Just Act Stupid: The Dominators

“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance.  In Switzerland they had brotherly love-they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.”  The preceding quote ran through my head as I watched “The Dominators” as I realized that this serial is essentially arguing the same point as Harry Lime in The Third Man, just far less successfully.  The second Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe encounter a civilization that is living through an era of peace and has stagnated.  Which is unfortunate, because the pacifists are ill-prepared for their encounter with the aggressive Dominators.

The Doctor and Jamie play dumb with Rago.

The Doctor and Jamie play dumb with Rago.

The sixth season of Doctor Who starts out with an episode the familiar season five template; this is a planet under siege story, instead of a base under siege story.  Two Dominators land on the planet Dulkis, looking to find fuel for their ship.  Dulkis is a peaceful planet whose occupants, the Dulcians, have long ago given up any kind of fighting or war.  The Doctor, Jamie, Zoe arrive to find the planet in peril.  The Dominators want to use the planet to create the fuel they need and will ultimately kill or enslave the natives.  The problem is that the peaceful Dulcians cannot fight to save themselves and their planet.  The TARDIS crew, along with Cully, the troublemaking son of the Director of Dulkis, must find a way to save the planet before it’s too late.

I must confess that I had a review all written and ready to go about this episode and my overall opinion on this serial was that it was dull and difficult to watch.  However, I wrote it before I went back and watched all of the reconstructed episodes, so I decided to re-watch the episode.   Upon my re-watch, an unexpected thing happened; I found myself enjoying the episode. Don’t desert me yet, though, I’m not going to argue that this is a great serial, just not as bad as it’s reputation.  This new attitude was mainly due to a shift in my opinion about one aspect of the story, the Dominators themselves, but I’ll get to that later.

Looking at the way the different characters function in the story will help illustrate my point.   The main reason the story has a bad reputation is because of the Dulcians.  Dulcians are aptly named; except for Cully, they are incredibly dull.  Cully claims that they have no curiosity as a people, but they also seem to have very few emotions as well.  Even when confronted with a possible danger, the council does nothing but get into a debate about the issue on an intellectual level.  They are not a stupid people; in fact they seem to value intelligence.  They also have had to respond to natural disasters, like volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, so they have not lead a completely sheltered existence. So why do they have to be so passive?  They are pacifists, but pacifists don’t have to be wimps.  There are ways of resisting that don’t require the people to take up arms.  The concept could have been an interesting one, it was just poorly executed.  There were times when the Ducians’ passIvity was so maddening that I wasn’t sure they really deserved the Doctor’s help.

Zoe and Cully show off the latest in Dulcian fashion.

Zoe and Cully show off the latest in Dulcian fashion: bathing suits with sheer skirts for the women and togas with mantles for the men.

Small robots called Quarks help the Dominators in their domination.  These Quarks are another flaw in this story because they just aren’t scary.  They can kill people by shooting them with some kind of energy or laser, and they can temporarily paralyze people.  Despite this, they seem cute, not terrifying.  Their voices are far from intimidating, as their high-pitched voice makes them sound like children.  They trundle along when they walk and seem incapable of chasing anyone at a high-speed. Their “arms” also seem fairly useless in most situations and it’s quite ridiculous the way that they flap them to recharge their power (it seems like it would use up power).  They are also very easily fooled and destroyed; at times they even seemed confused or panicked by attempts to destroy them.  For the second serial in a row, Jamie disarms a robot by throwing a sheet over it; the result is that the Quarks seem quite helpless.

In terms of the Doctor’s companions, the episode is a mixed bag.  It’s a pretty good episode for Jamie.  He is very involved in the action, running around and destroying Quarks with a glee that we don’t often see from Jamie.  He feels like he is fighting the redcoats back at home, so he is really in his element and allowed to operate quite autonomously from the Doctor for much of the episode.  Zoe, unfortunately, doesn’t fare as well.  It doesn’t feel like the writers knew what to do with her yet.  She has moments when she shines, like when she comes up with the plan to take out the Quarks that are guarding them or when she shows her that her knowledge of robots and spacecraft can rival the Doctor’s.  However, for much of the story she is in the background.  Given that she is someone who believed that logic would provide the answer to any problem (until she met the Doctor, that is), it seems like a missed opportunity to not have her interact more with the Dulcians who are coming from a position that isn’t completely dissimilar from hers.

On point strongly in the favor of this episode is the fact Troughton’s Doctor acts more like himself in this serial. The Doctor is not sidelined in this story. He is coming up with plans on the fly and putting them into action.  He is also up to his old tricks, playing the fool so his enemy will underestimate him.  He very explicitly does this during the Dominators’ tests; despite the fact that the tests are causing pain to the Doctor and Jamie, Troughton’s performance keeps the scene funny.  Continuing this train of thought, this episode had a few other scenes in which Troughton got to show of his comedic skills.  The scene in which the Doctor needs to divert the travel capsule in mid-flight is classic second Doctor; te banter between him and Jamie shows of the great chemistry between the actors.

Now for the Dominators themselves; I must admit that they really aren’t much better developed than the Dulcians and have equally ridiculous costumes.  Nevertheless, it was amusing to watch the relationship between Navigator Rago and Probationer Toba.  I don’t think it’s intentional, but it’s like watching a comedy duo performing a very subtle routine.  Ronald Allen’s Rago is the straight man; he simply wants to get the job done and move on.  Unfortunately for him, his colleague on this mission is Kenneth Ives’ Toba who just wants to blow things up and destroy people.  It’s hard to miss the glee with which he says “total destruction!” to the Quarks.  It’s almost as if Toba doesn’t really care about the mission at all.  For instance, he wants to send the Quarks after Jamie and Cully when they are blowing up the Quarks, but then he remembers his orders and can’t; the look of frustration and disappointment on his face says it all.

The ending left me with a few questions, which isn’t surprising in a story that was so rewritten that the actual writers (Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln) had their names taken off of it.  The Dominators get blown up with their own nuclear seed device at the end, but what about the other Dominators?  Rago and Toba are in constant contact with the rest of the Dominators.  Are we sure that Dulkis is really safe now?  And what about other planets?  I guess we’re just not supposed to dwell on that.

Toba and his Quarks

Toba and his Quarks

I’m not going to argue that “The Dominators” is a great story.  What I will say is that there are aspects of the story that are entertaining.  The entertainment value of the Dominators themselves was greatly increased after I read Bill Evanson’s clever “blog post” from Toba in the book Outside In.  If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do because he captures exactly what I imagine is going on in Toba’s mind. It makes the story far more amusing when you picture Toba thinking things like, “all Rago wants to do is drill, drill, drill.  What a bore.”  While some people, including me from the past, would say that about this story, I have had a slight change of heart.  While it doesn’t succeed in its goal of being an insightful examination of pacifism, it has entertaining aspects.  They are often unintentionally entertaining, but they are entertaining none the less.