Doctor Who Project: The Dominators

Doctor Who Project: The Dominators
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Command accepted.

It always comes back to the Daleks. It’s not too far of a stretch to suggest that this odd, educationally-inclined science fiction show with a grandfatherly figure as the lead was catapulted from tea time diversion to lasting cultural phenomenon by the gliding pepperpots of doom. But with Terry Nation effectively controlling the Daleks, the BBC cast about for replacements incessantly. The Cybermen are certainly a strong contender, but they can’t show up every week (though not for lack of trying). So when Season Six of Doctor Who opens with “The Dominators” (Story Production Code TT), by “Norman Ashby” (in reality, Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln), it’s no surprise to find a new robot creature teased at the end of the first episode, like every good Doctor Who villain to date. That creature is the Quark, a boxy robot with a spiky circular head and a sing-song voice under the command of the titular Dominators. Sadly, Quarkmania never quite swept the British Isles like Dalekmania, despite an easily imitated vocal pattern and the simplest dress-up costume imaginable—all you need is a big box and a bowl for your head.

While the Quarks fall somewhere near the Chumblies on the effective robot monster scale, the story itself is not without its charms. We’re freed from the recent spate of “base under siege” stories, and the basic conceit, that of exploring what happens when an advanced but pacifist species is confronted by an aggressive species, dovetails nicely with the Doctor’s own (somewhat fluid) ethos of constructive non-violence. World-building returns to Doctor Who here in a manner not really seen since the First Doctor’s era, with attention paid to the wildly differing cultures and mannerisms between the peaceful Dulcians and the ruthless Dominators (all of whom, handily, speak that galactic lingua franca, British Broadcast English.) Indeed, aside from a few vigorous running sequences, “The Dominators” marks the rare Troughton story that would have suited William Hartnell’s talents and approach to the role.

The Mighty Dominators

And yet, despite its reasonable pace (clocking in at an odd five episodes) and attempts at strong characterizations, the story never quite coheres internally. Is it a rumination on the dangers of nuclear war? A treatise on the need for a strong defense even by a peaceful people? A declaration of the importance of questioning authority? It’s no wonder that Haisman and Lincoln, authors of the reasonably successful Yeti arc, took their names off the story, opting for a pseudonym, because “The Dominators” is ultimately about two shouty guys with extreme shoulder pads and a dwindling supply of robots bullying an entire planet of people who believe curtain ruffles to the be height of fashion.

I think we should debate these clothes next.

Neatly, the Doctor has been to the planet Dulkis before, off-screen, and he declares it to be “a perfectly splendid planet,” populated by a gentle, friendly, and advanced people, and thus perfect for a holiday break. Unspoken is the rather startling notion that the Doctor actually managed to pilot the TARDIS to Dulkis, marking a signal change in the show’s approach of seemingly random landings accompanied by seemingly random adventures. Equally unexpected for a season opener, the Doctor and his companions don’t appear in the first episode until ten minutes in. That screen time goes to establishing the Dominators, who have landed a single saucer-shaped ship from their invasion fleet on Dulkis for unstated but obviously nefarious purposes, and the Dulcians, who come across as rule-abiding and just a bit, well, dull. The planet naming doesn’t quite reach the excesses of Terry Nation’s worst nomenclature offenses, but regardless, one doesn’t expect the people of a sweetly soft-sounding planet to be armed to the teeth.

That’s why the Doctor is alarmed at the presence of a War Museum on the abandoned island where the TARDIS landed. Inside, he finds the only functioning weapon on the whole planet, a laser rifle that, in good Chekhovian fashion, gets fired by the third episode. The museum rests on the site of the Dulcians’ sole nuclear weapons test and it used as a teaching site to warn students of the dangers of war and nuclear energy. There’s no radiation at all on the planet except for this one area, and the Dominators home in on it because they absorb radiation to fuel their spaceships and robots.

Yes, the old laser rifle works.

When the Doctor finally encounters Dulcians, he’s even more startled to find that they show no curiosity about his presence or his claim to have travelled here through space and time. They merely accept it as fact and waste no time considering the implications. With one roguish exception—Cully, the son of the planet’s leader—the Dulcians are intellectually uninquisitive and resigned to logic, formality, and sedate debate. The story makes this point abundantly clear through several wasted scenes in the Dulcian capital, where curtain-skirted men dither in the face of the Dominators’ declaration that they will destroy Dulkis once they’ve taken whatever slaves they want. The only resistance comes from someone who insists that the Dominators make an appointment, and he is summarily killed by a Quark.

