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Doctor Who: Frontios (parts three and four)

Well, how nice. There’s a scene with Janet Fielding in her awesomely eighties outfit and one of the big bug monsters. Saves me the trouble of taking two pictures.

From the perspective of watching TV with my kid, the most interesting surprise about “Frontios” is that he was much more frightened by it than I was expecting. There’s a grisly body horror aspect to the story – it’s really driven home in writer Christopher H. Bidmead’s novelization of the script for Target Books’ line, which is downright disgusting – which centers around the bug monsters’ excavation machine. They need living humanoid minds to run the thing, and so the cliffhanger to part three reveals that a character everybody thought was dead is still hanging on, zombie-like, inside the machine. Our son volunteered that this was the scariest adventure since “Pyramids of Mars”, which remains his benchmark for scary Doctor Who.

From my own perspective, there’s a surprising revelation that the most intelligent bug monster, the one who controls all the others, is surprisingly well-read for bug monsters. He knows about Gallifrey and TARDISes, but he also specifically has heard of the Doctor. This may be one of the first occasions in the show where our hero’s reputation has preceded him quite this much. You can imagine Young Steven Moffat jumping at what a great idea it is that the Doctor’s such a big-shot legend.

It’s established that the Tractators are very long-lived specifically, and we can infer that their species has been around, digging up planets, for many millions of years, since Turlough’s home planet was once infested with them, and this story is set so far in the future that the Time Lords forbid TARDISes from going any farther. Perhaps the rank-and-file digger bugs just shuffle about in their tunnels while the bright one goes out, reads the papers, and stays abreast of cosmic events. He talks a lot, in his awesomely eighties electronic-synthesizer voice, so maybe he’s been gossiping with all the villains from all the other set-so-far-in-the-future stories about who beat ’em.

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Doctor Who: Frontios (parts one and two)

“Frontios” is the story with the big ugly monsters that look like wood lice. We may get a clear shot of them for the picture in tomorrow’s post. Our son was doing an admirable job being quite surprisingly freaked out and bothered by what’s happening on the far distant colony planet in this story, so I turned to look at him as the beasts are revealed. You know that scene in so many science fiction movies where the heroes wander right past the pile of rocks that turn out to be a walking rock monster as soon as their backs are turned? Well, that happens here, as two of these big insects helpfully hide their faces against a wall leaving their shells facing toward Mark Strickson and one of this story’s co-stars. The humans leave the frame, and the big bugs turn around and follow them.

I was expecting a gasp, or a cry, or the shielding of our son’s trusty security blanket. Instead he went “Bleugh!” and didn’t stop with the “yucks” until several minutes after the show. “This is terrible! Those Tractator things are disgusting!” Oh, to be seven again!

“Frontios” is… okay. It’s another one of those stories where the running time would be halved if the besieged good guys would just accept the Doctor’s help instead of thinking he’s the villain. This is often a bore, but never more so than here, when in order for the Doctor to be the villain, he’d have to had started bombarding this colony with meteorites literally three decades previously. I mean, at some point in the last thirty years, the theory that the meteorites are just a softening-up technique before the invasion would have gone back on the shelf.

The besieged people are all stupid and unsympathetic, and guest star Peter Gilmore is stuck playing the far-future version of some dumb general like Thunderbolt Ross. Writer Christopher H. Bidmead came up with an interesting scenario and it’s nice to see the Doctor dig around and investigate things, but he really wants to leave this planet as soon as possible, and who can blame him?

I’ve mentioned before that I enjoy rereading Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood’s About Time series of Who guidebooks, well, the first six of them anyway, and I give each story a preview look in their books to remind myself what to watch for. That’s especially important with “Frontios,” which I’ve always remembered as a middling-to-mediocre story that doesn’t hold my interest. I was surprised to read that both writers are extremely complimentary toward this adventure and hail it as a really unique and original story. Two episodes in, and honestly the most memorable things about it, in no particular order, are the Doctor’s “brainy specs,” Janet Fielding’s leather miniskirt, and the silly bug-monster costumes. Then I read a little further and the authors went on to make the quite mad claim that Doug McClure wasn’t in Warlords of Atlantis with Peter Gilmore, when he most emphatically was. Writers! Never trust ’em!

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Warlords of Atlantis (1978)

I remember watching Warlords of Atlantis about a hundred times when I was a kid, but I don’t quite remember all the endless walking, walking, walking around. It’s the fourth and final collaboration between director Kevin Connor and actor Doug McClure. Every summer from 1975-78, McClure flew to Europe and made another movie with rubber monsters, character actors, and lots of explosions. We’ve watched the other three for our blog already. Warlords of Atlantis is oddly not easily available in Region 1, but I picked up StudioCanal’s British DVD pretty cheap a while back.

Of the four, Warlords of Atlantis is a whole lot better than the previous year’s People That Time Forgot, but it’s not a particularly original piece of cinema. The screenplay by Brian Hayles has some interesting ideas – Martians have been living underwater for centuries and periodically kidnap the most intelligent humans they can find to further their goals of advancing our civilization through technology used in war – but the long core of the film is the heroes being captured, sitting around a cell until they realize a cruel and ignoble fate awaits them, and then escaping and going on a long, long road back home.

In the meantime, there are giant monsters, and some of them are pretty amusing. I do love the way that Connor and his visual effects team nearly perfected the art of a great big rubber claw to menace the actors while the rest of the beast is rear-projected into the background. Other effects, including a bit where stagehands fling some “flying fish” at our heroes, are a little less effective.

Shane Rimmer, who was left to twiddle his thumbs for most of People, has a meatier role in this story as the skipper of the Texas Rose. He’s been hired to bring this scientific expedition to the Bermuda Triangle in 1896 – of course they had to come to the Bermuda Triangle, it was the seventies – but when McClure and Peter Gilmore bring up a huge statue made from solid gold, he’ll have a mutiny on his hands from his greedy crew. John Ratzenberger, who would later find fame as Cliff in Cheers, is one of the evildoers.

Speaking of television, there’s even a wink at Doug McClure’s old series Barbary Coast, which I still think we might check out one of these days.

Our son has picked up an annoying habit of under-his-breath commentary, but he enjoyed the movie quite a lot, as he should. It’s certainly geared to the six-to-eleven bracket. When one of our heroes meets a gruesome end, he grumbled that the monster wasn’t eating fast enough and there was only room in its mouth for one person at a time. There are explosions and gunfights and desperate bids for freedom, and not one but two attacks from a super-intelligent mutant octopus, but the main thing our kid was worried about was whether Shane Rimmer’s cute Siamese cat would make it out okay.

Of all things, that reminded me of another movie from 1978, Jennifer, the horror film about the psychic snake-handling girl. The cat in that movie doesn’t make it out okay. I think we’ll skip that one…

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