The Twin Dilemma

Episodes 4 Tractators
Story No# 133
Production Code 6N
Season 21
Dates Jan. 26, 1984 -
Feb. 3, 1984

With Peter Davison, Mark Strickson, Janet Fielding.
Written by Christopher H. Bidmead. Script-edited by Eric Saward.
Directed by Ron Jones. Produced by John Nathan-Turner.

Synopsis: The Doctor becomes inadvertently involved with the last descendants of humanity in the far future.


A Review by Robert Smith? 3/2/97

Frontios is Bidmead at his best (okay, so it's a three-way tie!), unfortunately let down by some wooden acting.

Episode one is superb. Indeed, if there had been no cliffhanger and they had instead departed in the TARDIS as they were intending, this would make a perfect one-episode story! Davison is really on form here (well, he's always on form, but with Bidmead's writing his character is second only to Caves of Androzani), with the eccentricities about the hat stand in the console room something that we should have seen far more of throughout his tenure (and since Bidmead created the character, he ought to know!).

Another thing that struck me about the story is that it's actually better in black and white (indeed, except for Tegan's costume, almost everything seems to be in three colours - black, white and red). The plot and the ideas are quite wonderful, but the production does let things down somewhat. There's some very wooden acting from the colonists and the tractators really don't come across as menacingly as they should. On the flip side, the regulars are in fine form, with Mark Strickson's acting walking just the right side of OTT-ness to give the whole thing added threat.

A Review by James Mansson 19/3/98

Frontios is an excellent mystery, which had me hooked right from the start. The Doctor, for once, is facing an enemy that is not only unfamiliar to the audience, but also to himself. This generates a genuine feeling of suspense, which is often lacking when the Doctor faces well-worn enemies. Admittedly, when we do meet those responsible for the troubles on Frontios, they prove to be less-than-fearsome in appearance, but this, at least, is hardly a surprise to fans of the program! Apart from this, however, I can’t really find anything to fault with the story.

Visually, Frontios is very striking; the appearance of the crashed starship and the makeshift hospital make the plight of the humans very clear, while the tunnels beneath the planet are suitably atmospheric. The atmosphere is one of horror; Turlough is visible shaken by the discovery of a fearsome enemy from his people’s past, while the idea of a tunnelling machine which uses a living being as a vital component is quite macabre. It is also one of mystery; not only do we have the cause of the human’s problems to think about, but also the question of how the apparent destruction of the Doctor’s TARDIS is going to be resolved.

The members of the human community are all well-drawn characters. In addition, the history of the community itself is gradually revealed, giving added depth to the situation. The guest actors acquit themselves well in their roles, with none of the over-acting sometimes encountered on the program. The regulars are on good form too, and they all have their moments, in particular Turlough, who has a prominent role to play in proceedings. And I liked the business with the hat-stand!

A Review by Leo Vance 24/6/98

Christopher H. Bidmead wrote two classics to start with. He finishes with another, but on this occasion, it is much more due to the production and the acting than his script.

At the top is Peter Gilmore's magnificent performance as Brazen a superbly written character. He is utterly brilliant, and is well supported by Plantagenet and Range, two well-acted and well-written characters.

Peter Davison's Doctor is absolutely brilliant, both in scripting and acting, Janet Fielding is interesting and Mark Strickson at his most impressive when he undergoes racial memory problems.

The Gravis is well voiced, and the direction is good. The special effects match this. Norna is good too, though less effective than the rest. The minor cast are good enough, the music is excellent and the lighting is superb.

Some of the most excellent scripted lines in the Fifth Doctor's era are here:

Range: "You're being eaten away by this daily disaster we call Frontios."

At the other end of the scale, the Tractators are mediocre, though not bad. As monsters, they are up their with the Jagaroth, the Wirrn and the Garm as less than impressive but still good enough monsters.

The script is excellent, the plot is good, the acting great, the effects good. Altogether, probably not as good as Logopolis, but about on a par with Castrovalva. 9/10

Davison was rarely better by Mike Morris 7/7/99

Season Twenty-One really did have its ups and downs, didn't it. In here we find a classic like Caves, a horribly bad story in The Twin Dilemma, some interesting but flawed adventures like Warriors of the Deep, and the mindless violence of Resurrection of the Daleks. Where does Frontios fit in on the list, though?

Pretty high up is the simple answer. Whatever your opinion on Chris Bidmead's vision for Doctor Who, his gifts as a scriptwriter are pretty obvious. Frontios, his last addition to the Doctor Who canon, is radically different from Logopolis and Castrovalva. It's simpler, for a kick-off. It's also a more traditional story, including monsters but not quite as concerned with the complex scientific ideas of the first two. Finally, there's far more structure and coherence to the storytelling. Bidmead's first two stories are rather padded, admittedly with wonderful SF ideas such as TARDISes within TARDISes and the like. Frontios has more coherence, bar the odd divergence with carrying vats of acid and the like.

