Robert Holmes’ debut script for Doctor Who is an intriguing and claustrophobic story with some wonderful alien monsters – it’s a textbook Pat Troughton story! Homes’ story is centred around a group of crystalline-based life forms called Krotons who keep the native populace of Gonds in what the Doctor calls “…self-perpetuating slavery.” The Krotons live inside a machine where they rest in suspended animation, and each year the two most intelligent Gonds are taken into this machine where the Krotons feed off their mental energy and then kill them...
The Krotons themselves are wonderfully realised; their simple, building block like structure is very memorable, and their strangely shaped heads conjure up imagery of medieval knights. The only real flaw in their design are the rather feeble pincer-like hands and weapons which must have looked dated even in 1969 – very Flash Gordon! I particularly like how Holmes makes a big deal of the Krotons not being carbon-based creatures; it sets them up as being completely different to Humans (or Gonds), especially when they speak of “exhausting” as opposed to dying. Best of all though, one of them has a very distinctive brummie accent! It makes a wonderful (and quite comical) change from the screeching tones of the Daleks or the almost unintelligible Cybermen voices that were used in the last story.
However good the Krotons themselves are, the parts of “The Krotons” that I enjoy the most are the humorous scenes – particularly the ones between Zoe and the Doctor. Patrick Troughton and Wendy Padbury really steal the show! For example, there is a brilliant scene where Zoe takes the ‘Teaching Machine Test’ and gets the highest score ever. To prevent her from being taken into the Krotons’ machine alone, the Doctor decides that he too should take the test, but completely screws it up! There is a hilarious moment when Zoe looks shocked at how badly the Doctor is doing and says something like “I can’t understand it. The Doctor’s almost as clever as I am.” She says it so matter-of-factly it’s brilliant – there’s nothing like confidence!
“The Krotons” marks the first appearance of the HADS – the TARDIS’s “Hostile Action Displacement System” – which is a useful little device, but it’s dramatic impact in the story is rather wasted. The ‘destruction’ of the TARDIS would have made an excellent cliffhanger, but instead it is used in the middle of an episode and it is only a few seconds before the Doctor reveals that it is safe and sound.
There are some other elements in this story that I think work really well. The cliffhanger ending to episode 3 is very good indeed; the Doctor is caught under some heavy rocks falling from the roof and it transfers onto screen very well. God bless jabolite! Moreover, the Gonds are for the most part an impressive bunch of characters, though for some reason Philip Madoc’s rebellious Eelek reminds me of Anthony Stewart Head’s character in Big Finish’s “Excelis” trilogy when they are poles apart! I think it must be the voice…
“The Krotons” is a clever and amusing story from a man who goes on to become one of Doctor Who’s most respected writers. At just four episodes (the shortest story of the season), it is a refreshingly short and concise story that entertains throughout. It may not be the best of Robert Holmes’ prolific contributions to the series, but it is certainly a long way from his worst.
The first Robert Holmes script ever to be produced! What a glorious beginning, right? I mean, this is Robert Holmes. The best writer to ever contribute to the series. Surely this work is a masterpiece?!
It's not too shabby, really. By no means, can it rank with such classics as "Deadly Assassin" or "The Sunmakers". But it's a very ambitious start.
First off, we only see the slightest traits of what would become "inimitable Robert Holmes" storytelling. We don't have a double-act, but we do still have that colourful character as portrayed in Beta, the Gond Scientist. He's still not necessarilly one of those truly "larger than life" characters that Holmes became famous for. Like, say, Jago from "Talons Of Weng-Chiang" or even Shockey from "The Two Doctors" but there are hints of what Holmes will give us in the days to come with Beta. Especially the bit where he and Jamie are trying to make sulphuric acid.
We also have a very complete and well-thought-out society displayed in the Gonds (albeit, somewhat insular too!) and a very well-thought-out alien race in the creatures the story was named after. This, to me, is also very Robert Holmesian. He always put a lot of thought into his aliens and the societies they inhabit or the codes they live by. And this trademark remains consistent right from the beginning.
The other thing I really like about his writing in this particular piece is that its story arc is much more predominant than most 60s yarns. This is one story that breaks down into four episodes -rather than four episodes coming together to make a story. Does that make sense? I'm not sure. But if you look at the series as a whole during the 60s (or even most of Pertwee's stuff in the 70s), you'll notice that a lot of the time the episodes of a story almost depend on you not remembering too well what happened the previous week. The basic plot will get re-stated in every single episode of the story, but a lot of inconsistencies tend to pop up if you watch all the episodes together at once. And, each episode tends to try build itself up into its own little climax, rather than just letting the whole story come to a climax in the final episode. For the most part, this is how stories "flowed" until we got to the Tom Baker days.
