Written by:
Christopher H. Bidmead
Directed by: Ron Jones
Starring: Peter Davison
Year: 1984
Video Availability: Try

Season 21 had two silly stories with giant rubber slugs, but bizarrely this one escapes ridicule. I've seen reviews comparing it to Alice in Wonderland, but really it's just, if anything, okay.

Davison enters with faux eccentricity, dithering about coathangers, and it doesn't come off. That's the weirdest thing about the season 21 line-up - you can almost sense the unease about the hierarchy constantly on screen. Mark Strickson has gone on record saying that he and Janet Fielding were told off by above for playing their roles too intelligently, and that there were effectively three Doctors aboard the Tardis. Somehow for the stories from Warriors of the Deep to Planet of Fire the actor comes across more than the character, from Strickson's desire for a larger part to Davison's frustration at the quality of his scripts… though he has, of course, gone on to say he would have stayed another year if season 20 had been as good. Why Davison should concede with fan opinion (or vice versa) that his most plastic-looking and inconsequential season is superior to his second is beyond me.

The Doctor spends the whole of this story outside of the upper limits of his time travelling range (see also Warriors of the Deep). "Since when has that ever stopped you?" asks Tegan, and you do have to agree that it seems like something they made up for these two stories only. Frontios is a cheap story, and I can't complete a review without giving mention to the distracting use of Federation helmets from Blake's 7. As with Warrior's there's also no realistic frame of reference as the Tardis crew just leap headlong into the narrative. It's as if the production team thinks we're tired after twenty years of "I'm the Doctor and this is…" and so just cut out the middleman. I just don't get it, really - the below standard matte effects I can handle, but this is a nondescript work from Chris Bidmead and the human guestcast are forgettable (save Jeff from Drop The Dead Donkey). Maybe it is Davison, you know - unlike some of his peers, he can't carry a story by himself. I like him, and technically he's a good actor, but put him in a dull story and he doesn't command the screen in the same way that Tom or The Mighty Trout could. Yes, Tom bored us all in Underworld, but he was probably plastered - this is Peter really trying, I can only conclude that his name has to be King Bland.
* * ½

With the fifth Doctor's era being the "vulnerable" period, then it seems everything, including the Tardis, is a target for attack. Whereas Billy frequently never cared about it, knowing it would be safe, here Davison thinks it's blown to bits by a meteorite. Paddy Kingsland's Bavarian nose flute music might be a thematic throwback to JN-T's first two seasons, but it really gets on your tits after a while. But I've suddenly put my finger on what's wrong with this story after seeing the end credits for the last instalment. You know, those little things where it gives a credit for the director? Can you imagine Ron Jones on the job with his wife? I bet he falls asleep halfway through, so pedestrian and dreary is his non-directing.

Other horrors include Lesley Dunlop's 80s mullet - should any Doctor Who story showcase a mullet? Janet's also left playing nursemaid, a character almost completely rewritten from her original form. Okay, it's nice that the character's evolved, but you feel that it's not because they wanted Tegan to mature and adapt, more that they'd ran out of things for her to do after The Five Doctors. Maybe it's Eric Saward's sexist take on what a female companion should be, but as much as I knocked her when she was a gobby bitch, I far preferred that Tegan to this spayed version here.

"What's so heavy in here that needs a block and tackle?" If only this was a Colin Baker story, I could have some fun with that line. This is a better story for Turlough though, one of only five (out of a possible ten) where he gets something to do. I like his "what do you think I'm doing?" to the Mullet telling him to "pull", an appropriate answer to a stupid command.

"I'm trying to control the crowd, sir" is an unintentionally funny line, while it's ironic that as one of the few Doctor Who stories actually set in a quarry, then it's filmed in a studio. This from the same great planning team that brought you a foam handle on heavy steel door (just look at the left one when Tegan shuts it). This is another "sort-of average but so what?" episode, though you might wonder why, after the cliffhanger reprise, the Doctor never refers to the Tardis again for the whole episode…
* * ½

This is the first episode where the Tractators really emerge, and while I quite like their dark blobby backs, the rest of them - from their human faces to their floppy arms and baseless legs - are ridiculous. And as I'm writing this in December 2003, then it's to look back on a year of almost-upsets. We saw Lewis get a fright off Vitali Klitscho, and - even more amazingly to me - Roy Jones Jr. reduced to being a mere mortal after coming back down to Light-Heavy. Upsets can happen like that all the time, and so with Frontios we get Mark Strickson amazingly losing control of the ham. Oh, it's a wonderful, powerful ham of course. But while previously he's been a tactical genius with it, honing its full force with precision, here it lets it run wild, frothing at the mouth and looking, frankly, like a bit of a twat. It's not pretty, and it's a sad blot on his until now unbeaten record. "I can't look!" I know exactly how you feel, mate.

Elsewhere, the Doctor adds "a touch of spin" to a sphere to bowl over some Tractators, with a "howzat!" Anyone'd think Paul Cornell had written the script. Add to this lots of purple video effects and it's all a bit tame really. And was Maurice O'Connell just not interested here or did he get his Equity card at gunpoint? He's involved in one of the serial's more crappy effects, where they lie on a bit of old card and writhe about with gravel, pretending to get sucked under the Earth.

Finally, it all ends with a terrifying cliffhanger where a man's decapitated head is placed in a metallic machine through a series of chains and wires, the sort of nightmarish vision that could have come from Hellraiser, 1984 or the works of Heironymus Bosch. What's that? It's just a third-rate BBC actor with his head sticking out of a flimsy piece of grey plastic? Oh, bugger you then!
* * ½

Why does the Gravis have a nose? Why do the Saward stories feature an alarming amount of violence against women? Why does the humour between the Doctor and Tegan feel forced and artificial? Why is the Gravis different to the rest of the Tractators? If it can pull the Tardis together by mental power, then why can't it hollow out the caves for itself? Why is the "fly the planet" plot seemingly based on an old Terry Nation script from the 1960s? Why do I even care?

To be honest, this story could have one of the most irritating soundtracks of all time, not because its bad in itself, but by virtue of the fact that it's the same every two minutes, and throughout all four episodes. It ends with a silly "Oh no, Gravis, don't use your dimension-bending antennae to bring the Tardis back together, please" resolution, and then the Doctor f***s off. In addition to the "time restrictions" a further amendment to the mythology is demonstrated when Turlough waits for the Doctor and Tegan to return for him - the Tardis is now controlled without any problems whatsoever. While perhaps realistic in that the Doctor would learn to work it after twenty-odd years, it also removes some of the dramatic impetus of the show, perfectly highlighted by Colin Baker's "aimless wandering?" comment in Timelash. They improved this slightly in the McCoy years by having him embarking on premeditated masterplans, but the "don't know where I'll end up next" format was the ideal. Well, it worked successfully enough for two decades, didn't it?
* * ½

At the final count, while no episode is particularly average, I give this three stars. I've never been even remotely interested in the story or its characters, and this time was no exception. But having said that, there's nothing outrageously poor about it either, so it gets an objective average rating. Just can't for the life of me understand why some people love it, though…
* * *