Doctor Who: The Krotons on DVD

It's better than The Tomb of the Cybermen. Is our reviewer on acid?

 

4 and a half stars

 

 

The Krotons on DVD

Story

As a wide-eyed child who began watching Doctor Who in the 1960s, images from The Krotons were burned into my memory so much that I recreated them in several fevered drawings. The unnerving Kroton probe menacing the Doctor, the dispersion of "Abu Gond," even (for some reason) the circular hatch in the wall of the Krotons' Dynatrope machine were the stuff of childhood wonder, untainted by knowledge of production values. That, of course, happened in 1981 when the BBC showed the story as part of its The Five Faces of Doctor Who season and my growing up self had to grapple with how stagey and cheap some of it looked (to 1980s eyes). Happily, as the lovingly restored print on this DVD shows, The Krotons has aged rather well.

 

It's hard to recapture now how new it would have seemed in 1969. Out of Patrick Troughton's 23 stories, amazingly, it's only the fourth alien society his Doctor visits, which may be why (the script's origin as an emergency replacement aside) Gond civilization is a little unfinished. They all have the same surname, dogs are apparently a universal constant and, the Krotons' manipulation of their culture notwithstanding, you'd think they might have at least named their city – Gondon, perhaps?

 

That said, the Gonds' community and its dependence on this story's monster have been put together with a great deal of thought and care, the sign of an exemplary television writer in the making in debut scripter Robert Holmes. (In the screenplay, he even went as far as detailing that the Gonds were "fruitarians" and described what their eating utensils looked like.) The Krotons are interesting adversaries, their idiosyncratic vocabulary – "disperse," "transference interval," "high brains" – a piece of skilful artistic shorthand that immediately gives them a distinctive, alien quality. Seen so soon after Season Five and The Invasion, it's striking, too, that the nominal villain, Eelek (Philip Madoc), is politically motivated rather than an unstable authority figure, or an unstable authority figure in league with/brainwashed by the foe. He's a new Doctor Who archetype with an agenda of his own.

 

From The Krotons

 

With the benefit of hindsight, The Krotons is clearly the beginning of the literate, politicised Doctor Who that Holmes would write in the 1970s, and is also the template for some of the stories he would script edit (think how similar the basic structure is to The Face of Evil, for example). Crucially, this time the Doctor just doesn't see off the monsters and alter some of the supporting characters' viewpoints – the entire world changes as a result of his visit. OK, that happened in some other 1960s and 1970s Doctor Who stories, but Holmes latches on to it and develops it as one of the defining aspects of the title character. The Doctor's role as an intergalactic Ché Guevara starts here.

 

As well as its innovations, The Krotons is groovily and unapologetically 1960s. Vana (Madeleine Mills) is made up like a David Bailey fashion shoot, Zoe's clearly been moonlighting as a Mary Quant model and she and the Doctor go on an hallucinatory 'trip' through the Dynatrope. Furthermore, there's a riot by students, who then make acid and use it to attack the foundations of their society. We may be in "the future", but in the DNA of the production it's still the year the story was made.

 

The Krotons shouldn't be any good at all when you consider the circumstances it was made under. It was a stand-by script, the money for the monsters had obviously run out halfway down their costumes and Troughton was becoming increasingly tired by the sheer grind of making the series (although he never let it show). That said, and it's not recorded whether director David Maloney was striving for Jean Luc Goddard levels of descriptive light and shade, or just cleverly concealing the lack of budget in the sets and monsters, but the story's film noir ambience – yes, really – effectively embellishes how claustrophobic Gond society is. Holmes also shows how much literary sci-fi he's read, with his novel storyline of a crystalline-based life form harvesting mental energy from a captive race through "self perpetuating slavery."

