Season Six of Doctor Who is a series of contrasts. There are four stories that most people love, and three that most people hate. Apparently nothing was just average this year. Everything was either a glorious success or a dismal failure. This is the second of the three stories that most fans place in the latter category, and I think that is probably for similar reasons to the other two. People don’t like the villains much, and it’s not a base-under-siege. There are other stories that also fall into that category, but they have big ideas, whereas this is much more a traditional run-of-the-mill story about liberating the oppressed.
In fact, this is the opposite approach to a base-under-siege. The Doctor and his companions find a civilisation that has been conquered a long time ago. It is not about thwarting an invasion, because they have missed the boat on that. Instead, they have to start a revolution. I can understand why people are unimpressed by the Krotons, who are not exactly the most successful alien designs from this era, but they do have a quirkiness that typifies several of the monsters from Season Six, such as the Quarks and the clockwork toy robots. They actually look pretty good from the waist up, although I am aware that is damning with faint praise.
But the special effects are always the least interesting thing to talk about when it comes to a Doctor Who story. Let’s look at the plot instead. This is Robert Holmes’s first contribution to Doctor Who and he hits it out of the park straight away. I don’t subscribe to the hero-worship of Holmes, and his later work in particular I find terribly cynical and disappointing, but for a first attempt he builds The Krotons amazingly well around a subtle but strong message: there are different kinds of intelligence.
This is most evident with the Doctor and his companions, but before we get to that let’s have a quick look at the Gonds. They only warrant a quick look because they are generally disappointing characters, but it is just worth recognising that most stories would take a similar approach to the one we saw at the beginning of the season with The Dominators. Faced with a problem to deal with, most writers have some characters clearly in the right and some characters in the wrong. So in The Dominators we had the old senators who wanted to do nothing, while Cully was representing the younger generation with new ideas who wanted to break the rules of his society and fight the monsters. Here we have similar ideas, but instead of the black and white approach there are instead characters who disagree while sharing the same goal. Only their preferred methods differ:
BETA: You’ll be pleased to know he’s taken your place as leader of the council.
SELRIS: To lead an attack on the Krotons?
EELEK: That is my plan.
SELRIS: I forbid it!
EELEK: You can’t forbid anything. Order the slings and fireballs to be prepared. They’ve heard enough of your plans.
BETA: Slings and fireballs will never reach the Krotons while they’re still in that machine.
SELRIS: Exactly, Beta, and I have a plan to draw them out.
So we don’t have one or two stupid fools and one or two heroes. Instead we have shades of grey. But more importantly, look what Holmes does with the Doctor and his companions. Straight away, he subverts the usual nonsense of the men going off to do all the dangerous stuff while the female companion is protected and left behind:
DOCTOR: Zoe and I want to have a look round, don’t we, Zoe?
ZOE: Oh, do we?
DOCTOR: Yes, that’s right. Jamie, hold out your hand, will you?
JAMIE: What for?
DOCTOR: These pills I got from Beta.
JAMIE: There’s nothing wrong with me.
DOCTOR: No, no. They’re for Vana. I want you to stay and look after her.
So this is something new, and shows the benefit of an intelligent female companion. The Doctor deploys his team not according to gender, but according to their skills, and he wants Zoe with him… because she’s the brainy one. It’s unspoken, but it’s clear what’s happening. Then, having subverted the usual gender cliché we get in this kind of drama, Holmes goes a step further, and subverts all our assumptions about intelligence as well.
If asked to place the Doctor and his companions in order of intelligence, most people would probably assume something like this:
- The brilliant, amazing, alien genius time traveller.
- The astrophysicist.
And yet look what happens straight away. Zoe is aware that the teaching machines are potentially dangerous. She has seen what comes out from the other side of the Dynotrope and it was a dead body, so the aliens controlling those machines are dangerous. We already had this conversation:
ZOE: Yes. There are tremendous gaps in their knowledge. Well, they only seem to know what the machines teach them.
DOCTOR: Yes. And the machines are programmed by the Krotons, so the gaps in their knowledge may be significant.
…and then the Doctor tells Zoe to stay where she is. Now, we know that all companions ignore that kind of instruction, but look what happens when Zoe finds the teaching machines. She just goes ahead and tries one out, not even waiting for the Doctor to arrive. Let’s just say this doesn’t demonstrate the greatest of common sense. Then the Doctor finds her and gives into the temptation to investigate as well, and this happens:
DOCTOR: All right, there’s no need to shout! Now go away and don’t fuss me. No, come back. What’s this? It’s all right, I know. Right, fire away. I’m ready.
ZOE: Oh. Doctor, you’ve got it all wrong.
