Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Doctor Who: Frontios

Part One

“We’re at war.”

“Really? With whom?”

“Well, that has yet to be determined.”

Christopher H. Bidmead again! After not enjoying his previous efforts I wasn’t particularly expecting to like this one much. I couldn’t have been much wronger. I’m still confused as to how the author of Logopolis and Castrovalva can be responsible for such strong plotting, gripping suspense, witty and naturalistic dialogue, and brilliant characterisation. I doubt it’s Eric Saward’s influence, frankly, so I’m left scratching my head. But I liked this. A lot.

Still, one thing hasn’t changed from Bidmead’s earlier efforts; the sheer imagination on display in his choice of story title.

We begin in the TARDIS, where Tegan has actually changed her clothes for only the fourth or fifth time ever. My, what a short skirt she’s wearing. Anyway, the TARDIS Acorn Electron flags up a warning that they’ve drifted too far into the future- perhaps beyond Gallifrey’s “present”? Anyway, it’s forbidden for Time Lords to travel there.

The planet in question, Frontios, seems to be entirely populated by former crew members of Imperial Star Destroyers, judging by the uniforms everyone is wearing. I spent pretty much the entire story half expecting Darth Vader to walk into shot and asphyxiate random characters but, at last, it was not to be. And everything on the planet beyond a few sets seems to consist of obvious matte backgrounds. None of this seriously harmed the story though- it’s script and acting that matter and in this story both are on song.

The Doctor gets involved, naughtily, and for the first time ever (?) puts on his glasses. His development into a more assertive, traditional Doctor is instantly apparent and his charisma, as much as his obvious knowledge and usefulness, instantly get chief scientist Range and his daughter Norna firmly on his side. That sort of thing wouldn’t have happened in previous seasons. It’s an extremely welcome development.

We’re introduced to the basic situation; a colony in a precarious situation, at war with an unseen power, and retreating into authoritarianism in its increasing desperation. We’re also given clear introductions to the characters, all of whom have memorable traits- I particularly like Plantagenet with his line in pompous cod-Churchillian speechifying at the drop of a hat.

And that’s quite a cliffhanger, the TARDIS apparently destroyed…

Part Two

“I think this joke’s gone far enough.”

The Doctor’s about to be shot, but the quick-thinking Turlough retrieves the situation by threatening everyone with the deadly hatstand. But the best thing about this scene is its subverting of expectations; when the Doctor insists that if Plantagenet won’t see reason he’ll just have to shoot him, Plantagenet… agrees.

A few succinct lines from Range to Tegan further underline the direness of their plight; constant death and a sense of panic are causing this society to unravel, and desertion (by “rets”) is increasing. And then there’s the “deaths unaccountable”. Meanwhile, Norna and Turlough establish that the late Captain Revere forbade all digging and that “the Earth is hungry”. That’s how to build up suspense!

Bragen’s still apparently paranoid, but the real sense of threat is no longer coming from him but underground. We see Plantagenet drawn beneath the surface and various characters venture underground, where there lurk some odd looking woodlice monsters. This terrifies Turlough, who starts to mutter about “Tractators”…

Part Three

“Frontios buries its own dead.”

The Tractators look very rubbery, the bottom of the costume is very unsatisfactory, and I can’t understand a great deal of what they say. But none of that stops this story being great- it’s all about the script and performances.

Mark Strickson is once again excellent in portraying Turlough’s mental breakdown, and once again the character gets some decent development- the character’s been quite well served so far. And it’s not just good character stuff that helps make the padding often necessary in a part three serve a useful purpose; the scene with Bragen and the looter, where the looter leaves only to be immediately attacked for his food makes a powerful point about human interdependence. Admittedly, though, it starts a minor plot thread which doesn’t really go anywhere. 

The story quite awesomely turns our expectations on their head as Range’s apparent show trial at the hand of the paranoid Bragen quickly metamorphoses into a council of war, and Bragen is revealed to have secretly been quite aware of what’s been going on but suppressing it for understandable reasons of morale. Suddenly we see the character, and everything he’s done so far, in an entirely different light.

Turlough, having been traumatised by the memories that have been unleashed, nevertheless resolves to join the others underground, an extremely brave thing to do. This is a pivotal moment for the character. After all, when we first met Turlough back in Mawdryn Undead he was shown to be a coward, a liar, even a bit of a bully, and quite willing to make a pact with the Whoniverse’s very own Mephistopholes. He may redeem himself a little by proving incapable of murder or betrayal but he’s still not a particularly agreeable character by the end of Enlightenment. And even these redeeming characteristics take the form of inaction, and so are themselves a form of cowardice.

Turlough has continued to be a bit of a coward ever since, always the first to suggest returning to the TARDIS at the sign of serious danger, or to insist that there’s nothing that can be done to help others. But the Doctor’s positive influence is having a gradual effect, and here for the first time he’s taking a brave step in facing his own very real fears in order to help his friends. A corner has been turned, it seems.
The cliffhanger is quite horrific in a body horror sort of way, although probably more so if you haven’t seen Voyage of the Damned

Part Four

“Don’t mention it!”

I love the scene where the Doctor tries to pass Tegan off as an android to the Gravis, but “the walk’s not quite right.” Is this really the same Bidmead whose attempts at humour in Logopolis and Castrovalva fell so spectacularly flat? 

This story is so good, even the traditional Davison “showing off the TARDIS scene” is great. So good, in fact, that I’ll even discreetly gloss over the fact that the Tractators' plan is to, er, steer Frontios around the galaxy. Nothing to see here. Move along.

The Doctor quite unambiguously saves the day for once by cleverly tricking the Gravis into re-assembling the TARDIS through reverse psychology, causing the Gravis to fall asleep in exhaustion. And we end on a cliffhanger.

Wow. I wasn’t expecting something that good. This is my third 5/5 of the Davison era after Kinda and Enlightenment. It’s not quite up to the standard of those two exceptional stories, but in a sense it’s even more wonderful; while both of the other stories were one-offs, very different from all that surrounded them, this is very much of the Davison style, but done perfectly.

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