One of the most frustrating things about being a Doctor Who (aside from looking at your feet in shame as the cashier glares at you for being so sad) is the quality of the stories on offer. 60% of the show is solid, dependable, damn right watchable. It has flaws certainly but overcomes them on the strength of imaginative ideas, engaging performances and good writing. Unfortunately 20% of the show is also utter garbage, the downtrodden stories that leave a bad taste in the mouth because they are so embarrassingly awful (cmon you all know which stories you HATE). And finally there is the last 20%, the stories that are so beautifully crafted, so well told, terrifically made and acted television, let alone Doctor Who.
Frontios without a shadow of a doubt falls under that last category. It is only frustrating because it highlights so many of the faults of the Davison era by being so utterly wonderful.
I have to be honest with you, season 21 needed Frontios. The last four stories had been absolute turkeys (in my eyes) and I was seriously considering dumping the Davison videos and ignoring the new ones that came out. But good ol Frontios changed all that, it redefined what 80s Doctor Who could achieve, what Davison could achieve and reminded me that JNT actually did understand what a fan like me wanted.
Ill start with the most awkward appraisal; Peter Davison is perfect in the role during this story. Every aspect of his performance glows with class; you can see just how much he is enjoying the stronger writing Chris Bidmead gives him. There is an undercurrent of all the other Doctors in his performance here, Hartnells gruff authority (Well jolly good now you can rip them down again!), Troughtons mischievous plotting (when he defeats the Gravis with his childish sulk Oh no Gravis please spare me the TARDIS!), Pertwees man of action (rushing to the aid of the sick) and Tom Bakers intense curiosity. And yet he manages to wrap all these personas around his own boyish, vulnerable Doctor and turn it into something special. The excellent dialogue and characterisation points him in the right direction but mostly the good work is Davisons, he is a breathlessly heroic man, sharp, intelligent and suitably harsh on his companions. I love his half moon spectacles, they add years to the guy and make you forget he is just a 30-odd guy pretending to be centuries older. And I love how he keeps telling people not to tell the Time Lords they have been there, a touching reminder of days gone by when the Doctor was in constant fear of his people. It is certainly his best ever performance (although Caves with its desperate portrayal of a man on the run comes startlingly close) and wins out on the sheer strength he imbues him with, not physically but just pure, solid screen presence. Like Colin Baker, he demands you watch him as well as the story. Very, very impressive.
Next up for re-evaluation are despicable companions Tegan and Turlough. As soon as Frontios was completed and aired JNT should have sacked Eric Saward and tried, no begged Christopher Bidmead to come back. He understands how to write for difficult characters, he has a good grasp on how to use them effectively in his dramas. My major gripe with this pair is how useless they were. The Kings Demons, Warriors of the Deep, The Awakening, The Five Doctors, Ressurection of the Daleks they dont do anything! It just isnt a joke, I know the companions are supposed to be peripheral, to be an opportunity to branch out the story but Christ, dont just have them parading corridors, screaming and slipping into the background in favour of blander supporting characters.
Go listen to the Earthshock DVD commentary and see how witty and fun Janet Fielding is. What a revelation that was for me! This is a woman with natural charisma and she rarely got a chance to show it on screen. In Frontios Tegan is quiet, controlled and wonderful to watch. The opening scene where she is intrigued, no desperate to find out what happens to her people (nudged on by Turloughs sarcastic snippets of information) is remarkable, Tegan isnt griping or moaning, she is finally a audience friendly character because she is as curious as we are. A good sign. As the story continues she remains resourceful, obeying the Doctor when he sends her to the TARDIS for supplies, risking herself by stealing the battery from the Colony Ship, running after the Doctor when he is surround by the Gravis. It is a real eye opener for me every time I watch this story; she is genuinely wonderful, her investigating into deaths unaccountable, her stunned reaction to Plantagenant being eaten by the Earth and her (for once) amazing chemistry with Davison. Plus with no TARDIS anymore we are spared any Cant we go back to the TARDIS?
Turlough is even luckier though and his character undergoes a MAJOR face-lift. No longer is he the dutiful houseboy, the role forced on him after his decision to stay with the Doctor at the end of Enlightenment, nope here he is how he should have always been, loud, cowardly, mouthy and really sarcastic. Mark Strickston is an odd actor for sure, sometimes I am really in the mood for his melodramatic antics and others I find it a terrible bore. He gets the mood just right in Frontios, managing to get across the horror of his race memory without going too far over the top. A few moments (An infffeccction!) cross the line but Turlough is terrified and Mark plays it as such, panting furiously and with gob flying from his mouth. Slower, more reflective moments for the guy work better (Eaten by the Earth , Of course not Im Turlough) and his fantastic straightening of his tie before they leave in the TARDIS as if to say our work is done here, is marvellous. It is always nice to get a bit of history about the companions, it worked with Ace but is just as haunting with Turlough especially as it enhances the drama, making us more scared of the Tractators.
