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Doctor Who: The Power of Kroll (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Power of Kroll originally aired in 1978 and 1979. It was the fifth part of The Key to Time saga.

What? Well, you’d better introduce me.

As what?

Oh, I don’t know. As a wise and wonderful person who wants to help. Don’t exaggerate.

– the Doctor and Romana meet the locals

The Power of Kroll is a strange little serial, apparently the result of Robert Holmes being told to create the largest monster even on Doctor Who. Holmes wasn’t necessarily convinced that this was the best idea (and one can sense that from the story), but the adventure isn’t quite the mess that most people would have you believe. At the very least, it serves as a dry run (see what I did there) for the much stronger Caves of Androzani, but it also has an interesting idea or three along the way.

The power of CSO, more like...

The story is quite obviously padded, feeling even more padded than quite a few six-part adventures. This is easiest to determine from the unnecessarily long reprises at the start of each episode, but there are a few story elements that seem to exist merely to draw the story out – notably the intentionally slow death as part of “seven holy rituals.” As an aside, I couldn’t help noticing that the torture rack included a pillow. Never let it be said the swampies aren’t civilised to their captives. The entire sequence exists for no other reason than to extend the serial’s runtime – I can’t help but feel the story might have worked better as a three-part adventure.

Then there’s the creature itself. I don’t have the same problem with dodgy special effects (or “special” effects), because… well, a lot of the old show doesn’t look especially convincing. Indeed, a lot of it works better if you watch it as self-aware pantomime theatre. Of course, “suspension of disbelief” is an abstract concept, in that the average audience still doesn’t quite believe that Law & Order is real or anything like that, so it’s just a difference of degree. So, with that in mind, I don’t have a huge problem with Kroll as it is realised. It’s certainly a better creation than The Phallus in the Pit (which sounds like a dodgy “adult” film).

Up the creek with a paddle...

The tentacles are quite decent in the scenes where it interacts with the cast – the real problem is the long-distance shots where Kroll has clearly been inserted using CSO. Again, I don’t really have a problem with it, but the technology hasn’t improved that much since we saw it every other episode during the Pertwee era. Holmes does well not to over-use Kroll, restricting his appearances, and – in the words of the Doctor – making it clear Kroll is “obviously one of those creature who’s not always about the place.”

In fairness to Holmes, he also mitigates the cheesiness of the special effects with a rather wry fake-out on the first episode cliffhanger. It turns out the man in a cheesy monster suit menacing Romana in a scene that comes intentionally dangerously close to self-parody (for a confident and assertive companion, Romana sure screams good) is just… a man in a cheesy monster suit. It actually looks more ridiculous than the realised Kroll, and serves as something of an acknowledgement that the show knows how cheesy it is (like most of Holmes’ superb Carnival of Monsters).

Romana learns we all have to make sacrifices...

Unfortunately, the rest of the serial’s special effects also feel weak, especially some cheesy and unnecessary animated fork lightning. And, while it is clearly just as self-aware as the guy in the cheap monster suit, the bit where the Doctor screams so loud he breaks a glass window is just a little bit too cheesy for me – and I have a considerable tolerance for cheese, as anyone who reads this blog regularly will attest.

So the serial has its flaws – and some very significant ones at that. Still, it’s not all bad and is at least interesting in its ambitions. As I noted discussing The Pirate Planet, it’s hard to fault the show for having too much ambition. More than that, though, one can trace the faint outlines of The Caves of Androzani in Holmes’ story here – from gun smugglers to the mining of a precious resource, right down to the monster the script would arguably work better without, there are quite a few elements that the two adventures share.

Tentacles of doom...

More fascinating than that, however, his Holmes’ skilled world-building. Even when dealing with an over-grown squid and actors in green body paint, Holmes has an uncanny ability to craft a culture in front of the viewer, drawing on all manner of historical sources to add complexity to an alien society. The “swampies” are clearly modelled on Native Americans displaced by the European settlers (only to suffer again when resources are discovered under the land allocated to them). “This planet is a sort of reservation,” the Doctor observes at one point, to make the comparison clear, before advising a “dryfoot”, “You see? The weight of history is against you.”

That said, it’s a credit to Holmes that his ideas have aged so well. In particular, Rohm-Dutt’s advice to the swamp folk probably has a different context than when originally written. “All I’m saying is that you’re not ready to fight yet,” he insists, “and if you stay here, you’ll get trapped and stand no chance. But if you split into smaller groups and spread your people across the swamps, they’ll never hit you.”While drawn from guerilla conflicts throughout history, and undoubtedly inspired by Vietnam, it feels strangely relevent in this era of the Iraq and Afghanistan insurgencies, giving Holmes’ script a modern political context, thirty years after it was produced.

Little green men...

It’s also somewhat flattering that Holmes doesn’t fall into the trap of painting his swamp inhabitants as overly primative folk. They’re smart enough, for example, to figure out that they’ve been had when sold faulty weapons. “Like all dryfoots, Rohm-Dutt,” they warn their arms dealers, “because we lead a simple life you think we’re fools.” Indeed, the adventure doesn’t paint them as superstitious fools, instead suggesting that the superstition is just a tool used by a shrewd ruler to keep his subjects in line. It’s in this area that the serial really distinguishes itself.

Romana shrewdly points out that the natives – arguably like the serial itself – are making a bigger deal of Kroll than he really justifies. “They’re simply keeping a myth alive,” she deduces. “None of you here has ever seen Kroll. You weren’t even born at the time of the third manifestation.” When the ruler, Ranquin, promises to have Kroll smite the invaders, one of his subjects asks, “Ranquin, why should Kroll do as you ask?” It becomes even more obvious when Ranquin refers to “the seventh holy ritual of the Old Book.” Even Romana notes that the practice of sacrifice is not one carried out as a matter of faith, remarking, “It must have been political.”

The old book indeed...

Equally fascinating, if a bit more straightforward, is Holmes’ portrayal of the colonial forces, who are very much portrayed as a bunch of racist thugs (though, of course, there are exceptions). When it’s suggested they contact the authorities to deal with the escalating conflict, Thawn protests, “No! The authorities are far too soft. Besides, once they start interfering, you can never get rid of them. We’ll handle this one by ourselves, and in my way.” When asked for clarification, he states, “Final! We get rid of the problem once and for all.” It’s not exactly subtle (it’s a “final” solution he’s proposing), but it’s effective.

At the same time, Holmes sketches – in the finest of lines – a sense of a broader political picture. There are hints that Thawn’s planned ethnic cleansing has been held off by political pressure, accusing the Doctor of being “a swampie lover” and “one of those fanatics, Sons of Earth.” Hell, the inhabitants of the Swamps are willing to accept weapons paid for by an anonymous source, implying that there are political groups who would buy them arms. Ranquin asserts, “And there are many on Delta Magna who support our cause.”

Is it the eighties already?

So basically, it’s a fairly average Robert Holmes script, after all, with a superbly realised fictional universe, let down by a fairly straightforward plot with too much padding and not really helped by the special effects. As usual, Baker gives it his all, and Romana is an interesting companion, occasionally reminding us she’s not here by choice, but by appointment. “I hate underground passages,” she complains, which is something she’ll probably have to get over as a companion.

The Power of Kroll isn’t great, but it isn’t a terrible little adventure. It’s certainly not the weakest of the season and – if you can forgive it its faults – it’s an entertaining little diversion.

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2 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on M2wa2 DigiTech..

  2. Reblogged this on queenofshebaformulary and commented:
    Cool!!

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