CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: The Krotons / DVD Review

As Toby Hadoke notes in the opening of episode one's commentary, The Krotons begins with a door getting stuck as Selris retrieves the exam results from the Kroton ship. It's not a good omen for a story that's not well regarded by fans of the series. Sadly, at the time of its repeat in 1981 as part of 'The Five Faces of Doctor Who' season on BBC2, it was the only complete Patrick Troughton story then currently preserved in the archives. Fortunately, time has been somewhat kinder to Troughton fans than it has perhaps been to The Krotons with more of his missing episodes returned to the archive in the interim, culminating recently with the return of episode two of The Underwater Menace.

The Krotons originated from a single play The Trap by writer Robert Holmes who was an ex-policeman, became a court reporter and from the late 1950s moved into writing for television. His first television work was on Knight Errant and then through the 1960s he contributed to, among others,  Market at Honey Lane, Ghost SquadDoctor Finlay's Casebook, Undermind and Public Eye. The Trap started life as an unsuccessful submission to Out of the Unknown producer Irene Shubik before Head of Serials Shaun Sutton suggested Holmes pitch it to Doctor Who story-editor Donald Tosh. The two men met in April 1965 but Tosh eventually rejected Holmes's script as he felt the robot creations in the story were going to steal the thunder from the Mechanoids, a race of robots that the BBC were hoping would emulate the success of the Daleks, who would feature in The Chase, a Dalek story to be broadcast in May of that year

Fast forward to 1968 and during a clear out, Holmes retrieved The Trap and, believing there was still life in the old dog yet, submitted it on spec to Doctor Who producer Peter Bryant. Holmes met Bryant, script editor Derrick Sherwin and assistant Terrance Dicks in May of 1968 and they asked Holmes to deliver a new story breakdown, now retitled as The Space Trap. In June, Holmes was then commissioned to write the scripts with a view that they would be suitable as the penultimate serial for the current season. However, behind the scenes all was not well as a number of scripts for earlier slots in the season were running into problems.

Dick Sharples had been commissioned to deliver a serial called The Amazons, later retitled as The Prison in Space, and had been asked to write out Jamie because Frazer Hines had intended to leave the series as, at this stage, his contract had ended. A new companion called Nik, devised by Bryant and Sherwin, was to make his debut in the story. However, Hines changed his mind in September 1968 when he learned that Troughton would also be departing at the end of the season. Sharples was thus under increasing pressure and was increasingly irritated by requests to redraft scripts several times and to the point where eventually The Prison in Space was formally abandoned at the beginning of October by the production team and the assigned director, David Maloney.

Dicks suggested that Holmes's scripts, which he had completed in August, were ready to go into production and after Maloney and Bryant read them, they agreed in October that the serial, now renamed as The Krotons, should move up in production order. Holmes subsequently pitched several other ideas and his futuristic pastiche of the Western, The Space Pirates, eventually replaced The Prison in Space. Among other production changes Troughton, Hines and Padbury were all contracted to the end of the season between September and November, Sherwin officially replaced Bryant as producer by the time The War Games went into production and Terrance Dicks took over the script-editor position. Troughton was already exhausted from the punishing schedule on the series and although he welcomed the alterations to the final season's reduction in episodes and production recording (changes suggested by Barry Letts during the making of The Enemy of the World), he decided to leave in September 1968 and his departure from Doctor Who was announced to the press on January 7th, 1969, three days after the transmission of episode two of The Krotons. And Robert Holmes... well, he would turn out just fine.
... the crystalline menace with long rubber skirts
Providing us with value for money, location filming took place in not one but two quarries - the West of England and Tank Quarry in Malvern - and several days were also spent at Ealing, including the filming of models, before the episodes were taped (except episode one which was shot on 35mm film) in Studio D at Lime Grove from 22nd November 1968, five weeks prior to transmission. Special effects for The Krotons were contracted out to Bill King's Trading Post  who rather oddly built the Kroton costumes, designed by Bobi Bartlett, far too short and then had the unenviable task of hiding the legs of the actors playing the crystalline menace with long rubber skirts. Maloney spends a lot of time shooting round the Krotons, with a great deal of creativity and skill, until he has to relent and finally show them in their full glory in episode four.

As Philip Sandifer has pointed out, The Krotons was, for many fans watching the 1981 repeat, their first experience of Troughton and initially it may well have been found wanting. On the face of it, the story is something of a low budget runaround and does not feel or look like other much vaunted Troughton stories raised high on the pinnacle of received wisdom at the time. However, don't let it deceive you into thinking it seems rather old-fashioned even as Doctor Who itself hurtled towards the 1970s.

