Sunday, 5 October 2014

Frontios written by Christopher H. Bidmead and directed by Ron Jones


 This story in a nutshell: 'Eaten by the earth...'

An English Gentleman: 'Not a word to the Time Lords...' Where on Earth did this fifth Doctor spring from? Commanding, authoritative, witty, playful and improvising everything as he goes along, this is an interpretation of the fifth Doctor that I can believe in utterly. If this is how Bidmead would have let the character run through this era had he remained script editor I think it is a crushing shame that he didn't hang around for a few more seasons. True we might have suffered the odd Meglos but the chance to stumbling on another Full Circle or Warriors' Gate would be a huge bonus too. My main problem with the fifth Doctor (although it is not as much of a problem as I originally thought thanks Peter Davison's thoughtful performances) is that he was a little too hands off and ineffective, blending into the scenery rather than actively engaging in situations. The Doctor of Frontios is in an impossible situation, he has lost the TARDIS forever and is trapped on a Earth colony in the future that is under threat and the fingers are all pointing at him. Not only that but he isn't supposed to be here at all, the Time Lords have forbidden time travellers to head out this far and he's been in enough trouble with his own people in his lifetimes. Any more infringements and they will haul him over the coals again and set up another trial.

Behind the interior door it sounds like the Doctor is tearing the TARDIS apart with his bare hands. He's straight out the door when they land, grabbing the nearest victim of the bombardment and immediately making himself useful caring for the sick and fixing the lighting. The Doctor is out of that ridiculous coat, adorning half moon specs and doesn't want any credit for his assistance on this world. He doesn't hold back when summarising the nightmare scenario that is facing humanity on Frontios, it is a grim picture and he paints it as such. After one of Plantagenet's blusterous speeches about winning the war against their invisible aggressors the Doctor pipes up with a very cute 'absolutely, I wish you all the luck in the world.' Why couldn't he have been written this cheekily all the time? Is this the only time in Doctor Who where the Doctor decides to walk away from a situation rather than battle with its problems? 'I've had enough of this planet' is a gloriously defeatist attitude from the most positive of Doctors. He's reached a point where he wont put up with Tegan's whinging any longer (she should be thankful she didn't stick around for Sixie otherwise she would have had his hands at her neck every week) and will simply tell her what to do without apology when she starts griping. The moment doesn't quite come off on screen but as scripted the scene where the Doctor uses the enormous boulder that the Tractators are moving to diminish his cover as a cricket ball to knock them over shows this Doctor at his improvisational best. He's delightful in the last episode where he chats away with the Gravis like intellectual equals, taking the piss out of Tegan in the most wonderful of ways by trying to pretend that she is an android. He has an air of authority and arrogance that rather suits Davison, matched by a great sense of humour. I love how he cheekily tricks the Gravis in to the TARDIS and then in a moment of pure theatre overplays his fear of losing his ship. The old ham.

Mouth of Legs: At the risk of sounding like a broken record...where on Earth did this Tegan spring from? Once again her worst characteristics are toned down (her unceasing attitude, her negative slant on every situation) and she is far more engaging as a result. On the strength of Frontios, this era would have been very different indeed had Bidmead been in the script editors chair. He and Saward had vastly different approaches to Doctor Who and I have to say I much prefer the mutual co-operation and fun bantering of the latter's approach to the regulars than the bitching and griping (which creates false drama of the formers). This a Tegan that I would like to hang around with...and she's turned up just as she is about to leave. Go figure. Unbelievably Tegan says 'Can we land? Can we visit them?' When have you ever known this woman to want to go anywhere (but Heathrow) or when they do land do anything but want to get back to the TARDIS? She's showing an appropriate response the situation, she's the only human being travelling in the TARDIS (I guess that makes Tegan our identification figure - eep!) and she wants to know what fate her people are going to suffer. I love Tegan nosing about in the records and getting to heart of the mysterious deaths and then receiving the sharp end of Brazen's tongue when she reveals what she has found out. In a shouting contest between the two of them I know who I would put my money on, even if Brazen has had a military background. She's smart enough to make her escape by blinding Brazen and locking them in the medical centre. In a scuffle, I would want her on my side (remember how she beat that Tereleptil to death with a shotgun?). Amazing how likeable Tegan is when she is treated as a fun character, teased for her dodgy accent and walk (that's probably the leather mini skirt).

