5 years, 7 months ago
The skies of November turn gloomy.
It’s January 26th, 1984. Frankie Goes to Hollywood finally get around to being at number one, and stays there all story. By the end of it, Cyndi Lauper has made it to right below them with “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” with The Eurythmics, Queen, and Echo & The Bunnymen also charting, the latter with the sublimely good “The Killing Moon.” So the pop charts have gone and restored order, which is often a good sign for what’s on television.
The news, on the other hand, is wholly mediocre. The big one is that the Winter Olympics kick off the day after this story airs its final installment, but that has relevance for the next story, not really this one. Nissan announces plans to open a plant in Great Britain, which will be the first time that non-British cars will be built in the UK. The first embryo transfer resulting in a live birth is announced? An untethered space walk? It’s not thrilling news.
It is, however, thrilling television, as we’ve got Frontios on tap, and as it happens, Frontios is quite good. Perhaps the easiest thing to say about Frontios is that it is not at all the script you would expect from Christopher H. Bidmead. Not merely based on Logopolis or Castrovalva, although it’s very much unlike either of those, but based on the entirety of Season 18, one does not expect to see Bidmead going for body horror and grimy militarism. Nevertheless, this is unmistakably a Bidmead script. His stocks in trade - lost knowledge of the ancients, eccentric spaces - are all here. It’s just that they’re serving a story about slugs using human corpses for labor instead of some fugue on Escher or computers.
There is an almost ritual element to the progression of Season 21. After so long mining every part of Doctor Who’s history save for its alchemical spark the series unexpectedly brings back two of its last three alchemists in Bidmead and, later, Holmes. On top of that, there is an odd focus on the buried. Story after story in this season focuses on imagery of caves, tunnels, or the deep. With the miners’ strike looming, there is in hindsight something slightly uncanny about this. It is not quite a thematic link - the issues of the strike are not well reflected across Season 21, although there are moments that come close. But it remains striking, as Doctor Who finally stirs, even if temporarily, from its season-long torpor of museum pieces, and has a resurgence of alchemy to see it obliquely reflect the looming politics of the day.
But there is something troubling and unsettling about the alchemy in these stories, and Frontios is a prime example. Bidmead has always had a love of eccentric spaces, but here the unfathomable depths of Frontios and the outer reaches of time do not hide a sense of wonder but a sense of raw horror. And not just any horror, but good old-fashioned body horror. The planet literally consumes people and uses them as meat. On top of that there’s Turlough’s race memory of the Tractators, which is played strikingly by Mark Strickson, who decides to play the terror by just gobbling scenery. It’s a sharper choice than it sounds, as it’s such an unusual position to have a companion put in that we really do get a strong sense of how fundamentally wrong and scary the Tractators must be.
There’s a chilling callousness to this conception of the world - one where the earth itself is hostile to us. But it seems, in a real sense, like the appropriate midpoint between Bidmead’s conception of Doctor Who and Saward’s. Bidmead’s conception of Doctor Who is something we understand fairly well at this point, but Saward’s is a trickier matter. His four scripts demonstrate a tendency towards action-based scripts and a tendency towards the militaristic, but equally, and this is too often ignored, Saward is not straightforwardly pro-military. Earthshock can be accused of that, certainly, but come the next story Saward is far more ambivalent about the military and violence. Still, brutality is a major theme, both of his work and of the scripts in his tenure he takes the most pride in.
So here we get Bidmead reinterpreting Saward’s fascination with the brutal through his own love of eccentric spaces. And it’s worth noting, Frontios is not merely eccentric because of its interior geometries but because of its position as the absolute edge of where the TARDIS can travel. Notably, Frontios is not set at the end of the universe. There is no sense of looming heat death or the destruction of all things. Instead, it seems, there is simply a point in history beyond which the Time Lords simply cannot go. (And given that Frontios is positioned as one of the last dying outposts of humanity, it seems that the scope of Time Lord society is coextensive with human society. This is not uncommon - it is oddly difficult to construct any explanations of Time Lords that do not require the centrality of humanity.) And so the lurking horror of the Tractators is positioned as the horror at the end of civilization - the literal end of history.
But equally, then, it’s telling that we get one of the most straightforward “leave everybody to rebuild civilization” endings that we’ve seen in years. For all the meditations on the possibility of this brutal, visceral horror as the natural endpoint of history, we can’t ignore the fact that the Doctor wins, civilization is restored, and everybody gets to go on. Equally, though, it’s reiterated over and over again that the Doctor has to hide this from the Time Lords.