There's something rather refreshing about The Krotons and if you've ever watched the Troughton era in succession, you'll certainly note the difference between this and the exhausted 'base under siege' tropes that really do suffocate much of the Troughton tenure in season five. Sandifer makes a very cogent point too that this story strikes out in a different direction within the context of the Troughton era, rejecting the 'base under siege' formula for something more akin to a world building exercise, creating a society into which the Doctor and his companions arrive as agents of change. As Sandifer notes, "Base under siege stories are, generally speaking, invasion stories - a defined territory is penetrated by aliens that must be repelled. But this is the opposite - Gond society has already been taken over by the Krotons. By definition, that means that the story is about the world as opposed to just about fighting monsters."

Considering that Holmes's script was initially pitched as a segment of Out of the Unknown, this makes some sense. While it may not be particularly successful in this respect, it does attempt to create a Gond society and a world view dominated by the Krotons that the Doctor then encourages the Gonds to challenge. It's likely Holmes was aware of the New Wave in science fiction, one that Ursula Le Guin saw as a particular reaction to the 1960s where "the change tended toward an increase in the number of writers and readers, the breadth of subject, the depth of treatment, the sophistication of language and technique, and the political and literary consciousness of the writing." Some of this attitude was filtering into anthology series such as Out of the Unknown and The Krotons' story about the brightest intellectuals of the Gond race being chosen to enter the machine of their masters, the Krotons, to enter a life of service only for the Doctor to discover that in fact the Krotons are draining the high minds of the Gonds to power their ship, touches on a number of concerns of the period about education, capitalism and free thinking.

When the young Gond students (bear with this, I know most of them don't look a day under 30) being educated by the Krotons begin to rebel and smash up the Hall of Learning, as noted in the production text of the first episode this taps into the then demands of left-leaning undergraduates unhappy about the way they were being educated who spent a good part of 1968 occupying campus buildings and clashing violently with the police. However, there was a serious debate about progressive education raging in the late 1960s which The Krotons does reflect, even though it may not have been Holmes's specific intention. Certainly the debates within Gond society provoked by the Doctor's arrival and the clash between councillors Eelek and Axus, the deposing of Gond leader Selris and Eelek's machinations to appease the Krotons touch on these themes. As Dominic Sandbrook notes in White Heat there was an 'increasing politicisation of education' in the late 1960s, a fierce battle between the right and left about progressive education, comprehensive schools and the expansion of universities and conservative fear was summed up by one of the first 'Black Paper' issues of Critical Survey in 1969 which was rather doom laden about the situation and suggested within education 'anarchy was becoming fashionable and that 'work and discipline' had been rejected.
So the Dynatrope was, in fact, Milton Keynes
The May 1968 riots in Paris, the abolishing of selection via the eleven plus examination, the way schools and colleges were, up until the late 1960s, churning out clever people who would then get absorbed into the bureaucratic machine of local and central government, should also be seen in context with the infamous brain drain and the UK's concern about the loss of skilled scientific and engineering personnel to other countries. All this forms a backdrop to the younger Gonds' rejection of the status quo of social conditioning and their fate within the Kroton machine.

It also connects with the arrival of the counter culture of the time in which students rejected what they perceived as the strangling conformity of post-war society. The Doctor and Zoe are very much the enlightened Timothy Leary figures, asking the Gonds to recognise creative thought and free will as opposed to their elders subservience to the inhuman Krotons. That the Doctor drops some acid... literally and symbolically... into the Kroton's Dynatrope and its brain-drain machinery should really tell you where all this is coming from.

One last thing too... televised mass education is clearly a theme here (wonderfully satirised in The Prisoner's 'The General' in November 1967) and this of course parallels the creation of the 'University of the Air' and what became the Open University, the success of which was claimed by Harold Wilson as the achievement for which he would most like to be remembered. The idea of 'Televarsities' (a concept coined by The Economist way before Wilson hi-jacked the idea) had been kicking about for a while and despite the doubts about such a scheme, Sandbrook notes Wilson 'pressed on regardless.. and in 1969 decided the new university would be based in the last and most ambitious New Town'. So the Dynatrope was, in fact, Milton Keynes. Milton Keynes via Johannesburg judging by Roy Skelton's decision to give the Kroton's a South African accent.

This is all well and good, I hear you say, but clearly The Krotons is found wanting on several levels too. The design is somewhat lacking, with the Krotons themselves falling into the 'menacing silver robots of 1950s pulp SF' category even though their booming voices are a thrillingly good Radiophonic realisation, and the exteriors and interiors of the Kroton ship do perhaps err on the conventional and fall short of the mark in the attempts at credibility that Holmes and Maloney strive for. That Maloney is economic with the use of model effects and revealing the Krotons says a great deal about the attempts to world build in the limited space of Lime Grove Studio D. However, it is partially successful because Brian Hodgson gets a chance to create a suite of eerie Radiophonic sound design that generates claustrophobia and unease and infuses the story with an edgy, unearthliness by blending sound design and music into each other. His soundscapes provide the glue that hold many of the weaker elements of The Krotons together.

