Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Serial 47: The Krotons

Doctor: Patrick Troughton (2nd Doctor)
Companions: Jamie, Zoe

Written by: Robert Holmes
Directed by: David Maloney

Background & Significance: If you know me, or how I talk about Doctor Who, you know that the way I come into the show is based almost entirely around writing and the way in which Doctor Who is constructed. A lot of that is down to the writers because they are (in so many ways so many people could never understand) possibly the most important linchpin to any creative endeavor. Without the writer, there is nothing.

I say all this to underline the fascination I have with "The Krotons". Which (for those not in the know) is the first Doctor Who story that Robert Holmes ever wrote.

Produced as the "middle serial" of season six, it's worth pointing out that this is the last story of the first half of Patrick Troughton's last season. By this point, the burnout factor of Doctor Who in the 1960s was starting to take its toll on the show. And hey, who can blame them? This isn't a soap opera with the fortitude to produce THAT many episodes, and this was the sixth year in a row that Doctor Who had produced forty or more episodes. So everyone was tired and really pushing forward to just finish out the season by any means necessary so they could get to the colour and the UNIT and the producing 26ish episodes a year as opposed to the usual 40+. It was at this time that Derrick Sherwin stepped aside as script editor to help Doctor Who in other ways, making way for his assistant Terrance Dicks to step in and drive the script editing for the show...

And wouldn't you know it, but it was at this same time that Robert Holmes jumped into the picture.

Now Toby Hadoke mentions this in Running Through Corridors, but it bears repeating here: it's interesting that two of the three most influential writers in Classic Doctor Who made their first appearance around this time, almost six years into the show's existence. And it's interesting how the two were almost meant to write the show. According to reports, Holmes's initial draft for this story was turned in almost two months early and rushed into production when the original story assigned to this production ("The Prison in Space") bowed out due to the writer not getting along with notes (or something; don't quote me on that). And really, who turns in a draft so early without someone pointing at him and saying "Damn. He might be something?"

"The Krotons" is his first story, and it's one of the first stories directed by David Maloney, who would go on to direct some fantastic other ones (don't worry, you've seen them) and had already previously directed "The Mind Robber", and it's interesting how it's overlooked/forgotten, or that Robert Holmes outright wrote for five different Doctors on television, but how Holmes's real work on the show almost really doesn't start until he introduces the 3rd Doctor and starts getting all Holmesy. Think of this and "The Space Pirates" as... trial runs, almost. That's not to say they're not good, but I'd hardly consider "The Krotons" indicative of what Holmes would write later ("Mysterious Planet" notwithstanding, but I'll discuss that I guess). No. "Spearhead" is almost a better fresh start to say "look at this guy stumbling onto the scene with some geniusness".

And yet, "The Krotons" is his first. And it's... Well... I think we should talk about it.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

So as a piece of confession, I didn’t quite love this story the first time I watched it. A lot of that is down to expectation (Robert Holmes’s first story!) and the story not being quite what I was expecting.

Now that I’m watching it again, and now that I know kinda what I’m looking for, I find myself really impressed with the things that happen. Things move very quickly even in this first part and it’s all catalyzed by The Doctor. Granted, this means that certain things are repeated, again, but there’s a point in the repetition, I think. The story starts with the Gond “sacrifice” to the Krotons, where the smartest male and female Gond are sent to the Krotons and never seen again. The first one to go in (the guy; I’d go look up his name but he’s about to die OOPS I MEAN SPOILERS) comes out and is instantly killed by a mysterious cloud gas thing that instantly vaporizes him.

Of course, he dies because The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe don’t know they needed to save him. But then they go inside…

That The Doctor and his companions go inside and give voice to the dissenters is really the most cool thing about this. It’s the thing where The Doctor is the catalyst to change, the kink in the armor, the cog that gets the things going. Sure, there were complaints before this, what with the boyfriend of the girl who’s going to go in (okay, fine, the guy’s name here is Thara (which sounds womanly) and the girl’s name is Vana) not wanting her to go in. But his complaints were more vague suspicions and (perhaps more likely) self-concerned notions about young, Romeo-and-Juliet teenage angst love (ie: lustful thoughts) and the fear that he’d never ever get to “make out” with another girl ever again.

So that’s understandable. Wars have been fought over less (or so they tell me). But Thara had next to no hope of affecting change on the society, or if he did… it’s entirely possible that the change was still ages away. Tons of people were still opposing him.

