“The Dominators” is a story which sadly, by today’s standards has aged pretty badly. The Dulcian’s outfits have to be some of the most ridiculous costumes ever seen in Doctor Who, and poor Wendy Padbury spends her first proper story as a companion stuck in one of them! Even the Quarks, which tend to be remembered rather fondly in fan circles (and recently were nostalgically mentioned in the Big Finish audio drama, “Flip-Flop”) are at best amusing – they certainly aren’t any sort of convincing threat. The two Dominators themselves are the best thing about the story; their costumes are almost respectable (which helps) but more importantly they are entertaining villains. I really enjoyed their constant bickering; the subordinate Dominator’s blood lust and his commander’s more rational, focused attitude clash splendidly and make for some good drama, especially in the final episode.
Renowned ‘Yeti’ creators Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln requested that their names be taken off this story after Derrick Sherwin had finished script-editing it. This serial certainly isn’t a patch on “The Abominable Snowmen” or “The Web of Fear”; but a few pacing issues aside, Sherwin can’t be blamed for what is basically a very bland storyline. The plot is good vs evil at its most basic. The Dulcians are pacifists – so annoyingly so that the viewer almost wants the Dominators to win! – and the Dominators are warmongers, plain and simple. They plan to fire rockets down bore holes, causing an eruption of the molten core of Dulkis turning the planet into a radioactive mass - fuel for their space fleet. Admittedly, it’s not quite as bad as it sounds – the utter cruelty of the Dominators combined with some very amusing performances from Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines give the story a bit a life, but at the end of the day it is hardly classic Doctor Who. The story’s greatest triumph (except maybe the Doctor using the sonic screwdriver as a flamethrower!) is the writers having Jamie save the day, only to be ridiculed by his disbelieving companions!
“Jamie! It’s a brilliant plan! I just can’t see how you could have come up with it!”
After five episodes, “The Dominators” mercifully ends on a surprisingly effective cliff-hanger; a volcanic eruption on the island engulfing the TARDIS, leading directly into a much, much better Doctor Who serial…
Based on memories of it, I was expecting to write a scathing critique of ‘The Dominators’, but to my surprise, I actually found quite a lot to like about it. It is by no means a classic, and it is possible that part of my newfound enjoyment of it stems form watching the series in order, since this is the first complete surviving story since ‘The Tomb of Cybermen’; nevertheless it isn’t as bad as its reputation suggests.
First of all, I’ll address the considerable shortcomings of ‘The Dominators’. The main message of the story seems to be that it is often necessary to fight for what one believes in and indeed to survive in the face of enemy aggression; thus, we are presented with a race utterly opposed to aggression of all kinds, who suddenly find themselves under threat from a utterly implacable enemy that is determined to destroy them and their only hope of survival is to alter their pacifist stance and fight. To anyone who has seen ‘The Mutants’, this might sound familiar, but there are essential differences; the Thals were sufficiently well characterised that it was possible to care about their fate, and they were eventually persuaded of the need to fight back against the Daleks by Ian. The Dulcians on the other hand are the single most tedious alien race yet seen in Doctor Who, even taking into account the Xerons. With the exception of Cully, who I’ll come back to, they are atrociously characterised and indeed acted, especially Kando and Teel. Balan’s apparent refusal to accept that the Dominators won’t just go away and leave them alone makes him seem, frankly, feeble-minded and at best stupid. The council are even worse, the absolute low point being Tensa’s pompous insistence that Rago, an obviously threatening psychopath equipped with a bizarre looking but extremely dangerous robot, addresses Senex in a respectful manner; frankly, I welcomed his death with a kind of twisted glee, hoping that it would incite the Dulcians to action, despite having seen ‘The Dominators’ before and knowing that, in fact, they just end up concluding that they’ll have to let the Dominators blow up their planet. The Thals’ initial stoic refusal to fight in the face of over-whelming common sense seemed somehow noble thanks to decent scripting, but the Dulcians just seen dimwitted. Part of the problem is the way that the council members are betrayed as pompous windbags, continuously bickering amongst themselves with a kind of relaxed smugness, which gives the probably unintentional message to the viewer that pacifism leads to bureaucracy; this is possibly true, but it hardly seems to be the point. The one exception to the Dulcian rule is Cully, who is well acted and well scripted, except for the fact that Haisman and Lincoln muddy the waters by also seemingly trying to crowbar in a half-arsed message about crying wolf. Which in the long run is pointless, since when the council is convinced that he is telling the truth, they still don’t do anything about it anyway.
Production wise, the Dulcians continue to suffer. The Island of Death is clearly meant to look like a quarry, so I can forgive it, but the council chamber set is almost terminally uninteresting, which is appropriate but only adds to the overall tedium. The costumes worn by the Dulcians need to be seen to be believed and don’t help matters; they look utterly absurd and not in an interesting Thal trousers sort of way, but in a quick-sewing-job-with-some-spare-curtains kind of way. Poor Wendy Padbury ends up looking like an overgrown schoolgirl whose mother couldn’t afford a uniform for her and had to make one for her herself, whilst struggling with arthritis and poor vision. The model work is also crap, most notably the B-movie style travel capsules, Cully’s beehive-shaped hovercraft, and the Dominators’ spaceship. Consequently, much of ‘The Dominators’ is dull to look at, and this coupled with the fact that any scene featuring just Dulcians (Cully aside) feels padded regardless of its length, does not make a recipe for success.