The script is one of my favourites in the shows twenty-six year run. It has a perfectly crafted first episode, a compelling mystery that is presented in the most vivid of ways. Frontios, the dying world, its colony falling to pieces, battered by the unknown aggressors. What a lovely, simple idea for a story. As you reach the end of episode two Bidmead slips in some detail about the colony and gives us glimpses of the horrors underground. Episode three doesnt waste any time, Turlough is put on trial, the fight is taken to the Tractators and the Doctor and Tegan see just what the monsters are capable of in a hideously perfect cliff-hanger. Get inside the Gravis head in episode four in time for the Doctor to defeat him in a spectacularly embarrassing way for the creature. Perfect. The story has a good pace, never forgetting that we want some action to balance all the exposition.
I really appreciate how much work Bidmead puts into the worlds he creates. So many Doctor Who worlds are just generic Star trek rip offs and loaded with cheesy SF clichés but the Bidmead penned planets seem to take on a personality of their own. Frontios is harsh, uncompromising, angry and bitter. Stay there for any length of time and you will be caught in a shower of deadly bombardments, attacked by a ravaging horde of retrogrades, have your motives questioned by the locals and sucked in the ground and slaved to a driving machine that turns the planet into spaceship of sorts. There is a threat of death on Frontios, the planet with dark, rippling undercurrents that will gobble you up if you let it consume you.
Details are important and Bidmead ensures the planet isnt just conspiracies and monsters; there is a very human element to the show that makes survival on this planet all-important. The sight of people bleeding to death as soon as the crew leave the TARDIS is telling and the bodies draped in the shadowy laboratory one of the most vivid in the shows history. It is great the way Bidmead shows us how everybody is coping with the situation, Brazen with his hard-nosed authority, Plantagenant sulking in his fathers shadow, Range desperate to help the sick, Norna staying close to her Dad, Cockerel bored to death and eager for a chance to join the retrogrades like Paradise Towers later this has that palpable feeling of lost hope which makes the last, uplifting few minutes all the better.
It is an extremely adult drama with some strong scenes. Cockerel being attacked by the Rets and screaming out for help as he is sucked into the Earth, blood pouring from his nose is extremely discomforting. The Rets attacking the colony ship, advancing on the unknowing Norna and later her pained response to their raid This isnt the way to do it! is very powerful. And the sight of Captain Revere implanted into the mining machine will stay with me forever, his sightless glare at the camera gives me the willies even now.
Production values are good and for once the right story has had the right amount of money poured into it. One shot, the matte painting for the wreck of the colony ship is gorgeous, girders collapsing in shocking blue moonlight, it is an awesome sight and provides the show with some real scope. The surface of the planet is obviously a studio but the blood red lighting, the rock spitting from the earth and the split level shots all help to make it as discomforting as possible. People have difficulties with the Tractators and it is true that they arent very nimble, lacking in believable movement but they look horrible. Horribly veiny eyes and with pulsating antennae, they must rank as one of the most icky baddies ever standing head and shoulders with the Zygons and the Haemovores. And the ideas behind them are so nasty, attacking like cowards, using natural resources to bombard the planet, stealing corpses to drive their machines, locking people up in those metal balls eugh. Horrible.
One of the most important aspects of a Doctor Who story is the music and this story has a near perfect score. It truly compliments the drama, especially the soft wind pipe music that is played over shots of the wounded in episode one, the subtle melody contrasting wildly to the horror on display. As the fight against the Tractators begins the music gets more bombastic and the end of episode two and three delight with really exciting see ya next week! music.
Is there anything bad about Frontios? Peter Gilmore is bit wooden as Brazen but hes mostly fine. Anyway most of these butch military types do and to be a bit stiff and bland dont they? Certain lines this information about the status quo! are bafflingly pronounced.
But the wealth of marvellous performances elsewhere swamp the one poor one. The delectable Lesley Dunlop shows up and is as gorgeous as ever. Oh and she gives a good performance too, she imbues Norna with some curiosity and sensibilities which would have made her a good companion (why not JNT?). Plantagenant is played with the right degree of hopelessness, all about politics (No I must stay here with my people!). No wonder nothing ever gets solved! And you love Range from the word go, he is helpful and charming in the way that way only doddery scientists can be.
Recently I had the nerve to score Revenge of the Cybermen zero out of ten and felt perfectly justified in doing so. I also feel perfectly justified in scoring Frontios, the best Davison story by a square mile, ten out of ten. On its strength of acting, writing, music and set design (oh and of course direction) it is a shockingly good piece of television that holds up superbly even today.
It is so good it makes me weep to wonder what delights we could have had (and what horrors we could have been spared of) had Bidmead stayed on.