Over the Shoulder: Completing an excellent set of regulars for this story, finally we have a writer who is prepared to acknowledge that Turlough exists and not only give him something to do but some development too. He has spent the last four stories wandering around like spare part and barely connecting with the plot and along comes this shock chiller that probes the character and his races past in a very disturbing way. It's a great reminder that Turlough isn't human and proves his people have a back story that is worth exploiting. He has great fun winding Tegan up about the future history of the human race, in particular emphasising the word 'doomed' when referring to the Earth. You could almost say he asked for the nightmare he is about to face. He has a nice, relaxed chemistry with Norna, it's a shame there wasn't any time for that to go somewhere. What Turlough experiences on Frontios is perhaps more disturbing than anything any other companion has been through in a Doctor Who story. As his race memory of the Tractators bubbles to the surface, he practically suffers a nervous breakdown. Paralysed by fear, foaming at the moment, near hysterical with the nightmare of what these creatures did to his people, it is terrifying to see the usually confident and suspicious Turlough laid open so bare. When I complain about Clara being too self assured, this is the sort of terror she is going to have to experience in order to break down that little Miss Perfect image. Whilst I do wonder if there should be lasting psychological consequences for going through such a destabilising experience, I still appreciate the effort of sketching in some of his mysterious back story and revealing something of the mythology of his people. What I like even more is Turlough's acknowledgement that he is a coward and that he doesn't want to face up to his fear by heading into the tunnels and confronting the race that spread through his people like an infection. He knows how people look at him and what they expect of him. And despite all that he is determined to go down anyway, even when he is terrified. It is one of the bravest companion moments ever. Turlough straightening his tie (job done) as they head back to the TARDIS is way cool.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Systems that could rebuild a civilisation for us. Failure proof technology!' 'What happened?' 'It failed...'
'Your unknown invaders are certainly taking their time...'
'Now come and see the TARDIS. As an invasion weapon it's about as offensive as a chicken vol-au-vent!'
'The TARDIS has been destroyed' - one of the best ever cliff-hangers for its implications. I think Davison could sell the moment with a little more drama (he looks like he is going to shrug his shoulders) but the thought that they are trapped on this planet for good, that this is potentially where the series might be set from this point on, is extraordinary. And in true Doctor Who style (i.e. cheap), the method of getting this across to the audience is a hat stand at a jaunty angle in the smoking ruins. Wonderful.
'You can't broadcast socially sensitive information unless you're in control of the facts!'
'I got it cheap because the walk's not quite right. And then there's the accent of course...'
'I know what they are' 'And I know what they're trying to do...' 'Well that sounds promising. Put the two things together and we might be able to stop them...' - Bidmead's logical approach to writing scripts sometimes results in a clinical storytelling but he has structured this one perfectly so the plot comes together to form a rock solid shape in Frontios.

The Good:

