Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Krotons written by Robert Holmes and directed by David Maloney

 This story in a nutshell: Attack the Machine! Children of the revolution!

Oh My Giddy Aunt: Despite this story have a less than stellar reputation in some quarters, there is always one actor you can rely on to provide some top notch entertainment regardless of the larger tale being told. Troughton is so into his stride come the point of The Krotons he is practically swaggering, playing up some scenes to insane comic effect and giving terrific urgency to others. As with a lot of the stories in season six most of his most successful scenes are with Wendy Padbury's Zoe simply because they are like a pair of school kids trying to outsmart each other all the time. I have absolutely nothing against Frazer Hines' Jamie being around because he and Troughton share a chemistry unique in the series (they have a lovely shorthand such as the charming moment where the Doctor pushes Jamie's head below the rocks) but the Doctor/Jamie interaction had been pretty much exhausted of fresh ideas come this season. And like the majority of season six it has Jamie going it alone whilst the Doctor and Zoe are paired up (The Mind Robber, the latter half of The Invasion, The War Games). Unlike a lot of other Doctors, his first instinct isn't to stay around and investigate but to get as far away from the scene of the murder as possible. Perhaps he's learnt fro experience that he will be caught and blamed or perhaps he is just looking out for his young friends. He trips into Gond society with a beaming smile declaring 'We are friends!' (has there ever been a more amiable Doctor - I think not. Smith tried to emulate his natural sociability but the dialogue was often quite forced) only to be confronted with a wall of spears. It pretty much sums his era up in a nutshell, the Doctor turning up with the best of intentions and tripping over a conflict that has already arisen without him. You've got to love the idea that with the Doctor entering Gond society he has completely revolutionised how they think as a people (having survived the wasteland). You'll rarely get a better chance to see Troughton do his quirky style of comedy than the squabble he has with Zoe about going through the test and then forcing himself to do it as well. Troughton is lifting this story like a heavyweight champion, providing gleeful entertainment. You're seeing the real life affection between Troughton and Padbury spill all over the screen and it fills me with sunshine. His reaction to 'my people will always remember you' is a scream. The comedy business between the Doctor and Zoe at the climax, discussing where they will stand and how to put on the headsets, is effortless. I think I could watch these two arsing around in any story and find something to appreciate (scratch that - The Dominators).

Who's the Yahoos: The fight that Jamie has in episode is great because it shows that he isn't just bluster when he says he can take care of himself. I found myself thinking he was a gonner when his bluff was called and I was surprised with how well he can handle himself. Perhaps it is because he is used for comic effect so often but it was useful to be reminded that Jamie is a skilled fighter who was fighting in a nasty conflict when the Doctor met him. When stuck for a choice between looking after a pretty girl and protecting the Doctor it surprises me that Jamie opts for the latter. It's gorgeous the way that Jamie and Zoe think they are keeping the Doctor out of mischief, just as he is doing to them. You have to wonder if Jamie is going to leave his adventures with some kind of a complex, though. The Doctor and Zoe leave him out their investigations of the Learning Hall because he isn't smart enough and the Krotons as good as tell him he is as thick as shit. This would have been a great opportunity for Holmes to score the ultimate triumphant moment for Jamie, outsmarting all of them and figuring out the solution in a way that only he could. Alas it was not to be. To give him some credit he does affect his escape using the Doctor's mica but it isn't quite enough to make the point. And the climax does see him bring down the Krotons with brute force but Beta could have happily have done that without him. What the solution needed was something uniquely Jamie McCrimmon.

Brain Child: 'Zoe is something of a genius, of course. It can be very irritating at times!' The Doctor and Zoe appear to be talking in some kind of code to Jamie when actually they are just discussing the scientific nature of the planet they have landed on. Do we get a little peek into Zoe's life as a pupil when she was growing up, revelling in the praise of her teachers as she absorbed knowledge like a sponge? Naturally Zoe gets over double the amount of points than the next best student and there is laughter behind her eyes when the Doctor cocks it all up ('The Doctor's almost as clever as I am...'). Padbury is astonishingly confident throughout and cute as a button too.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'She was one of the finest students we had ever produced?' 'Oh really? Competition for you Zoe.'
'Sounds a bit like a dinner gong...'

