Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Serial 132: Frontios

Doctor: Peter Davison (5th Doctor)
Companions: Tegan, Turlough

Written by: Christopher H. Bidmead
Directed by: Ron Jones

Background & Significance: "Frontios" is the last great hurrah of the Peter Davison era before it starts slowly transitioning away from it and writing out all of the major characters in anticipation for Colin Baker. This is the last story of the season that isn't based on a main character's departure or introduction and (for some reason, quite fittingly) it brings the TARDIS crew to the very edge of civilization itself.

After this, it will be different as The Fifth Doctor is brought into his endgame.

It's interesting, then, that this story is written by Christopher H. Bidmead, a lovely fellow who oversaw both the end of Tom Baker and the beginning of Peter Davison right before the four-story upheaval that serves as the crux of the back half of season twenty-one. As an on-again, off-again fan of Bidmead's, it's an interesting case-study, especially as it's the Davison story I saved for last when I was popcorn-watching all the way through the show. It's quite different, but I'm not convinced this is a bad thing. I do think Bidmead does some really good work. It's sometimes incredibly difficult to put together, but I do find myself enjoying his stories quite a bit when all is said and done. So really, this could go either way. 
And then we have Ron Jones, who for those who don't remember, is one of those Doctor Who directors who seems to direct turkeys. I don't mind "Black Orchid", but "Time-Flight" and "Arc of Infinity" are rubbish and I positively can't stand "Vengeance on Varos" no matter what anyone says to me.

In summation, it's the last hurrah of the script editor who came before Saward, a middle story for an extremely middling-to-awful director, and the last story of the 5th Doctor/Tegan/Turlough combination in which they all remain intact as a team when the story's all said and done. To add to the madness, we have big 'ol monsters and the TARDIS at the very edge of where it can travel. In other words, it's one giant roll of the dice.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

One of the things that Ron Jones makes sure to do in all of the stories he directs is bring a very specific vision and visual aesthetic to the proceedings.

As a strength, it’s a good one to have, but when you get to something that is notably… less than to your taste, you’re going to be stuck with it for a while. No one can say that "Vengeance on Varos" doesn’t have a particular aesthetic. Hell, the whole thing practically bleeds the dark sadism it gets from the story’s tone. Now, I’m not a fan of the aesthetic of that story, but I can say it’s extremely well-executed. When Jones doesn’t have a specific vision or feel for the story, we wind up with something like “Time-Flight”, which Jones had no real idea how to visualize, because, quite frankly, its writer (Peter Grimwade) was probably more suited to what he had in mind.

But what Bidmead does here is present a script full of details about its setting and Jones takes the torch and runs with it to create a truly fantastic and unique-looking world.

The details of this are fantastic. I love the phosphor lamps because of the sickly green light they cast on everything they can. And those green lights are indicative of a series of really interesting choices in this story regarding color. Jones paints the world of Frontios in abnormal colors and things that break from conventional. Lights are not yellow or red, they are green. The sky of Frontios from the top of the crashed spaceship is white, not blue or another “typical” color. The breakout color on the surface of Frontios is a very decayed, Marsy red. These are all jarring, but give a very specific texture that is at all times off-putting and even more  threatening to this society on its last legs. Hell, the way Jones incorporates the meteor storm is fantastic and gives the story a sense of grit and texture that you just don’t see in other stories. I mean, where else are you going to see the TARDIS crew under constant bombardment by showers of rock and dirt? Even the notion of getting a main character like The Doctor dirty is so beyond what you typically think to see in Doctor Who and it’s a welcome change because it feels… dangerous in ways few other stories do.

So it gets points for that…

I’ll also just state outright that I love Bidmead’s use of separate storylines to give this episode a real direction to move in. It’s silly that Tegan and Turlough take matters into their own hands and team up with the mulletted Norna to steal a jar of acid that can power all of the things in the survivor’s camp. It leads to some cool bits and set pieces, including on top of the ship and knocking a guy in the side of the head with a dumbwaiter. It gives the story and the characters something to do and somewhere to go while The Doctor is spinning his wheels with bureaucracy and world building and what have you.

