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Doctor Who: The Krotons

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
BBC Worldwide
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
David Maloney
Patrick Troughton
Frazer Hinds
Wendy Padbury
Phillip Madoc
Bottom Line: 

Fans of a certain age remember this four-parter from Patrick Troughton’s final season, specifically because it was chosen in 1981 to represent the second Doctor’s tenure during the nostalgically remembered ‘Five Faces of DOCTOR WHO’ season of repeats, which was broadcast as a lead-in to Peter Davison taking over from Tom Baker to become the fifth actor to play the role of the itinerant Time Lord. Back then this hugely anticipated selection of repeats constituted the first instance when any fan who hadn’t been around to see the episodes transmitted at the time could manage to get a look at actual 1960s WHO in all its now-grainy, slightly clunky glory -- as opposed to just reading about and imagining it from the small number of Hartnell/Troughton Target book novelisations which had so far been published. In truth, producer John Nathan-Turner (for it was he who made the story selection from those still available in the BBC’s much diminished archive) really didn’t have that many options: as far as the Hartnell selection was concerned, the first ever four episodes from 1963 (now collectively known as “An Unearthly Child”) could be the only reasonable choice, even if they weren’t particularly representative of William Hartnell’s performance as it later developed and matured. And as for “The Krotons” … At that time, in the early-eighties, it was still the only complete four-part story from the Troughton era still existent in the archive (the situation is only marginally better now); fans wanted “Tomb of the Cybermen” (still believed wiped at this point) or “The Web of Fear” -- these classic stories being held as most representative of what the Troughton years were supposed to be all about; instead, they got a rather eccentric, cheap and cheerful little adventure featuring one of the series’ least successfully realised attempts to rival the Daleks. Fandom has consequently tended to be rather sniffy about the merits of “The Krotons” (or lack of)  when it comes to consideration of this adventure. It’s also one of those tales in which the writer’s laudable ambition is to portray a society that is supposed to be the outcome of the development of an alien culture which has been formed over the course of thousands of years, but which is eventually summed up on screen using the ridiculous TV short-hand of having fifteen or so portly thesps in stretch lycra, stumbling about the cramped, confined sets of the BBC’s tiny Lime Grove Studios.

“The Krotons” was actually a stand-in story, rushed into production after plans for ex sit-com writer Dick Sharples’ bizarre-sounding comedy satire “The Prison in Space” fell through. Frazer Hinds had been scheduled to be written out of the show and a new companion introduced with this story, but after Troughton announced his own departure at the end of the season, Hinds elected to stay on a bit longer so that they could both leave together, a decision which required a further re-write of a script director David Maloney had already by then indicated wasn’t up to scratch. We now know that Sharples’ abandoned story concerned the Doctor and his companions Jamie and Zoe landing on a planet where go-go boot wearing dolly bird females subjugate men, and which later featured Zoe being brainwashed into becoming a fanatical feminist by the all-woman matriarchy and having to be spanked out of it, something which is achieved by Jamie throwing her across his knee in the final scene!  It’s perhaps for the best then, that this dubious satire never saw the light of day. Script editor Terrence Dicks had been for some time developing and nurturing “The Krotons” as a possible cheap replacement if other ideas fell through as part of his training for the job, and it marked his first collaboration with writer Robert Holmes, who had first submitted an early version of the story in 1965 to then-script-editor Donald Tosh after it had been previously rejected as a stand-alone episode of the anthology series “Out of the Unknown”. Holmes found a more receptive audience several years later when he re-sent it to the DOCTOR WHO production team -- this time under producer Peter Bryant -- on spec.

Robert Holmes, of course, along with Terrence Dicks and Barry Letts, would later figure as one of the key influences on the development of 1970s DOCTOR WHO. He’d worked widely in British TV drama before this, ever since the 1950s in fact, and was a keen sci-fi buff; but this fledgling effort for the series he would go on to script edit alongside producer Philip Hinchcliffe, shows little of the imagination and wit the writer would become renowned for in later years. Nevertheless, “The Krotons” does stand out -- even if the story itself offers little that warrants getting excited about. What is good about it is contained in certain attractive details of design, and in the rapport which clearly exists between the three regular cast members as they go about adding lovely bits of business to the script, bringing warmth and humour throughout to a somewhat routine and clumsily realised set of contrived circumstances. The look and feel of the serial is distinctive and striking enough to get this pegged as an underappreciated gem – often lost betwixt and between more-often talked about season six adventures, such as the Cybermen story “The Invasion” and Troughton’s re-match with the Ice Warriors “The Seeds of Death”.