The Good:
*   Maloney is trying his best with the resources at his disposal and despite being set in a filthy old quarry he makes the location work really stand out. It gives him a chance to work in wide open spaces away from the cramped studios and the long shot that sees the TARDIS materialise and the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe emerge is especially impressive.
*   To modern eyes the modelwork of the city might look some poorly done papier mache blocks but I think it is rather imaginatively constructed. I especially like how props team placed the dwellings in what appears to be a reconstruction of the quarry and there are little paths interconnecting them. It's a bit like the miniatures in Invasion of the Dinosaurs, easy to mock but worth studying what they were trying to do and the effort that has gone into it. With Doctor Who in the sixties where they had to make shortcuts visually, this is a creative example of trying to bring something a little alien to the screen.
*   It is fascinating to compare the performances of Gilbert Wynne (Thara) and Philip Madoc (Eelek) because the former is doing all he can to attract your attention (screaming, emoting like a madman, dashing about the set) whilst the latter isn't moving at all and doesn't raise his voice once. Beguilingly my eyes were all drawn to Madoc.
*   I can feel Terrance Dicks working behind the scenes on this one, he and Robert Holmes generating as many mysteries as possible to keep the viewer hooked (it is a similar trick they pulled off in the first episode of Carnival of Monsters). Who are the Krotons (perhaps it would have been better had we not found that out)? Why do they need the smartest minds? What happens to the youngster between heading into the machine and emerging the other side catatonic? And why are they dispatched so callously? Holmes always had something of a rebellious nature to his writing and he kick starts his Doctor Who career by jumping on the bandwagon of the youth uprising in the sixties. Interestingly I can't imagine scenes of rough kids behaving violently and smashing their way through a story being allowed anywhere near the series these days, especially in the wake of the London riots. Does placing this youthful uprising on another planet distance the viewer from what is going outside their front door? Although I have to say Holmes' script skips the metaphor completely and makes a direct comment when he has one character screaming 'Smash the machine!'  Add in the climax which features kids dropping some acid to take on the system that has held them back and it's the sixties in a nutshell. Progressive, riotous, revolutionary. I like how the back story is left to the last minute so everything falls into place at the climax, the Krotons raising the intelligence of the Gonds after they crash landed to a level where their mental energy could be harnessed to enable them to escape.
*   My favourite sequences in The Krotons all take place in episode where the Doctor step into the unknown of the machine. Doctor Who is often a straight forward action adventure show and only every so often does it dip its toes into something weirder and more idiosyncratic. These scenes certainly qualify with Maloney adopting some dramatic camera techniques (he gets right in the Doctor and Zoe's faces as they are having their mental energy torn from them) and indulging in some 60s psychedelia to stress the weirdness of the Kroton ship. I love the bubbling vats of liquid with the Krotons forming inside, at this point it is impossible to know what exactly is going on. With no incidental music guiding this story along, it is at this point where Brian Hodgson's sound effects really start to create an atmosphere.
*   That heart stopping moment when it looks as though the Krotons have destroyed the TARDIS. Although whether my dismay was because it was apparently taken out by one of the least effective monsters the Doctor has met or because it means he will be stuck on this miserable rock forever more, I'm not sure.
*   Whilst I can think of a fair few times when the HADS might have come in handy, it's sudden mention is just another element of the ever expanding list of devices that the TARDIS has on offer. Writers make these things up as they need them but it all adds to the crafts sense of magic.

