Chapter 91. Doctor Who – Frontios (1984)

Synopsis: In the far future, the TARDIS suffers a forced landing on the planet Frontios, where the Doctor, Tegan and Turlough find a colony of humans struggling to survive against the elements and the continual bombardments from an unknown aggressor. Then there are the strange unaccountable deaths and the threat of insurrection from citizens tired of rations and restrictions. But Turlough knows the truth. A distant memory from his own people that reveals the attacks are not coming from above, but below.

Chapter Titles

  • 1. Refugees of Mankind
  • 2. The Unknown Invaders
  • 3. The Deadly Hail
  • 4. The Power of the Hat-Stand
  • 5. Downwardness
  • 6. Beneath the Rocks
  • 7. The Force Takes Hold
  • 8. Eaten by the Earth
  • 9. The Excavating Machine
  • 10. Prisoners of the Gravis
  • 11. The Price of Rescue
  • 12. Greed Sets the Trap

Background: Christopher H. Bidmead adapts his own scripts for a serial broadcast seven months earlier.

Notes: While Tegan tries in vain to read an unhelpful handbook, Turlough expresses his boredom by tying viciously tight knots into one of the Doctor’s scarves, which the Doctor later fails to unravel. There’s no follow-on from the previous story, so we’re just told that the Doctor has become ‘mysteriously reclusive’ since whatever time and place they last visited. Turlough sees a large portrait on a wall in the medical shelter and Mr Range tells him it’s of their recently deceased leader, Captain Revere (information that I’m sure will come in use later!).

When Norna describes the circumstances of the colony ship’s crash on Frontios, we’re told her grandparents died among many other casualties, but this was many years before she herself was born. Plantagenet is about the same age as Turlough with a ‘thin physique’ and a ‘head of thick, white hair’. There’s a useful paragraph that explains the scale of the crashed ship:

The propulsion chamber led them through into Causeway 8 that ran the length of the ship – a half hour’s brisk walk in the days Brazen was a boy and the ship was whole. Now most of the structure except the stern end was buckled and filled with silt, and only the part of the ship they walked in now was usable for the business of state and the storage of the precious resource reserves.

The Tractators are ‘silver creatures, each larger than a man. Their insect-like bodies were scaled like fish, and from their underbellies a pale luminescence emanated’. They have ‘two bulbous eyes on either side of the shrimp-like head’ with ‘glossy black mouths’. Their leader, the Gravis, rises up on ‘innumerable rear legs’ and he’s said to be larger than the other Tractators. As the creatures notice Norna, she experiences the sensation of them ‘threatening to drag her flesh from her bones’. Later, we’re told ‘her hair stood up on her head in spikes’… well, it was the 80s…

Norna and her father find a plaque, not a map, which tells them that Revere found no valuable minerals as of the year ‘Alpha 14404’. Brazen’s Deputy is introduced early on, accompanying him as he discovers the blue Police Box in the colony. It’s only when Mr Range faces the inquiry that we learn the Deputy is a woman. The Gravis has a translation machine and an excavation machine that utilise human body parts in very grizzly ways; the excavator is also vaguely the same shape as a Tractator. There are two colonists called ‘Kernighan’ and ‘Ritchie’, named after Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie, computer scientists who literally wrote the book on the subject of the programming language ‘C’.

The Gravis claims that they know of the Doctor ‘by reputation’ and explicitly states his belief that the Doctor has been sent by the Time Lords of Gallifrey to prevent their plans (and of course, he also knows what a TARDIS is, though not what it looks like). Much more is made of the Doctor’s ruse that Tegan is an android and as she recalls how she accidentally stumbled aboard the TARDIS and how she cared for the Doctor after his regeneration, she is outraged and not quite realising what the Doctor is doing until he gives her ‘a swift, barely perceptible wink’. He later claims to need his spectacles just to buy him enough time to explain his deception to Tegan. He uses the half-frame spectacles ‘when the print was very small, or the book unusually dull’, though he tells the Gravis that they have ‘poly-directrix lenses with circular polarising filters [to] reduce spectral reflection as much as seventy-five percent, without any perceptible deterioration of resolution’, which is ‘Gallifreyan technology – like the TARDIS’. Observing the wrecked excavation machine, the Doctor utters ‘a Gallifreyan word that is said in these circumstances’.

Cockerill appears to assume the post left vacant by Brazen as Plantagenet’s second in command, taking on an official uniform, giving tasks to the survivors and tempting the Retrogrades back into the community. The final scene where the TARDIS is caught in a plot device from the next story is omitted, though it’s hinted at by the closing line: ‘More serious trouble was on the way for the Doctor, nevertheless. But that was only to be expected.’

Cover: Andrew Skilleter’s illustration shows a rather dignified profile of the Gravis, with Frontios in the background during a bombardment.

Final Analysis: I’ve been gently critical of Christopher Bidmead’s arrogance leaking into his previous novels, so it’s a relief to see that aspect missing here. Instead, we get a slow-burning horror story that gives Ian Marter a serious challenge with some genuinely unsettling body horror. The Gravis’s translation device consists of ‘a tall narrow trolley that floated a foot or so above the ground… mounted on it was the head and one arm of a dead Colonist, connected by improvised metalwork to a swinging pendulum’. As it speaks, ‘its dead mouth moving to the click of the pendulum’. Then there’s ‘the machine’ – the excavator – which ‘needs a captive human mind to drive it’ and uses human hands to smooth the walls of their tunnels:

White bones tipped with metal cutters scraped against the rock, while rotting hands polished the surface smooth. Through illuminated windows in the body Tegan glimpsed more mechanically gesticulating human arms and legs in an advanced state of decay. It was a machine built from the dead.

While Marter likes his violence wet and gooey, this is more mechanical, playing on castration anxiety and the ‘vagina dentata’ folklore as much as Jaws, where the ground devours people and then the Tractators’ machines chew them up and reconstitute the parts as required. Just look at Bidmead’s description of the Doctor’s reaction here:

The Doctor was not very fond of tunnels at the best of times. They were frequently damp, dark, deep and dangerous, and as a method of transport ranked only a little higher than sitting absolutely still under water waiting for the right current. The best place to be in a tunnel was outside, and if you had to be inside, the less inside you were the better.

We don’t even need Dr Freud to explain this one, do we boys? No wonder 80s producer John Nathan-Turner kept reassuring his audience of quivering adolescents that there’d be ‘no hanky panky aboard the TARDIS’…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s