DVD review — Doctor Who: Frontios

Well, “Frontios” is a bit of a mess, really. There’s not much I can say in its defence. So, at this point, I think it best to refer you to my previous post about my relationship with Doctor Who and how I approach the reviewing of the DVDs (see “My Doctor Who Philosophy”).

“Frontios” is from the 21st season in 1984, sandwiched between a rather good story, “The Awakening” (see my review of “Earth Story” box set), and a rather brilliant story, “Resurrection of the Daleks”. Peter Davison is the fifth Doctor and he is accompanied by Australian airhostess Tegan (Janet Fielding), and alien schoolboy/reformed would-be murderer Turlough (Mark Strickson).

The Doctor & Co. crash-land on the planet Frontios, and the TARDIS is destroyed. Here they meet up with the survivors of an Earth colonisation spaceship that crashed years earlier. The colonists bizarrely think they are under attack from a neighbouring planet because they keep getting bombarded by meteorites. Colonists also keep getting mysteriously sucked down into the Earth, and there appears to be a cover-up about this by the military leaders. Soon they discover that the problems are all caused by giant, intelligent bugs, called Tractators. They live underground in tunnels and can manipulate gravity. Turlough froths at the mouth as race memory of what the Tractators did to his home planet kicks in. The Doc gets friendly with the Tractator leader, the Gravis, and eventually tricks it into putting the TARDIS back together.

Although there is the germ of a good idea in there somewhere, the script contains huge leaps of logic, with character motivations often making little sense. On the plus side, the Doctor is in fine form and there is some amusing dialogue, as when he says of the TARDIS…

“As an invasion weapon, you’d have to agree that it’s about as offensive as a chicken vol-au-vent.”

The script isn’t helped by the fact that it is poorly directed — clunky blocking and lots of wide shots displaying the inadequacies of sets and choreographed action. Even though Doctor Who was always a low-budget show, this story seems ultra cheap… mostly because the Tractators themselves look ridiculous, the costumes having very little movement or expression. The whole thing is rather unconvincing and even slightly embarrassing. The regular cast, particularly Davison, valiantly act their socks off. The guest cast varies from the superb performance of William Lucas as the scientist, Range; to the confused, directionless performance of Peter Gilmore as Brazen. The bit players and extras are particularly woeful.

What about the extra features on the DVD? There’s an interesting making-of doco, during which everybody talks about how bad the Tractators came out and how budget was such a problem with this story. There are also some really interesting deleted scenes. Peter Davison and script editor Eric Saward lead the commentary, with some guest cast and production people making an appearance. Davison is always good value on a commentary, although he seems a little restrained on this one… maybe because of Saward’s presence?

I’m afraid that this DVD is only for the die-hard fans… and the extras do make it worthwhile for us obsessives. But casual viewers are recommended to give it a miss. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. ;-)

Released on DVD in Australia by Roadshow Entertainment.

Catch ya later,  George

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6 comments on “DVD review — Doctor Who: Frontios

  1. Dr Who gets way too much criticism, or rather unfounded criticism. Years ago I encountered all the big lies Cornell liked to spread about alleged plot contradictions. So easy to find logical solutions to all of them. This is what marks Dr Who out as a classic. The plot is king, you can take it away and consider some of the implications. Whatever you think of the whoremake it rarely does that.

    • Lots of BIG issues brought up in this comment, Rob, which are probably best left for a discussion on a Doctor Who forum rather than on a DVD reviews blog. But I will make a quick response…

      Criticism, in a review, is a matter of opinion. I watch something and then I give my opinion through my review. Whether or not it is unfounded is also a matter of opinion. We obviously have differing opinions… and that’s fine. Differing opinions make for a more interesting world.

      Paul Cornell’s comments about alleged plot contradictions are not lies… they are his opinions. As it happens, I agree with his opinions. Having met him, I can say that he’s also a really nice person (who seems quite content with other people having opinions different to his own) and does not deserve to be called a liar. I know you feel strongly about your own opinions… but you need to allow others to have their own opinions.

      Doctor Who is just a tv show. Admittedly it is a damn fine tv show (and my personal all–time favourite), but a tv show none-the-less. There ARE contradictions, as there are in any long-running tv show. Solutions to those contradictions can be found, often through supposition and invention, if you choose to find them. But those solutions are often not what the makers had in mind. But that’s okay… fans have often found much pleasure in examining the minutiae of their favourite program.

      As for the new series (a continuation in my opinion, not a remake or a ‘whoremake’)… it has inconsistencies just like the original. And fans are finding solutions to its inconsistencies as easily as you find solutions for the original’s.

  2. Frontios is a classic, like every one of Chris Bidmeads serials. The central themes of an isolated community struggling for survival and the tragic degeneration of technology and culture come across brilliantly. The colony are truly alone,… unaware if any other humans have survived and desperately afraid that they are writing the final pages of human history. While the situation is set in distant space and time, it could as easily be applied to early settlers in the new world.

    As he always does Bidmead fills the story with little details, little touches that show this is a lovingly crafted piece of work. To begin with he brings up one of the practical problems of time travel. The Time Lords set a limit on how far they dare explore into thier universes future. After all, if they see something they cannot tolerate, tough. It is the future, it will happen. That’s a relativistic universe for you. So we get a great well thought out plot element and perfect continuity (the Doctor always endorses relativity) all in a neat package.

    The Tractators are a highly original enemy. A true alien rather than another case of rather convienient convergent evolution. Had they been more inventive with thier ability to manipulate gravity they could have been Time Lords themselves. Being able to distort spacetime enough to reconfigure the damaged TARDIS confirms they have the power to build thier own time capsules. As with the classic egocentric villain the Gravis is beaten by his own lack of creative or investigative vigour and an excessive thirst for power.

    This is very much Doctor Who at its best. A reminder that this is a serious science fiction series with an adult audience, but also a lesser juvenile following to boot. See more

    • Thanks for your comments, Rob. I’m happy that someone has come out in defence of “Frontios”. As you can tell from my review, I don’t think it’s very good… but that’s just my opinion. It’s one of the things I love about Doctor Who — that people can find good things in stories that other people dislike. I’ve been following a discussion on a Doctor Who group about worst ever episodes. No one has mentioned “Frontios”! But several people have talked about “The Web Planet”, a story that I actually rather like. Doctor Who is a program with such a diversity of stories and is thus able to cater to a wide variety of tastes. Even my wife, who is NOT a Doctor Who fan (but who patiently sits through the occasional episode) has found herself liking certain stories. :-)

  3. It is interesting that after watching the Neil Gaiman session at the Wheeler centre gig that this commentary was allowed to contain stuff about budget and the lack thereof ;-)

    • You can watch Neil Gaiman’s Melb appearance here: http://wheelercentre.com/videos/video/neil-gaiman/
      In it, Neil mentions that his commentary on Neverwhere was censored by the BBC, who removed all his complaints about budget.

      It is interesting, isn’t it, Fraser. But a lot of the Doctor Who commentaries include people slagging off the BBC and their way of doing things. Maybe it’s because the BBC don’t actually put together the commentaries. It’s all outsourced.

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