If there’s one thing that Doctor Who loves, it’s Earth colonists (or descendents of Earth colonists) having a hard time of it somewhere in deepest, darkest space. 1984’s Frontios takes this premise and runs with it, the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) arriving in the midst of a particularly nasty meteorite bombardment, the results of which requires the time traveller’s help.
As the Doctor, Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Turlough (Mark Strickson) try to assist the planet’s inhabitants, the Time Lord getting confused for an enemy spy by leader Plantagenet (Jeff Rawle) in the process, the viewer becomes embroiled in the politics and confusion of a populace who are tired of being attacked by an unseen enemy.
When that enemy is discovered to be closer to home than anyone expected, the story is flipped on its head to become something much more complicated than a base, or rather planet, under siege tale.
Christopher H Bidmead’s return to Who is a welcome one, his script removing much of the romp-factor from the programme and swapping it with intelligent dialogue and what feels like a genuine challenge for the Doctor and his crew.
Indeed, Turlough gets a decent share of screen time here, the reawakening of dormant memories handled well by Strickson, even if his reaction to the Tractators could be seen to be a tad OTT. Tegan is also given something to do here, Fielding reacting well to Davison whether he’s in breathless or comic mode.
Of the guest cast, while Rawle is strong as the out-of-his-depth Plantagenet, it’s William Lucas as Range and Lesley Dunlop as his daughter, Norna, who are the most interesting additions. The pair have a chemistry that makes their relationship believable, something that’s important when you’ve got power-hungry aliens vying for attention.
Though Frontios’ budget was tiny (as alluded to by Rawle in documentary, Driven to Distractation), designer David Buckingham managed to make the interiors look suitable lived in, although the occasional exterior shot, in reality a BBC studio, does let things down.
Still, a Doctor Who fan can forgive iffy FX and dodgy monster costumes when the story is as good as this, and in Frontios we have something of an overlooked gem that reminds us just why Davison was so special and his era ripe for rediscovery.
Without his usual partners in crime, (Fielding, Sutton and Strickson I’m looking at you!), the Frontios commentary may not be quite as buoyant, but it’s still worth booting up to hear Rawle and script editor Eric Saward have their say.
The documentary is another honest look at the production of a Doctor Who adventure, something that can only come almost 30 years after the fact. It’ll be interesting to see what sort of insights we get for the Davies/Moffat-era stories when they’re reissued in special hologram editions in a few years time…
Add to this an informative set of production notes, an isolated music score, deleted footage, Radio Times cuttings and a few other nice-to-have’s, and Frontios becomes yet another important addition to the Doctor Who range.