The KrotonsBookmark and Share

Friday, 24 March 2006 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

Stories written by Robert Holmes that aren't classics tend to provoke one of two reactions: either vitriolic criticism disproportionate to other stories of a similar quality (such as with The Power Of Kroll), or else people come up with an excuse as to why Holmes wasn't on form. The Krotons being his first story, most of its bad points can be excused there and then for many fans – although the fact that they have to be excused in the first place logically means that the story can't be that good. However, when taken on its own terms The Krotons isn't that bad and I don't really think it's fair that it's crushed under the weight of Holmes's later work. Also, as his first story, there's no doubting that for better or worse this is an important story for Doctor Who.

So a hatch gets stuck. Big deal. Why do people complain about this and not the wobbling ladder in Warrior's Gate? Because the goof occurs in the very first shot of the story, that's why not, and so there's no mitigation at this point in the way of quality elsewhere to offset it, so it gets inflated in the mind of the viewer into something more significant than it really is. Normally I try to avoid mentioning things that are criticised into the ground elsewhere, but I believe that the opening shot to this story has come under a lot of unjustified fire. However, the opening scene in general isn't actually that great. Opening scenes are rarely the programme's strongest feature, as the setting and basic core idea must be established without actually giving anything away; with this story (and many more) we get a variation on the portentous "you mustn't go in there – you know what will happen" that you'd expect to find getting a lot of coos from a pantomime audience.

Fortunately the regulars can be relied on to rock and roll, although since this is a Patrick Troughton episode it's debatable whether I needed to point that out. The Gond city is a good model, and the Doctor's comment about architecture being suited to low gravity is the kind of trademark tiny detail that gives Holmes's work so much depth and nuance. Unfortunately Zoe spends this episode being very stupid indeed ("There's a ramp, Doctor. And a door. Is it a wall?"), which is a shame as it lets the side down a bit. However, as I said, there's very little that Troughton can't make work. The death of the student is a nicely dramatic moment that moves the episode on from the opening's characteristic staginess.

The main set of the Gonds' learning hall looks decent as, like with a lot of black and white episodes, heavy contrast in lighting obscures the details and the depth making it look less confined and studioish. Now that the plot has been revealed a little bit more things are really starting to improve, and Philip Madoc puts in a brilliant performance like in all his subsequent appearances on the show.

The rescue of Vana is another dramatic scene, although Zoe's comment of "I think I can hear something!" as a loud buzzing rumbles across the landscape still places her IQ at sea level for the episode. I normally dismiss comments about the original series being sexist, but when companions chiefly characterised as genii are written to be so dim just to give the Doctor some foil I start to think they may have a point. The Doctor complaining about the loss of an umbrella is one of my favourite moments in the story (even at this stage Holmes was a handy man with a one-liner), and his protestation of "I'm not a doctor of medicine" is the first of many contradictions about the Doctor's academic status we see throughout the show; I like to think that the nature of the Doctor's degree is open to change depending on what he finds convenient.

I have to say though that some of the guest acting is over the top and portentous, especially the custodian of the learning hall, when compared against Troughton. Perhaps this is a reason for the story's poor reputation; I'm no statistician, but I note that stories notable for poor acting rarely feature in peoples' top ten lists.

The Doctor's darkly thoughtful assessment of "self-perpetuating slavery" is wonderfully dramatic and shows how well Troughton understood and keyed into the power of understatement as opposed to the manic we're-all-going-to-die acting of the guest stars. The Kroton voices are amazing, made all the better by us not being able to see where they are coming from at this stage. Unfortunately, next episode Patrick Tull's Cockney accent lets them down a bit (come to think of it, seeing them lets them down). Even in the self-consciously progressive 21st Century regional dialects haven't made their way into monsters, and they certainly don't sound very serious in the 1960s. It's unfair, there's no doubting, but can you imagine the reaction if the Empty Child was from Birmingham? It'd get laughed at, that's what would happen, and by the people who complain that the original series is too parochial. Coomin' ta find ya Moomay!

The snake-scanner-weapon-thingy is actually quite creepy, again because of the sense of the unknown (I just can't get enough of that), and it makes for the story's best cliffhanger. With part two coming along a bit more plot can be revealed, and the idea that the Krotons are only teaching the Gonds what they can't use to rebel against their oppressors is very 1984 when you think about it. There is a very well constructed scene at the beginning of the second episode, as Zoe uses the learning machine just as the Doctor discovers what's in the underhalls so that a sense of mystery is set up as the explanation of what's down there has to be broken off partway through.

The Doctor's line of "great jumping gobstoppers" is one that I would imagine gets very different reactions from viewers, either supporting or undermining my earlier comment about Holmes and one-liners depending on how much you want to see an episode written by Enid Blyton. Although I quite like the line it's not helped by the fact that this expression of surprise refers to a piddling little dinner gong – something that the Doctor himself remarks on.

The Doctor's test is one of the story's two main comic-relief scenes; normally for my sins I get a bit sniffy about this sort of thing but it has a witty charm (not to mention great acting) that puts it far ahead of the clever-clever approach adopted in episodes like The End Of The World. The idea that the machines plant emotions in the minds of the users to make them feel valued is a great one. 

Using a chain to protect themselves from the Krotons' force field is a minor contrivance but helped by the brilliant shots of it breaking under the strain; also, the brain-scan sequence has to be one of Doctor Who's trippiest moments and I must confess I can't watch it without wanting to sing 'Tomorrow Never Knows' to myself. The Krotons' first appearance is also great (to the extent where their actual look is even more of a disappointment) with them slowly appearing in their tanks while the Doctor shows genuine concern. As I mentioned though, the Krotons look ridiculous (it's easy to see how the rumour that they were designed by a kid who won Blue Peter competition started – no disrespect to kids, but you know what I mean), and the cliffhanger to the second episode is distinctly average. It's more notable in the third episode than the second, but the Krotons seems to have gone in for some seriously natty '60s décor for the Dynatrope, with those black and white spirals on the monitor screens.

Selris's argument with Thara about attacking the Krotons is actually a very well related anti-war sentiment; when a fictional war is used it reduces war to an abstract concept meaning that ideas related to it don't date or become inappropriate with time to the extent that I think they will do in, for example, World War Three. The Krotons obsession with "procedure" makes them sound like Douglas Adams's Vogons, as a Kroton makes its way very slowly across the wasteland to the TARDIS. I have to say that the story has slowed down dramatically (it is an episode three; if I was to say that Holmes is usually quite good at them I'll be violating a point I made in my introduction about not judging the story by his future episodes, so I won't). By this stage, the "should we attack the Krotons / shouldn't we" argument is going on too long.

The HADS are a big contrivance, a bit like the pause control from The Android Invasion, which crops up once to get the TARDIS out of a tight spot and then is never seen again. However, "you can tell that the Captain is not at the helm" is another great line.

The chemistry scene is another comic relief scene although this one is based on slapstick rather than witticisms, but it still has a lot of inoffensive charm. This can be contrasted with Selris's death which seems slightly disturbing given that he's such a hapless character and that the mortality rate in this story is actually fairly low, at 33.3% not including the Krotons themselves. The Doctor and Zoe playing for time is another fun scene, and the shots of the Krotons and the Dynatrope dissolving look great.

All in all, The Krotons is a distinctly average story; average does not mean bad. Possibly the final word has to be that maybe, with far stronger stories like The Power Of The Daleks and The Web Of Fear missing from the archives, there is a certain amount of bitterness over what the BBC decided to keep.