It is nearly impossible to wind a way through this set of ideas without returning to our old conception of the Time Lords as guardians of the arc of history. More even than Curse of Peladon, the story that caused us to first formulate this idea, this is a story that just fails to make sense without that idea well in place. It is only when you have a concrete idea of the endpoint of history that the liminality of Frontios makes sense in the first place.
Given this, we oughtn’t just make hay about the Tractators and the body horror. We should also look at the type of society that is the natural endpoint of civilization before it crumbles to dirt and meat. Miles and Wood make much of the fact that this, unlike most Bidmead worlds, is one in which the people defending scientific inquiry are thinly described whereas considerable amounts of time are spent on the authoritarians. But what they don’t comment on is the underlying issue of why. What has to be stressed isn’t that the authoritarians are unusually well-entrenched here, it’s that their entrenchment is tacitly positioned as the natural order of the universe - the inevitable end. This is a society where the barbarians aren’t just at the gate, the people inside the gate are giving up and joining the barbarians. This is the endpoint of humanity - what the whole of human history is leading inexorably towards. And, of course, it's a very Sawardian society as well - full of dour military men.
The scale of this, of course, can’t be sold purely by having the Doctor telling us that he shouldn’t be meddling here. The TARDIS itself is ripped apart here. The script is not entirely clear on why, but nothing about Gravis and the Tractators suggests that they’re a-list enough to be able to engage in that sort of narrative collapse. Thematically, if not literally, the culprit is unambiguously the nature of Frontios itself as a place the TARDIS shouldn’t be in the first place. Frontios is simply not a place the Doctor is supposed to be in the first place.
But if this is the case then the Doctor’s meddling here has to be taken as one of the most significant acts he’s ever taken - one on par with his rendering of the Daleks as subject to history at their origin point. We don’t really notice it here because the overt mythicism of the Daleks is absent, but thematically, this is huge. The Doctor has changed what it is that the arc of history bends towards. He’s not just altered history, he’s, in a very real sense, altered the very nature of time itself.
There is a longstanding and not particularly interesting debate over what the killing blow for the classic series was. I say it is uninteresting because it is, quite frankly, supremely easy to answer: Warriors of the Deep finally gave a story so bad that not even the fans could defend it (it’s telling that Doctor Who Magazine didn’t even bother running a review of the story) that gave open ammunition to MIchael Grade. The Twin Dilemma cripples the incoming Doctor so that he is essentially never, ever going to be able to win the public over. And then Trial of a Time Lord botches the last throw of the dice, failing to bring a restored show that anybody can be excited about and tout as the triumphant relaunch of Doctor Who.
No, all of that is terribly simple. The difficult and interesting question is not what killed Doctor Who, but what saved it. It’s not difficult to imagine that the show would have come back eventually - television production is far too remake happy to let a property like Doctor Who sit abandoned forever. But what is unusual is that Doctor Who returned as a continuation of itself - and more than that, as a continuation that embraced large swaths of spin-off material. That’s essentially unheard of. Even though Star Trek maintained a unified continuity over five series, it wildly altered the premise and lead characters. But we’re going to go into the 50th Anniversary with a character who, as is repeatedly stressed, the exact same one that Ian and Barbara met in Totters Lane. That’s kind of weird. There’s no real way to cut it so that it wouldn’t have just been easier, in both 1996 and 2005, to reboot the series from scratch.
So what about the series enabled that? This is a surprisingly tricky question, because much of what we are looking for is slightly buried. The bulk of the series during the Saward era is visibly making catastrophic decisions that lead to cancellation. But every once in a while there is a gem. Not just a good story - an Enlightenment or a Snakedance - but one that lays a bit of framework that provides a vision of the show that can be picked up on. Because that, in the end, is at the heart of the question of how the series survived: what you can find within the dying embers that constitutes a way forward.
And here one of the great alchemists of the series slips it in. He writes a story that is on the one hand unmistakably a part of the concerns of this era, but that on the other hand features the Doctor shamelessly cheating and altering the nature of time itself. And again, this is surprisingly topical. The Saward era, if only in hindsight, is almost overtly an attempt to figure out what Doctor Who should be like in the wake of the Falklands and Thatcher. It gets it dreadfully wrong much of the time, however. In part this is because it concedes the point and tries to be Doctor Who in a Thatcherite world. Whereas here Bidmead just won’t have it. He starts in a world of militaristic institutions holding back the tide of chaos, then has the Doctor just kick the premise to the curb and change the world into one in which good old-fashioned “tear down the structures of society and leave smart, good people behind to rebuild it” is the order of the universe once again.
It’s a small thing, isolated on the trailing end of an era of unfulfilled potential. But it’s significant - a spiritual escape act. Instead of bending towards Thatcherite hell the universe now takes a last minute swerve into rebirth.
As above, so below.
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