Doctor Who - Frontios by Christopher H. Bidmead
Published: December 1984
Edition read: Target first, 1984
Coolest Cover: Not one of Andrew Skilleter’s best- needs more Tractator and less planet, I think...
The BBC Budget Wouldn’t Run To: The multi-level Tractator chamber, for a start.
Crimes Against Literature: "...if the Tractators did not know the police box was a TARDIS- and there was no reason they should- its peculiar time physics would almost certainly have led them to underestimate its mass as an oblject in space." (p.132). This is the thought process of an Australian air hostess...
The TARDIS materialises with... "a whirring, chuffing sound".
Childhood Recollections: I really don’t know whether I read this the first time around or not.
Ramblings: Christopher H. Bidmead’s third and final entry in the Target range is an adaptation of one of the stronger stories of the Fifth Doctor’s era, and quite probably the most satisfying of Bidmead’s scripts for the series in that the story is left to its own devices rather than, as with ‘Logopolis’ and ‘Castrovalva’, having to serve additional purposes in the overall ongoing story of Doctor Who. Like his previous stories, ‘Frontios’ is named after the location where the action takes place, so presumably if Bidmead had written ‘City of Death’ it would have been called ‘Paris’- although we should probably be grateful that Bidmead wasn’t the script editor during the UNIT years, or two thirds of Jon Pertwee’s stories would be called ‘The Home Counties’. As befits a script by one of the co-creators of both Tegan and the Fifth Doctor, the dialogue (particularly for the regulars) is a notch above the usual level, and not only is the Doctor more conventionally Doctorish than Peter Davison was often allowed to be, but there’s an attempt to revive the kind of interplay of drama and ideas which characterised the best entries in Bidmead’s own era of the series.
So much for the story as broadcast. The book, however, is a curious beast, and while generally faithful to the script as transmitted, there are a few indications that the BBC production wasn’t quite what Bidmead was aiming at. The most notorious is of course the Tractators’ technology based on human corpses- the Gravis’s translation device made out of an arm, a head and a pendulum, and the excavating machine out of bone- and it’s difficult to see what Bidmead was getting at here. It’s a step too far into the macabre, and the translation device would certainly have been impossible to realise on screen, not only for reasons of taste but also the effects requirement. The irony is that although the translation device neatly solves the question of allowing the Gravis to communicate with Plantagenet without the Doctor being present, the story later reveals that the Tractators have had centuries to learn the humans’ language if they’d had a mind to. Reading the book also helps to show just how fortunate the story was in its casting- while the characters are well-defined, it’s difficult not to see the prose versions as pale imitations of the people brought to life by actors of the calibre of William Lucas and Peter Gilmore and it has to be said that it isn’t to the novel’s advantage. It’s also less successful in putting across some of the ideas behind the drama; while the story has potentially lots to say about societies and their leaders, the facade of power and how accident as much as character can propel somebody into a position of authority, neither the script nor the novelisation make the points as powerfully as some of the stories Bidmead script-edited. And there’s this series’ bugbear of Bidmead’s prose style yet again. I’ve reached the conclusion that as far as Doctor Who is concerned, Christopher H. Bidmead was a script editor first, a script writer second and an author last of all- he simply lacks the necessary vim to make the characters on the page come to life in their own right without the reader mentally flicking back to the televised story.
There are many good things in ‘Frontios’, and there are many good things in the book, for a mid-1980s story particularly so. It manages to be a monster story which says more about human beings than the monsters, who are in the main ultimately harmless and left to their own devices. It’s one of the Fifth Doctor’s best outings for several reasons, and almost certainly the strongest story featuring the Fifth Doctor/Tegan/Turlough line-up. But the book is somehow less than the sum of its parts, although that does inadvertently leave the reader hungry for the atmosphere of the television episodes.