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Doctor Who: Frontios (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Frontios originally aired in 1984.

“You know, we can sort this all out in no time at all, if everyone just stays calm.”

– The Doctor sums up the tragedy of Peter Davison’s time as the Timelord

Towards the end of Peter Davison’s time in the title role, Doctor Who was becoming gradually darker. While Colin Baker’s brightly-coloured take on the character would convert this grim fare into a surreal and grotesque pantomime, there was something tragic about Davison’s iteration confronting a quickly darkening universe. Steven Moffat once explained, “this Doctor takes the emphasis off the eccentricities and turns it into a pained heroism of a man who is so much better than the universe he is trying to save but cannot bear to let it stand”, and that’s very much the case here. While the cynicism and pointless darkness would reach their zenith during Resurrection of the Daleks and pay off spectacularly in The Caves of Androzani, Frontios feels like the perfect illustration of these ideas.

The Doctor's surgery...

Much like the rest of Davison’s final season, Frontios works much better in the context of a larger thematic arc than it does as a story in its own right. Indeed, the serial starts off remarkably dark and complex, before veering into territory that is far too conventional. The monsters of the story, the Tractators, look ridiculous even by the standards of the time (though not quite as bad as the Myrka from Warriors of the Deep), and the serial actually works really well for the relatively subdued two episodes before the villains are finally revealed. Once the bad guys make themselves known, it’s a fairly standard story where the Doctor fights to save a world from a hostile alien force, with very little to distinguish it from the pack. However, everything without the Tractators works so well that it’s easy to forgive the relatively trite plotting of the last episode.

In many ways, Russell T. Davies’ Utopia owes quite a debt to Christopher M. Bidmead’s story. Both stories feature the Timelord piloting a TARDIS that has “drifted too far into the future” while discovering a future for mankind that stands in stark contrast to the usually optimistic portrayal of humanity’s destiny. In Frontios, we visit “one of the last surviving groups of mankind” and it’s as bleak as you might expect. With a limited budget, the serial’s set design is impressive, particularly of the remains of the scattered human colony formed in the wreckage of a crash ship. This is an outpost that has been signalling into the void, looking for help, for over thirty years, and has heard nothing. It’s a community where “every death increases the risk of extinction.”

Face to face to face...

That makes for quite a change from the usual portrayal of a human society that spans the cosmos, is colonising other worlds as explorers rather than refugees, or even a humanity recovering from a great catastrophe. The settlement in Frontios is not recovering. It’s surviving – at the very best. People are dying, and the settlers can’t put down roots to grow. There’s a constant siege mentality, and the entire planet is controlled by a military dictatorship – one on the verge of becoming absolute monarchy. “Are you suggesting that the son of Captain Revere is unfit to rule?” Brazen demands, never making any suggestion of why Plantagenet is fit to rule, beyond his seeming birthright.

This is a world that Captain Revere ruled with a “will of steel” and where nobody dares to question the orders coming from a military hierarchy. Wondering about Revere’s decision to ban access to the caves, Turlough is aghast at the unquestioning obedience and lack of accountability. “Simple as that? He made a law?” Revere seems to run the settlement like a fascist dictatorship, with his face adorning posters all over the place, watching his subjects, even after the man is dead. It’s a harsh world, and one where the human soul seems to have been worn down.

Secrets buried on Frontios...

In fact, the show very cleverly hides the presence of any aliens until well into the second the part. This is a smart decision not just because the Tractators look absolutely rubbish, but because it creates a seed of doubt. The colonists are convinced that they are under siege from outer space. The Doctor makes the point that it could just be innocent debris from a nearby planet, raining down without malice or intent. “Surely Captain Revere could have determined that?” the colony’s chief science officer asks. The Doctor replies, “Oh, I think he did.” The clear implication at this point in the story is that Revere might have been using the threat of an outside enemy to control the colony and to maintain order.

One of the better touches to Bidmead’s script is the fact that Brazen, the fascist head of security for the settlement, isn’t the bad guy. He’s harsh and paranoid, but his methods – though distasteful – have merit. At the first sign of trouble, the colonists begin looting and society itself seems to crumble. “It’s all over,” a looter demands, “can’t you see that?” For the first half of the story, it seems like the biggest threat to mankind… is mankind. Whether it’s our tendencies to sacrifice freedom for order, or our willingness to abuse our freedom, it seems like the human race might not be worthy of the Doctor’s faith. The character believes in us at our very best, but Frontios sees us facing the end at our very worst.