But the real star of this episode is easily Peter Davison.

It’s weird, but whenever I watch the Classic Series, I’m rarely struck with the impression that the writers thought of The Doctor as special at the time. Sure, he was smart and did cool and funny things, but his language is a power that’s been extremely emphasized in Nu-Who. Personally, I love whenever The Doctor’s dialogue is given a particular flair or touch of class. I love it when he has attitude that isn’t quite in your face but is full of conviction and purpose… And Davison really takes all of the specificity that Bidmead infuses in the script and jacks the volume up to eleven.

And it’s fantastic.

This is one of those episodes that really shows you what Davison is capable of in ways few of his other stories do. Oh sure, he’s always fantastic but it’s hard to deny that he’s given anything to really sink his teeth into or material that really inspires him to greatness, which is strange given how much it’s not really terribly different here than it is in any other story. He spends a tremendous amount of time bucking up against authority and challenging those in charge of the society. It’s a lot of him being “the nice guy” that everyone seems to pigeonhole him as, but the energy Davison infuses in the story is… remarkable and really turns out one of the standout performances of his tenure as far as I’m concerned.

So it’s Davison being outstanding, but I also have to give a tip of my hat to Bidmead. Bidmead is one of those dudes who really gets The Doctor through and through. He knows how to write him and knows how to make him a master wordsmith. As Moffat is always so keen to point out, The Doctor is a fantastic character because of his use of language and the way he manages to talk his way out of insane situations. How many times has he talked his way past Daleks and Cybermen? And now he’s trying to talk his way out of a silly situation with some lame-ass military people who are already on shaky ground at best? Come on. They don’t stand a chance.

And we’re only in part one.

Part 2:

When commissioned to write this story, Nathan-Turner gave Bidmead the mandate that he was to include “a monster” of some sort. That’s not irregular, I suppose. Doctor Who is more often than not “monster-based” and the Davison-era saw plenty of monsters in its stories.

Now, this was apparently something of a blow to Bidmead. His previous two stories weren’t based on monsters or anything of the sort at all. Sure, they had The Master, but there were plenty of other things going on in the story, so much so that The Master is something of an afterthought, only there to spice up the story as Bidmead used the opportunity to explore the many ideas that interested him. And now, after those two successes (and they were, by and large, successes) Bidmead is asked to do something totally different, something he clearly wasn’t comfortable with.

But incorporate monsters he does. The Tractators, as he calls them. I’ll have more to say about them in subsequent episodes (where they’re much more prevalent). What interests me here is how he manages to incorporate them into the story, because it’s not what you normally see in Doctor Who.

The first place I have to start is the way Bidmead chooses to end the first episode of this story given that Nathan-Turner explicitly mandated that Bidmead make it “a monster story”. Think back to the other great “monster” stories of eras past:.“Seeds of Doom”, “Claws of Axos,” “The Abominable Snowmen”, “The Ice Warriors”, “Terror of the Zygons”, “Nightmare of Eden”, “The Daleks”,  “The Tenth Planet”, and so, so many others all ended their first episodes with the revelation of the story’s main monster. And why not? It’s a solid structure and gets everyone excited for more. “Oh did you see that, then?” “Right, that was a proper good monster that was.” “Let’s tune in next week and see what they do with it.”

Bidmead, however, chooses to end the first episode on the revelation that the TARDIS has exploded. Or something. All that’s left of it is the coat rack.

Now the implication in the cliffhanger is not “oh these monsters must have done it.” No. Seemingly randomly, the implication is that one of the meteors must have completely obliterated the TARDIS during the bombardment. And that’s fine. It’s a strong cliffhanger and leads to some tremendous stuff (not the least of which is the comically brilliant use of the coat rack that just won’t ever seem to go away) but it still doesn’t even begin to implicate a monster. To the contrary: the monsters are not even revealed until Turlough and Norna walk past a pair of them in this episode. And that’s not until we’re over halfway through and heading towards the cliffhanger.