In Castrovalva Chris Bidmead did a wonderful job of developing the characters of Tegan and Nyssa, not to mention the Doctor. Here his gift for characterisation is equally evident, creating three lovely characters in Brazen, Range and Plantagenet, and giving the TARDIS crew a lot to do. The actors all respond superbly, with the exception of Plantagenet, who is horribly badly portrayed and delivers some of his lines terribly ("Could it be that one of them calls himself... The Doctor?" springs readily to mind). I like Mark Strickson's brilliantly OTT race memory scenes in particular - although, having said that, I can understand why people think it's unforgivably hammy as well. And Peter Davison is simply superb, providing an energetic, charismatic portrayal that is probably only bettered by Caves.

I was inspired to watch this again after reading Robert Smith?'s assertion that the story looks better in black and white. Quite right, I was surprised to note. The sets in Frontios are some of the most unusual to grace Doctor Who, splashed as they are with all that paint and giving every scene lots of contrast in shadow and lighting. On the downside, they're very obviously plastic studio sets. In black and white the production is far more believable, and brilliantly moody and grim. By the way, while I'm on the subject, Image of the Fendahl looks better in black and white as well, particularly if you turn the contrast up full - I've now been inspired to rewatch a few other Doctor Who's in monochrome to see what the results are.

Black and white or not, the fact that the Tractators look ludicrous is sadly undisguisable. And who on earth decided to give the Gravis a nose, for god's sake? That said the Gravis is beautifully voiced, which adds a little menace, in particular when he taunts Plantagenet in his cell. In fact, the Tractators are just one of a fairly extensive list of excellent ideas in Frontios that are only averagely realised, like those polished spherical boulders that are obviously made of plastic. That said, the production still has some memorable and disturbing images, not least the sight of Captain Revere enslaved to a machine and the shocking reappearance of the TARDIS.

In short, Frontios is a well-constructed, workmanlike story, elevated by its incidental touches to a memorable status. The script boasts a lot of wit - failure-proof technology that failed, inoffensive chicken vol-au-vents and the like, and the destruction and reassembly of the TARDIS adds another dimension (It's just struck me that Chris Bidmead seems to be obsessed with the bloody thing!). The main negative elements are the Tractators themselves and some incidental music that is unusual at first but bloody irritating by the time we reach episode three. Oh, and while I'm at it the right-wing subtext - comparing the leaderless Retrogrades with the mindlessness of the Tractators when the Gravis is disabled - disturbs me a bit. It's unusual for Doctor Who to be as openly authoritarian as in Brazen's "It's not easy living inside the system" speech.

But I suppose Doctor Who is about stories, not politics, and the bottom line is that Frontios is a very good story. Recommended - and don't forget to try it in black and white!

A Review by Cody Salis 21/2/01

This is one of my favorite 5th Doctor stories in Season 21. Although it runs a close second to The Caves Of Androzani, it nevertheless is a gripping story. One of the reasons I like Frontios is the reason that all three regulars get to take part in this adventure.

Turlough while in other adventures doesn't get much action, in this story he does very well. His over the top performance with the memory race problems concerning the Tractators in part 3 is very interesting. The first time I saw this I thought that Turlough was going to be insane for the rest of his stay in Dr. Who, but Mark Strickson did these scenes very well and only did it for a short time.

As usual The 5th Doctor and Tegan got the main part of the story together, and did very well with the script that they were given. In one very important scene in part 3 you see how much the Doctor does care for his companions. The scene I am referring to is after The Doctor and Tegan have been captured by the Tractators, and the Doctor warns Tegan to pretend she is an android. Tegan, of course refuses, but the Doctor tells her that if the Tractators think she is human then, like the former Captain Revere she would have been used for the Tractators nefarious digging plans.

I have tried the exercise mentioned in other reviews where a different actor to play the Doctor is put in Peter Davison's place. I don't think that Colin Baker's Doctor would have done it as well as Peter Davison and in fact I have a question. Would the 6th Doctor have done for Tegan what the 5th Doctor did? I really don't think so, in fact Colin's Doctor probably would have betrayed Tegan (like he did Peri) in Mindwarp.

Yes Frontios would have been good in just one part having The Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough leaving after helping the colonists, but where would the mystery be? How would the colonists explain that the "earth is hungry" and not have proof that the captain had disappeared into the ground? As this is Christopher Bidmead's third story writing for Dr. Who this is his best outing and he would have not done as well as writing the 4 parter with just one part. While having written Logopolis and Castrovalva before and dealing with the Doctor/Master confrontations in those stories, this I think was very well done.

As to the reference of this story being in black and white instead of color. I don't think they would have been able to capture some of the eeriness of the caves and the Tractators themselves. Also while Tegan's costume was black and white and red for this story I don't think you would have been able to tell the difference very much if it had been made in black and white.

