A review of the DVD, from 2011
“Let me show you how we smooth our walls, Doctor,” gushes the Gravis, queen of the Tractators, his flippers flapping with girlish glee. It’s one of the odder things ever to be said by a Doctor Who enemy, but at least he’s up front about his passions in life. Other monsters clearly harbour a passion for decor and design but – to protect their forbidding reputations – wisely keep schtum. Hidden deep in the mighty Cyber Empire is the mighty Cyber Graphic Design Department; responsible for logos and stencilling. And there must have been a moment in a planning meeting for the new Dalek paradigm when Scientist narrowed his iris at a Dulux ‘New Season Brights’ colour chart, sceptical of Eternal’s assurance that Sunburst Yellow would be “quite slimming”.
But we get ahead of ourselves. The Tractators don’t appear until the second act of Frontios; the 1984 adventure that dispatches the Fifth Doctor to the eponymous planet. Curious onlookers may wonder why the Doctor appears to be travelling through space and time with a school uniform fetishist and a prostitute. However, we more experienced hands know these to be his friends, Turlough and Tegan. Well, if ‘friends’ is the word. They seem to take most of their pleasure from pointing out each other’s mistakes and limitations. The Doctor is definitely avoiding them; offering only the flimsiest of excuses for staying out of the control room. Something about a hatstand, he claims. A likely story. Starved of civilised company, he probably sneaks off to the cloisters, where he carefully describes Romana to an obliging Kamelion.
We learn the politics of Frontios via a belch of exposition. Two uniformed men are arguing: one tall, haughty, granite-faced; the other short, bespectacled, harassed. “Are you suggesting that the son of Captain Revere is unfit to rule?” thunders Tall. “As chief science officer, I…” replies Short, but is interrupted. “Oh, don’t go waving your title at me,” huffs Tall. “From now on, this research centre is under military jurisdiction!” And so it goes on. It’s the kind of establishing scene you find when a Doctor Who writer is more interested in plot than character. Here, Christopher H Bidmead hopes that by having his characters bicker impatiently as they tell each other things they already know – their names, their jobs, the absolute fundamental business of their shared lives – it will somehow seem like a perfectly natural thing for them to be doing. This never works. (Although, to Bidmead’s credit, at least no one says “As well you know…” or “Do you think I could ever forget…?”) Perhaps a more subtle approach would be for the writer to turn up at your house in person, switch off the TV, copy out his script in biro on the palm of your right hand and then repeatedly slap you across the face with it.
One thing’s certain: all is not well on Frontios. A ratty band of colonists who represent humanity’s second-to-last hope for survival are being clonked on the bounce by high-velocity meteorites on a half-hourly basis. Food and medical supplies are limited. People are dying. It’s into this mire of misfortune that the TARDIS wheezes, and the Doctor immediately gets to grips with what he believes to be the most significant issue facing the doomed colony. He tries to fix the lights.
It’s peculiar how much of the first episode is devoted o the subject of lighting. Most stories plunge into the business of investigation and adventure. This one seeks merely to establish a steady amperage. And, generously, we’re even offered four ways of achieving this. Will we use phosphor lamps, with electron excitation? Maybe – but take care. “They’re a terrible fire hazard in this sort of container, you know,” cautions Turlough. (“In this sort of container,” is such a gloriously bathetic caveat.) We wouldn’t want to risk a fire, so perhaps a portable mu-field activator and argon discharge globes? Alas no. They’re in the TARDIS and, as Tegan reports: “The interior door’s jammed!” She squawks this information as if it’s the single most dramatic event of her life. News of the murder of her favourite aunt was greeted with nary a flicker. “It’s as if some tremendous force field has pulled it out of shape!” boggles Turlough, regarding said door. It’s a leap of logic that suggests he’s been reading ahead in his script. But never mind that, you cry – what about those lights? Can’t we use the hydrazine steam generator? No! It’s strictly forbidden! But that means we only have one option left… An acid jar, charged by wind power, with some sort of interrupter to raise the voltage. Good news! There’s one in the colony ship. Bad news: someone has to fetch it, and that might take a while.
