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21x3. Frontios
Writer: Christopher Bidmead
Director: Ron Jones
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis:
The TARDIS crew encounter a small group of humans in the far future who are marooned on a planet called Frontios, where frequent meteor storms and a series of mysterious deaths threaten the colony's survival. With the TARDIS itself apparently destroyed, the Doctor discovers that the Tractators - an insectoid race that once plagued Turlough's home planet - are responsible for the disappearances and intend to take over the planet.

Review: "Frontios" doesn't quite dot all its Is and cross all its Ts, but I would nevertheless name it the best serial to date of the Peter Davison era. Former script editor Christopher Bidmead returns to Doctor Who with a story that works on the basic level of keeping the audience entertained while painting a compelling picture of a struggling colony and supplying Turlough with some solid characterization.

For starters, Frontios itself is probably the best example of world-building that we've seen since Davison took on the role. Not only do the TARDIS crew find a valuable ally in Chief Science Officer Range, who stands out for being both intelligent and mostly selfless, but the most antagonistic character - Chief Orderly Brazen - is refreshingly complex. A less sophisticated script would likely have made him simply a scowling autocrat; instead, "Frontios" portrays him and the leaders he has served, Captain Revere and his successor Plantagenet, as having resorted to harsh rule as a way of keeping order in a precarious situation. At the same time, the script does not ask us to agree with their decisions. Brazen eventually admits that he was wrong, and the secrecy probably enabled the Tractators to advance their plans further than if the colonists had been allowed to investigate and discovered their presence earlier. In addition to the overt conflict betewen the Frontios Orderlies and the "Retrogrades," there's a nice small touch where one of the Orderlies is seen swiping a piece of food, reinforcing the sense of a society teetering on the verge of chaos. While the execution doesn't quite transcend the low production values (the surface scenes never really feel like they're taking place outdoors), it does at least impart a sense of realism to the characterizations.

Turlough hasn't played a particularly notable role in any of the serials after "Enlightenment," in which he finally broke decisively from the Black Guardian, but "Frontios" gives him a central role in the plot. We learn that his home planet was once plagued by the Tractators as well, a revelation that arrives in the form of a hereditary memory that induces what seems like a trance state as he recalls that his home was once considered an "infection" thanks to their machinations. I've always found this trope of inherited memory an intriguing (if implausible) one, and it's a clever way to let Turlough deliver the key exposition while keeping him (and the audience) in the dark as to what exactly is happening at first. The script also tackles his image as one of the more self-serving companions in the show's history - the Doctor remarks early on that he's unlikely to risk traveling through an unstable tunnel, and when Range's daughter Norna tells him that nobody expects him to face the Tractators directly, he remarks bitterly, "No, of course they don't. I'm Turlough." He then does in fact re-enter the underground tunnels, the implication being that he is not entirely proud of how he's conducted himself in the past and is trying to change.

"Frontios" does fall short in a couple of aspects. First - and somewhat surprisingly, given Bidmead's efforts to impart a stronger scientific background to the series when he served as script editor - there's never much explanation of how the TARDIS is destroyed with the control room and other "pieces" of it later recovered underground. I realize that the TARDIS is fictional technology and that explaining such things can easily result in just arbitrary technobabble, and if the writers want to decide that the TARDIS can be shattered into pieces and then reconstructed so that the Doctor is back to time-traveling in the next episode, there's nothing stopping them. But one the strengths of the "Bidmead era" (Season 18 plus "Castrolvalva) was to make the pseudoscience sound believable even if it really isn't. Here, the TARDIS's destruction and reassembly is just presented matter-of-factly and a little too conveniently for the plot.

Second, we get an intriguing but problematic bit of background when the Doctor says that the events of this serial are taking place so far in the future that he's reached the limits of Gallifreyan knowledge, and accordingly he is far more hesitant than usual about getting involved. On one hand, this would seem to provide an answer to a question that I've wondered about going all the way back to when I first reviewed "The Aztecs" - namely, how does the Doctor distinguish between established history which is not to be altered and open-ended future in which he feels free to play a role? "Frontios" suggests that he uses his repository of Time Lord knowledge to determine either that his actions will not play a major role in history or that the goal he is pursuing is the one aligned with established history anyway. But while I could see the appeal of a show about a time traveler struggling with his own sense of responsibility to act out what amounts to pre-scripted roles, I'm not sure Doctor Who is or should be that show. And if we were to attempt to reinterpret his behavior across twenty-one seasons of television along these lines, I suspect that it would be difficult to make such an interpretation work and that it would diminish, rather than enhance, the appeal of the show and its central character.

Peter Davison is one of the Doctors that I most enjoy watching, but the scripts he's been given haven't always been up to par with his performance. Some have just been mediocre and uninspired, while others have suffered from a mix of subpar execution, uneven pacing, and plot contrivances that prevents even the stronger serials from attaining classic status. "Frontios," for better or worse, is an example of the latter.

Rating: *** (out of four)

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