The earth is hungry. It waits to eat.
The end of the planet Earth is something that Doctor Who has found itself irresistibly drawn to. In the original outline for the series, the first time we realized this police box was a time machine was when the scanner showed Earth exploding and 'Doctor Who' concluded they had traveled into the future to see this. In the revived series, RTD based a whole story around that in The End of the World. The Ark also showed what humanity was up to during this apocalypse, and both Inferno and Pyramids of Mars upped the stakes by showing the destruction of Earth happening all too soon.
There's something odd about stories set in a universe we're our home planet is no more. Maybe it's just because I live here, but I do get lonely when I experience The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Babylon 5, Blake's 7: The Logic of Empire, Titan AE or just hear that line from The Ark where a character is coldly reminded that "the Earth itself no longer exists". To know my world isn't in the sky... It's not a pleasant thought and I believe it's the reason why all fans, to an extent, were uncomfortable with the idea of Gallifrey being destroyed. Not necessarily for the planet or its inhabitants, but because the Doctor had to feel that feeling from now on. And who'd wish that on anyone?
But Frontios goes further.
All these 'end of the planet Earth' stories contradict themselves to a lesser or greater extent, but they are universally positive. The world doesn't end in Inferno or Pyramids of Mars. Humanity and Monoids get a happy ending in The Ark and the Earth is put out of its misery by an evolved humanity in The End of the World. It is put down to a rite of passage, of accepting one's end, of new hope.
Not in Frontios.
I might complain that it contradicts a good 80% of televised and untelevised Doctor Who, but it's the point. The future we see on Frontios is bleak. Humanity has not touched every star, mingled with alien races, set up an empire that will last a thousand years. Humanity is alone, the other planets are devoid of life, and Earth's civilization is described by the Time Lords as "a group of refugees".
Depressing, isn't it? Grim, bleak, doom-laden... and utterly believable.
Come on, admit it, you've looked up at the night sky and occasionally wondered if there wasn't life out there and the Earth is all there is. Frontios dares to set a story in that thought, and its braver than I am. There are not even any Earth colonies to send help, or outposts in other galaxies. The settlement on Frontios is all there is.
And its dying.
This background is what gives Frontios an edge. I could easily complain the first scene where Bragen and Range do nothing but spout exposition at each other in angry voices, or that Norna has a well-tended mullet and uses the word "chicken" as an insult when she presumably has never seen one in her life before, but it doesn't matter. Maybe those Blake's 7 helmets the orderlies wear are cursed, because they make the bleakest setting and plot I can think of in Doctor Who.
There is a problem in that the bleakness just gets a little too big - the problems are painted on too large a canvas to be comfortable. The colony ship crashes, killing most of the crew before an outbreak of plague slaughters the rest. Yet, the survivors are numerous enough to survive thirty years of asteroid storms as well as being picked off by Tractators, retrogrades and court martials. Heck, the timescale is a bit large for me. The bombardment has been going on, non-stop for thirty... years... Now, if it was three years I'd think 'what a long time'. But thirty! Plus, Frontios is said to have no wood or plant life, which makes you wonder how the humans have been cultivating food or how they could survive on Frontios even without a bunch of angry wood lice snatching their corpses. Bragen says that oft-mentioned-rarely-seen Captain Revere held the colony together on sheer personality, and the fact all the colonists seem to actually believe they're all right as long as Plantagenet is alive supports that.
Also, I began to get really irritated at the speeches of the colonists, especially when they kept saying "the people of Frontios". Now, to be honest, I think they're not the people of Frontios at all, but the immigrant of Frontios. But surely they'd say "us", wouldn't they? "Why didn't he tell the people of Frontios?" demands Norna, when "Why didn't he tell us?" would work just as well, if not better. Not to mention the abundance of descriptions of "nasty things we call Frontios".
And why is one of the main aims of this story to ditch the hatstand? What's wrong with the hatstand? It was barely noticeable, being white on white (and they bring in back in Season 24...) so why arrange it to be removed from the TARDIS? Especially when there's categorically the other one from Castrovalva to put in its place... However, it does afford some classic and memorable scenes. The Hatstand of Fatal Death, wielding by Turlough the Unhinged. A fanzine title if ever I heard one.
