18 April 2011

Manufacturer: BBC DVD / 2|Entertain

Written By: Christopher H. Bidmead

RRP: £20.42

Release Date: 30th May 2011

Reviewed By: Dale Who for D octor Who Online

Review Posted: 18th April 2011

Let's get something straight and out in the open right from the outset...  There is a type of creature that is made scarier by making it larger.  In Doctor Who's long history, they would be giant maggots and giant spiders.  They work with an already present fear or revulsion of the creatures to produce a memorably scary Doctor Who monster.  In the not scary bracket are giant ants and butterflies (the Zarbi and Menoptera from 1965's "The Web Planet")... and woodlice.  Woodlice are not scary.  Not even remotely.

Frontios is a polarised story.  Some parts of it work brilliantly, and some parts of it really don't; and this new BBC / 2|Entertain DVD showcases both these aspects and examines them in the special features on the single disc release.

Starting with the story itself, Frontios is a fairly low budget studio bound Doctor Who, coming towards the end of Peter Davison's tenure as The Doctor.  The regular cast continue to shine, with Davison and Janet Fielding especially stealing every scene they're in; and there are some brilliant guest stars in Jeff Rawle as Plantagenet and Lesley Dunlop in the role of Norna.  There are some great lines and jokes along the way, and the Doctor is in one of those "grouchy professor" moods that suited his young persona so very well.  

Sadly for Frontios, that's about where the good ends.  The sets - although you can see an awful lot of effort and thought went into them - don't work in convincing that the studio is the surface of an alien planet, some of the performances really aren't great, and then there's the Tractators.  Giant flapping woodlice that fail in just about every way possible to be even remotely thrilling.

This story will be remembered for two main reasons; firstly this is the one where the previously indestructible TARDIS was destroyed (albeit briefly!), and secondly for the unpleasant infestation of some particularly large  and rubbish woodlice that hung around for two (and a bit) episodes.  Its failures certainly aren't for the lack of trying: the direction, the handling and the production all work well with what they've got.  However it looks cheap and rushed and all a little too hurried to carry off what still wouldn't have been a great story with a budget ten times larger.

It is also worth noting that several of the concepts shown in this story (the colonists being pulled down through the ground, and witnesses referring to this as the Earth being hungry) were re-used and utilised to much better effect in the 2010 series of Doctor Who, in the Silurian episode "The Hungry Earth"... now where did they get that title from?

Special Features:

Driven To Distractation - There are many reasons to love this half hour featurette; it has a lot of frank honesty, a lot of humour, and gives a robust defence of the story itself.  It almost succeeds in making you like the story more.  Almost.  What it definitely succeeds at is showing the rush-job that the Doctor Who cast and crew faced to get the story in the can, in the face of several tragedies and setbacks; and it shows the thought processes behind the writing of the serial.  It's nicely put together, uses relevant footage from the time and is decidedly non-judgemental and supportive in what comes across in quite a sweet way.  The writers and stars do admit where there were mistakes made, and it's very brave of them to do so, even if Christopher H. Bidmead neatly places the blame on everyone but himself.

Extra / Deleted Scenes - Minor trims and one or two scenes that play rather well but didn't make it into the final cut of the programme.  There's a brilliant bit about the Doctor's spectacles, and Tegan being an android that really should have been aired; they're funny, clever, and give Tegan and the Doctor some great lines.

Commentary - Peter Davison, Jeff Rawle, Dick Mills and Eric Saward sit around a red table and give opinions, anecdotes, memories and an overall view of how the show holds up for them twenty seven years on.  It's all quite pleasant and jovial and Rawle and Mills especially give some new angles on how the guest stars, and the "special sound" on Doctor Who were used.

Info Text - The usual trivia packed information is available on this disc as well, although most of it seems obsessed in pointing out where anything over two seconds of cuts were made to trim episodes down from over running.  It also points out a couple of continuity errors and the careers and times of the guests stars that appeared in Frontios.

Coming Soon Trailer - The next absurdly themed boxed set: Earthstory, in which William Hartnell's Doctor lands in Tombstone in search of a dentist and gets rather caught up with "The Gunfighters", and Peter Davison's Doctor lands in Little Hodcombe and discovers a centuries old evil lurking in the local church in "The Awakening".

With the usual fripperies as well, such as the Radio Times PDF files, and the Photo Gallery from Frontios, these features help buoy a story that's not as strong as it might have been; however it's certainly not for the lack of trying.

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