It’s remarkably subversive and really plays with expectations. In a way, it makes the Tractators even more exciting because they really do come out of nowhere and provide a remarkable twist. Not only do we get them revealed as monsters, but by the end of the episode, The Doctor and Norna are both drawn completely in their thrall and can’t seem to escape. Compare that to any other second (or even third) episode cliffhanger in which The Doctor and another character are in the thrall or control of the evil entity of the story. In other stories it’s something of an inevitable event. You see a monster, it’s only fair to assume that The Doctor and/or someone else will be captured by said evil. I mean… isn’t that always the case? Nine times out of ten that is what happens. But here it’s different. We get the twist of the creatures and then while they are still new and wtf and unknowable The Doctor is taken hostage. They are completely unknown. Unknown is scary.

To be honest, now that I’m realizing or thinking about all of this, I feel like I’ve never given Bidmead enough credit for his contributions to Doctor Who. Sure, “Logopolis” and “Castrovalva” are wonderful and truly ambitious in their attempts to be specific and precise in the storytelling.  And sure, they don’t always work (“Logopolis” is extremely scattered and weird) but they’re always fairly commendable. I mean, on a pure story standpoint, people (myself included) have slammed “Logopolis” for being unworthy of Tom Baker’s final story, but as a final story it does work tremendously well as a capper despite itself. It’s massively iconic and a great little tale with tons of twists and tons of big ideas that do capture drama. Is it all over the place? Yes. But then again, it’s his first credited Doctor Who script.

“Frontios” (so far, anyways) has been much more focused than either of his two stories, and it really shows how much that tight focus can drive the narrative in strong, compelling ways.

One of the things I’ve been noticing about Doctor Who lately is that despite the fact that the format of the show is always “Doctor and Companion”, it’s interesting how often the show will break from that format and give each character their own distinct storylines. How often do we have Tegan and Turlough palling around with The Doctor while The Doctor’s dealing with his investigation. Conducting stories with the Doctor and his companion can often times lead to The Companion filling the “exposition target” role, in which he/she usually has to ask The Doctor what’s going on. So to prevent that, we get some individuality or what have you.

And this is no different, but it does lead to some tremendous work. Tegan is mostly wasted, but the stuff with Turlough acting as a surrogate Doctor to Norna’s companion is quite marvelous. Watching him suss out the rock room and how to get into underground tunnels is actually rather marvelous. Hell, even watching him LOSE HIS GODDAMN BLOODY MIND at the Tractators is something that’s been slammed over and over again as too wildly over the top. But I have to point out that it does work in the initial moment. Watching Turlough and Norna walk off on their own into the tunnels (Turlough, again, being extremely paranoid about something after being so gung-ho at the outset) and being silently pursued by Tractators is a total “ruh roh” moment. Turlough fleeing and screaming in terror without Norna? Much more intimidating and great to feed into the cliffhanger.

Honestly, it’s probably the best use of Turlough outside of Grimwade writing him or “Enlightenment”.

Again, Davison is wonderful here. Absolutely splendid. He’s getting his nose into everything and trying to suss out problems and figure out what’s going on. It’s great.

And by the end, I think the resounding gong is the notion that Frontios is a tremendously dangerous place, more so than we imagined. There are meteors, cascading from above and threatening to destroy the world below. From below, you have the possibility of getting swallowed alive, buried in a scene of pure horror as demonstrated by Plantagenet’s disappearance. There’s coverups and layers that we’re constantly peeling back. And now there are monsters, who are big and scary and silent.

It’s a fantastic second part coming after an extremely strong first one. And we still have two more to go.

Part 3:

To go back to the old axiom of monster stories and thinking about where we should be as opposed to where we are and breaking down the way that Bidmead has so far subverted the things we typically expect from a monster story, I just want to talk about this for a bit.

For instance, don’t you think we should know a bit more about the Tractators by this point in the story? There’s only one episode left and we still don’t know what their whole deal is. Apparently they have the power of purple magnetism, shrouding you in purple and then drawing you in like a fish on a line. Okay, that’s not quite fair. They also believe in stealing people from the surface to help them with their hard, manual labor (or something like that, this sorta thing happens all the time) and require… something else. Something slightly more major that I’ll talk about in a little bit.

