Underground Movement

Doctor Who- Frontios, out now on dvd
Reviewed by John Connors

One of the attributes of pre 2005 Doctor Who we can be overly critical of is the fact that shooting on sharp video can make even the best constructed sets look a bit cheap, a bit fake. Recently I watched one of this year’s episodes on someone else’s HD tv and whether due to a fault at the BBC’s end or ours, the picture occasionally reverted to looking untreated. That is to say for a few fleeting seconds, I was watching it  without the filmic sheen the series now has. And guess what? Yep, it looked as false as any old episode might. So it just goes to show that if someone had the money, technology and time to give old stories like `Frontios` the film treatment they would look fine.

"Got a spare TARDIS, guv?"

It’s not for want of trying that `Frontios` still comes across as too pokey and decidedly indoors. In fact it makes a fair fist of it better than, for example, `Logopolis` did with it’s horrible pink `outdoors`. The sets here are detailed and multi level, the studio lights are –unusually for the 1980s- turned down to highlight the shadows while the dominant light is provided by the green lamps people carry. As a depiction of a beleagured future world it’s one of the series’ better attempts. OK so someone forgot to even try and make the bits on top of the crashed spaceship look as if they are outside but the further down you go, the more atmsopheric things become.

As script editor Christopher Bidmead sucks a lot of the fun out of Doctor Who, mistaking it for a dry conceptual drama rather than the fairground thrill it is supposed to be.  Coming back as a guest writer for the more televisually inclined Eric Saward however something different emerges. `Frontios` is one of the peaks of the period, despite logistical issues that threaten to undermine the production. Bidmead finally reconciles his love of pseudo science with the requirement to keep us excited peppering his script with lively characters and banter. More recent converts to this era of the series will be agog to witness the Doctor and his companions in the TARDIS talking rather than arguing; Turlogh sarcastically winding up Tegan while the Doctor witters on about hats. It is delightful to see the lead trio used throughout in a way that makes them more interesting and gives the actors inspiration for more than one note performances.

Peter Davison’s portrayal of the Doctor is never better than in this story; had he played the role like this all the time (and done another year) the destiny of the show might have been somewhat different. As other programmes testify, Davison is one of those actors very much at the mercy of the script. He cannot rise above a bad script- as Tom Baker and David Tennant can- but put something good in front of him and he will soar. His bustling arrival in episode 1 and the way he takes over, sprinkling Bidmeads’s surprisingly lyrical lines as he goes, is a formidable opening innings. Janet Fielding benefits from a cooling of Tegan’s default stroppiness to show a more pratical side (though perhaps a little too much early on as she directs people around a hospital she’s never been in!). As for Mark Strickson, he is finally able to do more than get locked up or trapped. He gets to drivel! Makes a change from being locked away somewhere though.
`Frontios` can on occasion be too literal or just clumsy- Brazen’s name for example is just too convenient for the character, the whole `Deaths Unaccountable` sequence awkward and the extras look bored rather than in constant fear. There is a lot of fuss and bother about a huge battery that later serves no purpose; a hang over from Bidmeade’s former obsession with seriousness or perhaps just padding? Maybe there is a spare episode here that could have really benefiited `The Awakening`

Take That's new stage show takes an unexpected turn.

Bidmead manages to turn out some variants on the series’ by then well established limitations; perhaps it is this that sometimes over stretches the production.  It is refreshing that they try as so much 80s Doctor Who has dated far faster than it’s 1970’s predecessors, not because of the way it was made but the way it was written. Just try and sit through some of the previous season’s stories-or even the very next one `Planet of Fire`- and you’ll find little reason for people to be doing what they are doing. It is almost as if they are forced to turn up and make a cut and paste story.

 `Frontios` may feel slightly bogged down by topographical or engineering refrences but it posseses some charm. The way Turlough manages to fool everyone that a hat stand as a weapon for example is something only Doctor Who  could do. There’s Dr Range, a delightful character twinkling with life. The attention to detail gives `Frontios` it’s own look-  the aforementioned green lamps proffer an eerie glow to procedings, the way the Tractators turn in slight slow motion make them eerie, the way the explosion debris flies in from the side of the screen make them seem wilder than they are.
There’s also quite a scary concept in being dragged underground and conceptually the Tractators have the potential to be the scariest monster of the era- in realisation only their faces and bristling antennae pass muster. Even so, you could be generous and say they are as awkward in thier shells as snails and we never see the real creature. However compared to the Malus, they are not in the same league.

I like the Gravis though; the chatty, excitable way it talks, waving it’s hands as if it’s just finished washing the dishes. It’s dialgoue with the Doctor is fin, the causal reference to the Gravis knowing him by reputation, the mention of the Time Lords. All this seeks to emphasise the scope of the Doctor’s experience but is continuity handled with some subtely unlike many stories that were to come in the next few years. The Gravis is given something of an intellect but also a greed that is it’s undoing. In very odd sequences in the half formed TARDIS it seems giddy with the idea of getting it’s antennae on time travel, underlining the marvel it is. So many stories- then and now- use the TARDIS as  a taxi that when you come to something that weaves it’s wonder into the narrative (as the recent `Doctor’s Wife` did so well) it takes the series up a notch.

Most of Frontios’ faults are unavoidable production issues, or having one episode too many but they don’t affect the strength of Bidemad’s script. Along with `The Awakening`, `Snakedance` and of course `Caves of Andorzani` this story represents the dying embers of the flame of originality and purpose that the series would not truly regain (give or take the occasional flickering) until 2005.

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