Defending The Krotons

If you ask Fraser Hines which of his stories he likes the least, he will say “The Krotons” (or “The Croutons,” as he likes to call it).  In the most recent Doctor Who Magazine poll, “The Krotons” ranked 207th out of the then 241 episodes, just above “Daleks in Manhattan.”  When I first saw “The Krotons,” however, I knew nothing about fandom’s (or Fraser Hines’) opinion of it. The episode that I watched was enjoyable and entertaining.  That’s why, even though it’s not perfect, I’ve decided to focus on the postives of the story.  Hopefully, I will inspire someone to reevaluate this underappreciated story.

Krotons

You have to admit they look cool from this angle…

I don’t understand the dislike of “The Krotons.”  Sometimes I wonder if part of the problem is that it is the first story written by Robert Holmes. Holmes went on to write some of Who‘s best stories; in the aforementioned Doctor Who Magazine poll, he has three stories in the top ten.  Perhaps that leads to higher expectations for “The Krotons?”  And, okay, maybe the design of the Krotons themselves is a bit of a let down.  True you can see the actors’ feet shuffling inside the costume when the Kroton has to walk, but its top half looks pretty cool.  While their arms seem rather useless, those spinning heads are quite something…

Basically, I find a lot to appreciate and enjoy in this story. One aspect that struck a chord with me was its emphasis on education.  Control of what the Gonds learned allowed the Krotons to control the entire population of Gonds on the planet.  While their goal was to create two more “high brains” so that they could pilot their ship and leave the planet, they didn’t want the Gonds getting too clever and thinking for themselves. The teaching machines presumably just taught the Gonds what they should know and didn’t encourage any curiosity or creativity (which seems as if it would be necessary in a high brain, so maybe that’s why the Krotons were still stuck after all those years). They were selective about what they taught the Gonds, in case any Gonds ever overcame their obedience conditioning and started breaking the laws the Krotons had given them.  The Krotons presumably taught them subjects such as mathematics and science, but omitted the areas that the Gonds could use against them, such as the study of chemistry.  This way they ensured that the Gonds would not have the necessary knowledge to defeat them if they ever tried to rise up against them. Control the education system and you can control the people.

While the focus on education is unique, the idea of the Doctor arriving on a planet to find one group dominating another is not.  While the previous story, “The Invasion” was a preview of the type of story to come, “The Krotons” is a new version of a classic format.  The second Doctor was in a similar situation (“The Macra Terror”) early in his tenure, but this plot is much more strongly associated with the Hartnell era.  The first Doctor has many stories in which the Doctor and his companions end up helping a group of rebels overthrow an oppressor (“The Space Museum,” “The Web Planet,” “The Savages”…). I didn’t feel that the second Doctor really fit into the format of “The Invasion,” but he is a perfect fit for the structure of “The Krotons.”

The first Doctor often begrudgingly helped others and was more of an authority figure. In his stories, circumstance or his companions generally push the Doctor into helping the rebels, or he ends up arguing with those in authority, trying to assert his own. While the situation is not unique, the completely different personality of the second Doctor makes a familiar format seem fresh. Unlike the first Doctor, the second Doctor actively wants to help people, but rarely wants to seem to be an authority figure.  Therefore, when the Doctor arrives on the scene, he doesn’t immediately take over; of course, that’s not to say that he doesn’t assert some influence over the Gonds. Remember, I said that the second Doctor doesn’t like to be seen as an authority figure; he still feels that he has to step in to deal with matters that others aren’t equipped to handle. In this case, he tries to show the Gonds that there is more to life than what the Krotons have taught them and to stop any further unnecessary deaths.  Continuing the theme of education, however, he acts more as a teacher, opening their eyes to new ideas and showing them that they can choose a different way of life.

Doctor, Jamie, Zoe-Krotons

The Doctor, Zoe, and Jamie arrive on a strange planet…and the Doctor remembers his umbrella because twin suns can make a place quite hot.