But this is not so much the case with "The Krotons". If you miss an episode, you're pretty much in the dark. Because it's tightly plotted. And I like seeing that kind of storytelling popping up now and again in the 60s. Although there are a few other writers that did this back then, Holmes is still one of the first take the show away from that "30s adventure serial" style and give us more of a sense of storyline that just happens to break down into parts that have cliffhangers to them. And I'm glad to see that happening in even his earliest work.
And now, aspects of the storyline that seem to have not worked so well. We see the first hint of it in Episode One. As a bunch of action is taking place at the main entrance to the lair of the Krotons, a bunch more action is taking place at the back of the Learning Hall with the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe meeting the Gonds for the first time. Result? Too much happening at once. The story flow starts to get a bit "choppy" and awkward. Are we really expected to believe that the Gonds near the front don't notice that three totally foreign-looking strangers have entered their Learning Hall and have picked a fight? I don't think so. Either Holmes should have sent Vena off into the Kroton lair and then introduced the TARDIS crew to the Gonds, or he should have stopped all the action to have the Gonds meet the TARDIS crew and then gone back to sending Vena off. Both actions happening at once seemed a tad too contrived and ill-timed. And causes his writing style to look a little sloppy.
My other chief complaint would be the fact that he completely ignores Gond politics during Episode Two and then brings it back in Three. Yes, there were a lot of important things to discover in Two, but to completely ignore an important plot aspect for an entire episode and then suddenly re-introduce it out of nowhere also looks a tad sloppy. There should have been, at least, a few brief cutaways to discuss Eelek's bid for power during the second part. Again, another bit of writing that just doesn't seem to work quite right.
So, we've gotten the most important aspect of this story out of the way: the writing. Now, let's talk a bit about production. "The Krotons", even if it has a fautly prop in the first scene, uses its budget quite well. Some nice model work, really. Not only with the Gond City, but how about that collapsing roof in Episode Three? Almost looked like a real ceiling coming down! And clever use of sets and effects persist throughout the production. Such as the bubbling tanks of dry ice with superimposed images of forming Krotons in them or those really cool dissapearing and/or melting walls. All very above-par for the usually "wobbly" stuff we see in 60s Who.
The regulars are at their best too. This is probably the best example still in existence of the eccentricity of Troughton's Doctor (especially when he gets upset over his favourite umbrella melting). Zoe is more clever than she is screamer in this story. And Jamie really does a great job with fending for himself through most of the story. As helpless as he should have been in the prescence of the Krotons, Holmes, instead, makes him very rescourceful. Especially as he stalls the Kroton by asking him questions whilst going for the gun at the same time. Great stuff.
Troughton's notorious desire to add comedy in this story is also well-executed. Most noteworthy is the silliness with Zoe as he tries to take the test in Episode Two and then their attempts to stall things at the end of the story as the Krotons melt.
However, as has been noted in other reviews I've read on this page, our Gonds, for the most part, are either pretty gosh-darned wooden or a little too over-the-top. To the point where some of the more solid acting that comes from good 'ole Philly Madoc tends to almost stick out like a sore thumb. And the Gonds, in general, come across as just a tad too uninteresting. We almost don't care that the Krotons have been manipulating them all this time because they just seem a bit ... well, dull! Whether this can be faulted to writing or direction is difficult to determine.
So, there are a few blatant flaws to this story, in both its writing and production. But, overall, it shows great promise for the new, up-and-coming Robert Holmes. And, even though one should really judge a story purely on its merits, knowing what is to come from this fantastically-talented writer makes this tale just a bit better than it is!
Stories written by Robert Holmes that aren't classics tend to provoke one of two reactions: either vitriolic criticism disproportionate to other stories of a similar quality (such as with The Power Of Kroll), or else people come up with an excuse as to why Holmes wasn't on form. The Krotons being his first story, most of its bad points can be excused there and then for many fans – although the fact that they have to be excused in the first place logically means that the story can't be that good. However, when taken on its own terms The Krotons isn't that bad and I don't really think it's fair that it's crushed under the weight of Holmes's later work. Also, as his first story, there's no doubting that for better or worse this is an important story for Doctor Who.
So a hatch gets stuck. Big deal. Why do people complain about this and not the wobbling ladder in Warrior's Gate? Because the goof occurs in the very first shot of the story, that's why not, and so there's no mitigation at this point in the way of quality elsewhere to offset it, so it gets inflated in the mind of the viewer into something more significant than it really is. Normally I try to avoid mentioning things that are criticised into the ground elsewhere, but I believe that the opening shot to this story has come under a lot of unjustified fire. However, the opening scene in general isn't actually that great. Opening scenes are rarely the programme's strongest feature, as the setting and basic core idea must be established without actually giving anything away; with this story (and many more) we get a variation on the portentous "you mustn't go in there – you know what will happen" that you'd expect to find getting a lot of coos from a pantomime audience.