Holmes’ story is, in some ways, a sci-fi re-telling of the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, which in this case concerns a race of humanoid beings called Gonds. These somewhat trusting, unquestioning souls have lived for thousands of years and many generations obeying unseen alien ‘gods’ called the Krotons, who came to their planet and rendered great areas of it into an uninhabited wasteland during the ensuing war with the Gonds’ ancestors. The Krotons have since gone on to influence every aspect of Gond society, compelling the entire populace to partake of a Kroton-based education system, controlled via the Teaching Machines in The Great Hall of Learning. After undergoing this procedure, the most intelligent and brightest Gonds from each generation are ‘honoured’ by being selected to live as special ‘companions’ to their Kroton masters inside a magnificent labyrinthine machine. A special ceremony is held for the top students at which the delighted selectees are dressed in special grand-looking robes and have their names publically read out from a scroll which emerges from a hole in the side of a mysterious metallic machine … Which is where they will apparently live from now on, even though no one has ever seen the Kroton masters residing there. It’s considered a great honour to be selected even so, although no one seems to know exactly what goes on inside this machine, and the top students who go there are never seen or heard from again. But this is what has always happened, as far back as any one dare remember, so no-one questions it.

That is until the Doctor (Patrick Troughton), Jamie (Frazer Hinds) and Zoe (Wendy Padbury) stumble into the middle of one of the latest ceremonies, in the midst of which the most recent top Gond students, Abu and Vana (Terence Brown & Madeline Mills) are about to be inducted into the great silver-crystalline machine. The trio of visitors unwittingly manage to shatter the fragile illusion on which thousands of years of submissive Gond society has been built just by emerging none the worse for wear from the supposedly uninhabitable wasteland around the citadel, and telling the stunned Gonds that they’ve just seen Abu ‘dispersed’ by vaporisers positioned outside a hatchway, which liquidated him as he exited onto the planet surface. It doesn’t take long before this information causes unrest, and the remaining students start smashing up the teaching machines in the Hall of Learning and an opportunistic rabble-rouser called Eelek (Philip Madoc) uses the student revolt to challenge the authority of the Gonds’ sensible but staid leader Selris (James Copeland). The Doctor and his companions manage to save Vana from meeting the same fate as Abu by blocking up the slot from which the vaporisers emerge on the outside of the hatchway, with rocks and debris. Meanwhile, the vandalism currently taking place in the Hall of Learning causes the Krotons to make their existence directly felt at last: a threatening robotic voice is transmitted over a loudspeaker system, demanding that they cease participating in the destruction; and a computerised pattern recognition system inside the Kroton machine identifies the Doctor as the chief culprit in the creation of this conflict.

Holmes’ story seems to take much of its structure from following the precedent set by “The Tomb of the Cybermen”, which seems to be the model here for the Doctor’s role in the adventure as inadvertent prime instigator of much of the action. In that previous story Troughton’s Doctor was responsible for solving the various logic puzzles and tests left by the slumbering Cybermen for future archaeologists to find in their mausoleum-like tomb as a means of selecting suitable candidates for Cyber-conversion with which to replenish the depleted Cyber-army. The Krotons, it turns out, have built up and shaped Gond society in order to perpetuate a similarly convoluted scheme, and once again it is Troughton’s ever-curious, scatty and mischievous Doctor who is at least partly responsible for almost instantly bringing that scheme to fruition, after thousands of years of it not really achieving very much but making ‘self-perpetuating’ slaves out of the Gond race.

 It’s computer boffin Zoe who starts the ball rolling by being unable to resist pitting her wits against the Krotons’ Intelligence testing machine, unaware that it exerts a hypnotic influence upon the consciousness of the participant, making one want to do one’s best during the series of tests and perform to the highest capacity one can manage. Zoe manages to score the highest mark anyone has ever achieved in thousands of years of Gond history, instantly getting her selected to enter the Kroton machine as a ‘companion’. The Doctor then has to take the test himself in order to be allowed to accompany her, and find out what goes on inside the bowels of the giant, futuristic device. The big secret turns out to be that The Kroton machine is really an ancient alien spacecraft which needs four ‘high brains’ to pilot it, although the Krotons have been unable to find anyone among the Gond populace clever enough to achieve that ultimate aim, so they use their mind power instead in order to stimulate a primordial soup of chemical ingredients which can build up the Krotons’ crystal-lattice structured bodies.