As with the previous parts, the story has switch tracked the characters. In part one, we had Davison alone and Tegan and Tulough palling around by themselves. In part two we had Turlough helping Norna while The Doctor and Tegan both set out on different sort of paths.

This episode is not quite so different. The Doctor has abandoned the completely shell-shocked Turlough in an effort to learn more about the Tractators and spends the entire episode running around the caves accompanied by Tegan. It’s a weird choice, mostly because whenever I think of Tegan and The Doctor I rarely think of them playing in the same sandbox in the same episode. They’re more often than not separated into a different storyline, with The Doctor given a pseudo-companion who… let’s just say a companion really does want to hang out with him and does care about what he has to say.

Now if you told me that this Doctor/Tegan team-up would be awesome, I’d not believe you. No way. Why would I? I dislike Tegan and really like The Doctor but hate them together?

But this… this is some of the best Tegan I’ve seen.

For one thing, this is Davison being The Doctor and firing on all cylinders, running circles around everyone he comes across. Any barb or stab Tegan might get to him is instantly cast aside or shrugged off as he moves onto something vastly more interesting than her pithy quibbles.They’re not bickering as Saward’s era is so wont to do so often. They’re really discussing things and trying to figure out their next move, with The Doctor constantly driving his narrative forward. It’s really fantastic and one of the few times I legitimately believe in The Doctor and Tegan as a real team. And I never thought I’d say that, but there it is.

The remainder of this story is focused on the living situation of those on Frontios, with the debate between Brazen and Range taking center stage.

What's interesting is the way in which Bidmead manages to humanize the plights of both Range and Brazen and we have a discussion in which one (Range) represents the scientific side of the debate while the other (Brazen) represents a more bureaurcratic/military component to the debate. And sure, Range is the one with the moral high ground. He’s the one who represents The Doctor’s interests. He’s the one who’s spreading all those notions of free information and an open society.  And he’s the one who’s also sided with Turlough and is working to uncover the dark secrets and purge them so the society can move forward.

But Bidmead isn’t content to give Brazen no dimensionality. No. He gives Brazen a perfectly legitimate reason as to why he withheld the information about the ground swallowing. It’s to keep the civilization alive. Were he to expose this truth about the hostile environment, the whole of civilization might collapse.

Bidmead realizes that this is something to be applauded, at least in a very roundabout sense. Brazen’s assessment that civilization would collapse is extremely accurate, as demonstrated by Cockerill,  who bolts at the first sign of trouble in paradise, resorting to looting and whatever it is he wants to do. Brazen and his pragmatism is also quick to point out that Cockerill not only won’t make it two days in the wilderness, he can’t even make it out of the main building before he’s beset by fellows who mug him and steal his provisions. So intuitively we know that Brazen is correct about the collapse of civilization, but Bidmead even goes the extra mile to prove just how knowledgeable Brazen really is.

This is also a banner story for Turlough. Banner in the sense that it really does a good job of moving his character through the story. He’s constantly bouncing from coward to hero in this and while he spends the majority of this episode catatonic, his moment of defiance when he helps Norna convince him to go back is one of the standout best for his character. In any episode.

And finally we have the revelation of Captain Revere, the fellow who was taken at the top of the story. He’s been placed in a vicious sort of drilling machine and forced to work the controls, a mindless slave or what have you. The horror of that is akin to the horror of sucking people into the Earth. The Tractators are so tremendously, unstoppably powerful that they’re turning conceptions of human technology against them. Here at the limit, isn’t technology all humanity has? And now Revere has been enslaved by it by the Tractators.

Gripping, gripping stuff.

Part 4:

Because he’s gone the first three parts without really explaining a whole hell of a lot about the Tractators, Bidmead leaves the vast majority of explanations to this episode. And yet, that doesn’t really bother me. Not really at all.