It’s an odd quibble to make here, that providing several scenes outside the main action harms the overall effect of the story, particularly since “base under siege” stories essentially confine themselves to a single plot setting, and yet the Dulcian capital scenes do just that. While one senses that the intent is to stress the extreme belief the Dulcians hold in pacifism and reasoned deliberation, there’s no grounding for their belief. They come across as unable to make up their minds rather than committed to a long-held philosophic belief. They don’t seem to believe in much of anything.

The Dominators receive more development, with their ruthlessness coming across as considered rather than simply malevolent. Only two Dominators are in the craft that lands on the Dulcian island, the senior Navigator and an apprentice Probationer, along with roughly ten Quarks. The Probationer continually gives in to blood lust, commanding the Quarks to destroy any perceived threat and taking the insolences of the “primitive” Dulcians personally. The Navigator reprimands him constantly, to the point of threatening his execution, emphasizing that power must be conserved and that weaker creatures are to be ignored as irrelevant, almost as if it is beneath the dignity of a Dominator to even notice them. They are the “masters of the ten galaxies” who take what they want, and they plan to destroy Dulkis to get it.

Quarks, destroy!

The most direct comparison to this story comes from “The Ice Warriors,” where a similar devolution of responsibility to the Great World Computer has left the crew of the glacier station unable to cope with the unexpected threat from the scaly Martians. But where in that story the Doctor saves the day, aided by an outcast figure similar to Cully, here it is Jamie who essentially defeats the Dominators though action, derring-do, and foolhardy disregard for personal safety, using the laser rifle the Doctor shies away from. He’s the anti-Dulcian, though his kilt fits him right in with the planet’s fashion sense. This story marks Frazer Hines strongest outing to date, and he takes control of the role, thoroughly dominating (sorry) several scenes and even getting to reinforce his developing aversion to synthetic food substitutes.

Jamie’s key contribution is in suggesting that they simply catch the “atomic seed” that the Dominators are planning on dropping into a hole they’ve drilled to the planet’s core, preventing it from turning Dulkis into a field of radioactive debris for the Dominators invasion fleet to refuel from. For those keeping track at home, yes, there are more than a few similarities between this plan and Ian’s plan in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” where a log trap in the drill hole (reaching to Earth’s core) stops the Daleks’ giant bomb from hollowing out the planet.

The Seed of Doom

Once the seed is in hand, the Doctor realizes that he can’t defuse it, so he sneaks behind one of the departing Quarks and slips it on the Dominators’ spaceship, where it blows up after leaving the planet. Left unexplored, the entire Dominator invasion fleet still hovers near Dulkis, presumably to try the whole scheme again after the Doctor leaves, though a case (however unconvincing) can be made that the explosion destroys the entire fleet, given that it would have had the power to destroy a planet. Also unexplored is why the Dominators didn’t just, um, create a nuclear reactor to provide all their radiation needs.

Wendy Padbury’s debut episode as a companion casts her in a much different light than recent female companions (reasonably strong female characterization being something of a hallmark for Haisman and Lincoln). Though Zoe does scream more than a few times, she’s a keen observer and unafraid of questioning the Doctor’s logic and reasoning. When confronted by the Quarks, her first impulse is to try to escape them or disable them, and she shows no qualms at staying behind while the Doctor and Jamie go to explore the Dominator ship. She is content not to seek danger but also capable in the face of it, and she says what the audience is thinking when she questions the utilitarian value of Dulcian clothing. “The Dominators” provides a very strong showing for Zoe’s first “official” story.

Wendy Padbury as Zoe

The TARDIS once again serves merely as a doorway, with no scenes at all inside the ship. The Doctor’s coat seemingly hogs all the interdimensionality, as he drags a full-fledged geiger counter from its folds in addition to a bag of sweets and the Sonic Screwdriver, which, on its sophomore outing proves capable of burning through metal. And, curiously, the Dulcians have two hearts, as determined by the Dominators’ medical scans. They decline to examine the Doctor, however, so we’re not quite at the point where his dual-heartedness becomes established.

Still, for all the suspect plotting, “The Dominators” makes a strong showing to start Season Six. Patrick Troughton is in fine fettle to start his final season as the Doctor, with a wide range of expressiveness and much glee in playing the fool, and even if the Dominators lack a certain menace, they provide a good change of pace from the more recent one-dimensional opponents. There’s a slight nuance to their malice, with the interplay between the Navigator and the Probationer perhaps the story’s most compelling aspect, and it’s surprising that they never reappear in the series. Perhaps the Doctor blew them all up after all.

(Previous Story: The Wheel in Space)

(Next Story: The Mind Robber)

Post 45 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project

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