While the Cymbermen slept frozen in their tombs for thousands of years, it turns out that the Krotons are Tellurium-based crystalline life-forms which need huge amounts of power (which they extract from the ‘thought energy’ of the Gonds) in order to reconstitute their physical structure from a chemical primordial soup of ingredients shown bubbling away in a collection of slurry tanks, as they have done for thousands of years. The ship has been storing Gond mind energy for this purpose all along, and disposing of the ‘waste products’ (i.e. the actual Gonds themselves!) by vaporising them on the surface of the planet, while at the same time tricking their prey into believing the wasteland is still uninhabitable after the great war which raged there many centuries previously when the Krotons first fought their ancestors. Unfortunately, the Doctor and Zoe provide a far superior quality of mental energy and finally enable the Krotons to achieve one of their aims and manifest themselves at last in their true physical form.

Despite the traditional structure implicit in Holmes’ work here, there are clear nods to issues and concerns which were current in 1969. The whole student rebellion thing and the debate as to the nature and point of education (that Pink Floydish education-as -thought-control idea, in which the education system is portrayed as curdling independence of thought through operant conditioning and rote-learning, rather than providing the means for liberation and self-expression) is obviously at the forefront of the story, although it gets slightly tarnished by the casting of thirty-year-olds as the world’s most unconvincing students, who are shown smashing up the system, along with the supposedly futuristic technology which perpetuates it, in scenes which reveal the Kroton learning machines to be made out of balsa wood and cardboard. The student protest movement of the late ‘60s provides a springboard to portray radicals and leftist agitators as demagogues, although it works more generally also as a portrayal of revolutions subverted by those cashing in on the uncertainty and frustration that comes along with the unravelling of an unjust but previously settled order for their own personal glory and the acquisition of power.

Welsh actor Philip Madoc provides the most convincing performance as chief Gond agitator Eelek, out of a guest cast which often looks a little uncomfortable with secondary Gond roles that are more flimsily constructed than those prop Learning Machines, and more unflattering than the lycra costumes the Gond’s are required to wear throughout. Better known perhaps for playing the U-boat captain in one of the most famous scenes from much-loved sitcom “Dad’s Army”, Madoc augmented numerous TV appearances as guest artist for many a cult show (“The Avengers”, “UFO” and “Z Cars” to name but a few) with a handful of later appearances on DOCTOR WHO (this being but the first of them), most notably opposite Tom Baker in “The Brain of Morbius”. He also appeared alongside Peter Cushing, in his film portrayal of the Doctor, in the movie version of “Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 AD”. Here though he manages to inject menacing poise into a character who actually changes his populist stance in every single episode as he reacts to the latest political developments: first he’s a conformist appeaser, militating to have the Doctor and his companions killed for disrupting the official Kroton induction ceremony; then he becomes the de facto leader of the student rebellion, demanding that the Kroton machine be stormed and the Krotons forced to reveal themselves, despite the recklessness of such an action. When that finally happens, and the Krotons threaten to unleash their power, he conveniently becomes a collaborator after they promise to leave the planet for good if the Gonds sacrifice the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe to them.

One of the most striking contemporary references, though, relates to increasing awareness in Britain at that time about the system of legislated racial segregation known as Apartheid -- a feature of the governance of South Africa which had been receiving more and more attention in the media ever since prime minister Harold Wilson’s battles with the equally aggressively unjust regime in Rhodesia in the mid-sixties. Voice artists Roy Skelton and Patrick Tull decided to give the Krotons’ speech an Afrikaner Boer lilt in order to emphasise the aliens’ role as colonialist oppressors, separating themselves from the slave-like Gonds and controlling them with an impoverished education that restricted their learning and ingrained their inferiority in order to keep them pliant. Unfortunately those box-like Kroton suit designs render the creatures rather ridiculous-looking foes and possibly the worst monsters of the Troughton era. We don’t get any real sense of them being a species formed from a crystalline structure; instead they merely look like knock-off  Robbie the Robot clones with admittedly amusing spinning-top diamond heads, waving pincers and an unbecoming rubber ‘skirt’, beneath which they tottered and waddled about gracelessly when called upon to move about. Luckily, director David Maloney was sensible enough to avoid concentrating the camera on the lower half of these abominations, whose ineffectual appearance was almost certainly a result of the monster design being relegated to the costume department rather than dealt with as a special effect (a production decision which was itself a side effect of the lack of a decent budget). Maloney neatly sidesteps what could have been a particularly embarrassing sequence when a Kroton is required to venture out in search of the Doctor and Zoe as they make their way back to the TARDIS on the planet’s surface. This involved the Kroton attempting to navigate the atmospheric landscape of a Worcestershire slate quarry on location, but Maloney gets past what would have been a hopeless spectacle by shooting the alien’s progress among the rocky debris with a hand-held point-of-view image which necessitated only the creature’s pincher arm being waved about in front of the camera lens!

