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.
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 (c’mon 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 80’s Doctor Who could achieve, what Davison could achieve and reminded me that JNT actually did understand what a fan like me wanted.
I’ll 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, Hartnell’s gruff authority (“Well jolly good now you can rip them down again!”), Troughton’s mischievous plotting (when he defeats the Gravis with his childish sulk “Oh no Gravis please spare me the TARDIS!”), Pertwee’s man of action (rushing to the aid of the sick) and Tom Baker’s 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 Davison’s, 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 don’t do anything! It just isn’t a joke, I know the companions are supposed to be peripheral, to be an opportunity to branch out the story but Christ, don’t 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 Turlough’s sarcastic snippets of information) is remarkable, Tegan isn’t 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 “Can’t 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…I’m 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 doesn’t 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 isn’t 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 isn’t 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 aren’t 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 he’s mostly fine. Anyway most of these butch military types do and to be a bit stiff and bland don’t 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.
Having previously scripted the dire 'Logopolis' and the variable 'Castrovalva', former script editor Christopher H. Bidmead comes up trumps for his third Doctor Who script, with a superbly crafted tale of colonists facing attack by aliens. The plot of 'Frontios' is relatively straightforward, but benefits from a sparkling script, great monsters, and an unusual climax that successfully exploits the Doctor's keen intelligence.
'Frontios' is a story filled with horror, which makes for a bleak setting; from the beginning of Episode One, we discover that the dead and wounded on Frontios are mysteriously sucked into the Earth, and that the colony as a whole is slowly dying. As the story progresses the dire state of the colony is further revealed as the meteor showers rain down inflicting injuries and then seemingly destroying the TARDIS; later, when left on her own Norna is attacked, and although it is not explicitly stated, the most obvious intention of her attacker is disturbingly obvious. But it is with the technology of the Tractators that most of the horror lies; Bidmead's script calls for a technology that utilizes the bodies of the dead, and it is interesting to note that in his novelisation the excavating machine is a ghastly fusion of meat and metal, ranks of severed rotting hands wired into the machine and furiously polishing the stone walls left in its wake. Also in the novelisation, the Gravis is accompanied by a translator device, a floating human head with an attached arm wired into a mass of electronics. Budgetary constraints and the audience demographic mean that this grisly aspect of Tractator technology is considerably toned down on screen, but it remains in evidence in the cadaverous form of Captain Revere slaved to the machine until his mind and body burn out. It is a ghastly concept, and it contributes significantly to the creepy atmosphere of the story.
The Tractators are an interesting race of monsters. The idea of intelligent burrowing insects that effectively feed on the colonists above is a sound one, and benefits further from the background created for them by Bidmead. The Tractators' gravitational powers makes them a formidable threat, and it is clear that they have caused carnage and suffering in the past in their quest to breed and propagate themselves throughout the universe. The revelation that Turlough's home planet was once infested with the creatures adds depth to them and makes them more memorable than just a monster of the week, and the intriguing hint that the Time Lords have had cause to pay attention to them in the past adds further depth. The eventual development that they are harmless without the Gravis could be seen as a hasty contrivance to allow the Doctor a means of defeating them, but Bidmead handles it so well that it becomes far more than this, and is instead another interesting facet to the creatures. And the threat they pose extends not just to the colonists on Frontios but beyond, as they excavate the tunnels required for their gravity drive and plan to pilot Frontios around the universe. The Gravis itself is doubly interesting, providing as it does a malignant focus for the threat posed by the Tractators; intelligent and ruthless, it makes for a great villain and the greed for the freedom of travel which proves to be its undoing seems entirely in character.
But 'Frontios' is not solely about the Tractators, it is also about the colonists, and Bidmead's script features some excellent characterisation which is realised on screen thanks to some great acting. Peter Gilmore's Brazen is a superb character; initially intimidating and unlikable it becomes clear that he is genuinely motivated by loyalty to Plantagenet and devotion to his duty. He retains a ruthless edge throughout, and often seems like something of a bully, but he's also often likeable such as when he and Tegan are watching over the injured Plantagenet. His eventual sacrifice is fittingly noble, as he pulls the confused Turlough away from the excavating machine, gets caught in its clutches, and bellows his final order, which is for everyone to get to safety. Jeff Rawle's Plantagenet is equally successful, at first coming across as a bit of a ruthless megalomaniac, until he becomes clear that he's been thrust into a position he isn't ready for and is trying to hold Frontios together in the face of overwhelming odds. The thoroughly likeable Mr. Range is another great character, played perfectly by William Lucas, and acting as the voice of reason in the paranoid colony, along with his daughter Norna (Lesley Dunlop).
