Something that seems to connect a lot of Peter Davison era Doctor Who is some reasonably intelligent, grown-up science fiction, a surprising amount of guest stars, and an equally surprising lack of the Doctor himself.
Which is not to say that here, in 1984’s four-part ‘Frontios’, he’s exactly pushed to the background, but he – and the story itself, for that matter – doesn’t really get going until comfortably into the second episode, sometime after the villains of the piece are revealed. That’s not because the Tractators are particularly scary (they’re not), but because it’s only at this point that the central characters realise the gravity of their situations.
It’s interesting to note that for such a densely-plotted, fast-moving story, which had to be edited down to the second, it still manages to be such a slow burner in Episode 1.
Some of the early section of the story involves itself with setting up the concept that the attacks from an unknown enemy come from below, rather than above, with some victims being sucked down into the ground itself – viewers who recall a similar concept in last year’s Silurian two-parter might be amused to hear it declared that ‘the Earth was hungry’. The Tractators are alien enough monsters, but not realised entirely successfully – less men in rubber suits, more dancers squeezed into restrictive condom-type shells.
Thankfully, there’s a decent amount for Turlough to do (be pro-active, come up with the plans, spend screentime with Lesley Dunlop… uh, go a bit mad), and he has an amusing sequence when he keeps people at bay with a weapon of mass destruction (well, a hat stand). Tegan gets to be nursemaid to the injured again, which happens slightly too often in this season – particularly as this is to be the last season where this cast share the same TARDIS.
Jeff Rawle, soon to be much better known as George Dent in Drop The Dead Donkey, does well as the far-too-young leader of the planet, presenting paranoia well and initially seeming like a power-mad dictator before it becomes quickly apparent that he doesn’t want the job in the first place, while The Onedon Line’s Peter Gilmore is somewhat less wooden than everyone in the extras appears to think.
This is the story that older viewers might recall as the one where the TARDIS blows up. What’s particularly neat is that there’s no real cheating here – the TARDIS is pretty much genuinely destroyed (although it’s not successfully explained how the planet copes with all those extra dimensions). It’s a pity then that, in the most telling example of the constraints placed on the show at the time, the TARDIS is blown up offscreen (it barely merits a puff of smoke). The logic of how the TARDIS is brought back together – and how, at the same time, it renders the villains harmless, is reasonable enough, but happens a little too suddenly, and feels somewhat like a cop-out.
Overall, there are some good moments in the story – most notably The Doctor trying to convince the Tractators that Tegan is a mere android. Overall, however, this is not the most memorable of ‘80s Doctor Who – at least ‘Warriors Of The Deep’ had a pantomime horse and a rarely bettered closing line. ‘Frontios’ looks great when people are running around trying to avoid getting shot, but when they get round to telling the actual story, they seem rather startled to discover that there isn’t one.
Extras: While minimal, the extras here are good fun. Mark Strickson, giggling and gasping through his anecdotes and interviews, indicates that – even if you’ve never seen a Turlough story in your life – he should be top of your guestlist for any convention. Jeff Rawle compares the experience of working on ‘80s Doctor Who to a recent episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures (SJA is a Rolls Royce, he says, while he’s less complimentary about the parent programme). This is a sentiment shared by most of the cast and crew in the extras; a frustration that they didn’t have enough time or money and an annoyance that something truly brilliant was just in reach.
Released on DVD on Monday 30th May 2011 by 2entertain.
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