 

That imaginative concept would play well in Doctor Who today and its modernity gives The Krotons the edge over The Tomb of the Cybermen (curiously similar to this often derided serial), the only other Troughton four-parter extant in the archives. The acting's no better or worse here than in that supposed masterpiece, and on the plus side has the series' debut of Philip Madoc, who steals nearly every scene he's in. Some words of praise, too, for Brian Hodgson's "theatre of sound" which is a career best, making you, again, realise how key the Radiophonic Workshop was to the evocative, other worldly atmosphere of the black and white stories – there's no conventional incidental music and it's not missed at all. While The Krotons has, unexpectedly, improved with the passing years, revisiting The Tomb of the Cybermen only reveals more and more flaws.

 

The Krotons is really rather wonderful: artful Troughton, archetypal Doctor Who.

 

From The Krotons

 

Extras

The commentary is the best extra on offer here. With Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury curiously absent, centre stage is given to members of the supporting cast and production crew, a decision that works rather well. Everyone here has an equal say, although the greatly missed Philip Madoc exudes a stately, respected presence throughout. His most intriguing recollection is of being introduced to William Hartnell in the BBC bar at the time The Krotons was made. Lost in thoughts of his own, Doctor Who's former leading man looked Madoc up and down, pronounced "you're a very good actor," then went straight back to his private reverie.

 

Other participants Gilbert Wynne and Richard Ireson (Thara and Axus respectively), make up artist Sylvia James, costume designer Bobi Bartlett, assistant floor manager David Tilley and Radiophonic Workshop guru Brian Hodgson all make valuable contributions to a pleasant, relaxed commentary. It amiably ranges through Who, the "highly professional" Troughton, to the BBC being a "snooty" organisation in the 1960s, although, importantly, if they engaged you as an actor in that decade it was possible to get a night in a hotel and a haircut. Toby Hadoke keeps everything bouncing along with his customary wit and makes a variety of laugh-out-loud comments, noting "a lot of wood based technology" and, on the appearance of the thrusting Kroton probe, "I won't use the word organ, but I just have."

 

Ed Stadling's documentary Second Time Around gives a thorough overview of the whole Troughton era, and deserves full marks for bringing in every regular cast and production team member who's still around, and featuring a clip from (I think) every story. The only criticism to be made of it is that it doesn't reveal anything new, although as some 'new Who' converts are bound to be watching, that's forgivable. It's good to have all the information in one attractively packaged place, and the technique of using photos/on screen captions/voiceover for people who have passed on works extremely well.

 

Frazer Hines talks in The Krotons commentary

 

There's also another of the enjoyable Doctor Who Stories, which, this time, centres on the always affable Frazer Hines. Again, there's not a lot that's new for seasoned fans, but his enthusiasm for discussing Doctor Who never flags and is always infectious. Hines does make known some tantalising insights into his enigmatic co-star, revealing that Troughton wore his own pair of hush puppies as the Doctor, was a talented painter and, when it came to women, "could charm the birds out of the trees." The last documentary extra is another of The Doctor's Strange Love featurettes, in which Joseph Lidster and Simon Guerrier look for the plus points in a story that isn't universally loved. These are always good value, and Lidster's observation that he could watch the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe "pratting about in a quarry all day" is particularly funny.

 

There's a rather exciting photo gallery, with loads of images that I've never seen before, emphasising just how inventive Maloney's direction was in making the most of some small sets and basic props. And finally, there's Martin Wiggins' excellent info text subtitles, which take in shot-for-shot and set-for-set changes, biographies of the actors and crew and information about the historical context. This is all digestibly wrapped up in his customary humour, the best example of which is "we now return to the vital question of Zoe's clothes falling off."

 

Overall, the sentiment that shines through on every extra on this DVD is how much good humoured affection everyone involved has for the Troughton, Hines and Padbury line up. For that reason alone The Krotons is worth buying, never mind the consistently high quality of the extras themselves.

 

Rob Fairclough

 

The Krotons is out now!

 

 

Watch the trailer here, now.

 

 

 

Doctor Who: The Krotons on DVD
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