Aired 26 January – 3 February 1984
Although ‘Frontios’ eventually turns into a rather conventional tale whereupon the Doctor must save a planet from an aggressive alien power, it begins as a restrained but powerful reminder about the ever-darkening path that Doctor Who was beginning to explore during the John Nathan-Turner era. The franchise has never been shy visiting the future and exploring human outposts, but the last vestiges of a human colony struggling to survive in its adopted fascist manner at the end of the universe after receiving no answers to its pleas for help for thirty years is a dramatically darker take than the unbridled optimism for continued survival usually portrayed.
Wisely, ‘Frontios’ withholds revealing any sort of alien presence until well into the story’s running time, adding a tense paranoia to the situation by doing so as Captain Revere is cast in a villainous light despite the colonists’ insistence that they must be under attack from otherworldly forces. Indeed, as the colony begins facing more trouble and law and order begin to crumble, ‘Frontios’ is set up to be a deep exploration of the threat that humanity poses to itself in a heightened situation. Even as it becomes clear that aliens are involved, the notion of a world literally burying its dead as its denizens are sucked through the ground is terrifying and morbidly intensifies the threat of humanity’s extinction.
Unfortunately, the atmosphere and tension created quickly dissipate once the action shifts underground, let down by unconvincing sets and poor realization of the Tractator appearance. Again, there are some incredibly clever ideas in play as the truth behind the usually-peaceful Tractators’ turn to malice while controlling the planet’s movement and making humans their slaves is revealed, but the corresponding shift to a more generic tone and story fails to uphold the high standards of the earlier events. The Tractator threat does at least serve to offer a hint about Turlough’s backstory while making the most of this companion’s enigmatic motivations, but the alien menace as a whole is unequivocally the weakest aspect of the story.
In general, the script does well with the more compact TARDIS crew of the Doctor alongside just two companions. Both Tegan and Turlough are spotlighted and afforded plenty of time to let their distinct personalities shine through, and Peter Davison does marvelous work as his gentle incarnation tragically tries to stay true to the laws of time while also trying his best to alleviate the obvious suffering surrounding him. Truly, ‘Frontios’ has all of the makings of a genuinely classic serial from the start, but the invasion story that pervades the second half- even though dutifully solid in its own right- simply cannot maintain the first half’s intense atmosphere so rife with mystery, intrigue, and despair. Nonetheless, ‘Frontios’ remains a great example of how well the darker shift in the programme’s narrative structure at the time could work without relying on an excessive body count to needlessly hammer home the point as so many other serials around it did, allowing the Doctor a subdued moment of victory as the universe increasingly turns against him.