Doctor Who: Frontios (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros check out another story from the Wet Vet era of Doctor Who...
Season 21 was a time of change for Doctor Who - the previous season had seen the end of the ill-advised return to having three companions in the TARDIS (it worked in the early Hartnell days, but that was about the only time) and this season would see the departure of the two existing companions (Tegan and Turlough), the introduction of one of the most popular companions (Peri) and - most significantly - the departure of Peter Davison as The Doctor. Before all of this begins to happen, there is one more romp for The Fifth Doctor, Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Turlough (Mark Strickson) to get stuck into...
The TARDIS is hovering above the planet of Frontios, which contains the tattered remnants of the human race; a shower of what appear to be meteors forces the TARDIS to land on the surface of the planet, where The Doctor (Peter Davison), Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Turlough (Mark Strickson) are seen by the ruling elite as spies for the unknown enemy that has been bombarding the colony for years, along with members of the colony suddenly disappearing into the earth, including the leader of the colony, Captain Revere. The medical and scientific team are less suspicious of the TARDIS crew and set about helping them in their attempts to help the colony, but an even bigger problem emerges for The Doctor and his companions - the apparent destruction of the TARDIS.
We're pretty sure that we haven't seen Frontios since it was originally broadcast, but there are certain aspects to the story that we remember, most notably the Tractators themselves, along with Turlough screaming "Tractators!" - that's pretty much about it, really, so we went into this one with next to no recollection of the story.
The adversaries are one of the more unusual creations that were unleashed upon The Doctor in the early 80s, with possibly only the Vervoids nipping at their heels. The Tractators resemble some kind of gigantic beetle (they facially resemble the Vogons in the disastrous Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy film), but totter around on feet, which was more than likely due to the fact that the poor sods who played the creatures didn't have much choice in how they could move, as in practical terms, their costumes had the same degree of articulation as something that used to be seen on It's a Knockout, and they totter around just as precariously as bowling pins during an earthquake. As far as the name is concerned, it was almost as though a focus group was convened down in the West Country as to what residents would like to see in Doctor Who - the results could have been something like this...
"Well, Oi loikes tractors... an' Oi loikes 'tayters"
You get the idea.
Frontios was written by Christopher H Bidmead and it certainly shows; Bidmead was the man who was brought onboard Doctor Who to pull the show back from the brink of parody after Tom Baker and Douglas Adams' comedic excesses of season 17. Bidmead left after one season but was brought back by Eric Saward. Frontios features one of Bidmead's typically science-heavy concepts at the heart of the story, in this case having the adversaries hatching a plot to precision-drill through a planet in order for it to be powered by gravity-generating devices that will steer it through the galaxy. Yeah, that would be the one time when MacGuyer wouldn't say "works for me". It's not giving too much away to say that the Tractators don't succeed in their harebrained scheme, but if they had, the results of which would have seen the planet Frontios tootling about the cosmos in a manner vaguely reminiscent of the sailing office block in Terry Gilliam's Crimson Permanent Assurance short that preceded Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.
Mark Strickson is pretty good in this story, or at least he does terrified beyond belief very well, spending much of this story in a state of shock; we watched Strickson's time on Doctor Who when it was originally broadcast and we weren't that fond of him back then, seeming like a fairly bland companion, but seeing of several his stories from a more mature perspective, Turlough is a much more interesting character than we remembered him as, being at first tortured and manipulated, then displaying an other-worldly sense of humour and alien values more akin to The Doctor than other companions. Though the Tractators aren't particularly terrifying, the character of Turlough (as much as we hate to use this yoof expression) "bigs them up" as much has he can by being terrified of those particular adversaries - it's a pretty safe bet that he soiled his regulation school undercrackers when realising that his old foes were present on Frontios.
Janet Fielding is as good as ever in this story, with Tegan's natural cynicism (which is filtered through the actress' own outspoken nature) providing a nice anchor for the viewers; with Tegan being the only Earth-born companion on the show at this point, she is the character that an audience is most likely to identify with and as such Fielding probably felt greater pressure in terms of her performance. Like the following story, Resurrection of the Daleks, Fielding is wearing that same short black leather skirt, which is certainly as plus-point, seeing as Ms Fielding has a very fetching pair of pins.
