|At least this time the monster design successfully|
hit “iconic,” albeit more like a car hitting a pedestrian
than like an arrow hitting its target.
It’s December 28, 1968. The Scaffold still have number one with “Lilly the Pink,” with The Foundations in number two with “Build Me Up Buttercup.” Just that kind of week, I suppose. A week later Marmalade, the first Scottish group ever to hit #1, does so with a cover of the Beatles “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da.” They proceed to trade back and forth with The Scaffold for the rest of the story.
Out of the charts, the first photos of the far side of the moon are taken by Apollo 8, Rupert Murdoch makes his entry into the British press by buying News of the World, The Troubles get more troublesome, and the Waverly Line is abandoned for good. So really, not a great month for Britain, with continued echoes of 1968 richoeting through the culture. Though again, as awful as Rupert Murdoch is, it’s tough, in historical terms, to view his entry into the British press as anything other than a pale echo of Richard Nixon’s re-entry into American politics. As I’ve said previously, Britain had a pretty good 1968 as 1968s go.
So The Krotons, then. This story has an odd reputation not helped by the fact that it was the Patrick Troughton story picked for the 1981 Five Faces of Doctor Who string of reruns. The importance of these reruns can’t be overstated – in 1981, a whole generation of Doctor Who fans existed who had either never seen Troughton or only seen him in The Three Doctors. Not that they were unaware of Troughton – the existence of the Target novelizations and a genuine working memory of the show ensured that. But there were simply no opportunities for people to see him. The thing is, The Krotons is not what people expected. A story that would have left most viewers saying “the whats?”, it was picked, if we’re being honest, because in 1981 it was the only four-part Troughton story that existed.
So the initial reaction to this one – and we’ve discussed enough times how initial reactions from the 80s and 90s colored fan reaction for decades to come – was puzzlement, and, predictably, that has endured with the general reaction to the Krotons still being puzzlement in 2011. Miles and Wood suggest that the root problem is that it doesn’t quite fit with anyone’s memory of what the Troughton era should be. If we’re being honest, what this means is that it’s not a base under siege. But having endured the classic “monster” season and found it somewhat wanting, one struggles to, watching it in sequence, get particularly upset about the fact that it’s not the bog-standard monster runaround everyone expects a Troughton story to be.
In truth, nobody would think this a strange season four story, and if it were a missing story its reputation would probably be right around that of The Savages, The Faceless Ones, or The Macra Terror. Except that there’s a confidence to the program in season six that it didn’t have two years earlier. (Two years earlier, for reference, is The Highlanders and The Underwater Menace) The result is that The Krotons has a composure and intelligence to its construction, even if the overall product seems ever so slightly out of step with what we expect Doctor Who to be heading into 1969.
Which is a strange thing to be saying about the debut of Robert Holmes, who will go on to write for the program through to 1986 and become its most prolific and acclaimed writer. But the fact of the matter is, Holmes handed in a script that feels distinctly like Doctor Who of old – it’s just that at this point in the series history, Doctor Who of old feels oddly fresh. Which is worth remarking on. It’s worth specifically noting that Doctor Who, in its first six seasons, was making 40+ episodes a year, as compared to the 26 it will settle on as the norm from seasons 7-22. (I know all three exceptions to that. Down, fanboy, down.) Doctor Who 18 episodes into season 6, in other words, has actually produced about 11 seasons worth of material by later standards. In other words, this is in no way a young show right now, and we’re at a point where “this is an updating of a story stile from a previous era of the show” can’t be taken to be a problem. At this point, showing off what the show has learned by redoing old classics is part of what the show should be doing.
So let’s look at what The Krotons does that moves things forward. I mean, it’s not that it doesn’t have silly problems as well. I’m pretty sure the acting in this one is what Moffat had in mind when he famously snarked that some of the actors in the Troughton era should never have gotten their equity cards. Both Hines and Padbury are off their game here, but worse is the supporting cast, almost all of which is, in this story, barely watchable. On top of that, the monster design is… well, actually, quite good until you run into the problem that the costumes were made way too short and had rubber skirts tacked onto their bottoms to actually cover the actors.
