“Frontios” features perhaps the definitive on-screen portrayal of Peter Davison’s fifth Doctor. It’s the moment when something really seems to click and the actor finally looks comfortable with his performance – which is rather ironic, since Davison was at this point only three stories away from passing on the role to Colin Baker! Dissatisfied with some of the rushed writing and the hasty production turnaround on the previous season 20, Davison had already asked to leave the series, but “Frontios”, a story written by former script editor Christopher H. Bidmead (the last time he was to have any involvement with the show), makes a much better job of characterising the Doctor than many of the scripts that had been coming Davison’s way during the last two years, re-emphasising the Doctor’s professorial curiosity (which had often led him into conflict with the Time Lords in the past) and also tying it in with his inability to let human suffering go unheeded. Bidmead had also indicated a fascination with the inter-dimensional mysteries of the TARDIS in his two previous stories, “Logopolis” and Davison’s debut “Castrovalva” -- and “Frontios” follows suit, issuing fans with a disquieting jolt at the time for the TARDIS is actually seen to be destroyed at the end of episode one, leaving behind only a white hat stand charged with some residual TARDIS energy! This seemed to bear out producer John Nathan Turner’s publicity generating claim that the most iconic feature of the series was to be done away with for good, although it now seems unlikely that this was ever a serious intention on the part of the team in charge of production.
You’d think the fact that Bidmead had actually once script edited this programme in the past would have alerted him to the realities of the show’s constrained budget and the limited options for realising complex script ideas with such meagre means, but no – “Frontios” requires yet another wholly alien landscape and culture to be created from scratch in a BBC studio environment, and the story’s monster is another example of a great idea proving completely impractical, and perhaps coming up against a lack of communication between departments. Despite having many things going for it, then, “Frontios” exemplifies 1980s Doctor Who: ambitious ideas and lots of creativity being employed in a way that almost makes them work against all available odds – yet when one looks at it now, one can’t quite help wondering: ‘what were they thinking?’
This is another story in which the Doctor comes into contact with a colony of survivors from Earth who’re fleeing the planet’s destruction at the end of the Sun’s life-cycle, while looking to set up home on a new world. Previously, the first Doctor played by William Hartnell, had encountered a similar band of colonists from Earth in the story “The Ark”, and the destruction of the home planet is also mentioned in other stories, notably the fourth Doctor adventure “The Ark in Space” and “The Beast Below” from the last series. The event is actually shown in the 2005 series episode “The End of the World” with Christopher Ecclestone and Billy Piper.
In this story, the Earth colonists’ ship has been forced down onto the surface of the bleak planet Frontios after the mysterious failure of its critical systems. The rag-bag team of survivors have spent the ensuing ten years attempting to build some sort of viable society among the barren surroundings, but the loss of all but the most rudimentary Earth technologies, coincident with a relentless bombardment from an unknown alien force apparently intent on destroying the fledgling colony, has led to a bunker mentality and a lack of tolerance for the kind of questioning spirit required by the scientific method. The same bombardment of directed alien meteors also forces the TARDIS to make an emergency landing on the planet surface, something that worries the Doctor immensely because Frontios is apparently situated on the edge of the Time Boundary, meaning he really shouldn’t be here at all, and certainly shouldn’t have any involvement with the affairs of the peoples living in this region of space. The planet is on the edge of the parameters of Time Lord Knowledge and the consequences of meddling can’t be fully known. Nevertheless, once he witnesses the injuries and terror being inflicted on the human populace from unknown quarters, the Doctor can’t help lending a helping hand -- which leads to his curiosity being piqued about some of the more troublesome anomalies that the inexperienced colony leader Plantagenet (Jeff Rawle) and his regime don’t have the time to consider.
