Was it absolutely necessary to land in a quagmire?
When a Doctor Who story from the 1970s involves tentacles, it’s a safe bet that Robert Holmes wrote it. His second entry in Season Sixteen’s Key to Time arc, “The Power of Kroll” (Story Production Code 5E), involves the largest squiggly appendages in the series to date, belonging to Kroll itself, a giant squid made gargantuan through the transmutative powers of the fifth segment of the Key to Time.
But it wouldn’t be a Robert Holmes story without some commentary on social, economic and/or class divisions as well, and this story centers around the exploitation of the People of the Lakes, a small band of descendants of the indigenous green-skinned humanoid inhabitants of the planet Delta Magna who were resettled on a moon by colonists from Earth thousands of years ago. With the discovery of huge pockets of methane gas on the moon, though, a corporation has set up a pilot methane catalyzing refinery to produce massive amounts of compressed protein, needed to feed the masses on Delta Magna. If successful, the subsequent swath of refineries will wind up displacing the People of the Lakes—demeaningly labelled “swampies” by the humans—yet again.
The Doctor and Romana arrive on the unnamed third moon of Delta Magna in search of the fifth segment of the Key to Time, which registers as a diffuse presence on the scanner, as though it were all around. A case of mistaken identity sees the crew of the refinery attack the Doctor, whom they mistake for the scruffy, broad-hatted Rohm-Dutt (Glyn Owen), a gun-runner delivering weapons to the People of the Lakes. While the People of the Lakes think that the Sons of Earth, a group on Delta Magna sympathetic to their cause, have supplied the worn-out rifles, in actuality the leader of the refinery, Thawn (Neil McCarthy) has hired Rohm-Dutt to supply useless arms to the “swampies” to encourage a futile uprising that will allow them to be wiped out in the name of self-defense.
The plan would have worked, except for the minor issue of the refinery drilling operations awakening the slumbering Kroll, whose metabolic functions during its long hibernation caused the methane build-up so valuable to the humans. Originally one of many giant squids transplanted from Delta Magna along with the original People of the Lakes, Kroll ate a high priest—and along with him the People’s holy relic, the fifth segment of the Key to Time in disguise—centuries ago and grew to enormous dimensions, almost a mile across, as a result. It attacks the People of the Lakes as they wait in ambush for the humans, chomping one of their number as a post-slumber snack.
Their leader, Ranquin (John Abineri), decides Kroll’s malevolence stems from the presence of the “dryfoots,” the Doctor and Romana, who have mocked Kroll’s power via Romana’s droll anthropological observations about their ritual practices. Ranquin orders our time travellers, along with Rohm-Dutt, whose treachery has been discovered, executed via the seventh holy ritual of the Great Book, the longest-lasting and worst of them all: spine stretching via contracting creeper vines. And how does the Doctor manage to escape? He sings…
With the new, plot-granted ability to reach incredibly high octaves with his voice, the Doctor shatters a window over the execution chamber, letting in a convenient deluge from a sudden rainstorm, which softens the vines enough for everyone to wriggle free. Just a “party piece” he learned from Nellie Melba, the famed Australian soprano of the late Victorian era, naturally, but it’s notable that the Doctor used a brand-new inherent ability rather than some object he pulled from his endless coat pockets; one wonders if the production team would have let any writer other than Holmes add to the Doctor’s skill set as opposed to his easily fungible inventory in such a manner.
Indeed, Holmes—himself a former script editor, of course, as well as a writer with several Doctor Who credits to his name—is given free rein here, as in most of his stories. He sets more than a few scenes without either the Doctor or Romana present, trusting (usually correctly) in his ability to write engaging sequences with the guest cast alone. But unlike “The Ribos Operation” or “The Sun Makers,” the two antagonistic groups in “The Power of Kroll” lack much narrative interest. By and large, the humans come across as a bland set of greedy, production-obsessed technocrats, while the People of the Lakes are portrayed in a frankly stereotypical “indigenous” manner, complete with an unfortunately stylized ritual chant that calls to mind the output of Mel Brooks or Monty Python more than the product of a richly textured living culture. Fourteen guys painted green, shouting “Kroll,” as they jump up and down, unsynchronized, in loincloths while waving spears doesn’t quite work the way Holmes and director Norman Stewart likely intended.
It’s to the credit of the guest cast, then, that “The Power of Kroll” works as well as it does, in particular the quiet menace of frequent Doctor Who heavy Philip Madoc as Fennec, a pragmatic refinery worker who ultimately chooses to save his own skin over the preservation of the swamp people’s civilization. John Leeson—yes, the voice of K-9!—also features in what could be considered a guest role as Dugeen, a human sympathetic to the plight of the People of the Lakes whom Thawn kills while trying to stop the launch of an orbital capsule full of compressed protein at Kroll, an act that would have also destroyed the People’s nearby settlement, and also possibly ignited the methane-laden atmosphere of the moon on fire to boot. He died for a good cause, at least.