Fortunately the regulars can be relied on to rock and roll, although since this is a Patrick Troughton episode it's debatable whether I needed to point that out. The Gond city is a good model, and the Doctor's comment about architecture being suited to low gravity is the kind of trademark tiny detail that gives Holmes's work so much depth and nuance. Unfortunately Zoe spends this episode being very stupid indeed ("There's a ramp, Doctor. And a door. Is it a wall?"), which is a shame as it lets the side down a bit. However, as I said, there's very little that Troughton can't make work. The death of the student is a nicely dramatic moment that moves the episode on from the opening's characteristic staginess.
The main set of the Gonds' learning hall looks decent as, like with a lot of black and white episodes, heavy contrast in lighting obscures the details and the depth making it look less confined and studioish. Now that the plot has been revealed a little bit more things are really starting to improve, and Philip Madoc puts in a brilliant performance like in all his subsequent appearances on the show.
The rescue of Vana is another dramatic scene, although Zoe's comment of "I think I can hear something!" as a loud buzzing rumbles across the landscape still places her IQ at sea level for the episode. I normally dismiss comments about the original series being sexist, but when companions chiefly characterised as genii are written to be so dim just to give the Doctor some foil I start to think they may have a point. The Doctor complaining about the loss of an umbrella is one of my favourite moments in the story (even at this stage Holmes was a handy man with a one-liner), and his protestation of "I'm not a doctor of medicine" is the first of many contradictions about the Doctor's academic status we see throughout the show; I like to think that the nature of the Doctor's degree is open to change depending on what he finds convenient.
I have to say though that some of the guest acting is over the top and portentous, especially the custodian of the learning hall, when compared against Troughton. Perhaps this is a reason for the story's poor reputation; I'm no statistician, but I note that stories notable for poor acting rarely feature in peoples' top ten lists.
The Doctor's darkly thoughtful assessment of "self-perpetuating slavery" is wonderfully dramatic and shows how well Troughton understood and keyed into the power of understatement as opposed to the manic we're-all-going-to-die acting of the guest stars. The Kroton voices are amazing, made all the better by us not being able to see where they are coming from at this stage. Unfortunately, next episode Patrick Tull's Cockney accent lets them down a bit (come to think of it, seeing them lets them down). Even in the self-consciously progressive 21st Century regional dialects haven't made their way into monsters, and they certainly don't sound very serious in the 1960s. It's unfair, there's no doubting, but can you imagine the reaction if the Empty Child was from Birmingham? It'd get laughed at, that's what would happen, and by the people who complain that the original series is too parochial. Coomin' ta find ya Moomay!
The snake-scanner-weapon-thingy is actually quite creepy, again because of the sense of the unknown (I just can't get enough of that), and it makes for the story's best cliffhanger. With part two coming along a bit more plot can be revealed, and the idea that the Krotons are only teaching the Gonds what they can't use to rebel against their oppressors is very 1984 when you think about it. There is a very well constructed scene at the beginning of the second episode, as Zoe uses the learning machine just as the Doctor discovers what's in the underhalls so that a sense of mystery is set up as the explanation of what's down there has to be broken off partway through.
The Doctor's line of "great jumping gobstoppers" is one that I would imagine gets very different reactions from viewers, either supporting or undermining my earlier comment about Holmes and one-liners depending on how much you want to see an episode written by Enid Blyton. Although I quite like the line it's not helped by the fact that this expression of surprise refers to a piddling little dinner gong – something that the Doctor himself remarks on.
The Doctor's test is one of the story's two main comic-relief scenes; normally for my sins I get a bit sniffy about this sort of thing but it has a witty charm (not to mention great acting) that puts it far ahead of the clever-clever approach adopted in episodes like The End Of The World. The idea that the machines plant emotions in the minds of the users to make them feel valued is a great one.
Using a chain to protect themselves from the Krotons' force field is a minor contrivance but helped by the brilliant shots of it breaking under the strain; also, the brain-scan sequence has to be one of Doctor Who's trippiest moments and I must confess I can't watch it without wanting to sing 'Tomorrow Never Knows' to myself. The Krotons' first appearance is also great (to the extent where their actual look is even more of a disappointment) with them slowly appearing in their tanks while the Doctor shows genuine concern. As I mentioned though, the Krotons look ridiculous (it's easy to see how the rumour that they were designed by a kid who won Blue Peter competition started – no disrespect to kids, but you know what I mean), and the cliffhanger to the second episode is distinctly average. It's more notable in the third episode than the second, but the Krotons seems to have gone in for some seriously natty '60s décor for the Dynatrope, with those black and white spirals on the monitor screens.