* I often mention the music in passing but never really give it the attention it deserves in these reviews. Music is such an important part of Doctor Who because it performs the function of adding lashings of atmosphere and effect where perhaps the budget lets the story down. I have seen it paper over cracks in storytelling, take us on a much more emotional ride than the writing and sliver down the spine when the monsters emerge. It is an entity in its own right and has been thrilling fans of this show for over 50 years. From the musique concrete, dramatic stock tracks and ambient sound effects of the Hartnell era, through the pure 60s imaginative and spasmodic soundtracks of Troughton's time, the experimental madness of Pertwee, the Dudley Simpson owned classical music of the Tom's tenure...now the music is the baby of the radiophonic workshop with a host of talented musicians providing wall to wall sound to accompany the flashy stories. The music in Frontios is a bit different from the norm of this period, far more Dudley-esque instrumental than Limb-inspired electronic wallpaper. There's a mock flute in there which sounds unlike anything heard in any other Doctor Who story and it gives Frontios a fresh musical identity of its own. Some of the musical cues are a little repetitive in the later episodes but the motifs are memorable and quirky.
* Bidmead reminds me so much of Steven Moffat. A little shaky on plotting but full of great ideas, favouring big notions over subtleties of characterisation. Certainly the scenario that Bidmead whips up in Frontios could have come from the Moffat's endlessly creative brain. Fleeing from a solar catastrophe in the Milky Way, a group of human refugees have settled on the planet of Frontios. It's the last of humanity, trapped on this inhospitable planet, bombarded with meteors, people being dragged beneath the soil, lacking food and resources. What a thrilling scenario for a Doctor Who story.
* One thing that Bidmead remembers in Frontios that he forgot all about in his first two contributions to the series was to add the fright factor (unless you find Tegan scaring herself to death whilst wandering around the TARDIS enough to clench your buttocks). Logopolis and Castrovalva were unique in that respect, stories that took their drama from their weighty scientific ideas but it appears that Bidmead is more than capable of providing a story with a good scary hook. The idea of people being eaten by the earth is a terrifying one, imagine the ground swallowing your feet and slowly taking gulps to consume the rest of you. Struggling to grab at anything that might keep you above ground, choking as your wind pipes fill with dirt, the sheer claustrophobia of being trapped in cold clammy earth as you are dragged towards an even worse fate at the hands of the Tractators and their filthy excavating machine. It's such a good idea Chris Chibnall felt compelled to steal it for his letter to the Pertwee era in Matt Smith's first season. It works much more effectively in Frontios though because humanity has so much more to lose. With each person claimed by the Earth the human race edges ever closer to extinction. The words DEATHS UNACCOUNTABLE have a chilling ring to them. The scenes of people literally being sucked down into the earth are genuinely chilling - for a family show Doctor Who really doesn't hold back when showing the realities of the horror this week. Plantagenet has a look of rictus horror on his face and is begging for help as he consumed by the filth and Cockerill, his face mangled from his attack by the retrogrades is spitting blood as he tries to resist. Seeing adults in fear and pain like this is seriously destabilising for kids. You can almost see why the hand of censorship was waiting to come down on the show. That was then, this is now and in 2014 it is wonderfully uncomfortable viewing. The idea that you cannot escape the Tractators no matter what you try and do, that they will always be able to drag you back to your doom, is another freaky idea.