In fact Maloney’s inventiveness in overcoming the serial’s many budgetary issues plays a great role in boosting what is an average story into something that is often extremely visually enjoyable: when the Krotons begin draining the Doctor and Zoe of their mind energy, reconstituting themselves in their physical crystalline form in the process, Maloney uses distorted lenses to bring a sense of arty, psychedelic extraordinariness to the spectacle. Raymond London’s sets are indeed small and sometimes obviously artificial, but also filled with stylish details, such as the snake-like probe senor sent out of the Kroton machine to destroy the Doctor at the end of episode one and the handsome Op Art facial recognition pattern design, forming the Doctor’s portrait, which it uses in order to track him; both are examples of tiny details of design which help these episodes considerably to leave a favourable impression of the overall production, as does Brian Hodgson’s amazing sound design for the story. If I had to pick one behind-the-scenes contribution to “The Krotons” that succeeds in elevating it above its station in terms of the limited effectiveness of its storyline, then Hodgson’s sound effects would be it. There is no incidental music score at all on “The Krotons”, not even library cues; instead, Hodgson’s eerie compliment of otherworldly drones, whooshes and hums do all the work in creating a disconcertingly strange and unusual ambience, particularly in scenes set on the surface of the Gond planet, when the combination of the black and white 16mm film stock depicting that baron, grey-slate rocky desert, overlaid with Hodgson’s menacing drones, anticipate the unsettling atmospheres of David Lynch’s “Eraserhead”.

But the chief reason why this story inspires such a great deal of approval from second Doctor fans, though, comes down to the performances and interplay between the three leads. By this stage Troughton had already made up his mind to leave the series, but the impression he always gives on screen is of an actor thoroughly enjoying himself; completely at ease in, and delighting in, a role he had by now perfected. The opening shots in which, twirling his favourite umbrella (which he later sulks over when it gets destroyed by Kroton vaporisers) and humming to himself as he races off to explore the planet surface (testing its gravity by methodically but ostentatiously jumping up and down on the spot!) is classic Troughton, and you can bet most of the details of his performance weren’t originally in the script but were added bits of business, worked out by Troughton and his co-stars in rehearsals. One of the most memorable scenes – when Zoe takes the Kroton intelligence test and the Doctor then has to take it as well so that he can accompany her into the Kroton ship – becomes notable because of the marvellous way in which Troughton and Wendy Padbury turn it into a petulant competition between the two characters, Zoe smugly grinning to herself as she ponders her huge score and the Doctor, flustered and irritated by this, making silly mistakes as he tries to complete the same test -- mistakes which Zoe is only too pleased to point out to him, resulting in him getting even more flustered and befuddled. Another delightful moment between the two occurs in episode four when they work together to delay the Krotons, while Zoe positions herself to pour a phial of sulphuric acid into the Kroton ship’s machinery, by play-arguing over who should stand where while the Krotons prepare to use their mind energy to pilot the ship.