I would give this season 21 story a very high rating 9.5 out of 10.

What Lies Beneath by Andrew Wixon 4/11/02

It seems to have become a bit of a truism that everyone likes Frontios. Well, as close to 'everyone' as you can get where DW fans are concerned (we are a fractious bunch). I'm certainly not going to stick my head over the parapet and say I don't like it, mainly because this would be a lie. There are a lot of good things about this story: principally Davison's assured and witty performance, some great dialogue (refuting the idea that Bidmead is just 'the science guy'), and the evocative score.

But even so the popularity of this story is arguably a little inexplicable. The first episode is great but as it goes on it slowly but surely starts to fall apart (entropy increases, etc). The plot becomes reliant on contrivance and coincidence (how lucky that Turlough should be able to remember the weakness of the Tractators following his convenient attack of race memory!), with some blatant padding (Cockerill's subplot doesn't really go anywhere and isn't properly resolved). Not to mention some very silly looking monsters (the Gravis loses any sense of menace or indeed credibility following the scene where it falls flat on its face) and dodgy science (refuting the idea that Bidmead is just 'the science guy').

Frontios succeeds, though, because beyond its vaguely absurd B-movie plot this is a story rich in metaphor and theme. Key amongst these is the dependence of the present on the past for survival: the colonists have looked to their own history in choosing as their leader a Plantagenet, Turlough's deeply-buried race memories prove vital to success. Brazen tries to bury the past by destroying records of events he wants to keep secret. History and truth are subterranean throughout the story: embodied by the Tractators, by the buried TARDIS components. As themes go it isn't all-encompassing and doesn't hang together with absolute precision, but it gives Frontios that extra depth that elevates it to the status of a superior story from its era.

Pulled down by Tim Roll-Pickering 7/5/03

The TARDIS drifts into the far future once more and we get a story where the Doctor finds himself in danger of interfering in the course of humanity's destiny when this is strictly forbidden by the Time Lords. Whether because of this or because Christopher H. Bidmead is writing the story the result is a charecterisation for the Doctor which is somewhat at variance with the norm and represents Bidmead's original vision of how the Doctor would have been post-Castrovalva. But it works since we get a story in which for once the Davison Doctor wins through at the end of the day, rather than merely surviving whilst others triumph or seeing victory only because of the sacrifice of another. Here we get to see both the Doctor and Turlough take a central stage, benefiting each character immensely, especially the latter given the way that he is so often left maligned on the sidelines of a story.

The story features fewer scientific concepts than Bidemead's previous offerings, but this is clearly due to the colonists' ship having crashed and lost much of their technology, leaving only primitive equipment to explain on their side, whilst the Tractators remain hidden throughout the first half of the story but make for an interesting idea when they do appear. Although the costumes don't do them full justice, the idea of creatures that can manipulate gravity is a strong one that makes for some good tension throughout. Less effective is the TARDIS' destruction at the end of the first episode, which is never explained at all and so makes this part of the story rather redundant. The failure to also explain the fate of Kamelion is notable, though as all the stories since The King's Demons have completely ignored the android this isn't too glaringly an omission. The human characters are presented clearly and unambiguously as being amongst the last survivors of humanity and so this gives added impetus to the story and the fate of the colony as the Doctor seeks to save humanity's future. The result of all these elements is a good script but with a few notable holes in it.

This story sees some good casting, especially Peter Gilmore as the toughened Brazen and Jeff Rawle as the struggling Plantagenent who is seeking to discharge the duties he has suddenly had thrust upon him. Less effective though is Lesley Dunlop as Norna who delivers a rather flat performance. All three of the regulars give their usually strong performances, with Mark Strickson getting a chance to especially shine when given some specific material for his character.

Frontios was recorded entirely in a television studio but the sets are effective, with some clever lighting making the tunnels seem especially chilling, whilst the lanterns are seen to be clearly necessary. Ron Jones' direction is rather mundane however, whilst even the normally reliable Paddy Kingsland turns in a musical score that isn't the best at setting the right mood for the story. The result is a story that could have aspired to greatness but is let down in several areas. 6/10