But past that, there are some things here that make The Krotons, if not a revolutionary moment where Doctor Who steps forward, at least one where one can see that there is forward momentum in the show. For one thing, Robert Holmes can actually be bothered to create a world in which things happen instead of slapping together some base commanders and a monster and calling it a day. The Krotons doesn’t satisfy the concerns I raised back in The Ice Warriors and The Enemy of the World by any stretch of the imagination – it’s impossible to come up with any sense of what the Gonds did in a normal day before the Doctor arrived. They seem completely ill-suited to normal day to day life.
But on the other hand, the story is actually about them. The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe are external forces that intersect with this world and throw it into chaos. Yes, the idea of the world before they showed up is painfully underdeveloped, but that overlooks something really unusual for a Troughton-era story – the characters here have traits that are not directly related to their competence in dealing with monsters. Compare that to any of the bases under siege, where any given character has basically no traits that don’t directly relate to how they’re going to handle being under an invasion, and The Krotons stands in sharp relief – its characters have distinct approaches and worldviews that come in conflict. When Eelek and Selris come into conflict over how to deal with the Krotons, it’s not that Selris is a better leader and Eelek is a spineless incompetent – it’s that they have two very different views of how to handle the situation.
Part of this comes down to a subtle but interesting thing. If you want to do a story in which evil aliens menace people, there are two basic approaches – invasion and liberation. Base under siege stories are, generally speaking, invasion stories – a defined territory is penetrated by aliens that must be repelled. But this is the opposite – Gond society has already been taken over by the Krotons. By definition, that means that the story is about the world as opposed to just about fighting monsters. This is, by and large, a more interesting take, in that it requires the show have an idea beyond a cool costume for a nasty. (This observation, unfortunately, has some unfortunate implications for the Pertwee era.)
The second big thing that Holmes manages here is to use the Doctor and his companions’ character traits in interesting ways that get the characters to do things more complex than just pragmatic concerns. As good as Hines and Troughton are together (and they are a quite good comedic double act), they’ve basically not had a scene as good as the one in which the Doctor and Zoe get progressively irritated at each other as they try to pass the Krotons’ tests, with the Doctor snapping at Zoe “Now go away and don’t fuss me… no come back, what’s this?… It’s all right, I know,” and Zoe insisting that the Doctor is “almost as clever as I am” and pouting that the Doctor only got a higher score because he answered more questions than she did.
What’s interesting about this scene is that it’s character-based comedy of a sort we haven’t really seen from Doctor Who before. The companions aren’t just there to fulfill the plot functions of being menaced or beating things up here – they’re actually people who act in a particular way, and do so for more than just one-liners. In the past, this sort of thing has been confined to the TARDIS scenes at the beginning or end of a story, with generic comedic banter that was, if anything, based on the endless “Jamie is thick” jokes. That’s distinctly different from Zoe and the Doctor having an extended scene in which how they act is defined by who they are. And it’s clear Troughton relishes it – he’s having as much fun as he’s had on the series in ages in this story, to the point where one imagines that if it had come where The Dominators did in the run we might have had a Troughton season in color.
We also have, with this story, one of the clearest moments of the embrace of psychedelia in Doctor Who. The Doctor teaches the Gonds to mix up acid and overthrow their bland and cruel masters who fill them with a head full of useless facts and don’t prepare them for the real world. How very, very Troughton.
My point is not that The Krotons is some work of profound genius. It’s not. But on the other hand, those who first saw it in 1981 with the strange sense that this was not what the Troughton era was supposed to be like were wrong. This is, above everything else, a strange and intriguing tease of what the Troughton era could have been. And indeed, all things considered, what it should have been.