CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: Frontios / DVD Review

Frontios
January - February 1984

"As an invasion weapon, you'd have to agree that it's about as offensive as a chicken vol-au-vent."

When this aired in 1984, it felt like those making the series had suddenly remembered and understood its late 1970s roots, particularly its penchant for Gothic tinged horror. In a season that had just started with the fairly decent Cold War analogy of Warriors of the Deep buggered up by Ingrid Pitt drop-kicking a green pantomime horse, Frontios momentarily reminded us that Doctor Who could still be scary, witty and a little bit grim in the early 1980s.

It's certainly the strongest story of the season alongside The Caves Of Androzani. Overall, it works because it simply plugs into those elements that Doctor Who always seems to do well - namely scripts that attempt to build a credible world and characters and also gleefully bring the 'terror in the dark' atmosphere to the fore. Pull this together with some good design elements, a very decent stab at good studio lighting (a rarity in the days of the BBC light entertainment floodlighting that was the default for the series), witty dialogue, atmospheric music and a central reaffirmation of the Fifth Doctor's character, then I'd say you're in reasonably good shape.

... gravitational forces unleashed by some overgrown woodlice
It's a strong story with a suitably doom laden atmosphere well written by former script editor Christopher Bidmead. It still has those Bidmeadean obsessions included, especially his fascination with the TARDIS. In Logopolis and Castrovalva, he's fixated on the transdimensional states of the machine and we get the Escher motifs of the Möbius strip TARDIS within a TARDIS and the jettisoning of various rooms. Here, in episode one he blows the thing up. Now, at the same time we'd also had John Nathan-Turner winding fans up in the press with threats to replace the TARDIS, or at least its police box outer plasmic shell (or the exterior to you and me), and when this was originally transmitted, you actually felt the curly-haired, Hawaiian shirted one had delivered on his promise by the time the cliffhanger rolled round.

The Doctor takes this calamity in his stride and is bizarrely nonchalant about the demise of his transport. Back in 1984 this gradually emerged as less a publicity generating bluff on Nathan-Turner's part and more perhaps as Bidmead's tongue in cheek exploration of the Doctor's unspoken confidence that the machine remains indestructible even after being ripped asunder by the gravitational forces unleashed by some overgrown woodlice.

With Frontios, Bidmead not only showcases how effectively he could write the qualities of the Fifth Doctor's character, something many other writers struggled with, but he also clearly positions the Doctor's ongoing role in the series itself in relation to the TARDIS. This is something Piers Britton refers to in his book TARDISbound where the sanctity of the Doctor's narcissistic authority is bound up with the TARDIS as symbolic of "a nice continuing metaphor for the Doctor's self-contained wholeness." The TARDIS disintegrates and the Doctor must recombine the pieces if he is to remain the viable hero of the story.

Disintegration of the TARDIS, the erosion of the human colony and their failed technology, the Tractators using human bodies to pilot their mining machines are all thematic extensions of a particular dystopianism found in British science fiction. That the story was produced in 1984 also connects it to that dystopian year in the title of Orwell's novel and underlines the mood and attitudes in the story. This is connected to the Cold War paranoia of 1950s SF (the colonists believe they are being bombarded from outer space when in fact the war is raging from within, physically and psychologically) as well as the motifs of retro, Atomic age designs seen in the crashed ship, extended through a baroque Heath Robinson form of existence where the medical bay's lighting is powered by cumbersome acid batteries, and the glassy environments of the Tractators lair littered with strange oversized atoms. It is for all the world a mash-up of This Island Earth, Forbidden Planet, the dirty future of Alien, and Orwell's 1984 itself (Revere's image and reputation is very Big Brother).
"they look to you"
As it was a bit grim in 1984, Frontios's tale of the remnants of humankind struggling to maintain a colony after crashing their ship was not only akin to what Bidmead saw as the conflict in Beirut but also suggested the growing discontent in the UK between government and industry, resulting in particularly volatile industrial action that Thatcher would delineate as a struggle where "the rule of law must prevail over the rule of the mob".

