The Krotons, the fourth serial from the sixth season of Classic Doctor Who has a lot going for it. It is one of the few completely intact serials from the Second Doctor portrayed by Patrick Troughton (a great many of them were copied over or completely destroyed by the BBC before they gave a thought about preserving these things for posterity); it was the first serial written by the legendary Robert Holmes (who wrote such classics as Spearhead From Space, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and The Caves of Androzani); and it was directed by David Maloney who helmed his fair share of classic stories. As I said, it has a lot going for it on paper and yet it is considered by many fans, and even some of the people involved with it, as one of the worst stories of the classic era. Having just watched it, I can firmly say that for once, the masses have it completely wrong. The story might not be groundbreaking, and the design of the Krotons is clunky, but the script is sharp, the companions are Cracker Jack, and Troughton gives a terrific performance.
We begin on an unnamed, inhospitable planet where the human-like Gonds are holding a ceremony. They have been enslaved by creatures called the Krotons, creatures with whom they warred with and lost over a thousand years ago. Creatures who live inside a secret lair and haven’t actually been seen in centuries. They do periodically call out using ominous voices and a computer sometimes prints out the names of the best and brightest Gonds who then are required to step inside the lair to be the Krotons' companions and are never seen or heard from again. It is this ceremony with which we have entered. Two Gonds are about to be presented to the Krotons as companions. The Doctor plus Jamie (Frazier Hines) and Zoe (Wendy Padbury) land outside the secret lair in an area known as the Wastelands (which looks unsurprisingly like the same quarry every other “alien planet’ this series was filmed on). They watch one of the poor sods who we just saw be selected as a Kroton companion get pushed out the door and turned to dust by some deadly spray.
They run around to the Gond side of the mountain and warn everybody of the danger. After a bit of conversing with the Gonds, everybody realizes that the Krotons aren’t as nice as they would like them to believe and instead have been enslaving them for centuries while simultaneously murdering the smartest people in their community in order to keep them from rising up. The Doctor and Zoe both take the Kroton’s computerized test which determines who gets to be a companion. They nearly blow the computer's circuits with their smarts and are allowed into the secret lair where they are hooked up to some machine. Turns out the Krotons have been stuck inside some goo and they need the energy sucked off of “high brains” in order to come fully alive and then fly their space ship off this planet. Zoe and the Doctor’s brainpower nearly does the trick. It at least gets the Krotons (who turn out to be some of the biggest, clunkiest, dumbest-looking monsters in a series full of big, dumb, clunky monsters - seriously, they look like some junior-high schoolers tried to cosplay the robot from Lost in Space) out of the goo.
Now that they are living, physical beings instead of formless voices, The Krotons ought to be more menacing, but the suits are so obtuse the actors seem unable to do much movement in them, and when we see them in full profile, it's hard not to laugh at the fact that the costumers put them in skirts. I have no doubt this design is the main reason so many people dislike this story. Well that, and the wooden acting of most of the Gond (though Phillip Madoc, who would star in several other stories, is a stand-out.)
From a pretty good set-up, the story gets a little more standard Doctor Who in its back half. The younger Gonds attempt to rise up against their oppressors (and it should be noted that the method these teenagers use to overthrow the outdated hierarchy in this television series made in the late 1960s is by brewing a batch of acid - trippy). But it's ultimately up to the Doctor and his companions to stop destroy the Krotons and rescue these poor uncivilized creatures.
If you can get past the poor monsters and its other faults, there is plenty to love. The script has some sharp lines and the idea of people being enslaved by creatures they can’t even see and are willing to sacrifice their smartest people to them because that’s the way its always been is pretty powerful storytelling. Before the Krotons actually appeared. I really thought they’d find out that the Krotons were a bit of computer programming designed by their ancestors to be helpful, but hundreds of years of modulations and misunderstandings caused the Gonds to believe they were more like gods. That probably would have been a better ending than big boxey robots, but whatever.
The companions are fantastic. Jamie gets a killer little action scene and Zoe (and this was my first time seeing her as a companion) proves herself to be just an intelligent and quick-witted as the Doctor. I always love it when companions can give him a run for his money in the smarts department. Troughton is marvelous. I’ve seen fewer of his stories than probably any other Doctor so I’m not overly familiar with him. But here, he is a delight - funny, zany, but completely on point when he needs to be.
The first couple of episodes are decidedly stronger than the latter two. The set-up is much more interesting than the follow-through and those dang Krotons are just too silly looking to be taken seriously. But overall, this is a much better story than its reputation would have you believe.
Extras include an audio commentary, a nice documentary on Troughton’s tenure as the Doctor, an archival interview with Frazer Hines, some making-of features, photo galleries, and the always marvelous production notes which you can switch on to pop up while watching the story. All of which have been ported over from the last release. Much like The Three Doctors, which I reviewed last week, The Krotons is nothing more than a re-release of a previous set. So buyer beware on that count.