Onto the positive. Logopolis was about death, Castrovalva about rebirth, and Frontios is about horror. Pure and simple. Any story that has people being sucked into the ground when they're dead or ill would horrify me, but when painted against the terribly bleak view above, it reaches another level. For example, moments after Tegan realizes that Frontios has a shoot-to-kill policy and she cries "Every death increases the risk of extinction!", one of the patients drops dead. Range's little speech about corpses vanishing from graves, people disappearing and sighting of someone being sucked face-first into the ground... Are you creeped out, yet? I'm creeped out. I literally shuddered when I saw a photo of the sides of the excavating machine, and you see that while the wasted body of Revere drives it, there are four more dead bodies involved. I'm thankful that the gore in the novelization was left out. The Gravis is hideous enough without having a floating severed head doing his talking for him, and grabbing people with severed arms. Brrrrr...
And if that wasn't worse, the TARDIS crew aren't left untouched by Frontios, either. I once realized that the reason the Doctor's so damn calm when he's arrested or sentenced with death is that all he needs to do is nip back to the TARDIS and he's safe; no one can catch him. I realized that while waiting outside the principal's office of my school, deep in trouble, and by god was I envious. I could have used an escape clause like that. And that's the point of the first episode. The Doctor saunters in, acts like he owns the place, confident he can escape when necessary. But in this story, he can't.
I defy anyone, absolutely anyone to believe that the TARDIS was destroyed at that early cliffhanger. Definitely, the Doctor's 'oh dear, still, never mind' attitude suggests he knows that the ship isn't destroyed, just inaccessible - you could almost think his story about the destroyed time machine is simply dupe some hidden enemy into thinking that he does believe his ship is gone, until he starts doing the complete opposite in the final half of the story. To be honest, it's very lacklustre. When the Doctor coldly tells Tegan to 'forget the TARDIS', it's just as a reminder to viewers that police box isn't there this week, it's not the anguish that accompanies the Doctor in The Shadows of Avalon when arguably exactly the same thing happens to the Time Lord's blue box.
The regulars are very well characterized. From Tegan and Turlough's visible discomfort at the hyper Doctor in their first scene, to their final fond farewells to Frontios, the characters are just that - characters. They behave and react realistically and believably. Tegan wants to see what happens to her people, Turlough has a slight flirt with Norna and the Doctor is still capable of flicking two fingers to the Time Lords when someone's dying at his feet. In fact, I think the whole 'mustn't interfere' stuff was added to link up with The Five Doctors rather than to define the Doctor, who continues his little evolution as a more pro-active, less polite person. The bits where the Doctor plays a dangerous game of bluff with the Gravis return the manipulative Doctor of the Black Guardian trilogy, as he puts Tegan's survival over her opinion of him - look at the hurt on her face when he sneers at her for being a broken android. And who can't help but love a scene where the Doctor challenges his captor to let him help them or just shoot him now... and gets six rifles aimed straight as his chest?
The guest cast are pretty good. For a last minute replacement, the guy playing Range is very good, able to deliver witty banter with the Doctor, calm down Plantagenet, coldly advance on Tegan with a knife and laugh down his own prosecution and still be believable. Norna is rather bland to be honest, and her hair gives her a faintly elfish look her. I preferred her as Susan Q in The Happiness Patrol, to be honest. Bragen and Plantagenet are extremely irritating, posturing buffoons that Doctor Who seems designed to make the audience hate, but it's hard not to like them when you break through. We first see Plantagenet as a scared, frightened little man prone to posturing - but he genuinely cares for his people and his father, and is willing to tackle an enemy on his own, showing no fear when sucked into a giant by giant monsters. Bragen's continual growling hides a man who has survived forty years on discipline alone, no wonder he acts like that. He is suspicious of the Doctor, but judges the Time Lord on what he sees him do - when he determines in episode three to find our hero, it isn't clear if he wants the Doctor found to save the day or simply shot dead where he stands. His death, sacrificing himself to save Turlough who he ruthlessly manipulates throughout the final too episodes, is very moving - it's human spirit like that that kept Frontios from collapsing, and its that which RTD tries to celebrate every episode. Good for him.