One of the subplots in Frontios, alas so cackhandedly depicted that it becomes an afterthought, is the breakdown of the colony and the attempted 'coup' by the retrogrades, those citizens rejecting the stoic belief in their weakened leader Plantagenet or those whom the colony has itself rejected. Interestingly, Plantagenet as a title is a particularly apropos, and rather English, emblem of power. It suggests that 12th Century era of English history that ushered in social and cultural changes - constitutional law, Gothic architecture and the poetry of Chaucer - overseen by inexperienced 'boy kings'.

Along with the themes of how the power to hold communities together is generated by figureheads - the colony's Revere (an appropriate name for a almost messianic leader) and Plantagenet ("they look to you") and the Gravis directing the Tractators - this also seems to rehearse the debate about the individual and society that Thatcher ignited with her now infamous claim that there was no such thing as society. It's a pity this sub-plot gets so little room amongst the flapping Tractators.

It is also perhaps an indication of Bidmead dragging the series into the realms of the logical philosophy of Wittgenstein's Tractatus. It is interesting to note that Wittgenstein's work has had an influence on ideas of social therapy and emotional growth in the fields of psychology and psychotherapy. Frontios illustrates how societies and communities dissolve and grow, how groups within it self-heal and self-destruct. Certainly, the upbeat conclusion would seem to suggest some kind of deep therapy has taken place, with the Tractators pacified once the Gravis has been removed and the human colony restored with the return of Plantagenet.

Another interesting theme here is race memory, with Turlough's reawakened fears of the Tractators a reflection of similar ideas about Martian locusts in Nigel Kneale's Quatermass and the Pit, and his dumb state of psychosis picking up on that classic scene at the beginning of that other slice of 1950s pulp SF cinema, Them! Mark Strickson's startling performance is definitely a case of grabbing a script that gives him a fair crack of the whip and then frothing at the mouth after chewing the scenery. His recall of a previous encounter with the Tractators is full of manic intensity and fuels the charged atmosphere regarding the appearance of the said beasts.
... fear of the underworld, of being buried alive, propels the narrative into areas not explored since the Hinchcliffe era
The idea of childhood nightmares revisited is also echoed in the recall by Norna, daughter of the colony's medical officer, when she wistfully remembers that Captain Revere warned her as a young girl that they couldn't go underground anymore because the "the earth was hungry." The resulting attempts to depict this particular curse of Frontios are a somewhat disappointing meld of physical effects and video effects, although the idea of being sucked into the ground is a wonderfully macabre one. Certainly The Hungry Earth, transmitted in 2010, returns to and partly replicates this idea. The symbolic fear of the underworld, of being buried alive, propels the narrative into areas not explored since the Hinchcliffe era. The ultimate horror of Revere strapped into the Tractators mining machine is also an indelible image, one that Bidmead relished expanding upon in his novelisation.

It's as plain as the nose on your face, or should that be as plain as the one on the Gravis's face, what the major problem with Frontios is. The Tractators don't work. The costumes were designed without bearing in mind they would need to be flexible for the performers to use, namely the dancers that had been hired. The costumes were therefore too rigid to achieve the desired effect of these creatures wrapping themselves around their victims. Instead we get a rather unflattering result where the creatures shuffle along, waggle their antennae and campily wave their arms a lot. And the comedy nose on the Gravis is somewhat unfortunate. To make them a little more threatening in appearance would have been to the story's advantage but some good lighting, visual effects and sound effects do attempt to alleviate the restrictive costumes and acting in this case.

