Doctor Who – Frontios Review (or “The Curse of Kingsland Strikes Again”)

Oh no, Christpher H. Bidmead is back.

The man who thinks the viewers are interested in makey up science pish is back with a new story, Frontios.

Will it be any better than his previous efforts as a writer and a script editor?

Let’s hope so.

Doctor Who – Frontios Review: What’s This One About?

Burrowing insect creatures known as Tractators led by their well spoken controller, The Gravis, keep sucking human beings into the ground to help them turn the planet of Frontios into one large spaceship.

The Doctor is initially hesitant to get involved, because apparently it’s not ok to meddle so far into the future (make sense of that one if you can), but he does it anyway.

Thoughts – Paddy Kingsland Does It Again…Unfortunately

Much like my review of Mawdryn Undead, I have to start with a complaint about the Incidental Music.

In the aforementioned Season 20 story, the music was both in-your-face and largely unsuitable for what was on screen, and it led to it overshadowing what was on screen.

Oooh he's butch. And the boy behind him appears to be Brodus Clay's dad.

Oooh he’s butch. And the boy behind him appears to be Brodus Clay’s dad.

It’s almost the same in Frontios, and would you believe it, the composer here is the same as in Mawdryn Undead. It’s Paddy Kingsland.

To be fair, it’s not that the music is unsuitable, because it fits quite well.

But it’s that it’s just so bloody relentless.

Every damned scene has the same piece of woodwind music played over it. Eventually it just got to the point where I was being made tense and irritable by it.

I have to ask the question again; does Paddy Kingsland understand what Incidental Music is supposed to be? Because it doesn’t sound like it.

The Story

That the Incidental Music of Frontios is the ‘Big Ticket Item’ on this review perhaps does a disservice to what is on the whole a perfectly acceptable story.

To me, Frontios is ahead of its time in that it’s the sort of setting you’d expect in the David Tennant era.

There’s a gritty survivalist theme going on where the TARDIS has landed in amongst one of the last colonies of the human race left in the universe, and they are struggling to survive.

I like that, even though it goes against my irrational hatred for anything bleak and murky looking.

And the concept behind the Tractators is good too,  although there are one or two elements about them and their plan that don’t make all that much sense. I’ll get to that later.

The Acting

One of the main strengths of Frontios is the quality of the guest cast and the depth of character they perform.

The likes of Lesley Dunlop, William Lucas and especially Peter Gilmore are all of a high standard, Gilmore especially. He plays a character with more than one layer, and displays a good range of emotion in his performance.

So he’s good, but one I’m not too sure of is Jeff Rawle as Plantagenet.

Either he’s a bit hammy, in which case he’s bad, or he’s acting the part of a character who is deliberately hammy and full of false bluster in the role of an unprepared leader. And if Rawle is acting the latter, he’s top notch. I’m not sure he is though.

Finally, the voice acting of the Gravis is fun – certainly far more emotive and full of character than that dreadful Silurian voices from Warriors of the Deep – and the Doctor’s dealings with him are a fresh and interesting take on the Doctor/Monster dynamic.

Race Memory

While on the whole, it’s good story, there are still things that I take issue with…

For a start, the concept of Race Memory seems very much like something Christopher H. Bidmead has read about in some scientific journal and thought would make a good plot device. Either that or he’d recently watched Quatermass and the Pit. Either way, I’m not so sure about its use here.

If Race – or Genetic – Memory really is a thing, it’s meant to be subconscious. There’s a school of thought, for example, that suggests it’s hard wired into us to be afraid of snakes. People can be afraid of snakes without having ever seen one, and it’s

Poor old Gravis. At the very least he's lost a few teeth there.

Poor old Gravis. At the very least he’s lost a few teeth there.

because they were such a deadly threat to early man when living in tropical climates.

Now let’s take a moment to assume that’s true, even though it probably isn’t. If it were true, it manifests itself in being afraid of snakes, not being able to recount an entire history of the battle between snakes and humans over the years. That’s what I don’t like about its use in Frontios.

Here, Race Memory = A Chance For Easy Exposition.

Either that or it’s been used to give Turlough something to do.

No matter what the use though, the execution was silly. I can understand Turlough having an inbuilt fear of Tractators, but I can’t accept that he knows exactly what happened when they invaded his planet, nor can I accept that he knows how they operate and that the Tractators are useless without the Gravis. To me that’s just taking the easy way out, especially considering the latter piece of info was key to wrapping the story up.

Leave Me, I’m Not Worth Saving

Another thing that really grinds my gears is the death of Brazen.

It’s death for the sake of death.

For much of Episodes 3 and 4 we see Plantagenet sitting in the Mining Machine quite the thing. He didn’t look in any great discomfort and was freed from it reasonably easily by the Doctor.