Green Lantern's light...

Even when alien involvement in the plot becomes obvious, it’s a bit more grim than usual. The Tractators’ methods of pulling a host through the soil would have seemed perfectly at home in the gothic Hinchcliffe era of the show, capturing the primitive fear of being buried alive. Here, however, they don’t just represent that very basic fear, but they also represent something far more depressing – the idea of the world consuming us, the notion that we will be absorbed and completely forgotten by the very planet we live on. “The earth is hungry,” Turlough rambles in his trance, “It wants to eat.” In fact, Turlough’s almost-insane mumblings come across as slightly cheesy, but they’re also effective. They are genuinely creepy. “I can see them. They are the appetite below the ground.” The idea of a world that “buries its own dead” is a very juicy, very scary one – and it’s the thought that this might be the final resting place for us as a species is an unsettling one.

Unfortunately, all that atmosphere disappears almost as soon as we see the Tractators. They have a boring old plan to turn the humans into their slaves – even if it does make for a rather grotesque cliffhanger – and a scheme to fly a planet seemingly borrowed from The Dalek Invasion of Earth. There are a few nice touches – Davison pulling a rather wonderful “briar patch” gambit on the Graven (“take everything else but leave me the TARDIS!”) or the notion that the Graven has corrupted the otherwise peaceful Tractators for his own evil purposes – but it all feels ridiculously conventional and straightforward.

I can see why they'd stay underground...

Indeed, once the serial ends up underground, the sets become increasingly flimsy, the bad guys offer tonnes of awkward exposition and the special effects become just a little bit crap. It’s a damn shame, because the build-up was actually interesting, and I can’t help but wonder if the serial might have worked better without the Tractators – or even with a less articulate adversary for the Doctor and his companions. I guess we’ll never know, but these aspects serve to hold the serial back from true greatness, which is a bit of a shame – there’s a tonne of very clever and very interesting stuff going on.

Even amid the rather grim atmosphere, there are some nice little moments to enjoy as a conventional Doctor Who adventure. My personal favourite sees Turlough, the “bad boy” companion, threatening the restless natives (carrying laser guns) holding the TARDIS’ coat stand. “Careful with that thing,”the Doctor advises. We get hints of the character’s enigmatic back story here and – while the writers of the show didn’t always seem to know what to do with Turlough – I’m actually quite fond of the character. Like Leela, Turlough makes me regret the fact that all the new series’ companions have been female Britons.

Taking a stand...

Davison is superb (as always) in the role, offering a portrayal that is markedly different than the other actors in the lead role, and offering a far more subdued performance. There’s a genuine sense that this iteration of the character is too gentle and kind a soul for the darker universe forming around him, as he seems to lack the self-control necessary to be an impartial observer. “We mustn’t interfere,” he insists, citing the “laws of time”, but he’s barely on the planet before he’s offering the natives “all the medical supplies” on his TARDIS. He seems far more empathic than his other iterations, and he’s always acutely aware of human suffering. While all regenerations are sympathetic and sensitive to human suffering, Davison plays it as a tragedy – his version of the character knows he might save this life (and, based on the body count of this season, he equally might not), but he can’t save everyone. It’s never loud and over-wrought, but I think you can trace Nine’s joy at the idea that “just this once, everybody lives!” back past the Time War to this era in the character’s life.

The serial also has a good balance with its characters. While I like the idea of more than a single companion, I often found the Fifth Doctor’s TARDIS a bit too cluttered. Two seems like a good number, and there’s enough of a difference between Tegan and Turlough to make the dynamic reallywork. Both companions have stuff to do throughout the episode, and neither ever feels superfluous. The second half of the story isn’t even that bad (barring the effects), it’s just ridiculously conventional.

Working out a bug in the TARDIS...

I think the reason I like Frontios so much is the brilliant atmosphere the story creates. You don’t doubt, for example, that the show would go through with killing every human being left in existence. After all, the supporting casts of Warriors of the Deep, Resurrection of the Daleks and The Caves of Androzani don’t fare too well. More than that, the TARDIS is seemingly destroyed at the start of the first episode. While we know it isn’t really gone, this was a time when the show wasn’t seemingly destroying the TARDIS at every given opportunity to up the dramatic tension. It has impact. It’s that sort of sense of uncertainty that works really well in the first half of the story. Even though the second half is a solidly-told invasion story, it can’t help but feel like a slight disappointment.

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