The young leader of the beleaguered outpost has been forced to take over the reins of leadership after his father went missing, and has had to deal with the constant threat of insurrection from ‘retrogrades’ as the bombardment continues, making the precarious settlement of the colonists even more of a difficulty than it would have been anyway. Plantagenet and his second-in-command Brazen (Peter Gilmore) display a marked lack of patience for the investigations of the research scientist Mr Range (William Lucas) and his young daughter Norna (Lesley Dunlop), which seem to bear out the destabilising superstitions of some of the rebels: namely that ‘the earth of Frontios buries its own!’ Brazen clamps down hard on such research, even though he himself witnessed the colony’s injured former leader Captain Revere (Plantagenet’s father) eaten alive by the ground on which he lay during an excavation dig. The Doctor soon uncovers the reality of the colonists’ situation: far from being attacked from above by some unknown enemy that is forcing them underground and preventing the flourishing of the colony’s new civilisation, the Earth people are actually being harvested from below -- by a race of giant slug-like insect creatures called Tractators, who have long been using their bizarre gravity-controlling powers to drag their prey to them from the burrowed tunnels they’ve created after they themselves were stranded on the planet many years ago. But the creatures, led by Gravis -- the focus of their gravity wielding powers -- are not using the humans as a food source. Instead, they build their tunnelling machines around them and use their unfortunate victims’ mind energy to power the devices, turning them into a trundling, machine-like zombie automaton in the process!
Although Christopher H. Bidmead cited current events in Beirut at the time as a powerful influence on this 1984 story, it’s arguably the case that Bidmead’s own childhood memories of the Blitz play a bigger role in establishing its setting. The survivors are hunkered down in semi-lit caves, technology is limited and there is a very Blitz-like ‘make-do-and-mend’ attitude shown being adopted among the colony survivors as the meteor “bombs” explode around them. Although the production soon reveals its origins in the 1980s since, even with the meagre provisions which are all that is supposed to be available to them, there’s still always enough hair lacquer on call apparently, to keep Lesley Dunlop’s spiky mullet hairstyle in good order! Otherwise though, designer David Buckingham does a good job of creating a believable bombarded landscape full of dugouts and semi-darkened tunnels. For once, the studio lighting isn’t as bright and over-lit as it usually is on studio-built planet environments and the dim lighting and junkyard aesthetic of the set at least helps one buy into the illusion a little. Buckingham also came up with some inventive matt paintings to try and help create an artificial skyline for some of the shots of the planet surface or to create a sense of vastness to the otherwise cramped studio-bound tunnel sets. The general approach is in line with the influence of films such as “Alien” – a kind of grungy space Gothic style in which the meandering darkened castle corridors of the traditional Gothic space become underground earthen tunnels and makeshift jerry-built vaults, or bunkers lit with primitive green-glowing phosphor lamps. Ron Jones’s rather uninventive direction unfortunate soon lets the side down though and the story later comes to be lazily choreographed along lines that involve the usual tedious amount of wandering around ‘corridors’, even if they are quite atmospheric corridors in this case. The make-do Blitz spirit does at least find itself expressed in the costuming department though, as any fan of “Blake’s 7” will quickly recognise. The series had recently ended for good by this point, and the Federation Troopers’ helmets (themselves little more than motorcycle crash-helmets with a strip of Perspex around them) here find themselves being put to further good use as part of the uniform of the colony’s soldiers.
It’s kind of fitting that “Frontios” is another story set around the notion of humans fleeing from the destruction of their planet in the far future. In the first story to feature the idea, “The Ark”, the Doctor encountered the Monoids: a slave race of aliens who rebel and take over after the human inhabitants of the fleeing vessel succumb to the common cold (given to them by the first Doctor’s appropriately named companion Dodo). The Monoids are famously one of DOCTOR WHO’s most impractical attempts at monster design: bewigged cyclopean monstrosities that force the poor actors playing them to shuffle along on oversized flippers. The Monoids seem like the height of sophistication when compared to the alien villains of “Frontios” though. Bidmead was inspired to create the Tractators after discovering an infestation of woodlice in his home, and envisioned an agile insect-like monster, capable of curling itself into a ball and blending into the sides of its tunnel lair. Instead he got a lumbering great beetle costume with a heavy impractical carapace, a bulbous head and trout-like face, twitching antennae and limp useless hands emerging from the front. The fact that professional dancers had been hired to wear these costumes highlights the vast difference between Bidmead’s actual concept and the execution of it. In the event, the monster suits were so cumbersome those inside them could barely move, let alone employ the graceful insect-like movement of Bidmead’s original idea. Nevertheless, there’s something about these grotesque, over-sized lumbering creatures that is kind of enthralling to watch. Davison even works in a bit of business to make fun of the design when the Doctor first meets the Tractator’s leader the Gravis, extending his hand to politely shake hands with it, and then withdrawing the offer with an embarrassed ‘oh?’ when he suddenly notes the creatures limp, useless appendage emerging from the front of its shell!
