THIS STORY TAKES
PLACE BETWEEN THE
NOVEL "THE KING OF
TERROR" AND THE TV
OF THE DALEKS."
'FRONTIOS' DVD (BBC
IN MAY 2011.
AN IRRESISTIBLE FORCE
DRAWS THE TARDIS TO
THE BARREN WORLD OF
FRONTIOS, WHERE THE
LAST HUMANS COWER
AMONGST THE RUINS OF
BENEATH THE PLANET'S
CRUST, SICKENING ALIEN
PARASITES PREPARE A
GRUESOME FATE FOR THE
LAST OF HUMANITY...
26th january 1984 - 3rd february 1984
Few 1980s Doctor Who serials upset me as much as Frontios does. I can forgive
an outright clanger - even enjoy one, in rather a perverse sort of way – but what aggravates me is an adventure that should have been a world-beater, but turned out to be nothing but
a barrel-scraper. Of such stories, Christopher H Bidmead’s third and final Who television story is the undisputed champion.
Bidmead’s script is duly inspiring, abounding with misdirection and suspense, and exuding a sense of funerary dread worthy of Logopolis. For the first time in the television series, we are at the edge of the Time Lords “sphere of influence”; so far into the future that our heroes might well drop off its edge. The last remnants of the human race are being hammered into the ground, and it really feels as if we are about to pay witness to humanity’s final end. This gorgeous feeling of fatalism is then buoyed by one of the most prominent examples of John Nathan-Turner spin - the producer’s deliberate leaking (the exact opposite approach to that favoured by incumbent showrunner Steven Moffat, interestingly) of the “we’re getting rid of the TARDIS” story to the press; a rumour that appears to be borne out in the first’s episode shocking cliffhanger.
The fact that Frontios is an almost unmitigated disaster speaks not only to the many failings of the production, but to the short-sightedness of the writer, who by his own admission should have curbed his ambition. Whilst on paper his Tractators seem like inspired creations, their unique gravitational powers setting them apart from the customary carnival of monsters, their realisation is so very poor, even by the standards of the day, that their menace is completely lost. Had Bidmead been writing for a show with a decent budget, then the Tractators’ louse-like form would have terrified viewers as they elegantly rose from the rocks to encircle their victims. Instead, the audience were treated to images of peeved dancers with colossal latex bells pulled down over them, capable of only the most limited lolloping. The final nail in the coffin would be the nonchalant direction of Ron Jones, which set new standards for lax. Just compare Max Capricorn’s chilling contraption seen in Voyage of the Damned to the feeble Excavator Machine here, or this episode’s hungry ground to that of The Hungry Earth, and note the difference.
The cast, however, do their best to keep a sinking ship afloat. Whilst James Onedin hardly covers himself in glory, Jeff Rawle is outstanding as the young despot Plantagenet, and the regulars each put in outstanding performances, particularly the two gents. Peter Davison’s Doctor is at his most erratic, armed with nought but his “brainy specs”, a hat stand and an Australian companion that he tries to pass off as an android, but Mark Strickson is even more extraordinary. Frontios sees Turlough crippled by a terrifying race memory, providing for one of the most chilling monster instructions of the 1980s. Shame about the monster.
“The walk is not quite right, as for the accent - I got it cheap!”
The story’s DVD release
is much more lush than it
deserves to be. Special
features may be few, but
they are each substantial
and worthwhile, making
for a far easier viewing experience than a flood
of two-minute titbits. The
highlight is the half-hour
plus documentary, Driven
to Distractation, which
candidly details not only the making of the story, but the controversy surrounding it. Frontios is unique in that it is the only Doctor Who story to date to have been plagued by both suicide and murder – actor Peter Arne was murdered and production designer Barrie Dobbins took his own life before filming had even begun. It’s little wonder that Frontios feels so very grim.
The remaining two features are not quite as provocative. The companion-less commentary is a fairly dry offering, but fascinating all the same, particularly as Rawle is able to weigh his experiences working on 1980s Who against those he gained recently working on The Sarah Jane Adventures. A fifteen minute medley of timecoded deleted material then rounds off the disc rather neatly with an extended flourish of the brainy specs.
Above: “Frontios buries its own dead.”
Overall, the Frontios DVD is a distinguished one. The consolidated bonus material doesn’t pull its punches, as most of those involved in the production simply hold up their hands and say “whoops”, while Frontios itself is made much more palatable with its video obscured by production notes and its soundtrack by actors reminiscing. Had the story been made today, I have no doubt that Bidmead’s script would have been a stirring on screen success, but as it is, it takes a hell of a lot of imagination and even greater patience. One for the bold.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2007, 2011
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
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