The final episode demonstrates the point at which the Doctor becomes “hands off.”  Throughout the preceding episodes, we have witnessed a power struggle between Selris, the older council leader, and Eelek, a younger man who clearly hopes to use the situation to seize power.  Selris sacrifices himself in the final episode, defying the Krotons to give the Doctor the sulfuric acid he needs, leaving the position of leader open.  Previously, the people have been following Eelek, but Selris’ son is clearly the better (and rightful) leader.  The Doctor, however, slips away before this conflict is resolved and offers no suggestion as to how this conflict should be resolved. He has helped the Gonds free themselves of their Kroton overloads, but he has no interest in sticking around to help them set up a society without the laws of the Krotons.  He has reason to believe that they are on the correct path, however. The Gonds figured out how to use sulfuric acid to dissolve the Krotons’ ship, showing that they are learning how to problem solve and think for themselves.  The ending is optimistic, even if we don’t see the ultimate resolution. The Gonds are free to learn, which will help them handle whatever problems may emerge.

This brings me to something else I like about this story: its use of science.  Unlike “The Invasion” in which all problems were handled with missiles, bombs, and guns, the Krotons are defeated with science.  The Doctor figures out that they are made of a crystalline substance which sulfuric acid dissolves.  Therefore, the Gonds and the Doctor use sulfuric acid to destroy the Krotons and their ships.  It’s quite satisfying to watch the Doctor outsmart the Krotons, who obviously have a high opinion of their own intelligence.

Another aspect of the story that Holmes gets right is that he makes good use of all the regular cast members.  Even though the Doctor and Zoe are more in the fore for this story, Holmes does a good job of finding ways to keep Jamie involved in the action.  For instance, when the Krotons are hunting down the Doctor and Zoe, much of the suspense comes from Jamie watching helplessly as the Krotons close in on his friends.

Holmes also manages to be true to the characters as we’ve seen them up to this point.    We see Jamie as impulsive, but he’s brave and loyal and has a lot of heart.  He never thinks twice about his own safety; his only concern is making sure that his friends are okay.   Holmes emphasizes Zoe’s intelligence throughout, but we also see her cleverness and her bravery. And as for the Doctor, well, I’ve already discussed his characterization so I won’t repeat myself here.

Perhaps my favorite parts of the story are the interactions between the Doctor and Zoe. I don’t feel like most writers knew what to do with Zoe.  Her characterization in the series is a bit inconsistent; one minute she’s taking down the Karkus and out thinking computers, the next she’s hysterical and screaming.  Holmes’ Zoe, however, is my favorite, and I love the relationship he creates between her and the Doctor.  They are both so intelligent that the Doctor doesn’t even always need to explain his plan to Zoe; she just picks up on it and plays along, as she does in the final episode. Instead of the Doctor putting her down for her intelligence (as he, unfortunately, has done in the past), there is a good-natured competition between them.  Wendy Padbury and Patrick Troughton play the scene with the teaching machines perfectly, with Zoe not being able to resist trying the machine to show off her intelligence, the Doctor getting nervous and making mistakes when taking the test, and finally Zoe needing to point out that the Doctor only scored higher than she did because he answered more questions.  The two have rarely had the opportunity for a double act, and this story shows how good their chemistry could be.

On a more random note, this episode also introduces the H.A.D.S. or hostile action displacement system, which has popped up again from time to time in the new series, most recently in “The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar.”  As an extra bonus, Patrick Troughton uses the phrase “oh my giddy aunt” in the third episode, so what more could you want?

Kroton Teaching Machine

The Doctor uses the Krotons’ teaching machine, while Zoe despairs of him getting the answers right.

While “The Krotons” is not Robert Holmes’ best story, it’s much better than its reputation.  It’s a great fit for the Doctor and both of his companions.  I actually enjoy it more than the previous, much more highly regarded story, “The Invasion.”  The second Doctor is best when he’s playing the fool, not working with a military organization. I was quite surprised at Frazer Hines’ dislike of this story, since I think it’s a pretty good story for Jamie overall.  Perhaps one of the reasons that Frazer Hines doesn’t like this story is because the Krotons regularly insult Jamie’s intelligence.  They refer to him as a “low brain” while the Doctor and Zoe are “high brains.”  I’m actually not sure that there’s another story where Jamie is so regularly insulted.  Alternatively, maybe it really is just because of the rather unfortunately designed bottom half of the Krotons…