Now, though, The Doctor turns up and starts yelling about how much they just watched some dude get vaporized and how much that guy is now dead and Zoe’s talking about what’s behind the wall and Jamie comes in and bests some other dude at a feat of strength (and Jamie didn’t even have an axe). Suddenly, people start asking questions and Thara’s concerns are given voice by people who claim that the world outside will not kill them if they just breathe in the sweet smell of sulfur and ozone. Whatever was keeping them down had passed a long time ago.

It’s quintessential Doctor Who, and not even in a plug-and-chug way. Okay, fine. It’s a little plug-and-chuggy, but only in that The Doctor has arrived and he’s bringing revolution with him.

And that’s why when Vana goes into the machine, what feels like vague runaround to the untrained eye is really… not. The Doctor and his companions are at the ramp, then inside, then at the ramp again... but this time they manage to save someone because this is what happens when an unjust ritual happens while The Doctor’s watching. The Doctor is there to stop it. And he does. And by stopping the ritual and bringing Vana back, the young revolutionaries have some excellent proof that allows them to start the revolution that’s coming.

Except…  you know… now we’re revolutioning because of something more than a guy who just wants to get laid.

It’s a great commentary and a great showing for Troughton in particular. I think it’s hard to say anyone’s particularly great in this so far (Thara in particular seems to have only one note), but I must say that Holmes does an excellent job of writing for Troughton’s Doctor. The umbrella is inspired even if it is just a silly plant so he has something to deflect the vaporization guns later. Meh. He still covers it up with a wonderful line about vandals and how they ruined a perfectly good umbrella.

So yes, it’s perfectly standard Doctor Who, but that means it’s good in the way that Doctor Who is good and at the moment I can’t really complain about that. Or at least, I will choose not to.

Part 2:

In the last episode, The Doctor incited The Gonds into revolution, or at the very least, sowed the seeds they’d reap before the end (come on; we all know it’s coming…), and yet I think it’s interesting that the catalyst to this episode is The Doctor’s own companion, joining the system simply for the sake of it.

It’s an interesting choice that Zoe makes when she puts on the headset and begins the Krotons’ tests to see how smart she is. Why that? Sure, it helps propel the story along and allows us access to the Krotons’ inner sanctum OR at the very least, allows us to see where the Gonds go after the Krotons pull them in. Structurally, that’s our first overt hint as to Holmes’s future strength as a Doctor Who writer. It’s no secret that he’s brilliant at putting together a story in terms of structure, and this is… great. The whole first part is about the mystery of what’s inside the door, and it’s here that we find out. It’s really just a freaky light and some tanks of water that have an evil jet(?). Or something.

But yes. Zoe takes the test and essentially dooms herself to passing through the doors.

What I love about this is that it’s so completely conformist. This is what the Gonds have been doing for “thousands of years” (or so, that’s just what they tell us), and Zoe steps in to see how smart she really is. Which is smart. Of course it is. She’s a 21st Century almost-part-robot girl who’s so good at math she makes other computers’ heads spin (and occasionally relishes in it). It’s telling too that Robert Holmes uses a characteristic intrinsic to Zoe (hubris) and uses that to advance the story. I love that Zoe’s proud of herself for what she did and doesn’t get remorseful until later. It’s great work by Padbury, or at least… exactly what we get from her and why I love this team.

I also quite enjoy that it’s basically The Doctor and Zoe show for this episode. Jamie is stuck back tending to Zana because someone needs to so we get The Doctor and Zoe.

And really, what I love about Zoe is that she’s so quintessentially a 2nd Doctor companion, but she’s forgotten amidst the perfect team of 2nd/Jamie. That’s unfair, really. Hines and Troughton are clearly magnificent friends and have the best interplay, but so too are Troughton/Padbury. I think the two are marvelous but in a completely different way. Zoe is one of those rare companions who’s almost as smart as The Doctor, which means that whenever they’re together it brings out something magical and clever and it’s not the sorta thing I feel I see enough of…

But Holmes gets it. And Holmes makes it happen. And Holmes makes it wonderful to watch. The bit where The Doctor takes the test “because he doesn’t want Zoe to go in alone” is great and leads to Troughton doing a great job at both physical comedy and comedic beats. That… well… it’s great because it also comes from the character of The Doctor. Not only is he something of a buffoon, but he’s also the sort that loves a good challenge. And the whole time he’s taking the test you can tell he not only wants to get a good enough score that he’ll be let into the Kroton base with Zoe, but also that he wants to beat her score. Which he does. By answering more questions. Which Zoe calls hardly fair. It’s this rivalry that I find extremely charming and great for the two of them. They do make a wonderful scene that only raises the stakes later when Jamie enters the Krotons and is seemingly killed when exposed to the brain light in the Krotons’ inner sanctum.