Tha same can be said of the acting ensemble, and putting aside the three leads for the moment, at best only Philip Madoc's scheming Eelek resonates as a fully formed character. The other Gonds tend to disappear into the background but Gilbert Wynne as Thara, the likeable angry young man, and James Cairncross as Gond scientist Beta, are both memorable. However, the regulars - Troughton, Hines and Padbury - get the most out of this script and are given great character moments, lovely bits of comedy business and even some slapstick. Even though Hines is reduced to being Jamie as 'sub-intellectual brawn' he stills plays it very well, here perhaps even giving one of his better performances, managing to allow Jamie's innocent nature to surface and at the same time show how resourceful he can be. In terms of performances, the Troughton and Padbury double act steals the show. I love the intellectual snobbery and rivalry between Zoe and the Doctor here as they use the Gond's learning machines (some lovely 1960s retro animations are the icing on the cake in this scene) and it's delightfully played by the two actors.

Back in 1981, when we first clapped eyes on it, The Krotons was atypical of everything we thought we knew about the era. The Krotons is a pleasant enough distraction, with the regular cast clearly having some fun judging by the amount of material they added or ad-libbed in rehearsal and recording, harks back to the less rigid narrative structures of season four and is more indicative of the experimental areas the Troughton era was seemingly intending to explore.

Special features
Commentary
Tobe Hadoke once again marshals his forces and brings forth warm memories from a good line up of actors and production personnel working on this serial. With a tinge of sadness, it should be noted that this was completed before Philip Madoc's recent demise and it's now sad to hear his voice and know he's no longer with us and Madoc's memory of a chance meeting with Billy Hartnell is one to savour here. Joining Madoc are actors Richard Ireson (Axus), who can't quite get over the mod costumes of the production, and Gilbert Wynne (Beta) who recalls the brutal rehearse/record schedule on the programme. On the technical side, sound designer extraordinaire Brian Hodgson, floor manager David Tilley, make up designer Sylvia James and costume designer Bobi Bartlett all contribute memories about creating the look, sound and feel of The Krotons.

Second Time Around - The Troughton Years (52:22)
Perhaps one of the best reasons to pick up The Krotons is this wonderful documentary that covers the Troughton era in its entirety. It begins with the end of the Hartnell period, the decision to continue the series and the eventual casting of Troughton and features memories from Anneke Wills (who describes the taping of the Hartnell/Troughton regeneration as 'a gentlemanly exchange'), comments on the new concept of regeneration from Rob Shearman and Gary Russell, and anecdotes from Gerry Davis and Innes Lloyd about the development of the second Doctor's character. There's a lovely clip of Troughton talking to a bemused Pertwee about 'his wig' - the idea was he would be a pirate of the skies - and Anneke and Michael Craze refusing to go on with him looking 'like Harpo Marx'.

Plenty of anecdotes follow, including one from Wills about the infamous T shirt gag, and clips from the recently recovered episode of The Underwater Menace (yes, we get the 'nozzink in the verld can schtop me now' clip) and the introduction of Jamie with comments from Frazer Hines, who in contrast to Wills's view, felt like something of an 'interloper' because he ended up taking many of Michael Craze's lines. It discusses the 'base under siege' template and its limitations and the arrival of Victoria and Zoe into the series when Peter Bryant took over as producer. More interviews are featured with Victor Pemberton, Deborah Watling and Wendy Padbury and lovely memories of practical jokes and teasing on set. This eventually takes us to the experimental approach of season six which emerged from what Terrance Dicks and Derrick Sherwin describe as the behind scenes chaos of collapsing scripts, including Dick Sharples's The Prison in Space. The departure of Troughton and the making of The War Games concludes a great trip down memory lane put together with such aplomb by producer Ed Stradling. 
Doctor Who Stories - Frazer Hines (part one) (17:25)
Actor Frazer Hines reminisces about his time on the series in an interview originally recorded in 2003 for the BBC's Story of Doctor Who.
The Doctor's Strange Love (7:15)
Writers Joseph Lidster and Simon Guerrier take an affectionate look at The Krotons.
Radio Times Listings
Production Information Subtitles
Once again Martin Wiggins provides a smashing set of on-screen notes covering the making of the serial (and where things went wrong or were changed) and including script and scene revisions, trivia on actors, writers and production personnel. All delivered with a great sense of humour.
Photo Gallery
Good collection of production stills, set reference images and a couple of Bobi Bartlett's costume designs soundtracked with Brian Hodgson's rather splendid electronic 'atmospheres'.
Coming Soon Trailer
Can you tell me the way to the Psychic Circus? A lovely promo for The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.

Doctor Who: The Krotons
BBC Worldwide / Released 2 July 2012 / BBCDVD 3480 / Cert: U
BBC 1968
4 episodes / Broadcast: 28 December 1968 to 18 January 1969 / Black & white / Running time: 90:33


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