Frontios” is one for those tuning in for a fast-paced yet thought-provoking experience where everything eventually falls neatly into place in the end—somewhat literally, in the case of the TARDIS.
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Post 137 of the Doctor Who Project