In which the TARDIS is drawn towards the planet of Frontios, in the far distant future. The Doctor is concerned as the ship has exceeded its temporal limits, something which the Time Lords would disapprove of. A powerful gravitational force is at work, and the ship materialises in the midst of a meteorite bombardment. They have landed next to a massive spaceship wreck. Frontios is home to a colony from Earth. They crashed here some years ago and their society is failing. In command is the inexperienced young Plantagenet, guided by his tougher deputy and security chief Brazen. As well as the frequent meteorite showers, there has been an increase in looting and other disorder. At first the newcomers are suspected of being behind the meteorites, which seem to be deliberately directed towards them. However, the Doctor's scientific skills are needed to improve conditions in the hospital. Whilst assisting Science Officer Range, Tegan learns that there have been some unusual, unexplained deaths in the colony over the years. Brazen ordered mine workings to be closed down after the previous leader - Plantagenet's father - disappeared whilst studying the caves. He had been buried under some debris, and when this was removed the body had vanished. Turlough befriends Range's daughter Norna, from whom he learns that Frontios buries its own dead. During another bombardment the TARDIS is apparently destroyed - only the hat-stand from the console room left standing where the ship had been.
Plantagenet is wounded and suffers a heart attack. Whilst in the hospital ward, he falls to the floor and is sucked down into the ground. Brazen must keep this from the colonists, otherwise there will be a complete breakdown in law and order. The Doctor decides that the caves must be investigated. The tunnels prove to be artificially sculpted in many sections - as though drilled and polished. Seeing these, Turlough begins to suffer from a repressed memory - some horror story from his childhood. There is a name to go with these memories - Tractators. The Doctor and his friends soon come upon these creatures - huge insectoid beings like giant woodlice, with armoured carapaces. They can manipulate gravity and can pull people and objects towards them as though magnetised. In control is the Gravis, which is distinguishable from its underlings as it has the power of speech. Tractators fashion tunnels beneath the surface of a planet which they infest, and these are used to harness their gravitational powers. Once complete, the planet can be piloted through space, in order to colonise other worlds. They have been bringing down the meteorites to "cull" the human population - the bodies of the dead and near dead being used to fashion and run mining equipment. Plantagenet is still alive. He is to take over from his father in operating one of the mining machines.
The Doctor rescues him but Brazen falls into the machine. He is able to sacrifice himself to destroy the device. The Doctor discovers that the TARDIS wasn't destroyed by meteorites. It has been broken up by the Tractators - the pieces scattered through the tunnels. The console room is found to be still intact. The Tractators are powerless without their leader, so the Doctor devises a scheme to separate the Gravis from the others. He informs it that he is a Time Lord, and the Gravis recognises his race - and realises that it has the opportunity to gain a TARDIS. The Doctor tricks it into reconstituting the ship. The rebuilding of the ship disables the Gravis, the psychic link to its fellows cut off, so the Doctor decides to take it and dump it on a barren planetoid - Kolkokron - where it will not be able to cause any significant damage. Without their leader, the other Tractators become simple burrowing creatures which should not pose any risk to the colonists. Plantagenet is able to reassert his authority over the colony. The Doctor gives him the TARDIS hat-stand as a parting gift, and asks that no-one mention that he was ever here. On leaving the planet, the TARDIS suddenly finds itself caught in a temporal disturbance...
This four part adventure was written by former Script Editor Christopher H Bidmead, and was broadcast between 26th January and 3rd February, 1984. It was Bidmead's last script for the series.
Bidmead was unhappy with some elements of the production - the Tractator design and the toning down of some grisly body horror. These he fixed when it came time to novelise the story. The Tractators were supposed to have more flexible bodies - dancers were employed to play them - and they were to capture their victims by curling around them. The costumes proved to be far too rigid for this - the actors able to flap their hands at the most. The mining machine was to have had body parts incorporated into it, but this was felt to be too horrific. As it is, we only see Plantagenet's father - Captain revere, sitting in the machine in a zombie-like trance. Production stills show that had the machine been filmed from the side, there would have been other captive humans locked into it. Brazen's death, when he is caught by the machine and causes it to blow up, all takes place off screen.
Bidmead was always good at planet-building, and Frontios has some interesting aspects. It is difficult to see how this colony could have survived four decades, however. There is a sub-plot involving an orderly named Cockerill, who survives being sucked under the ground, and who gathers a following because of this - but this just doesn't lead anywhere.
An apparent influence on this story is the classic Star Trek episode 'Devil In The Dark'. Even design elements like the spheres lying everywhere remind us of that.
The regular cast members get plenty to do in this story - with Mark Strickson's drooling nervous breakdown and Tegan's reaction to being passed off as a dodgy android - with a wonky walk and accent. Davison dons the half-moon "brainy" specs.
The guest cast is strong. Peter Gilmore, best known for The Onedin Line, plays Brazen. Plantagenet is Jeff Rawle, who will return to the Doctor Who universe in The Sarah Jane Adventures story Mona Lisa's Revenge. Norna is Lesley Dunlop, who will be back as one of The Happiness Patrol. Range is William Lucas - more on his casting below.
Episode endings are:
- Emerging from shelter following another of the meteorite bombardments, the Doctor is shocked to find the TARDIS appears to have been destroyed...
- The Doctor finds himself frozen by the Tractators' gravitational beams...
- The Doctor and Tegan are confronted by the mining machine, driven by the dead Captain Revere...
- In the console room, the Doctor and his companions must hang on as the ship begins to go out of control...
Overall, a very strong story, with interesting concepts and an unusual monster modus operandi. Peter Davison had already decided to move on from the role by this stage, but has said he might have done a further season had his second series of scripts been as good as this one.
Things you might like to know:
- Tragically, William Lucas got the part of Range late in the day after the intended actor - Peter Arne - was murdered. On his way back to his flat after a costume fitting, he had invited a young man named Guiseppi Perusi home with him. Arne knew him and had often given him food. Perusi killed Arne and then himself - his body was later pulled out of the Thames. Lucas knew Arne and was shocked when he learned that it was his old acquaintance whom he would be replacing.
- Another death which affected production was the suicide of the intended designer - Barrie Dobbins. His assistant David Buckingham was promoted to take his place.
- As with a number of Davison stories, this ends on a cliffhanger which will lead into the following story.
- The temporal boundary for the TARDIS is never really explained. Presumably this is a legal thing rather than anything physical. What is it about the tail end of the universe that needs protecting?
- This story sees the final musical contributions by Paddy Kingsland of the Radiophonic Workshop.
- Look closely in the opening scene when Revere gets dragged into the soil. You will see the fingers of one of the VFX assistants wriggling away.
- A noticeable continuity error is when Tegan bars the doors to the hospital ward. She puts the bar through the middle of the door handles, but we then see it across the top. The door handles are clearly made of cardboard as well.
- You have to wonder why they use a space with a soil floor for the hospital unit. Not terribly hygienic, and especially silly when you know the planet eats the dead and dying.
- Never trust a reference book. About Time Volume 5 claims that this is the first of a run of four consecutive stories to have an actor with the name Maurice in it - there being no other story with someone of that name at any other time. Well, there ain't no Maurice in Planet of Fire. With Maurice Denham playing Azmael in The Twin Dilemma, you do get four out of five consecutive stories with a Maurice, but not the straight run as they claim.
- The Federation helmets from Blake's 7 get reused for the Orderlies.