Davison is particularly excellent in this story. His Doctor emerges as a far more mercurial and unpredictable character than the previously rather uncertain and passive individual we’d often seen throughout the Davison years, yet still with that essential decency and kindness (which always distinguished his playing of the Doctor) at his core. Bidmead’s script reintroduced the Doctor’s half-moon spectacles, allowing Davison to indulge in what he calls his ‘Robert Hardy acting’; indeed, there are moment here when the fifth Doctor is in his best ‘investigative’ mode, that Davidson does seem to be channelling his former co-star’s portrayal of Siegfried Farnon from “All Creatures Great and Small”! The Doctor is far more willing to indulge in bluff and brinkmanship here – easily fooling the Gravis by pretending to go along with his plans. The unpredictable and unknowable nature of the Doctor is also highlighted in his apparently accepting, stoic attitude towards the TARDIS’s destruction: while his companions are understandably distraught the Doctor barely pauses to think about it and simply carries on investigating the problem at hand. Of course, the destruction of the TARDIS is merely an excuse for Bidmead to be able to instigate an ingeniously crazy method of mending it using the Tractators’ gravity manipulating powers, after various bits and pieces of the time machine are discovered scattered around the creatures’ tunnels -- embedded in the earth and rock corridors like inter-dimensional fossils (the entire main console room becomes a section of rock face). Bidmead’s script is particularly rife with wild, often macabre ideas such as this, another case in point being the Tractor’s human-machine hybrid tunnelling machine. The original idea was to have been even more grotesque, with it featuring cutting tools made of human bone. In fact the whole machine was to have been made from human corpses, but this understandably was seen as a little too unpleasant for weekday evening telly.
With enjoyable performances by the main cast and supporting actors, some unusually inventive ideas courtesy of Bidmead’s script and better than usual in-studio production design, “Frontios” emerges as a promising, sometimes brilliant piece of Classic WHO let down by sadly indifferent direction and a laughable monster suit design. The DVD comes with the usual line-up of high quality 2 Entertain extras: a commentary track featuring various combinations across the four episodes of Peter Davison, guest actors Jeff Rawle and John Gillet, sound designer Dick Mills and script editor Eric Saward, proves a more straight-faced effort than the usual Davison era commentary tracks since Janet Fielding isn’t in it. Whether this is a good thing or not I leave to the individual viewer to decide! There is a photo gallery that, as usual, includes every production photo or publicity shot that was ever taken in connection with the story, and the expected in-depth text-based production notes can be accessed to fill in every fact and anecdote about the writing, the planning and the production of the story. “Driven to Destruction” is a standard issue half-hour making-of documentary but no less interesting for that, since there are a number of unusual events associated with this story, including the murder of Peter Arne -- the well-known British actor originally slated to play Mr Range. Fifteen minutes of deleted and extended scenes reveal some excellent and rather amusing material involving the Doctor and Tegan in an excised scene where the Doctor fools the Gravis into thinking his Australian companion is not a human being but a defective android (and thus no use for the Tractators’ tunnelling machine), citing her ‘funny walk … and then of course there’s the accent!’ as evidence. Radio Times listings make their expected appearance in the form of PDF files accessible from your computer.