One of the most obvious things to note about Frontios is that Christopher H. Bidmead really knew how to write for Peter Davison’s Doctor. Given this, it’s a pity that Bidmead didn’t contribute more scripts for the fifth Doctor (Frontios was his second and last).
I’ve touched on this before, but Peter Davison wasn’t a personality actor like, say, Tom Baker. Baker could take an average script and by the sheer force of his personality make something unique out of it. Davison didn’t have that skill, but provide him a well written script and he could certainly make the most out of what he was given.
Frontios is a wonderful vehicle for Davison and so many of his lines zing. Picking some favourite Davison dialogue from this story is difficult, since there are so many examples, but I do love this –
DOCTOR: Look, I’m not really here at all, officially. And as soon as I’ve helped Mister Range with the arrangements, I’ll be on my way.
PLANTAGENET: Do you feel free to come and go as you please?
DOCTOR: Going, yes, coming, no. We were forced down.
PLANTAGENET: I see. You landed during the bombardment and yet you appear unharmed.
DOCTOR: I’m sorry, we didn’t know there was a war on. At first we thought it was some sort of meteorite storm.
PLANTAGENET: And what do you think now?
DOCTOR: I think your shelters are totally inadequate and your warning system does nothing but create panic.
PLANTAGENET: I did not ask
DOCTOR: Your population has already fallen below critical value required for guaranteed growth and you’re regularly losing new lives. I think, and you did ask what I think, I think your colony of Earth people is in grave danger of extinction.
There’s a bite and attack to Davison’s performance of these lines, which we haven’t seen nearly enough of during his time on the show. Elsewhere, he has a lovely line in vagueness, somewhat Troughtoneque in style, like this –
DOCTOR: Well, that’s it. Now, this should either sort out this whole Tractator problem and repair the TARDIS.
DOCTOR: Or it won’t
Sadly, one of the best moments of the story was rather curtailed due to episode four overrunning. We see the Doctor attempt to convince the Gravis that Tegan is an android that he picked up cheap –
TEGAN: Doctor, you can’t let them do this to me.
DOCTOR: I’m terribly embarrassed about all this.
GRAVIS: Not at all, Doctor.
DOCTOR: It must be the humidity causing the malfunction. These serving machines are perfectly reliable on Gallifrey.
GRAVIS: The guard Tractator here will restrain it while I show you more of our work here. It is certainly a very convincing replica of the humanoid life form.
DOCTOR: Oh, you think so? I got it cheap because the walk’s not quite right. And then there’s the accent, of course. But, when it’s working well, it’s very reliable. Keeping track of appointments, financial planning, word processing, that sort of thing.
What was cut was more detail as to why the Doctor undertook this ruse – if the Gravis realised that Tegan was human he might have decided to add her to his excavating machine. The excised material is part of the special features on the DVD thankfully, including the moment where the Doctor puts a screwdriver into Tegan’s ear!
Mark Strickson (after largely sitting out the last few stories) gets to froth at the mouth and drive part of the plot, whilst Janet Fielding is teamed up with Davison for the last few episodes, which is great fun. Just as Bidmead was spot on with Davison’s Doctor, so he was able to get the best out of the Doctor/Tegan relationship. They do spend most of episode three not achieving very much, simply walking round the tunnels. But it’s so entertaining, you don’t really notice that the plot isn’t advancing very much.
On Frontios itself, there’s a decent collection of guest stars. Peter Gilmore is the bluff Brazen, not a subtle performance maybe, but there’s the odd glimpse of hidden depths. Jeff Rawle is good as the out-of-his-depth Plantagenet, whilst William Lucas as Range has a nice line in weary resignation. Norna, played by Lesley Dunlop, isn’t a very developed part – existing mainly to elicit information from other characters – but Dunlop is very appealing and makes the character worth watching.
The odd structural flaw and plot-hole apart, this is an entertaining story that puts the Doctor right in the centre of the action. True, the Tractators (particularly their flapping arms) look a little silly, but the story is hardly unique for having slightly duff monsters.
If you want an example of Davison’s Doctor at his best, then this must rank somewhere at the top, along with Kinda and The Caves of Androzani.