5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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"You must forget that you saw that!"
Christopher Bidmead, as far as we're concerned, has got a chequered history when it comes to Doctor Who scripts. He wrote Logopolis, which is one of our favourite stories. But he also wrote Castrovalva. Which isn't. So when it came to Frontios, we weren't sure which way it was going to go.
Sadly, it was the Bad Way.
Now, we know this story's a popular one, but for the life of us we just can't see it. Yes, it starts out okay. The crash landing of the TARDIS has some fun shock value, and the colonists, stuck way out in the future, look like they might be an interesting bunch. Add the mysterious bombardments and the earth which seems to have mistaken itself for quicksand, and you've got some pretty tantalising ingredients.
The trouble is, though, that when it comes to Doctor Who it's an awful lot easier to start out interesting than it is to finish that way. And that's the problem with Frontios.
First of all, there's the Monster Issue. Bidmead was reputedly dubious about John Nathan-Turner's monster fixation, and no wonder: the woodlice-based monsters he dutifully supplied (which actually end up looking more like overweight prawns) pull the rug right out from under the story. Yes, we know stupid monsters come with the territory, but there's stupid and stupid, and frankly, after the Tractators show up nothing's going to save this story.
Then there's the plot inconsistencies and general weirdness. After supplying so little plot for Castrovalva that they needed a truckload of pillows to pack around it in order to make up four episodes, Bidmead goes to the other extreme here. As a result, scenes were cut which are needed to make the plot make a reasonable amount of sense. (For example, we were wondering how in the first episode Tegan, Turlough and Norna were managing to wander around so freely despite having half an army after them, until we discovered that the scenes where Cockerill helps them out had been cut.)
The overcrowded plot also has the unfortunate result of Big Things happening with hardly any reaction to them. The TARDIS explodes, for heaven's sake! Quite apart from this contradicting everything we've ever known about it, wouldn't you think this would pretty much qualify as a major event for the Doctor and his companions? But instead, the Doctor delivers "the TARDIS has been destroyed" in the tone you'd expect if they were on a picnic and he'd forgotten the corkscrew. And the companions seem even less bothered, pretty much forgetting all about it after a couple of minutes. Likely? We don't think so. Nor do they seem particularly gobsmacked when bits of it turn up in the basement, or all that relieved when it smooshes itself back together again. Hey, after all, it's only the TARDIS. And it's the same with the idea that the colonists might be the only humans left. Pretty stunning stuff, you'd think, but the characters just shrug it off and go on their merry prawn-skewering ways.
The script as a whole is pervaded by this stupid lack of logic. If the colonists think that the Doctor is their sworn enemy sent to deal death from the sky, why do they happily let Tegan wander off to help with the lighting? Why in God's name would they think the hatstand had anything to do with the bombardment? Then, after being terrified of the hatstand, why when the Doctor puts it down would they ignore it completely? If they can easily get Plantagenet out of the excavating machine, why, after the stupidest noble sacrifice scene ever, can't they just fish Brazen out too? If the Tractators manipulate gravity to drag people through the earth, how come the people kind of dissolve before appearing in one piece on the other side? (And where'd they get the transporter?) This kind of stuff certainly doesn't do the story any favours: if things seem to happen randomly, it's hard to care much about what's going on.
Worst of all, though, and the thing that really kills Frontios as far as we're concerned, is the depressing lack of originality. It's not that the script's uniformly terrible: there are some great jokes, some impressive writing along the lines of "They are the appetite beneath the ground", the human-powered excavation machine is impressively creepy, and we like the theme of hidden truth echoed by the monsters underground. But the trouble is that we've seen it all before, and more than once at that. Colonists versus monsters is a well-worn theme in Doctor Who (see Colony In Space, for starters), and the crashed ship/hidden knowledge thing has already been done (and done better) in Full Circle. Even the hollowed out planet as sports car has been used before, in both The Dalek Invasion Of Earth and The Pirate Planet. Furthermore, as with Castrovalva, a good beginning degenerates into a ton of pointless corridor-running. Overall, apart from a new and not very good monster, we can't see that Frontios adds anything at all of interest to the Who canon.
Characterisation is at least one of the story's strengths. After seeing Captain Baines in The Horror Of Fang Rock, here we get Captain Onedin himself as Brazen, in a strong performance by Peter Gilmore that adds depth to the standard soldier type. Range, too, is a great character who humanises the plight of the colonists and plays nicely against Brazen's more military approach. Cockerill's character suffers from the scene cuts: he would have made a more interesting and believable third main character than the wildly veering Plantagenet. All of them wrestle manfully with lines which while sometimes inspired are at other times virtually undeliverable.
As for the regulars, it's not a bad story for the Doctor, since he actually manages to do something instead of standing by and wringing his hands while everyone else gets on with it. What's intriguing here, though, is that the first episode, both in the script and in Peter Davison's delivery, sounds exactly like the Fourth Doctor. Exactly like him - the things he says, the way he interrupts, the kind of jokes he makes - it's all there. In fact, so strong is this that we wonder if Bidmead had already written the first episode as a prospective Fourth Doctor story. Davison certainly rises to the challenge, and his Doctor in the first episode is as a result uncharacteristically charismatic. It can't last, and it doesn't, but even so his character in the rest of the episodes is at least a little sharper and more dynamic than we're used to seeing him. His concern for Tegan in the android scenes, not to mention the opportunity he takes for sniping at her, is this Doctor at his best.
As for Tegan, perhaps we need medication, but we're actually finding her progressively less annoying. (Come to think of it, it's probably because of the way she criticises the Doctor, which always brings a round of applause from us.) Turlough, though, is utterly terrible here. We can only shake our heads in wonder at the fan popularity of his race memory scenes, because as far as we're concerned, if they were any hammier Mark Strickson would be oinking. Spare us.
A good first ep. But an unoriginal plot and themes, too much material left unexplored, terrible monsters and an overdose of corridors puts Frontios into our Do Not Resuscitate category.
MORAL: There's no hiding a dirty little secret.
Aren't the soldiers' helmets rather suspiciously similar to the troopers' helmets in Blake's 7?
THAT'S HOW IT USUALLY WORKS
"We're being dragged towards the planet!" "How?" "Gravitational pull!"
Where did all this Prime Directive stuff come from? After a big fuss about it in The War Games, we've hardly heard a thing about it since, yet all of a sudden the Doctor's wetting himself for fear the Time Lords'll find out he's been poking his nose in. What makes this planet so special? Have the Time Lords got bugging devices installed at the edge of the future or something?
THANKS, WE WONDERED WHERE WE PUT THAT
Considering how hard they're trying to stop Tegan and co from getting the acid, isn't it a bit surprising that when they appear with it nobody so much as blinks?
OR REASONABLE FACSIMILE
Brazen instructs the insurgents: "Get back to your business, and let Plantagenet and myself get back with ours."
Tegan puts the metal bar through the middle of the door handles, but later when they're trying to break the door down it's shifted higher up.