Apocalypse Below (or The Tractate Face-Off)
From Panic Moon, July 2011. Edited, and with new material in a seprate coda.
This is the end
This is the end
My only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
At first, ‘Frontios’ seems like the odd one out amongst Christopher H. Bidmead’s Doctor Who scripts. Unlike ‘Logopolis’ and ‘Castrovalva’, it’s overtly political and doesn’t seem to be powered by any underlying scientific concept. Also, it has monsters in it.
Bidmead included monsters – reluctantly – at the insistence of John Nathan-Turner. On reflection, this seems a dodgy call. Monsters from Bidmead were always going to be too concept-heavy to realise properly on screen. Sure enough, he comes up with giant woodlice that can disguise themselves as rocks until they unexpectedly uncurl… which was never gonna look good on the day.
Apparently finding the macabre more fascinating than he expected, Bidmead also included alien machines made with bits of corpses. This was very tuned in to the then-current turn towards biomechanics and ‘body horror’ in the fantasy genre, but it proved too horrific for Doctor Who to attempt on screen (though it livens up the novelisation).
The politics is also a departure. Aside from Tegan’s worries about sweatshops in ‘Logopolis’ and the hilarious sexism of the Castrovalvans, previous Bidmead scripts seem politically detached. He’s a world-builder, but not in the utopian or dystopian manner. So ‘Frontios’ comes a little out of leftfield… though that’s the only leftish thing about it. I’ve no idea what Bidmead’s own politics may be, but ‘Frontios’ seems to say that the ordinary people require stern discipline, that they want and need confident rulers. The story frowns on the ‘every man for himself’ ethic, yet implies that only hierarchy and obedience stand between society and what Hobbes described as the “war of all against all”.
In the absence of Plantagenet, there is “anarchy”, with the colonists turning to looting with a rapidity that is almost funny. Thrown “outside the system”, Cockerill is quickly attacked by ravening ‘Retrogrades’. However, when he apparently defeats the hungry earth, Cockerill is eagerly adopted as a replacement leader by the mob. Meanwhile, Plantagenet’s bravery proves he is genetically fit to rule (he is, after all, named after a line of kings). Brazen – the personification of authority – ultimately proves himself admirable, his noble final words being “that’s an order!”.
Actually, I think ‘Frontios’ has more in common with ‘Logopolis’ than it appears. Bidmead never takes the series into the past – he’s too aware of entropy as ‘time’s arrow’ to believe that you can go backwards – and his view of the far future is one of maximum entropy. The “failure proof technology” that failed, the dwindling population, the wrecked ship, the malfunctioning generator, the “doomed planet Earth”, etc. Mine shafts collapse. Lights stop working. The TARDIS falls apart. Even “eaten by the earth” sounds like a metaphor for putrefaction.
The politics reflects this state of decay. Order becomes disorder as Orderlies become disorderly.…