 

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Cybermen in London: The Invasion

Following on the heels of the wildly inventive “The Mind Robber,” “The Invasion” is a more typical Doctor Who story.  It is the fifth appearance of the Cybermen on the show and shares some similarities with their previous stories.  Despite its familiar feel to the modern viewer, however, it was in many ways a departure from the stories up to this point.  It features the first appearance of U.N.I.T. headed by Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart, who would become an integral part of the show the next season.  It builds on what was started in “The Web of Fear” and becomes the first real attempt at what would become the format for much of the Pertwee era.  While I can’t say that they nailed the format out of the gate, the episode is still enjoyable.

Cybermen St. Paul's

The iconic image of the Cybermen

Much of what works in this story is familiar.  Several ideas are “borrowed” from the best Cyberman story, “The Tomb of the Cybermen.” I am a fan of the 60’s Cybermen, but I feel that they work best as an antagonist when the story uses them sparingly.  In this era in particular, they are often difficult to understand, so the less dialogue they have, the better. For this to work, the story needs another antagonist who is working with the Cybermen.  Just as “Tomb of the Cybermen” had Eric Klieg, “The Invasion” has Tobias Vaughn.

Much like Klieg, who was trying to awaken the Cybermen to help his Brotherhood of Logicians seize power, Tobias Vaughn wants to use the Cybermen for his own purposes: world domination.  Similarly, Vaughn both Vaughn and Klieg believed that they could manipulate and use the Cybermen.

Vaughn is already a successful man; he is the head of International Electromatics, a company that has a monopoly on the electronics business. What he wants, though, is to rule the world, and he thinks the Cybermen are the tools he needs to do so. The megalomaniacal Vaughn is reminiscent of the James Bond villains of the time; it might have been interesting to see him facing off against the James Bond of Doctors, the third Doctor.  Still, he’s a fun villain to have, regardless of which Doctor he encounters.

Vaughn colludes with the Cybermen, using his electronics to help them invade the earth. Of course, since Vaughn is a power-hungry egomaniac, he has no plans to obey the Cybermen once they successfully invade. Therefore, he is simultaneously kidnapping scientists and forcing them to come up with a way for him to subjugate or destroy the Cybermen.

His role throughout most of the story is to bark orders at the Cyber Controller and his evil henchman, Packer (because every megalomaniacal villain needs a henchman he can order about and yell at when things go wrong).  Rather than a flamboyant James Bond henchman, Packer is pretty much your basic, sensibly attired henchman, trying his best to satisfy Vaughn.   Vaughn is the star of the show here, and Kevin Stoney knows that.  He embraces the over-the-top villain and gives a memorable performance, if not a nuanced one.  Vaughn always thinks that he is the smartest man in the room and expects everyone to obey his orders.  Therefore, Vaughn basically displays two emotions throughout the story: smug condescension and rage.  Despite this, he remains one of the more unforgettable human antagonists the Doctor has ever faced.

Vaughn and Packer

Vaughn in one of his condescending moments, with Packer.

The other notable new characters in this story are Professor Watkins and his niece, Isobel.  They are clearly fulfilling the role of Professor Travers and his daughter Ann from “The Web of Fear” (they are even living in the same house).  Professor Watkins is just there to develop his machine, and is less memorable than Jack Watlings’ Professor Travers.  Isobel receives more development and drives the story a bit more.  Isobel is very much the image of the perfect 60’s girl: former model, fashion conscious, fun-loving, and slightly feminist.  I say slightly because she speaks about feminism, but it seems to be more lip service than actual belief.  True, she takes the Brigadier to task for being anti-feminist when he tells her that his men will go take the photo that she wants to take, but her going down to the sewers to get pictures feels more like a little girl in a fit of pique then a woman doing her job.  Unlike Ann Travers, who actually was the equal to the men in terms of scientific knowledge, Isobel feels more frivolous. However, this frivolousness is key to understanding her real narrative purpose, which emerges in her interactions with Zoe (which I’ll get to in a moment).