With this quest to switch the lights on – which continues as Tegan and Turlough struggle to move a heavy battery from one room to another via some complicated business with ropes and pulleys – one imagines that Christopher H would have us believe his characters are using intelligent scientific method to solve a problem. But really, it’s shameless padding and false drama, because the problem is as bogus as all those solutions. The lights are never even switched on in the end. They’re not important, so it’s all just forgotten. Part Two sees attention turn to investigation of the meteorite attacks, and the trail leads underground. But once more the writer is vamping. There’s talk of chemical tests on the soil. There’s discussion of the secret researches of colony’s former leader, the late Captain Revere. There’s suggestion that only scientific method will unravel the mystery of Frontios… And again, it’s a con. The mystery only exists because of Revere’s totally illogical – and entirely reckless – decision not to reveal a single thing he discovered to another living soul, except in cryptic terms to a child.
And so how do our heroes learn the truth about Frontios? Well, Turlough happens to suddenly recall that the same thing once happened on his planet. He even tells us that the monsters lurking down the tunnel are called Tractators. It’s all terribly convenient. “Growing… breeding… spreading the infection,” moans Turlough, channeling a race memory through a froth of spit. “They are the appetite beneath the ground!” It all sounds promising, but sadly implies a far more subtle and sinister threat than the one that bobs into view soon after.
In terms of costume design, the Tractators were apparently inspired by woodlice, but each looks more like a giant halibut up on its tail and struggling to shift a five-drawer filing cabinet. They stagger a kind of solo waltz – one step to the left, two forward, one to the right – and there’s no hiding from the fact that they look very silly indeed. But forget argon globes and acid jars, Frontios only lights up when the Tractators are around. They’re thoroughly endearing, and their leader is a camp classic.
The Gravis (who, depending on how you catch him, sometimes looks like Martin Clunes, sometimes Andrew Lloyd-Webber) has – again very conveniently – heard of the Doctor, “at least by reputation.” He’s also heard of what he calls “the Tardeece”, and he’s mad for it. Our Gravis loves to travel, you see. Those well-buffed walls of his are to channel the gravitational power of the Tractators into an engine that will allow the Gravis to pilot Frontios across the galaxy. (They can control gravity by waggling their antennae, you understand. It’s a typically realistic and ‘hard’ science fiction idea from Bidmead. ) While in the Doctor’s company, the Gravis is positively coquettish, as if they’re on a date. “We will have to know each other a little better before we can discuss that,” teases the fishy beast when the conversation takes a turn for the personal. He’d flutter a fan if he could but hold one.
In an unforgiving costume, actor John Gillett does his best to lend the Gravis some expression, but only has two stunted fins to work with. There’s a charming moment when, after the Doctor apologises for Tegan’s bolshiness, the Gravis says “not at all”, and waggles his flippers palms-out like a Pope humbly waving away a devoted supplicant. Later, circumstances twice cause the Gravis to pitch forward helplessly onto his rubbery snout, and you feel nothing but sympathy for the poor love.
Tractators aside, there are other good things about this story. The production design is imaginative, with the main sets looking like they’ve been chipped from layered slate. Paddy Kingsland’s synthesised pan-pipe music is memorable, and feels fitting. And there’s one bang-on line of dialogue that would go straight into a trailer for the season: “Frontios buries its own dead”. It’s lightly delivered by William Lucas as Mr Range; part of a generally strong support company. Sadly, the cast are regularly served material that sounds like it’s been only loosely translated from Pidgin English via Double Dutch. “Do you think they are connected? The unaccountable deaths and these creatures?” is one lowlight. You sense the hand of script editor Eric Saward in this, but it’s hard to say for sure, as neither he nor Bidmead are celebrated for their naturalistic dialogue. Despite this handicap, Peter Davison is a focused and passionate Doctor – even when nose-to-nose with the Gravis – and actor Jeff Rawle gives a subtle performance as sickly young leader Plantagenet, even though he has to work with some of the most rum material of all. “Try and get some rest,” the Doctor tells him, invoking the First Cliché of Soap Opera. Plantagenet, suffering from malignant melodrama, spits back his reply: “Death is the only kind of rest you bring to Frontios, Doctor!”. You imagine he could go on forever in that vein, given half a chance. “Have a sandwich,” the Doctor might suggest. “Death is the only kind of sandwich you bring to Frontios, Doctor!”