Peter Davison puts in an incredible performance as the Doctor here, playing the character at his most erratic. This is evident from his eccentric preoccupation with hat stands in Episode One, and continues throughout. More than in any other story, the Fifth Doctor speaks his mind in 'Frontios', with mixed consequences; he's very short-tempered with Plantagenet in Episode One during his "What I think, and you did ask what I think…" speech, because he's more interested in helping the wounded than explaining who he is, but this nearly gets him killed at the start of Episode Two. Continuing to snap at the colony leader, he challenges Plantagenet with the line "If you're going to kill me you'd better get on with it", which immediately backfires as Plantagenet orders him to be shot. It is only Turlough's bluff with the hat stand that saves his life. The Doctor also gets great lines throughout, including "A risk shared is a risk doubled" and "Nothing that quite fits the gravity of the situation", and his unflattering description of Tegan as a budget priced android to save her from the attention of the Gravis is hilarious. But his finest moment comes towards the end, as he tricks the Gravis into repairing his TARDIS for him whilst isolating itself in the process; his obsequious fawning to the Gravis plays perfectly on the creature's ego, and his false pleading with the Gravis to spare the TARDIS springs the final trap. The only slight problem I have with the Doctor in 'Frontios' is that he doesn't seem bothered by the destruction of the TARDIS, but perhaps his previously established telepathic link with it (at least as far back as 'The Time Monster') means that he knows it isn't irretrievably lost. Although if that is the case, it's rather cruel of him to tell Tegan that she might as well forget it.
'Frontios' is also a good story for Mark Strickson's Turlough, as he is haunted by ancestral memories of the Tractators and gets to foam at the mouth in terror quite convincingly. 'Frontios' shows Turlough at his best; despite his habitual caution, which often borders on cowardice, his trick with the two corpera pieces demonstrates his unwillingness to leave his friends to the Tractators. His bluff with the hat stand is also a great moment, since he's taking a enormous risk by threatening armed guards with a piece of wood, and it also serves to lighten the mood. Tegan doesn't fare quite as well, but she still gets some great moments, for example when challenging Mr. Range about the "Deaths Unaccountable". Janet Fielding is very good throughout, and her silent fuming when the Doctor describes her as an android is extremely entertaining.
As for the production overall, it's surprisingly well directed by Ron Jones, the man previously responsible for the appalling 'Arc of Infinity', and it benefits from some decent sets. Astonishingly for the era, it's even quite well lit. The ever-reliable Paddy Kingsland's ominous score is perfectly attuned to the mood of the story. The costumes worn by the colonists work rather well, since instead of taking the often-risky option of designing outlandish fashions for humans of the future, Anushia Nieradzik opts for functional working uniforms, with coloured flashes denoting rank, which proves to be a sound idea. Admittedly, one of the Retrogrades looks like a member of the Village People, but this is largely due to his moustache. The Tractators are well realised too, although they look far better in close up, when their unwieldy bases cannot be seen. The nose added to the Gravis is a dreadful mistake however leading me to suspect that the designer has never seen an arthropod…
Overall, 'Frontios' is a very successful story and maintains the high standard of writing and production set by the previous story. Sadly, the next televised story sees this standard take a dive, as Eric Saward delivers a script that epitomizes all that is wrong about his approach to Doctor Who. But before I get to that, I have an unusual audio interlude to attend to, as Big Finish take the opportunity to crowbar a story into the Doctor and Tegan's off screen trip to Kolkokron with the Gravis…
"Frontios buries its own dead; that's what they say, isn't it?"
The understated first act of Frontios establishes a suitably authentic futuristic setting, and the viewer watches as an intriguing sequence of events unfold. It is a gripping opening, and from here on in, right up to the final cliff-hanger (building, tantalizingly, up to Resurrection of the Daleks) it keeps getting better. While the story itself (colony under threat from an unknown, nameless enemy) may appear unremarkable, it comes to life in its execution. Frontios is one of the stories to mention when people say 80s Who was rubbish - it wasn't.
There isn't a bad performance in Frontios, every cast member giving their very best. Gilmore is particularly compelling as Brazen, whether striding around, wryly bombastic, or whispering intimidatingly at a traumatised Turlough; and Jeff Rawle gives a potent and measured performance as Plantagenet, the recently empowered leader of the troubled colonists. Tegan is good, despite, yet again, having very little to do other than ask stupid questions and be snapped at by the Doctor. But of the regular 'crew', it is Mark Strickson who gets the best deal - he completely inhabits his role, utilising fully Bidmead's script to flesh-out Turlough's character and back-story. These individual performances aside, all the lead actors - from William Lucas, as the bespectacled chief scientist, through to Maurice O'Connell as Cockerill - are superb. Like The Talons of Weng Chiang and The Robots of Death before it, Frontios is a stand-out piece of well-acted, ensemble drama.
The other thing Frontios has in its favour is the quality of the production. Everything works, and everything working helps make sure that everything else works. The lighting is atmospheric and subtle, enhancing, rather than ruining, the outstanding sets. The sets are convincing because they're effectively, imaginatively dressed, looking just as you'd expect a crashed and stranded colony to look. The score is sensitively composed and carefully timed, so that it complements the dialogue, punctuating key phrases. Details of design have been considered, at every level: in the costumes; in the layout of petrolwater canisters on set; in the construction of Range's little filing cabinet; and in the amazing, epic backdrop of the crashed colony ship. Even the Tractators don't look silly. There isn't a weak link in the chain, and Frontios looks gorgeous as a result.
Of the many factors contributing to the success of Frontios, Davison's excellent turn as the Doctor should not be forgotten. Wild, unpredictable, irascible, compassionate - all those things (and more besides) can be used to describe this Fifth Doctor, with his youthful yet world-weary demeanour. Davison is at his very finest here, running around, scrutinising things (the half-moon glasses are a charming touch), telling people what do. It is a quintessential performance, demonstrating beautifully that elusive something that makes the Doctor such an enduring character. Frontios, in fact, is quintessential Who.