Immobility, inconvenience and Frontios (1984)

Frontios

Sometimes, we Whoheads like to ignore the inconvenient. If one solitary story reveals a rogue fact about the show which doesn’t chime with the other 50 plus years, we like to quietly forget it ever happened. For instance, we don’t like to recall that Susan made up the name TARDIS. Or that Time Lords can live forever, barring accidents. Or that the Doctor is half human.

In Frontios, we find out for the first and only time that the TARDIS cannot actually travel anywhere in time and space. There are some places it’s not supposed to go. It has time parameters which should not be exceeded, on fear of the Time Lords getting cross and doing something or other.

This is a strange development for a series which has as its main premise the ability to set adventures stories throughout the history of the cosmos. Why try to ring fence that? What is the dramatic potential gained from such a move? The answer seems to be none. All it facilitates is a few worried phrases from Peter Davison’s dashing Doctor about not telling anyone that he’s wandered out of bounds.

The place he’s come to is Frontios (because it’s on the frontier, geddit?) It’s in the far future and it’s where the last representatives of the human race are struggling for survival. It’s a bleak, rocky world which is continually beset by meteorite strikes (there’s some irony that they finally have a story which would have benefited from being filmed in a quarry, and instead, they create a quarry-like planet in the studio). It’s a place where everything seems to fit into a limited colour palette of grey and red and where synthesised pan pipe music can be heard everywhere.

The Doctor doesn’t want to land on Frontios because, “the colony’s too new… its future hangs in the balance.” When forced down to the planet’s surface, he decides to muck in with the Frontiosians and help out, after some initial reluctance. True to form, he finds some space cockroaches who are behind it all and sorts the whole mess out over four episodes, but then he appeals to everyone around him to keep the whole thing quiet. We never really find out why, but perhaps the implication is that he shouldn’t have saved the colonists from their fate and the Time Lords would have been happier if the human race had been finished off once and for all? In which case, wouldn’t that have been an interesting premise which could have lead to some mighty repercussions of some kind?

Doesn’t matter anyway, we’ll just ignore it at move on. Like how the Daleks call their ships DARDISes and how the character’s name is actually Doctor Who.

Anyway, we should talk Tractators. They are the aforementioned space cockroaches and they live beneath the surface of Frontios, tractating meteors to the planet’s surface and sucking the occasional human into the earth. They are enormous woodlice creatures with faces of elderly bespectacled housewives and they are among the least mobile alien creatures ever to waddle across a television screen. They have no visible feet, but they do have two paddle like hands protruding from their bellies. Our heroes and their colonist compadres have to lean into those bellies awkwardly in order to be “captured” by the creatures. Running away from them has to be carefully timed to deny instant success. “Only those who have been isolated for millennia,” growls their articulate leader, the Gravis (John Gillett), “truly appreciate the power of mobility.” I believe old mate Gravis (because he controls gravity, geddit?), because the best he and his swarm buddies can manage is a menacing shuffle and the occasional precarious sway to emphasise salient points.

Nothing about the Tractators seems feasible. We’re told they are highly skilled gravitational engineers, although none of them are able to hold as much as a screwdriver. They are burrowing wave form tunnels underneath the surface of Frontios, which they will then use to propel the planet around the cosmos to look for other worlds to infest. Hopefully they can pilot it at a far greater speed than they can totter, because space is awfully big and planets can be pretty unwieldy.

Otherwise, it’s the slowest invasion plan ever. We’re told that they need human pilots for their gruesome excavating machines (which again, they somehow build with their flappy little hands), but they particularly like to choose humans in leadership positions like Captain Revere (who is revered, geddit?) and Plantagenet (who’s a sort of king, geddit?), and everyone else they drag from the surface they use for… well it’s not really clear.

Feasible or not, the Doctor treats them like an inimical threat to humanity which needs to be neutralised. Only a couple of stories ago he was arguing that humans should make friends with the similarly subterranean Silurians because they were an intelligent, technologically advanced species with whom the Earth could be shared. He offers no such argument about the Tractators, even though they too are intelligent, technologically advanced and presumably, were on Frontios before the humans.

But then, the Doctor only occasionally likes to defend the right of the monsters to live. The rest of the time he blows them up or throws them into the sun or – like he does here – strands them on an uninhabited planet. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a top bloke. It’s just sometimes he forgets about the sanctity of life in the universe and just gets the roach bombs out.

While all this is going on, companion Kamelion (a robot who can change shape, geddit?) is conspicuous by his absence. Sure, he usually is, having been benched from the TARDIS team because he couldn’t remember his lines or stand up unaided. It’s understandable he doesn’t get out much and I don’t think he even minds. I like to think of him lying on one of those bendy sleeping benches which fold out of the TARDIS walls, drinking an engine oil cocktail, sucking in naughty android films through his roundel-connected umbilical cord. Still, it’s an astonishing oversight on behalf of his companions to not give him a second thought when the TARDIS disintegrates around him. This would never have happened to K9.

So where does he get to during all this? My guess is that having found himself pulled underground, he’s promptly disguised himself as a Tractator. They are perfect for him, really. They barely move, don’t speak and are useless without the controlling mind of a greater intelligence. He probably feels right at home. And I like to think he amuses himself by gathering up other bits of discarded TARDIS paraphernalia like the food machine, the astral map and the space time visualiser. Just so he can be surrounded by those other inconveniences we like to forget about.

LINK TO The Crusade: one features a King, the other has a Plantagenet.

NEXT TIME… off to the edge of the known universe to find a Planet of Evil.

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