Once upon a time there was a writer called Christopher H Bidmead, who thought Doctor Who should be grounded in real science. When he became script editor he tried to squeeze Doctor Who into that pigeonhole, and even when he returned to the series to write some stories himself he was still trying to do the same thing. But the more he tried to squash Doctor Who into a boring shape, restrained by those four walls of established scientific facts, the more Doctor Who refused to fit into that shape, because Doctor Who wanted to be exciting and magical, and it just wouldn’t fit.
So it is notable here that Bidmead repeats a trick from The Mind Robber, the most unscientific Doctor Who story of them all, by destroying the TARDIS and then finally re-assembling it as if by magic. We don’t actually get to see the moment of destruction, perhaps because the original was an overtly symbolic representation of the event and Doctor Who in the 80s is far less theatrical than Doctor Who in the 60s. Instead the TARDIS is discovered in pieces, including the hat stand, which is left behind like a smoking pair of shoes in a cartoon.
Unfortunately Bidmead shares a problem with Terry Nation. They are both great writers who are big on ideas, but both struggle to write dialogue that conveys the emotional fallout of those big ideas. In terms of the destruction of the TARDIS, this is exceptionally odd. Stranded at the end of known history, with no means of escape, the Doctor and his companions virtually shrug their shoulders and get on with things. Imagine how that must feel to the Doctor, to have lost his home and his constant companion, finding bits of her scattered around like exploded limbs. It is a huge moment that gets downplayed by accident because the writer was more interested in writing dialogue like this than anything meaningful:
DOCTOR: I’ll need the portable mu-field activator.
TURLOUGH: Doctor, you did say…
DOCTOR: And five of the argon discharge globes.
The resolution is much neater, and a rare example of a 1980s Doctor Who story where the Doctor solves the problem in a Doctorish way, tricking the villain into foiling his own plans and re-assembling the TARDIS in the process, a refreshing change from seeing the Doctor simply blast the monsters out of existence or find somebody else to do that for him. But why does the TARDIS get destroyed here, of all places? Frontios is not exactly blessed with the kind of monster that should warrant such a major event. This feels like it belongs in a Dalek or Cybermen or Master story, or a big season finale, but instead it is an encounter with a laughably badly designed giant insect that results in the destruction of the TARDIS. The key to what happens here is the location. Just as the TARDIS goes to a place it should never be in The Mind Robber, and pays the price, the same happens here. Thematically this is perfectly coherent, and this is where Bidmead’s talents really come to the fore as a creator of interesting ideas. Note that we are not specifically at the end of the universe, where we will eventually be in Utopia, but the end of the Time Lords’ knowledge of history.
The logical interpretation of this is that the Doctor can only actually time travel into the past from his perspective without breaking a major rule. This future point is the present day for the Time Lords, and they allow themselves no knowledge of any point beyond. That makes sense, because otherwise their society surely would be unable to function without collapsing into a melting pot of confusion, with Time Lords endlessly influencing the outcomes of current events or instead trying to exist within some kind of a fatalistic universe. So by travelling to the edge of known history, the Doctor is pushing on a dangerous boundary, and possibly setting a precedent for interfering in the course of universal history. That’s why he is constantly worried about the Time Lords finding out. The potential consequence is that they step in to fix his changes, undo his moment of existing in their own future, and open a can of worms in which Time Lords actually meddle in the future as well as the past. And then who knows what their society could become: one where a monstrous almost-Doctor from the future is awoken, or one where time is broken in the interests of getting the right outcome to a war across time? This is somewhere the TARDIS shouldn’t be, and she pays the price almost immediately.
And then the Doctor rejects the big story and does what he always does: helps people in need. While he is facing his fear of the glass ceiling of his knowledge of history, he helps others to face their fears of what lurks beneath their feet.
TURLOUGH: The earth is hungry. It waits to eat.
NORNA: He’s forcing himself to remember.
TURLOUGH: I can see them. They are the appetite beneath the ground.
The colonists and Turlough have tried to bury their problems, forcing them down below their feet, but that is a destructive impulse. They have to face their fears, and so does the Doctor.
…and they lived happily ever after. Perhaps. RP
The view from across the pond:
When we were kids, my sister and I would go to our grandparents’ house, which was about 8 blocks away from ours. Their house was a veritable adventure waiting to be exploited. The basement had old tables and chairs all over the place and, most notably, a big couch with that old foam mattress that just begged to be jumped on. Best of all, behind the couch, was a light switch that turned the basement green. Who wouldn’t want to explore a green alien world? One day, while my grandmother was doing laundry, the TV in the basement was on and Adam West was wondering what was killing his crew in the Outer Limits episode: The Invisible Enemy. He realizes the creatures live under the sand and have been devouring his crew from below; he has to stay off the ground… Know who else had to do the same? Me and my sister! That basement was full of these creatures if we touched the carpet. (As I’m writing this blog, you can assume I survived. … or did I?!)
What made that episode so successful to my young self was that it was a subversion of what one expects. We put things in the ground. It’s sort of a one-way thing. The only things to come up from the ground is grass and vegetables. Bugs, which also like to emerge when you turn over a rock, creep us out, but we rarely see them coming up from the dirt or the sand. In a way, warping the way we see things is probably at the very heart of the uncanny valley. We expect a person to look like a person and when he or she doesn’t, it bothers us. So warping our perception disturbs us in the same way Turlough is disturbed when he sees Tractators coming up from the ground in Frontios. Sure, in his case it’s a race memory, but that doesn’t change how upsetting it is.
It’s all well and good that Doctor Who borrows from other science fiction ideas. As long as they have a story, they can borrow elements and we shouldn’t condemn that. It would also be difficult to condemn the show for weak effects when they are at least trying and coming up with good idea in the process. And, while I don’t know the overall consensus on the story, I think they did have a good idea behind Frontios. The apparent destruction of the TARDIS is extremely weird because the writer seems to be unaware of how big the interior dimensions are or even how the idea of the TARDIS works, but that just added to the strangeness of the story and made it stronger. The Tractators, being creatures that emerge from the ground, is upsetting. The idea of how they pull the dead below ground was also freakish and wonderful. I clearly have a sense of joy around macabre ideas; as long as they are kept in the world of fiction, the more macabre, the better! And Frontios captured that extremely well.
The thing I remember most about Frontios is that there’s an ambiance that captivated me. That was the thing about Davison’s era: some episodes had a coziness that I never had experienced on TV before. I felt that way with Enlightenment also. I don’t know if it’s the way it was recorded, or the lighting, but something about Frontios has an ambiance that works and the story comes together in the same way the TARDIS does over the four episodes. The story doesn’t drag. The threat seems real. There’s a sense of isolation being in the far future with a destroyed TARDIS. And the Tractators are disturbing to look at, and even their T-Rex-short arms don’t really impede their menace because they are telekinetic. Plus it was nice getting a hint of Turlough’s background in this story. Overall, I have always thought Frontios was a success!
I just have to ask one question: who hollows out a planet to use as a really big spaceship??? The idea is to fly the planet to other planets and then conquer those. But it’s not like they can just jump from one to the other anyway. Who comes up with these ideas? The Daleks? Next thing you’ll tell me is that hat stands make nice presents… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Resurrection of the Daleks