The difference between what Bidmead does here and what others might tend to do, is that Bidmead realizes that there’s nothing for the Tractators (or The Gravis, I suppose it’s the Gravis, isn’t it?) to do once he’s revealed all of their plans. All that’s left is for The Doctor to stop them. And instead of mucking about with The Tractators for too long, he only has them as a force in the last half of the story so the audience is either left wanting more OR they didn’t stick around enough to annoy the people who didn’t like them as monsters.

And this explanation stuff violates TONS of cardinal rules about the way you’re “supposed” to do a story. You’re not supposed to go in and explain all of the intricacies of the technology and the “what’s going on” in massive sessions of info dump. You’re not supposed to have the bad guy explain his plan in excessive detail.

But what makes it work here is a variety of things. Firstly, exposition is a bad thing. Really bad. No one wants it. Except when it comes to clearing up things that don’t make sense. Now, that doesn’t mean you throw it in at the top of the story. No. That’s bad. No one wants that. It’s not based on characters and motivation that way. It’s based on plot. And that’s uninteresting. No. By waiting until the last episode to splurge out all the things Bidmead has as ideas for the Tractators, he makes for satisfying reveals rather than cumbersome exposition. By the time the Gravis is revealing all of the things he’s revealing, we as the audience want to know these things and are invested enough in this world that our curiosity is satiated.

The Gravis, on the other hand, gets a free pass because he’s actually rather interesting and driven by his own ambition and ego. So leaving The Doctor alive and explaining everything to him actually makes sense. Villains, after all, are just lonely geniuses who want to be appreciated. That’s my theory, anyways.

It also provides an opportunity for Peter Davison to (again) be utterly brilliant. The way he indulges the Gravis and talks circles around him is fantastic. As a character, his Doctor is always thinking, always moving in specific ways and this is one of his greatest sequences. All the stuff with him and the Gravis, how he has the Gravis eating out of his hand at every single turn… It’s just fantastic, isn’t it? He’s never not in control and manages to use words to get people out of sticky situations. Like the sequence where he tells the Gravis and the Tractators that Tegan is a robot and they believe him (leading to some insanely fantastic indignation from Tegan) is just a ploy to keep her aside while he gets to work.

All that said, this wouldn’t be a Bidmead story without some fascination on his part with regards to the TARDIS.

Okay. Now. We goad Bidmead constantly for his fascination with the TARDIS. The TARDIS and math. That’s the things people peg him as. The TARDIS and math guy. But I find myself saying it mostly jokingly because, while sometimes his TARDIS stuff doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense (“Logopolis”), it is totally different from making the TARDIS “just another spaceship”  because it very clearly is not. Hell, there’s a plot point in "Castrovalva" that’s all about converting 25% of The TARDIS into energy. What’s not to appreciate about that?

And here, in this episode, we get one of the most visually cool and interesting things we’ve ever seen The TARDIS do.

I mean, who sees what Tegan sees and doesn’t have an “oh damn” reaction. The visual of seeing The TARDIS fused with the walls and such of the cavern is really striking and tremendously entertaining. Sure, the explanation is never really given, but it’s not hard to deduce (the TARDIS was pulled into Frontios and the strain/technology caused it to disperse all throughout Frontios, occupying the same space. Gives me an idea for a Doctor Who idea about the TARDIS, but I’ll just leave it at that.

What really strikes me is all the things Bidmead gets out of this little plot point of the TARDIS being sucked into Frontios.

For one thing, imagining the TARDIS dispersing all throughout the planet’s crust is a tremendous visual, thinking about how it rapidly might expand and occupy the same area is the thing that Bidmead could never accomplish on a Doctor Who budget, but can pull off when he relies on our imaginations. Again, Doctor Who in the realm of imagination is probably where it exists best. Likewise, it allows The Doctor to use the TARDIS to trick the Gravis. Again, it’s Davison who really sells The Doctor as an old-fashioned trickster here, playing the “wait no stop don’t” card that The Gravis bites on with next to no encouragement. It’s a great use of The Doctor and his TARDIS as a thematic device. The Doctor's been kicking ass for as long as he's been underneath the surface of Frontios because, quite frankly, so long as the underground caverns of Frontios are fused with the TARDIS The Doctor is still technically in the TARDIS; he's on his home turf. 