We mentioned earlier that this era of Doctor Who had only two companions with The Doctor, but there are some who would argue that there were still three, but Frontios is yet another story from the period where Kamelion does not appear and is not mentioned at all - he was probably locked away in the TARDIS boot cupboard. Kamelion was so much a companion, more a pain in the arse to all concerned.
Frontios benefits from having a very strong guest actor in the shape of Peter Gilmore, who brings a certain degree of gravitas to the story with his brooding menace and buttoned-up, emotionally-repressed second-in-command role. Gilmore is best remembered as the star of The Onedin Line and the actor brings the same sort of dramatic intensity to the part of Brazen; Gilmore was also a veteran of nearly a dozen Carry On films, usually giving quite a bit of gravitas in authority figures and was very adept at doing comedy, but here he is more serious than a cluster bomb in an orphanage. The fate of Brazen is left ridiculously open-ended, with him falling into the hands of the Tractators and things looking pretty grim for him.
Sterling support also comes from Jeff Rawle, as Plantagenet, the spineless not-ready-for-the-heavy-burden-of-leadership son of the missing Captain Revere; Rawle would later go on to star in satirical sitcom, Drop the Dead Donkey, as the hapless George Dent and he shows a few mannerisms and personality traits in Frontios that would come to be associated with DtDD.
Actor William Lucas is very good as Range, the scientist who is the first person on Frontios to be sympathetic to The Doctor and to realise that he is going to try and help the colony. Lucas is every inch the put-upon scientist feeling the squeeze from the thuggish and Philistine-like military, and his performance helps the viewer to identify with the pressures that the scientists are under on Frontios.
Leslie Dunlop - who plays Range's daughter, Norna - is an actress for whom we have had a soft-spot for quite a while, first seeing her in the dreary BBC comedy, May To December, but we love her most for her early turn as Luna in The Monster Club, which was produced four years before Frontios. The seriously cute Ms Dunlop would return to Doctor Who several years later in the Sylvester McCoy story, The Happiness Patrol - OK, it might not have been the best story with which to feature a triumphant return, but it beats starring in an asinine BBC sitcom...
The concept of having images of the leader of a colony featuring prominently, only to have the leader suddenly appear in a horrifying, dilapidated condition had been employed before in Doctor Who in the Patrick Troughton story, The Macra Terror. The shock appearance of the former leader of the colony at the end of episode three is one of the more effective cliff-hangers in this story, as it plays upon the fear that was prevalent at the time this story was made of the fear that humans and machines will become one and the warm, fleshy side will be the loser and be enslaved by the victor.
If there is one problem we have with the climax of Frontios it's that there is a somewhat simplistic solution to the menace posed by the Tractators; the leader of the Tractators, The Gravis, is effectively controlling the others, who are little than minions - just incapacitating The Gravis essentially ends the threat posed by the others. This kind of "kill the leader and the troops will be powerless" mentality has been seen in science-fiction before ( Return of the Jedi, anyone...?), but it always seems to rear its ugly head now and again and this is no exception - The Gravis might have been defeated at the climax of the story, but there are still multiple Tractators on the loose, not to mention a working excavator burrowing through the planet with a dogged human at the helm. There are more loose threads in this story than a macramé lampshade that has been put in the washing machine.
Another nice aspect to Frontios is that at the end of the story, after (almost) everything is wrapped up and the TARDIS crew are on their way, it has a lead directly into the next story, Resurrection of the Daleks, which was something that used to be done on Doctor Who during the Hartnell and Troughton eras.
Frontios looks pretty good on DVD - the story was filmed after the switchover to one-inch videotape, with the drop-off in quality reflected on-screen. However, based upon the original source materials, it's still a pleasing watch, with some of the florescent greens prominently seen throughout the story looking particularly nice.
Nothing to complain about - as usual; everything sounds fine, with Paddy Kingsland's incidental music, which is a mixture of synthetic percussion contrasting starkly with panpipe-like tones, comes across rather nicely.
Driven to Distractation: Starting with the departure of Christopher H Bidmead as script editor, who was just as confused about his job description when he left as he was when he joined, the year long stint had been too much, and the pay too little. A Year later, his successor - Eric Saward - got him back on board, and the two made a formidable combination, with the script-editor caring little for science fiction and the re-recruited scribe loving the genre. From this odd situation came Frontios, and with this documentary we look at the grudges, giant prawns and even murder which made the show what it is today.