Equally impressive, the effects on offer in this story live up to the demands placed on them. Though the matte effect used to hide the bottom of the Kroll puppet shows painfully at its horizontal seam, the lumbering, lugubrious cephalopod has to be considered among the better 1970s creature effects on Doctor Who. Its appendages waver just so, and the central beak snaps and tears with an unsettlingly random cadence; it looks, if not real, then at least alive, adding to the awe and reverence that the People of the Lakes show it, even as it eats them. The scenes with Kroll and the spindly, out-of-scale refinery model work less well, but by the time the squid is gnawing away at the drilling platform, the overall effect of the creature has been established.
A further scene when the Doctor attempts to stop the orbital capsule launch is notable for being carefully considered and executed, with a realistic rocket nozzle and plumes of red-tinted smoke, despite being on screen less than two seconds. It’s an expensive yet effective means of making the subsequent shot of the Doctor on a rickety ladder next to a wobbly rocket panel against a nondescript grey background for thirty seconds more believable.
The location shooting adds enormously to the success of the story as well, with the squishy dampness of a real marsh in Suffolk standing in for the third moon of Delta Magna. The clear blue skies and abundant greenery make for a strong contrast to the few interior studio scenes, highlighting the differences between the technocratic humans and the People of the Lakes. The transitions between the two feel seamless as well in terms of film and video quality, making for perhaps the most technically proficient story in quite some time.
Tom Baker tends to get along just fine with Robert Holmes’ scripts, with Holmes having a real feel for Baker’s verbal preferences. The Fourth Doctor engages in more non-sequiturs than are normal even for him, asking, for instance, “Will there be strawberry jam for tea?” after having his hat shot full of holes and being taken prisoner by the humans. He does engage in a bit of fisticuffs in this story, sucker punching a swamp person in a very non-Doctor-esque fashion while rescuing Romana. In fairness, said swamp person had dressed up as a mini-Kroll and was about to sacrifice her, but one would have hoped for a more ingenious means of dispatching him.
Romana stands above the fray for the most part in this story, serving the “audience identification” role by saying what everyone is likely thinking when she notes of the Doctor, “Sometimes, I don’t think you’re quite right in the head.” Many a companion before her thought the same, but few actually said it, so kudos to Holmes for letting Mary Tamm speak it. While Romana does get captured, she looks upon it all with great bemusement, analyzing the sacrificial ritual with a fair bit of remove—at least, right up until giant pincers are shoved in her face. She’s also keen to get on with finding the fifth segment of the Key to Time, trying to spur the Doctor into action when he would rather study the admittedly fascinating Great Book of the People of the Lakes. She, at least, knows this is only a four episode story.
The marsh landscape gives Holmes an excuse to leave K-9 in the TARDIS for the entire story, the tin mutt’s first absence from the screen since its introduction in “The Invisible Enemy.” As noted, though, John Leeson, K-9’s voice, does appear in the story as Dugeen, the only time he will be on screen. His appearance was unplanned, as the actor originally scheduled to play Dugeen fell through. Given K-9’s ability to get the Doctor and friends out of most physical jeopardy, its sabbatical seems well timed in a story where that jeopardy drives quite a bit of the middle of the narrative.
The story’s resolution sees all the humans save Fennec killed, with more than a few People of the Lakes, including Ranquin, winding up as meals for Kroll, their erstwhile protector. The Doctor theorizes that Kroll only grew to such size because of the holy relic it swallowed, so while Kroll is attacking the refinery, he rushes out on its decks and just so happens to see the outline of the relic embedded in Kroll’s hide. One quick jab of the segment detector later and Kroll has been split into hundreds of much smaller squidlings for some reason, as the segment of the Key to Time ceases its transformative effects once it is returned to its original form. It’s a decent use of the segment in the story, driving the underlying plot while not being the sole focus, much as Holmes used the chunk of jethryk as a narrative catalyst in “The Ribos Operation.”
With Kroll no longer supplying the methane needed to feed the protein compression centrifuges, the refinery becomes useless (aside from a quick two minutes of filler where it almost explodes, necessitating the Doctor’s intervention), theoretically returning the moon to the People of the Lakes. They, meanwhile, have been freed from their worship of an overgrown appetizer. As with the last story Holmes told of a successful revolution, “The Sun Makers,” the Doctor toodles off before the oppressed and the oppressors have a chance to hash things out; details just aren’t the Fourth Doctor’s thing, nor, truth be told, that of any of his predecessors either. It’s pithy and a bit breezy, as one expects from Robert Holmes and, indeed, the Fourth Doctor. The story does what it says on the tin, no more and no less.
(Previous Story: The Androids of Tara)
Post 105 of the Doctor Who Project