It’s really great. And that’s partially down to Maloney, who’s just great in this story. The lighting is very stark and mysterious and the shooting of the Krotons is rather thematically marvelous. Here, we’re not sure what they look like, except that they look… well… strange. Last episode we were wondering what’s behind the wall, now we want to know what the Krotons look like and what they are. Again, Holmes hits us with great character work and great structure and I love how the two really go to make this a smashing good story. So far we’ve got great Troughton, great Companion work, and a good story with a good villain.

Halfway through, so far so good.

Part 3:

I suppose I should have something of a right laugh at the way Robert Holmes’s first story has an episode that comes in a little bit short. Yeah. This episode clocks in at just under twenty two minutes…

But what he does here is good. Because this episode is your standard cycle of waiting for things to gear up until we hit the smash and grab of the final episode. The Doctor and Zoe don’t really do much except walk into the TARDIS and then walk out and then go back to the Gond city while Jamie spends the whole time stuck under Kroton control. So it’s… it’s really bog-standard, isn’t it? But the Jamie stuff is entertaining, and I think Troughton really seems on his game here in ways that he doesn’t seem in certain other stories. Not that Troughton is ever out and out bad, but more to the fact that he’s sometimes just a little off.

So what Robert Holmes throws at us is a handful of scenes about this forthcoming Gond revolution, during which they will overthrow the Krotons.

Again, this is something of a bog-standard thing. There’s nothing really original about this in theory. At least, I don’t think so. The conflict always comes from a bunch of people want to revolt and the others don’t want to revolt. But Holmes twists standard convention on us and gives us something that’s slightly different than you’d imagine. See, what makes it interesting is that all of the people in that room AGREE that there should be a revolution. In fact, that’s never even really part of the debate. What makes it interesting is the when people believe such a revolution should take place.

That, I think, is clever and gives him something to work with. Because both sides are actually right.

Personally, I’m inclined to side with Eelek. Part of my reasoning is because he’s played by the recently deceased Philip Madoc and because he’s frakkin Philip Madoc he’s acting circles around all the dudes in this episode. But he has a point. The Doctor has given them the gift of advancement (Prime Directive NOTHING) so why not strike while the iron is hot? It’s a whole carpe diem thing, which is really The Doctor’s mission statement. Another Gond (Selris) wants them to wait until they have a fighting chance and better weapons. And while I think he’s ultimately wrong, I think that’s not an unreasonable concern. Sure, it passes the buck a bit (and haven’t they passed the buck enough?), but it’s still… valid.

Beyond that, I think it’s sad that this story isn’t more appreciated. For one thing, it’s got a great, rich mythology. Sure, it’s not as rich as Holmes would eventually do (creating The Sontarans and basically defining The Time Lords forever), but it’s still interesting and well thought out. I love the cheeky line The Doctor gives to the one Gond. The one line that goes “Why do you think they never wanted you to learn chemistry” is remarkably telling and good as a sort of world builder. Likewise too is the thought put into the Krotons as characters. I love that one needs to tell the other which way to go because they can’t see in the day. Like bats.

To be honest, I rather like the Krotons. Sure, they’re not like… terribly repeatable. I know Big Finish did a Kroton story once upon a time. And that was all well and good, but…

Well... The thing I rather love about the Krotons is that there’s only enough here for this story.  You can’t ever really do another Kroton story because they’re not really all that interesting enough to bring back numerous times. But what’s here is good and they’re great because they’re just well realized. The design is totally great and so too is their voice work. Their voices are the sort that are like… I could listen to them over and over and over again because I really like the way their voices are boomed and modulated. Like the Daleks,

And yes. I did just compare the Krotons to Daleks. Deal with it.

I have to say, though, this cliffhanger is totally lacking and not nearly what I think anyone wanted it to be. For a Doctor Who story that’s bog-standard, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but… it’s just lame that we get Holmes doing the same sorta thing everyone else does. Sure, “Deadly Assassin” episode three is pretty… similar? But that’s different. That’s not “just there for stakes” like this is. That’s one of those things where it’s like… The Doctor and his foe locked in a battle to the death because that’s what’s happening in the story at that moment. This? Not so much. It’s not like The Doctor has had this big vendetta against the ceiling this whole time.

But I digress.

