When I first became a fan of Doctor Who in the early 90s, the BBC had already released every complete Second Doctor story on VHS. This was just before the return of The Tomb of the Cybermen was announced. There were three orphaned episodes on The Troughton Years, but other than that the incomplete stories were unavailable. So the stories from that era I could watch were as follows:
- The Dominators
- The Mind Robber
- The Krotons
- The Seeds of Death
- The War Games
…and that was it, with no obvious prospect of ever getting any more complete stories. Despite that, Troughton was immediately my favourite. There was something about his Doctor that was enormous fun but with an edge to him. So I was determined to watch and rewatch his stories and enjoy them, even if I didn’t have the best of his era to experience. The one I struggled with at the time was The Krotons but, blissfully unaware of fan opinion, I adored The Dominators. The reason I mention this is to own up to the fact that my love of this story is probably skewed by the point at which I became a fan, because at that time The Dominators was actually the oldest available Troughton story, and seemed like something very special indeed.
Having said all that, I still think the story holds up. It’s not the greatest Doctor Who has to offer, but I would certainly place it above average, taking the Classic series as a whole. I am going to have a go at justifying why that is, but first of all I probably can’t ignore why so many fans place this amongst their least favourite stories.
The fashionable justification for not liking it nowadays is the intention of the writers to put on screen a nasty allegory about the stupidity of hippies and their pacifist ethos. And yes, that would have been unpleasant. The finished product failing to deliver that message is possibly the reason why Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln had their names taken off it. But condemning a story for the original ideas of writers who deliberately disassociated themselves with the end result seems odd. Television episodes are not the same thing as books. They are a collaboration, and the scripts are just the starting point. The vision of many creative talents go into creating what ends up on screen, most notably here the script editor Derrick Sherwin who did a major rewrite, but also the director and the actors etc.
So what the story actually has to say is far less unpleasant than all that, and very interesting. We still get pacifist characters, but they are all old men, stuck in their ways. In that respect they are in parallel to Rago, who is the old traditionalist trying to deal with a rebellious junior officer. Cully is a parallel character to Toba, and both of them are right. Cully is right to question his elders, who give him no respect. He is looking for adventure and breaks the rules, but the society he exists within crushes independence. In the face of a danger, he uses physical force, while the old men insist that it is “better to do nothing than do the wrong thing”. It’s a shame that he is slightly miscast, although he is clearly not one of the old senators. Arthur Cox was in his mid 30s at the time, and looks much older than the youthful rebel he is supposed to be. But the message is quite clear. In comparison, Toba is constantly questioning his superior, and ironically he is right as well. He is a sadistic monster, but if only Rago listened to him and just killed everyone in sight their plan would have worked.
So this is not so much about pacifism being wrong, but about the older generation failing to embrace change. That’s probably why the original writers didn’t like the end result. The message is pretty much the opposite to their intention. The hippies, if there are any, are the ones who get it right. If you don’t like a story to be anti-pacifist in any way then disliking this is understandable, but the context is key. Like The Daleks, pacifism itself is not shown as morally wrong, but there are shades of grey. In both stories, the context is that of situations in which the choice is to stand up and fight or to die. But note how The Dominators fails to give us the conclusion that an anti-pacifist story would give us: there is no scene where the Dulcians decide to change their whole ethos due to the events of this story. They don’t suddenly start constructing nuclear bombs and becoming warmongers. So in that respect it is a fable without a “moral of the story” at the end. The only message that comes across loud and clear is that holding ideals and rigidly sticking to them as traditions is all well and good, but it is also important to listen to new ideas. The Dominators is about where trampling all over youthful individualism can lead.
That’s not to say the message is especially well-constructed, and this is not a story free from problems. The story’s detractors point to the following line, and yes it is xenophobic:
Because they are aggressive, callous and unfeeling. Don’t expect them to act and think as you do. They’re alien, from another world.
