The Power of Kroll is one of those Doctor Who stories where people sometimes struggle to see past the special effects. They would have been a lot better, were it not for a couple of mistakes: only the bottom half of the film was exposed on the location work, resulting in a very clear dividing line between the filming and the model work, which was unfortunately a misunderstanding by the location crew of how to achieve the effect. The combined effect is jarring, despite the fact that the Kroll model work is actually very good. The other problem was the refinery model, which was damaged in transit and therefore could only be filmed in long shot, robbing the effect of a lot of its realism. So the effects shots themselves were not unwise decisions as such. They simply went wrong. When the big selling point of the story is “biggest monster ever”, that’s a shame. Doctor Who in the 20th Century is plagued with failed special effects, so it is not a particularly interesting way to make a judgement of any story, but when we look at the plot we run into another problem.
Veteran Doctor Who writer Robert Holmes was persuaded back to write this, and he clearly didn’t relish the task. As much as a talented writer like Holmes could ever do, he phoned in the scripts, unhappy with the brief. We are talking here about the writer of stories such as Spearhead from Space, The Time Warrior, The Ark in Space, The Deadly Assassin, The Talons of Weng-Chiang. This season he wrote the incredibly intelligent and imaginative The Ribos Operation. The last thing he wanted to do was bash out a Doctor Who by numbers script with colonists vs natives, a base under siege and a big monster, and it shows. This would be his last script for about six years, but he would be back.
But Robert Holmes was an interesting and clever writer even when he was feeling washed out. Of course he does something fascinating here. It’s Robert Holmes. What we have is a story about colonialism, which Doctor Who has of course done a few times before. Holmes creates a monster in the character of Thawn, a man who is willing to sell faulty weapons to the natives of a planet so he can pretend that they are dangerous and have an excuse to wipe them out. When there is financial gain on offer he doesn’t have a problem with genocide of the indigenous species. He is racist towards the “swampies”, and here we get to the clever bit because we rarely see this chain of events so explicitly: colonialism fueling blinkered capitalism of the worst kind, fueling casual racism.
The obvious approach to take to this kind of story is to simply show the natives as the good guy victims, and end the story with the colonists defeated and either killed or running away with their tails between their legs. Holmes instead shows us shades of grey in both the colonists and the swampies, with good and bad in both societies. In many ways they mirror each other, with both Ranquin and Thawn just wanting to kill everyone, but others on both sides providing a more moderate view. Crucially, both races are shown to be made up of individuals, rather than simply one race of oppressors and one race of victims. And the swampies don’t get it all their own way in the end. That would be too tidy. It would fit with how we expect a story like this to pan out, but it would be a fairy tale, removed from reality. And for once this is very far removed from a fairy tale. Doctor Who often does that, but not this time. RP
The view from across the pond:
The fifth segment of the Key to Time leads us to discovering The Power of Kroll. I’ve heard it is not a fan favorite, but I’m surprisingly fond of it. In this story, the Doctor goes up against Kroll, a sea creature of immense size. I can live with Kroll; I’m a fan of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and this creature is probably related. And I say “live with”, I don’t mean I could actually live with him. My house isn’t big enough but it would make for a really odd sitcom. “What do you want for dinner tonight? I’m feeling like seafood! Oh! Sorry…” But Kroll is a wonderful creature for the Doctor Who universe. Even the Swampie dressed up as a mini-Kroll comes off looking a bit like the Star Spawn creatures of Lovecraft’s nightmares. That’s not to say Kroll is problem-free. For instance, he’s so big but seems to hang out in swamps that are only a few meters deep. It’s like that damned submarine, the Nautilus, that came up in the “streets” of Venice in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; there’s no way that could fit. (Nor are there streets for a high speed car chase, but who’s counting?) Presumably Kroll is so far away that he’s still in deep waters, but his tentacles cover the distance. I accept. Who am I to stand in the way of Cthulhu’s cousin Kroll? (Or alliteration!)
The story is another of those Hatfields v. McCoy’s conflicts. The Swampies are defending their land and will even resort to awaking Cthulhu to make a point. The miners will hold their ground even if it brings about death because, by water-god, who are these swampies to tell them what to do? It’s an allegory worthy of classic Star Trek and the humans are going to be depicted as the aggressors. The human miners even keep a Swampie as a servant because, you know, that’s what you do: keep one of the “enemy” on hand to maybe spy on you, or poison you, just so you can rub it in their faces! Pride cometh before the fall, Thawn! It’s that imperialist thinking at its finest and it makes for some fun drama. At least Tom Baker gives us a great laugh when he’s handed a drink which he casually puts in his pocket; a scene I utterly adore. Is that a drink in your pocket or did you just have an elder moment? Ok, I digress!
A good deal of the story is reminiscent of King Kong with Romana being tied up and waiting for Kroll to come and take her away. As is the natives worshiping a bigger than normal creature. There are some iconic images, like the tentacle bursting out of the pipe in the refinery. There’s something deeply disturbing about that, like the idea of snakes in the plumbing, coming up in the loo, it’s wrong and worrisome. (And if that thought never hit you before, you’ll never lose it now! Sorry!) Of course, it begs the question, what was Kroll doing at that point? Cramming your arm in a random pipe doesn’t seem sensible but I’m not a squid. Not that I know of any, but that also happens to some of Lovecraft’s protagonists…
And that leads me to the big issues with the episode. The split screen is rough but I can turn a blind eye to it even though it looks like an XBOX game being played in split screen. The top screen is so clearly a separate image from the lower screen it’s almost funny, but I’m not rude enough to judge yesterday’s technology. We’ve become more advanced; let’s be grateful and appreciate what they did on a limited budget. They made it work and told a good story. What I do take issue with is the breaking glass with sound scene. OK, opera singers can periodically do it if they hit and sustain a high note and the glass is perhaps a bit flawed, but they don’t sound like a sonic screwdriver on helium! They sound, you know, operatic. Tom Baker’s “high pitch” makes one wonder if he swallowed a sonic screwdriver at some point and managed to activate it while tied up. And, maybe exhaled helium in the process. Why the production crew didn’t mask that or dub it somehow is anyone’s guess. It doesn’t seem like it would have been that hard to do. Unfortunately Mel Bush wasn’t traveling with this Doctor because she could have shattered the glass herself. And maybe Kroll too.
And speaking of Kroll, let’s find the next segment. It’s Kroll himself, or more accurately, the piece was swallowed by Kroll. But how big was the original Kroll to begin with? When the key is de-Kroll-ified, the land is littered with small fish, so was there ever a big sea monster? If not, what swallowed the key segment to begin with? Oh well, some things we will never know! And Poor Kroll; I’m guessing Cthulhu won’t be visiting that planet anytime soon!
Now is anyone else in the mood for seafood? ML