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The TARDIS arrives on the planet Frontios in the far future, where the last vestiges of humanity crashlanded years earlier. The struggling colony is beset by disasters, including deadly meteorite showers and the disappearance of several prominent colonists who have been sucked down beneath the ground. The Doctor, Tegan and Turlough discover that the culprits are the Gravis and his Tractators, giant insects with incredible powers over gravity. The Gravis intends to transform Frontios into an enormous spaceship, and spread the terror of the Tractators across the galaxy.
In the summer of 1982, former Doctor Who script editor Christopher H Bidmead was contacted by Eric Saward, his old job's current incumbent. Bidmead had written the two Doctor Who serials which had bridged the transition from Tom Baker to Peter Davison -- Logopolis and Castrovalva -- and Saward invited him to contribute new story ideas for the programme's twenty-first season. Bidmead was happy to return to Doctor Who, but was less than keen on producer John Nathan-Turner's desire that he develop a monster-centric adventure, which would represent a significant departure from his earlier scripts.
Despite his reservations, Bidmead developed a storyline called “The Wanderers”, commissioned on August 24th. In compliance with Nathan-Turner's request, “The Wanderers” incorporated the gravity-controlling Tractators, which were inspired by the wood lice which had infested a former residence of Bidmead's. The desolate, Blitz-like setting was influenced by contemporary reports of fighting in Beirut during the 1982 Lebanon War. Bidmead also wanted to put the Doctor in a situation where he was very vulnerable, and so he devised both the far-far-future timeframe and the apparent destruction of the TARDIS.
On November 26th, Bidmead was contracted to provide the scripts for “Frotious”: this was one of several misspellings of the actual new story title, Frontios. (Others which would plague the production process included “Frontious” and “The Frontios”.) The major change that Bidmead's story underwent was the conception of Tractator technology. Both the excavation machine and a translating device which was intended to float beside the Gravis were originally envisioned as being made from the remains of the human colonists kidnapped by the Tractators. These ideas were deemed too gruesome, however, and were scaled back as much as possible.
Saward also rewrote the serial's final scene as a cliffhanger introduction to the next adventure, his own Resurrection Of The Daleks. Under the title “The Return”, this story had been planned as the finale for Season Twenty, but had been postponed due to an industrial dispute. The serial that wound up concluding the twentieth season, The King's Demons, was originally meant to have a cliffhanger ending to lead into “The Return”, and Saward largely reused this material for Frontios.
Frontios was designated Serial 6N, and was assigned director Ron Jones, who had most recently helmed Arc Of Infinity a year earlier. At Jones' instigation, the Gravis' translation device was completely removed from the scripts; Jones feared that it would limit his selection of shots, and could be achieved only with considerable effort while offering little substantive gain. Initially, Jones' designer was to be Barrie Dobbins. Sadly, however, Dobbins committed suicide in early July 1983, after completing much of the preparatory work for Frontios. Dobbins' assistant, David Buckingham, was asked to take his place.
Dobbins' death was not the only tragedy to afflict Frontios. As Mr Range, Jones cast veteran performer Peter Arne, who had appeared in numerous television programmes (including The Avengers and Triangle) as well as various feature films such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Victor/Victoria, and three Pink Panther movies. On August 1st, Arne was fitted for his Doctor Who costume. Soon after Arne returned home, neighbours reported a violent argument in his apartment, and the police arrived to find that Arne had been beaten to death. Several days later, the body of a local vagrant, with whom Arne had been associated, was pulled from the Thames. An inquest determined that the vagrant had murdered Arne and then drowned himself, although the motive for Arne's death was never uncovered. Meanwhile, Jones found himself forced to hastily recast the role of Mr Range under very unpleasant circumstances. William Lucas, who had starred in The Adventures Of Black Beauty, agreed to replace Arne.
Earlier in Season Twenty-One, costume woes had plagued Warriors Of The Deep, and these resurfaced to plague Frontios as well. Bidmead had conceived of the Tractators as being able to curl up into a ball, killing their victims by encircling and smothering them. With this in mind, Jones hired dancers and actors with similar skill sets to play the monsters. Unfortunately, visual effects designer Dave Havard's realisation of the Tractators was very constraining and inflexible, forcing Jones to abandon these plans. Jones was also unhappy with Havard's design for the excavation machine, and decided to shoot around it as much as possible.
On August 19th, during rehearsals for Frontios, the BBC announced that Colin Baker had been cast as the Sixth Doctor. In fact, Baker had agreed to replace Davison two months earlier. Production on Frontios then began on August 24th. Since the Doctor Who budget would be sorely taxed during the making of the next two serials -- the action-packed Resurrection Of The Daleks and Planet Of Fire, which would be recorded in the Canary Islands -- it was agreed that money would be saved by confining Frontios entirely to the studio. This marked the first time since Kinda two years earlier that a serial had enjoyed no filming whatsoever, be it on location or at the Ealing Television Film Studios.
As a result, Frontios was made in two three-day studio sessions, in BBC Television Centre Studio 6. The first block spanned August 24th to 26th, and largely concentrated on scenes in the tunnels and caverns. Other sets used on these days included the excavation area and the research room hatch on the 24th, the TARDIS console room on the 25th, and the medical shelter on the 26th.
The second studio block took place from September 7th to 9th, and focussed on scenes in the human colony; Lucas was now battling the flu. The first day dealt with material on the high street, at the colony ship entrance and hull, and outside the medical centre. On the 8th, recording involved sequences on the hull, in the TARDIS console room, and in the research room; additional material in the tunnels which had been postponed from the first studio session was also completed. The TARDIS console room was again required for the final day of recording, which also dealt with scenes in the corridors of the colony ship and in the state room, alongside various effects shots. Unfortunately, the recording fell badly behind schedule over the course of the six-day shoot, and although Jones managed to capture all of the required footage, there was little margin for error. At one point, for instance, Jeff Rawle (Plantagenet) put his foot through a stair, and was astonished when no retake was requested.
Episode one of Frontios badly overran, forcing Jones to make a number of trims. Much of the excised material involved Cockerill and explored his deepening sense of rebellion. Also cut was a scene in which Tegan and Turlough return to the TARDIS and find it surrounded by curious colonists; this is why Turlough later quips that the time travellers have lost their “news value”. Cut from part three was the revelation that the voices of the Doctor and Tegan have echoed through the Tractators' tunnels, explaining how the Gravis is aware of the Doctor's intelligence.
Despite the difficulty in realising the Tractators, the monsters were popular with the Doctor Who production team. On March 5th, 1984, Saward wrote to Bidmead and asked him if he would be interested in writing a new story teaming the Tractators with the Master. Nothing came of this idea, but Bidmead continued to work with Saward, writing two further Doctor Who scripts -- “In The Hollows Of Time” and “Pinocotheca” -- over the next two years. Neither of these would be produced, however, and Frontios became Bidmead's last televised Doctor Who serial.
|Updated 11th March 2011|
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