* It isn't always realised in a way that makes you believe this is a functioning colony (although attempts are made) but the script certainly paints a vivid picture of a working outpost that is improvising desperately to avoid extinction. A puppet leader being controlled by an unstable military mind. Useless technology making ramshackle habitations. A planet without fossil fuels to burn for energy. Food rationed and guarded like the most precious jewels.
* I harp on about this all the time in the New Series (especially the stuff fronted by Steven Moffat) but you can write the most gripping state of affairs Doctor Who has ever seen but without characters you can believe in and support (or hiss at) you are fighting a losing battle. Bidmead knows that and Frontios features his strongest guest cast yet, distinct personalities that drive the story and clash with (and aid) the Doctor and his companions in a very entertaining way. Range and Norna are my favourites, the much needed sympathetic face of Frontios. A father and daughter combination that have a believable chemistry, they are the ones you are rooting for throughout. Beyond putting my weight behind humanity simply because I should, it is because I care about these two characters that I was willing the human race to overthrow their oppressors. Without them, it would be a far less emotive experience (take note, Moffat). It helps too that William Lucas (warm, professorial, a bit doddery) and Lesley Dunlop (playful, caring, vulnerable) give superb performances. Jeff Rawle thinks he has stepped into an RSC performance and plays Plantagenet to the hilt, a young man trying fill his fathers considerable boots and hold this colony together (a task he - or nobody - is really up to). It is the comparisons to his father that constantly emasculate him though. It doesn't matter that Rawle favours a theatrical approach because that is what Plantagenet is all about, putting on a brave performance to show the people that everything is okay. It is in his quieter, subtler moments with the Doctor where we see a desperate man who is barely holding onto his sanity. I've heard criticism of Brazen or more specifically Peter Gilmore's stiff performance. Whilst there is an argument that his delivery of the dialogue is a little too regimented and hectoring, I have known quite a few men like Brazen in my time and the have displayed exactly the same overly disciplined and rule bound nature. Socially awkward (in peace time I bet Brazen is the sort to avoid social situations and ponder in the shadows) but coming alive in a crisis (where he feels needed), a rule bound bully that sees things in black and white, Brazen is a fascinating character and has the potential to be far more frightening than the Tractators if pushed into uncomfortable situations. Gilmore could have toned it down a little but he grabs hold of that military madness and attempts to take control of every scene he is in, just as Brazen should. Showing how adept his characterisation can be, even the secondary guest cast like Cockerill stand out. Once a communications officer, almost swallowed whole by the Earth and untouchable because he survived that grisly fate, he seizes the opportunity to take hold of the colony and put the scavengers people in charge. Like 28 Days Later so adeptly realised, the horrible things that human beings do to each other is far more frightening than any conceptualised monster. Norna being seized upon by the scavengers for goodness only knows what purpose made me heart skip a beat whereas the Tractators bouncing around below ground only produced laughter. What makes the characters so vivid in this story is that nobody is quite ready for what faces them; the Doctor isn't quite the wise old man he needs to be to command the situation, Turlough is terrified of confronting his past, Plantagenet can never live up to the reputation of his father, Brazen can barely hold himself together let alone provide security for a fraying colony...and yet they all face these trials face on, regardless of the cost. It's one of the strongest ever guest casts simply because they are so will conceived and played and the dialogue they are given kicks some mighty ass too. Brazen's fate, sacrificing himself to save everybody else and slaving himself to a machine that will give him the sort of precision and order he seeks in the world, is very satisfying.
* No the realisation of the colony isn't perfect (it's one of the few times when filming in a quarry would have been the ideal situation) but I have to give Ron Jones a massive round of applause for trying with what must have been a pathetic budget. I think he achieves a great deal given the lack of resources and love from the BBC at the time, even if there are a few times where his ambition tops his crews abilities. He has three money shots and he uses both of them very wisely. One is the impressive visual of the crashed colony ship stuck into the ground like a knife protruding from somebody's gut with the ramshackle colony made up out of useless technology hiding in its shadows. It's a powerful mix of video effects and set design and it gives you a feel for the scale of the disaster. The second is the impressive long shot inside the colony ship that shows how it literally caved in on itself when it struck the planet, enormous girders crashing on top of each other in a precarious lattice work. The third is below ground, a long shot which reveals the extent of the Tractators impressive tunnel system and sees them surrounding Plantagenet like a hamster in a ball, a strange system of mathematically precise metal structures holding this under city together. This potent imagery is about as cinematic as Doctor Who comes in the classic series. The sets go some way to bridging the gap between Bidmead's big ideas and what eventually ends up on screen; technology ripped from the ship and strewn everywhere, slate walls creating some menacing tunnels, an access tunnel like a gaping maw leading into the ship, a dirty, dark and dangerous medical bay, the hull of the ship pockmarked with holes from meteor strikes and dangerous rock spitting from the ground as meteors strike. Bizarrely my favourite set is the conduit between the two levels of the show, the colony and the under city dug out by the Tractators and the entrance to the tunnels that has light bleeding down from the research room and is lit in a highly dramatic way which really makes it stand out. A great deal of imagination has gone into these sets, they aren't just stock SF dressing but an attempt by the designer to suggest the events that have led up to the point where we visit the colony. To be fair to Ron Jones, there is more than your average number of extras hanging about to prove that there is a fair size to the population of the colony too. And what about the most impressive set of all, left until the lat minute so the climax is a visually striking experience? The TARDIS in pieces, shattered amongst the under city of the Tractators, sections of its walls blending in seamlessly amongst the black. A lot of imagination and skill has gone into making this work. How menacing does the console room look with the slate invading the walls?
* I love the fact that there is a gap in the narrative in what is usually the weakest episode of a four part Doctor Who story (episode three) for a kangaroo court to assemble and point the finger at Range for trying to stir up subversion on Frontios. Brazen doesn't really have a leg to stand on but that doesn't stop him trying to make sense of this uncontrollable situation by trying to blame one of them rather than accept it is the work of alien creatures. It's a well written and played scene that contrasts nicely with the spooky investigations of the Doctor and Tegan below ground and it allows for Turlough to share his experiences in a public setting, to drive home the danger they are in from the Tractators. Smartly it stops being  trial when everybody opens up about their experiences and becomes a pooling of resources and information. Suddenly the colonists are working together and fighting back.
* The end of episode three is one of the best classic Who ever managed to pull off, a genuinely ghoulish and surprising moment where Captain Revere, long assumed dead and buried, turns up slaved to the Tractator excavating machine. He's clearly been drained of anything that has made him human and is just a brain slaved to the computer, his body wired into the workings of the machine, a blank look on his waxy face. It's quite horrible and yet well set up, Brazen admitting that his corpse vanished beneath the Earth and the character being referred to throughout the tale. 'A waste...but we had the best of him.'
* The situation on Frontios has been sufficiently set up come episode that we can witness a retrograde attack on the colony ship and then Cockerill and his people subduing that and staging their own coup. All this is happening away from the Doctor and the villains of the piece showing that this setting has legs regardless of the usual Doctor Who elements.
* 'They gave you ten years to establish yourselves...and then they started making their collection' When you hear of the various methods that the Tractators have employed to bring the colony on Frontios to their heels, even allowing them a false sense of security when settling on the planet and biding their time before sending in the meteors and dragging colonists below the ground, it makes them one of the smartest and insidious of nasties the Doctor has encountered. It's right up there with the duplicitous and violent methods used by the Daleks before their invasion of the Earth. In a bizarre co-incidence they are also nabbing the ambitious idea at the core of the Hartnell epic too, hollowing out Frontios to build a gravity motor and drive the planet through space. You have to give it to Bidmead, he sure thinks big. As stalling as long as possible to reveal the full extent of the monsters plan goes, this is one of the best because the answers are so impressive. Infesting new planets, nowhere in the universe will be safe from them. Thrilling ideas. Even the way of defeating them is well thought through. Like the Borg that would come along in a decade, the Tractators are harmless drones without an organising mind to control them. Isolate that mind and they are easily defeated. Bidmead has established that the Gravis is desperate to travel and secluded the TARDIS underground, trap him inside and he is cut off from the rest of the Tractators. He wants the TARDIS so badly he puts it back together and causes his own downfall. It is so neatly handled you could sing it.

