“Frontios” is a story that seems to be built around a single statement, made by one of the characters. Simply put, “the earth is hungry”. It’s a statement that carries a tinge of horror because it conjures up images of being buried alive. Author Christopher Bidmead doesn’t exploit that horror to its fullest extent, but what he does is use it to help paint a picture of a desperate, endangered colony of humanity for whom death is a constant experience. The colonists of Frontios have been forcibly pushed into the dark ages by the loss of their advanced technology, and are forced to endure constant bombardment from space which they view as an act of war by an unknown foe. Add to that the rumor and threat of being sucked beneath the ground, of being ‘eaten’ by the planet, and it’s clear that life on this planet is about as bleak as it gets.
In the opening minutes of the story, the aptly named leader of the colonly, Captain Revere, is sucked beneath the ground and lost. This incident sets the tone for things to come, particularly when security chief Brazen orchestrates a cover-up of the true circumstances of his death. As the story later makes clear, this particular cover-up is only the latest in a long line, as Captain Revere clearly knew more about the danger under the ground than he let on. Revere’s son Plantagenet assumes the leadership of the colony, and like his father serves as a figurehead around which the people rally. Brazen tells him early on that the people look to him for hope, and that’s proven true when he disappears and the colony starts to fall apart even more quickly than it already has.
The Doctor, Tegan and Turlough are dropped into this harsh situation, though not through choice. The Doctor declares that knowledge has its limits, and that he’s forbidden to go beyond them, but the TARDIS is dragged to the planet along with a meteorite storm just as he’s about to leave. Once on the surface the Doctor can’t help himself, and immediately dives right in. In short order he’s accused of being behind the bombardments by Plantagenet, and then his TARDIS is destroyed during a second bombardment. As an aside, I’m not quite sure how the nigh-indestructible TARDIS can be destroyed, something that’s always bothered me about this story. Bidmead offers no explanation.
As another aside, I have to pause and complain about the fact that Plantagenet is written in the typical narrow-minded idiot fashion that we see far too often in Doctor Who. This character type turns up again and again in Doctor Who, when someone accuses the Doctor of wrongdoing with no reason and no evidence, and refuses to believe anything to the contrary no matter what. Facts mean nothing to this character type. They are not used to form an opinion, nor to correct an incorrect belief. Plantagenet is belligerent to the point of stupidity, and his stupidity seems to exist in terms of the plot purely to create antagonism between him and the Doctor. Admittedly, it does illustrate how unfit for leadership the very young Plantagenet is, but the characterization is taken to an extreme. Brazen’s assumption later on that the freaking hatstand is the weapon that brings down the bombardment is just stupid. Maybe the intent is to illustrate that the leaders of Frontios are just frightened and grasping at straws, but the credulity of these characters is badly strained by these early actions. The Doctor’s remark that “this joke’s gone far enough” comes across as the author’s voice rather than the Doctor’s, admitting the logical stretch he’s overplayed.
The forced conflict doesn’t kill the story, thankfully. Once events proceed and the Doctor saves Plantagenet’s life, the characters begin to behave in a more believable manner. The Doctor insists that they investigate where the bombardments are coming from, and even after the bluff with the hatstand is called, the investigation continues. Then Turlough’s conversation with Norna leads the two of them underground, towards the real threat, which Turlough gradually remembers as Tractators, huge intelligent burrowing insects with gravitational powers. The memory of it makes him frantic with fear, which unfortunately the actual Tractators don’t quite inspire. And yes, they’re a pretty wild concept, but par for the course with Doctor Who. The costumes sell the concept short unfortunately, though they’re suitably disgusting. But how else could they realize these creatures back in pre-CGI days? Men in giant insect outfits it had to be.
The recovery of the TARDIS and the resolution of the plot are tied in with the weakness of the Tractators in a somewhat contrived manner. It just so happens that Tractors are conveniently harmless without the influence of their leader, the Gravis. The Tractators have enormous powers of gravitational attraction, which can be used not only to pull people beneath the ground or to pull asteroids down on Frontios (small ones that don’t cause displacement and temperature drops, thankfully), but can also reassemble the TARDIS. The Gravis is, of course, too consumed with the idea of having a TARDIS to travel the universe that it doesn’t occur to him that he’s sealing his own doom by cutting himself off from the other Tractators. Then again, since he buys the idea that Tegan is an android, he’s obviously not terribly bright. Turlough, suffering from repressed memories of a Tractator invasion of his planet, happens to remember this weakness at just the right point in the story for it to be put to use, though admittedly that weakness is illustrated earlier in the final episode when the Gravis is zapped by his excavating machine.
So what does all of this boil down to? The story and setting are strong and well-realized, but that is let down somewhat by a villain with a convenient weakness for the Doctor to exploit so that he can win the day. The mutual dependence of the Tractators on the Gravis and vice versa really needs an explanation to justify it. As it is, it comes across as nothing more than a fabricated way for the Doctor to win, which of course it is.
Another thing I noticed about “Frontios” is that it’s a story that seems to have been written with Tom Baker’s Doctor in mind rather than Peter Davison’s version. From the Doctor’s absent-minded hopping from one topic to another on the turn of a dime to the nonsense with the hatstands, the fifth Doctor is channeling the fourth pretty heavily. Story author Christopher Bidmead was the script editor during Baker’s final season, so that may explain the characterization. Said characterization is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does go to show what I’ve long maintained, that Peter Davison doesn’t have the larger than life personality to really portray the Doctor.
“Frontios” has faults that are no more egregious than some other Doctor Who serials. These consist of antagonists who pound the idiot button repeatedly and monsters with built-in weaknesses so the otherwise undefeatable can be defeated. But the story works in spite of this, thanks to a well-realized setting and a strong basic storyline.