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Kroll couldn’t tell the difference between you and me and half an acre of dandelion and burdock.

Television

Doctor Who
The Power of Kroll

 

All baloney? Certainly, The Power of Kroll was and is oft-cited as one of the worst Doctor Who stories evah. Which is probably why there’s now a converse apologia that it isn’t that bad at all, actually, to the extent that a cult of Kroll has grown around it, bathing in its badness, Plan 9 from Outer Space-style. Both the 1998 DWM and 2003 Outpost Gallifrey story polls, way back before there was nu-Who to mess with the purity of the process, had it pegged at 145th out of 160-ish (the exact number depending on which other extraneous inclusions were allowed). Which isn’t quite the pits, but not far off. Far from being an exemplar of all that’s wrong with the much-maligned Graham Williams era, though, the story stands out because it effectively shuns many of its key ingredients. Albeit, the most notable exception to this proved the biggest stick to beat it with: never-more-variable production values.

The Power of Kroll is both spartan in visuals (everything from sets to costumes looks like ’60s filler, and probably would have been more forgiving in black and white) and in plot/sensibility. Lawrence Miles, although his disdain for this period of the programme is almost entirely unwarranted, was onto something when he observed “the programme’s always at its worst when there’s no wit or colour except when the Doctor’s on screen”. While I suspect one can find exceptions that prove the rule, in Kroll, it’s definitely just Tom enlivening proceedings. The only other story of this era that approaches the same level of routine joylessness is Underworld, also directed by Norman Stewart.

Elizabeth Sandifer declared “… the biggest problem this story has is that for a Robert Holmes script it’s complete and utter crap“. Well, no, I really don’t think that’s the biggest problem. The Holmes name is immaterial to the issues with it, but now Sandifer’s gone there, she has to start making increasingly incendiary assertions like “the exact same story transmitted under Baker and Martin’s names would, I think, rank as one of their best“. Er, no, it really wouldn’t. True, you can’t get away from Holmes’ name on the script, but its flaws wouldn’t somehow be ameliorated, had it gone out under Robin Bland or Stephen Harris.

Invision summarised the issues the writer faced: “The dictate from Read was that the story shouldn’t be saturated with Holmes’ usual undercurrents of wit and humour. What he wanted was a tense adventure designed to thrill, not to amuse”. As such, Read’s attitude is the most baffling thing about all this. Was he unaware of the type of show being produced at this time? His otherwise very strong tenure script-editing would suggest otherwise, so quite how he thought the show was successfully going to ditch the by-now-omnipresent humour and hearken back to… well, the only Williams-era story that could be argued to thrill, not amuse, is The Horror of Fang Rock… is anyone’s guess.

Sandifer makes five from Kroll not being very Holmesian and his subsequent five-year absence: “The fact that the programme has deteriorated to the point where Robert Holmes has given up on it cannot be taken as a good thing“. Which is plain daft; if JN-T hadn’t been old-blood averse, it surely wouldn’t have taken until 1983 for him to be asked to contribute again. There’s no indication Holmes disappeared of his own accord.

Sandifer does, however, make a reasonable observation about the kind of show Who has become at this point, one that ties into Miles’ general malaise that the story is “Generally awful, but for different reasons than most of the worst stories of this era“: that perhaps the series simply can’t make a Hinchcliffe-style (for want of a better comparison) story, so it’s possible that “all the show is for is light entertainment”. It’s certainly this sensibility that many of the era’s most voracious critics (notably Sir Ian at the time) call it out for, and why the BBC Christmas tapes with Tom of the era are closer to outtakes from the actual show than something designed for a one-off chuckle.

Thawn (to Fenner): You shot the wrong man.
The DoctorNot quite, you shot the wrong man’s hat, though.

This all comes back round to what one considers acceptable and appropriate for the series. Some might suggest there’s essentially very little difference between Williams-era levity and the excuses for humour in the Moffat era. Sandifer becomes uncomfortable with what she perceives as a lack of anything to say here (remembering as we must that Elizabeth has a punk fixation with the era, owing to her psychofugal psychochronographic disposition): “What is it that it’s defying… Is it mocking everything? If so, then there’s an uncomfortable nihilism”.

Well, there is a sense that the show is up for mocking anything and everything at this juncture, but I wouldn’t agree it’s a negative or destructive impulse (quite the reverse); that requires a rather limited, restrictive definition of the value of content to hold true. Likewise, Sandifer asks “Is it mocking anything it can outsmart? That’s just bullying for people with high IQs“. Again, there’s a sense it is doing something of that, but you only have to look at the difference between the Williams and Moffat eras to see where the bullying, malicious aspect actually manifests.

There have been those who have compared the story to Holmes’ later The Caves of Androzani, not least The Discontinuity Guide (I can’t really see it myself, aside from the mining aspect and the gun running), but it goes to highlight that the only way this would have really worked – without allowing Holmes to humourise it – would have been (a) to put in a different era and (b) give it to a Douglas Camfield or some such. That way, the aspects that stand out (“very slow, and with little of the usual humour of the era” – The Discontinuity Guide) would at least, hopefully, have been replaced with a degree of zip and atmosphere.

The DoctorDon’t talk to me about politics.

It’s probably why, lacking anything but ironic attachment (“Kroll! Kroll! Kroll!“), there’s little scope for re-evaluation (“The Power of Kroll stays, quite simply, crap” as Alan Barnes commented in DWM 290). That said, in spite of the bad press the realisation of the all-powerful gets, he really is the least of the issues with the story (aside from that split screen, he’s no better or worse than the Skarasen). So for all the “you wonder how anybody thought they could get away with it” (The Discontinuity Guide again) and “Green men in silly wigs worshipping one of the worst special effects in the series” (Craig Hinton in DWB 83), I quite like the creature. Especially his pipe-busting tentacle. The effect that irks more is the “We really can’t be arsed” oil rig model that looks like it was knocked together in someone’s bath. Matt Irvine’s, hopefully not.