And it works. And could The Doctor reconstruct the TARDIS himself? Well, if The Gravis could do it and seal his own fate and take himself out in the process…

It’s a great last part and easily Davison’s best episode of the story, which is no mean feat.

Final Thoughts?: When asked what the best story in season twenty-one is (not counting "Androzani"), the first response for a majority of Doctor Who fans would be "Oh 'Frontios', hands down." Prior to this viewing, I would have said "Planet of Fire."

Boy, did I change my mind. This story rocks my world.

The thing about "Frontios" that makes it work comes right down to the writing. I feel like I've seen all these tropes before (again, how much military is there in Saward's work?). Hell, I feel like I've seen these exact costumes before and used for the same exact militaristic context. But the military is a footnote in this story, only around to provide a context to the situation on Frontios and how they need to keep order or what have you. No, the main focus of this story is the focus on scientific progress vs. the nature of totalitarian control. The totalitarian is, of course, represented by Brazen and The Gravis, while the science/progress part is represented by The Doctor and Range. Interesting, then, that Brazen and The Gravis are the two major "deaths" of this story (Revere is barely more than an extra) and at the hands of technologies they do not understand.

But there's more than that. It's a great story  for The Doctor's companions as well. Tegan is insanely bearable in this and it really stands out as one of her better uses. Who knew that giving her scenes with Davison would make her a stronger character?

This is a phenomenal Turlough story, let down only because of the lack of specificity when it comes to revealing Turlough's origins. How many times do we have to hear "on my home planet" rather than "Trion." Granted, Trion hadn't been created yet (and wouldn't appear for another two stories), but the point stands. Regardless, this gives him a lot of room to work and a lot of room to play. Yes his initial reaction to the Tractators is a little over the top, but he more than makes up for it in his other moments and beats. His choice to face his fears is a fantastic scene between him and Norna and his interplay with her is absolutely stunning.

And all that said? The real standout of the story is Peter Davison/The Doctor.

I don't know what it is. Maybe it's because I've never really felt like Saward's script editing had a good handle on The Doctor as a character and never wrote him with terribly too much specificity. But when you get an actor as good as Peter Davison saying lines that are written not so much for him as they're written for The Doctor, he latches on with both hands and doesn't let go. This is a tremendously strong outing for Davison's Doctor and easily one of his best across his entire tenure. He's clever and in the thick of things. Yes, he talks a lot, but at the same time he's always throwing the story forward. He's in the thick of things at every single turn. And he wins because he manages to trick the bad guy into the endgame of the story. Davison excels here in ways he doesn't in other stories, and that's really down to Bidmead giving him a lot to do and some fantastic dialogue to chew on.

Now that I'm finished with it, though, it really sticks out as a Doctor Who story that stands up to multiple viewings. The first viewing is really just trying to keep up with the plot and understanding what's going on. But later viewings really demonstrate how insanely good this story is. It's a fantastic use of setting, one that Bidmead manages to fully sketch the world of Frontios in just a few short episodes. It's well-executed, fun, interesting, a great show for our TARDIS crew, a great use of the TARDIS. And even though I'm a guy who has often said that I never wanna see space bugs ever again for as long as I live, I must admit that I really do love the Tractators. Their appearance and use is extremely iconic and unique and memorable in ways few other appearances are, but they're not given so much screen time that they completely dominate the story at the expense of everything else.

It's a story that serves as a wonderful last hurrah for the Davison era before we get the massive upheaval that is the back half of the season. It's one of the era's gems and one of Davison's best. What more could you ask for?

Next Time!: 2nd Doctor! The Moon! A rocketship TO the moon! Bubbles! Ice Warriors! Ice Lords! Sun Guns! And TONS AND TONS OF BUBBLES. But seriously, did we mention the bubbles? "The Seeds of Death"! Coming Next Tuesday!

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