The Bad:
* This is another one of those Doctor Who stories with a dodgy opening scene that might convince you that what you about to watch is a dud. The behind the scenes boys are clearly having trouble with making the Earth gulp, the music is a little too intrusive and the stunt of the falling girder fails to work on any level.
* It's odd that I should choose to review this story directly after The Sun Makers because Ron Jones and Pennant Roberts have something in common as directors of adventure serials. They are both very good at casting and creating an atmosphere but neither of the excels when it comes to bringing action to the screen. It is often ponderous and poorly executed, as it is in these two stories. Fortunately it isn't such a problem with either The Sun Makers or Frontios because one is a scathing attack on the tax system and the other is an atmospheric SF horror for the most part and both rely on ideas, performances and dialogue far more than dynamic action. But the few occasions they have to rise to the occasion in their best stories, they still don't quite get it right.
* Are the Tractators a complete write off? Do they spoil the entire story? Of course not, no more than the Wirrn do in The Ark in Space. Like the Wirrn there are parts of these costumes that work and parts that don't and what was needed was a sympathetic director to turn the lights down and get in close to the detailed parts and never, ever shoot them in long shot (which unfortunately is how we get our first glimpse of them). When exposed in their entirety they are rather comical creatures, hobbling along like Gell Guards with their bright shiny leather backs, limp wrists and beige skirts hiding the actors shuffling legs. However once you get up close you will find a highly detailed mask. Despite the twitching antennae that don't often twitch, the blank, waxy eyes, disgusting tendrils quivering in their mouths and fractured, almost crystalline chests all combine to create something genuinely nightmarish. If only that was all we saw of them... The moment when the phosphor lamp is smashed and they dance about in pain pretty much any tension they might have generated vanishes. The various Tractator attacks in episode four are woeful because the actors cannot convincingly get tangled up with these cumbersome creatures. Imagine if they could have been realised in full CGI, curling around their victims like real giant woodlice and squeezing them to death.

