There’s something about 80s Doctor Who that constantly frustrates. Whether it be issues surrounding the casting (step forward, Beryl Reid!), the writing, the direction or simply the actual resources needed to mount the show successfully, there’s always something that holds this period of the show back from ever fully expressing its full potential.
Written by former script editor, Christopher H. Bidmead, 1984’s Frontios is a perfect example of this ‘not-quiteness’ that seems to bedevil this period of the show. While inevitably suffering from some of the common complaints that surround Bidmead’s work – paper thin characters, the accenting of ideas over drama, a reliance on po-faced (pseudo) science – on the whole, the actual narrative of Frontios holds up well and the rationale of the story and the impending threat of the Tractators is well set up and, in its own way, fairly believable.
In fact, the setup for this story is something of a Who classic, with the TARDIS team landing on a settler planet (the titular Frontios), home to some of the last humans left in the galaxy. Unsurprisingly, the Doctor and his companions haven’t landed on a settlement that’s prospering, but rather one seemingly under perpetual bombardment from their planetary neighbours and in the midst of a brutal and divisive civil revolt.
To make matters worse, the settlement is also in the midst of mourning the recent loss of its leader, Captain Revere, while also coming to terms with the less than perfect rule of his son, Plantagenet. Coupled to this you also have the seemingly secretive and Machiavellian security chief, Brazen, making his presence felt in the story.
But as all of this plays out above ground, down below an ancient terror is hard at work bringing a long held plan to fruition.
As with the recently re-released Davison-era stories. Kinda and Snakedance, Frontios has a strong 80s vintage ensemble cast. with Lesley Dunlop (Norna), Jeff Rawle (Plantagenet), Peter Gilmore (Brazen) and William Lucas (Range) all recognisable from several popular shows of the time, and all giving uniformly strong performances across the board.
The same is true for series regulars, Davison, Mark Strickson (Turlough) and Janet Fielding (Tegan). All three of them dovetail nicely with the cast, and each has a decent role to play in the unfolding mystery of this particular story.
So, with so much going for Frontios, what goes wrong?
The chief element that stops the story from ever achieving its full potential can be laid pretty squarely at the feet of director, Ron Jones.
The director of some awfully stolid Davison/Colin Baker stories from this period of the show, Jones marshals this particular adventure with all the pace and urgency of a dripping tap.
Compare this story to the Peter Grimwade-directed Earthshock or (arguably the best story of Davison’s tenure) the Graeme Harper-helmed Caves Of Androzani.
Both those stories have equally solid premises and scripts, but what sets them apart is that both Earthshock and Caves were helmed by intense directors, who mounted those stories with real passion, energy and intensity.
Sadly for Frontios, it doesn’t have Grimwade or Harper behind the camera, but rather the workmanlike Jones. In fact, the sense that comes across in Frontios is that Jones’ method of directing was to simply say ‘that’ll do’ and move on to the next setup.
Certainly his handling of the settlement on Frontios seems to be as good an example of this as any. Never once do you believe that what you’re looking at is anything other than a slightly shoddily dressed soundstage, and not a very well shot one, to boot!
However, the sets and props are merely one part of the problem and, in truth, they’re a problem that can be overlooked if the threat the Doctor faces is credibly and effectively realised. Unfortunately for Frontios, they have the Tractators.
Supposedly highly advanced and genuinely scary creatures, the Tractators live underground and burrow through the soil using bizarre machinery that fuses biological components with technology.
In theory, they should be odd and unsettling characters, with technology that reflects their physicality and vice versa. However, nothing as coherent as that appears on screen, and instead what we get is a load of spare parts lashed together, while the Tractators themselves have to make do with an alien costume that would make a Monoid blush.
Standing six feet tall, the Tractators have the mobility of a piece of balsa wood and look, bizarrely, like a cross between a prawn and Brian the Snail from The Magic Roundabout. Not only that, the voice of the Gravis, the leader of the Tractators, is so muted and muffled that it sounds like he’s recording his lines just around the corner from the shoot, with a live feed into the studio.
However, despite running the risk of making Frontios sound like a disaster of Meglos or Timelash proportions, there are actually a number of very good aspects to the story.
As mentioned above, the acting is generally strong, with all the supporting actors and regulars turning in strong performances. For me, though, special mention has to go to the Doctor himself in this story.
Coming towards the end of his time in the TARDIS, Davison seems totally at ease with the character and brings a lovely line in dry humour to the part. His exchange with the Gravis about the captured Tegan is particularly memorable and has strong echoes of David Tennant’s Doctor and his rat-a-tat rapport with both Jackie Tyler and Donna Noble. It’s very well judged and further reinforces quite how ‘modern’ Davison’s Doctor was and continues to be.
Also worth mentioning are some of Bidmead’s ideas in this episode. The notion of a gravity-controlling alien, in particular, is very strong and it’s certainly utilized brilliantly in the opening two episodes, where the Tractators are an unseen enemy. Similarly, the whole idea of ‘the hungry earth’ that the Tractators use to drag the humans down beneath the soil is so good that Steven Moffat used it in a virtually identical fashion during the recent Series 5 of the revived show.
But good ideas, without similarly successful execution, don’t necessarily make for good television and Frontios, for all its successes, never really rises above the ranks of the mediocre.
The main extras for this somewhat cheaper DVD release are very much in keeping with the quality of the main feature. They too seem to suffer from a lack of attention, care and detail.
The main documentary, Driven to Distraction, covers the making of Frontios, but unfortunately, manages to feel like a documentary you’ve seen many times before. It’s, therefore, unfortunate that the one element of the documentary that warrants special interest, the shocking murder of actor Peter Arne, who was due to play the character of Range, just days before shooting started, is something so thoroughly depressing.
Aside from the obligatory ‘making of’ piece, we also get the similarly obligatory feature commentary. Featuring Peter Davison, Jeff Rawle, Eric Saward, Dick Mills (sound) and John Gillett (the Gravis), the track is way less controversial and far better natured than some of the more recent fifth Doctor commentaries.
After the recent baiting of Matthew Waterhouse on the Kinda commentary track, this comes as something of a relief.