Stating his case from the outset is Bidmead, who cheerfully acknowledges that the premise behind the Tractators was one which could not be realised on the shows’ budget, but points out that Saward is equally responsible for not catching it in time. Bidmead is particularly proud of the executing a really good “flip” in the story, this being from where the bombardment is coming, and we have to agree with him on that one - there are very few Doctor Who stories which attempt something as audacious, let alone get it right.
Frontios proved to be a lucky break for David Buckingham, getting the job through the misfortune of others, specifically the breakdown of assigned production designer Barrie Dobbins, a personal tragedy which eventually led to his suicide. Buckingham’s talents stand out on the show, with his personal twist on the classic Doctor Who corridors particularly welcome. Although Mark Strickson bemoans the perils of climbing over alien rocks in the TV studio, having to make sure that shoes don’t cause any telltale squeaking to give away their polystyrene nature, he’s quick to praise Buckingham’s work for Frontios. This is also true of Peter Davison, who says that he was “amazed” at some of the sets build on the small budgets.
The BBC’s fateful deployment of smoke, mirrors and subterfuge are revealed on the subject of Frontios’ controversial, titillating story element where the TARDIS gets destroyed. Bidmead and Saward concur that there was never any intention to have it completely eradicated from the show, being just a facet to that particular story. This is something which Davison confirms that was deliberately fed to the tabloid press, whom naturally blew it up out of all proportions, providing Saward with the bountiful publicity he desired.
A second bout of tragedy lay in wait after the costume fitting of Peter Arne, originally cast in the role of Mr Range. Saward recalls being told of the actors’ brutal murder shortly after his trip to the wardrobe department. We are treated to a report from South East at 6 News from the BBC archives, and it superbly illustrates the stark, shocking nature of the killing. The assailant turned up floating in the Thames a couple of days later, with most assuming that his guilty conscience turned him to suicide. A tabloid article linked Arne’s death to a serial-killer, with homosexuality as the thread, but surely the red-tops wouldn’t blow such things out of all proportion?
Marking an early appearance in Frontios was future Drop the Dead Donkey stalwart Jeff Rawle, who is on hand to discuss both his character and an inexplicable chance meeting with co-star Lesley Dunlop over twenty years later. Davison was pleased to be working with Ms Dunlop, having had a crush on her for a while before. Such compliments from Davison are not as free-flowing for Peter Gilmore, whom he points out that he’s one of the actors on the show whom didn’t “click… into the right mode”. Strickson goes one better, labelling him as “wooden”, but praises his work as the star of The Onedin Line. Anyone who has seen him play numerous roles in the Carry On series will attest that he had a pretty good range on him.
Mark Strickson and co discuss all things Turlough, where we learn that the writing was on the wall for the character just as he was being introduced. Writers Saward and Bidmead were among those who liked the character, wanting to develop him as far as they could, and this resulted in Frontios being a particularly good showcase for Turlough. To this end, Bidmead employed the Terrance Dicks/Derrick Sherwin manoeuvre of nicking from Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass, in this case the theft in question was Quatermass and the Pit’s “race-memory” idea. Regardless of such larceny, Strickson expresses his gratitude to them for beefing up a character largely unloved by viewers, and mentions getting his teeth into his big “Tractators” speech, to the point of accidentally spraying the lens with saliva in the first take. Oh, and his John Nathan-Turner impression is hilariously uncanny.
Director Ron Jones comes under the spotlight, and the opinion of him is a pretty uniform one from all concerned: really nice guy, but didn’t really know how to get things done. The picture built up is that of a director who didn’t bother with a lot of the technical elements, as well as preferring to generate a friendly atmosphere on the set rather than giving the direction which most actors desperately crave to get the best out of them. His “it’ll do” attitude to the business rubbed many up the wrong way, with Davison conflicted between wanting to praise him as a nice guy and criticising his actual abilities.
Going hand-in-glove with the directors’ Sgt Wilson-like approach to things, the less-than-special effects are brought into focus - rather ironic, really, as they would have been better off left very much hazy in front of the cameras’ eye. The controversial Excavating Machine comes in for a pasting, with Davison aiming the blame towards Jones. Looking like it was made by Ted V Mikels, it looked as though it would have had trouble mining cotton wool much less anything else, but Bidmead is adamant that if they would have directly translated his idea from the page, it would have been far too frightening for the kiddies. Oh, and that they didn’t have the money to do it right.