A Review by Will Berridge 17/8/03

Unlike many of its predecessors, Frontios benefits from a genuine focus on creating an atmospheric little planet around which the action is to occur. The dilapidated sets really help to produce the image of a frontier world close to extinction. The effects of the gradual breakdown of the colonists' society, too, are well depicted through the obvious paranoia and desperation of Brazen and Plantagenet, and need for a veil of ignorance concerning "deaths unaccountable". Brazen and Plantagenet both come across as strong characters in their attempts to deny the inevitable breakdown of the Frontios society. We can see Plantagenet wilting under the pressure of the superficial image he is forced to create for himself as a steadfast leader, churning out tons of empty rhetoric at the Doctor, but then having his heart collapse under the strain and admitting to the Doctor, "So you see, Frontios is not the easiest planet to rule." DW doesn't have a great track record in "Young ruler" characters, but he's certainly acted with a great deal more conviction than wimps like Peladon and Thalira. Brazen also has tons of good scenes as he tries to keep Frontios together, notably his contemptible remark to Cockerill "It's not easy living within the system. But living outside it takes more than you've got." Then he lets him go free so the subsequent beating the other retrogrades inflict upon him serves and an example -- a sequence full of character. He also has a well-depicted personality clash with Mr Range ("It's foolishness. The only foolishness I know is to disobey an orderrr".) He enters the realms of ham with some of his face acting, and his "r" accentuation whenever he says "order", occasionally, but not too much, and his last words are classically fitting -- "Go... and that's an orderrr..."

There's also a great deal of evocative dialogue used to perplex the audience about the mysterious disappearances. "He said... the earth was hungry." "They are the appetite beneath the ground!" "Frontios buries its own dead." This adds a real sense of tension to the first couple of episodes, as we seek to understand why people are being inexplicably sucked beneath the earth.

As a Chris Bidmead story, it is characteristically features several of the genuine sf concepts he endeavoured to introduce to the show. There's quite a rigorous study of the various means of energy production the colonists are forced to resort to without wood or electricity, with characters carrying phosphor lamps around. This level of detail certainly wasn't present earlier on in DW's history, and helps us appreciate the desperation of the people of Frontios far more than those in, say, Colony in Space. The ideas of the Tractators hollowing out and motoring a whole planet through space is also intelligent, if slightly reminiscent of The Pirate Planet.

The Tractators are often highlighted as one of the story's weaker aspects, though to me they fit right into the classical DW monster category; they're fat, ugly and insectoid. The somewhat inoffensive nature of their appendages makes them a little less threatening, however, as does their characteristic DW monster slow movement. They are, nevertheless, aided by some brilliant direction, most notably when they first appear, as what we had previously assumed to be a couple of rocks turns around exposing their hideous alien bodies and follow after Turlough and Norna. Quite a shock first time round, that would have been.

They appearance of Captain Revere's cadaver enslaved to the excavating machine at the end of Episode 3 is also a rather disturbing moment. Davison, fortunately, delivers a decent 3rd episode cliffhanger line here ("It's... Captain Revere"). The 5th Doctor on form is a joy to watch, bounding around as if there's not a moment to lose, and he's also given some sparkling dialogue in this one. Some of his responses to Plantagenet's speeches at him are wonderful ("Sorry, I was just trying to figure out a way of getting some decent light in here"), especially when the planetary ruler makes the mistake of asking him what he thinks. He also gets some great comic moments convincing the colonists and Tractators Tegan is an android, and the hat stand is a lethal weapon. There's some magnificently shameless male chauvinism displayed in the former example ("When it's working properly it's very reliable for keeping track of appointments, financial planning, word processing... that sort of thing.") His newfound determination not to interfere, even though it doesn't affect him that much, seems a little hard to understand. Surely interfering with the far future will unravel the web of time less than interfering in the past?

It's a great adventure for Turlough, too. Strickson's acting of the fit his "race memory" induces is terrific, and the character is seen battling against his predisposition towards cowardice. His unashamed delight at the destruction of his least favourite planet is great, too. Tegan is only really memorable in this adventure for the Doctor taking the mickey out of her, which suits me fine.

One spankingly good adventure then. I can even forgive the Gravis' nose. 8.5/10.

Spellbinding! by Joe Ford 29/10/03

One of the most frustrating things about being a Doctor Who fan (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 asked, 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, Resurrection 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 an 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 Strickson 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 show's 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 cliches 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 father's 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) had Bidmead stayed on.

A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 22/5/04

From the outset it is clear what Fontios aims to be (and in fact is) a bleak, yet effective, horror story. The concept of the planet burying its own dead is one such moment of horror; the other more notable moment being the shot of Captain Revere wired up to the Tractator. Frontios is also effective in that it gives Turlough a bit of a background and Mark Strickson`s scenes where Turlough foams at the mouth are surprisingly good.

Unfortunately Tegan is left to the sidelines, however Janet Fielding is never less than excellent. As for the Doctor, Peter Davison gets to display the more compassionate side of his incarnation, whether it is bemoaning the loss of the TARDIS (whatever did happen to Kamelion if the ship was destroyed?) or simply treating the wounded. The Tractators themselves make for a believable threat and look good; particularly the Gravis whose own downfall is its greed.

The guest cast are also uniformly excellent; Peter Gilmore`s Brazen - a character motivated by his loyalty to Jeff Rawle`s Plantagenet - who is simply trying to survive against insurmountable odds. With well drawn characters, a strong storyline and convincing effects; Frontios is a winner on all fronts.

Days of Catastrophe by Ewen Campion-Clarke 13/1/06

"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 travelled 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 where 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 it's dying.

This background is what gives Frontios an edge. I could easily complain about 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, wielded by Turlough the unhinged. A fanzine title if ever I heard one.

Onto the positive. Logopolis was about death, 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 to 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 Turloug'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 it's 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 third shows 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 me, but it feels less like stubborness and more like the writer forgot there 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 Tractators 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 it's got big ears and fur between its carapace...


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.

"Bury me deep" by Thomas Cookson 16/6/19

Frontios in many ways represents a learning curve for Christopher Bidmead after past trials and errors writing this show. No doubt Bidmead had an easier time writing this, whereas Logopolis and Castrovalva were rush-written to fulfil nightmare briefs within short deadlines.

Frontios wasn't the almighty game changer Logopolis was, and it exists in a season where fan attention and accolades become drawn more to Davison's Dalek story and his swansong. But Frontios does indeed feel like a brief course correction for a show that never quite recovered from Bidmead's departure after Season 18, as script-editors after had to struggle to make sense of what they'd inherited with the new companions and Doctor.

Frontios makes you wish Davison started on this standard, rather than taking three years to reach it. It's a classic sci-fi tale about humanity in decline after having advancing as far as it could. It occasionally feels like a soap-opera docudrama about a futuristic feudal community. Viewers could find themselves easily interested in the guest characters' daily lives and family ties as much as the sci-fi predicament.

It's certainly the more promising of JNT Who's tendency to resemble a dumping ground for awful, synth-scored TV pilots the Doctor occasionally cameos in (when not resembling televised fanfiction instead).

Like Eastenders in its prime (before becoming the kind of soap that gives the genre a bad name), it touches on poignant truths about struggling communities and how they can make hard men humble. Like Horror of Fang Rock, we follow these characters almost in authentic real time.

This feels like Bidmead's admission he got Davison's era off on the wrong foot. Frontios seems his attempt to dodge Castrovalva's pitfalls. It doesn't spend half its length not yet reaching the titular alien world but rather lands there immediately. Then nukes the TARDIS to prevent any fannying around within its innards.

We get immediate setup and practical demonstrative storytelling from the start, with Davison and Tegan forced to administer medical attention to wounded colonists within poorly lit shelters, immediately establishing the impact of this world's predicaments. Mankind's practically reverted to the days when night-time workers had to delicately construct miniature clocks by candle light.

Before then, we see these colonists living by frayed nerves, always alert to landslides and collapsing roofs. When they occur, we see their instincts instantly driven to rescuing others, adding a poignant note to how the population later turn on each other. There's a collective spirit of compassion and working for the common good here that really shouldn't have become the exception to the rule under Saward's individualistic, sociopathic ethos.

That's important and crucial. People may argue whether media or entertainment influences violent or amoral behaviour. But there's no doubt in this age that few things kill like neglect does. It sickens me how Saward's fare like Warriors of the Deep dared suggest killing by neglect is somehow a noble act. Frontios makes me almost shed tears for what Davison's era could've stood for had Bidmead stayed on.

Freed up from having to include any pantomime Master, Bidmead clearly relishes no longer writing black-and-white characters, drawing everyone here in definable shades of grey. Each as ruthless and hard-nosed as hardships of survival on this besieged feudal colony demand but with moments of kind generosity required to make this community remain functional. Showing how, given the choice, none of these men wanted to be bullying autocrats, despite the world they're born into. Bidmead establishes how each character is important to the society and also, by proxy, the plot.

The Tractators also benefit from early demonstrations of their mighty telekinetic, gravitational powers, so we're in no doubt our heroes are never safe upon the soil they walk. Thus, when they're finally revealed, their puffy, rubbery appearance doesn't diminish their sense of threat because of the inescapable telekinetic stranglehold they wield upon the humans. Having Turlough traumatised by race memories of them was also a wise dramatic decision, done expertly enough to make them feel they were always part of Turlough's backstory and the show's lore.

The colony's precarious existence and its population's tenacity at clinging to life draws you fully into how these people live, compelling your interest in what the future holds for them as a species, beyond even the Tractator threat. Frontios becomes almost a criticism of not just Warriors' warped demonization of our survival instinct, but the era's overall frequent, fatal failure to make Davison's Doctor someone who could plausibly have the survival skills to have lasted a day in this universe, never mind centuries.

In other words, it feels an unannounced sequel to Logopolis and Castrovalva's resilience narrative, amidst Saward otherwise spitefully vandalizing that narrative. It helps that, unlike Castrovalva, it seems to have resilient enough plotting and production values to compliment it.

It's a tragic testament to how 80's Who was far better when being forward-looking than backward-looking. So forward-looking in fact that this could've potentially continued for several more episodes or even followed the Pertwee model with the Doctor stranded here several more stories before the 'high' of revealing the pieces of the TARDIS waiting to be reconstructed. Season 21's worst stories could've been put to the sword to accommodate this.

In hindsight, Castrovalva felt like Bidmead was deliberately retreating from Logopolis' grimness, as though that had been a mistake and he'd gone too far. Whatever the reason, Castrovalva ended up feeling overly twee and emotionally vacant, especially compared to Logopolis' shattering horror and heartache.

Castrovalva had to be written as a chase story where our heroes are pursued across the cosmos by the Master from the outset. It was the only way for Bidmead to quickly explain and justify why Tegan ends up becoming a permanent TARDIS resident rather than remaining on Earth. But, by design, a chase story that affords no time or chance for emotional repercussions for Nyssa over Traken's destruction.

In a way, Bidmead set the tone and sensibilities for Davison's era from the start, but with the worst twee kind of tone and blinkered sensibility, based on pretending everything was lovely and harmonious. Davison playing the fool who never learns anything sensible from hostile, suspicious receptions. Refusing to dirty his hands or sully his vision whilst chaos and death abound around him.

Nonetheless, I think Bidmead recognised that blunder and worked against it. I also think he possessed the right instincts to counterbalance JNT's worst. He did after all base Castrovalva's setting on Escher paintings that JNT notoriously detested.

Frontios feels like it takes place in a far more real, populated world than Castrovalva did. Whilst you can argue that was Castrovalva's point, it feels like here Bidmead's actually challenging himself more to bring this world and population to life.

JNT's house style emphasised scene-chopping to give the illusion of pace and activity. This didn't really help Time-Flight or Arc of Infinity's weak fare feel any less hollow or insubstantial, and in fact blunted their punch and frustrated our concentration. Fortunately, nearly every scene here is substantially chunky (though possibly at the expense of the era's usual hauntology), as Frontios' dramatic weight and intrigue progressively grows stronger.

Bidmead seemed to aspire to be effectively Who's own Peter Greenaway. A very detailed, visual perfectionist sensibility with a talent for burning vivid, uncomfortable imagery into viewers' minds. There are enough deaths to make the stakes matter and keep the drama engaging (exposing Moffat's comparative weightlessness). Bidmead also rises to the challenge to have Davison prove his cleverness without a sonic screwdriver in a way few Davison writers could.

For the most part, it's a solid story that in repeat viewings reveals a seal of anomalous quality in its writing and portrayal of the leads. Aesthetically, it's lovely and tasteful too, with colour-coordinated costumes, sour green fluorescents, purple forcefield effects and the Tractators' polished angular lair. It's visually interesting and memorable in ways Terminus cried out for. The fact that Tegan's shown as anomalously competent and smart against the era's usual sexism is another factor in Frontios standing the test of time in a way most Tegan stories haven't.

Yet, for all that, I find myself struggling to declare Frontios an entirely successful Davison highlight. Frontios has failed to attain pride of place in my heart in the way Enlightenment or State of Decay did, and I'm unsure why. It may be watching this glimpse at an alternative, better Davison era that's worlds' apart from Season 21's trash, is just small comfort by now. Maybe it's something more.

I think honestly there's something a bit too top-heavy about Frontios. Somehow, the first half's quality just isn't quite maintained in the second. Perhaps the terrifying mystique of what could possibly be swallowing the humans into the Earth is lost by degrees when we see the Tractators in the flesh. Then we hear them speak and realize they're not quite the demonic stuff of nightmares we were led to believe.

Furthermore, we see some of their victims underground kept alive and well and characters being left unharmed by their pink tractor-beam effects. It just feels it's undermined its own urgency and become a bit too clean and sanitised. There comes a point where it feels I'm watching this story more out of obligation than its complications or predicament genuinely hooking me anymore.

I think ultimately it's down to how Davison manages to fool the Tractators' gullible leader into reassembling the TARDIS for him and simultaneously cutting himself off from his own race, in a disappointingly pat resolution. It's the same reverse-psychology trick McCoy's Doctor later used against Davros. The difference is there it had a devastating sucker-punch effect that took us completely by surprise. This doesn't.

There was a much more personal aspect to the confrontation. McCoy's Doctor knew from experience exactly how to play on Davros' megalomania and rage and tempt him. What buttons to press. Here, there just doesn't feel much dimension to the Tractator's pack leader, or any proper personal pay-off. McCoy had to make Davros believably furious enough to cease thinking rationally first. This just assumes 'alien' equals 'gullible'.

