The Krotons ★★★

Frazer Hines called it a "horrible story" with "cardboard" monsters. For director David Maloney it was "a disaster". Was it really that bad?

76

Season 6 – Story 47

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“That machine must have lain around for thousands of years waiting for someone as clever as us to turn up” – the Doctor

Storyline
For millennia, the humanoid Gonds have been sending highly educated youths into a machine called the Dynotrope, unaware that their unseen Kroton masters harvest the students’ mental power then “disperse” their bodies into dust. When the Doctor and Zoe enter the Dynotrope, their “high brain” energy proves so strong that the dormant, liquefied Krotons are reconstituted to their true crystalline state. At last the Gonds rebel, but the Doctor must use his knowledge of chemistry to stop the Krotons leaving the planet, destroying the community in their wake…

First transmissions
Episode 1 – Saturday 28 December 1968
Episode 2 – Saturday 4 January 1969
Episode 3 – Saturday 11 January 1969
Episode 4 – Saturday 18 January 1969

Production
Location filming: November 1968 at West of England and Tank quarries, Malvern, Worcestershire
Filming: November 1968 at Ealing Studios
Studio recording: November/December 1968 in Lime Grove D

Cast
Doctor Who – Patrick Troughton
Jamie McCrimmon – Frazer Hines
Zoe Heriot – Wendy Padbury
Selris – James Copeland
Eelek – Philip Madoc
Beta – James Cairncross
Thara – Gilbert Wynne
Vana – Madeleine Mills
Axus – Richard Ireson
Abu – Terence Brown
Student – Bronson Shaw
Custodian – Maurice Selwyn
Krotons – Robert La’ Bassiere, Miles Northover
Kroton voices – Roy Skelton, Patrick Tull

Crew
Writer – Robert Holmes
Special sounds – Brian Hodgson
Designer – Raymond London
Script editor – Terrance Dicks
Producer – Peter Bryant
Director – David Maloney

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
“Phwoar! Bad eggs!” complains Jamie as he emerges from the Tardis and inhales the sulphurous pong of this unprepossessing, unnamed planet.

Yes, The Krotons has long suffered a reputation as a bit of a stinker, even among those who worked on it. Frazer Hines called it a “horrible story” with monsters like “cardboard cut-outs”, while David Maloney remembered it as “a disaster” for which he, as director, was held responsible. But surely nothing with Maloney’s name on it or that of Robert Holmes (two Doctor Who greats) can be all that bad. Can it?

I haven’t watched The Krotons in ages; in fact, I had to dig out my ancient VHS of its repeat in the 1981 BBC2 season, Five Faces of Doctor Who. The picture quality was ropey even then, and looks doubly so today alongside pristine restored versions of other monochrome serials out on DVD. But revisited now, The Krotons doesn’t seem all that bad.

With this being Robert Holmes’s first commission, we should cut him some slack. Indeed, he submitted the story to the BBC as a standalone sci-fi series; later, under script editor Terrance Dicks’s supervision, the concepts were tailored to fit late 60s Who.

Subjugation by machines is standard sci-fi territory and the dialogue may lack the colour of Holmes’s later classics, but the central ideas (mental power being transferred into pure energy; crystalline aliens suspended in slurry) are original enough. The episodes are packed with incident, the slate-dark quarry filming is fluid and moody, and there are decent performances.

Among the Gonds, Gilbert Wynne is strong as Selris’s son and heir, Thara; Philip Madoc gives rebellious Eelek an edge, although it’s strange to see an actor of his stature in such an undemanding role. Frazer Hines is outstanding as Jamie, getting a surprisingly rare hand-fight and lots of moments to himself. Despite his antipathy, Hines sells his interaction with his ridiculous captors, the Krotons. Wendy Padbury exudes brilliance and squeaky cleanness – oblivious of the effect her skimpy PVC outfit will have on dads at home.

Scenes where Zoe and the Doctor discuss chemistry as equals and compete on the learning machines are delightful. Zoe: “The Doctor’s almost as clever as I am!” The Doctor: “Zoe is something of a genius. It can be very irritating at times!” Troughton ad-libs, “Great jumping gobstoppers!” and is hilarious in his bumbling attempt to delay the Krotons’ plans, dropping the brain-draining headset with “Butter fingers!” and “It’s your fault. You’re making me nervous!” Patrick Troughton comes to life here, whereas for much of the story he’s on low-wattage, half-asleep even, as though thoroughly disenchanted with the material.

So what are the failings of the production? The greatest disappointment has to be the titular foes. They have a terrific build-up. Roy Skelton’s voice booms over the Learning Hall tannoy like a demented Pretorian store manager. A wonderfully eerie radiophonic theme from Brian Hodgson (a kind of pulsating, rubbery scrunch) heralds their arrival, and then… Oh dear. Rearing up from their tank, some of the silliest monsters ever to shame the series.

Holmes intended the Krotons to be humanoid, “covered in metal pyrites” and with a “scabrous, crystalline surface”, however costume designer Bobi Bartlett has turned them into a poor man’s version of the Lost in Space robot. The suits are constructed from perspex and fibreglass but on screen look wooden and egg-boxy, giving rise to the myth that they were designed in a Blue Peter competition. In longer shots, when the Krotons’ flapping PVC “skirts” come into view, it’s hard not to snigger.

The other weak spot is Selris, leader of the Gonds. James Copeland was only 45 but is aged up and looks uncomfortable in his futuristic tabard. He indulges in an inordinate level of grimacing and his half-suppressed Scottish brogue seems out-of-kilter among his Rada-accented fellows. His finger-wiggling, squawking death scene is unintentionally comical.

There was no promotional feature in Radio Times, whose coverage for the series was dwindling. Nevertheless, part one scored the highest ratings for any Troughton episode (nine million viewers). Goodwill from The Invasion and its scheduling in the festive season doubtless played a part. But airing three days after Christmas, The Krotons undeniably gives off a whiff of stale turkey.

Krotons billings

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[Available on BBC DVD; soundtrack available on BBC Audio CD]