‘Ten Silly Rumours About Doctor Who:
4: The permanent destruction of the TARDIS in ‘Frontios’. That would have made subsequent adventures difficult.’ - Doctor Who: The Completely Useless Encyclopedia
'Frontios' was one of those serials that I had forgotten over the years, but when I saw it available at last on video, I picked it up and watched it immediately. I was floored by how good it was; it's unquestionably one of the fifth Doctor's best serials, and it can justifiably also be called one of the series' best as well.
Everything from the strong script (with significant and flattering parts for the Doctor and his companions, as well as the inhabitants of Frontios) to the sublime and chilling soundtrack to the acting, to even the lighting — it is all some of the best that the series has to offer. Watching this would make anyone see how excellent this TARDIS line-up could be, whereas some of the other serials had them barely participants in their own adventures…I’m looking at you, ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’.
However, ‘Frontios’ takes a different perspective and a new premise, and it manages to draw the viewer in. That there would be limits of time travel, and that it could be dangerous to the TARDIS, were things that most never once considered. That the TARDIS could disperse itself so completely…another heretofore unseen ability of the craft. Above all, ‘Frontios’ showed us that there were still plenty of mysteries left unrevealed, and that there was so much we had taken for granted in these characters.
What I Especially Liked
The TARDIS crew were all at the top of their games here. The fifth Doctor, typically kind of unpleasant most of the time, had good reason to be in this situation and yet still showed that he cared for his travelling companions, as well as the well-being of the last of Earth’s refugees. Some of the weaker writing for the fifth Doctor had him appear to be nothing more than a fussy curmudgeon, but in ‘Frontios’ he takes people to task who deserve it and does everything he possibly can to protect Tegan and Turlough from a very real danger.
Turlough gets development too, and he gets to show his width of expression from his usual careful planning and caution to the limits of a fractured sanity due to ancestral memory. Tegan has superb interplay with the Doctor and it becomes clear how much they care for each other, both in the Doctor trying to persuade the Gravis that Tegan is an android — hilariously! — and in Tegan’s plain statement, ‘The Doctor’s my responsibility.’
It’s been a part of her character from the very beginning, in ‘Logopolis’ — but all during the fifth Doctor’s time, it so rarely is brought up. Tegan feels compelled to look after the Doctor, and it’s something that he needs very much but never admits to himself. As I’ve said before, the fifth Doctor always needed someone to question him, to call him on nonsense when he was presenting only nonsense; so few of his companions ever did. Tegan’s different perspective and courage in bringing it up, even if she knew she was wrong, more often helped the fifth Doctor to keep himself honest and far more sympathetic than he ever was without her.
The colonists here are also distinct and superb, and there’s no real black and white struggle here; many of the characters are not easily fit into any sort of pigeonhole, and they become more sympathetic as the story goes on, which is a sign of strong writing. Many things happen during the process of the events on the planet Frontios, and they seem organic as they do. While there is a conflict between the TARDIS crew and the colonists, they get into the action quickly and it doesn’t let up for any significant length of time.
The Tractators are a marvellous alien race, and they’re extremely unsettling. The excellent design, mixed with the sound and soundtrack give them a tremendous appeal, especially with the many unsavoury factors of their lifestyle…most notably the horrific excavating machine.
There’s a nice balance of understated humour, action, drama, horror, and science-fiction in this story, which is sometimes rare to get during this time of the series. Really, that balance is one that marks the strongest and best stories of the series, and it’s one that was so difficult to find after the fourth Doctor’s departure and Saward and Nathan-Turner’s emphasis on humourlessness. Perhaps it was a combination of the extremely strong script and production, and the fact that not only the Doctor had grown into his at-first rough character, but the companions had also grown into theirs.
What I Didn’t Particularly Like
There are some unanswered questions, but most of them can just be handwaved since they weren’t directly pertinent to the struggle with the Tractators. Also, the apparent destruction of the TARDIS seemed an almost casual inclusion, though it did come up as a major plot point later. I think some misunderstood that it was supposed to make us believe the TARDIS really was destroyed, but in fact it seemed pretty clear that it was just building tension to make us wonder how it would in fact be repaired.
In ‘Frontios’, there are actually several genuinely frightening moments. My choice for the best would be the end of episode two, where the Doctor is trapped by the sinister Tractators, to the absolutely shiver-inducing music.
However, close behind is the next episode’s ending, with the Doctor and Tegan trapped between the Tractators and the excavating machine, with a corpselike head at the controls.
Most Charming Moment
When Tegan mentions that the Doctor is her responsibility. It’s something that a lot of the lesser serials seemed to forget.
Charming in its own way — and very funny — is the Doctor’s attempt to explain that Tegan is a discount android, and her reactions. While it is played mostly for comedy, its deeper meaning shows that he cares enough for her to make sure the Gravis doesn’t see her as a viable power source for his appalling machine.
Bits That Took Me Back
The brilliant soundtrack certainly sent me down memory lane. Turlough’s inspired bluff with the hatstand also brought up a few memories, and the claustrophobic tunnels.
I’d also be extremely remiss if I didn’t mention Tegan’s outfit, which I have always considered one of her most iconic, if not the most outright. While it isn’t the most practical of ensembles, it is definitely among the most memorable.
'Frontios' should be considered amongst the greatest of Doctor Who stories, as it not only tells a compelling tale, but it also involves the Doctor and companions in an essential way. Unlike some of the stories, they cannot be removed from it and have basically the same story told; 'Frontios' is as much about them as it is the colonists, the last remains of Earth, far removed.
Every aspect of the production is excellent, and the atmosphere is perfectly set by all of the elements coming together: script, acting, characters, music, sound, lighting, sets, and production. This would be an excellent example to show anyone curious about the fifth Doctor’s time, although they might be disappointed if they then saw some of his less strong offerings…such as the very next story, which ‘Frontios’ leads into.
Nonetheless, ‘Frontios’ is worthy of the highest praise and the highest regard, and it is an ideal coming-together of everything in that rare and wondrous way that sometimes happens. This is probably the strongest story involving the Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough, and it is my absolute pleasure to experience it every time I look back upon it.