For 2021, I’ve decided to take a look back at what many fans consider the best writer Doctor Who has ever produced — Robert Holmes. With the exception of “The Space Pirates,” we have a full run of Holmes’ output in the BBC Archives. Today, I look back at his first offering, “The Krotons.”
Patrick Troughton’s final season as Doctor was marked by a lot of scripts falling through and a scramble to get something, anything onto screens. Out of that chaos came something good — the Doctor Who debut of Robert Holmes.
Sure, “The Krotons” isn’t exactly on the same level as “Spearhead From Space” would be just a season later. And Holmes’s distinctive writing style is a bit rough around the edges. But, this four-part serial is an interesting starting point for Holmes and offers hints of things to come.
Holmes would borrow elements from this serial for multiple other stories as the series went along. The concept of an alien taking the best and brightest from an alien society would be used in “The Trial of a Time Lord” close to two decades later. And he’d also recycle the backstory of the Krotons themselves a bit when we meet the Sontarans in “The Time Warrior” (lone ship from a fleet crashes on an alien world and uses local population to rebuild).
So, while “The Krotons” isn’t necessarily essential for the story itself, it is an essential part of Doctor Who’s history.
Watching it again, it’s not necessarily a terrible story nor the worst of season six. It’s more like a Holmesian rough draft and a preview of things to come.
The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe arrive on the world of the Gonds, a group of people who serve the titular Krotons by offering up their two brightest students each year as servants to the Krotons. What the Gonds don’t know is that the two students have their minds “drained” and are then killed in the wastelands beyond their habitat. The Doctor steps in to put a stop to this.
It’s interesting that in an era defined by the “base under siege” storyline that this one doesn’t follow that mold. I say this because this is the story that producer John Nathan-Turner chose to represent the Troughton era for 1981’s “The Five Faces of Doctor Who” repeats. But that decision was less about the suitability of the story to represent its era and more about the story’s availability for repeat and that it fit into the repeat window at only four episodes. (It would be another decade before “Tomb of the Cybermen” popped back up and fandom rejoiced).
There are some interesting ideas in play here. Multiple references are made to gaps the Krotons are giving the Gonds via the learning machines — the most essential to the plot is how acid can destroy the Krotons and really throw a monkey wrench into things. And from what we see of the learning machines, it’s not hard to imagine the Krotons aren’t also manipulating the Gonds into being subservient and not questioning how things work or resisting in any significant way. Thara’s early motivation to resist the Krotons comes less from a desire to see the system overthrown so much as he doesn’t want his (possible) love interest (and one of the few female Gonds we see) to go into the device and never come back. The scene where Zoe takes the test and gets a big goofy grin on her face when she does well suggests the Krotons might be making this addictive by rewarding the user for the right answers.
It’s also interesting that once the Doctor begins to fill in gaps in the Gond’s knowledge, they take to it quickly, suggesting they are easily adaptable to new situations and learning. Yes, the scientist Selris is nervous about making up the sulfuric acid for the Doctor in the latter episodes because he’s never done it before — but he still seems to be enthusiastic about doing it and his new knowledge.
The Gond rebellion feels pretty much like a lot of later Holmes stories (specifically “The Sunmakers”) where a population decides to overthrow the leadership that has kept them in the dark or oppressed for so long. It helps that the leader of this rebellion is played by Phillip Madoc, who chews the scenery among the best in Doctor Who history. (We would appear later this season in “The War Games” and most memorably as Solon on “The Brain of Morbius.”)
Even the idea of the Krotons as aliens based on crystals is an intriguing one….well, that is until you actually see them on-screen. The actual design is nice, provided the Kroton don’t have to do anything silly like move around. Then, the budget (or lack thereof) is a bit more apparent. Because then, it’s just guys in suits moving around.
They’re not helped by having their heads spin around in episode three when they become upset about something.
The visuals aren’t the fault of Holmes, per se. It goes without saying the script could have used an extra polish or two. But given that incoming script editor, Terrance Dicks was under the gun to get something, anything on-screen as well as trying to re-write “The Seeds of Death,” that “The Krotons” is watchable is a minor victory. It does fall into the cliche that nothing much happens in episode three (where we see the Doctor go to the wasteland only to turn around and march right back), but at least it’s only four episodes and not padded out to six (as Holmes’ next script would be).
But, it’s the early days of the man who Steven Moffat would say during the fiftieth anniversary, taught everyone how to write for Doctor Who.
It’s a good start, not a great one. And the best if yet to come…
After a major stumble. But more on that later…