However the supporting cast is strong with a bullish, grouchy turn from the ever reliable Peter Gilmore as Brazen, who seems to be recreating James Onedin, this time in space and sans the hyperbolic sideburns, and a subtle, thoughtful portrait from William Lucas of duty bound medical officer Range. Lesley Dunlop is also effective as Norna, giving a naturalistic and appealing performance. Some great little character moments too, with Range's comment "it failed" to the Doctor's enquiry about the colony's so called failure-proof technology and then the Doctor's attempt to convince the Gravis that Tegan is a shop soiled android both examples of particularly deft touches in the script. The story is held together by a central performance from Davison that suggests he's actually worked out how to play the part now he's half way through his last season. If anything, Frontios offers us the quintessential appearance of the Fifth Doctor and if Davison hadn't had a particularly underwhelming second year in the part he might have stayed put and given us more of what we see here. If you want to 'know' the Fifth Doctor then Frontios is one of the best places to start.

The story is decorated with a memorably lyrical, almost melancholic score from Paddy Kingsland, reflecting those mid-1980s art-prog synthesiser film scores from Tangerine Dream. Ron Jones finally gets a grip on how to  direct the show and manages a number of neat visual flourishes, unusual angles and compositions that add a German Expressionist feel to the proceedings that, coupled with the set design and lighting and a basic red, black and white colour scheme, offer a mood and scope too often abandoned by the series at the time.

Special features
Commentary - Peter Davison, Jeff Rawle, Dick Mills and Eric Saward pontificate on these episodes. For a Davison DVD commentary this is rather sedate compared to the usual mayhem unleashed by the alignment between Davison and the highly opinionated Janet Fielding. A bit of a relief, actually, but then you've got old misery guts Saward sighing his way through it all, bless him. However, he does provide some pertinent background to the development of Bidmead's script and Rawle is also rather candid about how the supporting actors were treated back in the day. Mills offers a few contributions about the creation of sound effects here and there but is a tad quiet through most if it. 
Driven To Distractation (see what they did there...?) - A half hour on what a fairly thankless task making Doctor Who was in the mid-1980s. It opens with Bidmead's script editorship amusingly summed up with the alliterative "sobering series of scientific sorties" and with his replacement Saward admitting that he looked to Bidmead to supply the kind of science fiction story that he had no affinity with. Cue woodlice anecdotes and him realising that there was never going to be enough time or money to do the costumes well or rectify the obvious mistake of putting dancers into what turned out to be strait-jackets. This also covers the hectic studio production, with David Buckingham discussing how he built the exteriors of Frontios itself with sets and glass shots. and casting difficulties, including the last minute replacement of the tragically murdered Peter Arne with William Lucas as Range.
Extended / Deleted Scenes - In the 15 minutes or so of footage some little nuggets here that surely should have been kept in. The glasses scene is lovely as is some nice business between Davison and Fielding that expands the amusing moment when the Doctor explains to the Gravis that Tegan is a faulty android. It also reveals a continuity problem, as the Doctor uncovers his plan here to Tegan, and yet in the finished serial she seems aware of it without being told.
Coming Soon Trailer - Earthstory, featuring Hartnell's Doctor looking for a dentist in Tombstone but faced instead with The Gunfighters, and the Fifth Doctor battling the Malus, Civil War re-enactments and the Queen of the May in The Awakening.
Photo Gallery - production, design and publicity photos from the story.
Isolated Music - option to watch the episodes with Kingsland's isolated music score.
Radio Times Listings in Adobe PDF format.
Programme subtitles & Subtitle Production Notes - Great collection of trivia and facts about the making of the story.

Frontios
BBC 1984
2 | entertain / Released 30 May 2011 / BBCDVD3004 / Duration: 100 mins approx / Cert: PG

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One Response to “CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: Frontios / DVD Review”
  1. Excellent critique as always. The TARDIS in bits in a cave is one of my earliest memories of Doctor Who, as a 5 year old. Ha!

    Frontios compensates, somewhat, for Resurrection, your brilliant analysis of which has really stuck in my head: "...a pretty hollow experience, often depressing in fact, and leaves you feeling rather sullied even though you may have enjoyed the aestheticisation of violence (very much in vogue in the mid-1980s) with the glorification of guns and explosions as a smokescreen to the real violence being inflicted on the moral core of the series."

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