They couldn’t be left out of the proceedings, so now we get to the Tractators. It was more that a little optimistic that highly skilled dancers were brought in, as all hope of employing careful body gestures were scuppered by the immobile plastic costumes they were enclosed in. John Gillet, who had the pleasure of playing (The) Gravis, recalls that a last-minute addition to the already unpleasant costume, where the additions were stuck on using fish-paste, the fumes of which were concentrated within the suit and left him whacked-out and badly in need of the air pumped into them. Strickson is right on the money when he ponders just how the designers could have gotten the outfits so completely wrong.
Things round off rather nicely, with Rawle comparing his experiences on Doctor Who with his recent stint on the Sarah Jane Adventures ( Mona Lisa's Revenge, a seriously bad story), who says that the new show felt like making a James Bond movie next to the BBC production demands of the 80s. The rest of the cast agree with the almost impossible schedule Frontios was made under, whilst Bidmead closes the proceedings via his rather polarized feelings towards it when viewing a quarter of a century later. Another quality documentary from the folks at 2 Entertain.
Deleted and Extended Scenes: About 15 minutes of time-coded footage is to be found here, including some excavating, involving Peter Gilmore pretending to make some debris look heavy in so poor a fashion that Marcel Marceau would have been tearing his hair out if he’d have seen it! Mr Gilmore is redeemed somewhat when he appears in a nice snippet which sees him putting a guard in his place for a lack of respect to the Plantagenet.
There’s some nice character stuff with Cockerill - as a matter of fact, this seems to be the individual who fell afoul of the final edit above all others, so it’s nice to see the stuff which got dropped. There’s the trimming of a lot of redundant business, including corridor shots, the “bookish” quality brought in through the inclusion of a pair of glasses for young Mr Davison was whittled down in the editing suite, and anyone who wondered why Tegan sometimes acts rather robotically will enjoy a further deletion. Peter Gilmore’s “death” scene gets more coverage, and further chance to overact his metaphorical socks off. Keeper of the archives of Gallifrey Ian Levine comes through once again in this fine selection.
Audio Commentary: Peter Davison complains that the style of the piece is too static, in spite of having the ability to track the action. He also uses this opportunity as a platform for the way the original series of Doctor Who was shot, which won’t be news to anyone who has listened to one of his commentaries before. John Gillet comes in for episode three, and proceeds to up the laugh content with a series of rather amusing anecdotes and observations as if to counter Davison’s crowing.
In spite of being a last-minute replacement for the late Peter Arne, all concerned note just how good William Lucas was as Mr Range. As well as plaudits, the gang are lying in wait armed with brickbats for the directorial choices of Ron Jones, which ties into Davison’s obsession with the staging of stories in the studio. Saward notes that it all has a rather “soapy” feel in execution, cutting between characters statically talking on one set to another with other cast members doing the same thing.
Jeff Rawle cracks wise about his performance, saying that the grandiose title of this character was about as deep as he went with it. He notes that he watched Doctor Who first started, and how William Russell was the head of a division when Rawle attended drama school. He also points out the shot of himself wired into the Excavating Machine with Davison hovering over him, for the purposes of illustrating the still he gets sent from fans around the world in hopes of being signed.
Dick Mills “With one of my only Special Sound, as it says in the credits…” Mills is dryly amusing, and notes that JNT wanted every button pushed on the console to make a noise, which is referred to as “a concerto” whenever the TARDIS winds up in trouble and many controls are used to try and steady things. Davison quips: “…I used to go around, you know, and try and push as many buttons as possible just to give you a hard time…”.
Mills provides possibly the highlight of the track, where he picks up on Saward’s comments that Christopher Bidmead’s scripts were a constant battle to edit, the author being bloody-minded about changing them. Mills comments: “It’d be great if they could run it through a plot-checker…” basing his thought on the software used to mark GCSE exams to spot acts of plagiarism. Davison is both surprised and terrified at the existence of such technology, as he used to do just that kind of things all the time…
Finally, just about everyone joins in when it comes to swiping at Strickson’s bugged-out turn in Frontios, but as Davison says: “I only do the mocking of Mark’s performance as he would do it if he were here…”
Info Track: Once again, we get an accompanying stream of facts so through you would expect the name Okuda to be attached to it, but this goes even further. There we so many changes to Frontios from page to final edit that you’d have though they would have been impossible to catalogue, but nope! All is permitted right from the outset, where the track reveal that the initial scene set in the TARDIS saw Turlough and Tegan playing chess together. Jesus intergalactic and temporal travel in one thing, but a complete dill like Ms Jovanka playing the chess? Come on!
