The story in a nutshell: The Doctor lands on a swamp and meets some primitives and fights a giant squid. No, really!
Teeth and Curls: Season sixteen was a special time for Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor, where in even the lesser of adventures he was still having a whale of a time. Kroll has a higher than usual amount of location filming and Baker always said he preferred doing the location work where he could hang out in pubs and live away from home for a few days so its no wonder he seems in such jubilant mood here. You can just see Baker, Madoc and McCarthy throwing down the pints and regaling each other with tales of past exploits. I’m not sure if they only appeared in this story but I really loved the birds on the Doctor’s lapels. The Doctor just looks right breaking through the reeds and hopping through the swamps and I adore the way he plays the flute with a piece of bamboo. Eccentricity comes naturally to Baker, I don't think he can ever switch it off. Watch the scene where he is offered a drink at the refinery…he puts it straight into his pocket! Fancy mistaking him for Rhom Dhutt! He scoffs at the methane catalysing plant since he has seen hundreds before (despite the fact that this is the prototype). He is described as too glib by half and when his sympathies for the underdog are revealed Thawn thinks he is a Swampie lover from the Suns of Earth. Baker continues to have nice chemistry with Tamm (I especially liked the ‘this is the…’ ‘I told you not to exaggerate’). It's great how the Doctor keeps babbling on about the window to Romana’s annoyance because she thinks he isn't taking their situation seriously when that turns out to be their salvation. Holmes knows how to write the Doctor as an intelligent idiosyncratic. If in doubt, cut everything - that's perhaps not the best advice if you are trying to disarm a bomb (thank goodness the fifth Doctor had become slightly less calamitous around the time of Earthshock). The Doctor can tell when people are putting two and two together and leading to a conclusion that blames him. He’s had a happy life, he’s 760 and he can’t complain! Baker is a great action hero whether he is beating up Swampie’s, rowing his way to safety or taking on a mile long squid. It is easy to see why there was never any need to partner up Baker with another male companion after Harry.
Snooty Fox: Mary Tamm walks around this story with her nose in the air as if it is all a bit beneath her and to be fair it probably is. After writing her into the series with such aplomb, Holmes should be ashamed of himself for falling into the bad habits of the chauvinist writer, treating the character as a victim nine times out of ten in Kroll. Romana is kidnapped in record time and finds the sacrifice business all a bit tedious until she is confronted with a real-life monster and screams until her lungs threaten to burst from her mouth. That’ll learn yer! She hates underground passages, that’s about the extent of what we learn about her here. No wonder Tamm (who does sound especially bored in parts) decided to leave at the end of the year. It was probably on the strength of this script, although to be fair when she is given the chance to interact with Baker the dialogue begins to sparkle. Whether that is the script or their chemistry I couldn't tell you.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Progress is a very flexible word. It can mean just about anything you want it to mean.’
‘Some sort of holy writ?’ ‘Its atrociously writ!’
‘Now you know what its like to be within an inch of death.’
The Good Stuff: Like The Invisible Enemy, I don’t mind this much-maligned story at all and can see some merits even when it is excruciatingly embarrassing in parts. Delta Magna is very nicely realised through some well chosen locations and the shot of the TARDIS landing amongst the reeds is one of the most memorable of its kind. I always love seeing the ship in such incongruous locations. As with all of he lesser directors on Doctor Who (Richard Martin, Pennant Roberts), it is the location work where all the energy and style resides. Almost as if the studio work is a bit beneath them. It is a pleasant change to land somewhere that looks genuinely exotic and alien without it having to be built in a studio. If you are going to do a story about primitives (and I’m not saying that you should, mind) you have to throw everything at it and the awesome location, canoes, huts and green skinned natives they conjour up is as good an attempt as we ever saw in the series. ‘He’s a Swampie!’ ‘Doesn’t he count?’ ‘No’ – Holmes doesn’t shy away from the racist element of the story proving that even the lesser Doctor Who stories can have a very good point to make. When I am alone at night and there is nothing to do (a rare occurrence, admittedly) I sometimes green up, grab my spear from the cupboard and indulge in the Swampie ‘Kroll! Kroll!’ dance (or I could yanking your chain). Rhom Dhutt is a fabulously cynical old rogue, selling the Swampies defective weapons and trying to get out of the line of fire before they start using them. ‘He’s obviously one of those creatures who’s not always about the place!’ – The Doctor talks about mythological creatures that might swallow you whole with comical indifference. Perhaps I'm indulging in a bit of casual racism myself, but I always choke with laughter when that gun blows up in the Swampie’s face. It's like watching a caveman trying to build a house with a rock. The Kroll model is actually very accomplished and shot on film he glistens and gleams with frondy strength. It is when he placed against the action in some awkward split screen action when it all goes a bit wrong. I especially love his flapping mouth bits. To be fair to Kroll (I can't believe I just started a sentence with those words) if somebody was poking at my tentacles with giant rod I would burst from the pipe and drag the miscreant away. The moment when his tentacle bursts from the pipe suddenly is rather a good shock moment (it is when he wraps himself around a Swampie and drags him away that it becomes cringe-worthy). Something had to happen to make the ratings double from 6 to 12 million between episodes two and three. Perhaps the kids lapped it up. The chase through the swamps makes a refreshing change from the usual old corridors. I know it's pretty bad but I can’t help but love the end of episode three where the Doctor and Romana head straight towards Kroll in their little rowboat! To even attempt such a visual on Doctor Who's budget shows some balls. Thawn is stabbed in the gut by a spear and a whole lot of blood erupts from the wound, the bloodiest moment since Condo was shot in the gut in The Brain of Morbius. It is tentacle mayhem during the race against time conclusion. Stewart manages to make this sequence rather dynamic (Baker is doing most of the work admittedly) and I love the look on the Doctor’s face when he emerges holding the fifth segment. Episode four as written is one exciting set piece after another; mutiny, shootings, stabbings, the refinery under siege and the orbital shot detonation. Holmes hasn't lost his touch. Doctor Who is not one for an ambiguous ending and so Fenenr being surrounded by some mithily pissed off Swampies is unusual.
The Bad Stuff: John Leeson should stick to being K.9, he provides an unconvincing Dugeen, a squeaky voiced sympathiser with a distressing line in emphatic gesturing. You have some very obvious gas pipes masquerading as torches. Why employ the services of actors like Philip Madoc and Neil McCarthy for the refinery scenes and waste them on countless scenes where they lounge about staring at monitors? ‘Oh my ankles are breaking!’ Romana complains when they clearly aren’t. The Refinery model work is dreadful, looking for all the world like a miniature oil rig standing up in a puddle. Shining a blue light and shaking the camera does not make a convincing storm. I laughed my head off when the tentacles came limply through the Swampie wall with Kroll’s bulbous head badly superimposed over the top – I realise these things are expensive whether they go right or not probably would have scrapped that effects shot. The Refinery mutiny should probably be a bit more exciting than ‘all life began on Mother Earth!’ and it probably wasn’t what they were aiming for for me to be cheering when Dugeen was shot in the back just to shut him up. The infamous wobbly walls (often mentioned in classic Who but rarely seen) make an appearance as the Doctor attempts to scale the silo. I’m not sure if I can point to a more atrocious effects shot than of the Kroll model emerging from the quagmire next to the Refinery model – the scale of the two objects has been ill judged and it completely fails to convince. Romana heads out in to the corridor because she ‘just wants to see!’ which is a sign of a desperate writer attempting to add false jeopardy. Ranquin fawning before the floppy tentacled Kroll is one of the most toe curlingly awful Doctor Who sequences ever and guess whose mother in law was around the last time this story had an airing? 'Doctor Who is good I tell you!' I could be heard objecting to her mirth.
The Shallow Bit: Is it wrong to find naked green men sexy? Some of them have fabulous legs! Yeah alright, I'll move on.
Result: Oddly serious for a Robert Holmes script in the Graeme Williams era, this is another much criticised story that I don’t have much of a problem with. There are some moments in there that would turn up on any fans ‘most cringe-worthy scenes’ but to balance that there is some of the best location work we have ever had, a reasonably accomplished gargantuan monster (Kroll would kick the shit out of dodgy Dinos and the Skarasen who came from far more accomplished eras visually) and Tom Baker who is clearly having a whale of a time. It is a slow story for sure but Holmes writes his racism angle well (it's as well handled here as it is in Remembrance of the Daleks) and the last episode winds up being one of the most gripping of the year with one action set piece after another. Norman Stewart clearly wasn’t a Doctor Who director (his other credit is Underworld) but he at least manages to add a bit of polish to the story with the atmospheric OB work in the marshes and even attempts some ambitious physical effects. When you are talking about wasting actors like Philip Madoc and John Abineri on underwritten roles then you cannot laud a story too much, but there are few witty moments and on the whole it is a flawed but generally enjoyable romp around a swampy alien world. Considering it presents the biggest stereotype in fantasy television (the primitive culture) and doesn't suck is something to be proud of. A silly bit of nonsense but elevated by its inclusion in the surprisingly consistent season sixteen: 6/10