Part 4:

Looking at this episode (or really, all four of these episodes if you want to get technical), I find myself without a whole lot to talk about. Yes. There’s a revolution. The Doctor and his Companions save the day. The bad guys are defeated. There’s some death. La la la.

But the thing I gravitate towards is examining if I could tell without knowing that it’s a Robert Holmes script… And I’m not sure I could. Like I said, it’s very standard and there isn’t quite the opportunity for Holmes to get Holmesier. Which  is fine. He develops his own house style as he goes on, what with the double acts and the horror and the disfigured bad guys… But there’s hints of that coming through. The Krotons are trapped underground and trying to escape in the same way Magnus Greel or Sutekh are…

The one scene that I keep coming back to, though, is the chemistry scene, in which Jamie and Beta make some acid so The Doctor can use it later.

What makes it great is that it’s… funny. And effortlessly funny. Hines and Carincross play off each other so exceptionally well and all the physical whizzes and bangs entertain me. I love these two flying by the seat of their pants, not really understanding the science but going for it anyways. It almost reminds me of the meth-cooking scenes in Breaking Bad, especially early on where Walter knows what he’s doing and Jesse has no fucking clue. And I love the handkerchiefs over their mouths like they’re banditos or something. Where did they get those? I don’t know. But this scene is really funny in an almost dark way that Holmes is great at showcasing later in his scripts.

So it’s a great showcase for Holmes’s humour, but it’s also great to show what he can do with The Doctor.

I know I mentioned earlier about the umbrella and how lovely a touch that was, but here’s it’s great. Holmes opens up Troughton to do some delightful comedy as he tries to get Zoe to dump the poison into the Kroton air supply and he even gets physical when he doesn’t know how to put on the headset or whatever. And really… it’s just impressive. I said earlier that Holmes did a great job writing The Doctor and he’s one of the only people who ever wrote for like… five Doctors. Which is madness.

But it’s impressive that he gets Troughton down so specifically here. Not just Troughton, but the 2nd Doctor. And not even The 2nd Doctor, but The Doctor as a character. And looking back, I can’t think of another writer who can dial so specifically to each Doctor he writes while simultaneously writing a Doctor who is still "The" Doctor. The exception is Pertwee in “Spearhead”, but he can really get a pass on that because he’s basically defining The Doctor without ever having done so. That’s why Pertwee comes out sounding like Troughton in the first few episodes. But look at the way he would go on to write Pertwee... Nevermind Tom Baker because Holmes single-handedly helped define the 4th Doctor.

Don’t get me started on Holmes and Davison. Guhhh….

And I’ve long since said that Holmes’s writing of the 6th Doctor is my favorite writing of Colin Baker [on television, anyway]. So yeah. Holmes is great. But it’s sad that he only gets two shots at writing for Troughton, especially when one of those shots is six parts of let’s-keep-The-Doctor-away-from-the-action in “The Space Pirates”. But he’s so good here. Both of them. This is one of my favorite Troughton performances across Troughton’s tenure as The Doctor. He’s just brilliant.

And a lot of that is down to Holmes and Maloney. Also Troughton.

Final Thoughts?: I think it's hard to call "The Krotons" anything but a buried treasure stuck at the tail end of the Troughton era.

For one thing, it's a great early showcase for Robert Holmes as he tries his hand at a completely bog-standard Doctor Who story and really succeeds.

On particular form here is Troughton, and a lot of that is down to the fact that the acting is not wonderful across the board. But Holmes gives Troughton so much to do and Maloney really works to pull out a good performance that it really stands out as one of Troughton's best. A lot of that is down to the script, which really speaks a lot to his Doctor and tells a wonderful story about great, one-off evil robots and an oppressed society in the midst of a small revolution.

Oh, and Philip Madoc, that's a greatness.

Sure, it's not the most memorable thing, but there's far worse stories out there, especially from the Troughton era. This one at least isn't your typical plug-and-chug base-under-siege story and it's better for it. It's a good time and it's not overly padded. It moves and has some great direction. The villains are not exactly the sorta thing you ever expect to see again, but there are far worse choices (The Kraals, are a good example of head scratchers), and it's... I dunno. It's just fun and sometimes that's all you want from a Doctor Who story. It's always great to see Troughton and Jamie and Zoe and this is a great outing for them, nestled in the middle of a season that saw the show almost on its last legs, it's nice to know that between this and a few choice others, The Troughton era didn't go out on a series of whimpers and a final great bang. 

Next Time!: 1st Doctor! Historical! Catacombs and Knighthoods! Knights and Moors! Incest? And more! "The Crusade!" Coming Next Tuesday!

1 comment: