No one goes into the wasteland.
Imagine a warship, piloted by crystalline life-forms, that runs out of energy on a planet populated by a mentally undeveloped species. Because their ship is powered by mental energy, the crystalline life-forms must raise that primitive society to high intelligence over thousands of years in order to find suitable candidates to plug into the engine. Sounds smashing and just a bit sinister, yes? Well, not the Doctor Who version of the story, Robert Holmes’ “The Krotons” (Story Production Code WW).
Despite the relative strength of the concept, “The Krotons” just falls a bit flat in almost all aspects, from the uninspired design of the malevolent Krotons themselves through to the weak characterizations of the native Gonds and their internecine politics. Thrown in a bit of Keystone Kops near-misses between Zoe and the Doctor on one hand and Jamie on the other and the result is a workmanlike yet unremarkable four episode story that nevertheless hews to the overarching theme of the Second Doctor’s tenure: the importance of thinking for oneself rather than letting a machine do it for you.
The story starts agreeably enough, with the Doctor, Zoe, and Jamie arriving on a planet with two suns, necessitating the deployment of the Doctor’s “favorite umbrella” to ward off the heat. The TARDIS lands in a malodorous area of high sulfur content and interesting mineral deposits such as mica and tellurium, allowing the Doctor and Zoe to banter a bit about chemical compositions. And, pleasantly, it’s all foreshadowing, because the particular minerals play directly into the plot’s resolution. For, you see, if you know enough chemistry, you know that tellurium, from which the Krotons’ organic spaceship is conveniently made, is soluble in sulfuric acid, which the Doctor knows how to manufacture from the rocks at hand. It’s fairly clear how this one will end…
The dome serves as both the Gonds “Hall of Learning” and also part of the Kroton’s spaceship. In a bit of poor direction, however, David Maloney only gives a brief overview of the Gond village and the domed Hall of Learning once, at the beginning of the first episode; when the dome reappears, several weeks later as viewed originally, it strikes one as incongruous and unknown. The implication is that it’s the Krotons’ ship, but there’s no directorial effort put into developing the space in which the story takes place, a fair assessment of the story as a whole.
We first meet the Gonds as they are preparing to anoint their two smartest youths as “Companions to the Krotons,” adorned with robes and sent through a door in the Hall of Learning to live with the Krotons, who have not been seen for thousands of years. The Doctor and his companions first meet the Gonds when they see one of these youths stagger out of a surface-level door, where he is promptly “dispersed” into his component elements. It’s a fatal process, sad to say.
Again, the tension between the Gonds’ adherence to millennia of ritual behavior and the Doctor’s revelation to them of the outcome of said ritual could serve as the spark for a strong anthropological story, with factions developing that inherently disbelieve the Doctor in preference to their faith pitted against those who accept the evidence before them despite the years of indoctrination. It doesn’t.
Doctor Who has at this point served up some striking stories of cultural changes affected by the Doctor’s appearance and, yes, meddling, from “The Aztecs” through to “The Ark.” Instead, the story becomes a simplistic good vs. evil yarn of freeing an enslaved people, akin to nothing so much as “The Underwater Menace,” alas. Here there’s merely a power struggle between one group of Gonds that wants to develop more powerful weapons to eventually fight the Krotons and another that wants to attack them with “slings and fireballs” in an immediate frontal attack. The Gond culture simply never receives any development once the Doctor asserts that they’ve been held as slaves, fed only the information the Krotons wish for them to receive and forced to sacrifice two of their brightest children every generation.
Development of the Krotons might have balanced out the short-shrift given the Gonds, but their only dynamic aspect has to be their spinning angular heads, the sole nifty bit in their design. Beyond some hints early on about their crystalline origins and their need for mental energy, the viewer only learns about the Krotons and their history and motives in an info-dump at the end of the final episode. These two remaining Krotons have slept for thousands of years, using an automated system to periodically test the Gonds’ mental development, waiting until there are two “high-brains” who can assist them in mentally powering the “dynotrope” back to the Krotons’ home planet. More to the point, though not directly remarked upon, the Krotons only wake up from their hibernation because Zoe and the Doctor foolishly take the Krotons’ intelligence test and are partially drained to provide the Krotons with three hours of energy.
Not that the Krotons really do much with that time. Once the Doctor and Zoe inevitably escape after being used as batteries, the Krotons engage in some desultory probing of Jamie—not enough brains to be useful—then try, unsuccessfully, to blow up the TARDIS after tracking the escapees there. Because, for some reason, one of the Krotons can’t see, the Doctor and Zoe are able to elude recapture and manage to gather the ingredients needed to create massive quantities of sulfuric acid. So once the Krotons order the Gonds to bring the Doctor and Zoe to them after they escape, our heroes bring with them the one substance that can destroy the Krotons, and this they promptly do, though Zoe needs some prompting from the Doctor to figure out her role in the caper. Meanwhile, Jamie and the resident Gond scientist pour gallons of sulfuric acid into the Hall of Learning as a last-ditch effort to defeat the Krotons.
While the Krotons’ spaceship dissolves, the Doctor and his companions sneak out before the Gonds can ask for advice about what to do next. The Doctor has completely changed their culture and, has become typical for the Second Doctor, he skips out before the bill is due. Granted, for the Doctor to tell the Gonds how to proceed would go against their stated desire to begin to make their own decisions, but there’s very little focus given to the actual results of his actions. At least the First Doctor coerced Steven into staying to help lead when he upended the culture of “The Savages,” but in “The Krotons,” the Doctor inspires a revolution, awakens and overthrows an admittedly malevolent force, and then leaves an underdeveloped civilization to its own devices with no resolution offered. The story ends with a Gond declaring, “We shall have to find our own answers now,” a stirring but perhaps frightening prospect, given that their plan for ridding the planet of Krotons involved hitting them with sticks.
As Robert Holmes’ first Doctor Who story, “The Krotons” provides a more coherent portrayal of our time travellers than is often seen in such debuts. Zoe and the Doctor banter quite nicely, with the Doctor keen to beat Zoe’s score on the intelligence test and Zoe happily, and almost seamlessly, providing the viewer with technical information by responding to the Doctor’s rhetorical scientific questions. The Doctor seems more prone to interjections than usual in this story (“Oh, my giddy aunt!”), and his coat continues to produce whatever items are needed, in this case an acid-proof beaker. The cast seems to rather enjoy working with one another, as there’s an ease between Patrick Troughton, Wendy Padbury, and Frazer Hines.
Jamie continues to be characterized as headstrong and a bit dim, though Hines plays him with dignity regardless. And Zoe finds herself with yet another wardrobe change, this time into an exceedingly mini vinyl skirt and vest combination that doesn’t lend itself well to all the climbing and crouching Padbury is required to partake in. And it reflects the studio lights quite often.
The TARDIS gets an upgrade as well here, with the addition of the HADS, the “Hostile Action Displacement System” that the Doctor has heretofore forgotten to activate—HADS causes the TARDIS to dematerialize whenever it detects any danger to itself. Given the importance of separating the Doctor from the TARDIS in much of Doctor Who, it’s no wonder that this system doesn’t make many more appearances in the series.
Most pleasantly, though perhaps unintentionally, the term “companions” gets quite some use, but relating to the test subjects given to the Krotons and not the Doctor’s chums, leading to a possibly tongue-in-cheek exchange where the Doctor himself has been chosen as a companion:
Selris: They have chosen you as a companion.
Doctor: And we all know what happens to them, don’t we?
While “The Krotons” doesn’t win any awards, it serves as a brisk palate cleanser from the lengthy stories thus far in the Sixth Season, and, for what little it’s worth, it saves the Quarks from the ignominy of being the worst creature designs to date. And, hey, at least it wasn’t the Cybermen again.
(Previous Story: The Invasion)
(Next Story: The Seeds of Death)
Post 48 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project