Now, despite all this, the end of the story leaves a lot to be desired. By me, at least and it's as though huge chunks of the plot have been removed. (Actually, being the sad fan I am, I know exactly what was removed, but it isn't relevant). This is a story that needed another episode at the very least. The first two episodes concentrate on the problems of Frontios, while the second show the monsters in the tunnels below and the balance is lost for the final episode. While it's amusing to see that one wrong word from Tegan ultimately leads to Cockerill being dubbed a cult leader, the plot doesn't really go anywhere. The sight of retrogrades beating Cockerill and leaving him for dead (as well as attacking Norna for more than her food supplies...) is as grim and nasty as the story gets, but after Cockerill gets to his feet the rets simply fall into line after one sentence from their speaking member.
Cockerill taking over the colony in an hour goes against the decay into anarchy shown elsewhere, with so much widespread looting not even Bragen is prepared to shoot to kill, knowing it won't leave anyone left alive if he does. It also means the trial of Range happens during this uprising, which feels a bit stupid to me. I could understand the idea of Bragen holding public inquiries while the world crumbles around him, but it feels less like stubborness and more like the writer forgot their was a riot going on outside.
There's no resolution to this. Cockerill rallies his troops... and Norna tells him he's being silly, and Range sobs that 'Frontios is doomed!' and Norna says maybe it isn't... And that's it. The next time we see the colony, it's back to working order and everyone's the best of friends as ever they were.
The monsters this week are as horrible as they can be. The Tractors in general look a bit too clean and smooth, indeed if it weren't for that hideous clicking they make they'd be cute. In fact, they're only saved by the Gravis, the most vomit-inducing monster I can think of. For a start, it looks like it's been dipped in warm curry sauce instead of the Tractator's nice purple colour, and there are those bulging veins on its blank eyeballs and the slimy baleen in its mouth... Oh, it's disgusting. Utterly disgusting and its slimy, gurgling voice is even more nauseating. Who cares if it's got a nose or not, it's some hideous mutant anyway, and its big ears and fur between its carapace...
ARGHHHH! I HATE THIS THING! ARGH!
When Turlough's brain goes bye-bye and he's left a drooling wreck, you've got to wonder what could be so brain-twistingly horrible. If the Gravis was identical to the ordinary Tractators, you'd be unimpressed. Seeing the Gravis, you realize Turlough shows admirable self restraint. And the knowledge that there are Tractators everywhere, apparently, only kept docile by not having this revolting creature stirring them up into conquering the universe...
Frontios, despite its casual rejection of series continuity for the sake of atmosphere and badly-structured ending, is definitely a good story. The Tractators were apparently hoped to return, this time whipped into a frenzy by the Master instead of the Gravis, and to be honest, I would have watched it.
Actually, thinking about the Gravis, it strikes me we never actually SEE the Doctor and Tegan drop him off on Kolkokron. When Tegan complains they can't have the Gravis in the console room (why not? More interesting than a hatstand) I was expecting the Doctor to throw him at Kamelion as a roommate. Now there's a sitcom. But I wondered...
When the TARDIS split up what happened to Kamelion? Was he thrown into the underground depths of Frontios - and he'd have probably ended up in a different time zone, what with the TARDIS exploding and all. What would have happened if the Tractators found him? Would he have changed shape to assume a form pleasing to them?
Basically... I think the Gravis may really have been Kamelion all along.
After all, Kamelion doesn't really have free will. And if he can play a lute when in the form of King John, surely he can manipulate gravity in the form of a Tractator. He probably gave the rest of the Tractators that plan to mine Frontios, until one day the Doctor arrives and discovers the truth. Well, he can't let Plantagenet know that his people were nearly wiped out because of the Doctor's pet android lodger, can he? So, he locks Kamelion in his room with no supper and pretends that the Gravis 'is on Kolkokron', so as not to cause offence.
Well, that is what I think, anyway.