In the end the Gravis is a foolish pantomime villain tricked by a child's ploy. A part of me feels Davison is treating this as kid's stuff that's beneath him when delivering that line. There's the overriding sense, carrying through from Warriors, that this isn't a glimpse into the Fifth Doctor's cleverer, wiser instincts but actually just a broken clock being right twice a day. Just another case of his usual idiocy managing to pay off this time against an even denser opponent than him.

But it goes beyond that. From nearly the very beginning, it's felt like this era's undermined Davison's diplomacy skills (potentially a great source for theatrical drama) at every turn. Showing him unable to even maintain harmony in his own TARDIS amidst constantly bickering companions. What chance could he have against the prospect of mediating between warring superpowers? Seemingly a po-faced, mechanical, dogged determination of the production team forced them to go with that hopeless route with his character and then show the inevitable ham-fisted, disastrous consequences.

In short, it really does feel this is the best Davison can do as a trickster negotiator against gullible cartoon foes, and already we've shown up how that's not good enough. The limits of his character are still crushingly unpromising.

The conceit just seemed to be that the Doctor was always some old-fashioned programmatic reliable hero character, and Saward's somehow being 'radical' in making him a different kind of programmatic pacifist character (after fan criticisms over Earthshock's trigger-happy Doctor) whose flaws were utterly ham-fisted and robotic.

Maybe there could only be such a pat resolution after destroying the TARDIS where essentially Bidmead wrote himself into a corner. The sense it all got too simple and easy after the more complex, challenging first half. Or maybe that, for all Frontios aspires to a quality above Davison's usual era filler and fan service, it just isn't quite different enough from the crop.

"Oh, marvellous. You're going to kill me. What a finely tuned response to the situation." by Daniel Shillito 1/11/21

No, this rating was not a mistake. It very much reflects how much of a lost masterpiece I believe this story really is.

The stories in Peter Davison's final year as the Doctor are markedly different from those from the past. Increasingly violent and gruesome situations occur, with a chance of survival much less likely. Frontios, with its almost palpable sense of doom, contributes to this new era of Doctor Who.

These stories tend to carry an even higher death-toll than usual, with precious few characters living to the conclusion of events in this instance, the possibility of all humanity reaching extinction in a most grisly manner is omnipresent throughout. And yet it is somehow even more disturbing to witness the TARDIS' destruction. It carries a bleak and nihilistic outlook on the future of humanity heavily reminiscent of the later effort by Russell T Davis in the form of Utopia.

The performances here reinforce the feeling of impending disaster, with highlights including Davison's Doctor becoming increasingly frantic and predictable and Mark Strickson masterfully unveiling the horrific nature of what is lurking below Frontios's surface. With some top-notch performances from the impressive guest cast, from William Lucas as Mr Range and Peter Gilmore's Brazen, each with conflicting ideals on what would best represent the last remnants of their struggling colony. The Tractators themselves, while not realised to their fullest, are an excellent foe for the Doctor, it's a shame about their final design being a little bit too hockey, but that's the only real detractor from this otherwise excellent story.

Returning director Ron Jones has taken a massive shift in his directorial style much more reminiscent of later efforts, Vengeance on Varos and Mindwarp. His work is complemented by the brilliant production design of the story with such a large scale and highly detailed sets courtesy of designer David Buckingham. Paddy Kingsland provides his final contribution from the Radiophonic Workshop, and he certainly goes out with a bang, while former script editor Christopher H. Bidmead runs wild with so many brilliant ideas and is finally allowed to flex his writing talents to his best.

Laden with doom and featuring one of Doctor Who's most gruesome cliffhangers to date, Frontios makes for enjoyably tense, edge-of-seat viewing backed by one of Davison's best performances as the Doctor making it one of the best efforts from his otherwise underrated era.

"I got this one cheap because the walk's not quite right... And then there's the accent..."


The Godfather, Part III by Jason A. Miller 25/2/23

The 1972 movie version of The Godfather, co-scripted by the book's author, Mario Puzo, and director, Francis Ford Coppola, won Best Picture at the Oscars, and was hailed as one of the greatest motion pictures of all time.

The movie studio -- and America -- demanded a sequel. Puzo, so the legend goes, had written the first script without any previous screenwriting experience, and wanted to improve his skills, so went out and bought the newest how-to book on screenwriting. Page 1 of that book said that the reader should first consult the script of The Godfather, which it hailed as the perfect screenplay.

Puzo figured he'd learned enough, put down the book, and co-wrote The Godfather Part II, which also won the Oscar for Best Picture and which was hailed as the greatest movie of all time.

Sixteen years later, the two men reunited to write The Godfather Part III. Which was, frankly, just a bad idea (but did have a one-sentence appearance by veteran Doctor Who guest actor John Abineri, who's in the second reel, and you can turn it off after that).

Christopher Hamilton Bidmead (and that's the name of Abineri's character in Part III -- "Hamilton banker") wrote, for my money, two of the greatest Doctor Who episodes of all time: Logopolis and Castrovalva. And then, a while later, he wrote Frontios. Which is, like The Godfather Part III, okay by itself, with a few great isolated moments, but is generally a weak conclusion to the triptych.