The story is a good showcase for the new characters introduced.  U.N.I.T. has plenty of screen-time and, indeed, controls most of the action.  Even at this early stage, the personality of the Brigadier comes through; he’s an excellent leader who remains practical and unflappable, even in extraordinary circumstances. Even before the Doctor arrives, U.N.I.T. has targeted the right person and is on their way to uncovering the truth.

The problem with this story is that this new format does not fit the regulars particularly well.  Part of this is because both Wendy Padbury and Frazer Hines got their vacations during this story, so both Zoe and Jamie disappear for an episode.  In particular, Jamie has little to do but go along into some dangerous situations.  Even after just watching it, I’m hard pressed to say exactly what Jamie did.

Zoe, however, fares better.  The first time I saw this story, I wondered why she was so silly in the beginning: posing for pictures, running around in that feather boa…  Once I had seen “The Wheel in Space” though, her behavior here made sense.  Zoe’s journey is to learn how to feel things and have fun; she wants to be more than just a human computer.  Perhaps because Derrick Sherwin was the script editor, he was the only writer to actually make use of that journey in a story.  Isobel is probably the first “regular” girl with whom Zoe has ever spent time. Therefore, it makes sense that she would enjoy some time to be silly.  Additionally, she is spending most of her time with two men, so it might be nice for her to have a bit of “girl time.”    

Zoe and Isobel

Zoe and Isobel laugh maniacally after Zoe destroys the computer

Zoe’s portrayal is not all silliness, however.  She also shows off her incredible logical, mathematical brain.  She is able to outsmart a computer, and her biggest moment comes at the end of episode 7.  When the roomful of men at the military base are not sure how to take out all the Cybermen’s transport ships, Zoe steps up.  To the Brigadier’s credit, he tells the men to listen to this young girl.  She does the complex calculations in her head in minutes and figures out how to launch the missiles so that they will take out all of the ships.

While Zoe manages to find a role in this story, the Doctor does not fit comfortably into this story.  As you will know if you’ve read anything else I’ve written about the Troughton era, I love Patrick Troughton; I think he manages to make just about any moment that he is on the screen entertaining, which is still true here.  He plays well off Vaughn, not letting Kevin Stoney’s scenery chewing upstage him.  Indeed, it is in these moments that the Doctor really shines because it is Troughton’s Doctor in his traditional role: the underestimated opponent to Vaughn’s overconfident villain.

He is less comfortable in his role with U.N.I.T.  It feels a bit strange to see the Second Doctor in charge of a military force.  It’s also unusual to have someone in the Brigadier who, having encountered him before, takes him seriously right from the start.  While this is exactly the relationship Pertwee’s Doctor would have with U.N.I.T., it’s a bit more of an uneasy fit on Troughton’s Doctor.  His clowning is not well suited to having a military force behind it. It requires a much more serious take on the material, which again is more in line with Pertwee’s take on the Doctor rather than Troughton’s.  Troughton does find some ways to inject humor into the proceedings, such as his rather comical fleeing from the firing Cybermen in the final episode, followed by his “reluctant” posing for Isobel’s photos.  Still, the story is a bit short on comedy, which is where Troughton really shines.

The fact that this story was particularly ill suited to the second Doctor’s era really emerges in the final episode.  The story sidelines the Doctor and his companions as U.N.I.T. takes over.  It feels as if the Doctor, Zoe, and Jamie could have gotten into their invisible TARDIS at the end of episode 7 and things would have played out in almost exactly the same way.

The Doctor and Vaughn

The Doctor and Vaughn face off

Despite my feeling that “The Invasion” is better suited to the Pertwee era than the Troughton, it is still enjoyable. I know Derrick Sherwin padded the story to stretch it out, yet it never drags. At the point of its recording, you could count the number of episodes set in the modern day on one hand. The Doctor spent most of this time abroad in either space or time. An episode set in then contemporary London was unusual; it is fun to see the Doctor and his companions in recognizable surroundings (U.N.I.T. dating controversy aside). It proves that an earthbound Doctor in the modern age could still be interesting to watch.  And, who knows, maybe this episode sets up the Pertwee era in ways we haven’t yet discovered.  Could Isobel have slipped the Doctor some more fashionable clothes?  Her fashion sense seems like it would compliment that of a certain dandy…