But when Brazen sits in it? All bets are off.

Not only is sitting in the machine somehow fatal for him, but he’s got no interest in being saved. He just says “Ach well, leave me. I’ll just die here”.

I’m not sure whether to blame Bidmead or Eric Saward for that, but it comes across as lazy writing and a means of getting rid of a character that no longer served a purpose in the plot.

And actually, the next time we see the Gravis’s control room, the machine has inexplicably blown up.

The Fifth Doctor Timeline

I’d say that once again this story lasts about a day, maybe a day and a half.

It could be that the Doctor & Tegan went off and had their own adventures for years while dropping off the Gravis, but don’t tell that to Big Finish, because they’ll run with it and have a series of adventures with The Doctor, Tegan and a new companion that just so happens to be a streetwise youngster from 2013 London.

Random Observations

  • The designers on Frontios deserve credit for trying to make the setting look grand through the use of model shots and CSO (or whatever it was that was being used by 1984). Obviously it doesn’t work to a standard that would be deemed acceptable now, but on the whole it’s good for the time and budget available back then.
  • I’m not sure I get the reference to Tegan’s defective walk. Perhaps someone could explain that to me.
  • One thing that I noticed watching this that doesn’t make sense – and no I’m not talking about the breakup of the TARDIS which just seems bonkers – is that the plot suggests that the Tractators are harmless creatures when they aren’t under
    "It's ok, leave me here to die for no good reason. In fact, I'll strap myself in,"

    “It’s ok, leave me here to die for no good reason. In fact, I’ll strap myself in,”

    the influence of the Gravis. I can accept that, but what seemed a reach was that the Gravis just becomes dormant without them. That wasn’t mentioned as part of the explanation was it? And if it were the case, why would the Gravis – an intelligent creature who is well versed in what a TARDIS is – put himself in the situation where he would be separated from them?

  • When coming up with the names for the characters, do you think Bidmead thought “Well I can’t call her Norma, that would just be ridiculous! I know, I’ll call her Norna instead; that sounds very space age”
  • Once again Tegan is a delightful ray of sunshine in this story.
  • And again, she thinks that problems can be solved simply be hammering at buttons. In this case, she thinks she’ll be able to unlock Mr Range’s filing cabinet by randomly pressing the keypad.
  • I believe that there’s a fair amount of footage cut from Frontios, much of which is relating to the sub-plot with Cockerill, played by the “ultra charismatic” Maurice O’Connell. Without that footage, the sub-plot is just a waste of time.
  • And what about his buddy who looks like someone from a particularly sleazy Village People tribute band?
  • I can just about accept the Gravis turning Frontios into a moveable planet, but how do they plan on plundering other planets once they’ve moved there?
  • To give some credit to the director, I think the Tractator’s first appearance – turning round when they appeared to just blend into the background – was genius.
  • Why does the Gravis have a nose but the rest don’t?
  • I’m not too keen on the cliffhanger to Episode 3. As the viewer, I didn’t feel that Captain Revere was a big enough character to justify being used as a cliffhanger, even though it was more to do with a human being used as part of the mining machine.
  • There’s something a bit pathetic about the bit where Cockerill gets mugged. People are “hitting” him but there’s no sound coming from the blows. Or maybe there is and it’s just lost behind the interminable Incidental Music.
  • DWM Mighty 200 Ranking: #104. I think that’s about right although I’m surprised it’s not higher based on how that list ranks other stories.

Doctor Who – Frontios Review: Final Thoughts

So I like it, even though it’s not without its problems.

What saves it is good acting in the most part, a nice look and decent dialogue.

Plot wise, things are a bit iffy, but it’s a Bidmead story so you can’t expect miracles.

Having said that, this is unquestionably his best story.

It’s just ruined by Paddy Kingsland.

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4 Responses to Doctor Who – Frontios Review (or “The Curse of Kingsland Strikes Again”)

  1. John says:

    RE: Tegan’s walk – Frontios was originally a much grittier tale, with the idea of the Gravis/Tractators using people as “parts” more prevalent – In addition to the Gravis using a human head as part of a translator device, The Doctor made the Gravis think Tegan was an android so she’d be “off the menu” for service parts – The script said he should tinker in her ear with a screwdriver, but that was cut due to kids possibly imitating it. If I remember, he also blamed her accent on her “programming issues”.

    • sgmilne says:

      I had read that, but it doesn’t explain why he said the walk.

      For example, mentioning the accent is because she does have an Australian accent.

      Is it that is way maybe an in-joke about the way Janet Fielding walks?

  2. Ralph Burns says:

    I can just never get past the most terrible incidental music in entertainment history.

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