DOCTOR: Oh dear, I’ve been working in square roots. Can I have that again, please?
ZOE: Well they don’t give you a second shot.
This is played for laughs and it’s the standout scene of the whole story, but the point is that Zoe is quite clearly better at this kind of thing than the Doctor. When it comes to a straight-up intelligence test, she aces it on her first attempt. The Doctor gets there as well, but this is clearly Zoe’s speciality. But then in a couple of years we are going to be introduced to the Doctor’s old childhood friend, and we will find out that the Master did better than the Doctor at the Academy. The same thing will happen again with Romana. So the Doctor is almost a high-school dropout. He is utterly brilliant, but his intelligence is subtly different to that which resides in the world of academia.
And then Jamie, left behind to be a nurse because the Doctor presumably thinks Zoe will be more useful to him, gets into the Dynotrope as well. He uses a crowbar.
Let us take this one. Its mind will have the capacity we need.
The Krotons don’t even need Jamie to pass their tests on the teaching machines, because they know straight away that he has intelligence. They recognise different kinds of intelligence and here is something they have not seen before: somebody who does his own thing and just picks up a crowbar. A practical intelligence. A man who thinks for himself. Inside the Dynotrope, Jamie finds a way to attack the Krotons. When that is unsuccessful he pretends to be unconscious, waits for his moment, sneaks off, and then finds a way to get through a locked door.
In many ways Jamie is the hero of this story. Although the Doctor is the one who uses scientific knowledge, telling Jamie to make acid, it is Jamie who figures out what to do with it when the Doctor and Zoe get captured, finding a way to save them. He refuses to abandon his friends to save his own life:
Aye, well, I’m staying. Somehow I’m going to get the Doctor and Zoe out of there.
…and he does get them out of there, because he’s brilliant. So think about that earlier list again, and we could find a clear justification for coming up with this instead:
- The Doctor
That would work, but it still wouldn’t be quite right. Because what this story teaches us is that there is no hierarchy of intelligence. There is a whole spectrum of clever, which includes resourcefulness and common sense. The kind of intelligence that leads Jamie to pick up a crowbar is no less valid that the kind of intelligence that Zoe and the Doctor use to get the highest ever scores on the teaching machines.
That’s why I love The Krotons. For its intelligence. RP
The view from across the pond:
During my write up for The Dominators I mentioned there are two weak Troughton stories. The second to join that ignominious group with The Dominators is The Krotons. But why? For one, I think it feels too similar to The Dominators. The setting is just as bleak and the enemies don’t look like threats. In fact, the upper half of the Krotons looks fine, as they are not humanoid, but the lower half is hidden by a skirt and it’s such a small lower half that it just looks like the production team lost steam in the middle of the design process. Their spinning heads work in the same way we’d expect from Bugs Bunny – confuse them and their heads spin around in circles. Their arms don’t seem like they could do a great deal of damage and would be easily avoided. Overall, not much memorable here!
But I can’t say it’s a bad story, just a stale one. It certainly gives us something new with the TARDIS’s Hostile Action Displacement System, or HADS for short. That’s a clever concept that allows the TARDIS to move on its own when in danger and relocate somewhere less dangerous. The question is: why didn’t it exist just a couple of stories earlier when the TARDIS was engulfed in lava? Is the Kroton weapon more dangerous than liquid hot magma? Or did the Doctor only think to activate HADS since that event? Another reason the story isn’t as bad as I’m making it out to be is that it is a 4-parter. 5 and up tend to get top heavy and collapse. The Krotons, at 4 parts, maintains a decent pace. And we learn a great new expression: great jumping gobstoppers! Oh, heck yeah, I use it! Listen, if we can’t learn new things from our shows, why watch, right? But seriously, this story also shows the Doctor and Zoe as proper scientists. That’s great because the Doctor is a hero of intellect. It beats showing him working on making a gun, right? And that’s at the heart of why he’s wanted by the Krotons – he’s a mental powerhouse.
In retrospect, I might be inclined to blame the weakness on having seen The Time Machine which deals with the slave caste, the Eloi, and their “masters”, the Morlocks. There, the Eloi are harvested as food by the Morlocks. In this, the Krotons harvest the mental energies of the Gond people, draining their best and brightest of mental energy killing them in the process. While I love that the Doctor and Zoe are painted as hyper-intelligent, it feels a little stale. We’ve done this idea already. And that makes it fairly forgettable. Either that, or the Krotons drained my mental energy and I just can’t remember what there was to like about this one!
So we’ve gotten the two weakest of Troughton’s era out of the way. And even they had something to offer. I can now say with confidence: “Great jumping gobstoppers, DESTROY!” ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Seeds of Death