Relevant moments in Earth’s history are detailed, which help to clarify certain points and motivations within the script, but skilfully done so as to avoid that “stuck in the classroom” feel. At the very least, it makes the story more accessible and appreciable to knows not entirely in the know about the elements Bidmead brought together for this well-like adventure.
Ever wondered where all those fabulous dancers came from? Well, wonder no more, as we find out that they are all from the celebrated Pineapple Agency, on which the eponymous show about the dance studio is based. Given the bizarre behaviour of Louis Spence, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he spent days on end sucking up the fumes of fish glue.
The many continuity errors and flaws through lack of budget are all pointed out, in a manner which winningly mixes the matter-of-fact and wryly humorous. Oh, and every nod towards mike-boom shadows in shot and things like Janet Fielding tripping up are there for the discovering.
That there seem to be more variations between differing drafts of the script and the finished product than most others stories seems so very daunting, but never fear, as everything is dutifully detailed here, to the point where it firmly transcends trivia track into the realms of film school. As a guide to Frontios, you almost expect this trivia track to have its name written in large, friendly letters on the cover.
Isolated Music: This is very much welcome, as Frontios has a score which is very distinctive, and stands alone from most of the others of the time. This is not to take away from its compositional peers, but there are some utterly lovely motifs interwoven into the music, creating a sense of foreboding rarely conjured on Doctor Who. The motif used for mysterious instances involving the Tractators brings to mind Ennio Morricone’s work in the Dollars Trilogy, with ominously twanged strings. This is fine stuff by Paddy Kingsland, and perfect for experiencing in a darkened room.
Photo Gallery: There are plenty of shots to go around with this one, so it looks likely that they wanted all publicity bases covered. Naturally, they wanted to get a load of snaps of Lesley Dunlop, and they made sure that everyone knew that there was a rather good looking woman involved, and we love the one with Ms D and Janet Fielding, the latter seeming to be in mid-titter when it was taken.
There are some monsters which just look better in pictures, unburdened by trying to appear convincing in motion, but the Tractators are an example where this just isn’t the case. When all lined up together, they just look like the seafood platter in a swanky restaurant, with the biggest threat to their civilisation being a good dose of tartar sauce.
Also thrown into the mix are set photos, where we get a shot of Davison and the Excavating Machine with both a camera and operator taking centre stage. As a matter of fact, you get a much better look at the infamous device here than you do in the show, so we thoroughly recommend sitting back and watching this very nice collection of images, all set to that very cool music by Mr Kingsland. It’s a pity that the aforementioned picture that Jeff Rawle constantly signs isn’t there, though.
PDF Material: As sure as the setting sun, you get the chance to bring back fond memories of delving into the Radio Times and reading the upcoming listings for the show. There is something very comforting about the words which tell you that the next part is coming up tomorrow, getting a four-part story watched in just over a week rather than strung out over a month. Oh, and keep a look out for a plug involving “Doctor Who - The Music" squeezed in there.
Coming Soon: Peter Davison faces his final DVD curtain with the forthcoming release of the Earth Story box set, comprising The Awakening and The Gunfighters. This release brings to mind the pairing of The Rescue and The Romans, thrown together for the overriding reason that one is a mere two-parter and would generate little interest on its own. A youthful-looking Lynda Baron sings her way through the Wild West accompanied by two of the Thunderbirds cast whilst The Doctor completes his Liver Birds collection when joined by Polly James during the Civil War. They divide the fans, but some adore them both.
Frontios was quite a pleasant surprise for us - we've mentioned several times that we're not great fans of the Peter Davison era, despite being pretty much the target age for the show when we watched back in the day - but Frontios has some nice production design, an impressive guest cast and moody lighting that generates a considerable amount of suspense. It also has an intriguing (if somewhat barking) Bidmead plot that will keep you scratching your head at times, but will also keep you entertained. It's worth revisiting if you haven't seen it for a while.
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 30th May 2011
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Extras: Audio Commentary, Driven To Disctractation, Deleted and Extended Scenes, Photo Gallery, Isolated Music, Info-Text, Coming Soon, PDF Materials
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ron Jones
Cast: Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Mark Strickson, Leslie Dunlop
Length: 98 minutes
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