My abiding memory of Frontios is the first night I sat down to watch it, in January 1985 on PBS. When I saw the title Frontios, my immediate connection (at age 11) was to the popular US breakfast cereal Cheerios. I asked, probably out loud, "What are Front-i-o's?". The episodes themselves did little to tickle my imagination. I disliked the gloomy, murky sets, and I was sort of terrified of Brazen -- too young to realize that he was an antagonist, not a villain, and an interesting character in his own right, upright and dignified. But my biggest memory was the connection to breakfast cereal, rather than anything about the story.

There's much to like about Frontios now, as a grownup, at least on paper. The colony ship setting is a familiar one -- Bidmead previously helped birth back-to-back colony ship stories as script editor in Season 18 -- but the added wrinkle of this ship being as far in the future as the Laws of Time permitted the TARDIS to travel lends a nice note of ambiguity. The script is written for adults, not kids and tweens; the puns on "Mr. Range" and "arrangements" (and "the gravity of the situation"), the use of names like Plantaganet and Brazen to define their characters even before you see the actors act, and Lesley Dunlop's aggressively early-'80s-punk hairstyle, all short and spiky, are not aiming at the 11-year-old that I was in January 1985. In fact, there's so much talk about the hydrazine generator and acid jars in Part One that Frontios has retroactively become Breaking Bad fanfic.

And, oh boy, the TARDIS crew acting is a thing of beauty. I entered the Davison Era in season 20, and Season 21 is really when I started watching the show every night. I didn't realize until years later that not everyone loved Davison as the Doctor with as much ferocity as me; I didn't know about his more detached and bland acting in Season 19, or the doldrums of Terminus Part Two. Because, even then, I knew that he was on fire in Frontios. His manic energy in the early TARDIS scenes, his constant wordplay, his quiet moments peering over the top of his glasses ("brainy specs", the 10th Doctor would later call them), and his searing lecture to Plantagenet about how the colony is on the verge of extinction, are all a master class on how to play the Doctor.

How about Mark Strickson, too? Doctor Who sort of became a wasteland for male companions after Frazer Hines left (and would become one again after Strickson departed), but Strickson is just phenomenal here. I love his taunting of Tegan by enunciating the words "catastrophic" and "doomed" in regards to the destruction of Earth. And his manic turn in Parts Two and Three is an impressive bit of TV over-acting, just on the right side of intense and scary, rather than ridiculous and unintentionally funny. That turns ends with Turlough making the conscious choice to leave the safety of the colony ship and descend into the tunnels to follow Brazen's search-and-recovery team. The script doesn't highlight this as a major shift in Turlough's character arc -- from villain to coward, and then from coward to hero -- but this is exactly the coward-to-hero pivot moment.

But, apart from the nice isolated bits, the story as a whole is not great. Part Two has some interesting political fencing, but the monsters (the Tractators, and their chatty leader, the Gravis) aren't properly introduced until more than halfway through the story, so Part Two itself drags on a bit. The plot, once you figure out what the Tractators are and what they're trying to do, is a weird mash-up of The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Web Planet. And, while I typically don't harsh on bad monster costumes or silly voices in Doctor Who, the Tractators are not very convincing villains.

The Gravis may be the biggest problem this story has. No, I don't mind that you can see the actor's shoes under his costume, or that he has a nose. Doctor Who can do well with aliens in funny costumes delivering threatening dialogue (Monarch is terrific in Four to Doomsday). And Davison is at his absolute best running circles around the Gravis, first by pouring on the fake flattery, then by "accidentally" revealing that he has a TARDIS, and begging the Gravis to do anything, anything, except put the TARDIS back together. But the Gravis' voice-acting is not great (what's up with that accent?!), and by the time he shows up as the main antagonist, it's already Part Four, and you just don't care anymore.

Maybe the story's problem came in the editing. Bidmead's novelization restores a lot of filmed material cut for timing (the DVD tells us that both Parts One and Four were originally four minutes over length) or scripted material never filmed due to budget woes (TARDIS scenes were lost cause they couldn't fit an extra corridor set into the studio). The book tells us that Cockerill, a fairly pointless character on TV who wastes valuable screen time, had a whole antagonist-to-hero story arc which the TV production completely drops. Some of Davison's best lines, amid his baiting of the Gravis, are gone. And Bidmead wrote gravity special-effects that just never would have worked in the studio.

Frontios has some good moments, but the best of Bidmead's ideas just proved unfilmable. The story is not bad, per se, but it is largely boring and uninspiring, Davison's and Strickson's best work lost in the murk. So, like most of The Godfather Part III, Frontios is, and pardon another gravity pun, mostly a drag.