Result: One of my favourite Doctor Who stories from the eighties and easily in my top three Davison's, Frontios gives us a tantalising peek into what this era might have been like had the BBC acquiesced to Christopher H. Bidmead's request for a pay increase. A potent end of the world scenario, the terrifying prospect of being eaten by the earth, giant insects burrowing away below the ground, the destruction of the TARDIS, a vivid Doctor, resourceful companions who are afforded strong development, vivid guest characters, powerful dialogue and a plot that has many layers a strong scientific core whilst still remembering to emote. Colour me impressed. In fact it almost feels as though Bidmead has deliberately upped his game as a one finger salute at the BBC - this is what you could have every week instead of The Kings' Demons and Warriors of the Deep. Ron Jones' last three stories on Doctor Who are his finest (this, Vengeance on Varos and Mindwarp) and see an in house director that clearly isn't used to the rigours of adventure serials finally realising how to make the show work and work very well by concentrating on atmosphere, casting the parts carefully and telling the story in a very claustrophobic, oppressive way. Frontios, Varos and Mindwarp all have excellent lighting and music too, which gives Jones' direction a massive boost. Saying that I would still liked to have seen what Peter Grimwade, Matthew Robinson or Graeme Harper could have done with this material. Jones is in tune with Bidmead's chilling ideas and together they create a unique story, one that favours theatre over television and drama over action. There is plenty of detail in the script that helps to sell the situation and that is translated into the design of the piece. For once in 80s Who it feels like everybody is working in the same direction. It's a story that manages to successfully evolve from a creeping horror tale (the mystery of people being eaten by the earth in episodes one and two) into a superb science fiction adventure, the last episode playing about with some weighty concepts and presenting some impressive imagery. I'm slightly in awe of this story because it gets so many things right that the Davison era often got wrong (it is genuinely scary, it has characters you can believe in, the regulars are appealing) that I can skip over its rough edges (the overall design of the Tractators, the occasional embarrassing moment of static action) and simply bask in the fact that occasionally every coalesced beautifully to produce something that really stands out. Frontios isn't a season opener or closer, it isn't a regeneration story and it does feature the Daleks and the Cybermen.  Technically it should be the least important mid-season filler. Instead it almost gets my vote for the best of the year, showing what can be done by ditching the kisses to the past and simply getting on with telling a good story: 9/10

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think in "Flatline" will see a very scared Clara, however, "Kill the Moon" was his best episode ever.

Ed Azad said...

Every time I see an embattled ship full of dour military men (ie Into the Dalek), I now think Eric Saward!

What ought to be Troughtonesque has almost become Sawardesque.

That being the case, I wonder if Saward threw in Turlough's parting line ("Not if you don't count the TARDIS"), or if that was Bidmead getting into the groove of eighties ambivalence.

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Anthony Pirtle said...

It's stories like this (and Earthshock, and Enlightenment, and Mawdryn Undead, and Caves of Androzani) that make the case for how good the 5th Doctor Era could have been. It's a terrific story on its own, but in context it's even more of a stand-out.