Jan. 13th, 2019

purplecat: Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor (Who:Five)
I recall from dim and distant Oxford DocSoc days a review of Frontios which described it as an excellent story up to episode three where everything went downhill (literally) to the underground evil weevils. This has stayed in my mind since as my appraisal - nice setup, all goes wrong in episode three, but I actually think that is a little unfair.

It's a grim and militaristic tale, but not in the "unpleasantly violent and fixated on space mercenaries" manner of a lot of Saward Era stories. It sets itself in a military dictatorship, but one which is shown to collapse partway through the story and one in which the dictator is at least benevolent in intention. One wonders if writer, Christopher H. Bidmead and Eric Saward had some discussion in which Saward was pushing for soldiers and military uniforms, and Bidmead went with it but chose to colour in his world in a way which showed the limitations of a military dictatorship, even one that desired to be benevolent.

As the long ago review notes, the set up is tense and atmospheric and, for Doctor Who, we actually get a lot of world building showing us a colony on the point of collapse from bombardment by enemies unknown. As for going downhill underground to the evil weevils? Well there are some problems with the evil weevils. The costumes look great from the knees upwards, but are rather obviously skirts from the knees down (a problem suffered by a number of 1960s aliens but not really seen since) and the Tractators are definitely rather less interesting than the society above ground. I remember Bidmead complaining that budgetary shortcomings had also short-changed the depiction of Tractator technology which he had very much wanted to be constructed entirely from human "spare parts" but even what was shown here was enough to have Tame Layman comment that it was "really rather unpleasant". It's not as good as the rest of the story, but I don't think the evil weevils hugely let it down. It's a little too convenient that the solution turns out to be simply a matter of isolating the chief Tractator from the rest of them, but this will not be the last time 1980s Doctor Who decides to use this get out. However, even while we are getting a certain amount of running around underground tunnels being pursued by evil weevils, we are also seeing the collapse into anarchy of the regime on the surface, so the story doesn't really lose the atmosphere it has built up.

We watched An Adventure in Time and Space shortly after this and it was more than a little odd to see Jeff Rawle in both. In An Adventure in Time and Space, where he plays Mervyn Pinfield, you could argue he's very much playing a straight version of his George Dent character from Drop the Dead Donkey - mild-mannered, a little put-upon, wears cardigans. In Frontios he plays Plantagenet, the slightly useless son and heir of the colony's leader, Captain Revere. While Plantagenet is depicted as, well, slightly useless, the story is clearly reaching towards an idea of him as the dashing hero who comes into his own. Seeing him 30 years later in a cardigan is a bit of a shock.

The performances are generally excellent in keeping with most of the script and, even when faced with the Tractator costume, no one chooses to treat the story as a pantomime (except for, perhaps, some rather awkward dialogue in which Tegan has to pretend to be an android which fails to really be as funny as is necessary to justify its inclusion).

Frontios is an oddly over-looked story. It seems very much in keeping with the Saward era, but avoids many of its excesses. It is quite grim, but not relentlessly so, and not as an end in its own right. The result is tense, atmospheric and thoughtful... and also has evil weevils (but this is Doctor Who).

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