The Bad:
*   The first few minutes of The Krotons might be solely responsible for its poor reputation because it stacks up one clich√© after another. When your first shot is of a cardboard wall failing to separate properly followed by a stiff actor talking in what appears to be a tongue tripping alien language ('Abu Gond!), children being adorned with sparkly cloaks straight out of Flash Gordon and some horrendous b-movie style reactions ('You can't go! I wont let you go!' - you can see the beginnings of Jenny Laird's stylish interpretation of a distraught mother here) all your worst fears might feel confirmed. I certainly wouldn't recommend this as the first classic story to show to a non-fan. Not because it isn't any good, but because you have to look past some questionable performances, aesthetics and production values to get the gold. To my shame I have seen far to many farcical b movie SF horrors usually obtained from my local pound shop (and even then I would say they are overpriced) and there have been plenty with scenes like this, hysterical men and women trying to sum up an entire civilisation, wobbly sets barely holding themselves together and an unconvincing culture born out poor aesthetics and lack of numbers.
*   The Krotons, not one of Doctor Who's finest moments in the costume department. Which is a shame because the central idea of them being grown from crystal is genuinely innovative. With the advent of CGI this is an notion that is ripe for a re-invention, imagine being able to watch the crystal bubble and form, cracking into place and the finished result emerging; sleek, faceted and deadly. What we essentially get in this story is an egg box with a skirt, Dalek like appendages and a phallic crystal standing erect from the top. Cumbersome, impractical, artificial and unbelievable. Not exactly what every Doctor Who designer is aiming for. Initially I rather liked the voices when they were used sparingly, booming through the echoey halls of the learning to warn of the rebellious students. Unfortunately they start to shred at the nerves when the Krotons are actualised and they paper the last two episodes with their unintelligible babble ('DIRECTION POINT!'). I don't even think with more time, money or resources that the Krotons could be made to work with the methods of television at this point. It really is the case of Holmes thinking outside the box and conceptualising something that needed computer wizardry to bring it to life convincingly. We needed to see the transformation (rather than the egg boxes emerging from the machine - sorry standing up from their crouched position) for this to really come off. I think the Krotons work much better in episodes one and two where they are silently observing the Doctor and his companions, Maloney uses some creepy spying techniques to give them a real presence (given my phobia of snakes that viewing tendril that attacks the Doctor give me a moments panic). What I came up with in my head was far more impressive. Imagine The Krotons being brought to life with the same sort of technology that wowed the audiences of Frozen.
*  Compared to Holmes' later work on the series (particularly in stories such as Carnival f Monsters, The Talons of Weng-Chiang and The Ribos Operation) The Krotons doesn't excel in the characterisation department either. The trouble is that the guest characters aren't given enough exposure to make them truly relevant and mostly serve to explain the mystery and help the Doctor to defeat the Krotons. We cut back to the revolt plot every fifteen minutes or so, long enough so we have completely forgotten about it. The dialogue isn't exactly sparkling either and doesn't make the character stand out as individuals with their own lives. Mostly it is the work of the actors that gives them any real identity with Philip Madoc's Eelek and James Cairncross' Beta both standing out amongst the rest. James Copeland struggles to make his unwieldy exposition work and Madeline Mills is given a real bum deal, either unconscious or moaning for the first three episodes. We needed to get to know the Gonds as a people, so we can give a damn if the Krotons wipe them out or Eelek pulls off a political coup but they are so faceless it is difficult to give a damn especially if Selris, Vana and Thara are anything to go by. The line 'we still have Eelek to deal with' thrown in at the end goes to show how irrelevant that whole plot has been to the story, so much so that it doesn't deserve an ending. That might be realistic but in dramatic terms it isn't very satisfying.
*   Shots from the Krotons POV as it hunts down the Doctor and Zoe = big plus. Long shots of the Kroton ambling down the ramp trying to keep hold of his burdensome gun = big minus. Just how was Maloney supposed to shoot these creatures? He couldn't do it all in POV because money had been spent on the costumes. Perhaps he should have always shot upwards, capitalizing on their stature and excising any glimpses of the skirt.
*   When the Kroton gives Jamie a big cuddle why doesn't simply kill him? How does the Doctor walk away from all that heavy rubble crashing down on his back?

Result: Would The Prison in Space have made for a more entertaining watch? This story was rushed into production and it shows and it oftens has the ring of strong cheese but I find The Krotons is much better than its reputation suggests, playing with some intelligent ideas and revelling in it's condensed format. It's rare to call a Troughton story pacy but at only four episode the story doesn't outlive its welcome and it seems to have just enough plot to spread across the entire piece without any much escape/capture padding. Like so much of this story, the Krotons themselves are a marvellous idea that simply cannot be realised convincingly with the resources of the show at the time. The idea of crystalline creatures setting a thousand year old trap is a stunning one and if made today would inspire genuine awe. Back in the sixties we had to make do with hulking cardboard boxes with skirts. Holmes is still getting to grips with the series at this stage but it clear he has a unique approach to the show creatively (intelligence as a power source is a very sophisticated concept for Who), even if his characterisation and dialogue need sharpening. Whilst it does haemorrhage viewers throughout the course of the story (dropping by two million from episode 1 to 4), the first two episodes performed high above the majority of the Troughton era. So whilst interest waned there was an initial burst of interest for the story (I wonder if that had anything to do with coming after the breathlessly exciting final episodes of The Invasion?). Without a doubt the most successful element of this story are the regulars and Holmes shows that without much coaxing has a perfect handle on all three of them, giving them plenty to do and playing to their strengths. Imagine this story without the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe to keep us entertained? It would be staggeringly melodramatic and certainly belong in the vaults and best forgotten. Between them Troughton, Hines and Padbury lift this intelligent but creaky SF story into something that is much more palatable: 6/10


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