Waiter, there’s a Krotons in my Season 6 soup! Popular opinion says that it’s not worthy of being there - it’s too chewy. Too rubbish. Whatever.
Despite popular opinion, in actual fact, I don’t mind The Krotons. Maybe it’s because I have fond memories of seeing it as a 7-year-old kid when the BBC repeated it in the Five Faces Of Doctor Who season that went out in winter 1981. A steady diet of The Amazing Adventures Of Morph, Codename Icarus and Blake’s 7 all made the long winter evenings a bit more palatable, but to have Doctor Who on school-week nights was a real treat. Then look what happened with Season 19...
My over-riding memory is the cliffhanger to Episode 1 in which The Doctor is menaced by a suspicious-looking robot snake thing that threatens to reduce him to a pile of ash (after the Krotons’ automated device has mistaken him for one of Thara’s hothead rebels). Clearly The Doctor has The X Factor though, since the Krotons scanner brings up a great big X, like a robot Louis Walsh. What I remember thinking is that Tom's Doctor would have dealt with the snake far more effectively than the little chap with the bowlcut and the bow tie…
Even to my 43-year-old bleary eyes, The Krotons still isn’t all that bad and actually stands up quite well. You can’t exactly say that it’s the cream of the Robert Holmes crop - there are still one or two sticking points among the good. I suppose, taking the rubbish cooking analogy further, The Krotons shows signs of tasty Holmes morsels to come - it’s just that the end product is a bit undercooked in places. Masterchef judge, anyone?
The plot of The Krotons is a tad simple, and doesn’t scale the heights of Holmes’ more complex plots. Gonds are living in thrall to a couple of cardboard mobile jukeboxes with Brummie accents. The jukeboxes only select the best brains in the land and kill off the dead wood. Doctor shows up, investigates, and defeats the jukeboxes with a blast of acid.
Despite the simplicity of the plot, there are a couple of neat ideas at work. I like the way in which the Gonds are duped into thinking that they’re going to Krotons Academy For Swots, when instead, they’re inevitably going to end up as a pile of dust, after falling foul of the corrosive vapour jets. The deaths are actually quite brutal - poor old Selris doesn’t have a hope in hell after sacrificing himself to help The Doctor and Zoe. Getting disintegrated by corrosive acid vapour isn’t the most painless choice of death, although it inexplicably leaves overgrown medallions and axes intact.
The other aspect I like in The Krotons is the rivalry between The Doctor and Zoe as they battle it out to be the Biggest Clever Clogs In The Room. Is Zoe cleverer than The Doctor? She certainly flies through the tests with incredible speed, and would probably leave Jeremy Paxman agog in slack-jawed astonishment at her brain power. When it’s The Doctor’s turn, he gets more questions wrong - although I guess he’s too flustered to do as well as Zoe. Not only is he under pressure to beat Zoe’s score, he’s also probably dreading the Psychedelic Chair Of Doom that awaits them in the Krotons’ domain.
There are some surprisingly neat directorial touches added by David Maloney. The aforementioned Chair Of Doom scene is well shot with fast, distorted camera angles and close-up gurning shots of The Doctor and Zoe. The snake’s POV shot at the end of Episode 1 adds to the tension as does the last shot of The Doctor’s hands blotting out the screen. Even the shot of the revolving Krotons heads works well. All of which compensates for some ropey effects elsewhere - the opening shot of the sticking hatch is crying out for a retake, while the shot of the Gond city looks like a four-year-old’s junk modelling effort at playgroup.
The bad effects are frequently cited as a failing of The Krotons, which is true to a point. The lack of decent characters is another valid criticism. Most of them are bland clichés - The duped ruler. The hothead son. The doe-eyed damsel-in-distress. The boo-hiss baddie. And his gimp.
Most of whom seem to be indulging in some barmy haircut competition. There’s Selris and his comedy afro. Beta and his prodigious Del Amitri mutton chops. And Vana and her corkscrew 1980s perm.
Not all of the characters are too bad though. James Cairncross is good as Beta, and gets some amusing comedy scenes with Jamie when they’re stirring up the acid solution. Stealing the show though is of course, Philip Madoc, one of Doctor Who’s best guest actors, who gives his all, even with less demanding roles like Eelek. As a result, Eelek becomes a far more believable political backstabber rather than another faceless cliché. But if it’s unintentional laughs you’re after, then your best bet is the bumbling Custodian of the teaching machines. With a face like Agaton Sax and the voice of Inspector Clouseau who’s been at the helium balloons, the Custodian’s a bit of a sad case, who’s easily overpowered by a weedy looking bunch of hotheads.
The Krotons too are a bit of a laugh, it must be said. They’re too lumbering to pose a serious threat, and the Brummie voices are a harsh reminder that in actual fact, there’s two blokes sitting in a corner of the studio floor bellowing into modulated microphones.
Overall though, The Krotons is not as bad as its reputation suggests. Even if some of the effects and acting hamper the end product, and even if the plot’s a bit too simple, it’s still entertaining. Pie ’n’ mash rather than a swanky gourmet meal, but sometimes pie ’n’ mash hit the spot, no?
* Plenty of Robert Holmes classics reviewed in these Doctor Who ebook guides by me!
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