Selris's argument with Thara about attacking the Krotons is actually a very well related anti-war sentiment; when a fictional war is used it reduces war to an abstract concept meaning that ideas related to it don't date or become inappropriate with time to the extent that I think they will do in, for example, World War Three. The Krotons obsession with "procedure" makes them sound like Douglas Adams's Vogons, as a Kroton makes its way very slowly across the wasteland to the TARDIS. I have to say that the story has slowed down dramatically (it is an episode three; if I was to say that Holmes is usually quite good at them I'll be violating a point I made in my introduction about not judging the story by his future episodes, so I won't). By this stage, the "should we attack the Krotons / shouldn't we" argument is going on too long.
The HADS are a big contrivance, a bit like the pause control from The Android Invasion, which crops up once to get the TARDIS out of a tight spot and then is never seen again. However, "you can tell that the Captain is not at the helm" is another great line.
The chemistry scene is another comic relief scene although this one is based on slapstick rather than witticisms, but it still has a lot of inoffensive charm. This can be contrasted with Selris's death which seems slightly disturbing given that he's such a hapless character and that the mortality rate in this story is actually fairly low, at 33.3% not including the Krotons themselves. The Doctor and Zoe playing for time is another fun scene, and the shots of the Krotons and the Dynatrope dissolving look great.
All in all, The Krotons is a distinctly average story; average does not mean bad. Possibly the final word has to be that maybe, with far stronger stories like The Power Of The Daleks and The Web Of Fear missing from the archives, there is a certain amount of bitterness over what the BBC decided to keep.
I absolutely love ‘The Krotons’, but I’m not one hundred percent certain as to why. The design and production are mediocre at best; the Krotons themselves look great from the waist up, but when the camera moves back too far their silly rubber skirts are all too visible. The interior of the Dynatrope is rubbish, although the hexagonal doors in and out both look quite good, as do the sets of the Gonds’ buildings. The model work is dire; the Gonds’ village looks atrocious, and the Dynatrope model is passable but, as The Television Companion points out, the perspective shown of it in no way matches the sets and is impossible to see from where the characters who point at it in episode four are standing. Notoriously, the first shot is of a hatch refusing to open properly.
In spite of all these shortcomings, ‘The Krotons’ is hugely entertaining. The crystalline Krotons, with their Brummie accents, make for novel monsters, and seem rather alien in comparison with some of the series’ more humanoid monsters. This is not just because of their appearance, but also because their alien nature is emphasized by the by script; for example, they talk of exhausting rather than dying. These little details add up to an intriguing whole. In addition, they have a major weakness, exploited by the Doctor, in their dependence on their nutrient tank. They are also blind. Most Doctor Who monsters have an exploitable weakness, most notably the Cybermen and the Ice Warriors, but very rarely are they approached in such a matter-of-fact way, with the monsters in questions visibly compensating for them.
The Gonds are potentially as dull as the Dulcians and seem to consist entirely of one small village, raising the question of how sparsely populated the planet as a whole is. Nevertheless, they work far better than the Dulcians, thanks to Robert Holmes’ trademark gift for characterisation. Vana and the slightly wooden Selris both serve their purpose well enough, but stealing the show are Beta, Eelek, and Thara. As Thara, Gilbert Wynne manages to portray an angry young man whilst still managing to make the character likeable, in large part because he talks a great deal of sense and is quite right to be suspicious of the fate of the companions of the Krotons from the beginning. James Cairncross, in his second Doctor Who role (his first was in ‘The Reign of Terror’) is highly entertaining as the obstreperous scientist Beta who relishes the chance to play with acids (incidentally, having received a sulphuric acid burn myself in the past, I would strongly advise against sticking a finger into it to see if it is ready!). Most memorably, Phillip Madok in his first role in the series plays the odious Eelek to perfection, presenting a truly loathsome character.
The regulars do just as well out of the script. The ever-resourceful Jamie fends for himself against the Krotons whilst in the Dynatrope, and proves once again that whilst uneducated, he is not stupid, as he works out how to use the Doctor’s piece of mica to escape. For a change, Zoe gets to team up with the Doctor more than Jamie, resulting in some sparkling dialogue during the scenes with the learning machines. Troughton’s clowning here is, as usual, delightful and the entire scene is a hidden gem in the story. Even the TARDIS gets to show off a new trick, as the HADS make its sole appearance in the series.
In short, ‘The Krotons’ is just plain good fun. At a mere four episodes, it is also makes for a refreshing change amongst the longer stories surrounding it. Frankly, it simply manages to be more than the sum of its parts.