Frontios ★★★

The Tardis explodes on the way to a colony beset by Tractators – in this red-blooded adventure...

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Season 21 – Story 132

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“Your population’s already falling below the critical value required for guaranteed growth and you’re regularly losing new lives… your colony of Earth people is in grave danger of extinction” – the Doctor

Storyline
When the Tardis arrives on the planet Frontios, home to some of the last surviving humans, the ship is apparently obliterated during a meteorite shower. The Doctor, Turlough and Tegan must win over and help the nervous colonists, who are being preyed on from below and pummelled from above – by Tractators. These giant, gravity-controlling insects, a species known to and feared by Turlough, are led by the intelligent Gravis. The Doctor dupes the Gravis into reassembling the Tardis, which will isolate the creature from the other Tractators and render him harmless.

First transmissions
Part 1 – Thursday 26 January 1984
Part 2 – Friday 27 January 1984
Part 3 – Thursday 2 February 1984
Part 4 – Friday 3 February 1984

Production
Studio recording: August/September 1983 in TC6

Cast
The Doctor – Peter Davison
Tegan – Janet Fielding
Turlough – Mark Strickson
Brazen – Peter Gilmore
Norna – Lesley Dunlop
Range – William Lucas
Plantagenet – Jeff Rawle
Gravis – John Gillett
Cockerill – Maurice O’Connell
Orderly – Richard Ashley
Deputy – Alison Skilbeck
Retrograde – Raymond Murtagh
Tractators – George Campbell, Michael Malcolm, Stephen Speed, William Bowen, Hedi Khursandi

Crew
Writer – Christopher H Bidmead
Incidental music – Paddy Kingsland
Designer – David Buckingham
Script editor – Eric Saward
Producer – John Nathan-Turner
Director – Ron Jones

RT Review by Mark Braxton
There’s something about going underground that’s good for Doctor Who. It’s the darkness and claustrophobia, echoing shafts and dripping tunnels. The Macra Terror, The Web of Fear, The Silurians, The Green Death… all fine stories, which milked the creepy potential of the subterranean scenario…

And it’s an enduring location, returned to time after time. Did Chris Chibnall lift the title of his 2010 story The Hungry Earth from Frontios? “The earth is hungry,” says a gibbering Turlough at one point. And scenes of characters being swallowed by soil perhaps informed the moment where Amy is sucked below ground.

It’s a terrifying image, and one of several that beef up a red-blooded story after some rather anaemic fare. In particular, the sight of Captain Revere’s body strapped to the Tractators’ excavator (try saying that fast after a few shandies) is one of the most gruesome cliffhangers in the show’s history.

Humanity on the brink is another recurring theme in Who, but rarely is the situation conveyed with such stark pessimism. The crunching irony of corporal punishment among extinction-threatened colonists is another noteworthy feature.

Less successful is the supposed demise of the Tardis, a major event for the programme but one that’s skipped over here with unseemly haste. You can’t imagine Steven Moffat letting that one pass.

But overall it’s a solid final script for Doctor Who from Christopher H Bidmead, and one that doesn’t get bogged down by scientific nitty-gritty in the way some of his previous contributions did.

On the page, the Tractators are a welcome addition to the show’s gallery of monsters, with colourful back story, species hierarchy (à la Web Planet) and mythic status. But the creatures’ Wirrn-in-a-duvet look undoes the fine work of Bidmead’s imaginings. Overstuffed binbags pose a greater threat than this rabble.

Much more serious and considered casting went on for Frontios than in stories that surrounded it. And anyone who grew up in the 70s will have enjoyed spotting lead actors from flagship and family series: Peter Gilmore from The Onedin Line as the bullish Security Chief Brazen, TV’s Billy Liar Jeff Rawle as the Plantagenet, and Black Beauty doctor William Lucas as the paternal Range.

Best of all, though, is the 27-year-old Lesley Dunlop, who affects a charming naturalism as the sympathetic Norna. Her underplaying is exemplary guest-star acting, and should have been made into a showreel for those who followed her. She even puts a lot of heavyweights to shame. After a return to Who in 1988’s The Happiness Patrol, Dunlop achieved greater exposure in the long-running sitcom May to December. It was no less than she deserved.

But Frontios was a troubled production. William Lucas was an 11th-hour replacement for Peter Arne, who was murdered on 1 August 1983.

As if this wasn’t shocking enough, designer Barrie Dobbins committed suicide, and David Buckingham stepped in. Doctor Who has had setbacks before but this double- tragedy must have cast a terrible shadow.

It seems to have extended to the direction. A studio-bound project needs all the subtlety and nuance it can get in terms of lighting and pace, but the flat, shoot-what’s-there approach demonstrates a total lack of belief in the project. The death-by-Fairlight score and synthesized panpipes do little to help.

But it’s a strong story for the travellers, who it has to be said are an inelegant trio. The Doctor’s clown-trousered cricketer, Tegan’s 80s Top of the Pops backing singer and Turlough’s superannuated schoolboy were not exactly The A-Team. But wardrobe malfunctions aside, there’s a satisfyingly fair distribution of work. Mark Strickson, in particular, makes the most of his moment in the spotlight. His fraught, frothy-mouthed recollections of the Tractators would have worked even better had we never caught a glimpse of the motion-impaired bogeymen.

Frontios could easily have pushed back the frontiers (the end of the Tardis, the Doctor concealing his actions from his companion to her visible distress, a return to pure horror), but ends up in the “could have been” category. How many of those have we had?

Radio Times archive material

RT billings

Frontios billings

JN-T stoked fears about the fate of the Tardis in the RT mailbag (11 February 1984). Frontios received praise and complaints in the RT mailbag (3 March 1984)

1984 letters
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[Available on BBC DVD]