But we are coming off the end of a run of stories that are all about fighting monsters who are irredeemably evil, most recently the Yeti and then the Cybermen (plus the Daleks as a repeat), so using this as a stick to beat The Dominators with seems out of proportion. All the other problems people have with this story are to do with opinions about the design work, which will tell you nothing about anything other than a lot of people prefer to watch robotic abominable snowmen or men in silver robot suits than children in robot suits and villains whose faces are visible. I can’t help but find that odd.
Firstly, the Dominators are two of the most compelling villains Doctor Who has to offer. We don’t just get two of the same villain. They have very different approaches to achieving their goals, and both are frightening. One is logical and ruthlessly calm, while the other is angry and impulsive, but both are deadly dangerous to all other life. As for the Quarks, they are a play on the creepiness of killers with child-like voices and the stature of a child. They look like they want a hug, with their arms held out, but those arms are useless for any purpose other than to kill. Pure horror movie stuff, but within the safe context of a Doctor Who story.
In fact this story subverts the childish and makes it deeply unsettling and scary. It’s not just the Quarks who are childish. Look at the test the Dominators set the Doctor: fitting shapes into holes. This is a toddler’s game, clearly not a test of adult intelligence. So the point is that the Dominators actually have the intelligence of infants. If they think shape sorting is a useful judge of adult intelligence they must do. Their behaviour is in line with that as well, particularly Toba’s. So we have physically powerful aliens with the intelligence and motivations of toddlers, going around the universe with their child robots, killing things.
Now if that isn’t a gloriously creepy idea for a Doctor Who story, I don’t know what is. RP
The view from across the pond:
The password is “destroy”.
Does anyone remember the game show Password? You have a secret word that you have to get your teammate to say. The voiceover on the TV show would whisper the phrase above but the game was played like this: I would say “Scary” to get you to say “Spider”. Or “Reverse polarity” to get you to say “neutron flow”. Or “Destroy” to get you to say “Toba, the Dominator”. Yes, Toba has a favorite word and it is without a doubt “Destroy!” In fact, he says “destroy” or some variation of the word 28 times through the story, sometimes back to back like, “Destroy! Destroy!” And even though I said there are no bad Patrick Troughton stories, two do drop low enough to be considered below average and should be destroyed. The Dominators is definitely one of them! But that’s what my kids and I got out of it after watching it together: it’s fun to randomly announce that you must destroy things. Playing Uno: DESTROY! Bedtime: DESTROY! Spider: DESTROY! (That last one goes without saying!)
Barring that, the pajamas/togas that everyone seems to be wearing doesn’t help the credibility of the story. Obviously, destroy them! Those shoulder pads would make an American football player run screaming for the hills! Why the Dominators wear them, I’ve no idea. They don’t make them look scary; they make them look idiotic! I imagine one of these guys jumping out of a plane: they’d look like a bullet heading for the ground! If there’s anything redeeming about the Dominators as villains, it’s that Rago really does look terrifying. I almost feel badly about saying this of Ronald Allen because he may be a delightful fellow in real life, but man he was scary looking! Sadly, Toba is a dolt who skipped class after Destroy It 101. The Quarks however are great looking robots, if you remember they are tools with great little voices. Their arms are a bit silly, but it’s a compact way of being able to put your tools away after a hard day’s work destroying things.
This was a 5 part story that would suffer little if someone destroyed a couple of parts of it. The crazy thing is, Patrick Troughton seemed to have liked this story quite a bit! I suspect that was because the cast was having great fun making it; not because story was any good. It’s really hard to tell because at its core, the idea of overthrowing dictators and dominators is great, but the execution is just weak and the villains don’t come off as that believable.
The whole affair can be summed up easily enough. It takes place on the planet Dulkis. Pronounced like “Dull Kiss”. (This does beat the name “Dido” which got a heinous misspelling in a Doctor Who book once!) This story is as dull as the planet’s name suggests and the best reason to watch it is to make a drinking game out of Toba’s use of the word “Destroy”. If you want, go all out and drink every time anyone says destroy, including the Quarks with their cute voices. Just make sure you have a designated driver or stay at the safe house you’re watching from, because you won’t be able to stand, let alone drive.
PS: I was trying to come close to Toba’s record… I think I got 20 Destroys in. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Mind Robber