All four episodes of “The Krotons” exist as a combination of 16mm and 35mm film prints, but the restoration team’s efforts in restoring the original video look of the serial have never been so effectively demonstrated: this DVD truly looks amazing -- the perfect sound and image it displays throughout ensuring that “The Krotons” has never looked better, ever! This latest BBC Worldwide release features a commentary track moderated by Tobe Hadoke which includes a large cast of actors and production personnel in another of those ‘revolving door’ scenarios which sees combinations of people coming and going throughout the episodes. We have the sadly recently deceased actor Philip Madoc relating an anecdote about his only meeting with William Hartnell; guest Gonds Richard Ireson and Gilbert Wynn remembering with affection the rapport between the leads Troughton, Hinds and Padbury; and assistant floor manager David Tiley recalling the stresses of the ‘as-live’ recording method then being routinely used. Make-up designer Sylvia James talks about the difficulties caused by the coming change-over to colour; costume designer Bobi Bartlett bemoans having the burden of designing the Krotons thrust onto the costume department when it really belonged with special effects; and sound designer Brian Hodgson tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to remember how he managed to create some of the noises for his bewilderingly strange aural soundscapes. This is another fun commentary track, once again kept informal but informative by the considerable skills of ultimate fan boy Hadoke. But for the really hard-core info geek, the production notes once again provide a treasure trove of intricate detail about every conceivable aspect of the production. It’s always a pleasure to see how these notes so often add another dimension of drama to the on-screen events they accompany, which in this instance relate back to the difficulties created by the as-live recording methods the series at this time depended upon. For instance, in relating the exact lay-out of sets on the studio floor of Lime Grove for “The Krotons”, these production notes bring to light the fact that at one point, an apparently straightforward scene in which Frazer Hinds has to slip out of a gap in an entrance hatch in the Kroton ship becomes a race against time for the actor because the set for the inside of the ship and the one for the planet surface on which he was to emerge were in different parts of the studio. A short cut-away between shots of Hinds going through the hatch on one side and coming out the other left him with only sixteen seconds to dash across the studio floor and get into position for when the camera cut back to him!

The commentary and production notes do an excellent job of examining in great detail exactly what went into the making of “The Krotons”, so instead of repeating most of the same information in documentary form (as sometimes inevitably happens), the 50 minute documentary included here provides a treat for Patrick Troughton fans as it examines his tenure in detail with the aid of vivid contributions from surviving companions Anneke Wills (who touchingly recalls accidently upsetting Troughton when, for a joke, she and co-star Michael Craze turned up on set one day wearing T-shirts bearing the legend ‘Come Back William Hartnell, All Is Forgiven!’), Deborah Watling (who was unsure at first about taking the role of 19th century companion Victoria ,because of having to work alongside Frazer Hinds and his legendary eye for the ladies), Wendy Padbury and Frazer Hinds himself (who claims he felt like an interloper when he first joined Anneke and Michael to play Scots Highlander from 1746, Jamie McCrimmon -- although Anneke flatly denies that either of them bore him any malice). In addition a potted history of the making of each story from the Troughton era is provided with help from interviews with Terrence Dicks, producer Derrick Sherwin, writer Victor Pemberton, director Christopher Barry and fans and current writers and script editors Robert Sherman and Gary Russell who are on hand to provide enthusiasm and analysis of themes and ideas from this era in equal measure. “Second Time Around” will delight and inform anyone who has a soft spot for Troughton’s ‘Cosmic Hobo’ incarnation and provides an excellent introduction for those younger fans just discovering the show’s rich history of space and time travelling adventure. It should also be noted, in passing, that this documentary also provides us with a clip from the recently discovered episode 2 of “The Underwater Menace”!

“Doctor Who Stories –Frazer Hinds (Part One)” provides another 17 minutes’ worth of fond remembrance and anecdote from the former companion to the second Doctor, including some racy tabloid-style chat about Troughton’s many extra-marital dalliances and how he used to take Hinds all over London in his car, dropping off bundles of cash to various ex-wives and mistresses!

“The Doctor’s Strange Love” (7 minutes) sees writers Joseph Lidster and Simon Guerrier making a valiant effort to defend what is one of the most easily dismissed stories of this sixties period, and they do so with a great deal of humour and fanish enthusiasm. It’s a shame comedienne Josie Long couldn’t make it for this session, but she seems to have been replaced with a stuffed owl cuddly toy perched between the two writers throughout their discussion!

The disc also includes a photo gallery of production stills, PDF Radio Times listings and a ‘coming soon’ trailer for the last of Sylvester McCoy’s seventh Doctor adventures to make it onto DVD, “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy”.

“The Krotons” is an example of rudimentary DOCTOR WHO storytelling in many ways, but the regular cast manage to sell it to us very effectively and the director, David Maloney, and sound designer Brian Hodgson are both instrumental in imbuing it with an unwarranted level of atmosphere, simply by taking it seriously, in such a way as to paper over some of the more dodgy aspects of the production with inventive ideas which lend it a touch of class that goes a long way to making the story a far more enjoyable watch than it should be!

Read More from Black Gloves at his Blog, Nothing But the Night

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