ThawnNow that we know they’re armed, we can prove we were acting in self-defence.

Sandifer, always on the lookout for meaning rising from the depths, suggested the moral was “half-hearted and cynical”, as if she’s unfamiliar with Holmes’ body of work (“It’s an anti-colonialist parable that can’t muster up much more than ‘Homicidal savages with funny skin probably shouldn’t be subject to genocide'”). This kind of critique misses the point that Kroll’s a lame duck in the wrong pond. The moral would likely still be half-hearted and cynical had Holmes been able to infuse it with humour, but she (and we) would be having so much fun we’d barely notice, or determine that it was quite clever of him, how he wittily made those self-same points but in a non-condescending fashion.

ThawnOh, I don’t hate them. I just want them removed permanently.

Kroll reminds me more of Revenge of the Cybermen than Caves, with it’s boring (bored) crew, and boring natives under threat. There’s more than a hint of a Trout story, with the drab humans sitting at computer monitors arguing somnambulantly. Not that Neil “Calibos” McCarthy, Philip Madoc and John Leeson aren’t moderately good value.

Madoc was famously up for the Thawn part, knowing which leads one to see Fenner’s permanently disgruntled expression throughout as reflective of his getting the short straw (Hinton: “A terrible waste of Philip Madoc – indeed, a terrible waste of time, money and talent for all concerned”). But you only have to witness his cup acting (“There are times I could well do without those Sons of Earth”) to know you’re in the presence of greatness, even if he would opine “I wasn’t over-excited by it, and in fact I was rather sorry I did it”.

DugeenAll life began on Mother Earth! All life is sacred!

Leeson, in full view, diligently concentrating on his monitor, throws out the occasional hyperbole (“By the speed of this one, it’s going to be a daddy!”) and reveals an unlikely hippy instinct, while McCarthy’s snarling vehemence is so one-note (“Because he’s a Swampie lover!”; “Lily-livered sentimentalists whining about a few primitive savages”) that you really wish Holmes had more of a freehand with his dialogue.

Rohm-DuttI’ve never known such a place for rainstorms. That’s why it’s so wet.

Glyn Owen is quite awful as Rohm Dutt, however (great name, though). The part is the closest here to offering the opportunity for some eccentricity, but all Owen does is chew a bit of straw and attempt a vaguely antipodean twang between mouthfuls. The Doctor gives him too much credit when he comments “I know a rogue when I see one, and I have no desire to die in the company of a rogue”. Now, if they’d just got Tony Selby on the blower…

VarlikLike all dryfoots, Rohm-Dutt, because we lead a simple life you think we’re fools.

The Swampies? From the green skin (not Holmes’ suggestion) to the native-in-colonial-attire Mensch, there won’t be anything like this on the primitive savages front again until Kinda. They have some endlessly repeatable native dialogue in their favour, though – “Let Kroll come from the bottomless deep!”; “Kroll rises from the depths!” – and a chant that’s only surprising for not having been turned into a dance anthem.

RanquinKroll is all-wise, all-seeing–
The DoctorAll baloney! Kroll couldn’t tell the difference between you and me and half an acre of dandelion and burdock.

And Holmes does manage to smuggle some amusing material through, such as Ranquin’s subservience to the last as he makes excuses for the creature’s indiscriminate behaviour (“Master, this is thy servant!”). And Varlik’s hilariously offhand account of the first death according to the seven holy rituals (“That’s very easy. They just throw you down the pit and drop rocks on you”).

RanquinYou have brought death to us all, dryfoot.
The DoctorIs that your considered opinion?

Just as one might malign Kroll for embodying the worst attributes of its era, one can recognise that it wouldn’t even be that without its prize player. Because Tom is still firing on all cylinders here, wading about the reeds in his waders and generally being as thoroughly disrespectful as he can possibly be. If Romana is momentarily reduced to a screamer (“Well, he probably looked more convincing from the front”), who’s careless (“I dropped the tracer”: “I picked it up”) and even downright batty (“I’ll just see if there’s anything here” she volunteers, before heading down a corridor for the express purpose of being menaced by a tentacle), the Doctor’s reliably full of merry quips both random (“Will there be strawberry jam for tea?”; “Oh look, its coming this way”; “Maybe its saving you for pudding?”) and wise (“Well, progress is a flexible word”; “You Earth colonists are always so insular”). He cockpunches a Swampie at one point, but I don’t think one can really take “narrow little eyes” as a racist slur (lazy perhaps, as an off-the-cuff reason for explaining immunity to hypnosis).

RomanaOh, a sort of Holy Writ.
The DoctorIt’s atrociously writ, but the pictures aren’t bad.

And there’s the gloriously absurd scene of Tom hitting the high notes (Nellie Melba indeed). If this was a Pert story, he’d have insisted on a hovercraft chase, so we have that small mercy, at bare minimum. Poor old Graybags Williams commented “I didn’t like The Power of Kroll… That was the first and last time I took a holiday” (DWB 24/5). The production unit manager, one John Nathan-Turner, filled in for him…

The Power of Kroll isn’t that bad, no. It isn’t that good either. If you really want a point of comparison, other than the Bristol Boys, the exact same story, transmitted under the banner of JN-T’s subsequent era, might not rank as one of his best, but it would be far, far above his worst.

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