In spite of all this monotony however, there is much to enjoy in ‘The Dominators’. Some of the design work is quite good; the hexagonal block design of the weapons museum is rather effective, and the survey unit model also works well. The interior of the Dominators’ ship is suitably futuristic, and there are some very impressive explosions throughout. Cast wise, the regulars really shine here, showcasing the new TARDIS crew very well. Troughton was reputedly bored with the recurring base-under-siege plot prevalent in Season Five, and seems to relish the opportunity to do something different here. The highlight is episode two, when he pretends to be an idiot so that the Dominators underestimate him; uniquely, the villains here never actually realize who their principle enemy is, blaming the attacks on the Quarks on the Dulcians and of course Jamie. Troughton looks like he is enjoying himself throughout the story, and puts in one of his most frantic and enthusiastic performances to date. He also conveys well the fact that the Doctor is forced to think on his feet from the moment he meets the Dominators, since he dare not admit that he has been feigning stupidity; his claim that the “clever ones” built the laser gun seems very desperate, but pays off to the Doctor’s obvious relief. He is also frantic with nervousness in the final episode, as the Dulcians and Zoe try to bore a tunnel from the atomic shelter to the Dominator’s central bore to intercept the explosive device and thus save Dulkis. His cheerful and carefree dismantling of the capsule’s controls whilst in mid-flight is another highlight, as is the final scene, when he wears a satisfied smile on his face as the Dominator spaceship blows up, only to be brought up short as he realises that he is in the path of a lava flow.
Jamie gets plenty to do here, thanks largely to the apathy of most of the Dulcians, and his grim satisfaction as he and Cully systematically hunt Quarks in episode five is superbly conveyed. He also provides the perfect contrast to the Dulcians, since he is a born fighter. Zoe too fares well here, living up to the promise she showed in her flawed debut story. Unlike Victoria, she is not easily intimidated, and never seems cowed by Toba’s bullying; she also gamely joins Cully in inciting rebellion and generally seems to be enjoying herself despite the dangers. In short, because of the vast failings of the Dulcian characters, the TARDIS crew as a whole is more crucial to the resolution of the plot than in many stories in Doctor Who up until this point.
The Quarks are probably a bone of contention, since I get the impression that fans either love them or hate them. I think they’re great, their bizarre and diminutive appearance and weird, childlike voices contrasting with their actually quite impressive destructive capabilities in the story to make them a much more novel and impressive threat than, say, the War Machines. I like the details of their design, for example their weird spiky heads and the fact that their arms fold neatly away. In this regard, they actually look like they have been designed with practicality in mind rather than to frighten children in the audience, and their size helps to avoid making them looking like men in funny costumes. The effects used to show the deaths of their victims also help to add to their menace, both the elaborate “burning” effect in episode one, and the smoking corpse effect used later. However, the real saving grace of ‘The Dominators’ is, for me, the eponymous aliens themselves.
Rago and Toba have been criticized by some fans for being nothing more than argumentative bullies, about whom we learn next to nothing, and this is in fact true. But they are so well acted, and so well scripted, that this doesn’t matter because they actually feel really dangerous. They are both psychotic, both giving the impression that they are about to erupt and kill someone nearby, which is in fact the case on several occasions. Toba, excellently acted by Kenneth Ives, is extremely sadistic, and is scary because he’ll kill for fun; he’s also in a sense stupid, since he endangers their mission by wasting the Quarks’ dwindling energy supplies by destroying things simply because he can, which makes him the focus of his superior’s rage on several occasions. The acting is the icing on the cake; every time anyone shows signs of rebellion, or attacks a Quark, his initial outrage gives way to an expression of murderous glee, as it gives him an excuse to kill somebody. When he supervises the clearance of the central drilling site to test the slaves to exhaustion, he explains what they must do with relish. In short, Ives’ performance drips with cruelty. Ronald Allen however, is even better as Rago. Rago is truly scary, whether he has an air of calm, detached ruthlessness, or suppressed fury as he deals with Toba’s wasteful need to fulfill his baser desires. Whilst he frequently orders Toba not to kill the TARDIS crew or the Dulcians, there is never any doubt that he is doing so out of compassion; he is focused entirely on achieving his mission and will not risk wasting energy on unnecessary slaughter. Allen’s facial acting is astounding, his eyes twitching manically, and an occasional cruel half-smile breaking his otherwise cold granite expression. Whilst he is less overtly sadistic than Toba, his dispassionate callousness has a clinical horror all its own, most effectively when he is examining Jamie like a sample on a microscope in episode two. His quiet, clipped tones, only rising to a shout in his final scene as he sees the seed device on board the spaceship and bellows “obey!” at Toba are equally menacing; there is no gloating when he kills Tensa; only a matter of fact certainty that he will kill other council members if he feels that is necessary. The louder Toba, less in control of his emotions, is never as intimidating as Rago; it seems initially that he might rebel and take over from his superior, but when he tries, it is quickly made clear who the more dangerous of the two is and he is rapidly cowed and humiliated. Oh, and their simply costumes are effective too. It is true that we learn little about the Dominators, but the fact that remains that whenever they are on screen, I at least do not find the story dull.
In short then, ‘The Dominators’ is a weak season opener, but not as bad as some fans would have you believe.