The story’s best moment comes as we enter the home stretch, and the Gravis’s beloved Tardeece is found scattered in pieces through the tunnels of Frontios. (It was apparently destroyed at the end of Part One, you see; although, as neither Doctor nor companions seem particularly fussed about it, you forget that detail for a while.) The image of TARDIS walls splintered through rock is surprisingly unsettling. It makes you feel a bit funny inside; seeing one’s own childhood home – in a manner of speaking – corrupted like that.
The Doctor plays on the Gravis’s need for speed, and traps the creature as it reassembles the ship using its gravity powers. He then dumps the old darling on an uninhabited planet – which seems rather harsh. The Gravis is clearly ripe for rehabilitation. He’s just a needy nerd starved of intelligent conversation, so abandoning him on an intergalactic desert island without so much as eight favourite records and the novelisation of Logopolis surely qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment. The Doctor also assures us that the remaining Tractators, freed from the Gravis’s control, will live on as “harmless burrowing creatures”. Of course, we can be sure the humans will let bygones be bygones, and there definitely won’t be a dozen pink fish heads decorating the throne room wall by teatime.
Without the fun of the Tractators, Frontios wouldn’t amount to much. For while it appears to have the structure of a solid four-part story, the plot is really no more than a string of distractions and conveniences. Solutions and resolutions present themselves without any real work, and without work there can be no sense of reward. Bidmead’s gaseous writing leaves us unmoved. And this is the man who once accused Russell T Davies of taking first draft scripts through to production. You have to admire his gall.
Of course, others will have a different take on the matter. Mr Range is particularly forthright on the subject. “Your minds are being eaten away by this daily disaster we call Frontios,” he insists.
Which is a little harsh. It was only broadcast twice a week.
Driven To Distractation wins the award for the most painful title yet for a DVD documentary; a highly contested category. The programme is thorough, thoughtful and well-structured, with a wide range of interviewees, but stumbles when it makes critical judgments of its own. Speaking of Christopher Bidmead’s time as script editor of Doctor Who, the narrator tells that “having seen off the show’s comedy excesses, [Bidmead] guided the programme through a sobering season of scientific sorties.” The guilty words there are “seen off”. The writer of that line clearly held this view back in 1980, but then the wind changed and he got stuck like that. This reviewer is convinced there is no significant caucus of Doctor Who fans who still rally to the cry of: “Hooray, we got rid of Douglas Adams! We swapped the writer of City of Death for the writer of Frontios and saved the show! Clever old us!” Because that would be absurd.
A series of Deleted and Extended Scenes – sadly not presented within the context of the transmitted material this time – offer more flirting from the Doctor and the Gravis, and some fun business with Tegan. Generally, however, it’s a load of Cockerill. (He’s a bolshy guard from a turgid subplot that goes absolutely nowhere, and no one ever said about Frontios: “It’s okay, but what it really needs is more scenes with Cockerill.”)
The Production Subtitles are rigorous and endearingly earnest, especially when they take time to explain what a vol-au-vent is. The commentary – featuring Davison, Saward, Gillett and Rawle – is not the most thrilling ever committed to disc, but the conversation is sincere and civilised.
However, this reviewer is saddened that neither documentary or commentary brings Eric Saward and Christopher H Bidmead together in the same room, so they can play a unique doubles match of their favourite sport of blame-dodging. They should have been styled like Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show; heckling from a high balcony despite being entirely in complicit in the middling business unfolding on stage before them.
BIDMEAD: “Who’s responsible for this nonsense?”
SAWARD: “The writer!”
BIDMEAD: “The script editor!”
And then TOGETHER, with much gleeful cackling: “The producer!”